When Ishmawiyl Claiborne was 14, his mother accepted her first job overseas. Ishmawiyl describes what it was like to "come of age" in China and develop his own sense of culture and identity.
Current Age: 31
How old were you when you had your first international experience?
How long did you live in China?
Initially 3.5 years but my experience of living in China totals 5.5 years.
What were the circumstances of this trip?
The first time I left the US, it was to accompany my mother and younger brother to China. This was my mother’s first job outside of the U.S. My time in China is divided into my teenage years and my young adult years post university.
What impact do you feel this trip had on you?
It took many years before I could answer this question. Visiting a place and actually living in a place has two completely different impressions on one’s person. Firstly, China has given me a deeper look at my own cultural heritage. It was in my youth that I began to seek answers about who I was, where my ancestors came from and the history behind people that looked like me. It sparked a long journey of self discovery as well as an understanding of African American history and African history at large. China had a profound effect on me; through the people I bonded with and the friends who are more like family. And due to my grasp of the language, China also feels like home. China has given me a profound feeling to appreciate my own people’s history and many cultures in today’s world as well as in the ancient world.
How do you feel this experience was different for you as an African-American Man?
U.S African Americans are made to feel that there is something wrong with being proud and having a bold appreciation of one’s ancestral culture; often having to grapple with the views, fears, concerns, ideas and stereotypes from the outside. The lack of this negative energy in China allowed me at a very young age to develop a core appreciation for being African American and by extension; an African.
It sparked a long journey of self discovery as well as an understanding of African American history and African history at large.
How do you feel this trip affected your sense of the world?
I was born in New York City and as diverse as the U.S is, as a child I can’t say that the awareness and understanding of the many cultures within the U.S was something I understood. But I didn’t know much about any other place in the world, let alone being able to find such places on a map. In my view many of us African American youth were uninspired in school and had a lack of true understanding of ourselves. When I lived in China I was was able to branch out to other places such as South Korea, Thailand and numerous other countries. I went to an International school and I made friends with students from many parts of the world. Initially I couldn’t name any places on the world map and that drastically shifted when I moved abroad. Living abroad has deeply expanded my knowledge of how the world works; everything from culture, trade, history, politics, and issues of development. My ability to live and adapt in a foreign place gave me the appreciation and the ability to comfortably interact and embrace the diversity of the U.S society. Living there has made me much more cognizant of the world.
What do you think you accomplished or pursued that you otherwise would not have?
I feel that I am still in process of accomplishing many things however every experience is not only an experience for oneself but also for others with whom one interacts with. Living in China during the booming transition from a poor country to a rich nation, a nation of industrial power and manufacturing gave me access to a world that did not exist in the U.S which was already post industrial. Thus it birthed my love for fashion, textiles, cultural studies, music and more. I became a citizen of the world and my knowledge of the world opened vastly because of living in China.
I became a citizen of the world and my knowledge of the world opened vastly because of living in China.
What do you feel contributed the most to this effect?
I think what contributed to this the most was the search for self and identity that was initially spurred by the Chinese's extreme curiosities about black people. At the time of my youth, not many were aware of an African American presence and thus anyone who was black was taken to be directly from an African country. The question of where I was from was a regular occurrence and instead of feeling angry, it prompted me to do a lot of searching. At that time I began to dive into the history of African people. Not solely in America but the history of African people around the globe. In my adult years these questions were halved as China’s exposure to the rest of the world, and the increase of foreigners allowed more and more Chinese to have an understanding of the world at large. Living in another culture at such a young age allowed me to be part of something so much more than myself as an individual and it also allowed me to celebrate myself in ways that were not socially allowed in the United States. I became very aware of where I came from and that process has continued to unfold to this very day. It has allowed me to stand firm in my own skin.
What advice would you give to the person you were before you took this journey?
Watch out! The world is about to unfold before your eyes!
Anything else you'd like to add?
It is my hope that more African-Americans travel the world to develop a better understanding of themselves, the world, as well as to develop true cultural exchanges that will birth new images and stories about who we are and what we have given the world.
Ishmawiyl Claiborne is an international traveler, artist, fashion designer and a lover of history and culture. He is currently focused on preparing for his M.A with a focus on Chinese History, as well as a comparative study; researching China’s relationship with Africa. Ishmawiyl also intends to do extensive research on African- American history and develop bodies of work that will allow that history to be presented to new audiences in China. Additionally he is developing projects in The Gambia, West Africa centered on clothing production, textiles, and small agricultural developments.