How I Found a Home Away from Home in Shanghai

Jun 28, 2019 11:01:00 AM / by Imani Wilson

With a semester abroad behind her, Imani writes about her experience with integrating as an African American in Shanghai and finding a home away from home. She gives us an honest look at her challenges and successes, and how attending the Black Expo in Shanghai came at the right time during her study abroad journey. Read how she's doing after being back in the US with some final advice on how to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone.

Over the past few months, I’ve gone through challenge after challenge and success after success. This learning experience has been very frustrating, but then again, if it wasn’t, I don’t think I would have learned anything. Don’t get me wrong, I had so much fun; it was one of the best experiences of my life. I tried things that I would have never done back in the United States like eating chicken feet and talking to people in a different language. I’ve also tried things that I couldn’t try in the US, like riding the Tron ride in Disney Shanghai. I would love to go back to Shanghai. One of my new goals is to learn the more of the language and go back.

Shanghai Disney ticketsGoing to Disneyland Shanghai with one of my best friends was the best!

For this trip, I planned to learn about myself and how I’d react being by myself. I wanted to grow and putting myself through this experience helped me reach my goal. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, but I’m glad I got a chance to do it.

Squidward paintGot to find some fun things to do on the weekends before I left.

China is a place to get easily lost in transition and translation. This is easy to do when putting yourself in a different culture without knowing the language. I felt that I wasn’t there long enough to freely express myself or my needs, but I also needed more than others were giving. A friend really helped me realize this and once I figured that out I was able to live in Shanghai without so much pressure and expectations weighing me down. This brought me to the conclusion that it’s a very good idea when abroad to get to know people there who understand you and can help you whenever it’s needed.

CAPA did well with having someone there to help with the general transition to China, but having people who look like me and that went through similar situations made me feel more understood and the effects were more longstanding and deep-rooted. I’m glad I was able to find people to help me through that process. I was especially lucky in that I happened to find someone that specifically is working on helping people like me.

Black Butterfly Initiative

Black ExpoGoing to this event made me feel at home. Much-need nostalgia; I'm very glad I went. 

Luckily the Black Expo was in Shanghai during the few months I was there. And for every event in China, there is a WeChat group chat for the event. I was so excited to go and find that most of the people there were from the East Coast of the US. I found a couple of people that grew up where I did in the DMV area (DC, Maryland, and Virginia area). In that group chat I came across a person that wanted help for a project. She was asking people to be in her film. I decided to just go for it. Since I grew up around writers and film producers for most of my life, I figured I would give it a shot. It turns out that she happened to be a graduate student from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign named Angelique Evans. She is the founder of the Black Butterfly Initiative, which is a project to encourage African Americans to experience a life outside of the United States. However the project is so much more than what can be summed up in one sentence. Asking her about her goals for the project, she responded, “My goal for this project is to create a safe space for African American students and their families to be encouraged, educated, and actually experience life abroad. I want to create a community where students, and current and future expatriates can live, learn, and navigate a new country, culture, and language.” I would agree with her in saying that support is needed before, during, and after the time abroad; also, that it’s very important to have a community to help you through everything such as “culture shock, bad grades on exams, celebrating US holidays, or providing trips to join during holidays.”

Getting connected with this unique community of people who grew up in the area I did was so helpful, as I was originally heartbroken to hear what some Chinese think of me and black people in general. I went to China expecting interesting things would happen because I’m dark-skinned. About a month into the program, people kept asking me if I played basketball. They called me words that I that I wouldn’t want to repeat on this blog. I felt especially frustrated when I couldn’t respond to them due to my lack of Mandarin. As soon as I stepped off campus there were constant stares without a smile in sight. People kept taking pictures of me (sometimes I didn’t mind because I looked really good that day). I hated it when people touched my hair without my permission. “Yes, I know it’s pretty, but that doesn’t mean you can grab it and start pulling. Just take my word for it. It’s real. And yes, I can wash it without my dreads untangling.” These are some answers to the common question I would get. I wanted to feel understood since I was trying so hard to understand them; but, some people couldn’t wrap their heads around it.

This is just one example of why Angelique’s initiative is so important. Hearing how this initiative came to be was surprising as well as inspiring. Because Angelique has experienced these feats herself, the way she handles the initiative is thorough. There are many things that go into traveling and learning about another culture that people wouldn’t originally think about. Experiencing culture shock, for instance, is a two-way street. I never even thought about having to experience culture shock when going back home. I learned this through both her and my own experiences. Angelique understands the challenges of traveling and being suffused in a different culture. She also shows the great benefits of learning and experiencing another culture and language. I’m really glad I met her at the time that I did. I’m also glad I found a community where I’m able to talk about things like my love for Go-go music and have them immediately know what I’m talking about.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Spring2019_Shanghai_Imani Wilson_Angelique Evans
Angelique on her trip to Guilin. It’s where the mountains on the Chinese 20 dollar bill came from. 

Angelique is currently working in China to create a short film about life abroad. “The film focuses on various subject matters ranging from how we came to be in China, current occupations, and more. There are many other aspects of The Black Butterfly Initiative in the works.” She hopes to be able to do a soft launch of the website, and a few other features, by Thanksgiving of 2019, so keep an eye out!

I’ve returned home about two weeks ago and I’m so happy I’m home. Everything that I’ve experienced in China was amazing, but I noticed that I missed home a lot. Also, now that I’m back I feel a little self conscious. The reverse culture shock is real. Luckily, I haven’t been in China for too long to experience a lot of the culture shock. Some things I was surprised about included the spacing in lines. When I came home, I went straight to the MVA to renew my license (not the best thing ever). While I was standing in line, I kept wondering if I was standing too close to the person in front of me. For some reason I was so anxious about it. I didn’t know what to do. Secondly, the food immediately starting hurting my stomach when I came back. I decided to eat a lot of vegetables and fruit to adjust. Something I didn’t expect was my English getting worse. Even writing this blog I feel myself making every sentence weird and grammatically incorrect. When I came back I did feel a little more confident than when I left. In summary, being in a new country is hard; but, I’d do it again anytime.

Baseball till eveningI will never forget playing baseball with my friends.

Here are some final pieces of advice that I got before going to China that really helped me while I was there that I want to share with you:

- Put yourself in as many uncomfortable situations as possible. It’s good to be nervous from time to time.

- Go out and do things especially when you have no reason not to do them. And go with no expectations.

Drawing of Imani I will never forget the moments.

Thanks, Imani!

Imani Wilson


Imani Wilson is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Mathematics major at Hood College, she is studying abroad in Shanghai this semester.

See more of Imani's journey in Shanghai.

Learn More about the CAPA Shanghai Program

Topics: Shanghai, China, Diversity Abroad