'Living Abroad While Black Is Tough'

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

Our series has already hit several different countries experienced by black expats: China, Japan, South Korea, Laos, and the United States. Readers below add five more countries to that list: Ireland, Indonesia, Thailand, England, and Myanmar.

This first reader’s experience in Europe isn’t quite an expat experience, since she has now spent more years there than in her home continent of Africa, but many of the themes of her time in Ireland overlap with other expats’:

Hi there! My name is Lara, and I’m 22 years old. I was born in Nigeria and lived there till the age of six. We then moved to Lesotho, then moved on to Cavan, Ireland, where I’ve been since the age of nine—that makes it 13 years that I’ve called the Emerald Isle home.

Despite this fact, though, it can still feel like I’m a stranger here.

When I first moved here in 2003, I couldn’t understand why people kept being surprised that I spoke English fluently, that my parents both worked in the medical sector, and that I loved Kylie Minogue as much as the next person. The fact that we were middle-class Africans, and not refugees or asylum seekers, seemed like a shock to the system for many of the people in the small town we lived in.

To their merit, some people did try to make a conscious effort to be sensitive and normalise the fact that my siblings and I were the first and only black people in our school. I remember doing some colouring with classmates in my first month at school. Amanda said “pass me the skin colour” (what I would call peach), and Gillian replied, “you can’t say skin colour, because that’s not everyone’s skin colour.” Gillian will never understand how touched I was by her defence of my reality.

I can’t say I’ve ever encountered aggressive racism, but I’ve certainly experienced a number of microaggressions because of my skin colour. From guys asking if I taste like chocolate and declaring that they can “handle” me, to people asking where I’m REALLY from after I state that I’m from County Cavan. It’s like they don't understand how it cuts at a person when you question their identity with no other basis except for the fact that their skin has got more melanin in it.

I am Nigerian and I’m Irish; I can’t twerk, but I love Nicki Minaj; I braid my hair and I play field hockey; I speak Irish, Mandarin, and Yoruba. I am not just “that black girl”; I’m Lara—phenomenal woman, that’s me.

She also spent a year living and studying in Beijing (that’s her pictured above on the Great Wall). Next up is Kayla, who teaches at a vocational school in Semarang, a city in the Central Java province:

Indonesia has been … a challenge. I have never felt so “other” in my life. Staring from adults is endless, frowning from strangers is almost expected at this point, and I’ve counted six people within the past week who have taken my picture from afar, thinking that I can’t see them. I’ve also been offered whitening cream five times, once very close to my mostly-white cohort.

I am the only black person for thousands of miles in a culture that is completely different, and I knew this coming into the experience. One of the reasons I chose to pursue a grant in Indonesia was because of the challenges, but that doesn’t mean I take being uncomfortable as something that shouldn’t be addressed. For example, during a lesson on adjectives, I reprimanded students for laughing at students who are darker-skinned —mocking them with “African” and “hitam” ( meaning “black” in Bahasa)—and I have already told an adult to please not ascribe my beauty to being “impressive even though I’m dark.” I already have a Black Lives Matter lesson planned for my English Club this month using the #FergusonSyllabus curriculum.

All this said, my experience in Indonesia hasn’t been negative, just difficult. But through the challenges, I’ve grown up even more. For every insulting, frustrating thing that’s occurred during this short time, there’s a curious child eager to learn new vocabulary, a co-teacher inviting me to various events with their family, or a student who asks me to drink coffee with him and his friends because he noticed I “go to coffee shops a lot.”

Living abroad while black is tough—tougher in some places than others. But I do believe if you go into the experience believing that there is goodness in people, there’s a possibility of countering those experiences and achieving an experience you didn’t think possible.

Our next reader is an American expat in Rome who lived in Phuket, Thailand, from 2004 to 2015, and she says our expat series “reminds me of a TripAdvisor forum I contributed to in 2005.” Money quote:

[O]f all the countries that I have travelled to in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, I have found Thailand to be the most problem-free. I am less aware of being black here except in all the best ways: celebration of my different beauty, music, cultural heritage, etc. Here, I am a rich farang (foreigner) like everyone else. It’s the color of the money that counts.

Further, I find that some Thai people may think that I am a curiosity: my natural hair, my curvaceous body, and my dark skin. I am always asked shyly “can I touch your hair?,” told that my skin is dam (black), but suay (beautiful) or complimented on my figure (which is hugely different from the skinny Thai beauties). They may be color-struck among themselves—white skin means higher class—but as I am not Thai, I am outside of this issue. They see me as a different kind of foreigner, but I get just as many if not more smiles.

