Being Black in China: An Interview with James Prescott-Kerr
By Nyasha Oliver
For this issue, we got to know James Prescott-Kerr, author of Teacher Black: My Year in China. In this interview, he shares some anecdotes about working as a teacher and why the publishing industry needs to pick up books like his, which sit within the “Black in Asia” subgenre.
What made you move to China in the first place?
I did a university community programme with Arsenal F.C. in South Africa and was integrating with the community and culture. I knew I had to do it again and it had to be somewhere unfamiliar, but not in Europe or America. My girlfriend at the time was speaking about studying in China for a year so, when I saw an advert for a teaching role, it was like a light-bulb moment.
What was the inspiration to write this book?
I wrote a fortnightly blog for the agency I worked for. I started using the blog as a template with timestamps and fleshing out a story. I didn’t have an audience in mind but, because so many people had a lot of questions about my experience, it was impossible to summarise one of the most eventful years of my life in a few sentences. So, when the next person asks, “How was living in China?” they can find out on Amazon for themselves. I do wish I knew what I was in for before going to China.
What do you wish you knew before?
The amount of attention I’d get. I know foreigners get treated like “celebrities” when they enter communities who rarely see those from across the world, but I think it’s in a very romanticised way – usually through the lens of white people that have lived there. Every time they get attention, it’s something positive and they’re held in such high regard. They have rose-tinted glasses and don’t get ridiculed by Chinese people. Whereas, as Black people, we’re used to it and to being racially conscious as our skin tone is usually framed as something negative. I found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t being treated like a celebrity, but more like a freak show. I wish I had known that.
Do you have any favourite memories that you’d like to share?
It would have to be the summer camp. Not only were we teaching the children, but they would teach us too. Despite being fifteen or sixteen-year-olds, we wanted them to come out of their shells a bit and give them a more fluid style of teaching. In those ten days from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day, we became a close, mini family. It was so heart-breaking saying goodbye to them after we had all grown and learned together.
Do you think the publishing industry will pick up more books within this reading space?
I hope so because there is definitely a gap in the market. The only reason I self-published was because the book didn’t really get much attention from the industry. And when it did, I was offered bad deals.
How can readers benefit from learning what it’s like to live in China as a Black person, from your perspective?
Readers can brace themselves for any possibilities because it’s not guaranteed that everyone’s experience in China will be similar. They can go into the right mindset from reading my book and get an idea in terms of how you might change and grow as an individual while living abroad. In the book, I discuss the distance between me and some of my close friends back home. It’s not just about the experiences you have in another country, but also about how it will affect your relationships at home and how you might feel about coming back.
What advice would you give to new authors who want to write about living in China?
Make as many notes as possible. Look back at all the pictures and videos you took to jog your memory and remind yourself what it was like to be there. From then on, you can use those things to flesh out even a fictional story and have the world built already. Maybe you can base some of the characters on yourself, the people you’ve met and the friends you’ve made. From there, the world is your oyster.
Are there any Black in Asia books you would like to read in the future?
I don’t really mind as long as it’s a good read and it focuses on the challenges that come along with being Black in China. A cookbook would be quite interesting. Maybe a book that touches on things I didn’t pick up on, or that I didn’t experience, to broaden my horizons, like a "Black Coach" story where a Black ex-professional football player moves to China to become a coach and makes an impact beyond the sport.
Do you plan on writing any more books featuring Black characters with stories set in China or Asia in the future?
I do have other book ideas, but not in China or Asia. I’ve put everything into this book and it was a very cathartic experience for me. But maybe I’ll revisit that Black Coach idea…