What are you looking at?

Have you ever seen an American movie? Do you watch the NBA…?

One of the events that my wife and/or I have to take place in constantly while living in China is the weekly trip to the grocery. This year, we had the pleasure of having our home be placed in the dorm for the Foreign Teachers (FTs). Within the same building is a good friend that I made. He is a single man who I shared an office with, ate Lanzhou noodles & McDonald’s breakfast with, and rode buses with. He’s a great brother. Did I mention? He’s black.


Yes. A black man in China, as you can imagine, is like going out in public in America and walking into…I want to say a movie star, but I’ve never done that. (Ha) Since I hail from the “melting pot,” one of the shocks I go through at least a little every time upon return to the States is the fact that people don’t look or stare at me. It’s selfish, really, but people are people and those from different countries/cultures aren’t gazed at like they’ve been misplaced. The epitome of staring and gaping mouths occurs when I travel with my friend. Chinese usually take a glance, double-check, and then move on to the close-up all the while talking about him (out loud because we laowai [foreigners] probably don’t understand, which isn’t the worst assumption). Some muster up the courage or ridiculousness, possible side effects of curiosity, to touch his dreadlocked hair.

You ever have times as a foreigner where you ponder what you could say in the native tongue of the nationals surrounding you? Oh…I think you now know where I’m going with this. The questions at the beginning are just two of the many questions that come to my stereotyping mind while looking at the Chinese staring at my black friend. The most common one is “你在看什么?” (translated “What are you looking at?”)

What one may not know is that China, the population we think we know from watching the news, doesn’t melt in a pot so much. With Han Chinese being the majority of people, there are over fifty unique minorities. These aren’t composed of another country’s people such as Italian or French like we would find in the US. No. They’re ones such as the Tanglang, Uyghur, Hani, etc. Ever heard of these? No? You may have a double-take at them though if they show up since they may not look like what you have seen in documentaries of China.


Since a majority of the country is Han along with its minorities, how many foreigners do you think a national would see? Correct! Not too many. Chinese who do not look so much or long at foreigners must be used to laowai. (Though this is yet to be confirmed.) Could it be a FT at school, a co-worker or a client who’s a foreigner? Not sure. What I do know is sports, media, movies, and such play huge roles in presenting a picture of black people to the Chinese. These mediums of information either quench or intensify their curiosity.

It’s hard to imagine. It’s harder to understand. Therefore, it’s taken quite a bit of time for my mind and heart to open up to the continual looks. But I’m coming around. How would you react?


5 thoughts on “What are you looking at?

  1. I’ve had similar experiences over my stay in Shanghai. I’ve had multiple friends here who are black and people gawk at them. One of my close friends actually looks like Obama and he could tell you a plethora of stories about when he has gotten on the metro and people have just started taking pictures of him while pointing and saying, “Obama.” Even the security guard at our school (who speaks no English) refers to him as Obama. He said he had a lot of trouble dealing with it at first but now he just shrugs it off. However, on an off or bad day, he said it can really get to him. I don’t blame him. I told him once that he should make his hair gray, put on a suit and American lapel pin, and I would dress up in a suit with sunglasses. We would then walk and up and down different metro lines and each time someone tried to take a photo, I would step in and “kindly” pull the person away while shouting “Code Red” into the cuff of my sleeve.

    My girlfriend’s last roommate was also black and she was really into styling her hair. She did something new everyday: afro, spikes, braids–you name it, she probably had it. I remember once we were on Line 6 heading home from a day out and an old lady caught sight of her, stood up, and pulled out her phone. I got really offended and wanted to say something to the lady but my friend just pulled her hoodie up over her hair and my girlfriend reined me in. It takes some getting used to but it’s the culture. My girlfriend has a tattoo of the world on her back and during the summer people will just walk up behind her and take a picture without even asking if she is wearing a sundress or tank-top.

    • That would be phenomenal! My friend said that the next taxi cab driver that asks him about Obama, he is going to tell him/her that Obama is his brother. The shrugs and the bad days is how my friend is as well. He’s from Tennessee where he had it rougher (while teaching), but this is another world. Interesting how you mention that you got offended because it seems that I feel that way more often than he does.

      Funny enough, I’ve seen more Chinese with tattoos than the foreigners here. And I would also think that since Shanghai is more Western than Qingdao, these situations wouldn’t happen as often. Thoughts?

      • I agree. I get more offended than the person who is being stared at but I can understand why they don’t make a big deal about it because it just brings that much more attention to them.

        I made the comment about the tattoo not because of the tattoo, but because of the behavior. It is a pretty awesome and unique tattoo and she knows that–the part she has a problem with is that Chinese people will just take pictures of it/her without asking. They will just walk (even if we are eating at a restaurant), snap the photo, and walk away. This behavior really bothers her and it is one of the things that is hard for me to accept about Chinese culture. I feel that the Chinese often treat things outside of themselves as “other,” i.e., they don’t often put themselves in other people’s shoes. However, this could just be me projecting my cultural politeness onto another culture.

      • I hadn’t considered that view of the “other” before. Interesting, and it totally makes sense. I see this in and outside of my English classes. Do you think that’s because of being so inundated with their own culture?

      • Who knows? I think cultural phenomenon are driven by what is taught or what is seen as acceptable within a society.In some parts of Chinese culture, it is acceptable to treat people or things outside of yourself with this attitude. However, a lot of my Shanghainese students recognize this particular difference in culture and are starting to be influenced by the Occident’s behavior patterns regarding politeness or how you treat others.

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