(Photo: Sid Lipsey)
“You’re going to China? Prepare to get stared at!”
That’s the reaction I got from a fellow travel writer who’d just learned that my next overseas trip was to Shanghai. It would be my first trip to China’s largest city and I was wondering why my friend thought I’d be stared at. Was it because I’m tall? Was my friend making a statement about my attractiveness level? Or maybe my friend thought the residents of Shanghai would be curious to gaze upon the one guy on the planet who admits to liking The Godfather Part III.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’d be stared at in China because I’m African-American.
My friend had a point. Many black tourists have reported attracting significant attention when visiting China. Fellow Yahoo Traveler Brittany Jones-Cooper once wrote about her own experience in Shanghai, which she says was mostly pleasant. But as an African-American woman, she got lots of stares — usually looks of benign or even pleasant curiosity, but sometimes “a look of confusion and slight disgust.” The phenomenon was explained to Brittany by her hotel doorman, who told her, “Most people here never leave their communities, so seeing a black person is extremely rare.”
Frankly, if you’re an African-American travel writer, you’re probably used to being “the only one around.” You’re going to be traveling to areas where very few, if any, people look like you; that’s just the nature of the business.
Fortunately, I’ve never had a problem with that. I’m often the odd man out, even in nonracial travel matters. Just recently, on a nearly-empty 12-hour flight, I was the only one who didn’t move to the empty seats in the back of business class to escape the crying baby at the front of the plane. That’s gotta be more rare than being black in Shanghai.
Shanghai: There was a small chance I’d stick out here. (Photo: iStock)
Still, I had to admit, Brittany’s experience and the other accounts I’ve read — some positive, some negative — about being black in China piqued my curiosity about what I would experience during my own trip. Would I, as my friend predicted, be stared at openly? Would locals who may harbor negative views of black men treat me differently, or even badly? Was I going on vacation or was I going on display? And if I was going on display, should I at least get a haircut before I leave?
The issue came up when I told my mother about my upcoming trip. “Be sure to wear a mask,” she told me, obviously having heard about China’s notorious air pollution problems.
“Um, I don’t know if the sight of a 6-foot-2-inch black man wearing a mask would go over well in China,” I joked. My line had the desired effect: Mom never brought up the mask issue again (when it comes to protecting my strict fashion sense, or gently deflecting advice from my loving parents, I am not above playing the race card).
As the trip edged closer, I started thinking about the only way I’d experienced Shanghai thus far: the movies. I remembered in Mission: Impossible III, Ving Rhames seemed to encounter zero problems as a black man traipsing around Shanghai — other than, of course, the bad guys trying to kill him and Tom Cruise. Maybe the locals had seen him as the fearsome Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction and decided not to mess with him. (Does “I’ma get medieval on your ass” translate into Mandarin?) Either way, I thought if Ving could manage a (relatively) incident-free trip to Shanghai, I could too.
No one messed with Ving Rhames’ character when he went to Shanghai in “Mission: Impossible III,” even though Tom Cruise was with him. (Photo: AP)
When I finally got to China, I found everyone extremely welcoming. The first thing that struck me was how before I’d even opened my mouth to speak, everyone I met — from the driver who picked me up at the airport to the people I rode in hotel elevators with — seemed to immediately peg me as an American. Perhaps they don’t get many Africans, European blacks, or black Latinos there, so “American” was the default. Or maybe I was outed as a Yank because word got out that it took me 10 minutes to figure out the electronic bidet in my hotel bathroom.
That evening, as I strolled through Shanghai’s bustling Xintiandi district, I didn’t have Brittany’s experience — no crowd gathered to pose for photos with me. I did, however, get some attention from the young women who hung out around the streets surrounding my hotel. As I walked by, these ladies — sometimes in pairs and sometimes alone — would go to great lengths to get my attention. I usually kept walking. But on one occasion, a pretty 20-something stepped in front of me and said in halting English, “You’re a sweet dark.”
That one stopped me in my tracks. I haven’t been single in a long time, so I’m not used to such a forward greeting. She obviously meant it to be a compliment, and I took it as such.
“Thank you,” I said. Then, the journalist in me wanted to interview her about her “sweet dark” comment:
Do you see a lot of black men in Shanghai?
Are African-Americans generally welcomed here?
Have you seen Pulp Fiction?
But then I figured she probably didn’t start talking to me to initiate a cultural exchange. So I moved on. “Have a good night,” I said and continued on my way, laughing to myself that being black in China had so far led me to get tagged with a name that sounds like a 1970s porn star: Sweet Dark Goes to China: Putting the ‘Shag’ in ‘Shanghai.’
Me at afternoon tea in the The Langham, Shanghai, Xintiandi hotel. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a “sweet dark” blend. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
The next day, the moment I’d been told about finally came to be: I got mobbed by curious passers-by. It happened as I was exploring the Bund. I was about to cross the street to the riverside promenade when a group of guys approached me; one held up his phone and said, “Picture?” He then put his arm around me and snapped a selfie. Afterwards, someone else in his crew did the same. Then another. And so on. …
Soon, other people on the street — men and women, young and old — joined in to snap pictures with me. While I was walking down the street unmolested before, I was now the center of attention. It was as if I’d was the target of a Chinese flash mob. Maybe a social media blast had gone out: “BLACK MAN AT THE BUND AT NOON!”
One of several people in Shanghai who stopped me to take a photo. Not since perhaps my first baby picture had anyone been so excited about a photo of me. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Person after person stepped up to snap a selfie with me, as if I were some celebrity. I found myself wondering if they thought I really was famous and, if so, who they thought I was. Maybe Idris Elba? (that noise you’re hearing right now is the distant sound of my wife doubled over laughing).
After a few selfies, though, I decided to dispense with the “hows” and “whys” and just go with what was one of the more interesting travel experiences of my career. I eventually pulled out my camera and started snapping my own selfies with my new fans. Everyone was friendly, and the whole experience was remarkably pleasant. Maybe if I had to deal with it every minute of every day, I’d be going all Kanye West on them. But spending 20 minutes as paparazzi bait was a blast.
Another adoring fan. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
And it was educational. It reminded me why I love travel. Because now, my impressions of a country, a city and its people are no longer informed by any articles I’d read, rumors I’d heard or experiences shared by friends. I now have my own experience from which to draw. An admittedly incomplete experience, yes, but it’s still my own. And I learned that, yes, being black in China can draw attention to yourself. But as I was told during my trip, so does being blonde in China. Or tall. Or anything that attracts the curiosity of someone who is open to experiencing and learning about different things. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I don’t know what’s the more rare sight: an African-American in Shanghai, or a guy with the Oriental Pearl Tower sticking out of the top of his head. Probably the former. … (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
So I’ve resolved that, in all my future travels, if I’m charged with the task of satisfying someone’s curiosity or with making them perhaps a little bit more educated and a little less prejudiced, I should embrace that role. I should also embrace the opportunity to learn something myself. I plan to do just that on every future trip, whether I’m “the only one around” or not.
But for now, I’m going to see if the Twitter handle “@SweetDark” is available.