Easterly: Notes From a Black Life in East Asia

Browse By

Aaliyah Bilal’s essay, “Easterly: Notes From a Black Life in East Asia,” appears in Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Winter 2020 issue.


It was near the end of 2012 when I first noticed the haze. One weekday morning I left my Shanghai home on the way to run errands. I shut the door to the taxicab, and we pulled off slowly, driving from under the large porte-cochère of my apartment building into the daylight. All of a sudden we were immersed in a brownish green fog the likes of which I’d only seen in photos of Mars. The sight was so grand and unusual it was almost beautiful. We turned onto the main road, and a solitary man entered my frame of view. He walked along the sidewalk with shoulders raised and hands in his pockets in a scene that looked like it had been pulled directly from the imagination of William Turner. I found it a little funny, too—the way his face measured no alarm. Neither did the driver seem at all worried, blankly cradling the wheel as he navigated the murky streets. He wore the concern of casual comings and goings like all the rest of us on the road that morning, foolish enough to be out of doors in such conditions.

In the weeks that followed, I received several phone calls and text messages from friends and family. Reports of China’s “Airpocalypse” were all over the Western news, they said, with images of people huddled in hospitals, despondent as they cradled plastic oxygen masks over their noses, trying to give their lungs some relief. Some were alarmed, but most just wanted to make sure I was okay. I told them I was fine. “That stuff,” I said, “is mostly in the Northeast, not so much in the South where I live.” Anyway, I’d bought multiple air filters, filled my house with plants—done everything short of leaving the country. I told them these things, contravening the absolute truth.

I was already developing symptoms. The onslaught of hazy days first altered my sinuses, and they started to run nonstop. Sleeping grew increasingly difficult with all of the congestion I was experiencing. After a cough or hard sneeze, I’d raise an unlucky kerchief and find it stained with tiny specks of brown and black matter, despite the fact that I’d already begun wearing a face mask when venturing out. I wouldn’t tell my family any of this. I was too scared to admit that despite all efforts to protect myself, the conditions were having a noticeable effect on my physical health.

It was around this time that I began to seriously ask myself why I live in China. Specifically, I wondered about the deeper meaning of China to my life, to try to form a notion that would confirm the choice to remain in the country as sensible, if not virtuous in some way. This question has for long been part of my life in China, with September 2012 marking the start of my eighth year in the country. I always felt the need to prove that there was some grand purpose to my being away—a worthy justification for all of the missed birthdays, weddings, graduations, and other family milestones dating back to my 2004 arrival to the mainland. The haze only added greater urgency, forcing me to accept the bleak reality that by staying here on a prolonged basis, I was, in a sense, flirting with my own demise.

After lots of reflection, sustained research, and more than fourteen years of lived experience on the ground, I feel no closer to an answer today on the question of China and its meaning for my life than I did when the haze landed in Shanghai seven years ago; at least not an answer that satisfies. When I dwell on this fact, I feel myself divided in two—between the despairing realist on one side and the other side of me that refuses to concede that it has all been in vain.

In the beginning, I underwent a standard indoctrination process that sucks “foreigners” into the China space—a process that is rooted in the worship of small details.

I remember the dank night air that greeted me outside the Kunming airport, the dimly lit streets, the unhinged driver vying with a donkey driven vegetable cart for space on a single-lane road. I remember the nauseating twang of the HongHe cigarette he smoked, how it dangled from his mouth as he pulled up to the Yunnan University Hotel. He slid open the side door, removed my bags from the trunk, and lugged them onto the sidewalk. He hopped back into the car without saying goodbye, leaving me alone to contemplate the little stretch of road that would be my neighborhood for the next two years.

I remember ambient sounds—the sizzle of fried meat from a nearby food cart and the scraping of metal utensils the cook used to shovel the hot food from the griddle into small plastic containers. On a nearby street, a sanitation truck drove slowly; the sound of bristles whirred against the pavement, accompanied by a MIDI file that played “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” over and over. It was the middle of September.

This is how I remember my arrival; it was a scene that would have depressed me had I been more interested in my own pleasure than in the work I’d come to do. Nine months earlier, I had been granted a research fellowship in which in exchange for teaching English part-time at the university, I’d have access to libraries and other resources to help me learn more about religious practices among the HuiZu.

