Of all the countries we’ve visited as a family, the hardest, by far, was China.

A series of missteps on my part meant that, after a 13-hour flight, we found ourselves in a very non-touristy part of Beijing, at a “hotel” that was more like a businessman’s rental apartment. Within a few hours, we were already wondering if our plan to spend a month there had been a huge mistake.

This man was trying to take a photo of us from afar when my husband turned his phone on him to give him a taste of what it felt like. It took the man a long time to notice, but when he did, they both had a laugh. (Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis)

This man was trying to film us from afar when my husband turned his phone on him to give him a taste of what it felt like. It took him a while to notice, but when he did, they shared a laugh. (Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis)

The next morning, our bad mood was emboldened by torrential rains — but after a harrowing ride with a cab driver to whom speed limits were merely suggestions, we finally arrived at the Forbidden City. We had taken shelter under the cover of one of the arched gates and were waiting for our guide to arrive, when we noticed something.

People were staring at us…and snapping pictures.

As we looked around, we realized that there were things about our family that made as many as 20 people at a time stand in line to get their photo taken with us:

  1. Our skin color. We were in China for 30 days, but it wasn’t until our last week, in Yangshuo, that we saw another black person. The American mother-daughter duo said we, too, were the first they’d seen in the country. The sight of the six of us chatting in the street set off a camera frenzy big enough to draw shopkeepers out to gawk.
  2. We’re tall. My husband Ish is about 6 foot, I’m 5′ 8”, and our sons are big for their age. There are tall people in China, but people seemed genuinely impressed with our height, sometimes even using hand gestures for emphasis. But being tall has its advantages. No matter how big the crowd, we could usually spot each other.
  3. Our hair. The boys’ mini Afros may as well have been unicorn horns. People reached out to touch them all the time. Cameras were held so precariously close to my son’s hair that I’m sure there are photos out there in which you can count the strands.

We weren’t the only ones to draw attention in China (people with blond hair, blue eyes, red hair, or freckles were dealt a similar lot), but the attention was overwhelming.

One of our sons dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. (Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis)

One of our sons dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. (Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis)

My husband would be right behind me and then disappear into a crowd of elderly women intent on rubbing his bald head and pinching his black skin. Or my kids would suddenly go missing, pulled by some mother who was determined to have them pose with their son or daughter.

It was amusing at first. And then it wasn’t. We couldn’t concentrate on tours because of all the cameras pointed at us. We couldn’t walk quickly due to the crowds swarming us. We were grumpy. What we looked like was ruining our chance to enjoy where we were.

As a family that believes there are things to be learned from everything in life, we try to turn even the most frustrating experiences into teachable moments. Here are the lessons we took away from our time in China:

  1. It isn’t easy being the outsider. Not being able to understand the language and non-verbal cues of a society makes it really hard to communicate. We need to be more forgiving of those who come to our country lacking the same.
  2. Having your every move documented gets old, and quickly. The celeb-obsessed culture prevalent in many parts of the world can desensitize us to what it’s like to be on the other end of the lens. Our experience in China showed us how photo taking can go over the line and taught us to be better at respecting each other’s privacy and personal space.
  3. If you don’t like having your picture taken without permission, assume others won’t as well. After China, we began to think twice about photographing locals just because we could. If we didn’t know the language, we’d motion to the camera and secure a nod before releasing the shutter. If anyone looked uneasy or refused, we moved on.
  4. You have the right to say no. This was an especially important lesson for our kids, and provided an opportunity to show them the power of their own voice. Our guide taught them how to say “No, thank you” in Mandarin and empowered them to refuse a photo if they wanted. If someone approached us, we asked the kids if they wanted to be a part of it rather than answering for them. Their confidence grew when they knew their opinions would be respected.
  5. There’s almost always common ground. We stumbled upon a local park where, for a few dollars, we could dress up in authentic period garb and pose for photos. Though the outdoor stage meant that, once dressed, the entire park could see us in full regalia, we jumped at it. After putting on our hats and robes, we stood together for the world to see. People came running over, cameras out, laughing and pointing. We caught a glimpse of ourselves and laughed right along with them.

Heather Greenwood Davis and her family were recognized as Travelers of the Year by Traveler magazine in 2012. Learn more about their journey on globetrottingmama.com and on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis

Comments

  1. Carla
    United States
    April 18, 2013, 2:43 pm

    I had a similar experience in Thailand with their Chinese tourists (the Thai weren’t rude at all and actually knew how to ask before snapping a picture, or worse, pulling one of us aside). It made me NEVER want to visit China. I understand that it’s shocking to see something different, but the rudeness in it all…almost as if we were spectacles for their enjoyment…didn’t sit right with me.

  2. Wild Buttercup
    April 18, 2013, 4:08 pm

    That sounds stressful! I’m white, and when I was little I had blonde hair which made growing up in Indonesia a bit painful because people always wanted to pinch my cheeks for luck. Sometimes my cheeks were covered in bruises for days!

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:26 pm

      Yikes. That’s serious pinching! The boys had their fair share of pats on the head and a bit of hair pulling but it was all pretty gentle.

  3. Amy
    Colorado, US
    April 18, 2013, 4:26 pm

    Loved your article. My family of 4 just returned from our 8 month RTW adventure. We were in China for 30 days and Hong Kong for another 10. We were photographed hourly, especially the kids. When they were kind of sick of it we would remind them that they represent the US. The kids would give the peace sign and smile!
    http://www.offexploring.com/over-the-hills-and-far-away

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:26 pm

      Congrats on your RTW adventure and thanks!

  4. Tarasview
    http://tarasviewoftheworld.com
    April 18, 2013, 5:51 pm

    when I was 15 I went to Nepal for a summer and the very same thing happened to me! At the time my hair was very light blond, very long and very curly and my eyes are very green. I am also tall – at the time I was 5’8 – taller than most of the locals. The Nepalese people (adults and children alike) were absolutely fascinated and I was constantly being touched and proposed marriage too and other odd things. Thankfully it was before the time of digital cameras so it wasn’t quite as much as it would be now but it certainly made me much more conscious of what it is like to stand out. I’ve been careful to be sensitive to others in that position ever since!

  5. Katja
    Toronto, Ontario
    April 18, 2013, 8:14 pm

    We had a similar experience in Chonqing and Zigong as a family with a few blondes in it. We were followed and photographed throughout the day. People often asked to touch my daughter’s hair too, which was disconcerting. We had a wonderful experience, but it was tiring at times and finding refuge in our room at the end of the day was welcome.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:28 pm

      “We had a wonderful experience, but it was tiring at times…” <– that's how we felt too. The frustrating bits weren't enough to erase our enjoyment of the country.

  6. Dianne / Smilenwaven
    April 18, 2013, 8:45 pm

    Great article! Never thought of that aspect!

  7. Hermione
    April 19, 2013, 2:52 am

    As a Chinese, I apologize on my people’s behalf for your bad experience in China. Most of us haven’t seen foreigners a lot, to be honest, we are just being curious. Touching children’s heads, pinching cheeks is acceptable in China, but again, I understand how you are upset. But I love your reflections on the end of the article, one thing about Chinese people is we treat foreigners extra nice, which includes extra/necessary attention; while when I was traveling in the US, people assume I am American and when I ask questions (like how much is the chicken nuggets in McDonald), people think I am an idiot.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:21 pm

      No apology is necessary! It was a learning experience on both sides. This is just one story out of many from a truly fascinating part of the world. Though frustrating at the time, it was an experience I’ve learned so much from. I apologize that many of us lack patience on this side of the world.

  8. Bill Jay
    NYC
    April 19, 2013, 12:36 pm

    A few years back I was at the Beijing Zoo staring at the animals when I noticed that everyone else at the exhibit was staring at me and my son. Apparently we were more entertaining than the bears and monkeys. I didn’t take offense because I knew that most of them probably hadn’t seen a foreigner before (I happen to be white) but as the author says, it wears thin pretty quickly.

