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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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.

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.

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.

So far in our ongoing series of black expats reflecting on their time abroad, we’ve heard from: an African American woman who taught in rural South Korea describing the “systemic cultural ignorance and lack of awareness”—but “not racism”—among her students and neighbors; a less optimistic African American woman in China detailing her “weird and frustrating” time there; a racially-mixed man returning to his home in the American South during the mid 1960s only to feel like a foreigner there; and a black woman in Laos coming to love her dark skin for the first time.  

Many more stories are forthcoming, including the two below centered on the global influence of African American music. Here’s Antoinette, an African American educator in Japan for 17 years:

Rural Japan was home for most of my adult life, and during my stay, I embraced the culture and fell in love with the people. Now, I am an awkward “repat,” coming to terms with having to adjust to life in a strangely unfamiliar New York City while longing for the tranquility of my second “home.”

So, why did I fall in love? Well, for the most part, I have found the Japanese to be the most hospitable people I have ever met. Of course, there was the occasional oddball, but even they were bearable because I felt there was no malice or disrespect in their actions.

I gave many of the colorful characters names to help me remember each experience ... because this sort of thing always happened. I met “Yo Baby Yo” at Mikuni Beach. I was with a group of expat teachers who decided to spend the day at the beach. Large groups of foreigners tended to attract unique characters, usually the more outspoken fearless Japanese with eccentric personalities. Yo Baby Yo was charmingly eccentric. He spotted us at the beach and made a bee-line in our direction. At first I thought nothing of it, because this always happened. Most of the time, one of the veteran expat teachers who had better language skills communicated with our self-proclaimed fans. But this time, Yo Baby Yo targeted me as the one to show off his language skills to. As my friends and I sat enjoying the beach, this brave young man approached and greeted me with a hearty “Yo, baby yo!” I was at a loss as to how I should respond. Restraining the urge to giggle. I said, “You speak English very well. Where did you study?” To which, he proudly proclaimed, “Thanks, I learned from the movies.” I did not have the heart to tell him how inappropriate his greeting was. I just listened to him chat about how cool he thought black people were.

Like Antoinette, this next reader, William Berry, saw firsthand the admiration that Japanese people have for music by black Americans:

I am an African-American male who spent two years working as an Assistant Language Teacher in rural Japan. The experience was one with many very high “highs” and many extremely low “lows.” However, I ultimately came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for African-American culture and an awareness of how our cultural contributions reverberate all around the globe.

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:

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 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.