Being a foreigner anywhere brings its own set of trials, and living in China (historically cut off from the rest of world and with limited immigration) can take things to a different level.
Can’t find good hair extensions, no decent dark foundation on offer… sound familiar? Well these are the least of problems for black girls in China. Let’s be honest, although China has more than 50 ethnic groups besides Hanzu, Chinese people often act like foreigners are, well, kind of like aliens.
There has been much talk about racism in China, and experiences for black people can be difficult. It is often pointed out that while Chinese people are often very friendly towards white foreigners, it’s a slightly different experience if you are black.
A black friend of mine often asks: ” Why do all the words with the character 黑 have negative connotations? For example, 黑幫 (gang), 黑仔 (unlucky), and even 黑车 (illegal taxi) are all bad words?” She would often get wildly really angry when people stared at her, and would say that Chinese people are really racist.
However, Jennifer Bonne, from the Seychelles, tells a very different story. She is, quite proudly, the only black girl studying at Beijing Sports University.
Jennifer looking hot
Black female basketball players, 170 cm tall are pretty rare in China, but Jennifer doesn’t feel the pressure when Chinese people say: oh 看看，老外 (look, look a foreigner). Jennifer makes it clear she is not fazed: “I wouldn’t call it pressure, I don’t know maybe it is because I am self confident, but I feel proud; I feel here like I am one in a million. I feel special and there is a typical spotlight, but, let’s say, it is something positive rather than negative”
A former basketball player for the Seychelles national team, she now represents the basketball team at the Beijing Sports University. “My teammates are all Chinese. I am in China surrounded by Chinese, most of my friends are Chinese, but you know what, I don’t really think the Chinese are racist at all. For example in the beginning, sure, they were touching my hair and asking me if they could touch my skin, but none of them tried to offend me or say something racist on purpose; it was more funny that anything else, for instance, when we are choosing teams in basketball, the team I’m on is always called ‘黑黄 team’ (black & yellow),” she says.
Jennifer with her teammates in Beijing Sports University
Most “racist” things that happen to her in China are actually accidental. She says she once thought somebody was trying to offend her, as she could not speak Chinese, and on hearing people shout ne ga (that) she thought: “Who called me a nigger?”
Jennifer explains how many of the Chinese friends in her school have never seen black people before, “I am practically their first time'”, she jokes.
She does see some behavior that she realizes some people might construe as racist, but doesn’t see it like that herself: “It’s just a lack of experience, for example one day I got a new hair weave, and my hair is naturally short so my friend comes to me after class, touches my ‘new hair’ (these extensions were cheap, to touch it feels like Barbie hair, like), but she didn’t notice anything unusual, she just got sad, saying ‘you are so lucky your hair grows so fast, maybe it’s because you are black’!” I find it funny that in four years, most of them didn’t know my hair wasn’t real.
Jennifer didn’t find herself just loving her Chinese classmates either, after a while she “went local” and started dating a Chinese guy, she explains how this upset a few people: “When people used to see me with my Chinese boyfriend they had a look on their face that I can’t even describe, and, oh my god, when black guys saw me with him, they gave that questionable look, like I had somehow betrayed their race.”
Call me ‘blasian’
The fact that foreigners date locals is hardly surprising, and it has even coined a new new word, “blasian”, though there aren’t too many couples where the man is Chinese and the woman is black.
“Most people ask me, how come I am with him. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. I was not attracted to Chinese guys before coming to this school. I just realized that more than a few Chinese guys were attracted to me, and in a sports university guys are not shy, so it just started like that.”
There is one question that Jenny tires of being asked: “Chinese people are mostly surprised and ask, where and when we met and stuff like that, but foreigners ask questions like, ‘since it is so small, does he satisfy you?'”
Out of curiosity, I ask her the same question. Jenny just smiles at me, giving nothing away; I guess I’m going to have to work out some things for myself.
Image courtesy of Jennifer Bonne