Translating Black Femaleness Through the Chinese Gaze Pt 2

While it is accepted that the experiences of a people in a society, whether good or bad, might be similar they are however never truly the same. The Black and African experience in China is no different, with many by and large admitting to having pleasant enough experiences in the country. It is however when unpleasantness rears its ugly head, that Black and African foreigners discover just how similar their experiences can be in as a homogenous a country. Those in the LGBTQI+ community further face a unique set of challenges, and Queer Black and African women in particular face more unique challenges still.

In the first installment of FemmeNoire, we explored the experience of an African American Queer woman living in China and what her experiences have been like in terms of pursing her identity and worth in this society through the Chinese gaze. In this next installment, we hear from two other Queer women living and working in China on how this same Chinese gaze continues to color and shape their lives in matters personal and social, despite living in different parts of the country.

These are their stories.

Sylvia. American. Lived for 2 years in China. English teacher based in Hangzhou

I think Black people are considered either to be curious things that need to be poked and prodded to determine their humanity or as wild animals that need to be contained. I only know China through the lens of the pandemic and the good experiences I’ve had with Chinese people only come from those who know me. The general public behaves as though I were Patient Zero in terms of COVID-19 and does their best to avoid me. I can say that my opinion of Chinese people is very low at the moment.

Line in the Sand

“It’s not an unkind thing to make a new home. And it will be one where all whom you love are welcomed.”
― Jewelle L. Gómez, The Gilda Stories

Chinese people also seem to think that Black people are extremely hyper-sexual basically because of stereotypes. I do have some dating websites here and inevitably, the question always arises – “Are blacks better at sex/have big penises?” In the beginning, I would always reply with questions such as “Does it make you feel inferior?” But now I just delete or block those who ask such questions and move on. But it does get tiring to get reduced to nothing more than your skin color. It’s draining to have people constantly stare at you like you’re an animal in a zoo. Maybe things were different before the virus but in my experience, the Chinese gaze on Black bodies is hostile and unwelcoming.

Boundaries

My personal experiences have been half good and half bad. Some Chinese people are understanding and try to be emphatic against the racism I experience here and some people react as if I were the one creating or causing the problem by not “understanding” Chinese culture. I push back on that because while I understand and appreciate cultural differences, treating me badly has nothing to do with culture, but a lack of it.

“I think the most important thing for you to do in the meantime is live. It is a very involving job, which takes much concentration and practice.”
― Jewelle L. Gomez, The Gilda Stories

Honestly, my reaction depends on how I’m feeling about the interaction. Because sometimes they are willing to listen and talk but other times they refuse to even consider how their behavior could be perceived as racist and negative.

Coming Home to Roost

In terms of a direct impact, I think it has made me warier of talking to Chinese people or considering a relationship with them. I don’t want to be thought of as the “Token Black Girl” or be their chance to “try” a Black person. So I’m more intentional about the conversations I have now and make sure I ask the tough and hard-hitting questions immediately so I don’t waste my time on people who aren’t serious.

“Ask yourself, does this person make me feel good about myself? Do I feel safe, strong and free with this person? Those are the questions you need to ask….You have to be strong to truly be open.”
― April Sinclair, I Left My Back Door Open

And, while I think that anyone who isn’t Chinese gets looked at funny here, White people have a considerable advantage because Chinese people think White is right. I’ve seen White foreigners get away with behaviors here that Black foreigners would probably be derided for.

Read More:

Ari. American. 29. Been in China for 4 years. English teacher based in Beijing.

Perspective

The presentation of Black bodies isn’t subtle. If it was, I wouldn’t be here discussing this with you. China is a homogenous country and unfortunately not used to things that are different or abstract like Black bodies. So, it comes from not just ignorance but curiosity which can be dangerous how others perceive and acknowledge the presentation of Black bodies.

“My life might not turn out to be easy I thought. I just hoped I’d turn out to be strong.”
― April Sinclair

In terms of the gaze, I will put more focus on female bodies because I am better placed to offer perspective from this angle given my own experience. I would describe the Chinese gaze as aggressive and transparent. Being stared at because you are different and aren’t the average face around China, isn’t something that will change overnight. That will take time, but being stared at in a way that makes you uncomfortable and feels unsafe is the negative notion of the Chinese gaze.

The Heart of the Matter

The gaze can be somewhat flattering, especially when first coming to China. All the attention and the photo-taking give you a sense of self-confidence. But then you realize it wasn’t actually what you thought it was. It was much more than that. It starts becoming more of an obsession of, “I want this girl because she looks shiny and new and I want her”, making you feel objectified or more like a sex object than just something beautiful and you want to take a second to admire. A women’s body is beautiful and something to admire but with a Black woman‘s body features being so noticeable to the point that others inadvertently stare, the gaze becomes too sexual, i.e. I want to touch and grab turning into sexual harassment. It happens in Didis (Chinese version of Uber), a security guard or just a strange4r passing you by and you feel the touch of their hands on your ass.

“Mama paused. “Sometimes, your soul looks back and wonders how you got over.”
― April Sinclair, Coffee Will Make You Black

My reaction to this has been confusion and caution. Not being able to express my concerns and avoid certain situations due to the huge gap of cultural differences and language barrier. I would just smile and walk away or say thank you because that’s all I could do.

Options

With dating in the States, you have far more diversity in terms of culture, race, and interaction. But in China, you are living in a place where there are various opportunities for financial advancement without necessarily being a place for the fruition of love. It can seem degrading to oneself. You have a whole country of women who share quite a few similarities in terms of their physical features – slim, petite, and pretty – so any deviation from this, looking “exotic” means your physique is the extreme opposite in a highly competitive dating “market”, vying for the attentions of the small percentage of foreigners and Chinese men looking for such connections.
In a word, dating feels unobtainable.

Living in China and dating is hard for all foreigners but even harder for a Black woman. Chinese men seem to just want the “Black experience” or even want you around as the token Black friend along with those from other cultures. So, you go on a date and now you’re thinking, “Do they like me for me, or do they just want the ‘Black experience’?” You develop skepticism about the people you meet or start dating, and then you just slowly give up on dating and are ready to go home and start over.

“I am not nostalgic. Belonging does not interest me. I had once thought that it did. Until I examined the underpinnings. One is mislead when one looks at the sails and majesty of tall ships instead of their cargo.”
― Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

Black and White

I would say there is a difference between the White and Chinese gaze on Black female bodies just because the Chinese gaze is more of ignorance and lack of exposure which tends to come off as racist and colorist but the White gaze most has the knowledge or has seen Black bodies but doesn’t come off as rude and not as transparent. The main similarities would be the “Black experience”, the “I’ve never had a Black girl before and I wanted to try it out”, the “I probably won’t date you or show you off to my friends or family but I can say I had (THE), experience.”

Photos: Unsplash

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