Travelling while black comes with its ups and downs. Yes, it is important to share about this because those of us who are of a dark complexion, who travel know our less than pleasant experiences in some places. It is nice to share the wonderful pictures of all the places we explore and paint them in the best light. Travelling while black is however not always bells and whistles.
I often travel solo and notice some things that I can only speculate on. One particular trip when I travelled with a Japanese friend helped both of us to see how we were treated differently, based on our skin colour and/or perceived ethnicity.
Stares, Smirks and Pointing while Travelling in Asia
I live in Japan. Having lived in the countryside for years, I know what it is to be stared at and treated like an odd fish in a fishbowl. The empty seat on a crowded train is true here in Tokyo and other places I have travelled in Japan. Some people spit upon passing you (some old men mostly), some cover their noses, some cross to the other side of the street and exhibit other odd behaviours that I know well because they are on repeat by a small-minded minority.
Some kids here will point and stare and it says much about a parent based on how they guide the kid in that moment. I often wave at them or say something like konnichiwa (hi/hello).
Even in this big city Tokyo, I will garner the unmoving eyes of some fascinated folks or the fleeting looks from one who isn’t brave enough to stare openly.
Some of the worst offenders were in Ho Chi Minh City when I travelled there. People were not shy about staring at me, pointing and smirking with their friends. Since, I enjoy sharing such experiences, I turned around and did the same to them. It was funny to see how quickly they shuffled along and stopped trifling with me. This was not a one off thing in the days I was there.
The behaviour from a few people while travelling in China was a bit less clear cut. People seemed more fascinated and the reflex was for them to take a picture of me, because I must be a rare flower or something of the sort.
The experience, bar none that left the nastiest taste in my mouth was in Laos. I was travelling with my Japanese friend and I had booked a few nights at a guesthouse. Upon arriving there, a young man rushed out and grabbed my friend’s bag. We checked in and he carried her bag up the stairs while I waited and made sure he took mine up as well. I had to ask naturally.
The day came when we were checking out. He quoted me an amount in the local currency that was way over what we got when we changed money. I asked him why the discrepancy. His reply was to tell me that this is why he doesn’t deal with black people. Since I do not suffer fools gladly, I just left and did not pay a cent. My Japanese friend was shocked and appalled at his statement. Looking back it was funny to see how she upbraided him. She is still my bonafide friend to this day. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
Stares and Smirks in Europe
The interesting thing about travelling while black some places in Europe, is that people will stare depending on the tourist activity you are doing. I was solo travelling and did a few group tours and in certain areas, a few people would always stare at me, as the sole ‘melanated’ person in a group. I mean there were even a few double takes. I interpreted these two ways: either I am the last person they expect to be a traveller because I am black or they are just plain surprised to see a black person for the first time. I don’t know, I often wondered and try to see how they must see me.
I was in a city with my camera taking pictures like all the other tourists around me. I caught the attention of a few people who smirked, because a black girl doing this is a funny scene apparently. Some people in this world are too narrow minded I tell you. I know though, that this means they can no longer be surprised when they see other dark complected individuals like myself travelling and engaging fully in these experiences. These experiences that have been masterfully projected as only the purview of those with certain looks.
Black Travellers Should Go Boldly Wherever They Want to
I often see many black people, especially women asking if so and so country is safe or if people will treat them differently. These are valid concerns, since no one should put themselves into harm’s way. I do not think we should allow the treatment of others in places we want to visit to prevent us from going there though. I suggest travelling with a friend with whom you are comfortable, so if something negative comes up you can share, shake it off and enjoy the adventures.
The beautiful thing is that the majority of people in places where you visit will be going about their lives not sparing you a glance or a thought. In those countries known for having starers, who are drawn to our captivating skin colour, pace yourself and limit your time there. Sometimes the fascination may be our hairstyles and not complexion. I remember someone sharing how her mom got far less stares in China once she covered her locs.
I like turning the tables on people by doing some of the same things they do to me. This often helps some to realise the error of their ways.
There are no guarantees in life and we all have different experiences. Go off and make your own experiences and try not to presuppose that the experience of those of us who share, will necessarily be yours. The fact is, that the more black people travel far and wide, the more normal we will appear to those who are ignorant.
As a black woman who enjoys travelling, I refuse to allow a few negative experiences deter me from exploring where I want to. I know some people are emotionally and mentally more fragile and are wary of travelling because of how it may affect them. There are many places where one can travel and not be viewed/treated negatively, I will share some on this in an upcoming post.