Don’t Touch My Hair: The One-Year China Experience

Dont Touch my hair... the one year china experience Michelle Saka

I have always had dreams of travelling the world and seeing how various people from different continents live; how they go about their daily lives, their culture, food, fashion and the like. So when an opportunity presented itself for me to study a year in China, I readily accepted; this was exactly what I had been waiting for since I decided to take Chinese language as one of my majors in Uni (university). In truth, my first year of studying this, uhm, foreign/ “weird” language was tough. But the longer I studied the more fascinated I became. Accepting to make it my third language was the best decision I ever made.

When the time came for me to leave Ghana in late 2016, only to return late last year, I readily packed my bags; one filled with clothes and a year’s worth of hair and beauty products and the other filled with my favourite Ghanaian foods and spices. I knew I would miss home very much; especially the food but there was a whole new country to explore.

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This is an account of my experiences in China; the stereotypes that were either affirmed or debunked and the good and bad experiences I had or shared with a few friends.

Don’t Touch My Hair: The One-Year China Experience

My Expectations

First of all, I didn’t know what to expect when I got off the plane in Beijing. All images I had of China were of beautiful high rise buildings, impressive infrastructure and their massive advancement in technology. None of which surprised me until I took my first whiff of the China air. As I stood outside waiting for the airport shuttle, bundled up in my trench coat against the fall breeze and slight drizzles, all I could smell was the scent of sweat mixed with cigarettes. The level of pollution in the air was almost visible; very unlike the fresh air, we are blessed with here in Ghana.

When I got off the train the next day from Beijing to my final destination, that was going to be ‘home’ for a year, the air wasn’t any different. It was definitely a lot colder as it was slightly up north. I got used to the much-polluted air but I don’t think I ever got used to the cold though. Thank God for central heating!

I never got used to the spitting. Yes, I said spitting. The Chinese have this annoying habit of spitting EVERYWHERE regardless of who was standing close or far away. When I say everywhere it may seem exaggerated until I tell you I saw someone spit on the carpeted floors of a mall. Let that sink in for a second…

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Their Ignorance About Blacks

I found it a little disappointing was how little the people in my province knew of black people. It was sad to see how advanced their technology and infrastructure was, yet, how ignorant they were of our existence. For most people, the only blacks they saw was on TV or around my university which hosted a few of us black people. This meant, whenever I went out, if I wasn’t in the company of my fellow blacks, I’d probably be the only black person on the street. This subjected us to get a lot of stares, to the extent of people taking pictures of us everywhere we went. It was sometimes very annoying as you couldn’t even blink without catching someone trying to take a picture without asking.

To most of the people, especially the uneducated ones, every black person was from Africa, and every African was poor. It took a lot – and I mean a lot – of conversations to prove that not every part of Africa was poor and we didn’t all live in wooden shacks. I don’t blame them because that’s the images portrayed of Africa on their TVs. Also, there was the occasional bumping into the racist ones who liked to refer to us as hei ren, a very derogatory term meaning “black person”.

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My Hair

The one thing about China that pissed me off the most was their fascination with our braids or hair.  They always tried to figure out if that’s how our hair grows out but not being able to keep their hands to themselves. I’d hear a group of women discussing my braids in Chinese on the bus or the mall, thinking I didn’t understand. A minute later, I’d feel someone tugging and inspecting one of my braids WITHOUT ASKING! Trust me, nothing ever prepared them for the sharp look I gave and the “DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR!” in swift Chinese.

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Normal Living

One thing I don’t miss at all was the compulsory Taichi classes we had to go for every Friday morning. Yes, you read right. Taichi! 1 YEAR! Running around a field and doing ridiculous stretches (in temperatures of -1 and -2 degrees, with fog) as warm-ups were never the plan for my Friday mornings.

I remember being very disappointed with the authentic Chinese food as it didn’t taste as good as the Chinese from Ghana. When I finally found the right eating spots, I couldn’t have enough of the food. My favourites were, xihongshichaoji with white rice, chao mifan, and definitely ‘hot pot’. I had chalked off their loud eating habits as having very bad table manners until a Chinese friend mentioned that making a lot of noise while you ate was an indication to them that you are enjoying your food. This was, however, a habit I could never pick up and bring back to my mother’s house.

One thing I noticed was how almost every Chinese student in my school had a boyfriend (bf) or girlfriend (gf). The strict rules that banned boys from entering the girls’ hostels and vice versa between 5 pm to 10 pm were what I called the “lovey-dovey period’. At this time the school was scattered with lovers; some holding hands, kissing in corners, chatting on lovers’ benches, sitting on the school field while others jogged around it. Well in short, if you didn’t have a bf or gf, that was probably the best time to stay in your room reading a book or BIBLE! Hallelujah?

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Good Stuff About China

The studying and class aspect of living in China was also quite beneficial to me. Yet, stressful as the timetables were packed with classes, presentations, school activities and assignments. Somehow, we still managed to go out, have fun, all in the name of socializing and learning the ‘street Chinese’.

Aside food, I loved meeting people from different parts of the world; some of the stimulating conversations this created, as well as creating the atmosphere for networking. I met people from Afghanistan, Jamaica, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan and so many other places who gave a completely different impression.

I also got to see a few other places like Datong, the ancient city of Pinyao and Wutaishan, a city surrounded by flat top peaks. By the way, I can’t wait to do the Great Wall in Beijing and the terra-cotta army.

Don’t Touch My Hair: The One-Year China Experience

I am definitely going back because, despite the few mishaps, China is still a beautiful place to be. There are also some really good, nice people, experiences and memories I wouldn’t trade for anything. So if you’ve never been, you should definitely try it sometime.

This was simply based on my perspective and experiences. It could definitely be different from someone else who went to a different part of the country. Hope you enjoyed it. 


Story By Michelle Saka

Don’t Touch My Hair: The One-Year China Experience

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