5 Ways Black Girls Can Cope While Traveling Abroad in Asia

by Nicolette Oladipo

In 2012, I moved to Taiwan as a bright-eyed, childish, unassertive, somewhat immature 22-year-old with residual high school insecurities finally striking out on my own. Earlier this year, I left Taiwan matured, confident, and with many good, bad, and ugly experiences under my belt. I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything; however, I know several of my positive experiences would have been impossible for me to recognize or enjoy had I not changed my mindset and attitude toward certain situations while abroad. Therefore, I'd like to share some tips I believe will assist Black women love every minute of their time abroad, namely in Asia, whether they've moved or are on vacation.

Sometimes I find Black women are reluctant to travel or live abroad, especially solo, because they already feel marginalized in their own countries. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone should ignore their desire to see the world because they are worried about how they'll be received. Granted, it will certainly require a thick skin, if you don't already have one. Three years ago I didn't, and boy did I learn. There comes a time where you either develop the strength to be yourself in a sea of homogeneity or shut down, a prisoner of your own mind.

I have only been to three Asian countries for longer than a layover; I lived in New Taipei City, Taiwan for nearly three years, completed a summer semester in Beijing as an undergrad, and vacationed in Tokyo. Nevertheless, I feel these tips likely apply to any nation where there isn't a significant Black population.

1. Do whatever you like.

Seriously, I think I enjoyed my time abroad most when I simply didn't care. Being a Black girl in a place where there virtually are none isn't a crime. There's no point in feeling bad about having a moment or doing what you'd do at home unless it heavily clashes with the manners or culture of the country you're in.

Want to sleep on the train during the ride home? Like to whistle while you walk? Want to wear your favorite neon-colored dress? Go ahead! As long as you're respectful, you shouldn't prevent yourself from doing whatever you want.

Oh, you're just having some juice at 7-11? Guess what, even a simple action like that is going to make you stand out, so you might as well do all those other normal things you "can't" do.

2. Get a hobby (or continue to do one you love).

I think this applies more if you're living abroad, but perhaps it works if you're on a long vacation.

The best way to trade lonely-Black-girl-in-a-country-where-nobody-looks-like-her status for Black-girl-with-a-circle-of-buddies-and-consistent-human-contact status is, in my opinion, to pick up a hobby or find ways to continue one you had back home. For me, writing and physical activity allowed me to meet new people, find others to do activities with, and strike up conversations. You can also use the Internet; Meetup.com is your friend. Some of the most fulfilling, random, and interesting conversations I had in Taiwan were with strangers on the Taipei biking path!

Short side story: I went running on the path one morning and a group of guys started cheering me on like I was a marathon winner. Those types of moments make your day and can't happen if you isolate yourself. Had I not taken up tour biking in Taiwan, I wouldn't have made those memories.

3. Don't hide.

The stares are getting to you. You feel every ajumma or obaasan or ayi or old lady has it in for you. You don't want to go outside. Yes—you have decided you will subsist off your last bottle of Calpico and dried seaweed snack until nighttime when you will finally get your groceries in the cloak of darkness.

But why not go now? In the open, in the daylight?

As I said before (#1), being a Black girl abroad isn't criminal. It's easy to feel uncomfortable when it seems as if everyone is staring at you, judging, wondering why you're even there. However, this doesn't mean you have to hide or race through your errands to minimize your time outside. You have the right to be seen anywhere you're allowed to be. In fact, the minute you go abroad, consider yourself a student of sociology. Make sure you're seen and handle any negative reactions to your presence appropriately. As Black women, and more generally as Black people, I don't think we have to be ambassadors of all things black, yet we set the tone for others' future contact with Black individuals. Be out in the open, shoulders back, chin up. Good posture makes you look less like a pushover.

4. Don't let the comments define you.

Usually, I don't subscribe to the saying "ignorance is bliss," but when 60% of the conversations on the rush hour train are about you, it can be. There were times where I wished I could unlearn Chinese and the bits of Japanese I know. It's easy to take passing comments as personal assaults. To be honest, I don't think most of the people who say such things mean to hurt you and ruin your day, but it doesn't negate the fact that it can cut deep, especially when you're having a bad day.

At the end of the day, you simply have to do you. People who say mean things do so because they feel uncomfortable with themselves. Your different appearance makes them uncomfortable, and the only way they can reach a level of comfort again is to insult you. Regardless of whether an individual has seen a Black girl in the flesh or not, a person who insults and is mean, whether directly or indirectly, has a personal problem.

5. Be assertive.

Sometimes, an insult goes beyond a negative comment. It turns into aggressive bullying or a confrontation. You shouldn't ignore abuse or bullying because you look different and don't want to draw more attention to yourself. Confront the person if you have to and get the authorities involved if it's serious. In most Asian countries, face is very important. For instance, in Chinese culture, one’s “face” is basically the representation of their level of respectability. Therefore, if someone is harassing you, call the person out in a firm, audible voice. I did this few times while living in Taiwan. More times than not, the perpetrator will “lose face” and be too embarrassed to continue. I've never had to fight anyone, but I have told people to leave me the eff alone. Luckily, my resting face is pretty mean-mugged.

Also, you don't have to take pictures with anyone. If you're in China, I suggest you don't oblige because a sea of people will likely surround you wanting your picture, too. You are not a sideshow; don't let people treat you like one. The person won't stop taking pictures after you said no? Take a picture of them until they realize how it feels! I have done this many times.

Hopefully these tips help if you're currently abroad or about to go overseas. Remember girls, you’re not just a traveler or an expat. You're a pioneer!

Photo: Shutterstock

Nicolette Oladipo holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Houston in Political Science and Chinese Studies as well as a Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from Tamkang University. After living in Taiwan for nearly three years, she has returned to the States and spends most of her time blogging (http://realchoudoufu.blogspot.com/). She also enjoys dreaming about her next travel destination and shamelessly stuffing her face with delicious food.

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