Being abroad in China has taught me so many things about myself. I am a Black male from America, a first-generation college student raised in a middle class, mixed family. This may not seem important, but the diversity in my family is something many Chinese did not understand, and often caused a lot of confusion.
Living in China as a Black male has been humbling and overwhelming. All I know about my African heritage is traced from the Middle Passage from West African to the United States, so the term African, or even African-American, has always been a difficult for me to understand. I usually just say I am Black, but I know I am not a color. I am person just like you. I am not African; I am a Black African-American. I assume the term African-American is not commonly used in China, because most people I interacted with assumed I was from Africa. Once I could tell them in my messy Mandarin that I was not African, most people were surprised to know I was an American and spoke Mandarin.
This experience has been an honor because I represent Black African-Americans while I’m in China. I am grateful that I can potentially change perceptions of Black people. Black men are not always represented well in the media; however, I know that I should not feel like I am representing all people who look like me.
I express my love and respect for my Black and African ancestors that were in America during more difficult times through my hairstyles. This may seem odd, but my hair is the only thing that I have full control over, and it gives me confidence and reminds to be myself.
Being in China with a natural curly Afro has been interesting. Often, I hear people say things like, “Is that his real hair? Does it grow that way? It looks weird. I want to touch it.” Some have touched it—awkward!
At first, it was very difficult to have people constantly asking me if my hair was real, but then I began to understand they were just curious because my hair is new to them. This has made me realize how beautiful and difficult it is to be yourself, and I am very grateful to be here. Some days are hard, but I know I am going to look back at this time in my life and remember how I was able to conquer new challenges in a different language, culture, and country.
Justin S.-W. (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), IFSA Study in Shanghai: Public Health