At a going away party of yet another Beijing friend and fixture in the Black, African community, I bumped into a fellow Kenyan who I had never met before. This isn’t anything strange. The joke goes that there are two types of Kenyans abroad – those who stick together and those who mind their business. We both were apparently the latter. As we got to know each other, I found out that she had been in China twice as long as I. Even through the effervescence of meeting a kindred spirit, we couldn’t escape talk of the frustrations that come with being an African abroad.
It was yet another reminder of why so many of us choose not to return home while, in some ways, live in dread of our present circumstances, exacerbated by the local environment and culture, the international community we choose to surround ourselves with, and our country’s officials in our new homes abroad who trail along with them to their foreign postings the toxicity of bureaucratic processes back home.
My experience with such toxicity was chasing after a passport renewal for nearly four years, while hers was nearly being blocked from marrying the love of her life on foreign soil because of a refusal by the embassy to issue her with required documents. I eventually got my passport through the intervention of a well-meaning staffer at the embassy, as she did her document through the same means. That as a citizen a sovereign nation doesn’t guarantee you service delivery at one of the most prominent postings abroad is a shocking indictment unto itself.
Such scenarios, however, are hardly confined to my embassy. Oftentimes when Africans converge on nights out, it is to decry the state of affairs in their embassies. From a reticence in passport renewals; to convoluted processes for the simplest of tasks; to having to grease a few wheels to set in motion said processes, it is a lamentation fest. On occasion, one will spot an African in distress in Black and African WeChat groups through a request for a contact at a certain embassy of which they are a citizen.
One would think that simply showing up with proof of citizenship would be enough, but stories of people being turned away because they “didn’t make an appointment” by their own embassies are rife in China. So while we commune with our American, European, Canadian, and South American Black brothers and sisters, we are also reminded of the stark contrast between our lived experiences as their embassies create channels for service delivery ease, host culturally-relevant events as did the American Embassy to commemorate Juneteenth, and affirm their humanity regardless of sexuality as did many embassies brandishing the Pride flag in the month of June along with their hosting of various pride events.
Us vs. Them?
Distinctions between the Black Western and Black African experience go far beyond mistreatment at embassies, especially in a country like China, and lead down the road of opportunities often granted or denied to Black people in the country. The fortunes of our Black Caribbean counterparts are often a mixed bag, as depending upon where one comes from in the region, you are likely to be treated akin to ‘proper’ Western Blacks or far more like one’s ‘poor African relations’.
There are often conversations about how many qualified Black professionals especially in the education sector are passed over for jobs or summarily dismissed, not because of their perceived inability to deliver, but because of Blackness’ undesirability in China. But during such conversations, Black Africans often remain silent, only offering words of encouragement while remaining fully cognizant that they wouldn’t even be allowed an opportunity to apply or showcase their skills, let alone be passed over for a more superficially desirable candidate, no matter how qualified they are, because they fail to fit into the very narrow category of what China has termed “Native English Speaking Countries” consisting of seven majority White countries, with the exception of one – South Africa.
Even with this distinction, Black South Africans aren’t all that much better placed than other African nationals as they often face the brunt of racism fueled by nationalism in professional spaces, and see salaries offered to be far lower than those offered even to their White compatriots. All of these disparities create one clear distinction within the Black community – Blackness is undesirable but your nationality can be your saving grace, a much-needed social buffer, and a financial safe harbor.
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Black Labor and Luxury
Living in a world constantly blaring the message of your undesirability in no uncertain terms, whether covertly or in publicized public opinion forces one to recalibrate one’s image in order to fit in, giving rise to corrective promotion – the performance of respectability and wealth that has long haunted Black people across the world in their fight for equality and acceptance. Black people in China have been coopted into presenting aspirational images and the illusion of what we could achieve if we give up on a life of struggle.
A life of struggle, however, is an inherent part of life as a Black expat in China with the exception of a few individuals who have enough social currency to grant them access similar enough to that enjoyed by their White counterparts. Be they graduates from elite schools in North America and Europe, or diplomats. For the average Black person, while striving to put on a production of a life of carefree abundance, what is backstage is a life of anxiety over the availability of career opportunities and possible advancements; fair remuneration according to market and White standards; images and narratives that perpetuate the myth of Black inefficacy and being underserving and undesirable; and an ever-looming fear of failure that would trigger the slippery slope down toward shame and a sense of worthlessness.
Such fear of failure is arguably even more pronounced among Black Africans, who face the unthinkable possibility of returning home empty-handed – the harshest consequence of failure. Similar to their other Black counterparts from across the globe, Black Africans are likely the financial safety nets of their families that lack generational wealth, as they are likely the first to attain a college education and the first to legally immigrate to a foreign country where they have lived long-term. Many Black Africans however, lack social security nets like national insurance and unemployment benefits handy should they need help if they fail, raising the stakes for why success, both actual and perceived, is paramount.
It is also true that many within the Black community face mental health challenges that either go undiagnosed or untreated because of a lack of mental health support as a whole within China’s borders, but also the coopting of mental health as the right and mainstay of White expats who not only openly and loudly discuss their mental health struggles, but have the financial means and social support to seek help, and from professionals of their own race and from similar social backgrounds who are far more likely to better understand their plight and meet them at their various points of need. Never more are the words from renowned Queer feminist author, Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” truer than in this Black-in-China context.
