Being Black in China

Scholar Tony Reyes writes about the experiences of African American travelers as they pass through China. His site, Black Life China, offers many interesting perspectives on what it feels like to navigate this racially homogeneous country as an African American. In many aspects, African Americans who travel in this country are markedly different from the natives–racially, culturally, linguistically–and Reyes explores this experience through the eyes of the travelers as they encounter these differences. What does it mean to be a visible stranger in this strange land?

While many of these Podcasts are extremely interesting and worth a listen, I do have to brag about the February 6th Podcast in particular. Reyes interviews several African American travelers who came to China for very different reasons, and he questions how their varied experiences compare and contrast. One of the interviewees, Martinelle Allen, is one of my best friends. Not only is she a singularly gifted person, she is also an inspiring educator and one of the bravest and most talented people I know. Unlike most of us, Martinelle doesn’t long for the comfort of the familiar. She seeks a life of purpose, meaning, and above all, exploration. And that is what led her to China.

I met Martinelle when we entered graduate school at the same time. I have no idea what she saw in me, but Martinelle quickly became one of the most fascinating people I have ever known. We had endless conversations about all sorts of things, she pushed me to do things that I would normally be terrified to try (like taking the metro in DC, or going to meet the Poet Laureate), and she became a person that I greatly respect and admire. So much of the person I am today and hope to be in the future is wrapped up in the wonderful person that she is and inspires me to be.

Martinelle believes in pushing past her personal comfort zone in order to better herself as a human being. She loves to learn about others–their lives, cultures, etc. But one of the best things about her is that in addition to a love of learning, she also loves to teach. I don’t just mean in the sense that she’s an educator (which, she is), I also mean that she never refuses an opportunity to share her experiences with the world. People like Martinelle are the ones who will make a difference in the world because rather than hiding behind fear and misunderstanding, she seeks to break down whatever barriers she can by educating those around her. Even if it means shouldering the thankless and often frustrating duty of educating others on what it means to be an amazing person who, by the way, happens to also be a Black American female scholar, she believes that every one of these conversations is an opportunity to educate someone, who will pass that along, and hopefully someday we will all live in a much better world.

I remember as our last year of graduate school was drawing to a close, Martinelle and I were both slightly panicking about our thesis defenses when she told me that she would be moving to China to continue her teaching career. To a person like me who has panic attacks about going to the grocery store (let’s just say I’m not a “people person”), this was a terrifying suggestion. I had all sorts of thoughts–worries really–about what would happen to her. How can I protect her from all the bad people in China? From the misogynist men who will definitely try to steal her because a.) she is ridiculously intelligent and b.) she is a total babe and c.) because I watched a documentary that single women are often kidnapped and forced to marry single men because of the lack of women (since those awful Chinese people throw baby girls in dumpsters, right?). Who will shield her from the awful racist Chinese people who have probably never seen a beautiful Black woman and will be mean to her and make her feel bad about who she is? What about the crazy squatting toilets and the illiteracy and the millions of other (mostly untrue) crazy scenarios about China that I made up in my head out of fear and ignorance?

All of this happened in my brain for a few seconds before I remembered that my best friend is probably one of the most capable, self-reliant people I have ever known, and that unlike me, she would be perfectly capable of being dropped into the middle of a city where she knows nobody, doesn’t speak the language, and has to navigate a huge city by herself. She’s also probably the last person who needs to be protected from anything. The reason she is capable of doing this is, oh yes, because she spent her entire life as a beautiful Black woman living in a city full of plenty of weirdos, racists, and cretans right here in the USA. Of course there’s a language barrier, but that’s no sweat when you’re a super woman like her.

While I’m sure she wouldn’t say it has always been easy adjusting to life in China, I know for a fact that Martinelle has been having a blast experiencing a completely foreign culture, and while she does experience a lot of curiosity regarding her race, she views this curiosity as an opportunity to educate the Chinese about Americans when they may have otherwise not had the chance. Every one of these encounters narrows that cultural gap that exists between “us and them” throughout the world, and I have no doubt that she will spend her life doing this because it brings her true joy. And for that I will always admire her.

I don’t want to spoil too much (listen to the Podcast!) but Martinelle does discuss her perspective on being a foreigner in China, and it is definitely worth a listen. I can’t wait to see what Martinelle chooses to do next, and every day I feel blessed that I get to be inspired by her. Enjoy the Podcast!


About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
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