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Where skin color attracts curiosity

By Darnell Gardner Jr. (China Daily)

13:48, October 16, 2012

On seeing a black foreigner, a Chinese co-worker remarked, "He's too dark." I looked at my skin - certainly lighter than my fellow laowai's but darkening quickly in the summer sun - and wondered what my colleague meant by "too dark".

For me, an African-American, these kinds of awkward situations crop up all the time in China.

"What do you mean, 'too dark?'" I asked her. She replied that she thought Beyonce was beautiful and assured me she saw nothing wrong with my particular hue.

And I believe her. I'm sure she sees me no differently than she does any other foreigner.

But with people like me being such a rarity in China, working out how others interpret my presence here has been a bit challenging.

Once while caught in a storm, a friendly security guard invited me to take shelter with him in his booth. Tired of fighting against the wind and rain with my umbrella, I accepted his offer and took a seat inside.

The guard was elated. He fired off a string of questions, most of which I couldn't understand, and then took to rubbing my skin and hair. A few minutes later I'd exhausted my limited Chinese vocabulary, and my new friend was now asking to try on my shoes. I indulged his last request, gave him my thanks and left feeling like an alien life form.

Almost every day I have someone grinning and pointing at me. Sometimes they'll smile and wave, and sometimes they'll just look plain astonished.

It's become normal for me to have to explain that I'm American, not African, and it's not uncommon for me to attract a small audience when haggling over the price of trinkets on the street.

I know these kinds of reactions are merely expressions of curiosity, but they can make me really uncomfortable sometimes.

Some days, I don't want to be unique. I don't want my presence to elicit any kind of reaction. I don't want to provoke any particular thoughts or raise any particular questions. I just want to be.

But I know that, for as long as I'm here, I'll never be able to simply fade into the background. I knew that before I came, and I can live with it.

Things are a bit different at home. In the United States, a person who stares at me because of my skin color isn't curious. They probably just don't want me around.

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