Sometimes their eyes flit away upon meeting my own, like a man caught gawking at a teen with unorthodox facial piercings.
On other occasions their eyes linger, glued to me without even a hint of shame and accompanied by an expression of idle amusement.
At other times still, they never seem to notice me at all, and it’s these moments for which I’ve become increasingly grateful.
This is my experience walking the streets of China with brown skin, kinky hair and the unmistakable facial features of someone of African descent.
To be black in China is not only to be foreign but to be an oddity. And in a country where being “politically incorrect” more likely means you’re grating on the government’s nerves than making a social faux pas, this brown skin has afforded me an array of bizarre experiences.
Prior to China, I’d thought myself used to being a token.
I’ve been to black schools where I was too white, white schools where I was too black, and Central Michigan University, where some are especially bad at hiding resentment when they jokingly ask, “So you got that scholarship because you’re black, right?”
Actually, many years of informing my mother’s oblivious co-workers that, in fact, I don’t use these long legs to play basketball, probably prepared me for having to do the same with naive Chinese only trying to be friendly.
To be clear, the stares and painfully stereotypical questions I receive are merely expressions of curiosity, not prejudice. It’s irritating, not offensive, and sometimes it can even be fun.
I once grinned goofily at a 60-something-year-old man who stopped dead in his tracks to watch me cross the road. I normally enjoy the attention crowds of pedestrians give when I’m arguing down the prices of trinkets with street vendors.
On days when the sun is too hot and the air too heavy with pollution for me to have a cool temperament, I’m passive-aggressive. I stare back unapologetically hoping that in being abrasive today, the entire country will know that I’m hardly worth a passing glance by tomorrow.
It never works, and more often than not after a few grimaces I resign myself to simply looking straight ahead.
Sometimes being a novelty can even come in handy.
When my blond-haired, blue-eyed friends are asked in the street for photos, I smirk from the sidelines. I don’t want to be in a photograph with some parent’s smelly, drooling toddler anyhow.
I’d rather my face be displayed on my own mother’s mantle, thank you very much.