Every expatriate coming to China understands the frustrations of living, working, and traveling in China. There are the constant worries of food safety, the horrible pollution, and the “stares”. Whether you are black, white, or brown, you have all seen the “stares”.
The stares are the interesting looks many Chinese — usually from the countryside — bestow upon foreigners. On a bus, train, sidewalk, or restaurant, many Chinese will stare at foreigners. The stares are almost never negative in flavor, but rather just innocent looks at people whom the Chinese have rarely seen in-person.
But unfortunately, many foreigners to China bring their own presumptions and biases to China and expect Chinese people to have the same ideas and thoughts and experiences as the foreigners (what hegemonic hogwash!). So those stares are like glances into the souls of foreigners:
“Why is that Chinese person looking at me?”
“That Chinese person is looking at me because I am a foreigner!”
“That Chinese person is threatening me with her stares.”
“They are all looking at me. They are all talking about me. They are all interested in me.”
“The Chinese person is looking at me because I am from India and they don’t like Indians.”
“That Chinese person is staring at me because I am black, and they don’t like blacks.”
In almost all cases, the stares are innocent. In fact, staring is a national pastime in China. Chinese people stare at other Chinese people. Often uneducated and rural Chinese will do the most staring, but staring happens in the big cities too.
So this article this week (“Traveling while black created a stir in China”) by Chicago Tribune reporter Dahleen Glanton has caused a stir among expats on ChinaExpats.com. The users on the site of all races, colors, and creeds, seem to have the same takeaway on the article: Glanton brought her own biases and incorrect interpretations to the experiences she had.
Glanton is black, so she assumes that being “African-American” (i.e. we assume from her picture that she means this to be “black”, as there are lots of brown and white people who are also African) is the reason she receives the stares.
The worst part of her hegemonic article is the last line, “We decided not to burst his bubble. He’ll figure out the truth soon enough.” What does she insinuate? Does she mean that her nephew was incorrect and instead all the people wanted to take a picture with him because they look down on black people, or thought him ugly, or thought him a novelty? Most likely it was because of the latter, and nothing more.
China is a very racist and bigoted place to live and travel. On State-controlled TV there are news reports and shows that promote bigotry against even other Asians. There is even bias among people within China — both towards ethnic Chinese minorities and towards other Chinese living in different cities and regions. But bringing the American experience to China and overlaying that narrative on top of a China trip is a bad cultural attitude and most likely was not the reality that Glanton assumed she was experiencing.