The ‘Real’ China

I’ve been studying at Shantou University in Shantou, Guangdong, China, for a month, and I’m still discovering the “real” China.

It’s unnerving to walk to class and have people openly staring, pointing and saying “Wàiguó rén,” which means “foreigner” in Mandarin Chinese. The fact that I’m 5’8″ (which, by Chinese standards, is very tall) and African-American only makes me more of a novelty.

I’m usually greeted with two reactions. One is curiosity; little kids run up to me to touch my hair or rub my skin and ask if my hair (which is in braids) grew out of my head this way. The other is subtle wariness. People will look puzzled, stare for a moment, then pull their children or purses a little closer, as if to protect themselves from the foreigner.

Nothing draws more surprise, however, than when I speak (or attempt to speak) Mandarin. I’ll say, “Ni hao” (hello), “Wo bu yao” (I don’t want) or “Wo shi mei guo ren” (I’m an American) and get shouts of amusement.

The biggest culture shock for me was the impression most Chinese have of Americans. One of my classmates eagerly asked me if it’s true that most American college students work as prostitutes to pay for school. Another told me she was shocked when I arrived for a group meeting early with the assignment finished because I’m American and most Americans don’t work very hard.

I know what you’re thinking, but it’s fruitless to get offended because most people I interact with have never met a foreigner before, let alone a black foreigner. Their impressions of Americans come from popular movies and TV shows like “Gossip Girl” and “Sex and the City.” I consider myself not just an exchange student, but also an ambassador. It sounds pretentious, but I realize many students will judge all African-Americans based on their experiences with me. So I’m determined to make them positive experiences.

Anyone who has taken Professor Joe Ritchie’s colloquium class at FAMU has probably seen the video of first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at Howard University calling for minority students to study abroad, particularly in China. At first, I didn’t’ understand why it was so important. I’ve visited China before with the Center for Global Security and International Affairs in July 2011, and while the experience was amazing, everyday life in modern progressive China is completely different from life in “small-town” China, or, as my professor Peter Herford calls it, the “real” China.

Living in Shantou, a “small town” of six million people, and interacting with Chinese students, professors, migrant workers and children who are more isolated from the Western world than cities like Beijing or Shanghai, has put everything our first lady said into context. “Studying in countries like China isn’t only about your prospects in the global marketplace,” she said.

“It’s about the friendships you make, the bonds of trust you establish and the image of America that you project to the rest of the world.”