  9. Kevin Dorival
    United States
    April 19, 2013, 2:54 pm

    That has to be an awesome experience to travel to China and to actually live there for a period of time. I love the tips and the advice on how to say “No!” When I work on my next book I’m going to travel to China.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:19 pm

      China is fascinating. Well worth a visit!

  10. Teri
    Michigan
    April 19, 2013, 2:54 pm

    Reminds me, somewhat, of Japan when a Japanaese woman ran her finger up and down my leg because she was fascinated with my darker complexion. Lol.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:18 pm

      HA!
      What a fantastic travel experience. :)

  11. Hza H.
    April 19, 2013, 9:01 pm

    my mother had the same experience. She was in small town China w/ my father and said that ppl were pointing from a distance and eventually had words w/ the tour guide. My mother asked what hubbub was about and the guide, embarrassed, said that the locals were interested in taking pictures since they h ad never seen a black person. But after taking a just a few, many more came out the shadows asking for the same. My mother was soon disgusted with all of it and simply walked away – despite them giving chase.

    great case study for small, disconnected cities in 2013 and what else is completely foreign to them.

  12. Sue
    California
    April 20, 2013, 2:30 am

    I really like the perspective “It isn’t easy being the outsider. Not being able to understand the language and non-verbal cues of a society makes it really hard to communicate. We need to be more forgiving of those who come to our country lacking the same.”

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:17 pm

      Thank you.

  13. the ChosenOne
    April 20, 2013, 7:05 am

    After reading the comments I think the Black folks that got angry should really LIGHTEN (pun intended – haha) up. Serious – from what I read – it was the same for White people when other folks saw White people for the first time. I got a little ticked the first time I went to a small town in Colorado (no Asians), and people kept STARING at me and my friend. I thought I was being paranoid at first – but when I went to look at everyone – I was RIGHT. But they were nice – just curious (I seriously think many have NEVER seen an Asian before). Was the same in Iraq and Afghanistan – it wasn’t rude (unless you take it that way – rudeness wasn’t intentional) they wanted to touch me, and “get to know me” – I thanked God that I found favor with these people. It was ALL good.

  14. shirley
    April 20, 2013, 8:10 am

    l am sorry that you seemed to had not a good time in china because our chinese ‘s behaviors.but what l want to say is that l hope you can remember more nice things in china.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:16 pm

      Oh Shirley! Quite the contrary! We had a great time in China. This was simply one aspect of our time there. It was tough at times but a lot of it has to do with not knowing the language of the place we were visiting and that’s our fault. I’m hoping to return to China one day with a bit more Mandarin under my belt.

  15. Cas
    April 20, 2013, 9:15 am

    I understand how frustrating being the centre of attention when you are on holiday can be. I am currently living in the Middle East with my daughter, who is multiracial, and her hair is touched quite a bit. Arab adults will pat her cheeks–especially the older adults. This is quite endearing and, after asking other Arabs, I learned that this is cultural and a sign of love for children. Other nationalities are not so thoughtful. They don’t bother to ask; they just touch her hair. While I understand that they are just curious, it does get very frustrating. She’s just a little girl; she loves the pats, but has started complaining about the hair touching. Cheers to you and your husband for handling these situations with such grace.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:14 pm

      Thank you. In your case, I bet that understanding the cultural or societal significance behind it must help a little.

  16. KT
    April 20, 2013, 9:26 am

    anyway,they mean no harm…just kind of curious and excessive attention…it takes generations to make changes,and it’s changing rapidly.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:13 pm

      I agree that no harm was meant. It was definitely an honest curiosity.

  17. Liz Watson
    Atlanta, Georgia
    April 20, 2013, 12:09 pm

    I grew up in Europe so I was exposed to different languages and cultures. When my daughter graduated from college she went into the Peace Corps and was sent to Peru. She relayed that most Peruvians have not traveled outside their country and it is a developing country, so no one had cameras. But they stared at her constantly and the men would wistle at her. They had never seen a white person and she eventually got used to that. It is certainly a lesson for all of us and how we treat people from other countries.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:12 pm

      “It is certainly a lesson for all of us and how we treat people from other countries.” – Agreed!

  18. Lalna Dhanda
    India
    April 21, 2013, 3:35 am

    Hi. You must see this very inspiring travel blog by a 67 year old lady from India who travels all alone across countries. Must read and inspire other senior citizens to explore and stay young http://oldsolofemaletraveller.blogspot.in/

  19. Mitch Mitchell
    Syracuse
    April 21, 2013, 1:29 pm

    I can relate to this because as a child living in Tokyo in the mid 60′s I had the same experiences. Men and women always touching me, my skin, my hair… it was strange. Yet I enjoyed it because they also gave me lots of chocolate bars and fruit, though I didn’t eat fruit. I even spoke a little Japanese as we had a Japanese housekeeper, which they also enjoyed.

    Of course my mother hated it, feeling very insecure because she didn’t speak the language and I’m an only child, but she survived, knowing that no one was showing any malice towards me.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:11 pm

      Ha! If only we’d been offered chocolate bars too! We might’ve lasted longer! :) Thanks for your note.

  20. Ausbasel
    Switzerland
    April 21, 2013, 2:09 pm

    We are an Asian American family living in Europe. Last year, we decided to visit Istanbul (in the Europe part of Turkey). We were quite nervous about the visit as we heard stories from friends about extraordinary attention given to anyone who looks different. Well, it was true! We could not walk more than five steps without someone touching our children, pinching their cheeks, and speaking to us in various Asian languages, none of which we understood. At a museum, a group of school children encircled our youngest son all in an attempt to have a photograph taken with him. At one point I played tug-of-war with the school children in an attempt to safeguard him from further “harassment” (his word).
    At the end of the day, we acknowledge that the Turks meant no harm to us. They were fascinated by our “uniqueness”. Most Turks will likely never leave their country to visit the Far East, so this is probably the only “worldly” experience they will encounter in their lifetime, and they want to savor it. I believe the Chinese people are the same way. Most mainland Chinese will never have the opportunity to visit the West. They are just thrilled to have the West come to them. So I say let’s savor our travel experiences, learn from them, teach our children about them (as Ms. Davis did wonderfully), and celebrate our “uniqueness”.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 21, 2013, 4:10 pm

      Thanks for your comment!

  21. Vanessa
    April 21, 2013, 5:03 pm

    I wonder what if this article will be about if it was the other way around it’s better to be seen in a positive way than a negative way .The Chinese are very nice with tourists. The ChosenOne is right :D

  22. ugo
    Hawick, Scotland
    April 21, 2013, 5:40 pm

    I live in a small town at the borders of Scotland….and its quite funny that few of them have neither seen black people nor interacted with them…when i walk along the streets…the gawking is terrible…lol…they never reach out to touch me…(they are much to polite to do that)…..i’ve been referred to as colored during conversations, but it was not out of rudeness..but merely out of the locals having little exposure to “colored” people….hence they’ve never viewed such words as possibly offensive…haha..but i take it in my stride….loving the town…love your travel experiences…

  23. Ai Shengqiang
    China
    April 22, 2013, 5:50 am

    From the article and comments, we may see that lots of misunderstanding and argument were occurring because we knew very little about each other. Travel is the best way to know a country and her people. Many thanks for your sharing.

  24. Carmen
    New Haven CT
    April 22, 2013, 8:16 am

    Great story, enjoyed the comments about the similar experiences of other travelers, especially the one from the Asian-American family. It’s true we get to travel and forget that many people have never and probably never will have a chance to leave their hometown. They get very excited when they have people who looked different from them visit them. I guess to them it’s a glance at what the rest of the world looks like.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 9:27 am

      So true Carmen!

  25. Evelyn McBride06902
    Stamford Connecticut.
    April 22, 2013, 9:25 am

    To Heather and her Family, Heather you know that it’s amazing how you go to different Countries around the World and, some people has never seen a dark skinned person. And you visit other Countries and they has nerson see a white skinned person. Some that let us to know that this is an enormous World that we live in. I’m glad that you got a lot of attention and a tourist vacation. Have a Great time..

