Differences that matter

By Christopher Williams

Each time that I visit the States, people ask me: “What is it like being a Black man in China compared to the USA?” My response is that it is very different for many reasons. I stress that if the social conditions were similar to the USA; there would be no reason for me to reside in China for over a decade. For example, if I had to endure the arbitrary and capricious harassment by the Chinese police for simply leaving my home and walking down the street, I would have left many years ago.

About four weeks after returning to China from the USA, the answer to this persistent question revealed itself to me. The truth appeared naturally, as bright as the morning sun piercing through the curtains. As I laid there before rising to begin another day, I admitted to myself that there is a huge difference waking up in a society where you do not feel that you have a gun pointed at your head or a knife aimed at your nuts, literally or figuratively. These are the fundamental differences between China and the USA that matter to me. These differences are as wide and as deep as the Pacific Ocean.

Consequently, when I walk along China’s streets, I do not feel that people are threatened or apprehensive by my presence. This does not mean that people do not stare at me because I am foreigner. On the contrary, people stare at me often, especially in places where locals do not expect to see any foreigners, African, European or otherwise. I am use to it now. Yet behind these stares and glances, I do not detect malice, hatred or contempt for my humanity. The vibrant colors of my skin, the helix coils of my hair, make me a foreigner, an outsider. Eventually when our eyes do meet, my difference does not disqualify me from being a human being.

A routine trip to a local market illustrates how natural mutual respect can be. I recall going to buy some vegetables a few days after getting my hair braided. The woman who I usually buy my produce from complimented me on new hair style, describing it as handsome. She asked me how long it took to complete. Inquiring further, she asked me if I braided it myself, and if not, where did get it done. I told her that it took about an hour and a half. She was not alone in her compliments or curiosity.

My experience does not mean that China is a utopia or that Chinese people do not express prejudice or bigoted attitudes towards Africans or other foreigners. Rather my encounters have taught me that being African does not appear to register in the Chinese psyche or its social consciousness, in the same way it may in European or Anglo American mind. These are the differences that matter, differences that have reshaped my life.

Throughout my China sojourn, I have never felt that I have a target on my back. Whether standing on the Great Wall or elsewhere across this sprawling land, my manhood is not under constant physical and spiritual attack. Chinese people usually see me as another African and I can live comfortably and in peace with that reality. To reside in the castle of one’s own skin means that eventually you can find freedom.