As of February 2019, I have lived in India, Spain, China, and Vietnam. I have also traveled to many countries from Morocco to the Philippines. As a black woman, I am treated differently depending on the country I am in.
In my opinion, traveling as an African American abroad, there is no, one set experience. Even within a country, experiences differ. It depends on the culture (there are multiple cultures within a country…a region) and the individual. Factors that may influence how people react to you can include the history the country has with people that look like you, how much exposure they have to women of color, and how women of color are portrayed in the media.
You may think about your identity in ways you had not prior to traveling overseas. Again each experience is different. But I am going to highlight some things you may experience as an African American overseas.
There were times when I was overseas and people would not believe I was from the United States. They thought at the very least I immigrated. They would ask me where I really was born or where my parents really were from. Instead of English, some people would address me in French. Depending on where you are, not everyone is going to think you’re American. Some people might think you’re originally from a country in Africa. You might be seen as a fake American because of the lack of diversity in the media.
I remember I was minding my own business looking for dental floss in a store overseas, when out of nowhere a girl comes up to me a starts running her hands through my braids. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. We just stared at each other and I finally pulled back and told her to stop.
You may be one of the first individuals that people overseas will meet with your hair texture. People may not be used to seeing women with braids, dreads, or curly-kinky hair. Their reaction might be to touch it or take pictures.
Some stereotype black women as promiscuous and hypersexual. Some people might see you as a prostitute or only good for sex. People might think this because of how people of color in their country were portrayed historically, from the media, or porn.
All of this has happened to me at different times in various points. And sometimes it was tough. Sometimes I felt like a celebrity. You just have to remember that in some countries it’s not the norm to see a black person or person of color. As a result, people may think you are “exotic” and they may not know how to behave properly.
All experiences are not bad. I remember a friend was telling me that while she was traveling in Vietnam she was going to a theater. The people thought she was from a royal African family. They escorted her to the front of the theater and gave her special treatment.
You may be called Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey. You may even be asked if you know former President Obama or Michael Jordan.
I remember one time I was going to a restaurant overseas. This restaurant was off the beaten path. There weren’t many tourists around. As I sat down, the cook yells from the window “What’s up [N-word]!?” I was taken aback. I felt tempted to ignore it but seeing how there were only two other people in the restaurant, I asked the cook where he learned that phrase. We then had a conversation about the word, its origins, and black American culture.
When we travel overseas, it’s a two-way street. The people you encounter will have reactions about you, either positive or negative. You, in turn, will learn about the people you encounter. Some of your stereotypes or ideas about how people in your host country behave may be destroyed. In this interesting article, the author writes that even though she is African American, her idea of how people lived and dressed in Swaziland was challenged. She writes
“Prior to Swaziland, my impressions of Africa, and indeed Africans, had been shaped by movies, National Geographic magazines, and the Discovery Channel. At that time, the people displayed through those media outlets were often depicted wearing bright tribal clothes that left them partially nude, they hunted animals with spears and waged tribal wars often, and they sat on dusty floors in mud huts while cooking things in clay pots. Their lives seemed so exotic, so otherworldly.
However, in Swaziland, I found the people and their activities to be quite familiar—so much that I often grew bored.”
You might travel abroad and find that nothing happens. You might feel like no-one notices or cares. There’s no pointing, taking pictures, or people passing you their baby. You don’t have to explain how it’s possible you’re American.