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 9:26 am

      Hi Evelyn, it’s one of the things I love about travel. Travel is an opportunity for all of us to experience new things and rethink what we think is “normal.” Thanks for the well wishes.

  26. Geoff
    April 22, 2013, 9:47 am

    One of the things that could be helpful for many people is to spend some time learning about the customs of the places you plan to visit. Perhaps know that it is customary for the natives to touch hair and pinch faces would have at least perpared you for what was to come. Having travel abroad, I try to have a little understanding of the local customs. Not only is it important to understand what to potentially expect, it good to know what not to do, thus preventing you from doing something that may be considered disrepectful. I experieced much of what you did during my visits to China, but digital cameras weren’t as prevalent. As a tall black man, I was constantly under the microscope. I’m sure your children will remember this experience for the rest of their lives. You sharing your story is a testament to humility and tolerance. Something I wish many others should learn and practice.

  27. Seymour Placide
    Florida
    April 22, 2013, 9:48 am

    it’s interesting how this experience can be similar in any part of the world. I traveled to Santiago De Compostela (Spain) and the children would stop in there tracks when my wife and I would visit the museums. It was odd the first time but a little distracting when the adult’s with the children stared as well.

  28. Betsy Talbot
    Guanajuato, Mexico
    April 22, 2013, 9:54 am

    We spent 3 months in China last year, and we were often picked out of the crowd for my freckles/tattoos and my husband’s beard. Like you, we thought it was cute at first, and then it was just intrusive as people took pictures even of me coming out of the bathroom. We joked that we were being followed like reality TV stars!

    What I finally realized was that as a citizen of a multiethnic country, I was used to seeing people who don’t look like me – in fact, I expected to see people who don’t look like me every day. In China, this is not the case. Most of them will go their whole lives without seeing a Latino, white, Native American, or black person or such common things (to us) as Afros or curly hair or blond or red hair or beards or freckles or tattoos.

    I’m so glad you wrote this. We struggled with how to express the feeling of being on display all the time and why we felt so uncomfortable (but not unsafe) for much of our time in China.

  29. Sharon
    United States
    April 22, 2013, 9:58 am

    Heather, thank you for sharing such a warm and caring story of your family’s experience. Your travels are rare also for most people living in America. Though my children are adults now, it would have given my “eye-tooth” to have been able to show them the wonders of the world as children. I encourage them now to travel as much as possible. As I read your story I was thrilled to know that your boys perspective of our world – as they become men, will look so much different then most. I hope you continue to share your journeys with us.

  30. Caroline Delgado
    Silver Spring, Maryland
    April 22, 2013, 10:02 am

    Hi Heather,

    I loved your piece on your experience in China. Your observations are on point and yes, for the most part curiosity of all non-Asian foreigners is what drives these people to act sometimes. There is a huge difference between Chinese Culture and Western Culture on a whole. Culture and hospitality is something that has to be taught and learned but its not. Once again great piece!

  31. Aisha Osho-Adegbola
    London
    April 22, 2013, 10:13 am

    I am not too sure how to react to this article. Did this happen in 2013? I understand you could be surprised to see something entirely new but pulling, pinching, feeling and touching hair skin and so on is not just right. It could be scary especially to the children. Well thank God you all survived the ordeal.

  32. November
    Southern California
    April 22, 2013, 12:01 pm

    I had a very similar experience while in Mexico in the early 1990s, no digital cameras, but EVERYWHERE I went people looked at me and pointed. Even while at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, folks looked, sent their children over to gawk and run back and report what they saw.

    I too, thought it was cute at first, then just got really tired of it. Being a tall, African-American woman with long braids was being very different and exotic to them.

    But, alas, I had a great time and thought, if I saw a Yanamamo walking the streets of Hollywood, I’d probably stare as well!

  33. November
    Southern California
    April 22, 2013, 12:03 pm

    Oh…and I applaud you for taking your children on such a wonderful trip. Travel is very important, it eradicates the lies, falsities, assumptions and fantasies we have about one another. It allows us to connect to other people and see that there are different yet just as wonderful places to live.

    Bravo!

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 6:01 pm

      Thanks. I truly believe that too.

  34. David Young
    Montreal
    April 22, 2013, 1:22 pm

    I’m Chinese. When my sister visited the Amish, she experienced the same thing. The whole community came out because most had never seen a Chinese person before.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 6:00 pm

      Thanks for that David. It’s true that it really isn’t about China. It’s about being the other in any given situation and being more aware of it even when we’re the “majority.”

  35. Rashida
    Washington, D.C.
    April 22, 2013, 2:06 pm

    Great Article! Love that you also are traveling worldwide with kids! My daughter took her first trip to Turkey at 16 months and we went to a local shopping mall and were a spectacle. People started surrounding us and taking pictures of the baby every two steps we took every store people would pull out their phones or approach us to ask where we are from and if my husband was a basketball player from America it was shocking but I realized they were just curious and had probably not seen many black people with small children before. I chalked it up to curiosity as everyone was so friendly to us. I love this blog thank you for sharing this information. I believe more families should travel the world even if its once a year to some country it really is invaluable for the children’s perspective and education further down the line.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 5:59 pm

      Your comment about your husband being a basketball player made me smile. It reminded me that in several countries when people weren’t sure what to make of us or didn’t have the language to express it, they’d point at my husband and say “Will Smith!” :)

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 6:01 pm

      I agree Rashida. It really isn’t about how far you go. Any travel that exposes us to something new is worthwhile.

  36. Flora Morris Brown
    Anaheim, CA
    April 22, 2013, 2:47 pm

    Heather,

    Your story reminds me of my own experiences in China.

    In 2007 a friend and I travelled to China with a group of 45 mostly educators. As the only two African Americans in the group, we were stared at and photographed everywhere we went.

    We were not amused at all, and were especially disturbed by the bus of school kids who snickered and pointed at us when our vehicles were parallel at a red light. I’m afraid that my friend and I responded in kind to some of this by pointing back at them and snickering, as well as taking pictures of folks where were trying to sneak photos of us from different vantage points.

    We didn’t tolerate any touching, although at the popular tourist stops some insistent vendors followed at our heels trying to hawk their wares.

    At one museum, the teacher who planned the trip, confronted and loudly chided some of the Chinese who were following and photographing us.

    All in all, the trip was spectacular, especially seeing the Terra Cotta Soldiers. I treasure a photo I had taken of me in costume at the Great Wall of China.

    We enjoyed seeing many other amazing sites and learning about the history of China. Had we not been part of an escorted trip with guides in every city for the day and night events, I’m sure we would have had more encounters from the many Chinese people who obviously had never seen black people, especially in person.

    Thank you for sharing your story and proving why travel is so wonderful. Had the Chinese we encountered been exposed to other cultures in person or in positive media portrayal, their reactions would have been very different and perhaps not felt so intrusive and insulting. We all are curious of the unusual, but our reactions differ from culture to culture. As we see and experience different people, cultures and customs, we grow in our understanding and tolerance.

  37. Julius Drake
    Israel
    April 22, 2013, 5:45 pm

    Awesome article, and great outlook on it all!
    I think it’s also a question of balance and expectations.. but this goes to show that there’s a limit to our need to feel ‘special’ and sometimes we just want to blend in, experience and absorb quietly..

    I hope you had great times there also and connected as a family through it all, Thanks for sharing!

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      April 22, 2013, 6:02 pm

      Thanks Julius. We had an amazing journey. I’m glad we’ve had the opportunity to share it here.

