What Teaching in China Reminded me about Being Black in America

For most of my life travel was something that other people did, other people who didn’t look like me. This isn’t a ‘hood movie--my family wasn’t poor or starving--but we didn’t have “oh, let’s go to Europe or Mazatlan money” like many of my white (read: non-black) friends in high school and college always seemed to have. For most of my life I told myself that traveling was stupid, a waste of money and time. I told myself a lie--a lie I needed to hear at the time--a lie that I told myself until I finished school and could afford to realize the truth.

I got my first passport at the age of 27. That summer, with two friends, I booked the cheapest int’l flight we could find and ended up traveling along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia for a month--I was hooked.

When I travel I feel accepted: I have found that as a black American abroad I am accepted and welcomed in ways and places that I simply am not here. My Spanish is decent and I can pass for a Panamanian, Dominicano or Colombiano in a crowded market. When I travel, especially in Latin America, I often feel more comfortable than I feel here at home. If you aren’t black or a part of some other group on the margins in American society, I can’t describe to you what it’s like to walk into a room, restaurant, cafe or an office building and feel despised, but it’s a feeling I am very familiar with.

When I travel I read and think more: My favorite saying from Mark Twain is about travel and prejudice. He said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one's lifetime.” I love this corner of Earth, but I love getting away from it too. Since 2007, I have traveled internationally each summer after school gets out. As I travel I can see from abroad the light that creeps between gaps in American myth and reality. I don’t take it for granted because I remember what it was like before. 

My father has encouraged me to travel, saying that a black man who travels exposes himself to the lies that America feeds him about itself and himself. When I travel I read more, often nearly a dozen books per trip. Some of the most transformative experiences I have had with literature were from reading while traveling: Gatsby while battling seasickness in the San Blas Archipelago, falling out of love with Phillip Roth's writing while on a bus in Guatemala, reading Human Smoke (the pacifist case against World War II) while in the Dominican Republic.

When I am away from home I have time to read and process the gravity of texts in a way that just isn’t practical when I am home. I specifically remember sitting in a cafe in Spain with my wife in 2013 with tears in my eyes as I read aloud from Ta-Nehisi Coates’, How Can We Toughen Our Children Without Frightening Them? It was his second dispatch from his travels in Paris and he was describing his fears for and over his son. These were the seeds of Between the World and Me and in hindsight, I was realizing everything the #BlackLivesMatter movement is now teaching the nation. We are not safe. We are not loved.

One simply does not have these moments in the comfort of home. One does not have these moments while mowing the lawn.

My travel has evolved: I now travel with my amazing wife. She grew up overseas and is a polyglot. She may slip Tagalog into her Spanish and vice versa, but making that mistake means you have access to both in your brain. The last two summers, rather than just traveling, we have taught. This summer we ventured to Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province for our second summer of learning in the city of 14 million. We were originally invited to China in 2014 to teach “American style” student leadership, college preparation & transition, and we have spent roughly eight weeks teaching and learning there over the last two summers.

Like most Americans, China fascinates me. It’s simultaneously very familiar and completely distant. When I was a kid, it was just a place in the textbooks and fantasy. My mental image was basically infinite people in karate shoes riding bicycles through massive, nearly car-less cities. I specifically remember in ninth grade when Mr. Wolfrom showed us a slideshow of the Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang in Xi’an. The idea that I would visit them (as I did last summer) was unimaginable. I remember when we learned about the looming handover of Hong Kong and how distant it seemed. He might as well have been talking about the handover of Jupiter’s Moon Titan to some Intergalactic Federation, yet we spent a week walking the streets of Kowloon this summer. 

Now I have a sense of intimacy with this place of mystery. The Chinese people are among the most hospitable I have ever encountered. This year we stayed with a generous host family, both parents employees of a Chinese telcom. My favorite person in all the nation was my Chinese grandmother or nainai who didn’t understand a word I said, but insisted on stuffing me full of some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted. And I found, even in China, an acceptance that I often find lacking here at home. When I walk the streets in China the children point at me and say “lowai” which translates loosely as “old outsider” or “foreigner”. I love this. Every time it happens, I reply “ni hao, xiao peng you” (hello, little friend). I love it when they call me laowai, because it’s the same term they call my wife in the streets. The don’t say “look, a black” they say “look, a foreigner”, to both of us. It’s equality. I can’t put it into words, but it is extremely satisfying to know that (for once) I am getting treated equally.

Our nǎinai in Chengdu: I never understood a single word she said, but she'd be an amazing partner for charades. 

Our nǎinai in Chengdu: I never understood a single word she said, but she'd be an amazing partner for charades. 

Travel provokes reflection: One of our last night’s in China, I sat with my host family watching the coverage of the Samuel Dubose shooting on CCTV, China’s state-run media. My host asked me what I thought about the situation. I couldn’t even reply. It created a dissonance that just made my jaw ache.

Travel puts the contradictions of American life, in stark contrast: from slave owning-liberty loving-founders to a black President who has spent five and a half years running from racial politics. America’s unwillingness to reckon with race is criminal. Yet, there is nowhere else in the world where people who look like me fare as well as they do in the US. I’m not trying to move to Norway nor Namibia anytime soon. There is no black President in the offing anywhere in Western Europe and if black America were a nation it’d be among the 20 wealthiest in the world (with an earned income hovering around $1 trillion). But, at the same time, armed white vigilantes are allowed to patrol the streets of Saint Louis while unarmed blacks live under a curfew in their own neighborhoods. We live in a nation where the army gives rural police departments APCs, but unarmed blacks are shot at a near daily clip because officers “fear for their lives”.

Travel is the ultimate #staywoke. Being away from America makes me love and appreciate everything I have back home and exposes me to her shortcomings at the same time. We all know that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I'd add to that the words of James Baldwin: "I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." 

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia