First post of 2020 (woot woot!), but also.. shame on me. It’s been waaaaay too long. In my defense, I’ve been looking for inspiration, and a few weeks ago it finally came to me during a trip to China. It’d been exactly 5 years since I’ve set foot in the “middle country”, but the memories are as vivid as yesterday. Mainly because traveling in China is a very, very unique experience. Traveling while Black is an adventure of its own. And when you combine the two (and add coronavirus to the mix) you get one of the most interesting experiences a traveler can have. So, in case you’re planning to visit (which is probably no time soon), I compiled a list of things to look forward to as a Black traveler in China as well as some general pointers for China travel. Here we go:
Let me get this straight… any foreigner will get looks. We all know China is a commie country and media is heavily regulated. For some, the only representation of Black people is black face minstrel shows. There are obviously Black expats, but the percentage isn’t that high considering the large population. If you decide to venture to smaller towns, expect more attention. Some natives will be intrigued, some will be disgusted. Both could lead to pictures. The polite people generally ask. I’ve been called “Obama”(the reference could be worse), “Hei ren” (literal meaning “Black person”, connotation: the n-word), and stinky for being Black. I’ve even had my body scrutinized to my face…because there’s no way I speak Mandarin, right?
Afro textured hair is taboo in most parts on the world, and it doesn’t change in China. The attention is mostly curiosity. Most people wondered if my hair coils from my scalp naturally. Occasionally, there would be someone who would yank my hair and watch it bounce back in amusement.
There’s usually an unspoken camaraderie between black people when we’re in a space that we’re clearly outnumbered. But this goes for all foreigners that speak similar languages. I honestly feel this way in every country I visit. This experience can feel very isolating. You’ll just be happy to not have a language barrier and not be a spectacle because you’re different. Constantly getting attention can be exhausting.
For me, the whole experience was a bit of a sensory overload: babies being held like Simba to pee in the street… crazy cuisine (pigeons belong in parks, not on plates)… spitting and hocking loogies (bleh…my actual pet peeve) even in restaurants… crazy driving (I got in a taxi that drove 90 mph)… minty sprite…clowns on the beach and llamas at the mall…the list could go on. There’s no telling what you’ll see, smell, and hear. I saw some pretty interesting stuff that made me wonder how anyone could think seeing a Black person was amusing.
China Travel Tips
Pollution/Smog/Don’t Drink the Water
This is not something that should be taken lightly. And you should be sure to get an app that will tell you the danger levels of the air conditions. Generally, you can see when the air is polluted, but not always. And I learned the hard way when I lived there. My skin, sinuses, and white clothes were not having it with the combo of water and air. Be sure to get a Hep A shot and bring a water filter you can use for drinking lake water while camping just in case you run out of filtered water. Boiled water is fine if it gets to a certain temp. I made a mistake and swallowed water during a shower. I thought I would be fine, but it hit me (and my toilet) HARD.
Speaking of toilets…I’d advise you to 1. get used to carrying tissue (unless you don’t mind dripping dry, ladies) and start practicing your squat and aim so you don’t get pissy shoes. Using the bathroom becomes a WHOLE LOT of multitasking and it explains why Chinese grannies have such strong cores and legs. There are western toilets in some places but you’ll definitely run into this type eventually. This will also help you with your “bus legs” because if you have to ride on public transit coming to a halt can be rough especially when it’s packed to capacity. You’ll need those quads to be strong.
Google Translate/ Pleco Language App
Chinese is not an easy language. There are also very few cognates and because the base words combine to make words that have different meanings you mostly need to know the context of a conversation in order to navigate one properly. I studied and minored in the language in college, and even Google and Pleco don’t help when dialects kick in. However, these apps do help guide you through interactions and identifying where you’re going.
China has there own version of Uber now! Which is great, since when I lived there, I had to chase down taxis (and try not to get run over while doing it). I can’t remember whether the app is through WeChat, but I know you pay through WeChat. If you can’t put money on WeChat, just take a taxi and pay cash to save trouble.
Most transactions are done through WeChat now. Unless you can load money to WeChat…which is pretty difficult for international banks… Get CNY before you land in China. The exchange rate might be higher where you are, but I promise your stress levels will be lower as a result. I happened to land in China at the beginning of Chinese New Year. All banks were closed. This was super inconvenient because very few places take credit cards. There’s always the option to withdraw from your credit card at an ATM, though. I got lucky that my hotel in Beijing had a currency exchange machine.
Download all VPNs to your phone and laptop before you leave your home. It’ll make life a lot easier. That’s it.
All of the things I mention might seem a little crazy, but don’t get me wrong, there are good things about traveling to China. The more prepared you are, the better your trip will be. I often miss simple things like cheap family style meals and experiencing a culture that may be completely different from your own. After the craziness dies down, I plan to make my way back.