  38. George Chiu
    United States
    April 22, 2013, 9:26 pm

    I am so sorry for the rude and ignorant behaviors you experienced in my birth country. Although I would say that huge progress has been made during the past decades, the general attitude among a large part of the population remains to be closed and self-centered. This attitude gets manifested in rude behaviors, intolerance, and even racism. This does not get reported much as it serves no useful political purpose. But I think a large number of ordinary Chinese are extremely culturally and racially biased. I have probably never met a single Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China) who thinks the various ethnic minority peoples in China are as equally intelligent as the Han, for example. I have met very few Chinese people who think African/Black people are as intelligent as Caucasians or Asians. Last year, a young taxi driver in Shenzhen told me that he does not think Black Americans such as President Obama is a “real American.” This is a very biased and twisted mentality, which also explains many Chinese I met do not think Ambassador Locke (the US Ambassador to China, who happens to be a Chinese American) is a “real American.” And that is why some of these people feel angry why Locke is loyal to the US (not to his ancestral homeland of China)….Frankly, I do not know what to do about this…I usually tell these people that their attitude is 100% identical with that of the most ridiculously racist white supremacists found in the west. This frankly really worries me much more so than the day-to-day political moves at the government level (which the western press is very fond of reporting).

  39. Aaron
    Yangshuo
    April 23, 2013, 12:01 am

    I feel lucky to be in Yangshuo it isnt as bad here. I was in Changsha it was CRAZY

  40. Aaron
    Yangshuo
    April 23, 2013, 12:02 am

    Actually if you guys or anyone else are here again drop in for a coffee I can help you get better settled Omeida School

  41. Adriana Pasello | Diario de Viagem
    Brazil
    April 23, 2013, 8:02 am

    Great text and amazing experience. Never thought of how annoying could be taking photos of locals. You´re absolutely correct, we should respect and try to get an OK before.

  42. Jessica Betz
    Oklahoma City, OK / Chengdu, China
    April 23, 2013, 9:29 am

    We experienced the same thing in certain parts of China, but it didn’t stop our enjoyment, as I am glad to see it did not stop yours. We found the Chinese people were merely curious about our different appearances (I have red hair and am tall, my husband is very tall and has a full red beard – they thought he was a pirate or something). Their curiousity, while not malicious, can be rather wearing. I found, as your family did, that the best approach was with a little humor and a little firm insistance on your personal privacy. Many times, people are so intrigued that they are not aware that they are being rude, or, conversely, what may be considered rude in Western culture (esp. staring) is not considered rude in Chinese culture. The reaction in rural villages to my red hair was especially interesting; apparently there is an antiquated mythology in some Chinese lore that red haired people are ghosts. That might explain one old woman’s reaction to us… (gasped and left VERY quickly). As off putting as this was initially, we eventually came to cope with it. As you found, often times a genuine broad smile, and a ‘no pictures please’ in Chinese will do it. It didn’t deter us from moving to China long term.

  43. Jason Elliott
    United States
    April 23, 2013, 9:49 am

    I am so glad you wrote this article! I’m and African American male, and I spent a summer studying travel and tourism in Beijing while in college in 2005. It was SO unnerving at first walking down the busy streets of Beijing with my buddy (another African-American male) and literally having the entire world stop in its tracks, to look, take pictures, and video tape. However, I got used to it and felt like a VIP rockstar.

    Needless to say, when someone was staring at us we smiled back and asked them directly in Mandarin “hello there, why are you staring at me?” We got used to saying that one quite often, and they were quite surprised that we could speak Mandarin (correct tones and all).

    Overall, Chinese people are some of the most curious yet hospitable people in the world, and I am extremely excited to go back some day!

    Travel Well!
    Jason Elliott
    Founder
    The GO Generation (www.thegogeneration.com)

  44. Natasha Andrews
    April 23, 2013, 10:07 am

    Had an almost identical experience in Beijing last month. My younger son has a fairly big afro and he was “targeted” the most, along with my 6’2″ husband. It was nice until it wasn’t.

  45. Teri Johnson of Travelista TV
    NYC
    April 23, 2013, 2:59 pm

    Great read article! Thanks for sharing your experience. This has happened to me around the world but not to the point of annoyance. A few months ago, I was in Haifa, Israel at the Baha’i gardens and I saw a group of Nigerians and couldn’t resist snapping pictures. I had never seen a group of Africans, especially speaking what I believe was Yoruba, in the Middle East. I was fascinated but ashamed that I was “sneaking photos and video” of them, especially because I know what it feels like. Thank you again for writing this story.

  46. Sreeram Narayan
    India
    April 23, 2013, 4:17 pm

    I have just returned after an year long work stint in China and can any day vouch for a travel experience in the Kingdom land.

    I am an Asian (Indian) and still was surprised to the foreigner attention i attracted by chinese people, them being Asians too.

    I believe the fact is evident, anyone not looking like them , are a curious case to chinese local people and they want to come closer to you, interact and get clicked with you. Thats a sweet gesture.

    I am an avid traveler and such a response from the locals make you really feel wanted in the foreign land and is a fun experience you should enjoy.

    It might get nerving at times but as a traveler you should take it with a pinch of salt and remember that the world is a small place and such friendly gestures will make you feel cherished more as compared to given a nonchalant reception in a foreign land.

    At the end i would say in my year long journey in China, never have i felt threatened by any of the locals or their gestures, it is indeed one of the safest places to travel.

    Happy Traveling
    Sreeram
    twitter.com/sreespace
    http://www.travelotto.wordpress.com

  47. Rajeev
    April 23, 2013, 9:11 pm

    I must say that I agree with Sreeram. You really have to take the staring with a grain of salt and ignore it when possible. People are very excited to learn about differences and foreigners because China’s Foreign Policy closed it to the outside world until recently. I also think that If you are frequenting the touristy spots in Beijing you will be stared at and photographed much more. The largest number/ percentage of tourists are Chinese. They are from Interior and rural parts of China where their is absolutely zero exposure to foreigners. If you are around non- touristy spots with local Beijingers, they care much less.

    I am African American, and I lived in a smaller Chinese City (Shijiazhuang) for about 10 months. I frequented Beijing often as it was close by. I had one of the best experiences of my life in China and I would love to go back! But I think the biggest difference may be the fact that I speak Mandarin Chinese. Communication is clearly very important, and I it is the largest barrier for foreign tourists in China.

    You can get to see the Great Wall and a lot of the remarkable monuments and landmarks. But it is much more difficult to really understand the Chinese culture and the people due to the inability to communicate with them- and this creates distance.

    Chinese people are very kind and warm-hearted. Especially toward foreigners. They are open to learning about you and to teaching you about their culture and society. The key is having the ability to communicate- and many Chinese don’t speak English well. If you speak Chinese however, you gain access to an entirely different experience.

    All the best,

    Rajeev

  48. Black still but in Southeast Asia
    Laos
    April 23, 2013, 10:58 pm

    “What we looked like was ruining our chance to enjoy where we were.”

    I had a different experience over the 3 years I lived there (even in some very remote places). China, out of the many places that I lived, is the only place that I can recall ever loving without qualification from start to finish. The fact that I was different there–dark, tall, and with “funny” hair–and people were curious actually didn’t bother me that much (including the random touching by strangers). Actually, I joked around with people following me with cameras, offered to pose with the photographers and participated fully in the stare contests (I won every one) :) The thing is, I knew I was likely the first black person they had seen and I felt a responsibility to other blacks to represent us well and engage. I wanted them to be able to take home a picture of the smiling and friendly black person they saw that day, rather than spread stories of grumpy standoffish black people. I struggled with the “rudeness” of it all until I realized it made sense. If I saw a purple person, I’d probably stare, too, or at least, point them out to a friend. And if I had a camera, I’d probably try and find a way to take their picture without their knowing it. I found it uncomfortable at times, but their intent was not to be rude, it was curiousity, and I think, curiousity should be encouraged. Rather than retreating and deciding against immersion, I thought by changing my attitude I might make it easier for the next black person they saw. The more black people they meet, the sooner their fascination will fade.

    The author’s 3rd point at the end about invasive photography is precisely why I do not take photos of people I do not know. Even though I currently live in Laos where there’s no shortage of things and people to photograph, I abide by the rule “no relationship, no photo”. I however have the luxury of building relationships over time.

