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What's it like to be black in China?

AMBITIOUS: Runako, third from right, and her classmate Li Xiao Xiao at their graduation ceremony

WHERE DO YOU come from?” In the past, that question would have likely received a simple answer, but today it could be met with a wide range of responses from many young black people in Britain and beyond.

We’re no longer as bothered about where we belong – who really cares if there isn’t any black in the Union Jack anyway? Our generation is way too busy leaving our mark on the rest of the world. Nowadays, we’re choosing new terms to define ourselves – be it “third culture kid” or the somewhat controversial “Afropolitan”, among others – terms that reflect what our complex cultural hybridity, increased financial freedom and diasporic identities mean in today’s world. So what does all this lead to in practice?

Well, for one, it means that increasingly more first and second-generation British born or raised black people are starting to explore our options across the world, casting our proverbial nets further afield – be that in languages, entrepreneurship, careers or more.

For Hannah Getachew, of Ethiopian heritage and myself, of Grenadian-Jamaican heritage, making the decision to spend time in China – initially as students and eventually as young professionals – has given us the opportunity to do just that. And we’re by no means unique in this regard, judging by the sheer number of ambitious, talented and creative young black Africans, Westerners and Caribbean people we’ve met during our time here.

We’re now coming up to our fourth year in China. I just finished a two-year Master’s in international politics, taught in Chinese, and Hannah an LLM in Transnational Law, both of us graduates from Peking University.

We’d both originally come to the middle kingdom as fresh-faced students – Hannah in 2016 already with a Master’s and undergraduate degree under her belt, and myself in 2013 as part of my modern languages degree at the University of Birmingham. What we chanced upon in China was enough to convince hundreds of other black people of African descent and us to staying that little bit longer.

PICTURED: Bénédicte Kinkolo, Celia Kayo, Hannah Getachew and Runako Celina Bernard Stevenson at Beijing’s Black Panther Premiere

Confusion, outrage and disbelief

On our visits home we soon found ourselves bombarded with questions about the black experience in China. Many have grappled with answering them in articles, think pieces and videos – some, such as Kmatikc’s Black in China YouTube series, were instrumental in helping us prepare for our big move, and have succeeded in highlighting the varied realities of black life in China. Here’s a few of the things you may already have gleaned from such offerings about blackness in the middle kingdom: picture taking and unsolicited petting of Afro hair are common, even in major cities. Whiteness reigns supreme for many Chinese, placing black people somewhere in the realm of unattractive or attractive despite our complexion, rarely if ever because of it.

A good number of locals, too, believe all black people reside in African countries or the USA. Explaining anything to the contrary will often be met with confusion, outrage, or sheer disbelief – trust us, we’ve been there.

On a much lighter note, however, Chinese people are also known to soften at the sight of any foreigner who poorly attempts to sling two words together in Mandarin, complimenting and encouraging them to keep learning. Yet, there is also a lesserknown reality to black life in China, which we reckon forms a large part of why its become an increasingly attractive option for the adventurous, entrepreneurial – and extremely patient.

China, home of the hustle

We are often labelled the “side hustle generation”, and having lived in different major cities across the world, we both believe that nowhere is this title better earned than among black communities in China’s first and second-tier cities. Word to the Ugandan and American founders of BlackEXPO, a black business expo created to launch and grow over 500 black-owned businesses across the country. Or the Shanghai African import mall, a temporary trade fair set up to showcase African goods and services to local and international buyers. And the original entrepreneurs, the African traders in Guangzhou and Yiwu who travel between China, their home nations, Europe, and the States to sell and buy goods.

With the affordability of equipment and the diverse communities that collide here, China’s also become a breeding ground for black creatives.

SETTLING IN: African students at Peking University celebrate the start of term

Several have taken their crafts one step further and invested in opening physical stores. The African Art Space team, for example, which opened three venues across China in the name of promoting African art, or Shanghai-based tailor and designer Benjamin Kontoh, whose flagship Shanghai store continues to attract new and existing customers, combining their creative concepts with that endless entrepreneurial flair.

In the academic world we’ve also witnessed and basked in the success of many in our community. The whole of China’s black community celebrated when Somali Professor and researcher Dr Hodan Osman Abdi, fluent in Chinese having spent 12 years living, studying, and teaching in the south of China, released the feature documentary Africans in Yiwu, shown on national TV and beyond.

Power of the people

Part of the beauty we’ve found in China’s black community lies not only in what we do while in China, but our intentions and actions once we return home.

By most estimates, there are now more Africans studying in China than in both the UK and USA.

Scores of the young African and Caribbean people that we’ve met here have come to China with one express purpose – to leverage their knowledge of Chinese language, culture and business practices on their return home to support their governments in negotiating futures that constitute a win for their nations.

With several of them holding political ambitions, it’s exciting to think that these future leaders will return to their countries with the knowledge and first-hand awareness needed to guide their nations.

As a friend of ours once put it: “China isn’t something merely happening to us Africans, not on our watch.”

Returning then to the question, ‘What’s it like to be black in China?’ It should now be of no surprise that “exciting”, “inspiring” and “‘energising” are so often our responses.

To date, much of what we’ve shared above is little known outside of China, and sadly rarely documented within.

Due to immigration-related bureaucracy and their commitment to eventually return home, few of those in our community are planning to stay in China in the long term.

DIVERSE: People of all cultures take part in Chinese dancing

And, with such a transient black population, building long-lasting structures to document our successes, challenges and experiences have been difficult.

With a desire to contribute to the creation of such structures, earlier last year Hannah and I decided to take the task on ourselves.

The birth of Black Livity

“To talk about Pan-Africanism,” Guyanese intellectual and activist Walter Rodney tells us, “is to talk about international solidarity within the black world irrespective of geographic location. Wherever we live, we have three primary responsibilities to the global black community.

“First, we must define our own situation where we live, second, we must present that definition to the other parts of the black world, and third, is to help others living elsewhere to reflect on their own specific experience.”

Founded in February 2018, our passion project Black Livity China ( aims to do just that, by showcasing matters relating to the lives, wellbeing, and overall experiences of black people either inside China or in relation to China and her people – for the benefit of our global community.

Through Black Livity China we hope to spark a larger conversation in our communities across the world on matters of identity, unity, collective prosperity and more.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Peking University student Joseph Mendoo

Since starting Black Livity China, we have also gone on to launch the free to use Andinet Directory, China’s first directory for all things black. It’s a more inward facing project aimed at aiding black people in China to locate black services, organisations, groups and businesses in their cities and beyond.

At the core of these efforts is a genuine friendship, or rather, sisterhood. Our team of curators, the self-named “Dora Milaje” (we couldn’t resist!) come from backgrounds encompassing East, Central, and West Africa, as well as black Caribbean, black Chinese, black British and black French cultures.

We’ve tried to build on this foundation of diversity by welcoming written and visual contributions from members of our community across China, with the idea that we remain as representative as possible of the numerous facets of blackness and black experiences here.

To be black in China, much like anywhere else in the world, comes with its fair share of obstacles – but they are challenges that our generation of young and enterprising black people are more than equipped to surmount.

For those who choose to press on, just a portion of what they can expect to gain has been highlighted in this piece. Is it that the entrepreneurial and ambitious simply gravitate towards China? Or perhaps there’s something in the water? We can’t say we’re too sure.

Either way, it’s a tale we’re all too proud to tell.

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