Free drinks from dozens of men. Random people saying hello and offering warm smiles. Invitations to fancy dinners and swanky parties. These things are all exhilarating and appreciated; yet, some days I tire of the treatment. Free drinks mean an obligation to entertain, which can become an annoyance if I simply want a night out with my friends. The smiles and attention are welcome, until they turn into stares or downright gawking. And the parties are exciting, but I rarely have the chance to do more than stand around, smile, and engage in occasional small talk. Few people actually want to hear what I have to say—they just want to hear me say it. It is the novelty factor.
Who knew things could get this weird as a 23-year-old black man? So yes, it is true: I have recently become accustomed to being eye candy. Cultural eye candy to be precise. I currently live in China, and all the above experiences are true. If you are a black man in the United States, you are about the furthest thing possible from a status symbol anyone would want to bring to a party, and probably one of the last people to get random greetings from passersby. But I guess when you go to the opposite side of the world, geographical location is not the only thing that gets turned upside down.
I have had myriad Chinese people approach me at bars. Often, they simply bring their drinks and offer a cheers, which is great fun and almost always welcome. Other times, though, strangers will not only ask to drink with us, but insist on buying my friends and me drinks. This is perhaps partly due to a culture where a guest is highly respected and appreciated. In that sense, a foreigner is essentially a guest here. However, it is often clear that it is our exoticism that draws newfound friends in. I would be remiss to omit that I am often in the company of many white people as well, who are often highly regarded in China. There have been instances where I have received great generosity as a result of their Caucasian complexions. Yet on other occasions I am singled out and asked to clink a glass with someone, while the rest of my lighter-skinned compatriots get completely ignored. Usually this gesture is followed by “my brother,” if they possess the knowledge of the phrase.
“If you are a black man in the United States, you are about the furthest thing possible from a status symbol anyone would want to bring to a party, and probably one of the last people to get random greetings from passersby. But I guess when you go to the opposite side of the world, geographical location is not the only thing that gets turned upside down.”
These are the good times, though. There have also been situations where we have been greeted by someone who vastly overstays their welcome. This is hard to do, as I am generally one to converse at length with anyone who approaches me, despite our language difficulties. I will be the first in my group to finish a beer with a stranger and then dance with them in a ridiculous fashion to some Chinese music. But when we simply want to return to chatting, or finish our drinks, or hell, try to leave, it can be quite a hassle to deal with the insistence of a group, even more so because we dare not offend cultural differences being the pseudo-diplomats that we are.
That is just drinking, however. Being called to by a small crowd of Chinese women from the bus is definitely another highlight. I have no issue with parents wanting their child to say hello to the foreigner; I might be the only one they see in the flesh in years. Or even simply being asked where I am from. While I am sure my light-skinned expat friends also are asked a lot, many people will just assume they are American or English unless they hear a language suggesting otherwise. For me, however, unsurprisingly, I am assumed to be from Africa, because as many people will say in China, “They have many black people there.” So naturally I correct the situation, accept the general stereotypes about whites and blacks, and go about my day only momentarily irked.
It is when someone stops dead in their tracks to observe me, turning a full 180 degrees, when I walk past them. Or when a man takes out his cell phone and records a video of me from afar, ignores my hello that is part friendly and part displeased when I am close enough to shake his hand, or similarly turns and continues to record me as I walk into the distance. Finally, the deep, piercing, persistent stares on a bus ride. I look at my phone in an attempt to ease their feelings that I might grow angry if I caught them, when in fact I do not mind at all if they take a reasonable glance. However, when the glance turns into a thorough examination, even past the point where I have ceased looking at my phone, it becomes a more irritating issue.
Last is how I am viewed in the workplace. I help teach Chinese middle schoolers English. I studied English for four years within numerous education classes thinking it was a major contributing factor in my ability to get such a job. Yet in reality, these types of jobs are attainable by just about any American who holds a bachelor’s degree and speaks English as their first language. This is reflected constantly in my workload. I am given no real importance in my students’ academics: I cannot administer tests or award grades, so I am mostly a status symbol of my school’s prestige. I am “the foreign teacher” at my school—an English teacher according to my company, but in name the students refer to me as “the foreign teacher.”
“I am primarily a trophy to display, biological proof of my school’s progressive teaching techniques.”
I have met another English teacher in her first year, and she is treated entirely different than I am because she is Chinese, and not a foreigner. People go out of their way to make me feel welcome, which is not a surprise seeing as I clearly would have few, if any, friends in China. However, I am also offered the opportunity to go to extravagant dinners with the leaders of my school, and high-class cultural events. Generally speaking, I am extremely well provided for. My colleague, however, is not afforded such luxuries. While I am sure she has gotten help and found friends around school through my discussions with her, being a new teacher can be very difficult, as she is expected to sink or swim based primarily on her own ability. I, however, am more like a child given water wings; I am primarily a trophy to display, biological proof of my school’s progressive teaching techniques.
I will take both the good and the bad in stride. I cannot say whether the strange situations outweigh the good ones, they are innumerable at this point. All I can say is that becoming eye candy is not as sweet as it sounds.
Image: A man strolls through Qianmen Street, a famous pedestrian walkway in Beijing, China.
Charles Stewart is a 23-year-old currently living in Changzhou, China via the Ameson Year in China program. He attended George Mason University where he graduated with a bachelor’s in English. He often spends time mulling over what existential hurdle to jump next.