    I also think that if you know you’re going to a place where the cultural differences are greater, investing time beforehand in learning the language is one of the best ways to reduce the “outsider” feeling and start with feelings of confidence rather than suspicion.

    If you’re considering going to China, don’t be put off by these things–ENGAGE, so when your kids go (or your friend’s kids or my kids) in the future, no one will pay them any mind!

  49. Helen
    Germany
    April 24, 2013, 6:26 am

    As a 6 foot, white-haired caucasian woman, I cringe at the prospect of all that attention should I visit China. Not that it’s anything *too* unusual – I get my fair share of strange looks and questions even here, in Germany.

    A friend of mine (white guy, 6’6″) had a similar experience in Japan – though not positive. He was denied access to bars, clubs and businesses, simply for being “non Japanese”. His height I’m sure didn’t help any.

  50. Lauren
    Virginia
    April 24, 2013, 4:13 pm

    I love the grace with which you reacted to the attention (as annoying as I imagine it must have been). I’m Chinese-American (born in the US) and am often horrified at the rudeness I’ve experienced and seen others experience in China – I’m sorry for anything offensive that you may have experienced and can only offer the idea being reserved and polite is NOT a huge part of Chinese culture and many of those people didn’t realize how rude they were being to you. I love that you take away such great learning experiences from your visit. Growing up, I was often the only Asian-American in my rural community and was asked similar things (can I touch your hair? can I feel your eyes to see why there’s only one lid?) and I know how difficult it can be.

  51. Alex
    New York
    April 24, 2013, 6:13 pm

    I’m an ABC (American born Chinese) and I love both countries. It might be hard to grasp, but what they are doing isn’t rudeness. The truth is that western and eastern cultures are very different and in China people are a lot more straight-forward about certain things or actions. Something like telling somebody they’re getting fat which would be horribly rude in America is acceptable in China. Also things like pointing, taking pictures of people, laughing openly about others quirks are completely normal in eastern cultures. People aren’t as sensitive about these things in China like they are in America. That isn’t to say one approach is any better than the other, they are just different. I guess what I’m getting at is that those Chinese people probably thought they were being friendly and accepting by obsessing over your differences. Their perception of rudeness is rather a lack of interaction and communication.

  52. Alexa
    United States
    April 25, 2013, 10:56 am

    Hi Ms. Davis – I must complement you on the way you are teaching your family to approach life. “As a family that believes there are things to be learned from everything in life, we try to turn even the most frustrating experiences into teachable moments.” Your son looks so sure of himself and of who he is in the photos. And I love the one of your husband with the cell phone – lol. It’s so great that you guys have the opportunity to travel so much, but, then to let us all see how you approached the experience as a family is very enlightening, and, yes, I have learned from it, too. You are a terrific mom. Thanks :] (New York City)

  53. Carolyn
    Canada
    April 25, 2013, 12:08 pm

    We traveled to China with our identical twin daughters, who also attracted quite a lot of attention. We found that the picture posing and pointing opened the door to many memorable interactions. Watching our kids slide down a ramp at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven prompted several adults to do the same — to great hilarity all around. We had a train-carload of instant friends on our overnight journey to Dalian. And we were able to spend a day hiking and talking at Chang Bai Shan with a group of teachers, one of whom was traveling with her own daughter, who was the same age as ours.

    While my kids didn’t always relish the attention, they’ll now tell you that China is the friendliest place they’ve ever been. In China, and wherever we’ve traveled, our most unforgettable experiences have been those moments of connection with other people, where we each could share a small taste of our cultures and our lives. Your suggestion to bring that attitude of openness and welcome home is an excellent one!

  54. Carl Harvey
    Toronto
    April 26, 2013, 1:20 am

    Great article Cuz! I have a friend who teaches ESL in Beijing and although he lives there he still gets treated like an object of curiosity on a daily basis. He is also a very skilled Kung-Fu practitioner, which serves as the other surprise. LOL

  55. Anthony Ray Underwood
    United States
    April 26, 2013, 10:06 am

    Germany was the same when back in ’81 when I went as a child.

  56. Sarah
    Canada
    April 26, 2013, 10:11 am

    I was in China in 1988 as an eight year old with LONG RED hair (think Anne of Green Gables), my dad was teaching in Nankai University and we spent time there as well as Bejing and various other adventures, I’ve often wondered what happened to those pictures I posed for with random and curious local Chinese? There were many! I still have some of the gifts strangers gave me for sparing a moment to say ‘cheese’ with them!

    What an adventure for your family!

  57. Sabrina
    United States
    April 26, 2013, 12:40 pm

    So now this makes me ever more determined to go!! One, I love being in foreign lands. Two, have not made to any part of Asia yet. And three, global citizenship and connectedness is so important. Will they want to touch my giant afro? Maybe. But I’m thinking maybe the more of us they see it won’t be such a novelty anymore. Harrowing encounters with video cameras and being ‘petted’ will be a thing of the past. I am definitely intrigued. Thank you for sharing your story.

  58. Kerrie
    Michigan
    April 27, 2013, 1:54 pm

    Fascinating. I would feel like a celebrity! On the other hand, I can see how the attention, especially the touching, would become rather annoying quickly. Also, your sons are so adorable that I’d want to take their pictures, too. And I’m black.

  59. Lucy
    Canada
    April 28, 2013, 2:38 pm

    I feel very sorry for you bad experience in our country. But what you met is just a small part of Chinese especially in Beijing. They are tourists from other small cities. They are curious about Beijing visiting which include to met outsiders whatever it’s black or white. Coz most of Chinese have same color hire same color eyes. Southeners even will be surprised by Northeners’ tall. If you visit north city of China you will find that you are not that tall at all. China is big, too big. You can’t imagine we have culture conflict within people from different areas.Some of Chinese just don’t know how to show their friendship and curiosity sometimes maybe in a wrong way. Feel Sorry for that. Most of Chinese are friendly. If you can stay longer you will find that.

  60. Lauren Hesterman
    Shenzhen, China
    May 4, 2013, 10:13 pm

    Oh how we can relate, Heather! Our kids are the blond haired, blue eyed varietal and have both learned, at the ripe ages of 2 and 4, to say “bu yao”, when people try to snap photos (we live in southern China). Thanks for your article… going to check out your blog now!

    Lauren
    http://safariroo.com

  61. Debbie
    Michigan
    June 10, 2013, 5:56 pm

    In my many years of travel, numerous times I have ran into the expression “Ugly American”. Thank you for sharing a positively “Beautiful American” experience when traveling abroad.

  62. Derah Gordon
    United States
    June 18, 2013, 11:06 am

    Great article. I a few years ago I went to Tokyo with a friend (who was White) and had a great time. I’m a Black female in my late 20′s and really (I mean really) enjoyed all of the attention.

    During the day, no one took pictures of me, but people would smile and wave. At night my friend and I would go to nightclubs (mostly hip-hop clubs) and that’s where things really got fun.

    People would come up and dance with us, give us high-fives, want to take pictures with us – one dreadlocked Japanese guy came up to me just to say “nuff respect”. There happened to be one other Black person in the club – a Black male who seemed to live there – he came up to me and we gave each other “dap” and a hug (dap being a slightly more elaborate handshake). I think people’s minds exploded seeing two Black people “being Black” with one another. My friend who was White, was also very popular but I think Black was in that night.

  63. Edi C Ba
    Kinchasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
    June 28, 2013, 12:06 pm

    I love these articles and I believe it takes travel to be well rounded and tolerant as we Americans. I live and work in Africa, but have been traveling and working abroad for more than 30 years with my children. The have learned different languages, and yes, people want to be their friend…but its an experience I hope never ends. Keep the good, get rid of the bad, from any culture and marvel over the experiences. My 7 year old speaks four languages, and children stare even in the DRC where we are the same color…..or so we think. One of my son’s attend university in Kenya, so if the pats happen, I guess we’re over it or doing it too. Living abroad is awesome!