I was a twenty-two-year-old researcher with a strong interest in Muslim communities that nestled themselves in culturally plural environments. The context of Southwest China was fascinating in this regard. Through my reading I had learned of the highly syncretic nature of Muslim thought and practice in the region. For centuries, local tales of the fantastic were interwoven with normative Islamic teachings–serpents had the power to morph into divine emissaries and transmit lessons from the Quran or warn of future calamities. I was determined to meet local Muslims and learn about the place of these narratives in their lives.

I look back and marvel at the innocence of my aspirations and chide myself for not anticipating the ways that encompassing social realities would impact my efforts.

I hadn’t appreciated the way that exposure to China was altering my mind, nor did I regard the change in terms of the detriment it posed.

As I grew acclimated to the reality of living in Yunnan, what I hoped would sustain me—beyond pleasure—was the practice of new disciplines. These disciplines were not ones I had taken on of my own volition but were drilled into me with evangelical fervor by the many hands that were pushing me to the Far East.

I had just finished a nine-week course at the Middlebury Summer Language Institute, cramming as much Mandarin into my head as it would take a normal undergraduate to learn in one full academic year. My studies would demand from me a degree of focus I’d never known, most of which was instilled in me by my professors. The collective of very capable, no nonsense women who taught in the Chinese language program took an interest in me the way an exterminator troubleshoots a house riddled with termites. One of the faculty in particular, a middle-aged woman whom we called Chen LaoShi, saw something in the way I processed information that disturbed all of her teaching sensibilities, and she was intent to root it out of me.

I was naturally a horizontal thinker—a term that describes the practice whereby we draw connections from across disciplines in order to arrive at broad, malleable conclusions. I wanted to absorb Chinese into my marrow, to develop an emotional relationship to the language. I longed to cultivate this sense of connection through exposure to music, poetry, and art in addition to rote learning. This was anathema to Chen LaoShi and the rest of the Chinese language teaching staff who saw my attitude not for its virtue but as something to be corrected.

They were proponents of vertical thinking—of drilling deeply into a subject, capturing and replicating every nuance, every time, with no respect for the creative possibilities borne of error. Chen LaoShi made it her personal mission to convert me. She would bring me into her office and literally force my head down so that it hovered just inches above a yellow legal pad as I practiced traditional characters. She made me write phrases over and over, like, “Please hand me the shopping bag that sits on the floor” or “The pencil sits atop the desk.” If a stroke was misplaced or drawn out of order, she’d tear off the page I’d been writing on and force me to start again on a new one until I’d got it down perfectly.

When there was time for anything other than study, I hung out with a small group of women. They were all Chinese majors at the school who chose to stay over the summer to lighten their course load that coming fall. I took a special liking to two of them—Anna and Lisa. They were third-year students, very ambitious learners, and unnecessarily kind to me, a mere beginner. They shepherded me through the ardors of language school, helping me to see the positive side of what I was being put through.

Learning Chinese is a process akin to learning the drums. It requires the coordination of multiple skill sets—reading, writing, and speaking. Initially these skills do not seem to reinforce one another. The character system is easier to read than it is to write, and the language as a whole (excluding Cantonese) is much easier to speak than to read. Given its inherent challenges, there is a tendency for informal learners to pursue one aspect of Chinese language acquisition at the expense of the other skills—like learning to play the kick and cymbals but neglecting the snare. With practice, however, the coordination of these skills creates rhythms that register as degrees of fluency.

In the language as well as the culture, the women said, there were too many subtleties at play for me as a neophyte to be anything less than meticulous in my learning habits. One misplaced emphasis could change one’s meaning from “I want to ask you a question” to “I want to kiss you.” An oddly phrased statement or awkward interaction could ruin a relationship before one could take root—such were the demands of the environment. They told me these things, and I drank in their perspectives wholeheartedly. My trust in their way of thinking was reinforced by the awe I felt whenever I heard them speak—the Mandarin rolled off of their tongues with a skill and efficiency that I dreamed would someday be mine.

Acquiring the language skills necessary to thrive in China can sound intimidating until you’re captured by an addiction to the process—China is a country that offers an abundance of addicting disciplines. For the rigors these disciplines present, there’s an inherent simplicity that comes into play when the mind is focused downward. There are no hard problems to be solved or profound questions to be answered in the pursuit of fluency, only the laborious work of memorization—of feeling out and conforming to already worn patterns of usage. Now the point seems so obvious to me, though I remember the desperation of those weeks—the constant fear that the language was too hard for me to learn properly and that I’d never speak it well enough to survive life on the ground. In this way and for similar reasons I watched myself and my peers at the language school latch onto vertical thinking, letting it venture beyond its mandate as an aid in the acquisition of rote knowledge and bleed into other areas of thought.

