I wanted to sit down with her, so I did. It was a few days ago, an empty room on the second floor providing the setting for what would be an insightful conversation. Right away, it is clear ZeErica is a happy woman, a radiating smile emanating from her face that both invites intrigue and elicits exposition. She’s a self-proclaimed optimist that takes things for what they are. She’s never been to New York City and wants to go to Africa for her birthday in a couple months, but none of those things are integral to what defines ZeErica.
“I wanted to get out of what I was used to,” she begins as we sit across from one another. “Not just for a better education but for a better lifestyle.” The better lifestyle she references is the decision she made to leave her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee and enroll in a predominantly white high school twenty miles away in Horn Lake, Mississippi. Her decision was not popular, the common theme in her neighborhood growing up not including breaking from the pack and prioritizing individuality. But abiding by convention is not in ZeErica’s best interest, like many people that leave their comfort zone and come abroad.
ZeErica’s time in Horn Lake proved worthwhile. “I actually liked it,” she says, which comes as a surprise because I assumed the transition at such a young age would be difficult. “I was very well known. Did a lot of community service and stuff like that. I was Ms. Horn Lake High School,” her accolades proving that from a young age ZeErica was able to influence those around her.
“They were there to get me out of what I always knew,” she says of her teachers in Horn Lake that saw the first signs of her potential. She doesn’t talk much of her upbringing, other than that it wasn’t as easy as others have experienced. The city of Memphis is currently embroiled in financial turmoil, the gap between the wealthy and the poor ever increasing. The city is aware of this disparity, and plans to improve the lives of the less fortunate are in place, but in the city where Martin Luther King was assassinated, so much work still remains.
After Horn Lake, ZeErica went to college at Mississippi State University, a 22,000 student campus that continued her growth as a young woman. Once again she was involved in extracurriculars, organizing events to give back to lower class areas and working with the Boys & Girls Club, where she was part of a group that started the “House of Dreams,” which gave disadvantaged children an opportunity to learn in a better environment. “We would have to do homework and other kinds of stuff on the floor because they didn’t have enough space. Just seeing that come alive and being able to speak with donors, it made me feel alive.” She also had the privilege of dining with the president of her university, a function put on by the school to show appreciation for students like ZeErica that treated school as more than just a pathway to a piece of paper and future earnings.
A higher purpose defines ZeErica. She gives most of the credit to God, him being her oracle for personal and spiritual development. “God is my everything, my best friend, father I always wanted. He has orchestrated my life, set out all of my steps. And I haven’t always been in this place. During college I went through a rough patch. Only person I could lean on and depend on was God. From private thoughts to keeping me together as a person because,” she pauses for added emphasis, “life is hard.”
ZeErica takes me back to her sophomore year and a relationship that eventually turned toxic. “The relationship became abusive. Physically, emotionally, all of the above. During this relationship I lost touch with everything. Who I was as a woman, who I was as a person, who God was. So when I got to the point that I wanted to get out of the relationship, I lost everything.” She describes this hardship as God telling her “you have to lose some things to gain me,” a premeditated plan that wasn’t easy to see right away, but ultimately proved worthwhile. “Once I gained God, it really was up from there. It was a growing process for me, for who God wanted me to be. That was the lowest moment in my life, but he took the lowest moment in my life to grow me to who I am right now. Honestly, if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t have been able to come to China.” Her vulnerability is showing, yet impressively she does not waver. For ZeErica, it really is all about God’s plan. “During that period of my life, I was considering dropping out of school and getting a job because I didn’t have financial support from my parents and family. I was juggling bills, and school, and trying to live. I know God walked me through everything. Prayer keeps me sane, it keeps me balanced. It keeps me who I am, and,” she has to stop, the realization of a larger purpose hitting her hard.
This plan seeps through in her writing (godswomantowoman.com), where the influence of a higher deity is readily apparent. Simply put, ZeErica knows who she is. Her love for God is not servitude, but rather an essence she knows is sending her toward a future path of wholeness and enlightenment.
