Before The College Dropout and Graduation, Kanye West’s first encounter with fame was breakdancing for lamb skewers on the streets of Nanjing.
He was 10 years old at the time and living with his mother, Donda West, in China. It was 1987, and the country had just opened itself to the world. She was teaching English at a local university on a one-year exchange program. He was trying to fit in with the rest of the kids.
Kanye, according to his mother in her 2007 memoir Raising Kanye, developed a love for lamb skewers, but she didn’t trust the sanitary conditions of Nanjing street vendors, so she refused to buy them for him. Instead, he found a way to circumvent her—by showing off his breakdancing skills to the Chinese kids in exchange for their skewers.
Photos of Kanye from his time in China have been circulating on the internet since 2013, but the story gained new life on Chinese social media this week after an article based on Donda West’s book was posted on WeChat, China’s biggest messaging app.
The article instantly drew responses from locals who remembered the rapper when he lived in Nanjing.
“Kanye was an active boy,” Liu Haiping, then the university’s dean of foreign languages faculty, said, according to one of his students. “He got along well with the children of other faculty staff.”
Kanye busied himself with school, tai chi, and art lessons. When he wasn’t studying, the family traveled a lot. His favorite destination, according to his mother, was a nude beach in Koh Samui, Thailand.
In China, Kanye quickly picked up the language, though he has since forgotten most of it. In her memoir, Donda West recalls how he fought back a crowd of Chinese onlookers who were pointing and staring at him by shouting, “滚回去!”—“Get back!” in Chinese.
“Quicker than lightning, those people made their exit,” she wrote. “Kanye, I’m sure, felt vindicated.”
The Wests were one of a handful of foreign families in Nanjing at the time, and they were a novelty wherever they went.
“It was weird going over there,” Kanye told Vibe magazine in 2004. “Most of the kids had never seen a black person before, so they’d come over to me and touch my face, thinkin’ it was paint or something.”
By many accounts, the experience of being a spectacle in China prepared Kanye for a life in the limelight.