Ultimately the evangelists won, and I began to see things differently. My teachers and my new friends had successfully instilled in me the notion I would carry forward in those first years of my China life: the faith that one day, all of the little details would come together and illuminate deeper cultural questions—questions that, I’d have to remind myself, were my primary concern.

In my first few months in Kunming, I was put in contact with a young woman named Ma Li. She was an administrator in the department of foreign languages and, important to my work, she was of Hui ethnicity. (Her surname Ma—the sinicization of the name of Prophet Muhammad—being an important marker thereof.) She was kind and polite and took an unusual interest in me. She sought me out for simple outings to the library or walks around campus. Ma Li never asked about my research nor did she volunteer any information on her own experience with Islam. She was explicit, however, in cautioning me about where in my quest I should and shouldn’t go.

There was a place downtown called Muslim Street that I was bound to hear about, she said. It was hit or miss. Sure, you could buy a delicious lamb kebab there and the best naan bread the city had to offer, but otherwise it was a place where you went to find trouble. It was disheveled and disorderly—marked by a solitary Masjid, the street was otherwise a hazard, a narrow corridor lined with open air vendors whose incense, textiles, and preserved meats failed to disguise the half-destroyed buildings that ran up and down the block.

There were frequent police raids you wanted to avoid, but most of all it was important to steer clear of the Turkic-looking men and women who were a ubiquitous presence in the area. They were from the northwestern reaches of the country, she said, and were a people entirely bereft of morality. They donned pious garments and made haste to pray whenever the adhan poured from the loud speakers of the mosque. At any other time, if given an opening, they would rob you in broad daylight, abscond with your things, and leave you looking about, clueless, wondering what had just befallen you.

I had been on the ground for less than a year and had not yet made the connection between the cultural over-emphasis on vertical thinking and the role it played in the inhibition of one’s critical capacities. I wasn’t fully aware of the ways this habit encourages the outsourcing of conclusions on matters of diversity, justice, and equality, leading us to assume the interests of the powerful as our own.

I made my first foray to Muslim Street a short while after Ma Li’s exhortations and my take-aways bore little resemblance to hers. Save the description of it as a hollowed out and dusty place, I’d found the atmosphere warm and inviting. I enjoyed my trips to the Masjid and the bustle of commerce on the nearby streets. I would encounter the Northwesterners there too, though I felt no less safe and exercised no greater caution in their presence than I would in any other place in Kunming. They rode up and down the street carting burlap bags full of seeds and spices or huge loaves of a delicious fruit and nut cake. I loved to buy palm-sized chunks of it that I would eat on the walk home—the simple sugars binding to my fingers, tugging at them like hot strands of mozzarella on a pizza.

I learned not to contradict Ma Li or anyone else at the university who was charged with my care. They were well meaning and too ensconced in their attitudes for my growing list of questions to land gently on their ears. Over time, I would surface from a posture of downward focus and notice more contrasts between the things I was being told and the realities I perceived. Ultimately, I would pose the questions to myself: Why were people from the Northwest depicted so negatively? What was the relationship between the popularity of these stereotypes and the resettlement of more than one million Han Chinese in their native lands? Why didn’t any Mosque-goers want to talk to me on the record, and why was it that every time I went to Muslim Street it seemed more dilapidated than the last?

After I had been on the ground for one year, Anna and Lisa visited China for a semester away. I had the pleasure of seeing them one afternoon when they came trekking through Yunnan. Over lunch they talked in bland terms about Hangzhou where they were based—West Lake was cool, and the city was modern, too, much more so than Kunming they had to admit. Throughout the discussion I noticed Lisa’s angst, which surprised me as I’d never observed this trait in her. She was one of the most optimistic, brilliant women I’d ever met, and I couldn’t imagine her being confronted with a problem she couldn’t stare down and conquer.

When I mentioned the change in her, she was forthcoming.

“I’ve spent the last three and a half years studying this language,” she said. “I poured myself into learning everything, only to arrive here and feel overwhelmed with disappointment. People’s attitudes are so depressingly simple, their aspirations are so shallow. It makes me feel like all of these years of dedication have been a waste.”

