8.06.2015

5 Ways Black Girls Can Cope While Traveling Abroad in Asia

(Edited; Cross-posted on my blog and ForHarriet).

In 2012, I moved to Taiwan as a childish, unassertive, somewhat immature bright-eyed 22-year-old with residual high school insecurities finally striking out on my own. Earlier this year, I left Taiwan mature with more confidence and many good, bad, and ugly experiences under my belt. I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything; however, I know several of my positive experiences would have been impossible for me to recognize or enjoy had I not changed my mindset and attitude toward certain situations while abroad. Therefore, I'd like to share some tips I believe will assist Black women love every minute of their time abroad whether they've moved or are on vacation. 

Sometimes I find Black women are reluctant to travel or live abroad—especially solo—because they already feel marginalized in their own countries. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone should ignore their desire to see the world because they are worried about how they'll be received. Granted, it will certainly require a thick skin, if you don't already have any. Three years ago I didn't, and boy did I learn. There comes a time where you either develop the strength to be yourself in a sea of homogeneity or shut down, a prisoner of your own mind. 

I have only been to three Asian countries for longer than a layover; I lived in New Taipei City, Taiwan for nearly three years, completed a summer semester in Beijing as an undergrad, and vacationed in Tokyo. Nevertheless, I feel these tips likely apply to any nation where there isn't a significant Black population. 

1. Do whatever you like

You shouldn't, either!

Seriously, I think I enjoyed my time abroad most when I simply didn't care. Being a Black girl in a place where there virtually are none isn't a crime. There's no point in feeling bad about having a moment or doing what you'd do at home unless it heavily clashes with the manners or culture of the country you're in. 

Want to sleep on the train during the ride home? Like to whistle while you walk? Want to wear your favorite neon-colored dress? Go ahead! As long as you're respectful, you shouldn't prevent yourself from doing whatever you want.

Oh, you're just having some juice at 7-11? Guess what, even a simple action like that is going to make you stand out, so you might as well do all those other normal things you "can't" do. 

2. Get a hobby (or continue to do one you love)

Too bad that doesn't promote human contact!
I think this applies more if you're living abroad, but perhaps it works if you're on a long vacation.

The best way to trade lonely-Black-girl-in-a-country-where-nobody-looks-like-her status for Black-girl-with-a-circle-of-buddies-and-consistent-human-contact status is, in my opinion, to pick up a hobby or find ways to continue one you had back home. For me, writing and physical activity allowed me to meet new people, find others to do activities with, and just strike up conversations. (Use the internet. Meetup.com is your friend). Some of the most fulfilling, random, and interesting conversations I had in Taiwan were with strangers on the Taipei biking path!

Short side story: I went running on the path one morning and a group of guys started cheering me on like I was a marathon winner. Moments like that make your day and can't happen on the couch in your apartment. Had I not taken up tour biking in Taiwan, I wouldn't have never made those memories.

My bike, loaded with provisions, by an Amis tribe mural
in the middle of Taipei.
3. Don't hide
Come outta there!
The stares are getting to you. You feel every ajumma or obaasan or aiyi or old lady has it in for you. You don't want to go outside. Yes—you have decided you will subsist off your last bottle of Calpico and dried seaweed snack until nighttime when you will finally get your groceries in the cloak of darkness dressed in a hoodie with the hood on.

But why not just go now? In the open, in the day light?!

As I said before (#1), being a Black girl abroad isn't a crime. It's easy to feel uncomfortable when it seems as if everyone is staring at you, judging you, wondering why you're even there. However, this doesn't mean you have to hide or race through your errands to minimize your time outside. You have the right to be seen anywhere you're allowed to be. In fact, the minute you go abroad, consider yourself a student of sociology. Make sure you're seen, and handle any direct reactions to your presence appropriately. As Black women—and more generally as Black people—I don't think we have to be ambassadors of all things black, yet it is undeniable that we set the tone for others' future contact with Black individuals. Be out in the open—shoulders back, chin up. I'm serious, it makes you look like you have a purpose and less like a pushover. 

4. Don't let the comments define you
They're haters 'cause they ain't got what you got.
I've discussed this one before. I don't usually subscribe to the saying "ignorance is bliss", but when 60% of the conversations on the rush hour train are about you, it can be. There were times where I wished I could unlearn Chinese and the bits of Japanese I've inadvertently learned. It's easy to take passing comments as personal assaults. To be honest, I don't think most of the people who say such things mean to hurt you and ruin your day, but that doesn't negate the fact that it can cut deep, especially when you're having a bad day. 

