Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Black in a Foreign Land
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Readers share their experiences of being an expatriate of African origin in a part of the world that doesn’t quite know what to make of them. The series was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking with French journalist Iris Deroeux about his time living in Paris.

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'An Opportunity to Get Thicker Skin'

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.

My colleague Ta-Nehisi spoke last night with French journalist Iris Deroeux about his time living in Paris and more broadly about race in France compared to the U.S.:

One of audience members of that Facebook Live session was Kaylee Robinson, who wrote in to hello@theatlantic.com to share her experience living in South Korea as a black woman and the cultural ignorance surrounding her race in the rural school she taught at. (If you’ve ever been a black expat yourself and would like to share your experience living abroad, please drop us a note.) Here’s Kaylee:

I lived and worked in South Korea for three years, and it was the most fascinating and frustrating experience of my life. I taught myself basic Korean and familiarized myself with Korean culture and traditions. While I was prepared in theory to immerse myself in the culture, I was unprepared for the daily racial and cultural microaggressions that came with being the first Black person that my students and colleagues had come in contact with. For example, after the initial Skype interview, my extremely friendly co-teacher casually mentioned how I was much nicer than she had expected. In fact, I was nothing like the angry Black drug dealers and criminals that she had seen on TV.

I taught in rural South Korea, about 1.5 hours from Seoul at a very small elementary school of about 70 students. My first day teaching the second graders highlighted how important my role was as a Black American English teacher. My class consisted of ten adorable, wonderfully excited students who were very curious about me and English class in general. One student came up to me and rubbed my hand and then looked at his hand: “Kaylee-teacher, brown no come off?” He thought my brown skin color was the result of a marker and was surprised that it didn’t come off. A million emotions and thoughts ran through my mind at the moment, some of which I was ashamed of when I remembered that this comment was from a 7-year-old child.

That same first month of teaching, a colleague asked if I had a gun back home because he thought all Black people did. My 5th and 6th graders didn’t understand my natural hair and touched it without asking. And virtually all of my students refused to believe I was American and must be from somewhere in Africa because to them Americans were only blonde and blue-eyed. Parents were frightened to speak to me simply because of what they had seen on TV shows and in movies. And in a small town, every time I walked out of my apartment building I was stared at incessantly. With such an onslaught of questions about my race and culture, I felt my Blackness being chipped away bit by bit, everyday.