The University of Iowa

Staff Reflections on Race and Ethnicity Abroad: The majority has changed

December 20th, 2011

Reflections on Race and Ethnicity Abroad

Dear Prospective Student,

My name is Sterling Bacher. I graduated from the University of Iowa in the spring of 2005. I majored in Journalism and Chinese. During my undergrad years, I visited China twice and went on a summer study tour through Japan and South Korea. After graduating, I spent about another year and a half in China working in various fields like translation, teaching, and tourism.

Weeks into my first excursion to China, I distinctly remember standing on a nondescript street corner in a major city, looking around at the press of humanity crowding around me and thinking, “I’m still a minority. Only the majority has changed.”

A small realization, yes, but it really did change my current world view in a heartbeat. It really was one of those eureka moments where a chaotic situation suddenly crystallized in my mind. My entire identity had shifted, and I’d barely noticed until it hit me like a sledgehammer.

Let me back up briefly.

The first thing a person of color will notice in Asia is the same thing I imagine anyone from the States would notice. And it is distinctly not that there’s a new majority. It’s that you’re not in Kansas—or Iowa—anymore. Of course part of that is that there are a lot of Asian people in Asia, but as a thinking individual, one expects that to be the case. It’s the realizations that you’re not ready for that sneak up on you and knock you down with culture shock.

China, and really the rest of Asia, may be heavily Westernized, but that’s just at first glance. It’s another world on the other side of the Pacific. It’s a different cultural base, more Confucian morals than Grecian ideals, more Mao than Washington, more Karl Marx than Adam Smith. Honestly, though, even a cursory study of China’s modern economic system reveals the capitalist tinge slowly creeping into the socialist roots of the nation.

No, the first thing anyone would notice when he or she arrives in China is that if you want Chinese food, you need only ask for “food.” Truly, it is another world.

It takes weeks of wandering, observation, and gentle dialogues before the real racial picture starts to emerge. For starters, I noticed that I wasn’t necessarily perceived as black. I was first and foremost an American. Conversations tended to start like this: someone would ask where I came from, and I’d reply, “America.” It’d be difficult to answer a question about where I was from like “I am from African American.”

From that point on, any dialogue would be shaded by my nationality and not my race. “Are you for or against the war in Iraq?” “Did you vote for Bush?” “Do you have thirty girlfriends?” These are the [real] follow up questions I received usually based on perceptions built by Chinese media.

But every now and then, I’d run into an exceptionally curious individual: “Where are your ancestors from?” Obviously, these individuals labored to craft the question so as to not offend me by guessing incorrectly. But the question itself always sounded odd to my ears. I’d say it’s pretty obvious I have African ancestry. You’ve got my photo up there. You tell me. Granted, that’s a bit of a loaded question for me since my ancestors come from all over. Africa, of course, but Europe, too. On those lazy days when my patience with the Chinese language ran low and I couldn’t be bothered to recite my family tree, I’d answer simply, “Africa.”

And that’s where that line of questioning would end. On to the next question. My ethnicity wouldn’t provoke further queries. It was an issue of curiosity rather than convictions; people needed to know what shape of peg I was so they could drop me in the appropriate hole. My identity as an American came first with my ethnicity came a distant second.

My racial status was effectively marginalized; it was a non-issue.

That realization came as both off-putting and yet liberating. I shed both the pride and the baggage of my African American ancestry. I’d lost the extant enmity and mistrust between the races that the Civil Rights movement soothed but has not yet erased. At the same time, though, I’d also lost that mutual understanding and knowledge base that Americans have regarding African Americans. In China, the entire African American legacy had been reduced to historical bullet points: slavery, MLK, street gangs, Lebron James, Will Smith.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected. How much do I know about the Chinese minorities, all fifty-five of them? What do I know about Zhuang, the Hui, the Miao? What do I even know about the Chinese majority race, the Han?

Bullet points and timelines. Nothing more.

After living in China for a total of two and a half years, I have gleaned just the slightest bit of understanding about the racial situations there, but a glimmer is all I’ve got. They’re simply names in a text book.

Going back to that street corner moment, I remember someone saying something about “that laowai over there.” In Chinese, Laowai means “foreigner” and can be neutral and simply descriptive or a pejorative. It’s a word applied to anyone not clearly Chinese in ancestry. That’s what my experience came down to in China. Little focus was given to my identity save that of my American citizenship. There was no possibility of assimilation but nor was there animosity. I was simply a guest and an observer in Chinese culture, accepted—and slightly judged—by my nationality but not my race. I was as isolated from my culture as I was free of its burdens. It felt refreshing and lonely. It felt different, and being different is why I chose to go to China.

I do have one final chunk of wisdom to impart to anyone going to Asia that is tangentially related to race and ethnicity. No matter where you go, and with only limited exceptions, beauty means white. White—lighter—skin is beautiful; dark skin is ugly. This is reflected in magazines, catwalks, posters, ads, and personal opinions.

There will be people with umbrellas out on perfect sunny days. They may say it’s to keep their skin from getting wrinkled, but I’m not sure I can buy that. Skin whitening cream fill store shelves. I was once asked, by a former girlfriend no less, why I didn’t wear lighter colored clothing to make my skin appear whiter. There are historical and societal reasons for this kind of thing—like only peasants work in the sun—and hopefully once that is understood, it won’t offend anyone. It’s a fashion trend, not an insult. Just another piece of the gigantic puzzle that is Asia.