'An Opportunity to Get Thicker Skin'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The story of Kaylee Robinson, an Atlantic reader who experienced major culture shock as a black woman living in rural South Korea, struck a chord with other readers. Here’s Paul, who describes how, in a very real way, he was an expat in his own country:

I experienced something similar to Kaylee’s when my family moved from living on U.S. Army bases the first 16 years of my life (10 in West Germany) to Mississippi—in 1966. This was the last year before Jackson desegregated its schools. Talk about culture shock! The poverty was so great that most kids thought we were rich. (My father was one of the first Black sergeant majors and mom was a teacher.)

Because I’m very racially mixed, I forget some people think I’m White. It bemused me that Black kids wanted to touch my silky, almost straight hair. So yes, it caused a little bit of an identity crisis, but I lived and learned.

The next personal story comes from A.J. Martin, an African American reader in China:

I read about Kaylee’s experience in rural South Korea and I was shocked that she experienced that in a country that seems more open to other countries and cultures than China. I’m an expat in ShenZhen, an engineered cosmopolitan city. But I receive similar treatments as Kaylee’s because I’m not just a foreigner; I’m the only black foreigner many people have ever seen in real life. Many people stare at me every day when I’m walking around, sitting on a subway, even when I’m teaching at the adult language center I work at. I’ve had adult students ask me if I’m from South America, Africa, Jamaica or 2nd generation, because they can’t comprehend how a black person can be from the U.S.—even though the First Family is black.

The only people who understand this are people who received a great education or traveled around a bit. Those people usually translate to others how black people are American or British. I’ve had people ask me if my natural hair is manufactured, yell that I’m from Africa as if I’m disillusioned or lying about where I’m from, and then I’m constantly harassed by people who want to take a photo or video of me without my permission.

Let me not forget the whitening creams I’m suggested to buy by store clerks, or the time that a Korean Airlines employee wanted to know why I was flying into Hong Kong instead of Guangzhou—where most Africans fly into—all while holding my passport in his hand.

It’s exhausting. And my only support were two white American women who worked with me (they have since left) and the black expat groups that give me support and advice. I knew that I would be met with some ignorance and barriers because I’m not fluent in the language, but this is more than I bargained for.

I can’t be myself, and I usually escape to Hong Kong to feel normal or hide out in expat populated places. Those can be frustrating too, when I have to encounter expats from other countries who are racist.

It’s weird and frustrating, but I think this has opened my eyes to how people in different countries view me before even getting to know me. I am trying to see this as an opportunity to get thicker skin, and deal with my own humanity, because it is trying. And I want to learn how to deal with these kind of situations outside the U.S.

I’ve offered a workshop on African-American history, which garnered the questions “What do Native Americans look like? Are they white?” / “This guy is really light; is he black too?” / “What is Beyonce? No, What is she really?” The workshop was meant to focus on the subject lightly and offer exposure to a kind of identity. I’ve also taught a workshop on jazz, and everyone in the room was surprised that the genre was started by African Americans. Asian-American history failed because I didn’t know how to teach that effectively. I hope to find more creative ways to discuss the layout of the U.S. that Hollywood movies in China may not show.

I’m making the most of my time here, and I hope to see more of the silver lining in my experiences before I leave this country.