At the end of the day, you simply have to do you. People who are saying mean things are doing so because they feel uncomfortable with themselves. You looking different is making them uncomfortable, and the only way they can reach a level of comfort again is to insult you. Regardless of whether a person has seen a Black girl in the flesh or not, a person who insults and is mean, whether directly or indirectly, has a personal problem. They may even be jealous of you. You're an awesome Black girl who has the balls to explore a country completely different to hers! Perhaps the meanie-poo on the train doesn't have the confidence to do the same. 

5. Be assertive
Get your game face on and roll your sleeves up!
Sometimes, an insult goes beyond a negative comment. It turns into aggressive bullying or a confrontation. You shouldn't ignore abuse or bullying just because you look different and don't want to draw more attention to yourself. Confront the person if you have to, and get the authorities involved if it's serious. In most Asian countries, face is very important. For instance, in Chinese culture, one's "face" is basically the representation of their level of respectability. Therefore, if someone is harassing you, call them out in a firm, audible voice. I did this a few times while living in Taiwan. More times than not, the perpetrator will "lose face" and be too embarrassed to continue. I've never had to fight anyone, but I have told people to leave me the eff alone. Luckily, my resting face is pretty mean-mugged.

Also, you don't have to take pictures with anyone, and if you're in China, I suggest you don't oblige because it's likely that a sea of people will come over to you wanting your picture too. You are not a sideshow; don't let people treat you like one. The person won't stop taking pictures after you said no? Take a picture of them until they realize how it feels! I have done this many times.

Hopefully these tips help you if you're currently abroad or about to go overseas. Remember girls, your not just a traveler or an expat. You're a pioneer!

20 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I'm not sure yet, but I'd like to revisit Tokyo as soon as I can. I've always wanted to go to Malaysia and Singapore as well.

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  2. People in Asia need to grow out of their own blissful ignorance. Often they consider their obsession with western "white" culture as a signal of their close minded society becoming more multi-cultural. What a joke!! Anyway, I'm glad you were able to extract some positives from your experience. I will say this, weight does seem to be a huge stigma in Asia. In fact I know of a gorgeous, dark skinned african who seemed to get hit on alot when she was in Japan. She was 5'1 and 95 lbs.

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    1. I noticed that mindset a lot in Taiwan, though I'm not sure how strong it is in other Asian countries. There's a lot of passive-aggressive negativity going on in Taiwan toward non-white foreigners, but most people will swear to you this isn't the case (because everyone likes to present themselves as friendlier than Mainlanders, but that's another article for another day...)

      Weight is a big stigma and people talk about it a lot. I can't speak from experience, but I don't think it's impossible to enjoy your time in Asia if you're a bigger girl; however, I'd think you'd need an even thicker skin. People will make comments about it to your face in without batting an eye, it's just not as taboo as it is in the West.

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  3. This advice applies to those at home (US) too!

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  4. Good advice :)

    I just would like to say that sometimes it's not about fear or reluctance to live abroad, it's about opportunities.
    I said a few months ago that I was planning to work abroad but I ended up on the waiting list of the program and didn't have any response afterwards. It happens. *shrugs* I'm not a native English speaker so teaching job offers are rare for my country, there is like 1 program for Japan and 3 for Western countries but you have to meet strict standards like speaking the language quite well, etc.
    Now I could go abroad on my own but my degree is not popular at all and is not enough to enable me to teach English (I'm an English major though, but I'm not a native). Yeah, it's complicated. But I got over it, I'm cool.

    Hmm, sorry for being off-topic but, I'm going to the USA (New York, Washington, Boston) this month and I wonder what you would advise me as a tourist. Any caution or stuff I should know? For example, in the public transports or the airport.

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    1. You bring up a good point regarding opportunities. I've only taught in Taiwan, so I can't speak for other countries, but I know cram schools tend to be more flexible about hiring teachers from non-English speaking countries. I worked at a cram school where they advertised the classes as 美語 (meiyu or American English), however, I was the only American teacher they had (the others were from Spain and France)! So there are opportunities out there, albeit from disingenuous companies...

