I boarded the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel train for a trip over to the land of odd-looking skyscrapers in Pudong. Since I landed in Shanghai a day earlier, I had been ogling the Oriental Pearl TV tower and wanted to see it up close.
After a quick ride, I arrived in Pudong and started snapping pictures of the futuristic-looking skyscraper. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked down to see a smiling Chinese woman pointing at her husband, who was holding a camera. It was the universal sign for “Hey, let’s take a picture,” so I smiled and put my arm around her. After the photos, she simply gave me a thumbs-up and scurried away.
I was confused.
About five minutes later, the same thing happened with another woman. We didn’t speak the same language, but the look in her eye told me everything I needed to know. She thought I was someone famous. I was black in China. So, obviously, I had to be Beyoncé.
The second woman excitedly walking away after taking a photo with a random black person (Brittany Jones-Cooper)
Before my day was over, two more women stopped me for photos, and I caught a dozen others snapping photos of me. This phenomenon had actually started as soon as I stepped out of my cab at the hotel a day earlier. As the bellman grabbed my bags, a group of three Chinese women literally stopped in their tracks and looked me up and down. I immediately checked my fly to make sure my zipper was up. It was.
Then I looked up and noticed that every person walking by me was staring, and staring hard. And they didn’t look away if I made eye contact. They just continued to look at me as if I were some kind of rare exotic plant —or a nun at a rave.
And this continued to happen for the next two days that I was in the city. As I explored the Yuyuan Garden, the Dongtai Market, and the Jade Buddha Temple, I usually garnered as much attention, if not more, than the surrounding tourist attraction. Some people pointed and whispered to their friends as I walked by. Others looked surprised, as if they knew me from somewhere, and smiled. And others, and this was a smaller group, stared at me with a look of confusion and slight disgust. I made sure to always flash these hesitant observers a big smile. If I was going to be the only black person they ever met, I wanted it to be a pleasant experience.
I snapped a few photos of curious passersby with the camera of an iPhone hidden under my scarf. (Brittany Jones-Cooper)
Men and women simply stared at me, but the children — they were truly in awe.
One afternoon I was resting my tourist feet by sitting on a bench. That’s when a group of children started running around me. They were playing tag, but every time they crossed my path, they stopped and stared before sprinting away from their nearby playmate. The oldest of the crew was a little girl probably about eight years old, and she started to point at my camera. So I took a couple of photos of the most adorable children in China.
Running circles around me (Brittany Jones-Cooper)
After I snapped a few pics, I showed the children the results and said the only term I knew in Mandarin: “Xie xie” (“Thank you”). The older girl’s face immediately lit up. She was impressed with my language skills, which gave her the confidence to share the little bit of English that she knew. “Good afternoon,” she enthusiastically replied, before giggling and running away. They weren’t scared. I was simply a unicorn, and they wanted to play with me.
The doorman at my hotel was a young and worldly man named Mirko. I asked him about the stares I was getting, to which he replied, “Well, you are beautiful, so it’s natural to stare.” Ever the charmer, that Mirko. But when I pressed him, he came clean. “I went to an international school, so I have met people from all around the world,” he said. “But most people here never leave their communities, so seeing a black person is extremely rare.”
Exploring the ancient Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai (Brittany Jones-Cooper)
He went on to assure me that I shouldn’t be worried about the stares and that in their culture, staring wasn’t rude. People were just curious. And I have to admit, I was curious about them as well. Isn’t that human nature? I was in a foreign country surrounded by people who didn’t look like me and whom I couldn’t communicate with. I was observing their customs, trying out their food, and observing their different faces, shapes, and sizes. Honestly, I was looking right back at them. I was simply outnumbered.
After all of this, I learned two very important lessons. First, there are not enough diverse faces traveling, and I would love to find a way to change that. And second, if I’m ever strapped for cash, I can make a ton of money if I move to China and become a famous street performer.
Like a break-dancing Beyoncé.