by Jeff Henderson·
Twenty years ago I had to entertain countless questions about my music and my clothes because I’d traveled to a strange new land where there weren’t a lot of people like me.
That place was Beaverton, Oregon.
Soon after I’d landed in Taiwan and Indonesia and Hong Kong and China and Vietnam and have the same experience. I’m not really certain how I’d describe my treatment as I traveled throughout Asia. While I wouldn’t describe any treatment as racism, there definitely uncomfortable stares, rude questions and negative assumptions.
None of those hiccups was enough to deter me from continuing my growth and development by moving to Tokyo with my wife and sons, 4 and 2 years old.
What I remember most was the stares from everyone. This was 2004 and we were probably a strange site because we opted not to live in the expat neighborhood. No, we didn’t opt to go local to get a different experience. We found a great deal in a neighborhood we thought would be convenient. As it turned out, Minami Aoyama was a wealthy neighborhood that parked our bright red used SUV next to the neighbors white S Class. I don’t blame him for parking his vehicle so close to his house. Like I said, we had a 4 and 2 year old.
Eventually I forgot about the stares and we floated through Tokyo for three years. We even had another son there. It was all good.
For the next ten years I’d travel to Asia on business and noticed the changes in how people saw me as I learned to navigate from a few black Americans who still call the continent home. I take the local train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou regularly. I usually stay at hotels near grocery stores so I can eat whatever I want if the days meals weren’t my cup of tea. I use WeChat.
I noticed the change, but I didn’t notice how big the change was.
For the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time in Shanghai with my partner. I’ve gotten so use to it that I asked my wife if we should look into trying another expat run. Our two oldest sons would be in college and our youngest loves adventure. We talked about how it might work, but I knew she’d need to see Shanghai for herself before she had a real opinion.
My partner jokes that he has no interest in visiting New York City because it’s just like Shanghai. He’s not wrong in a lot of ways, but the idea of living in Shanghai was intriguing to me.
As luck would have it, one of my clients was hosting a sales meeting over the winter break, so my family joined me for 7 days in Shanghai and Hainan. I loved watching them absorb the city as we ate noodles from the street market and visited museums in Shanghai Tower. We shopped Nike’s new innovation store and visited my partners new office inside a soccer stadium. We took the bullet train to the small city of Suzhou, population 8 million, and finished our trip in a resort in Hanai.
My wife was a little worried about the food before the trip, but everyone enjoyed almost every meal. Everything was so easy.
“And no one stared the entire time,” my wife said before heading home. “I could count the number of Westerners on both hands, yet nobody stared at us the entire trip.”
While I thought that was a good thing, I also realized that we had no need to move to Shanghai. Aside from the language, there wasn’t anything special about being there. I booked a Didi (Chinese Uber) to the local train station where we bought tickets on a busy holiday. We didn’t have one moment that felt special enough to see it as an adventure. The language barrier might have been more extreme on Buford Highway — miss you, ATL.
I thought I’d see Shanghai through a fresh set of eyes and enjoy their amazement. Instead I saw them order pork buns and spicy noodles like they were in NYC.
That’s not a bad thing. I really like my jerk spot on 124th and Malcolm X.