A Head Nod Up: U.S. Citizens of Color

November 22, 2009

I was climbing the Great Wall the other day* when I came across a large group (about 50 or more) of U.S. college students on a "semester at sea" study abroad program. They were headed back from whence I had come, so I ended up passing the entire group over a fifteen-minute span on the Wall.

As I got to the last group of students, I found myself at the top of a high climb (a sort of "crest" of the Wall) looking down a steep decline. Desperately struggling up the incline (for them) were the stragglers.

Now, I should mention that I wasn’t on the most touristy segment of the Wall. I ended up on a long stretch, far from the nearest city (Beijing) or even large town, in which there were large portions of Wall that hadn’t been fixed up in quite a while (certainly decades, perhaps centuries or millennia). So there were piles of rubble, the steps were broken up and fallen apart, and loose gravel and dirt made the footing treacherous. On top of that, it was the first major cold-spell of the Northern China winter, meaning the Wall was covered in snow and ice, making the footing even more unforgiving. And it’s not like the Wall was designed for tourists originally, so every climb was vertigo-inducingly steep, and I found myself constantly wondering if I was about to die.

So imagine these conditions, as these last students come fighting up the hill. One girl slipped and slid her way up, but made it to the crest on her own. The last one? Not so lucky. She slipped. She fell. And, ultimately, she needed the physical support of her guide half-dragging her to make it to the top.

So when she finally made it, I had to tell her, "Congratulations, welcome to the top." ** And she just looked up at me, smiled, and then leaned on my shoulder like we were old friends, and said, "Whoo! Did you see that!? Thanks for the support."

It was so casual, so comfortable. I felt like I knew her. I then ended up chatting with her and her friend for few minutes (none of the other students had stopped to chat or give more than a quick "hello," if that) – again, totally comfortable and familiar, like we had known each other for a while.

So what’s your point, you may ask? Is the CVT trying to boast about his ability to flirt with college-aged girls?

This is when I mention that the two girls I’m talking about were the only students of color of their entire group (both black). And there was nothing even slightly flirty in our interactions.

So what was it? It was the U.S. citizen of color head-nod up. It was, for them – we’re the only two people of color on this entire trip, and the only people from our home country we’ve interacted with for the last few months have been white folks. Now, thousands of miles from home, on the freaking Great Wall, here’s another "American" of color – thank God. For me, it was much of the same. It was my glimpse – and interaction – with some brown folks. It was passing student after student*** with nary a black hair on their body, thinking to myself "where are the students of color? Is it a privilege thing or a cultural thing that keeps them from being here?"****

So when we laid eyes on each other, there was this instant relief. A moment in which we could let our guards down and let our shoulders slump for a second. Here’s somebody that shares at least a small taste of this very specific experience that I have, a piece of myself that I haven’t gotten to share for a minute.

We didn’t have to talk about it.

We just soaked it up for a few moments, filling ourselves up as much as we could, knowing it would have to last for a while. The one girl literally let me take some of the weight off while we chatted about nothing, asked each other the "what city you from, what are you doing in China?,etc."

And then we all took a deep breath, bid each other good luck and goodbye, and headed off in opposite ways – me to many more months in China, them to many more countries of the world.

We never exchanged names. But, due to the very specific experience of race in the States, we were able to give each other a moment of rest, far from home.

So, with that in mind (and Thanksgiving coming right up), here’s a virtual head-nod up to the readers of this blog (more-melanin-endowed or otherwise) for supporting me, sharing experiences, and taking a little of this particular weight from my shoulders – far from home.

I’ll get at you as soon as I’m able . . .

* How freaking cool is that, that I can just so casually throw out that first line? Gotta’ love it.

** And please think well enough of me to understand there was no sarcasm in my tone, and she could tell.

*** One group, while passing me, said "Nihao" – greeting me in Chinese, because they assumed I didn’t speak English, so when I kind of chuckled at that and said "hello" back, one of the guys muttered, "See? We try to greet them, and they just laugh."

**** And here comes the disclaimer: I’m not one to think, "white, college kid – must be ‘rich’ or ‘spoiled’" or anything like that (I know too many struggling white kids – that I work with – that are fighting hard to gain access to college). Just an interesting situation, and I can’t help but wonder.



  1. Great story.

    “Yeah, I was just climbing the Great Wall the other day…”

    But really, great story.

  2. I think different study abroad programs attract different demographics of students. That group might have been affiliated with a US school that’s mostly white. When I studied in Beijing, my program was at least 40% Asian-American, and then heavy also on the non-Chinese Asians. Only half of the white students were Americans.

    Statistically, I believe that Overseas Chinese, Koreans and Japanese represent a hefty majority of foreign students (as well as immigrants) in China – and their proportions are growing. Today I heard that “foreigners” (not sure if that meant just whites, or all foreign nationals; probably whites) in Shanghai declined by 10-20% in 2009.

  3. @ Shanghai Lisa –
    I think the key here is that this was a “Semester at Sea” program (traveling all over the world)- not specifically geared towards China – so it attracted a very different demographic than who would want to come JUST to China. This group was actually made up of students from many different schools, though – hence my curiosity at the racial make-up.

    And I heard the same thing about the decline in “foreigners” – from what I understand, it’s all about the economic downturn causing foreign businesses to send huge numbers of their non-Chinese employees home (because they cost the companies so much more money than their Chinese counterparts).

  4. The decline isn’t just economics, although that accounts for the official statistics which track the corporate “expats”. Since early 2008 the visa regime has gotten a lot tighter. (One popular theory for that was that too many FOB foreigners willing to pay ridiculous rental prices was contributing significantly to inflation.) Also, I just don’t meet the same sort of hordes (especially from New York) coming because Shanghai’s “the hot new place” as I did in 2007-2008.

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