What’s it Like Being a Jamaican Living in China?

What is it like being a Jamaican in China

Have you ever wondered what’s it like being a Jamaican living in China? In our “Jamaicans to the World” series, founder Xavier Murphy speaks with Nicoleen Johnson. She is a Jamaican that has lived in Shanghai, China for over 20 years.

Xavier: Hey, what is it like being a Jamaican living in China? Hi, I’m Xavier Murphy, founder of and today on this edition of Jamaicans to the world, I’m speaking to Nicoleen Johnson who lives in Shanghai, China. Hi Nicoleen, how are you doing?

Nicoleen: Hi Xavier. I’m doing well. Thank you for having me on your show. 

Xavier: Well, it’s been a long time, we knew each other and I’ve visited you in China, so it’s really good to have you on the show.  I’m going to start out with my first question, and it’s, which paat ah Jamaica yuh cum fram? (which part of Jamaica you are from?)

Nicoleen: I hail from the hills of Bethel Town in Westmoreland, born and grew up there, went to school in Montego Bay and in Kingston. But, yes. I hail from Bethel Town in Westmoreland. 

Xavier: Okay, great, great. Tell us, how you end up living in Shanghai, China? 

Nicoleen: Well, it was 1997, I had just graduated from the University of Technology with my first degree in Marketing major, Business Administration. I was awarded a scholarship to study in China, in Shanghai actually, in this university called Fudan University. I went to do my masters in International Relations and ended up doing a Ph.D. and stayed on, started my business and I’ve been in China ever since. So yes, that’s how I got there.

Xavier: So, what do you like the most about China? 

Nicoleen: Oh, I love Shanghai. I love living in Shanghai. After 23 years, you can imagine. It’s a beautiful place. You’ve been there, so you know what I’m talking about? 

Xavier: Yes, I know. I was quite surprised on my visit to Shanghai and thank you for your great hospitality while I was there. 

Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

Nicoleen: My pleasure. It’s one of my favorite places in the world and I’ve been to 60 plus countries around the world, but I really, really love Shanghai. It’s fast pace. The technology is very advanced. I love just being able to get up in the morning and I can jump on my phone and order anything I want, you know.  It’s just absolutely a fun place to be and so much happening all the time in Shanghai. You can never be bored living in Shanghai, to be honest. There’s always an activity for you to do, going to the cinema, to the theater, you know, events happening around and there is– It’s such a cosmopolitan city, and you have people from all over the world living there. So, this is one of my favorite places.

Xavier: Good. You said you have traveled to 60 places?

Nicoleen: Yes, 60 plus countries around the world. 

Xavier: Wow.

Nicoleen: It’s my passion.

Xavier: I love traveling. I hope one day to strive to where you have gotten, 60 countries. Wow!

Nicoleen: Yes. 

Xavier: So, my next question is, what do you like the least about China, or Shanghai, China? 

Nicoleen: What do I like the least? Oh man, it’s a love, hate relationship, to be honest. When I arrived in Shanghai 23 years ago, as a black person, you’re the center of attention, wherever you go. So, wherever I would travel across the country, I’d always be the center of attention. You either hate it or you love it, or you have to get used to it because this is just how it is. The people have never seen a person of color before. So, they’re always wanting to take your photos. They’re always wanting to have a conversation if they think you speak Chinese or they want to touch your skin to see if your color would come off.

So, it’s just one of those things that you experience living there. I would say I’ve gotten used to it over the years to ignore,  being the center of attention. And actually, it built my self-esteem and boost my confidence because no matter where you go, you will always stand out. You will never blend in. So it’s a love, hate relationship. I got more confident. I learned to love myself and walk in boldness as a Jamaican living in China. But at the same time, you know that you’re never going to blend in. So whenever I come back to the States or in Jamaica, wow! it’s just like, nobody knows me. I’m just one of many and it’s an amazing experience also. The minute I touch down in the U S I’m feeling like, “Oh yes. Now I can just blend in.”

Xavier: So, I got to say this also, on my visit, that experience of being that black person that everyone wants to take a picture with. I experienced it with you first, when you greeted us and met us in Shanghai that was my first stop in China. It is an interesting experience. Yes, a very interesting experience.

Nicoleen: Yes.

Xavier: I’ve never forget, on the train to Beijing there was a lady that came over me, she just stood over me, just staring, just looking at me. 

Nicoleen: Oh, yes. 

Xavier: You know, it happened everywhere.

Nicoleen: That right. Being black in China. You know, just get ready, if you’re coming to visit get ready for that. You will be the center of attention.

Xavier: So, here’s my next question. I think you may have touched on it a little bit, but, what would you say is your funniest, ‘you are Jamaican experience?’ You know, when somebody discover you’re Jamaican, you know, what came after? You know, it’s like, you’re Jamaican, and, you know, whatever happens after?

