BY JEREMY BERRY AND EUGENIA MARSHALL
In the latter half of the 20th century, Chinese culture had a noticeable influence on Blacks in America. Many African Americans in urban communities grew up watching Saturday morning Kung Fu movies with subtitles or voiceovers. We tuned in to cult classics, such as The Last Dragon (1985) and The Golden Child (1986), which entertained our fancy with Chinese culture (what little of it we knew).
In the 1990’s, African American infatuation with Chinese culture even spilled over into hip-hop and helped thrust an ailing underground sector of the phenomenon to the surface of mainstream media. This was the fodder that the hip-hop group The Wu-Tang Clan used to feed their movement with themes borrowed from Kung Fu film Shaolin and Wu Tang. What interests the members of the Committee of 100—an international membership organization that brings a Chinese American perspective to issues concerning Asian Americans and U.S.-China relations—is how exactly the reciprocal influence of African American and urban countercultures actually captivated the interest of Chinese adolescents, especially given the disparate upbringings.
When my colleague Eugenia Marshall and I were offered the chance to travel to Beijing and Shanghai with our friends and colleagues, including Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, we hip-hopped on the opportunity. We too wondered what underscored the mutual interest between Black youth in America and the youth in China. As we dined on authentic Chinese dumplings and traversed the attractions, such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, we analyzed the societal and political walls that separate our cultures, engaged the youth in discourse in the forbidden conversation on race and identified the bridges of popular culture that seem to transcend it all. The transformative power of pop culture was never more apparent than when we encountered the counter-culture icon Andrew Ballen: a young African American law school dropout, who moved to China to start anew and became a hip-hop icon and successful entrepreneur. Ballen realized the “American Dream”…in China…by recognizing and linking a shared love for hip-hop, R&B, funk and soul music reared in the Unites States but doted on everywhere.
The 2008 Olympics put the beauty of Chinese culture and architecture on the world’s stage. China’s booming population is a constant conversation. Its educational system is highly regarded. However, a substantive conversation about race relations is not something that we have seen from a tourist perspective. Eugenia (Gina as I refer to her endearingly) and I pondered if these provocative conversations would actually help to expand each group’s inventory of ideas or, on the contrary, if Western stereotypes had already stamped our passports with the deep-rooted stigmas that seem to haunt the Black experience in America. Well, we think that those stigmas got held up at customs: the people of Beijing and Shanghai were quite warm and welcoming at every stop. We even felt like celebrities at a few of the touristy locations when some of the residents of the outer provinces requested—with cheerful promptness—that we take pictures with them. We were told that many of them had never met a Westerner before—especially a 6’3” Black male wearing a bright purple and gold Lakers shirt and a shapely, chocolate-complexioned female with Barbie-like facial features. When asked about interracial dating, one of our tour guides (Jing Wang) explained that the citizens of China have always been a humble people by nature.
“Even with the newfound economic upturn,” expounded Jing, “we still view the outside world from a place of humility. Our families have always welcomed marriage to foreigners of varying nationalities and ethnicities because historically we saw that as a step up.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Gina and I could not help but feel that the trip was all too fleeting. We had an avalanche of unanswered questions. Of course, we did not dare over-intellectualize the trip ourselves; and thus, we spent a substantial amount of time simply soaking up the new atmosphere along with the words and wisdom of Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. Both Tavis and Dr. West helped us to better situate the social and philosophical context of our experience in China.
Our greatest hope is that the future will afford us the opportunity to revisit China and discover more profound connections than those we see on the surface: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in The Game of Death, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour trilogy and Jet Li’s fling with Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die. As Howard Cheng (my China-born, U.S.-raised best friend) put it, “There is absolutely a deep synergy between Black and Yellow people that provides a foothold to a greater level of racial, social and human understanding. We just have to talk about it.”
Jeremy Berry is managing partner of High Quality Speakers Bureau, a subsidiary of The Smiley Group, Inc. Along with co-managing partner Kimberly McFarland, Jeremy represents the public speaking careers of talent such as Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Dr. Tricia Rose, Tavis Smiley, Dr. Robin Smith and other distinguished talent.
Eugenia Marshall serves as operations manager of The Smiley Group, Inc., headquartered in Los Angeles, CA.