Book review: Black in China – tales of Chinese racism hint at Sino-African race relations, but fail to show the bigger picture
Author Aaron Vessup’s recollections of his time in places such as Changsha and Beijing inform, occasionally entertain and include practical survival tips, but readers might wish he had commented more on larger issues
Black in China
by Aaron Vessup
In 2004, Los Angeles-born fiftysomething Aaron Vessup sought “something different” in life.
After four marriages and 28 years of teaching in universities and schools across the United States, Vessup, who has a PhD in communication sciences, joined the faculty of the Hunan Mass Media Technical Vocational College in Changsha, south China. As he tried to fit in there, the African-American soon realised that the Chinese could be just as racist as white Americans could.
In Black in China, Vessup offers several vivid examples of how racism overshadowed his life in America, and shaped his relocation in China. He writes simply, and graphically describes the effect of racism: from the hurt of a chief executive’s gentle, insensitive word in Changchun, to the frustration and anger of exclusion in Pittsburgh, California and in the “backwards” parts of Illinois.
Vessup’s anecdotes also include practical survival tips for the racially abused in both countries, from minimising police provocation in Nevada to dealing with a gang of spiteful neighbours in Changsha. The highlight of the book is how the author tells his insistent Hunan hosts that he is not going to be forced into drinking games, and then deals with a fellow bus passenger’s rudeness in Beijing.
Vessup’s recollections inform and occasionally entertain, but he might have misjudged a Changsha colleague whom he names as “Hatchet Face”. She seems dysfunctional to a Westerner, but older China hands might also attribute her behaviour to a politically indoctrinated aversion to foreign flags in a classroom and not necessarily the author’s race.
Black in China also loses its edge as Vessup settles in Beijing. The author befriends locals and gives taxi drivers short cut tips to his neighbourhood, but his knowledge of Mandarin is unclear in the 226-page book. Vessup does not seem to overhear much local comment about himself or other foreigners, as, for example, non-Chinese Cantonese speakers might in the more expressive parts of Hong Kong.
Readers might also wish Vessup had shared race-relations views with more black people in China. He criticises the English of an African-American academic but does not seem to meet many more compatriots in his time there. The author highlights the impact of NBA stars on posters in China, but readers might have wished he had commented more on any racial harmonising that had occurred following the two elections of US president Barack Obama, who makes a cameo on page 213.
Vessup also meets few African blacks in China. He is snubbed by a Malian, but a bitter Nigerian in Beijing briefly describes his harassment “by officials collecting protection fees”. He also advises a young Togolese who feels “like an outcast in China” to be “realistic” in his job expectations, and to seek work “in areas where Chinese need help”.
As a result, Black in China arguably evolves from a streetwise anthology of cautionary tales on two nations’ racism to the bland blog of a Beijing “Uncle Tom”. Vessup meekly accepts the way the Chinese describe a black person – hei gui, or black ghost – saying he has “been called worse”, and relishes his new neighbours’ politeness in the final section of his book, entitled The Black Chinaman.
Vessup’s Black in China therefore whets international appetites for the genre, but a more vivid depiction of Sino-African race relations might soon arise in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, or further along the Belt and Road.