Summer after my sophomore year of high school, I went on a school trip to various cities in China with fellow students who were studying Mandarin. We spent a month taking classes, sight-seeing, and exploring the cities whenever we were given free time. I improved my Mandarin greatly and had the most incredible time exploring a country with a vastly different culture than that of my own. Before going to China, I had been thinking a great deal about the differences from the U.S. and more specifically Brooklyn, NY, where I was raised. However, I had never truly considered how the difference in the racial demographic would feel.
During my first day in Xi’an, China, I became aware of my pale skin, blond curly hair, and blue eyes in a different way than I think I had never been in the past. I was brutally aware of being in the minority, especially in a place not as touristy as places like Beijing and Shanghai. Throughout my first two weeks in Xi’an, people pointed at me. They took pictures of me when I was aware and not aware. They even touched my hair without permission. I felt strangely isolated from those around me, no matter how hard I tried to speak Mandarin and embrace Chinese culture. This type of isolation quickly made me think of the way a good friend of mine, who was on the trip and is African American, had described the way she felt sometimes in our school and in general in New York. She always being in the minority and sometimes having her hair touched without permission. I thought perhaps I could begin to sense the way she may feel in her day to day life, but then I realized a crucial difference. Even though I did not enjoy being so aware of my difference from those that I met in China, I was being praised for my difference. I was loved for my pale skin and difference of hair and eye color. As we know, POC in the U.S. have in no way been generally praised for their differences. However, even though I may never know what it feels like to be looked down on simply for racial differences, feeling that isolation of being different was unbelievably eye opening to me as someone who has wanted and always will want everyone around them to feel welcome and safe.