“I just want to let you know that some of your parents have called a meeting with me and Miss Zhang,” said my principal during my first week at this kindergarten. “We’re not sure what they wanna talk to us about, but it might be because you’re Black.”
He’s Canadian. I’m American. I sit in the chair thankful for his candor.
“Oh, OK. Am I the first black person to teach at this school?” I ask.
“Yeah, you are actually.”
“Wow. Well, let me know how the meeting goes.”
It was August 2018, my third fall in China and my third school. I initially moved to China in September 2016 to travel and pay off over $50,000 worth of debt in the States. Every year, I’ve moved to a different job for better pay and quality of life.
After this much time in China, you learn to roll with the punches or you get knocked out. Sometimes you just shake your head, Kanye shrug and say, “That’s China.”
Over the next two days, students and their parents strolled into the classroom. As 3-year-olds do in a new environment with strangers, they wrapped their arms around Mommy’s legs for protection. Then I gave them a few insect puzzles and bright, plastic blocks to play with.
Most of them were fine after 15 minutes. We built a rapport.
The parents’ meeting got called off.
I, the Jackie Robinson of my kindergarten, have just helped more Chinese people see that I’m like them—just more melanated and with locs that look like “black noodles” as my student, Emily, says.
Believe it or not, I’ve had it pretty easy in China. The most racist incident occurred when I first moved here. A lady got up from beside me on the metro and moved down the car.
Some expats have faced more serious discrimination. Some landlords don’t like to rent out to foreigners, especially Black people. My best friend, a butterscotch-toned Jamaican Brit, was once told to go around the back of the building to see an apartment. It’s unfortunate.
Other American expats and I have discussed the fact that we generally feel safer here than at home. Truly. Walking alone to your apartment after a night of clubbing is uneventful. Not recommended, but uneventful.
I live in a highly populated area, but it’s still very homogenous. If everybody looked like me my entire life and all of sudden I saw an alien, I’d freak out too. Folks stare. Children shout out, “Wai guo ren! or “Fei zhou ren” (Mandarin for “foreigner” or “African”). People want to talk about or touch my hair. There’s no ill intent. It’s fascination—fascination with other-ness.
If you’re a woman of color who wants to live well in China, here are some tips:
Realize that different is not necessarily bad.
I hit a few brick walls trying to grasp why Chinese folks do what they do. Out of that frustration, rude words leapt out of my mouth before thinking. Take the opportunity to learn about the culture and understand what makes the Chinese tick before making snap judgments. Different sometimes is just different.
Say “Yes,” to new experiences.
The Chinese LOVE putting on a show. The arts are very important to them, so foreign teachers are expected to dance or sing at school functions just like the Chinese teachers, students and sometimes, parents. Embrace it and have fun. A student’s mother invited me to a traditional dinner for Chinese New Year’s Eve. I knew I wouldn’t like all the food and we’d have a language barrier. But I went anyway and enjoyed myself. It would’ve been a shame to miss out on that.
The language is the gateway to the culture.
I’ve slipped on this myself because I’m in an English-speaking environment all day and have my English-friendly hangouts on the weekends. But learning little sayings and the way the Mandarin sentences are structured sentences tells you a lot about the Chinese mindset.
See the beauty around you.
The way grandparents are engrossed in their grandkids lives. The Dancing Grandmas who line dance in every open square at dawn and dusk. The gorgeous traditional garb. The Opera singers practicing in the park. Chinese culture is vibrant. Appreciate it.
As a Westerner, some stuff just won’t make sense to you. Exhale and let it go.
Some parents won’t let their kids eat cookies because they coughed the night before. Cookies cause coughing, apparently. Hot water is the remedy for everything over here. And your Chinese principal might see you do something, but will not correct you directly. She will tell the person in-between both you in the hierarchy to address the situation. Here’s another good one: A branch of the same bank can have totally different rules and services than the branch up the road. *Kanye shrug* “That’s China.”
You have to bring the products you can’t live without from home.
You can find McDonald’s fries, Starbucks coffee and Vaseline, but other stuff is hard to come by. Feminine products other than pads are scarce. Black hair products? Forget about it. You might be able to find certain products like shea butter and shampoo from African businesspeople, but stock up and fill your luggage with all of your goodies before you come. I’ve been able to find American and Kenyan women who can retwist and style my locs. It’s a blessing!
You will be disgusted at times.
Oh, yeah. The metro in summertime will be packed with musty men and women who have the audacity to stick their armpits in your face as they hold onto rails. Deodorant is not a thing here. Folks who don’t live in posh areas will pick their noses and spit in public without a second thought. Also, you’ll see your share of pig knuckles, chicken feet and stinky tofu. Get ready!
They can’t drive or wait in lines.
It’s true. Chinese folks simply can’t wait for others to leave the metro car before they go on. They skip lines all the time. And “School Zone” signs mean nothing to drivers. Stay alert at all times.
Expect more “Eat, Pray, Lust” than “Eat, Pray, Love.”
I don’t date, mostly because I’m focused on paying off debt and personal development. But it’s also because it’s easier for men of all races to come out here and find a partner. Not so for the women in the expat community, unless you’re cool with dating a guy who’s dating several other women in that small community. A bout on Tinder helped me meet a few guys of every shade, but I buried my head in work again. I haven’t given up on finding love, but I’m not holding my breath.
Opportunities for personal and financial growth abound.
If you wanna make money, that’s not a problem. You can teach at a school and find several extra gigs. You can start a business. Living in China will make you grow up real quick. Traveling to neighboring countries will expand your horizons. And meeting new people will certainly enhance your life. China can be a great launching pad to a great life.
Some people weren’t able to adapt to China and left within 3 months. Other folks, like myself, have stayed longer than expected. Living abroad is what you make of it.
So, would you move to China to pay off debt?
Miss Wise is a 30-something Southern girl who’s just trying to live up to her last name. She talks about life in China and her efforts to become her best self through her Instagram feed, @WiseWomanWallet, and her blog, WiseWomanWallet. Her goals for chronicling her debt-free journey, personal development and travels are to empower, educate and encourage other women to live by design, not default.
Photo Via Unsplash