'I Was Their Purple Person'

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

Another eloquent reader, Alicia, keeps our series going:

I just saw that you’re looking for black folks with experience living as expats. I lived in China for three years and Laos for two years and have just recently written about my experiences and kept a blog during my time in Laos.

She highlights two posts in particular, the first called “The Race Chronicles—Movement 2: Monsters,” which reflects on her time in China and sounds very similar to the experience of A.J. Martin, our African American reader living in ShenZhen, China. Alicia writes:

Courtesy of Alicia Akins
Strangers always followed me around, touched, and stared. … I’ve read about black tourists in China being put off with the staring, touching, and following. What they’d interpreted as rudeness I saw as curiosity. It’s hard, as Americans, to know what it’s like to see a kind of person you’ve never seen before. It’s akin to how we might react to seeing a purple person walking down the street. I was their purple person.

Alicia’s other post, “The Race Chronicles—Movement 3: Black Beauty,” takes our discussion in a new, more uplifting direction—a black expat whose time abroad was affirming in a straightforward way: “My work in Laos had other positive effects on my self-image and ability to not just accept my blackness but take pride in it.” She continues:

Courtesy of Alicia Akins

Melanin was really to blame both for my hatred of hot weather and my eventual embrace of it. Lao people are many-hued and I found myself admiring the darker of their skin tones. My boss had the perfect skin color and I noticed it wasn’t that much lighter than mine. For the first time in my life, I truly began to see darker skin as beautiful.

I am the lightest-skinned person in my family. My mother and sisters are all darker than me. When I was young, my sisters teased that if I spent too much time in the sun I would get dark and never fade. I couldn’t risk it. I needed to stay light. For beauty’s sake, to be found physically attractive by people outside of my race—and I suspected even within it—I needed to be lighter. Sunbathing? Get real. The sun was my enemy. Colorism and not discomfort kept me indoors. [CB: For more on colorism and intraracial prejudice, see this robust reader thread.]

As I shed my fear of becoming darker, I began to love my color. At 29, I was finally comfortable in my own skin. This allowed me to enjoy all those experiences in the sun.

Read the rest here, and send us your own experiences and reflections living abroad while black—or any hue, for that matter, as we’d like to expand the discussion: hello@theatlantic.com.