Nicoleen: Okay. There are many of them, but I would say one that really stood out to me would be the 2008 Olympics. Oh my gosh! Can I tell you, being Jamaican in the bird’s nest, in Beijing period, was just one of these amazing, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that experience. The Jamaicans were winning every heat. They were winning all their races. Usain Bolt, they were, you know, beating the world record. The minute you put on a Jamaican t-shirt or you had the flag with you and someone would meet you on the streets, they would be like, Oh my gosh, you’re Jamaican. Can I have your autograph? Oh my Lord. I became, I mean, you stand out already with your complexion, but I became like a celebrity. It was like, I was the one on the field running, doing all these amazing, breaking all these records. 

And what I found is that people wanted to interview me. I was doing radio interviews, TV interview. That’s called being Jamaican. I’d walk into the stadium and it didn’t matter what ticket I had. Because you’re sitting way up in the, you know, the bleachers, we would say and the security would say, “Oh, you’re Jamaican.” And they escort you to the very front. We got to sit in the very front to enjoy the races, just by being Jamaicans. Just by having the flag you’re labeled. They would recognize the flag, immediately and knew that you were Jamaicans.

Xavier: Wow.

Nicoleen: So, they were just treating us like celebrities. I tell you. It was one of those amazing experiences. I’ll never forget that, always. Whenever I think about 2008 Olympics in Beijing.  I remember being a Jamaican in China, how special that was for us. 

Xavier: Wow. That’s great. So, just for you viewers who are watching, Nicoleen is actually in Jamaica. There’re some rain in the background, but you know how it is. It’s summertime and there’s a little rain shower and, you know, I actually enjoy the rain, the smell of rain. So, she is in Jamaica heading back to China at some point in time. All right. So, the background noise you’re hearing is a little rain. So, my next question is this one, what is your biggest adjustment to living in China? What’s the biggest adjustment you had to make? 

Nicoleen: The language, considering you’re coming from Jamaica where, you know, we speak English for the most part. Before coming to China, I visited the UK, the US, of course, English speaking countries. Then my first visit that far away from home was the country that did not speak any English at all at the time when I arrived, to be honest. Very few people spoke English. So, it was extremely difficult learning Chinese. And after arriving, I discovered that my course would be taught in Chinese, which meant that I had to learn the language overnight. So, we had nine months crush course, studying Chinese and that was extremely difficult, but I’m so happy that I did. I’m so happy that now I can say I’m fluent in Chinese. That for me is an amazing accomplishment. It was extremely difficult getting around. As a matter of fact, when I arrived, we were all assigned a Chinese name. My degree, now, they’ve written my Chinese name on the degree. I remembered when I first arrived I didn’t know how to write my name. So, I’d arrived in the class and we had to write our names to register, and I had no idea. I had to be practicing, how to write my name, you know. 

Xavier: Wow.

Nicoleen: A truly Interesting experience. 

Great Wall near Beijing, China

Great Wall near Beijing, China

Xavier: So what’s your name? What’s your name in Chinese? 

Nicoleen: Ní kě lín. They used my English name, Nicoleen, and then they gave the Chinese equivalent. So it’s, Ní kě lín

Xavier: Ní kě lín.

Nicoleen: Ní kě lín. 

Xavier: So, next question. What would we say is your favorite food in China? And before you even say anything, let me tell you, the food, wow! It was absolutely great.

Nicoleen: Yes. I love Chinese food too. When I first arrived my very first night, when I landed in China, I had what we called, Gong Bao Ji Ding. Gong bao ji ding is diced chicken with peanuts. It was my very first time using a chopstick.  Very, first time and it was eating peanuts. So of course I had peanuts flying all over the table, but that became my favorite dish. Until today, I love having nuts in my food. You know, almonds, peanuts, you name it. So, Gong bao ji ding, diced chicken with peanuts, that’s my favorite dish. 

Xavier: Okay. So, what would you say is your favorite attraction? And it’s a big country, huge country, but so far, what would you say is your favorite attraction in China? 

Nicoleen: Well, I love nature and China has a lot to offer. I’m not sure during your trip, if you got a chance to see it. There are so many beautiful cities, so many beautiful places. I would say one of my favorite places is called Changbaishan, long mountain. It’s in the North closer to Harbin. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of HarbinHarbin is where they have the ice carvings. They have a beautiful volcano. Oh-my-gosh. You can actually stand on the top of the volcano, you look at the pool, turquoise water at the bottom of the volcano. It was breathtakingly beautiful. So, yes. It’s one of my favorite places to visit in China.

Xavier: Okay. So, my next question is, what do you miss the most about Jamaica? 

