An interesting thing happens when your skin is brown and you chose to travel. Sometimes, another brown person in a sea of white finds your dark brown eyes and an affinity takes seed, they smile, you smile, and you’ve become one for a minuscule moment.
Sometimes, people gawk with mouths agape, wide eyed with confusion, fascination or revulsion. They speak incoherently in an extremely different language, pointing at you, laughing at you. You’re unsure of what they’re saying, so a mix of emotions course through you. I’m utterly alone in this homogenous country, is often my first thought. This is where you challenge yourself to walk straighter and smile bigger, fake it till you make it (unless you’ve already made it and thus faking it is totally a waste of energy).
Sometimes, people try to overcompensate. Due to years of (their) people’s oppression, prejudice, belittlement, and disrespect of those of us that are of color; sometimes, we come across other Americans whilst abroad and those experiences stand out as some of the worst, unfortunately. Originating from a country that chooses to hyphenate instead of unite, most of us have been socially programmed to first consider skin color before anything else.
Whereas most times, Europeans rarely cause much of a stir in this department (think Heidi Klum & Seal). Fascinatingly, considering the whole slavery and colonization thing. White American men show abysmally little romantic interest in me, however the minute I step out of this country, suddenly my milkshake really brings all the bois to the yard! I’m only approached by white men when abroad, and brown men when I’m home. It’s so utterly apparent that I had to write about it! I wonder if any of my fellow brown lady travelers feel the same?
The following are just some of my own personal, or my Dad’s personal stories from travel. Domestic as well as international. I don’t want to insinuate that these things happen all the time or every single time I travel, but they are things that have been noticed over 25 years wanderlusting. Growing up in such a racially conscious society, I can already envision some of the comments that will result from this post. I don’t particularly care, however, I just felt I should preface with this before I regale you with some memories. In my point of view.
No matter where I am, but especially when I’m abroad in a homogenous country, whenever I see another black or brown person (solely, not the more generalized “people of color”) we lock eyes and do the universal nod. The universal nod always gets me because it’s so familiar and somewhat comforting. This happens everywhere, even in a fully diverse city like New York, but I like that it happens so often! It’s not something you see so clearly with many other ethnicities, although definitely with religious groups I think (if we’re trying to compare).
In terms of the more negative situations, nothing is worse than being stared at with derision or being teased in another language and then, laughed at. Beijing, pre Olympics, with a black parent and a white parent was peculiar for little biracial me. Aside from some Chinese folks wanting to take pictures with us in good spirits or calling out “Shaq Shaq” when my dad passed by, there were some really mean, backwards Chinese. We were in the Beijing Zoo (one of the worst kept zoos I’ve ever seen, literally filthy at the time) and were saddened by the sight of how the panda’s where kept when we heard very loud sniggering behind us. I turned around and saw five Chinese men standing right behind us, literally laughing and even pointing when I turned around. My dad guided us out just to avoid the situation after days upon days of being singled out for being the darkest people in one of the most congested cities in the world. The men followed us out and stood in front of me, laughing and jumping around like monkeys. At the time, being in my teens and having enough trouble figuring out my biracial identity in my own country, I was #done. I bawled in front of a forming group of Chinese people that just watched the scene. My dad was growing visibly more angry by the minute, but my mom kept him at my side, not allowing an altercation to arise. Smart woman.
In Morocco, with my dyed orange hair, I felt so despised. I was with a large group of Americans while studying on Semester at Sea, many of them were white, and just walking around with the group I felt watched. A gang of young boys followed just me one day and threw rocks at my head calling me a traitor in English. They thought I was an ethnic
Moroccan pretending to be American…this specific sort of thing happens to me most often.
In El Salvador, I was called monkey more times than I was greeted with hello. Interestingly, the elderly people always stared, smiled and called me bonita. It was the younger people, twenties and lower, that wouldn’t sit next to me on the bus even if it was the last seat. They would gather around the empty seat, staring, laughing and later name calling. El Salvador was domineered for decades by a serious anti-brown dictator and until recently, Salvadorans simply never saw black people. It’s the only Central American country that doesn’t have an Atlantic Ocean outlet and thus, Caribbean people didn’t go there. I’m used to being stared at when I travel, but in El Salvador, Morocco and China, it was especially grating.
