I was inspired by the story of Jasmine Cochran, a young African-American woman who has been teaching teaching English literature and language since 2016 to students aged 14 to 16 in China, where she lives with her husband and two children. It was serendipity that I came across a BBC profile of her entitled How George Floyd’s death changed my Chinese students. I just want to touch on one point in this post because of the parallels to Viet Nam. Follow this link to read it in its entirety. Highly recommended!
In comparing the racism that exists in the US with that of China, Jasmine observed that in China, where 91% of the population is Han Chinese, racism is the product of naivety and ignorance. This is not unlike Viet Nam and other countries whose populations are either homogeneous and/or have had little to no contact with people of color.
She mentioned that people on the street “have rubbed her skin and felt her hair, and some have followed her,” which she described as “invasive and annoying but not cruel.” (Note: You could substitute any number of other countries in Asia and beyond for China and the same shoe would fit.)
Her comment reminded me of a scene I witnessed during my undergraduate study abroad experience in Germany. A young German girl walked over to an African-American soldier and lifted up his pant leg to see if his leg was the same color as his arms and face, something a child might do out of curiosity. I think the soldier understood because he waited patiently until she made her discovery.
In Viet Nam, in the early days (my first trip was in 1996), people would occasionally touch my arms because they are hairy and therefore different. It was initially annoying – kind of like being an animal in a petting zoo – but not offensive because I understood their motivation.
The racism that exists in Viet Nam, similar to China, is what I think of as a passive form of racism vs. the more virulent and often missionary racism in the US that is rooted in history. The former is much easier to overcome through meaningful face-to-face contact.
In her four years in China, Jasmine and her family have blazed new trails, broken down cultural and racial barriers, and made countless Chinese aware that black people are fellow human beings not negative stereotypes passed down from one generation to the next.
Shalom (שלום), MAA