Black & Tan: Reflections on Living as a Person of Color in Beijing

Black & Tan: Reflections on Living as a Person of Color in Beijing

I loved many aspects of living and working in China, however, being black in China was a complex experience. Each person you ask will have both similar and differing stories about their life as a person of color in Beijing, or any city for that matter. Given that Beijing is an international hub, there's maybe a bit less awkwardness around the topic of skin color, but in many other places across this vast country, the topic of black skin can be sensitive at best, and even a little hurtful at worst, albeit unintentionally. I say unintentionally because I don’t think that most locals mean to be offensive when talking about skin color, but conversations about opinions on black skin can quickly, well, get under one’s skin.

For me, it happens quite often, sometimes daily. But for some reason, it seems to happen more frequently in the summertime and watching people hide from the sun so they don’t 晒黑 shài hēi turn black, slowly eats away at me. In China, even if you are white, there’s a good chance you’ve been referred to as “black,” especially if you like the sun as much as I do. And even though the meaning of what the person might be trying to express is that you are tan – not black in the literal sense – as a person who is black, these fears of getting darkened skin can hit a nerve.

Usually, it's hearing things like, “I just hope I don’t turn black,” that can make a person who is black feel pretty out of place. Or sometimes it’s simply watching someone avoid the sun, terrified of taking on a slightly darker shade. Simply put, it makes me feel as though I'll never embody a notion of beauty that so many locals seek. Again, larger metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, and other international cities are more progressive and open-minded about this, but the Chinese sayings about white beauty definitely overshadow anything approximating sun-kissed skin. This concept of keeping skin creamy white usually comes from locals, but I think that same fear slowly seeps into all of us as we begin to realize just how much paler skin is adored here. And for those of us who have been raised to love the sun, enjoy the outdoors, and catching some rays, this fear of the sun is dangerously insidious.

I am originally from Newport Beach, California, and as a kid, I would literally spend every day on the beach with friends, and pretty much none of us thought about hiding from the sun. Our only thought was enjoying every minute of fun. Of course, I did have some fairer-skinned friends who always had to lather up with sunscreen, but this was more to protect from sunburns and other harmful effects, but never to keep from getting a tan. While back home so many try to get a perfect bronze glow, here in China many are trying to stay as pale as possible, even if that means enhancing their whiteness with creams and treatments.

In fact, during my time in China I quickly realized that I had to be careful of what I was putting on my skin – you would be surprised how many products have whitening cream. I totally get that whatever color we are, we must protect our skin from the sun's damaging rays, but I can also tell you that my melanin-rich skin is more naturally protected, and it feels odd to experience a subconscious fear of sunshine that I had never felt before.

In my opinion, skin color should not create so many assumptions. A person with black skin can be from almost anywhere in the world, and people with black skin are represented on every livable continent on the globe. Coming to China, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting and getting to know more African people from all around that enormous continent than anywhere else in the world, and most of these people hailing from the land where humanity originated are absolutely awesome people: warm, kind, caring, highly educated, well-studied, and most often speak a minimum of three languages, which is much more than most black Americans like myself can say.

More recently, I’ve been reflecting on how often people here assume that anyone who is black is from Africa. I also can’t tell you how often that person (usually taxi drivers) didn't believe it possible for me to be from America, because I am black. Usually, I ask them if they know a man named Barack Obama and am typically left with the person making a face as if they are trying to figure out a difficult math equation.

But wherever we are from, and whatever color we are, hopefully, we can try to learn and get to know more people who look different from ourselves, and leave behind assumptions, judgments, and preconceived ideas about some of the things that we think we know. The world is a beautiful place full of color, and whether we are in Beijing or anywhere else in the world, let’s continue working towards appreciating and understanding our similarities while getting over our differences.

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