Black in China

Latitude News Podcast #3 - An African American "integrates" into Chinese culture  

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

Jo Bai poses with fellow English teachers in Yuyao, China.

Strolling through her neighborhood in the city of Yuyao, Zhejiang province, China, Jo Bai points out her favorite haunts.

Of the people who run the local convenience store: “I call them my Chinese mom and Chinese dad, because they’re so kind to me.”

Of the local podiatrist who once treated her toe: “He asked me, ‘Why don’t we be friends?’ After that…I didn’t have to pay anymore!”

Outside her apartment complex: “That’s the security guy. He doesn’t know any English, but he tries.”

As she walks, she talks—a lot—to friends, to acquaintances, to people she’s never met before. Jo is gregarious and does not shy away from strangers. Then again, when you get as much attention as Jo Bai does, it’s hard not to start conversations.

To be black in Yuyao, China—an up-and-coming industrial city about two hours south of Shanghai—is noteworthy.

But Jo is also persistent, not one to back down from a challenge, as you can see from her blog Life Behind the Wall: Thoughts and Experiences of a Black American Woman in China. After living in Yuyao for almost five years, she’s become a sort of ambassador, exposing Americans to China through her blog, and exposing Chinese to Americans through the sheer force of her personality.

Starting over

When the Great Recession hit, Jo was completing a divorce. With grown kids and uncertain job prospects in Missouri, it only took her a week to decide to move to China to teach English.

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From day one, she received attention—positive and negative—because of her skin color.

Jo celebrated her 38th birthday in Yuyao. Her friends and coworkers were congratulatory, saying, “Happy Birthday!” and buying her presents. Most of the gifts, she recalls, contained whitening cream.

“They thought they were helping me,” she laughs. “I explained I didn’t want to look like Michael Jackson. I said this is my natural color and in many countries it’s considered beautiful. They were just like, ‘Really? You don’t want to change that?’”

Jo secured a job teaching English by avoiding the schools with “Whites Only” stipulation on their websites. She went through orientation in Shanghai, and was then told she’d be working in a small (one million people strong) city called Yuyao. Her not being white was a problem for the school in Yuyao, but, the administrators said, once they get to know you, they’ll like you!

“I was kind of scared to death,” she says. “But when I got there, they were very kind to me. They got me tea and said, ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Why is your skin this color?’ Things like that.”

Jo says Chinese are continuously surprised to hear she is a black American, not African. Having African Americans in the Olympics and the White House has helped. While she certainly doesn’t find all of these encounters endearing, she takes it in her stride.

“If [an American goes] to a Mexican restaurant, you want to see Mexican people cooking the food. It’s the same. I think they think if they go to a school and don’t see a blonde-haired, white-skinned person teaching the English, it’s not really English.”

Par for the course

Jo’s experience is indicative of the assumptions many blacks encounter in China, where dark skin has traditionally been associated with being a peasant and working the land.

The Tongji Bridge in Yuyao, China. (Credit/Daveswagon)

But the stereotypes are not entirely homegrown. As CNN reports, certain prejudices have been imported too. Africa is often portrayed as a helpless basket case in the press, while experts say Chinese intellectuals imported racist Western literature as early as the 1880s.

Of course, simple lack of exposure creates stereotypes as well. Most blacks in China are African, not African American, and they are concentrated in large cities. With its roughly one million residents, Yuyao is a small city by Chinese standards.

There are currently about 100,000 Americans, mostly Caucasian, living in China; many have moved from the U.S to take advantage of China’s national drive to learn English.

Jo’s blog started as a way of keeping her family and friends updated on her life. But she now has almost 1,000 subscribers—people from all over the world read it to get a sense of what it would be like to move to China. For her African American readers, Jo delivers a direct message.

“You have to come in and speak the language,” she says. “Try some of the different kinds of food. Be friendly. Smile at people. Do it or they’ll always think we’re the angry black people—carrying guns, shooting people and selling drugs—that they see on TV.”

“Always the foreigner”

Jo has felt more at home since she married a native Chinese. Of her husband, Michael, Jo says he’s “a little bit traditional, a little bit not traditional.” He’s a sales manager at a factory that makes, among other things, hula hoops. His main customer is the American discount store and Fortune 500 company Dollar Tree.

The happy couple, Jo and Michael Bai.

But the couple may face some big decisions in the future: Jo does not want to grow old in China. Her children are back in the U.S., and Michael is interested in moving to American with her. Ideally, they’d like to make their home in a city that is new to both of them, where they hope to open a traditional Chinese teashop.

In the meantime, Jo and Michael are ensconced in China. And even though she’s married to a Chinese, integrating has not been easy for Jo. Wherever she goes, people stare; they take photos of her and touch her skin, they follow her in the grocery store to see what kind of food she’ll eat. It grows tiresome.

“I don’t think you can ever be integrated into China unless you’re Chinese,” she says. “You’ll always be the foreigner. Maybe they like you, but you’re not one of them.”

She adds that when it comes to being African American in China, the second word carries far more weight than the first.

“You say you’re American and…things change. If I said I was British or Australian, it’s not the same reaction. ‘American’ is a big word.”