A lot of people have been asking me what it was like to live in China. Well, it was home in many ways but I never forgot that I was a guest in someone else’s country. So I did my work and minded my own business; and I was always aware that I was potentially the only or first Jamaican many Chinese people would meet. It was a heavy load to carry if I took it all too seriously. And I often did.
Today’s Shanghai is, for the most part, a very modern metropolis of about 26 million people, where you can have anything your heart desires as long as you have the money to pay for it. When I first got there in 2005, I was aware of subway lines 1, 2, 3 & 4. When I left earlier this year they were up to line 16. The speed of their infrastructural development is unbelievable, and that includes all the logistical support needed to make it possible for me to buy groceries online and have them at my door within 30 minutes.
Then there is the issue of security.
I never felt unsafe in Shanghai, no matter how late at night I was out. The ONE time there was a power outage at home (it lasted less than 30 minutes) there was no fear as I fumbled around in the darkness then navigated six flights of stairs and a five-minute walk to the complex’s maintenance building to find out what was wrong.
And I have so many great memories! Over the years my Chinese friends warmly welcomed me into their homes, we noisily rung in their New Year together and they invited me to spectacular wedding feasts with course after course of exquisite food.
I have also been made profoundly aware of how different I am, in the eyes of many Chinese.
In about 2006, when the rare sight of another black person would make us nod to each other in solidarity, one look at me reduced a shop clerk to tears. I entered the store and she began to back away, obviously agitated. I laughingly approached her until a rack of bright yellow coats blocked her retreat. Trapped, she burst into tears. I was immediately contrite. I apologised as profusely as I could, in my halting Mandarin, to her and a co-worker who by then had joined us and explained that the young girl was from the countryside. I was the first black person she was seeing. Well, I said to her as I stretched an arm out, take a good look so next time you won’t be so afraid.
Over the years, it was mostly people from the countryside who would be unable to keep the Chinese version of OMG! from escaping their lips at the sight of me. They would discuss me in very loud whispers, their eyes taking me in from head to toe, lingering on my hair if I had braids, on my teeth, my skin. Not pleasant.
But then again I can’t count how many times I’ve happily had discussions with people genuinely curious about, for example, why Jamaica’s track athletes run so fast. Those type of questions came after Usain Bolt electrified Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium during the 2008 Olympics and made Jamaica a household name that sparked numerous conversations between me and a lot of cab drivers. How far away is Jamaica? It’s very hot there right and that’s why your skin is so dark? Does everybody run? Do you prefer living in Shanghai or Jamaica? What are salaries like in Jamaica? What’s your salary in Shanghai? And that’s when I would play the helpless waiguoren (foreigner) and say, “Bu hao yisi, ting bu dong (sorry, I can’t understand what you’re saying).”
The one thing I never got used to was the ease with which complete strangers would ask what most non-Chinese consider very personal questions. Now that I’m back home I can look back at those moments and laugh, while I long for the convenience of having my groceries delivered in under 30 minutes, of feeling secure in broad daylight (feeling safe at night will eventually come later I hope), and an uninterrupted power supply.
On the other hand, I now have easy access to all the things I LOVE about Jamaica: friends and family, the food, the beach, an ever-present rhythm even when there’s no music playing… and the invisibility that comes with looking just like everybody else.
I’m a marketing and communications professional with almost a decade in journalism. After more than 14 years living and working in China, I happily came home to Jamaica in summer 2019. In this weekly column I share snippets of what it’s like seeing Jamaica — and sometimes the rest of the world — through my eyes.
By Charmaine N. Clarke