After graduating from college simultaneously with my mom graduating from culinary school, we decided to take a month-long road trip from NJ-Chicago-New Orleans-Georgia and back up. In NOLA of all places, at an upscale restaurant with a stalky server, he told me that my mom was NOT my mother and I must be lying because she is obviously white and I am obviously black. -__- This was in my own country, in an otherwise ethnically diverse city. As I started to get combative, my mom just looked at me and smiled. She decided it was a learning moment for all involved and gave him a lesson about colors, race, and the fact that my black daddy was simply not with us at this exact second and thus he’s understandably confused. I give that woman a lot of credit!
In Natchez, MS we took a tour of a plantation home and I was the only brown person in our tour group of maybe 12 people (my mom and I were actually the only Americans). The female tour guide, when showing us the male salon and smiling at me said, “We actually had a black man play this piano last week! Can you believe that!? Can you play the piano?” I looked around my tour group, thinking I shouldn’t take this the way I was feeling…everyone in the tour group blanched and was staring open mouthed at either me or the tour guide. It was a very quiet tour after that.
Recently, in early 2015, my parents were in Costa Rica on a week-long tour and became friendly with some other couples. As relayed by my dad, my mom had gone to the bathroom on the beach and he was left with about four other American couples. One woman, a few drinks in, started a conversation specifically pointing out how affirmative action must have brought my dad to this point in his life — to this point of being able to go on a “trip like this.” He chose to remain silent and awaited my mom’s wrath. This women took it upon herself to make my black father the target of her hatred towards affirmative action and essentially said the only way he could afford a trip like this was by way of getting affirmative action served to him since his early school days. There’s a way to make friends. “Wasn’t it obvious?” she asked everyone. At this moment my mom had returned and my dad noted, “Mare, would you believe Fran thinks I’m only here because of affirmative action?” Now, my mom is normally non-confrontational, but she is certainly Hudson County, NJ all day everyday baby! She lit into this woman, stating my dad’s accomplishments and his hard earned awards including being the first black person to hit each rank in the police department in Hoboken, NJ. Instead of coming together as Americans in another country, we’re so programmed to consider ethnicity and race, it just HAD to come into conversation didn’t it?
It’s not all bad though. In 2014 we ventured on another month-long road trip, this time with my dad and a friend of mine from Semester at Sea. We had to stop in Coeur-de-Alene, ID, or maybe you know it as the home of white supremacist groups the Aryan Nation and neo-Nazis? Well, we happened upon here during their annual car show, so the place was PACKED. We stopped in a restaurant to eat and again, my dad and I were the only browns around. My dad finally mentioned to us about this being the place of white supremacy, and me being me, I call our server over and straight up ask if it’s safe for us to be there. She leaves the table and comes back with the manager. “Hi guys, I’m Derek and I’m half Cherokee. I hate that people come here and think that all of us are Aryans. Do you mind if I sit with you and talk about this?” This was both unexpected and wonderful. We had an hour long conversation about community relations, race in America and growing up biracial. What a powerful travel experience this was, for all of us I’m sure, but definitely for me.
Then there are always the few brave and courageous souls that initiate a conversation because of my brownness. They approach me with a slightly shy, sort of curious, attitude that keeps my defenses lowered. I don’t mind being asked about my ethnicities or
anything along those lines, as long as it’s coming from a place of sincere interest. An instance that comes to mind was on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate. I was walking around with my mom when I saw a Palestinian man looking at me with a kind of wonder, we locked eyes and he smiled. I did the universal nod and he walked towards me, like he was on a mission. He straight up asked me if I was American or Palestinian and then what I was doing there. We spoke for so long on the street that my mom just went to a coffee shop and took pictures of us from afar because she thought this was hilarious, yet also awesome (the true meaning of the word).
These are just a few stories that stick out like sore thumbs in my mind when it comes to traveling while brown. It’s not all negative, but it’s also not all positive. It just is what it is. I’m not much worried about it getting better or worse, I just find it quite irksome when it does turn out to be negative. Would never stop me from traveling this big ol globe though!