An Unwanted Spotlight in a Foreign Country

By Armani Hodiah Davidson

Cherry, my host sister in China, first selected a chocolate cake for her birthday.

“Do you like chocolate?” she asked.

“No, I’m allergic,” I replied.

“Is it because your skin is already brown?”  

In a state of shock, I laughed. She eventually picked a vanilla cake with chocolate icing. I scraped off the icing.

Cherry’s actions challenged me to consider my roots. I’m named Hodiah after Hadassah, a Biblical woman that brought splendor to her village.  Known as Queen Esther, she assimilated into a different culture by hiding her religion until forced to stand for righteousness. My name’s history follows me wherever I go, and last summer it carried me through my internal conflicts in China.

I began studying Mandarin in 9th grade, and to prepare for my trip to China, I spent three months with my Mandarin teacher learning the country’s customs. She stressed the importance of respect in Chinese culture and highlighted the need to leave a good impression on our host families in the working-class city of Quzhou.

At school in Quzhou, my fellow American exchange students and I sat on a panel to introduce ourselves to our new classmates. The Chinese students asked my white peers about their hobbies, interests and Mandarin abilities, while they questioned me about which rap stars I knew, how long it took to braid my hair, or if I wash my hair. I was respectful, but felt isolated.

“You’re like a celebrity!” Cherry said on my first day.

She grabbed my arm and paraded me around like a pet; I smiled, sinking into discomfort. In the hallways, students felt my hair and skin. I said nothing as her peers encircled me, taking turns touching me.

On a field trip to a Buddhist temple, I noticed people staring at our group. Initially, the stares amused us, until a woman stopped praying, handed her phone to my friend, and motioned for me to stand next to her. We took a photo in front of the Buddha statue where she had been kneeling. My eyes focused on the floor and my arms stuck to my side as the camera flashed, illuminating the prayer room. I felt like I was under the spotlight and all eyes were on me.  

Before China, as the only Black ballerina in a Russian ballet company, I had grown accustomed to the spotlight. However, members of my company and I respect our differences, knowing that the beauty of dance is moving in unison regardless of ethnicity. In China, I did not feel that warmth radiating from the lights that followed me.

I tried to understand that my Chinese peers had little exposure to African-Americans, which motivated their actions. I also recognize there are times when I unknowingly made assumptions or asked insensitive questions about people based on their race. My grandfather is Polish and I have joked, in his presence, that “No one will ever believe you are my real grandfather.”

He would force a quick smile. I now realize my comments actually hurt him and that his expression was just an expression of politeness.

Traveling to China, climbing the Great Wall, and walking into the Oriental Pearl Tower were unforgettable memories. Like Hadassah, I tried to assimilate to my surroundings and ignored my feelings of discomfort. But the more I thought about it, I decided I had to say something to educate my host and to help the next Black exchange student.

On the last day, I stood in a dimly-lit auditorium under the spotlight. At the closing ceremony, I articulated my discomfort with being treated like a spectacle. I explained that I worked hard to prepare for this trip and to respect their culture. However, I felt disrespected many times. The audience clapped softly as I left the stage. Despite the indifferent response,  I applauded myself for standing up in a way that honors my name.

Armani Hodiah Davidson, a graduate of The Pingry School, will be a freshman at Barnard in the fall.