  64. Lou Ellen
    July 11, 2013, 5:21 pm

    We have traveled in China three times and absolutely love it. We have often joked about my picture hanging in homes all across China. Everywhere we went, people wanted to have their picture taken with me. On our first trip, one woman even pushed my husband out of the picture. I guess she had seen a tall blond man before, but the fat lady with thick, very curly, very red hair was a real novelty!

    On our 2nd and 3rd trips, the stares were mostly due to us having 2 or 3 Chinese children. Many times we were surrounded and unable to walk because people wanted to see the ‘twins’ or ‘triplets’. We had two toddlers on the 2nd trip and three 5 year olds on the 3rd trip.

    Honestly, if we could pack up and move to China tomorrow, we would do it. I find the people to be very loving, warm, and welcoming.

  65. Ernie Murray
    Knoxville, TN
    July 11, 2013, 5:32 pm

    Great article. For our last adoption in China we took our adopted son from India along with our biological son with blonde hair and blue eyes. I was fortunate to have traveled to China when i was young so I prepared my wife on what to expect. We were at times swamped with people taking photos but we took it all in stride. We found the Chinese people to be exceptionally friendly and pleasant. So much so that we are going back this year to adopt two more children.

  66. Rebecca
    Wisconsin
    July 12, 2013, 10:20 pm

    Before we travelled to China with our 5 year old blond haired, green eyed son, Chinese friends told us to expect lots of attention. Consequently, we were prepared, but I think it would have been very disconcerting if we hadn’t been. It was like traveling with a rock star. We have a picture of him in Tiananmen Square sorrounded by people with cameras. Fortunately, he liked all the attention. When we got back to the U.S., he told everyone, “The people in China REALLY like the way I look!”

  67. D
    Guangzhou, China
    August 6, 2013, 11:34 pm

    thank you for your post. I am teaching English in Guangzhou and have experienced the staring and disparaging remarks that I cannot understand (but others around me can). the people I have encountered range from outright rude and prejudiced to curious or indifferent. I had A similar experience when I visited Nashville, TN for a rock concert. My trip is for eight weeks and can be a bit lonely at times. Got any tips for how to shop and make friends outside of my job?

  68. Terrilynn
    Beijing
    August 8, 2013, 8:13 am

    What an opportunity – to share in this conversation. I am in Beijing for the first time, and last evening, a sales clerk almost cried because I was not sure if and when I would return to her store. After I started my trek home I felt jostled a bit, like what just happened? It was so tender, and she had asked me if I could maybe be her friend.

    In the past 6 weeks or so here, I have found the Chinese people humble, smart, polite, hard-working, affectionate, beautiful (something I wish more of the Chinese who have talked to me realized) and shockingly interested in my deeply brown African-American skin. (just want to to throw out yes, every single person is an individual – “the Chinese people” is soo broad – and I have witnessed a dizzying array of diversity among people here).

    Sometimes, I keep my head down, to discourage engagement – sometimes it’s just too much too often. But it’s also why I am here; to meet people and be met by them. The dramatic interactions I have experienced I may never know on a future trip as China is consciously seeking to expose her people to Africa and people of African descent now.

    At tourist spots like the National Museum, the Forbidden City, the Gardens, and The Summer Palace, people visiting from rural places looked dumbfounded that one of my travel partners and I even existed! One man stood in front of me, completely shameless he was, and he stared for a full minute. It is Ok. One of your other bloggers said people in Colorado stared at her…I am from Colorado and in my youth I stared at people from Asia that may have newly come to the US. I was fascinated with everything about them and wished we could converse in a common language – I did a lot of smiling and likely confounded them.

    It is helpful to say hi (ni-hao) which I think gently reminds folks that you’re not just being seen but seeing, as Heather your husband taught with his own camera lens. I definitely feel like the Chinese people honor me with their eyes, even if I’m trying now and then to just be a part of the crowd.

    “Africa Live” is on the English news station almost daily, I finally saw Akeelah and the Bee…here…and the first time I have seen Jesus’ name subtitled is during a show aired here on Ethiopians who believe they possess the historical Ark of the Covenant. We are of a time and season in this beautiful land. I am unspeakably grateful to witness it.

  69. Cory
    August 13, 2013, 9:43 am

    Good article….we can relate. My wife and I have averaged a child every 22 months or so for the last 16 years and so we have a large family. We moved to Shenyang, China with nine children, aged 16, 14, 12, 10, 7, 6, 3, 2, and 15 months. IT IS INTENSE! There are far less foreigners in this city than in Beijing and so we really stand out with nine blue eyed, blonde and red haired children. When I am out with 3 or 4 children it is a challenge, but when we have the whole crew together it is complete mayhem….I am not even joking that sometimes the crowd gets so big that we can’t even move, and in 2 instances the police were called to break up the crowd (not by us, but by some concerned Chinese people who were worried for us). We have to try to push through crowds in single file, but sometimes that makes things worse because when we are single line the Chinese see the children’s progression of heights and figure out that we are just one family. All we hear in China is people counting out loud, and when they get to nine things get rowdy. They just can’t get their head around that. The kids speak Chinese now, as we have been here for almost 6 months, and so they can talk to the crowd and answer the same questions that they are asked 50 or 60 times a day. Having a bit of conversation at least allows us to show some friendliness before we have to be very firm as we push through the crowd.

    I have developed a great little crowd repellent technique that I use if the crowd get out of hand and we are being impeded from our every day activities like getting on the bus or doing our grocery store shopping. I pull out my phone and start taking video with a very straight arm….kind of like you would take a video if you were trying to follow someone who had was running away from a crime. Whenever I do this half the crowd seems to walk away in a hurry, which is so strange to me because they might have just spent the last 10 minutes videotaping us as if we were monkeys at the zoo. Normally I don’t mind but my biggest complaint is when we buy some wraps at the grocery store and eat them at the public tables. There is something that is just rude about crowding around our table and recording us as we eat this sometimes messy food. For some reason I am much less annoyed when we are walking, but when sit to eat, I find it very obnoxious behaviour to put cameras a couple feet from out faces.

    All in all, we have been very happy with the warmth we receive from the Chinese people. It has been VERY easy to make friends.

  70. claudy
    montreal, canada
    August 27, 2013, 12:33 am

    I lived in taiwan but have visited china as well as other parts of asia many times…In europe i had a white child rub saliva on my skin to see if my black color would rub off…in china i had a child lick my arm..when i taught in taiwan my students would always touch my hair, face, arm.. and were especially mesmerized by the hair on my legs/arms…At first i was shocked and sometimes annoyed. But just the mere difference in skin color made the number of potential friendships rise. The friendly waves, handshakes, or the sudden hugging while a picture is taken. Its curiosity at another level. I prefer their interest than disinterest. I’m happy you enjoyed asia..depending where and what its truly an amazing experience.

  71. Jacob Marozsan
    Chicago, Illinois
    August 27, 2013, 11:59 pm

    So cool. My pals and I were planning a trip to Jilin City, or maybe Chongqing in 2016. I was wondering If we’d get a similar experiance. I’m 6″4 and my other friends are about the same, a bit shorter. :). There will be at least 4 of us or so. As many as 7 or 8. Will they want to tape us or take pictures? I would be able to spend all day taking pictures and talking with locals as well as I could! As a bonus to what we already plan to do, I wouldnt mind feeling like a small time celebirty. Forgot to mention… We’re all Eastern European, and some of my pals are tan skinned.

  72. Chris Law
    Marietta, Georgia
    August 28, 2013, 1:19 pm

    The main thing is whether or not you learned anything from the Chinese culture to help you become economically successful in America and had a good time! Remember that China has the economic influence on America! It is better to be surrounded by love and friendliness than to be surrounded by bitterness and hatred!

  73. songsang
    September 11, 2013, 3:07 pm

    chinese are extremely racist to dark skinned people, whether its southeast asian or african/AFamerican people. You should be happy that it was the worst experience youve had there. Try living there as a black person

  74. FuriousGeorgeRockwell
    September 28, 2013, 4:16 pm

    Exactly, songsang. This is why I urge Black folks not to travel to Asia o support Asian businesses.

