Black Abroad: My Experiences as a WOC Traveling Europe and Asia

10 November 2015

Black Abroad | My experiences as a WOC Traveling Europe and Asia

*WOC- abbreviation for woman of color. Used to describe any woman who does not identify racially as white.

Firstly, I would like to state that the following recounts are 100% anecdotal and based on my own experiences during my travels. I'm sure some people will read this and think "What?! That would never happen in X country!" Others may see this and proclaim "It certainly could have been worse!" Either way, I would like to use my blog as a venue to share the experiences and view points that are so rarely heard in the travel community; that of a solo, black, female traveler.

Secondly, I feel like I need to address the question that people so often ask me in my daily life here on American soil: "What are you?"

Living in Hawaii was the only time I didn't feel like a minority in America
A very innocent, though poorly worded, question I've had to deal with my entire life. As stated above, I identify as black. Technically, I am mixed race (half white, half black) but my whole life, when I came to a little box to check which race I was ('please, only pick one!' they often state) I chose the black check box. Because, as many of my friends, classmates, and acquaintances reminded me everyday (in the most subtle and innocuous ways possible) I certainly was not white. In fact, research has shown that many POC (people of color) can't go a single day of their life without some faint reminder that they're not white.

When I was little, my classmates would look at my mother and then me and say "Oh, I didn't know you were adopted!"

"I'm not." And then in the cutest, I-don't-understand-race-and-that-concept-doesn't-exist-in-my-mind way, I'd say, "My mom is white, my dad is black, and I'm brown!"

But being brown always seemed to need to be clarified. Now that I'm older, people are much more tactful about how they broach the topic. Some people, I see in their eyes, are just so curious but don't know what words to use. Some people just turn it into a guessing game.

"You're so exotic. Are you Latina? Moroccan? Part Korean? Native American?" I've really heard everything.

So here in America, with my ambiguous beige hue, my identity as black is contested every day but the fact remains that I'm definitely not white!

Paris, France
My first time abroad was when I spent my sophomore year of college (September 2010- June 2011) abroad at a university in northern France. Le Havre, being a port city, actually has quite a large number of north Africans yet I saw very few in my university classes.

At the time that I studied abroad, I was a lot less aware of race. Or at least, wanted to be less aware. It's only now in reflection on my time in France that I realize "Oh, wow, I think some racist shit went down."

For instance, in my entire year abroad I only made one white French friend. And to be honest, she was getting an English degree so the fact that I was a native English speaker probably influenced her choice to befriend me. Other than that, the only French friends I made were all first generation immigrants from Morocco and Ivory Coast. They were lovely people and we often got together to enjoy home-cooked couscous and cheap champagne that tasted like candy but it makes me wonder, how come other foreigners were the only ones who wanted to be my friend?

Etretat, France
Picturesque France was a lonely experience for me
Also, I'm pretty sure I was confused for a Romani more than once while walking the streets of Paris.

To be fair, I had a very boho vibe going on with my outfit (long, striped maxi dress and a red scarf) but I guess when you add in brown skin that suddenly makes you a thief? Over and over again, I would ask other people to take my picture (because I was traveling alone) and they would look at me so suspiciously. They'd squint their eyes and look around like they were looking for my accomplice who was out to mug them once they were distracted. I was so embarrassed that I never wore that outfit again while I was abroad,


Black Abroad | Beijing, China
Solo travels in Beijing
Oh, China. You really did not start on the right foot when it comes to racism abroad.

Let me recount: When I first started looking to work in China, I initially applied to a school in Changsha. Everything went great during the interview process and it seemed like they were about to hire me. Then they asked for a photo of me. I complied and suddenly they went silent.

Meanwhile, my friend who was white was applying to the same job. He didn't have any experience working with children and he didn't speak Chinese but, alas, he was hired.

My friend agreed that it seemed weird that they had stopped replying to my emails when they were responding to all of his right away so he asked them directly "What happened to my friend Aryn's application?"

