Being abroad in China has taught me so many things about myself. I am a black male from America, a first-generation college student raised in a middle class, mixed family. This may not seem that important to others, but the diversity in my family is something that many Chinese did not understand, and this often caused a lot of confusion.
Living in China as a black male has been both humbling, yet overwhelming. All I know about my African heritage is traced back to the Middle Passage in the United States, so the African, or even African-American term has always been a difficult thing for me to understand myself. I usually just say that I am black, but I know that I am not a color. I am person just like you. I am not African; I am a black African-American. I am assuming the term African-American is not commonly used in China because most people that I interacted with assumed that I was from Africa. Once I was able to tell them in my messy Mandarin that I am not African, most people were surprised to know that I am an American and can also speak Mandarin.
This experience has been an honor because I represent my people while I’m in China. China recently opened up to the world, so most people honestly have not met many black people, especially black Americans. I am grateful that I can potentially change individuals’ perceptions of black people. Black men are not always represented well in the media; however, I know that I should not feel like that I am respecting all of the people who look like me. That just would not make sense.
I express my love and respect for my black and African ancestors who were in America during more difficult times through my hairstyles. This may seem odd to some people, but my hair is genuinely the only thing that I have full control over, and it gives me this confidence and enjoy that reminds to be never be anyone but myself.
Being in China with a natural curly afro has been interesting. A lot of people think that I cannot speak Mandarin, so I often hear people say things like, “Is that his real hair? Does is grow that way? It looks weird. I want to touch it.” And some have touched it … awkward. At first, this was very difficult for me to have people constantly asking me if my hair was real, but then I began to understand that they were just curious because my hair something that is not commonly seen on this side of the world. Having strangers touch my hair and take photos is awkward, but I know that it was mostly out of genuine curiosity so I am not offended by it anymore.
This experience has made me realize how beautiful and difficult it is to be yourself, and I am very grateful to be here. Some days are hard, but I know that I am going to look back at this time in my life and remember how I was able to conquer new challenges in a different language, culture, and country.
Justin Seymour-Welch is a Public Health major with a Mandarin Minor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He studied abroad with IFSA at the Public Health Policy and Practice program in Shanghai, China in spring 2018.