She wasn’t given to histrionics, so there were no tears, just the three of us sitting in the afternoon sun. Lisa talked, and we listened because there was nothing for us to say.

After my two years were up, I moved for a short time to the UK, and the distance gave me the chance to consider everything I’d blinded myself to during my time in China. How had I been so seduced, suspended my own critical faculties in the embrace of a country where I could conform but never belong? My mind was consumed with opinions of China, most of them negative. That country had serious problems in too many areas to name. That was the train of thought that ran through my mind every hour, but of course, the mind does funny things sometimes. I’d think these things, in the midst of long walks through Chinatown, where I’d covet the sights and smells that I would claim to have disliked just months earlier. I was eager to overhear conversations between Chinese speakers—conversations that I finally understood—or to practice my speaking ability, helping lost tourists find their way to the tube.

For all the things we come to know and criticize about China, it’s easy to grow attached to the skills we acquire just learning to survive there. This is how it happens. A few months later, I was flying back, this time to Shanghai where I’d taken a job as a translator.

In 2016, my friend Susan came to visit me in Shanghai. I met her at the start of my second year in Kunming. She had journeyed there with her husband for what they hoped would be a short stay before they planned to move to Bhutan. Ultimately the move didn’t come to pass. She landed a Fulbright and bounced around China for a few more years before heading back to the States.

Susan had settled into the life of a full-time mom, though like me she had aspirations to become a writer—aspirations that had brought her to town for a major international literary festival.

I was driving Susan back to the campus in north Shanghai where the festival was being held when she said, out of the blue,

“Girl . . . you have officially been in China too long. I guess you’ve gotten spoiled.”

Clearly, she meant no harm, but her words put me on the defense. First, I understand some of the built-in assumptions that “foreigners” who leave China carry toward those of us who remain. One of the common misconceptions is that one chooses to stay in China because, despite appearances, it is a comfortable place to live. True, there are aspects of life in China that would seem desirable in the most superficial sense—the relative affordability of services standing out among them–but this is a deception. A cursory perusal into the economic realities faced by people who work at the low-end of the Chinese service industry would be enough to create a sense of unease in anyone who would otherwise desire a private driver or housekeeper. But more crucially, one of the hallmarks of social manipulation here is in the appeal to vanity. Many of the behaviors “foreigners” perceive as displays of deference or respect are rarely that. Most often they are a kind of power play—a manner of extracting valuables that flatters the taker’s sense of his own cleverness while going completely unnoticed by the taken.

I said none of this to her but simply pointed to the sky.

“Do you see that?” I asked, directing her attention to the heavy smog. It was one of those weeks in Shanghai where the air wasn’t so depressingly bad that you couldn’t see the city skyline, but where going outside made your skin feel tacky and left a chemical taste in your mouth all the same.

“How can you say I’m spoiled,” I said, “when I wake up to this every day?”

There was, however, a sense in which she was right. Recent years had put me in a place of serious reflection about the relative merits of living in the United States vs. China, and there were many times where I determined that the latter was the better choice.

The Airpocalypse first hit Shanghai at the tail end of 2012—not even a year after Trayvon Martin had been killed in Florida for the crime of walking in his own neighborhood to the dismay of an angry and impetuous white man. The spate of similar killings around that time was part of an embittered response to the election of America’s first black president and helped raise serious questions about the rule of law and its applicability to African Americans. In light of limited justice enjoyed by racial minorities in the United States, China can appear like a safe haven.

Most of the time, however, I am very clear that China is no refuge from these abuses either, certainly in the lives of its citizens but even in my own black expatriate life. In Western media, stories on the occurrence of racist incidents in China are common these days, though they are rarely contrasted to a time in recent memory when official Chinese portrayals of black subjects were dominated by dignified, hard-working laborers attempting to overthrow the menace of colonial rule. Such images were prolific in the time before China’s re-opening, when African nations were among its greatest allies and friends.

In the ensuing decades, this country’s stature on the global stage has risen at the same rate that black/African-ness has grown more and more stigmatized in the domestic media. This is not just a matter of political correctness—a term that has come to be derided here as much as it is within the political right of my home country. History shows that racism in China has all of the dimensions it carries in the West, bearing psycho spiritual as well as bodily consequences. In this way, and particularly for those of us who are dark-skinned, the choice to live in China means operating at a deficit, where the costs can often seem greater than the rewards.

