In January 2015, I got on a plane at JFK in New York and flew across to the ocean to Denmark. For the next twelve consecutive months, I didn’t go more than three weeks without hopping on a plane, train, or boat. I explored the corners of Europe from Greece to Iceland, Portugal to Serbia. I ventured into Turkey and Ukraine, and spent a week in the UAE in between. I spent months working in and traveling through China. My journey was a bit unusual, but I never really considered myself anything other than a typical American student/traveler looking to see what’s out there.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I’m unmistakably and unequivocally black. Living out of the country long-term for the first time, I observed distinct behavior that was unfamiliar to me. I found myself nodding at random black strangers I’d never seen before (for more on this, look up “The Nod,” or “The Negro Nod,” or “The Black Head Nod”). It was like an acknowledgement of ethnic solidarity for us black students and travelers abroad.
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In the U.S., black people are a strong minority. Anyone who grew up outside a predominately black community can tell you that. Traveling to other countries was, quite literally, a different world. Looking back, I never actually saw other black students in the following countries: Denmark, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Serbia, Italy, Ukraine, Turkey, Sweden, Finland. From my home in Prague, I might’ve seen one other black traveler once a week at most. My ability to stick out in a crowd wasn’t the focal point of my trips, but it was definitely something that stuck out to me.
If you’re looking for stories from a black girl studying abroad, check out the work of Alicia Harris or watch this interview with the black travelers behind We Go Too. In the meantime, if you’re looking for stories from students of color study abroad — especially black students like me — you’re going to get a kick out of this article.
Dark skin is weird. Relatively, I mean. Asian countries were probably the places where I stood out the most, but it was amazing to see how out of place I could feel. That being said, reactions to my seemingly-unusual skin color were often positive.
The fact is, people are honestly curious about things that are different. When people approached me with that kind of curious mindset, it actually made a lot of things easier. I found myself easily striking conversations with strangers (even if we didn’t speak the same language). Something about the physical appearance of being black makes people you meet want to understand you. They’re normally curious about things like your home and occupation, but I found that people would be extra curious around me.
People in China were actually willing to pay money to get pictures with me. While I decided against launching a career as a token black model, I was able to leverage that power to make connections. Some guys I met at a conference in Finland told me I looked a lot like James Harden and asked for a picture. If that’s not a great opportunity to network, I don’t know what is. Whether hanging out in clubs in Shenzhen or solo-exploring the parks of Istanbul, I took advantage of people approaching me to nab freebies, personal recommendations, and new friends.
I’m really into big cities. Some of my favorite memories in life are taking aimless walks about big cities, just to disappear into the crowds and get lost. On my first day walking around Shenzhen, I went to KK100 (the 14th tallest building in the world) and couldn’t shake the feeling that this guy was staring at me. I looked him in the eye for a few seconds and he burst into a smile, waved, and then walked away. Little did I know this was the start of long summer of strange behavior. I traveled to nearly a dozen cities in China and couldn’t escape the onslaught of pictures and videos. After we got off a train in Guilin, a man put his five(ish)-year-old daughter in my arms as I wasn’t looking. That guy probably has the single most awkward photo of me ever taken.
[KEEP READING: 5 African American Study Abroad Scholarships]
Declining pictures in Chinese (“búyào,” which means “don’t want") became a daily activity, often punctuated by vigorous head-shaking and me walking away. The behavior was more than reasonable. If I saw someone with green skin walking through New York’s East Village right now, I’d be pretty shocked too. That being said, it didn’t feel good being a black face in a differently-colored crowd. It felt at best annoying and at worst invasive.
It could be tough, too.
Some things were pretty serious – friends with experience studying in Shanghai were advised to avoid skin products in China, as many of them contained skin-whitening chemicals (that’s a hard “búyào" from me). I actually only got one haircut in Paris during my four month stay in France because most of the barbers I talked to openly admitted to not knowing how to cut afro hair. I would’ve asked for a recommendation from a friend, but I don’t have any black friends that have ever lived in Paris and there weren’t many black students at my school (I actually never saw more than five in the student body of 4,000).
While these things seem small, I think they’re incredibly isolating in totality. I had fun in France for sure, but there were more than a few moments where I felt more alone because I was black. In Asian countries, it’s hard to understand (coming from the U.S./the West) why people go to such extreme lengths to keep their skin as white as possible. Given the lack of students of color who study abroad (and black travelers in general) as it is, a lot of these small things shape your perspective of the world. I remember China as the country where people stared at me too much, but because of that I see Vietnam and Taiwan as places where people didn’t bother me.
I got recruited for my office basketball team on my first day of work in China. I get James Harden comparisons in a surprising number of countries. In Vietnam and Greece, I was offered drinks at a bar by other black travelers. Both times the person started with, “Hey, you’re black right?”
Honestly, sometimes being black creates bizarre moments. I have a friend who once got separated from our group because a few intoxicated American girls saw his skin, guessed that he was from the U.S. too, and forced him to help them get home. These are the kind of moments I live for.
Travel is great because it’s weird. Climbing a mountain in a foreign country or going for a walk on the streets of a famous city are cool, but they’re too typical. What’s unique about time you walked around London or Dubai? What makes travel great is when it gets weird. You’re left with nothing but a memory that’s entirely your own. That memory is what inspires you to think deeply about the country and its culture.
[KEEP READING: Studying Abroad as a Minority]
I know the NBA is big in China, but after my coworkers recruited me we had a full conversation about how much basketball they watch. People approached me with Harden comparisons, but I was able to use that to get to know them. Oftentimes free drinks turn into new contacts and social media connects. My Twitter and Snapchat feeds are full of friends from abroad indirectly exposing me to their culture.
Discovering our own culture as students of color studying abroad
I feel like I’ve gone to significant lengths to understand the cultures around me without ever stopping to understand my own. I understand the links between our general American culture and its roots in Europe. I can tell you a surprising amount about the strange politics of Hong Kong and mainland China, or the political history of the Czech Republic. I talked to Israelis and Palestinians about the root of the conflict there, and I spoke with migrant workers in Abu Dhabi about why they’ve left home. I had late-night conversations with Finnish entrepreneurs in Helsinki. I even once traveled to Ecuador to gain immense appreciation for the relationship being built between indigenous and modern people.
Despite all that, I couldn’t tell you much about why Nigeria’s population is increasing at a ridiculous rate. I’m not really sure what the connection is between black fashion in America and its roots in Africa. Why is South Africa so good at rugby? I have no idea. The only thing I really learned about black culture is how much I don’t know.
I don’t regret going to the places I’ve gone. It’s an incredible feeling talking to someone from a foreign country and being able to understand something about their culture. It’s not as great to reflect that you’re as far from understanding your own roots as you were when you started. I feel incredibly confident in my ability to understand others, but I question my ability to understand my own ethnic background.
In the end, I think I came away with a better understanding of what black culture is and isn’t. After having to try and explain something that’s hard to understand in the first place, I realized that being black is having a culture within a culture. It’s a way of speaking, dancing, or just thinking. It’s more than just being American, but it’s less than just being human. I spent a lot of time learning more about myself just from getting a better perspective of what I’m not. Maybe I’m black-er than I thought I was.
Or, maybe I’m just a James Harden-esque figure traveling the world in search of a good haircut.