The racist attitudes that I usually experience come from white Europeans and Americans (if one more person informs me which African country I am from, I will scream), but these people are mostly ignored by me. Thailand has not had the history of colonisation and slavery of African people as has the US and Europe, so there is no legacy to deal with. They are, however, subject to the same subtle racist messages via international media that every country is.

This next reader, Laura, touches on “my experience as a Black Canadian in the United Kingdom”:

I am a Canadian by birth, if not more so by mindset. My parents are of Caribbean origin. I know that I am black, but growing up in Winnipeg, I have never had to defend that fact, explain it, or even have to think about it much. I have traveled and lived abroad in several different countries over the past 10 years. When I moved to the United Kingdom in July of 2013, for a two-year stay, I was expecting a similar society as the one I had been raised in Canada, but instead I came into contact with a social structure I had not been prepared for.

To illustrate that experience, Laura points to an op-ed she wrote last year for the newspaper Barbados Nation. It reads in part:

I’m black. There I said it. Where I grew up in Canada, I never had to say it. It was never an issue. Even when I was the only black child in a classroom, and at one point in time an entire school, I never had to reinforce it. I never felt left out or that I was working an uphill battle against a system. I always thought I had received the best of both worlds in my upbringing—the Caribbean discipline and food and the Canadian . . . everything else.

But when I moved here [London], for the first time in my life my Caribbean heritage mattered. It was difficult at first when people wouldn’t accept my answer of Canada when they asked where I was from. [...] I’m fairly light-skinned for a black girl. Again, this never mattered while growing up. In fact, I had never really thought about it. I had always been “darker” than most of my friends. Moving here, I got questions of whether I was mixed as if this made a difference to how I was perceived or my abilities or my personality.

I had to start thinking about this: what does it mean when you’re the only black person in the room? Do I need to think about this? This pushed me to think about what it means to be me as a woman, as a black woman, as a Canadian black woman in the 21st century in a foreign country. Does my identity change depending on where I live? Should it change?

Should it? Email us if you have any strong views on the question. Here’s one more reader, Lillian Kalish, reflecting on her time spent in Myanmar:

At Htauk Kyant cemetery, an hour’s ride outside of bustling Yangon, the air is thick in the middle of monsoon season. Young couples swoon under the shade of umbrellas, oblivious to the surrounding gravestones of men who fought for the British during WWII. The cemetery is a lush respite for some, with its close-cut green grass, stone pillars, and, unusual in these parts, silence.

I, on the other hand, have come up here to mourn. I write only weeks after 13-year-old Tyre King was fatally shot by police, after Keith Lamont Scott and Alfred Olango—who bears an uncanny resemblance to my uncle—were also killed. Just the other day, another black transwoman was found dead, in a motel room in Alabama.

I touch the white pillars where engraved are the names of the roughly 90,000 West African soldiers who fought for the British Imperial Army. Is it comforting to know that black folks have graced and died on this land?

With a sporadic internet connection, I am transported from life in Myanmar—where restrictive laws reminiscent of Jim Crow leave the Rohingya minority on the verge of extinction—to life at home, in a fearsome, entangled America. Mourning black lives in Myanmar is a private ritual. With my white American expat friends, conversations become a fumbling of words. With my Burmese friends, particularly a few young poets—who use art to express their marginalized identities—our words forge some fragile kind of solidarity.

Recently, I reached out to a lifelong friend who like myself—queer, black, Jewish—does not know how to return to the States. “I feel guilty for leaving,” he said, from his current home in Mexico City. “There is so much else going on here.” With this distance, however confusing and isolating, it is easy to disconnect from home, and propel myself into Yangon with noisy, colorful, betel nut stained streets, an embryonic democracy unraveling itself slowly to the world.

As I walk past each gravestone, remarking on the multiplicity of scripts, creeds, and details denoting each loss, I am reminded of the reverberant words of Claudia Rankine on the limits of white imagination on black death. “There really is no mode of empathy,” she writes, “that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black.”

A known fact to me at home now weighs heavily abroad. I resort to traveling to cemeteries outside of the city, in search of black death and also a reminder of black life. It is a quest, if anything, for intentional contemplation. As Yangon is home to few black folks—though there are people of all darker skins—there is no one with whom to mourn. No one who feels the duality of this pressure, being caught in-between Myanmar and America.

I have written about this before while traveling through Tibet and thinking about the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. On my second stint in Asia, I find the words harder to come. That is, wherever I go, I cannot help but feel guarded any time a pair of eyes follows me. I clench up, tighten at the shoulders, too hyperaware to realize that it is not with violence that people approach me. These encounters are little blessings, fissures in my imagination of how it ends. These days the echoes of kids popping firecrackers to welcome Thadingyut, the festival of lights, sound a lot like gun shots and I remind myself that it doesn’t always end with death.