Nicoleen: Oh gosh, the food, of course. I love my Jamaican food. So, whenever I’m home visiting my mom, you know, from the airport she’s like, “Okay, I have your rundown.” Because I love rundown. Coconut rundown with salt-fish, roasted breadfruit. Oh my gosh. Fish.  Steamed fish, fried fish. I love our Jamaican food so whenever I come home, the minute I land, I start eating. From the airport, I stop at Juicy Beef and I have a Patty. I mean, these are things you never get in China. So, I love yellow yam. I’m always eating yellow yam every single day. I’m not a big fan of rice. Of course, you eat a lot of it in China. 

Xavier: So aren’t there any, you know, I know for example, in some places, like I remember going to North France and there are these, you know, the African stores. Or African grocery stores that will have some of the items that we’re used to eating. I remember seeing yam in this, you know, are there any African stores there in Shanghai that we can-

Nicoleen: They do have some African stores. Considering that they’re coming all the way from Africa too so, it’s a far way to get to China. They do have a few items. I’ve seen Plantain. It’s not exactly like our Plantain but close enough for us to have a taste of Planting, Cassava. I’ve not seen yam, not our Yellow yam, not our White Yam, no. I’ve seen other types of yams there, but they don’t taste the same as in Jamaica. They’re certain things that are so unique to Jamaica. Even our banana chips. I’ve had banana chips in Thailand and it’s sweet because they use the ripped banana.

Xavier: Right.

Nicoleen: There’s something unique about our green banana and having boiled green banana. Sometimes I even buy the Chinese green banana. They’re wondering, “What is she doing with that?” 

Xavier: Wow.

Nicoleen: The food is what I miss the most about Jamaica and also the vibe. There’s something about Jamaicans. When I come home, the way that people interact with each other, the way they talk to each other on the street. There’s something really special about that vibes in Jamaica. I love it. I miss it. And I look forward to having it every time I’m back.

Xavier: Oh yes. We certainly have a vibe. Definitely.

Nicoleen: Yes man.

The Temple of Heaven - Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven – Beijing, China

Xavier: Here’s my final question. If a Jamaican is thinking about moving to Shanghai, China, what advice would you give to them?

Nicoleen: Be open-minded. It’s very different from Jamaica, extremely different from any place else you’ve ever visited. Be open-minded to the people, to the culture. It’s a different culture. It’s a different system of government so, don’t fool yourself. Coming to China, it is what it is, so be respectful of the government, be respectful of their laws. They’re very serious, it’s not like Jamaica where the law is, if you feel like obeying it, you can. It’s not the same in China. You have to be respectful or you will get into trouble. Be prepared for a different experience and be prepared to respect their culture in terms of, like wearing shoes indoors, the way you treat the elderly, the way you treat the people that you meet. There are certain things that are very unique to China, and I would encourage you to learn about the different culture.

There is so much information online that you can learn about the culture so that when you get here, you’re not shocked, but you already have an idea of what to expect and you can honor and respect that.  I would say, if you love Jamaican food, pack your bags with what you can carry and bring it with you, especially, biscuits, you know, the unique stuff or bulla and [crosstalk). At least at the onset you’ll have something familiar because the food is actually quite different. It’s not the Chinese food that you experience. It’s not like Chinese food in Jamaica, or in the Western world it’s a bit different.

Xavier: No. 

Nicoleen: It’s an acquired taste. 

Xavier: But it was good. 

Nicoleen: Yes. It’s quite yummy, once you get used to it, so.  Just be open minded, be willing to have an adventure. It’s an adventure for me. That’s why I enjoy living in China because every day is an adventure. I’ve acted in movies just because somebody walked off the street and they see you. They’re like, “Oh, we need a person of color for our movie. And next thing I know, I’m acting in a movie.

Xavier: Wow. 

Nicoleen: Life is just like that. You never know who you’re going to meet, what you’re going to experience. It’s every day is an adventure in China for me, personally. So I encourage you to come and be open to new experiences and be open to meet people from all over the world. 

Xavier: Well Nicoleen, I wanted to thank you for spending some time telling us about China, telling our audience about China. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Nicoleen: Sorry.

Xavier: Do you have any closing thoughts? 

Nicoleen: I would say for Jamaicans to as much as possible to try and explore new countries, new places, we are everywhere. As I said, I’ve been to 60 plus countries around the world and can I tell you, I’ve had some amazing experiences and I’ve met Jamaicans in almost every place I’ve been. Not all, but almost every place I’ve been, I ran into Jamaicans. It’s just an amazing experience just to see our people, how far we have gone, how far we have explored. So, I would say if you have a chance visit China is an amazing country to visit. If you have a chance to visit other countries in the world, then it will broaden your perspective of life, of people. It will make you a different person. So, please go explore.

Xavier: All right. Well Nicoleen, thank you very much again for spending the time with us. We look out for you in the movies, possibly, and just doing great things and being an ambassador for Jamaica to the world. Thanks again and blessings to you and your family. Stay safe.

Nicoleen: Thank you. All the best.

Photos: Deposit Photos

About the author

Xavier Murphy