And would you believe the direct quote from their email was "We're only interested in hiring white people."

I was a mess of emotions when I read that. At first a laughed at the ridiculousness of the statement. Then I started crying when I realized I was being denied my goal simply because of my skin color. I knew that, culturally, light skin was preferred in China but I didn't realize that they would extend this to foreigners as well. It never even crossed my mind that I would have to deal with racism on the other side of the world.

I gave myself that night to grieve and in the morning I applied to another job which is how I wound up teaching English in Wuhan for the summer of 2012.

Wuhan University
The beautiful Wuhan University
And once I got to China? Well I was definitely looked at as an other. When walking down the street I would hear people talk to each other (because there's no way the foreigner understands Chinese, right?) "Look at her? Where do you think she's from?" And the guessing game of my race would continue.

One time some of my coworkers and I went to a local swimming spot. When we arrived, a child looked at me, pointed, and screamed "Waiguo ren! Waiguo ren!"

For many of my friends who didn't know Chinese before arriving, this is the one word they learned quickly. You are a waiguo ren. You are a foreigner.

Conversely, I also enjoyed a lot of great friendships that were not affected by my race. Not a single one of my students ever made a comment on skin tone (other than when they were asked to describe me in English to which they would usually say "Aryn is tall, skinny, and tan.") My students were so wonderful and the absolute best part of my job. Several of them even asked to hang out with me after class and we became good friends since they were pretty much the same age as me.

Burton Coffee, my favorite bar
In my day-to-day life in China it was often acknowledged that I was a foreigner but it never adversely affected my experience. In fact, I was often times treated like a celebrity at bars. I got to know a couple bar owners and they would personally welcome me when I showed up and clear a table for me to sit at. I would then get free drinks for the night in exchange for making their bar look "cool".

If you can stomach strangers asking to take pictures with you (or not asking!) then China is pretty fun as a black woman.

Macau, China
In the end, I think a lot of factors affected my experiences abroad.

For France, I think its own turbulent history with racial tension and discrimination against immigrants created a subtle, ingrained prejudice in the French people that made it harder for me to make friends.

As for China, I feel like the bigotry I encountered while applying for jobs was actually exported from the USA. Because where else would Chinese people get the notion that blacks cannot speak English well? Probably from the media created right here in America.

In the end, though, it all comes down to individuals and how they decide to treat you. They can choose to judge you based on preconceived notions or they can decide to just look at you like another human being and get to know you beyond racial boundaries. There's really nothing you can do about this as an individual person other than try to have an optimistic outlook.

In general, my travels have taught me that people are nice and caring- even to a stranger. Across Europe and Asia I've been offered housing and food many times just out of the goodness of people's hearts. I have been judged for being black but I've also been taken care of for being human.

Have you ever experienced a moment of racial tension abroad?

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  1. <3<3<3<3<3 So great of you to write about this. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for reading. This took a long time to put together!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences <3

  3. Thanks so much for posting about this!! When I studied abroad, I had a vastly different experience than my white American friends and no one ever REALLY understood. It was so frustrating to say the least. I'm so happy to read about your experiences—but not that you experienced microaggressions/blatant racial tensions like that.

    1. Thanks Michelle! I recently have been getting a lot of private messages from some black college students looking into studying abroad and I thought, you know, I really need to share the whole experience- beyond just how to pick a school or make sure your grades transfer and what not. As a PoC, there are other things to consider when going abroad that many white travelers do not even have to think about and I've never seen any one talking about it. I'm glad to see this post is getting such a positive response!

  4. Good read! I myself have been in France for over 2 months and the only encounter I've really had with race came from another black french person! It was so shocking. But I do think this is an important conversation to have; the difference we have as WOC traveling abroad as opposed to our white counterparts. And I agree that a lot of how the world sees African Americans is based on how our own country views us, since our media has become the global media. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I'm thinking of converting this into a video and expanding on some points so stick around for that!