      Unfortunately, I can't give you much advice about that portion of the States as I've never lived there. From my visits to New England, I'd say take advantage of the public transportation. Most of all, be careful! I know that sounds lame and basic, but with the state of America these days...Although I'm an adult, I'm wary about going out late at night, especially by myself.

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    2. Oh sorry, I think I wasn't clear in my message: the programs I talked about were for French teaching jobs. I'd rather teach my own language but I don't have *that* specific diploma that some countries ask for.
      Ah some cram schools lying about the nationality of their teachers...hmm why not but it doesn't really look trust worthy, right, and I don't want to be seen as someone I'm not. But thanks for the info! I haven't looked for info about China actually.

      I understand, I'll be carefull there :)

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    3. Ahh, I see what you mean!

      From what I saw in passing (without actually know many details), in Taiwan, aside from English, people seem to have an affinity toward learning Japanese (given the connections with Japan), Spanish, and French. For some odd reason, French is very popular in Taiwan! I can't tell you how many time I'd come across someone in Taiwan who knew French but not English! I don't know if your native language is French, but if it is, you might have a chance in Taiwan at least.

      Hope you enjoy your trip.

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  5. I want to study abroad in Korea but I'm scared of being away from my family for too long. I'm really close to them and they are sort of against me leaving. My biggest fear about working in Korea is that I don't want people to think I am there for the wrong reasons. Like recently because of Kpop and kdramas people sort of fetishize Korean people. I just wanna go there to learn the language but I feel like people there will question my intentions. I'm also really shy so I feel like it would be difficult to make friends.

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    1. Homesickness is a real issue when considering living abroad, isn't it? To be honest, I didn't feel homesick at first because I was too busying experiencing new things to worry about what was going on back home! But when you slip into a routine, it begins to eat at you. I'd say be sure to keep in contact with your family or anyone else you're close to while your abroad. With today's technology, it's easy to video chat. Being able to hear the voices of your loved ones and see their faces often will give you comfort.

      Hm, I understand what you mean about "the wrong reasons". My simple answer would be just do your own thing. If someone directly asks what your intentions are, give them the answers you gave here! Going abroad is a work in personal growth or fulfillment, so I honestly wouldn't care much about making sure people know why you're there.

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    2. Nicolette is right do what you want! I'm in Korea...2years... and once you get here you're realize that there are not a lot of ppl trying to learn Korean at all. Its a huge advantage! No one will judge your motives as long as you know why you're here.

      Also we are lucky we have Skype and other social medias to help us stay in contact with fam back home. My mom moved to the states when she was 20 in 1980....imagine living then without any technology like we do now and then moving abroad. So take advantage of the living abroaf experience!!

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    3. Thanks for the advice you guys. Yeah I know skype will help, I'm more worried about how I will feel around the holidays. But yeah I already know beginner Korean because I took classes. But I feel like the only way I will be fluent is by going there. And thats good, maybe I just spend too much time on tumblr but I've been questioning my motives lately. I do like a few kpop groups but I wouldn't go to another country just because of that or I'd just go on vacation.

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  6. Nicolette I saw this on For Harriet! You're a boss my dear! Good one. I had to learn to not care. I have that mentality that they're going to stare at me regardless so I'll do whatever I want. Its hard sometimes, the loneliness is all too real but I love living in the ROK. And I joined a gym with a bunch of ahjummas in my aerobics class who I drink with and go to karaoke with so its all about attitude when living here. Again great article!

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    1. And I joined a gym with a bunch of ahjummas in my aerobics class who I drink with and go to karaoke with so its all about attitude when living here.

      That is great! Its all about getting out there and getting to KNOW a country. You can't do that sitting in the house all the time or hanging out with other Americans who only want to complain.

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    2. Woohoo! Thank you! I'm glad you could relate (I'm smh at the people who thought I was blasting all of Asia and everyone there since I added some of the many positive experiences I had. Unless you've traveled someone else's path you won't understand).

      That's great about the ajummas! I think sometimes opportunities come from the seemingly least likely of places. When I was on the bike path in Taipei, and old lady invited me to dinner at her house xD

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    3. Wow! that was really nice of her. A lot of people (ESPECIALLY blacks) need to get out like that and combat the stereotypes that are feed to the rest of the world.

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  7. Congrats on being featured on For Harriet, Nicolette!

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