  75. Yuki
    September 29, 2013, 8:52 pm

    I found it amusing for a longer period of time than you probably did. The whites who were on the trip got easily fed up with being in China, most of them weren’t as unicorn as me (black). Saying no doesn’t always work. The only time I got really fed up was while I was in school there. A woman turned around while I was on a bench eating some dumplings and she had asked me to help her daughter with English. Fast forward, they had asked me for a picture because I’m “really beautiful” I said no. I was talking to another student and they took my picture without permission. They really didn’t care when I had addressed it. I swear, even in America it is the same to some degree. We’re always being photographed to show ‘diversity’ in areas that obviously lack it.

  76. Jayden
    Australia
    October 30, 2013, 5:51 am

    Very nice article, interesting thoughts. I’m interested because im from Australia, we have a lot of Chinese people here, particularly where I am cos im a uni students and there are large numbers of Chinese studying at my uni (im a white guy), , and despite having a couple of Chinese friends there are certain aspects of their culture which are confusing to me and others. But its fascinating too, cos some people here have a problem here sometimes with not respecting other ethnicities, and its good to try and reduce the anxieties and have a happy community. Again, nice work, I look forward to reading more from you.

  77. Tamorie
    United States
    November 3, 2013, 9:53 pm

    I lived in China for almost a year and trust me, it’s worse when you understand the language. It’s one thing to know that people are staring at you and taking pictures and another to know that even the ones that aren’t staring are TALKING about you. And it’s usually innocent observations like “Oh, look a Black person” to ignore “innocent” observations like “Oh, look an African” (I’ve never even been to Africa…yet). And yes, it really gets old fast, especially when you’ve been there for five months and all you want to do is walk down to your nearest Wal-Mart to buy groceries and everyone is still gawking and staring and pointing and taking pictures and talking about you (and its not because they assume you don’t understand Mandarin, but they DO assume you don’t understand Mandarin) and running up to you to say “Hello” in the most accented English ever only to run away just as quickly and yea, it just gets old really fast. It got old really fast.

  78. Dave
    china
    November 23, 2013, 12:43 pm

    Very hard to be black and African here… With the years you lose the fascination as you learn about peoples, you learn about the culture ( the mandarin ) and with your daily experiences… Almost 7years but even though this part of the world is amazing and with need to know about, I have to leave to preserve my nerves …

  79. sunnei dais
    Abu Dhabi
    November 30, 2013, 10:36 am

    I loved this article! I think we must be respectful of people’s different personalities as it plays a huge role in a person’s response to this. Some people love the idea of ‘local’ fame because the idea of being a superstar is great!
    For people like me who doesn’t like to be touched, especially my locked hair without permission, this would be horrible. I’ve been stared at here, but touching my hair or my children’s would be too much for my personality. I don’t think I’d mind as much if I were asked, but I can see how that could get old. Being touched in the face is an absolute ‘no no’.
    So for those who say ‘ lighten up’ consider people like me who believe strangers are strangers and being touched in an intimate up close and personal way by a stranger is extremely uncomfortable!

  80. Lawrence J. Diggs
    Roslyn, SD
    November 30, 2013, 3:47 pm

    Lawrence J Diggs When I went to China in 1981, on one of a very few visas given for individual travel in China at the time, I was befriended by people and treated like family. Though I had a required first class ticket, once on the train from Hong Kong to Beijing via Guangzhou, I traded it with another Chinese person for a second class ticket so I could meet normal Chinese people. It was the an instant connection with two train cars of people for about three days. They fed me from their home cooked meals, anxious to know what I thought of their food. They tried to teach me Chinese and asked for help with their English. They told me of places where local people hung out. They took me to underground “secret from the police” ice cream parlors and tea houses where politics were being hotly debated. They took me to night markets when they were technically illegal in China. I have been to China more recently and was also befriended in much the same manner.

  81. Robby
    Jamaica
    December 1, 2013, 3:14 pm

    Everywhere I go, people said that I am the darkest of the black people they ever seen in their life time. Staring, touching and talking about my skin contributed a lot to my childhood/teenage depression until I came to realize that there is no need to be depressed and I just don’t care what people think of me. I made friends all over the world and they always feel for me when ever such thing arise but I have to tell them that it doesn’t bother me anymore, because am used to it. My close friends always complain with jokes, why people always stare at us and my reply: “bcos we r stars”..lol. People always ask if am from Africa or they just start calling me Africa, which is so crazy. I have to tell them that they do have black people in the South Pacific too, that’s where am from. Surprisingly, I still got people staring and talking about my skin in countries like Fiji, PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, the so Melanesian Countries where most people are black and I am a Melanesian myself. The same happens in Jamaica. Funny but it happens. It was different a story in Australia, apart from white people always staring at me, the Africans everywhere in Australia were smiling, waving hands and speaking to me in African which I didn’t understand.They were very nice and friendly to me even though am a stranger to them.I seem to get along well with the Americans, not much drama like other people from other countries but they still stare, sometimes scares me. I hate it when it comes to Chinese and Indians coz they just cant hold it back..hahahaha. You can stare all you can, I cant help it coz am black. Interestingly my middle name is Black and I love it…lol. Trust me dealing with such issues mentioned by others above is so sensitive and a hard battle to fight. If only other people understand and leave others alone.

  82. Sawiya Ali
    London
    January 5, 10:51 am

    Hi, thank you for writing a great article. I am a student in my last year of University and I applied for a journalism internship in China. I’m quite nervous about going there because my Aunt told me she hardly saw any other black person there too.

    I’m black PLUS I’m a Muslim woman too. So I’m nervous about how people will look at me, or even, take pictures. I wear a headscarf too. Besides all the attention, would you recommend it? I’m pretty sure Chinese people are not rude at all. But since I am going by myself for a few months, I need to know whether it will be worth it.

    :)

  83. BartholomewXV
    Guilin
    January 27, 2:09 am

    I have been living in China since 2008. Every now and then I google “black in China” to see what comes up. Usually it’s after I’ve had a bad couple days due to the color of my skin, and I read other people’s stories. Yangshuo is a county of Guilin, and it has a very good Chinese language school (Chinese Language Institute) that is run by two American brothers.

    It’s probably too much to type on here, but if you would like to know another story (mine) you can email me.

  84. LavC
    Pittsburgh
    January 31, 9:22 am

    Wow. I am kind of upset that I have only read this after my study abroad trip in China. Went through the same celebrity status and was asked for a while if I was fei-guo ren (african) and would get a slightly dissapointed look when I told them I was meiguo ren. I made the mistake of getting extension braids to try and not have to fuss with my hair a lot. My group stayed in Beijing most of the time and it was the older women approaching me from behind touching the braids.
    I didn’t quite mind the photos because I had a feeling it was just curiousity and a tourist momento for the people living outside major cities.
    One issue was with trying to take a picture in secret when it was no secret. Especially with a full-sized iPad in a restaurant or park. The tree I’m standing next to isn’t all that interesting, so I’m going to assume.
    The other moment of slight discomfort was with the true concept of skin color in a place where people try to stay light-skinned. I was in Xi’An on the city wall and I was approached for pictures with my Hispanic friend. This man was really excted along with his tour group, which I had gotten used to. He starts saying that he is from the country and that we are the same. “I have a black face and he has a black face. We are same. ” I immediately thought of the blackface stereotype and was about to argue but then I couldn’t. I didn’t know enough Chinese at the time to at least ask him to avoid the phrase in later encounters and that his skin is from the product of a hard work, so we are not completely the same.
    On a side note of that… I think I got some of the looks in Beijing because I refused to use a sun umbrella when walking around at all.
    Your article is very well thought out and I appreciate you sharing your experience.