“Well, the longer you stay,” Susan finally came back, “the more of a China Hand you’ll be.”

That’s another bothersome phrase to me, for not only the imperialist resonance it carries but the congratulatory sense of mastery it presumes. Despite my ongoing efforts with the language, I only read and write 2,500 characters, which facilitates my friendships and allows me to keep reasonably well informed of events in my surroundings but is not nearly enough to be considered fluent. My claim to intimate engagement with this culture is primarily by way of the prodigious reading schedule I maintain on subjects related to Chinese history and culture, which is its own can of worms in the pursuit of meaning.

I ask myself why this term is still in circulation and have come to acknowledge that it is used as an endearment—a title conferred on people who demonstrate sustained interest and even love for the country.

Modesty keeps me from open agreement, but she’s really pinned me down in a sense. Perhaps I’m in the running to be a China Hand, but love? Certainly, the China story engenders strong feelings. I have friends here whom I love and for whom I have sacrificed greatly, though I do not ascribe any such emotion to the country itself. The ubiquitous exhortation to “Love China” on roadside billboards and in subway advertisements has had the opposite effect, causing me to raise an eyebrow at the slightest solicitation of praise.

The China story, to me, is one of an earnest people caught in the sweep of history. Since the years of “humiliation,” they have worked to harness their power and have become a global force whose potential we’ve only begun to see. The China story is one of a people who are supremely deserving of their success. The country (by which I mean the Party) has helped in this effort but also impeded progress in crucial ways that it does not seem constitutionally suited to address.

These feelings are enhanced in instances where I’ve witnessed, whether in the region or beyond, the persistence of anti-Chinese sentiment. There’s no denying the racial element to much of the negative attention that is directed at the “rise” of China. In the face of these attitudes, the pride that many in this country feel for China’s moves onto the global stage make sense as it pays dividends in the self-valuation of Chinese people around the world. This is despite the fact that the country’s expanded power attaches itself to little more than prospects of material accumulation for its citizens.

This is despite the fact that the country’s expanded power attaches itself to little more than prospects of material accumulation for its citizens.

I say this and deny love in the same breath largely because I understand that China has no use for my affections. They will not save me from what many in this country see as the unforgivable fact of my foreignness, my blackness. Most pressingly, these affections will not save any of us from the long-term effects that exposure to this environment is having on our bodies. The evidence is there for all who care to listen—old acquaintances who have fallen away and resurfaced after battling cancer or some other respiratory ailment, the two standing as China’s leading causes of death. This country, so demanding of your love, will not love you back.

Then why do I stay when I know that investing in China is a losing proposition? Perhaps I’m tracing the edges of a design more vast and wonderful than I can presently comprehend, but I can only think to pay attention to what is in front of me, and when things don’t add up, at least there’s saying so to assuage the conscience.

In the fall of 2017, I developed a new cough. My breathing became labored, and I felt a tightness in my chest. When my symptoms didn’t go away after a few days, I panicked.

I rushed myself to the doctor to see what was up with my lungs. After a thorough examination, she gave a diagnosis: bronchitis resulting from a cold I’d recently gotten over. I was prescribed a gargling solution and told to wait a bit longer for my healing, and within a few days the matter resolved itself. Everything was fine, is fine … for now.

I was leaving the doctor’s office after a follow-up appointment trying to hail a cab that afternoon, and after a long while someone pulled over to get me.

We drove mostly in silence along the broad boulevards of Lujiazui. A Chinese power ballad played low in the background.

It was a dreary day, and all the skyscrapers disappeared above the low-hanging clouds, or were they? I had neglected to read the weather forecast and the air quality index that morning and wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

“Is that fog or pollution,” I pondered aloud.

“What do you think it is?” The driver said, sounding unnecessarily harsh.

He made a sharp turn, and it rattled the tall glass container of green tea that sat at his side, sending the leaves twirling about like flecks of glitter inside a snow globe.

He must have felt bad about what he’d just said because he replied softer the next time.

“Wait for the easterly,” he said. “In a little while it will come blowing through the city and everything will be clear.”

Most people know the truth that I perceive but that does not abide with m —the best way to experience China is simply to behold everything unfolding around you in the most clear-eyed manner, then try your best to survive it.

But I was born different, and perhaps it is my lot in life to always take the difficult path. I continue to do what interests me, and for now that involves staying here. I turn over the stones and take my notes. Meaning will find me when it will.