I am a black African man, with a black skin, studying in China. I have been in this beautiful country since 2009. Well, being black in China causes a mixture of attitudes and feelings among Chinese. You see some staring at you with awe, not believing that what their eyes are seeing is a black person.
You see others, especially girls, with seemingly exaggerated excitement on their faces. Sometimes such girls, most of them pretty, will ask if they could take a photo with you. It is a request I grant most times, after which they giggle away, celebrating the just ended ‘life-time’ opportunity of seeing a black person in flesh. And as I wrote this article in MacDonald’s over a chicken burger and a coke, some three teen-age girls passing by beckoned one another’s attention to look at me, murmured things I couldn’t pick and chuckled away like some kindergarten kids.
Then there are some Chinese, mostly girls, who have once expressed shock, real shock, at seeing me. On many occasions, they have stayed out of my way, literally screaming and shivering upon seeing a ‘ghost’. Blacks are real ghosts in China such that even the Chinese have an expression to describe them – hei gui, meaning ‘black ghost’. I must admit, this is a very derogatory expression. The way it sounds in Chinese is even much worse than the English translation. However, I personally don’t mind derogatory mannerisms and descriptions of blacks in China, as long as my business at a particular moment does not get affected by the same. I don’t even pay attention when such things are directed at me.
On January 7, 2012 I was in Chang Sha city, Hunan Province for some personal business. I was looking for a taxi to get me to the high speed train station where I would get a train to my base, Wuhan, Hubei Province. One taxi driver, a man in his late 30’s, was trying to get me take his taxi. But in his ‘advertising’ effort he miscalculated. Assuming I could neither speak nor understand Chinese, he could only shout ‘taxi’ to me. I also guessed, with 100 percent certainty, that he could neither speak nor understand English. Not strange in China, anyway.
After hurling his oral adverts of ‘taxi’ to me several times but not getting the response he was looking for, with a fake smile on his face, but convinced that I couldn’t understand Chinese, he shouted ‘hei gui, taxi!’ to me. For the first time in my life I stopped and paid attention to a derogatory remark. Not because I was annoyed but because of the circumstances. I found it as an opportunity to offer a free lesson.
I looked at the driver in his eyes for half a minute without saying anything. He and another taxi driver looked at me too, probably wondering what I was up to. Then I pulled out a sharp tool that surprised this opponent of mine and pierced his heart. In fluent Mandarin Chinese I asked him to repeat what he had just called me. My Chinese inflicted so much excruciating pain on him that I could see him wishing the earth could swallow and hide him. He said nothing. In a version different from the first I repeated my request. He was so sharp that he discerned the free advice I was offering there – that Chinese should not underrate foreigners’ abilities in the world’s third most difficult language.
Restraining indications of guilt on his face, the driver denied that he had said anything derogatory to me. He claimed to have called me ‘lao wai’, (foreigner). I told him I understood every single word he had said. He obviously didn’t want to lose his face so he stuck to his ‘lao wai’ version. I kept looking into his eyes, deriving great pleasure from the free entertainment that his embarrassed look was offering me. After another half a minute, I left, satisfied with my less -than three minute lecture for this driver.