I explain my stance on spirituality to ZeErica, wriggling in my seat because I know we have a clash of ideologies. A respectful clash, but a clash nonetheless. “Could you comment on believing in something that you might not know is there? I think a lot of people struggle with that.” She looks up to the ceiling for guidance, my question not one with a tailor-made answer. We dance around the subject before diving in. “Okay, I have a question for you,” she says, and I brace for impact. “What’s the difference in believing that something is not there, and believing that something is going to happen, like a manifestation?” She asks this after I tell her I think I’m on a path, one that will take me to a certain endpoint. Her question forces me to think. In a way, we all are spiritual. The nature of our spirituality is just defined differently. “I feel like God is here,” she explains. “I feel if you walk in a room or when you go into worship, you can feel a sense of who God is. Any spiritual person or even a person who probably hasn’t been spiritual has felt at some point what it feels like to be in the presence of God,” ZeErica says with a soothing command.
Her experience of coming to China has followed the trope of many other individuals. She came here after graduation, seeing it as an opportunity for a gap year she never had. “I was kind of in a place in my life where I knew what I wanted to do, but what I wanted to do really just didn’t work out,” she says of her attempt to jump straight into nursing school. She stills see herself with a Ph.D. in nursing, running a hospital for financially troubled families, but recognizes the time for that isn’t right now. “I took an opportunity that I felt God had placed out for me,” and now here she is, in Beijing still fulfilling her love for children.
China hasn’t been everything she’s hoped for, the cultural differences between here and the United States presenting various problems. “The cultural norms are way different from what I’m used to. It has grown me a lot, in places I didn’t know I needed to grow in. Of course, this wasn’t my dream, but at the same time I’ve taken it for what it is and I’m making it work.”
It’s no secret that people in China do things most westerners aren’t accustomed to. “They spit a lot, which is nasty,” she replies when I ask her what specifically makes her do a double take. “When I first got here, the looks on the subway definitely bothered me. They would take pictures. They would look and laugh. They would point. Some people will even come up to you and touch your skin. I feel like in our culture we believe in personal space, and here personal space doesn’t exist. Even if you tell a person no, don’t take pictures, they will still take pictures and laugh about it.” Her words surprise me, not because what she is saying is anything I haven’t seen firsthand, but because these actions have affected her much differently, her sensibilities much further tested than mine.
These tensions are much akin to the climate in America, where racial strife has become a talking point once again. I wonder how ZeErica feels about America’s current state, if her experiences as a black woman are better or worse in China. “It’s kind of hard to say because I feel in America it’s a different kind of racism. When Trump got in office, at our school, being in a predominantly white institute, it was a hard time because guys would ride on their big boy trucks with the flag, doing crazy stuff. We even had a thing where people would walk around in masks and try to take your stuff. They would just talk shit. It was crazy because it was like, I’m here for my education, I’m here for a reason. But, what really can I do?” I’m gaining a new perspective. I thought this behavior rarely existed, much less on college campuses, but here I’m reminded the world still has some growing up to do. “People were doing intentional evil shit to black people just because Trump was in office. Here, I feel like it’s really no different. I feel wherever you go you’re going to face some type of friction.”
Friction hasn’t halted ZeErica’s good times in China though, her most memorable moment being a trip to the Great Wall. “We went to the Great Wall. We camped out. We didn’t have phone signals, so that means no social media, no contact to the outside world. We got to watch the sun set, we got to watch the sun rise, and it made me feel good about China. When I first got here I didn’t know why I was here. My second day here I literally cried. So when we went to the Great Wall, it was lit. Reflect over all the stuff I’ve done, especially being a first generational college student for my family.”
My time with ZeErica has run out, but I also feel it’s just beginning, our life paths very different, yet similar in our search for answers. “What brought me here was growth,” she says as I look up from typing one more time. “I don’t have it all figured out, but I like to think that I do,” she then admits with a smile, speaking for most of us with her finals words.
Want more Quentin Super? Buy his book, The Long Road North, here
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