Reporter's Notebook

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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'Living Abroad While Black Is Tough'

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.

Our reader poses with friends on a staff outing to Puncak, a mountain pass in West Java, Indonesia.

As we wind down our series of stories from black expats, this detailed account from an Indonesia-based reader, Akosua F., is especially distinct because she discusses what it’s like to be perceived as African versus African American—two identities she’s worn. She also talks about how she sometimes misconstrues what she thinks are racial slights from well-meaning strangers because so many other strangers have mocked her. But overall she maintains a positive outlook. Here’s Akosua:

Imagine having to start a whole new life on the other side of the world. Well, that was me, when I had to leave the States—a place I had called home for the past 16 years—and head to Jakarta to continue my teaching career. While filled with some trepidation, as I left my family and friends, I saw this as an adventure, looking forward to what this new chapter of life would entail. I say looking forward to it because as someone who was born in Ghana, but lived, grew up and attended school in three different countries (Botswana, South Africa, and United States), I saw this as yet another international experience I could embrace. Little did I know what I would be getting into.

Once the novelty wore off, I became painfully aware of the way people reacted whenever I stepped outside of my apartment building, as I quickly learnt how “being the centre of attention” could have a negative connotation. The stares, finger pointing, laughing and double looks (sometimes more) became something that I encountered day in and day out. As a black person, while I had encountered some negative interactions due to the colour of my skin, nothing had been as intense as this experience.

Here in Indonesia, I have learnt what it means to be both black and African (I say African because here, as in America, there’s not much differentiation). Colourism is most definitely in play here, as the darker your skin colour, the more you are treated differently. There is a great preference for lighter/fairer skinned people, with skin whitening/bleaching creams littered around stores, all in plain view. Lighter/fairer skinned people are seen in commercials, on T.V., on billboards, etc.

However, one irony I have found is that even the darker-skinned Indonesians point, stare, and laugh. It’s not only confusing, but disappointing as well, because I would think that because we are both more or less in the same boat, we would be able to connect and even commiserate with each other. I suppose it’s that whole idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, in a bid to distance themselves, and hopefully, one day, find themselves being accepted as well. Thus, the idea is, “while I may have it bad, at least I don’t have it as bad you do.” And so the cycle continues.

As a coda to our series on black expats reflecting on their time abroad, this reader builds to an essential point:

Just for the sake of perspective, I wanted to weigh on my experience as someone of Asian appearance traveling to Africa. I visited friends working at a school for AIDS orphans and locals stopped and stared at me too, sometimes laughing while pointing and calling out “China! China!”

My brother travelled off the beaten path in Switzerland and kids would gather in groups around him and touch his skin too. They were fascinated.

There is much racism in this world, but also much genuine interest and curiosity. The use of “cultural appropriation” saddens me, as I see the world as so much richer as the result of cross-cultural pollination.

Speaking of such pollination, in the video above, a young Barack Obama at a book reading talks about the “hybrid culture” that sets the United States apart in so many ways, adding: “The truth of the matter is, American culture at this point—what is truly American—is Black culture to a large degree.” (Cue the pathos from Trump supporters:

But the best moment of the Obama video, and the one most relevant to this expat series, is when he recalls traveling to his family’s Kenyan village for the first time with his wife. “She’s a very beautiful, regal-looking, African-looking, brown-skinned sister,” he says of Michelle. “So we get up there [to my grandmother’s village] and my little cousins, they all start pointing at her and saying, “Look, the wazungu—which means, ‘the white lady’! Now, for a girl from the South Side of Chicago … ” Heh. His broader point: “What she realized was that she was an American—very profoundly she realizes.”

Back to our readers: Brenda, also of East Asian appearance, shares an anecdote similar to the previous reader’s:

Some years ago my husband and I went to Crete, to see the Minoan ruins. Knossos is near the coast, and well frequented. But then we decided to drive into the interior of the island and see the Cave of Psychro, where Zeus was allegedly born. (There are actually two sites on Crete where he was born—we went to the closer one.) It is all the way up in the mountains. This was before the days of cell phone and internet, so it was pretty remote. I am of Chinese descent, and when the Cretans gathered to stare at me I realized that they probably do not see very many Asians in central Crete.

Kyle broadens the discussion a bit more:

I am a white man who has worked around Africa for the past ten years and lived in Haiti as a child. I think that most expats, especially ones in areas that are not cosmopolitan in nature, have a similar experience, regardless of race.