The last few days of my spring break were spent attempting to heal a small wound on the back of my foot and a large bruise on my heart.
A rock was chucked at me on 8th Avenue in Beijing, China, by a man who must have felt disrespected when I refused to take a photo with him. He had not understood that, in my eyes, he was the tourist and I was the zoo animal.
"Celebrity" was what my white classmates used to describe what I and other African American students must have looked like to the Chinese. But I felt far less than a celebrity and much more than just a foreigner. I was a victimized minority in a country besides my own.
We — 23 students and two professors from Central Connecticut State University — were all foreigners in China. None of us spoke Mandarin and most of us had never visited. We knew that students with blond or red hair, blue eyes or dark skin would stand out. Not one of us, however, was prepared for the awkward, outlandish and even sometimes entertaining havoc we encountered.
At Beijing International Airport, we attracted attention throughout the terminal. Some students were surrounded by curious stares while others were confined by vicious glares. I knew that though curious, Chinese people often were quite friendly. After we greeted staring crowds with "ni hao" (hello), their faces grew warm and excited. But without that acknowledgment, their body language said enough.
The behavior was more pronounced in Jinan, in Shandong province, south of Beijing, where tourists were few. Swarms of people twisted their necks and nearly walked into walls just to get a look at the Americans. Some took a particular interest in the blond-haired students and followed them closely, leaving no room for personal space.
The black students in the group were particularly singled out. Our fellow students might jokingly call us celebrities, but all I could think about when women shoved their children in front of me for a picture or men called over their friends to point and look at me was, "Is this the life of a celebrity? Or a monkey?"
I often confided in two of my black peers, one with skin much lighter than mine and one with skin much darker. It was interesting that the fairer-toned woman got far less attention. The darker-skinned woman's emotions mirrored mine. She felt pressured by other students to keep a positive attitude. (Our journalism professor, a middle-age African American woman, was rarely photographed and did not draw the same interest.)
By the fifth day, I had just about had it. At the National Museum of China, my picture was taken more than 12 times by Chinese men, women and children. It was as if our group was on display, with the four black female students as the main attractions. People followed me everywhere taking photos and snickering.
Standing among large crowds of Chinese made me uneasy and most times embarrassed. I felt like an intruder. I was overwhelmed by the staring people whose expressions seemed to ask not, "Who is that?" but, "What is that?" Outside of the innocent curiosity of some, I could only manage to see the prejudgments of others. To the Chinese, I was not a typical American. I was a stranger.
The alienated feelings finally spread as everyone grew annoyed by the number of disturbances during what were supposed to be undemanding and peaceful tours. Students began to realize the lack of diversity around us. The puzzled stares from onlookers prompted students of all races to comment on diversity as something that set us apart and also as a strength we have over China, its increasing economic power aside.
Rather than not meaning anything more than curiosity, the hickish antics we witnessed indicate a culture a long way from understanding how to interact across differences — a huge disadvantage when you're trying to be a major world player.
Aundrea Murray, 21, of Windsor, is a junior majoring in journalism at Central Connecticut State University.
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