  85. Dr. Ty Kelley
    Southern China
    February 16, 11:18 pm

    I live in China now for work. I’ve been here almost two months, and I am witness to your very truthful and well-written article.I am a tall and attractive woman (or at least I’ve been told), and I find the staring and whispering very unsettling. I found that hand-washing after restroom use is not a big issue here, so I would probably gag and die if people were touching me in such a manner, as with your family’s experience. Still, I am grateful for the ability and opportunity to travel and learn. More love and more life to you and your family!

  86. Adameka Lockhart
    Jacksonville, FL
    March 1, 2:12 pm

    Thank you for writing this article. I recently attended a function and shared that I would be traveling alone to China to celebrate my 40th. The first thing someone said to me was that I would be more of a tourist attraction than the sites. I laughed…thinking impossible…but I guess I was wrong.

    Thank you for opening my eyes to the realities of “traveling while black” in China. I’m natural with big hair and I’m tall as well. I feel more empowered because of this article…especially to say No when it comes to touching my hair and having unwanted pictures taken.

    Thank you!
    Adameka

  87. Grace
    United States
    March 4, 1:09 am

    Wow. Thanks for posting and thanks for all of those who commented. I actually searched and read this article about a month ago but just now read some of the comments. i made it through about 1/4 of them as there is an awesome amount here.

    I am traveling to China in just a few days and am so nervous. I am very excited but have not practiced phrases as much as i intended. I know that its not necessary but i want to know at least major greetings to show that i did try to learn some of the language. Complex is an understatement – Mandarin is amazing but it instantly wore me out.
    I’m certain i will have some similar occurrences as those mentioned of “outsiders”. I KNOW i can’t blend in but I’m hoping that it wont be as bad because i’ll be in Shanghai for a week. However I am black and i do have DREADLOCKS. This is going to be a hoot, I’m sure. Now I’m curious what would happen if i flashed some leg. hmm. Thank goodness i’m not tall!

    I am going to keep in mind a lot of the insight here. So many great, humbling outlooks here. And it’s hard to believe that this is current. As i scrolled though, i kept thinking, “2013, really?”. But i know it’s not by choice – so much is monitored there so how would they know, its just amazing the freedoms i take for granted.

  88. Donald
    United States
    March 21, 7:00 pm

    I have been to China and my picture taken in Beijing and Hong Kong. In Xian I stood on the busy sidewalk and thousands of people just pushed their way around me without a second look. However, a trip to northern western Idaho resulted in many more stares that I got in Xian or any other city in China. I am a dark skin male.

  89. Mhug
    USA
    March 23, 11:13 am

    I had the same experience in China. It was scary at first. People were more concerned with my (black female) than with what they came to see. People snapping pictures, standing behind me while others snapped pics. It was a really weird experience. I would never want to be a celebrity.

  90. Daniel Cooper
    April 3, 2:17 pm

    What an awe inspiring article man, on my blog:

    voyagetoasia.com

    I’m also targeting these beliefs that Chinese people or Asians in general hate blacks, I, as a student, have been to China namely for 2 semesters non-consecutively, and came in contact with Korea, Japanese, even Thai culture, and to this day, since I just returned 2 months ago, I’ve never been thrown a racist comment. I’m friendly yes, but China was one place, where they love you because your black, which isn’t negative, but lack of exposure. And lots and LOTS of pictures, I love what your doing man. And with my blog, I’m trying to do the same, I hope to bridge cultures and shatter sterotypes with my blog.

  91. stacie
    Ningbo, China
    April 11, 3:25 am

    I enjoyed your article very much and there are many things that I have also reflected on since living here. I have lived in China for 5 years, and currently, I am attending graduate school here. However, I find recently, that I am in a place where all of the “novelty” is wearing off. I used to take things in stride and be able to understand that I look different and find humor in all situations. However, after 5 years, and when you’re having a bad or sad day, and what you want is peace and the ability to be anonymous, all of the attention that you mention, becomes to feel like a form of abuse. Taking a walk in the park when you’re down in China is a wholly different experience than when you’re in your home country. You don’t want to be stared at, photographed, pointed at or even worse, hearing in Chinese, “black person, black person.” So, what I find used to mesmerize me about the culture and the people, on bad days, is and continues to be your worst nightmare. I appreciate your article. It illuminates so much. Frame of mind is important as is perspective.

  92. Phranciz
    Hunan
    April 12, 1:31 am

    Nice article! China is truly a beautiful place and Chinese people are some of the most friendly but inquisitive people. I’ve been living in for a few years now so I can relate to all the write said. I get starred at every where I go here. It doesn’t matter how many donkey years I’ve been here for. One time on the train from Guangzhou to Hunan a man walked up to me and asked in Chinese why I was black and why my hair was different to theirs? He reached out his hand and felt my hair without my permission. I felt slightly offended but kept my cool because I knew he was genuinely curious about me. He called me an Africa which was correct. I kept smiling dryly and didn’t say a word even though I could speak Chinese. Another time I set across from a racist lady on the train to Hunan from Guangzhou. She said she didn’t like black people, said we smelt bad, said we were poor, uneducated, unruly, lazy and thieves. She berated me my clothes, the perfume I was wearing (Cool Water by David Doff) ,the way I looked even though I was smartly dressed and had on a good pair of ecco shoes. She called me ‘hei gue (black devil). Unbeknownst to her i understood all she said. I was angry as hell but somehow I managed to remain calm as though I didn’t understand a bit of what she said. When the train pulled up at Shaoguan station, I got a call from a Chinese of mine from Chenzhou city who didn’t speak much English so i was forced to converse with him in Chinese. The moment I spoke Chinese a deafening silence descended on cabin. It was as though time had frozen over! The racist lady’s jaws dropped to the ground and her face turned red with embarrassment! I looked at her and asked her in flawless Mandarin if she knew me from somewhere. She said she didn’t know I understood Chinese and began to unabashedly apologize while weeping like a child. It was the worst racist experience I’ve had in China. I’ve learned to enjoy my stay here and not allow a few racist people ruin the fun. China is a country with about 1.37 billion people and an overwhelming number of them are very friendly.

  93. jess
    brussels, Belgium
    May 7, 5:34 am

    hello!!!
    really enjoyed reading your article.
    and to be frank, that’s the exact experience i had when we (my bf and i) went to china!!!!we went to guangzhou, shanghai and HK. also, my bf is half japanese/half south korean so people were even more surprised to see such a combo, lol!!! they were all staring!!! and men can be proper pervs!!!sorry but i had to say it!!!!
    people were even speaking chinese to my bf and he doesnt understand a word!!!!
    i didnt mind all the pics taken (my cousin who went there warned me about it) so i was just ignoring them. it was kind of funny!yet, sometimes it was my bf who was getting annoyed with people staring!!!
    i knew going there that i would be some kind of attraction!it happens in many countries (white people in africa or even black people in south americe in remote places).
    it’s an experience…and we really enjoyed our stay!!!looking forward on going back there!!!!
    people were nice and i had no racist episode (thank God)…they were staring, taking pics…the children were so adorable, smiling and waving at me…that kind of feeling is really heartwarming!!!a child’s smile can brighten your day!!!
    everytime we saw children…all smiling and waving at me…i felt special and like i said, they just brightened my day!!!!
    so there are racists everywhere and too bad for them, they’re just being ignorant and missing a lot of culture exchange, etc…my next travel in asia, will be in south korea with my bf!!!can’t wait!!!
    and thanks again for having shared your experience!!!enjoy all your travellings in the world!!!

  94. Paula Woods
    United States
    May 7, 10:59 pm

    Omg! This article was dead on and I went in 2000. I was only there 10 days but had the exact same experience. I’m a teacher now and I always joke with my students that I’m pretty sure I was on the cover of Time: China Edition. :) While at times stressful, I wouldn’t trade the experience at all and it has allowed me to connect with my large population of Asian students. Oh, and I saw one other Black person in the time I was there.

  95. Ginny
    Sault Ste. Marie
    May 26, 4:15 pm

    When I was in Asia I could tell people were looking at me because I am the 1st person in my family to be born Aisan but with blond hair so I had my picture taken a lot