Escapism is expensive
Attaining signifiers of wealth in a society that values such signifiers as China is made easier by online shopping apps. Taobao alone is a rich source of any form of costume necessary to telegraph the world that “I am not your average Black”. Consumerism, the procurement, and the performance of luxury become the next logical step in a world where respect and an acknowledgment of one’s humanity aren’t so easily granted. Many within both the Black Western and Black African communities struggle to better conditions for Black people within China through advocacy, the raising of awareness of the Black condition in the country, and even by growing their public presence, be it by appearing on national television shows as panelists or increasing Black visibility on social media apps like Douyin – the Chinese version of Tiktok.
After facing public and racial abuse, or being trolled on social media platforms by a decidedly anti-Black faction of Chinese social media users vocal about their disdain for Black and especially African people, such activists feel like they’re swimming against a massive, dynamic cultural tide, they simply just give up, choosing instead to deal with and move within the country and social spaces therein superficially, choosing to buy comfort, rather than being enjoined in the never-ending struggle afforded to them by our race. It is important to note that Black people as a whole are not allowed by this society to live their “best lives” on their own terms. A quiet life is scoffed at, and an ostentatious life is scorned. One can neither be loud nor quiet, so there is a fine balancing act between speaking when spoken to and having the courage to remain silent when one doesn’t feel the need to respond.
Black American finance coach Lynnette Khalfani-Cox wrote on the topic of Black Tax and how it affects Black American communities for Vox news, stating, “For African Americans like me, systemic inequities and generations of poverty can make it seem like whatever you’ve done is never enough, especially when you know you’ll have to help support relatives or make contingency plans for any number of scenarios out of your control.” The idea of saving for a rainy day is especially ingrained in the Black diaspora that is constantly reminded of disparities back home, be they racial inequalities or inept socio-political systems that make wealth-building difficult. These concerns however are at loggerheads with the need for corrective promotion – the need to present a more aspirational image of oneself to the larger, more dismissive society.
This is achieved by buying into consumerism which is made easy in China by way of convenient online shopping, and a general “keeping up with the Jones” attitude, where Black and African people often emulate the lives lived by their wealthier Chinese and White counterparts, including taking expensive trips, maintaining an often expensive social and nightlife, keeping up with fashion and beauty trends, and living in the right but pricey parts of their city.
It further perpetuates the notion of Black excellence which is all but expected in China, from prospective employers who demand proof of worthiness from Black employees to outweigh the possible “risk” of hiring a racialized person; to almost imperceptible macroaggressions from one’s Chinese or non-Black counterparts when complimenting one’s intelligence, eloquence, insight, fashion sense, or general knowledge which should reflect more on the complimenter’s ignorance but that fact is often ignored; to the pressures of finding medical, financial, and housing services while Black and the fear of offhand rejection on account of one’s race.
When Black, one feels the overwhelming and often necessary need to walk furnished in outward proof of uniqueness and excellence, to telegraph to the rest of the non-Black world “I am not like the others. I am different. I am unique. I am worth your time.” And in doing so, one finds oneself in a precarious financial situation, using the same funds and opportunities so hard won, to gain and maintain respect that is rarely forthcoming; an investment of diminishing returns.
Is Brotherhood Enough?
As summer rolls on and travel restrictions within China loosen, it is clear to see from Instagram posts that there is one group glaringly missing from the “Live, Laugh, Love,” sunset on the beach, colorful drinks at the tiki bar photos on my timeline – the Black Africans. The simple explanation is, that many of those who are lucky enough to find work in this country, often work low-paying, long-hour, no-holiday jobs. Some will even juggle two to three to make ends meet. And regardless of earnings at work, Black tax must always be paid – the repatriation of funds to families in need, be they aging relatives trying to seek medical attention in countries with crumbling social and healthcare infrastructure, or younger dependents who can now be afforded better opportunities through contributions from their older siblings or uncles and aunties abroad. This is hardly the preserve of Africans in China, but oftentimes than not, due to the advantages afforded by their nationalities, and the opportunities granted, Black Westerners tend to have more to spare than do Africans in the same predicament.
Conversations about access within these groups of Black expats abroad are usually handled callously, with talk turning to the alleged unwillingness of African members to participate in often expensive luxury excursions without the acknowledgment of the massive socio-economic and financial gap that exists between Africans and non-African nationals. This, amid the new social wave of individuals predominantly from countries with social welfare systems giving up work altogether in what has been dubbed the Great Resignation movement, better known on social media sites as “I don’t dream of labor.” Black Africans are reminded that we have no choice but to dream of labor if only to create financial and social buffers for when we ultimately age out of labor markets in our adoptive country and have to return home or move on to yet another country, and financial obligations back home are unremitting, only growing with the passage of time.
For Queer Black Africans, it is even more of a stark reminder of realities that await us back home, as we see our Black Western counterparts plan their departures back to countries of relative security as compared to our own, where they are free to live and love, despite racial challenges they may face. The choices afforded to many of us are either to remain a student for life or hope that another foreigner from a more desirable country will take a fancy to us, ‘taking us home’ if you will, and saving you from a shifting sands existence of being Black and Queer in a country like China.
This is a country that affords grace by race, and even though that is an uncomfortable fact for many locals and White expats to acknowledge and accept, it is simply the lived experience of those who sigh at the sight of yet another job advertising a preference for “White, blonde, Western Europeans,” but it is also a world in which exposés about the exploitation of African children for the entertainment of the masses in China, and the mistreatment of African nationals especially in cities like Guangzhou during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous.
Blackness is a reality that many cannot escape especially in a world such as this, but there are currencies one can use to ease one’s passage through the society which, sadly, many Black Africans don’t have. So even though an acknowledgment of the Black experiences and its challenges is important and valid, an acknowledgment of inequality within the Black community and how it impacts those on the lowest rungs of this group is equally needed, however uncomfortable it might be for some.
We are not the same, it is not okay, but we can try to bridge the gap.
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