The first time I traveled to China was when I was a 17 year old high school senior. In an international studies magnet program, we were granted an opportunity to go to various cities in China including Beijing, Chengdu, and even Tibet (still one of my favorite places on earth). In Tibet we fed pandas and met monks; in Beijing we took a hike to the top of a mountain where we snow tubed and made it on the local news and I also had the opportunity to live with a Chinese family!
While all of the experiences where amazing, I was often stared at with no shame. I would walk through town with my counterparts and people outside enjoying a bowl of soup would simply gawk. There was even a time when an elderly woman came up to me and rubbed the brown skin on my hand! My translator told me that the lady once “read” about black people in books but never actually saw a black person in real life. Her rubbing my hand was to ensure that I was in fact, real. Surprisingly, I was not mortified or offended. I realized that due to the Chinese Revolution, much of the outside world had been cut off from China only until the late 70s. Naturally, many people growing up during this time had never been exposed to many foreigners if at all. While the encounter with the elderly woman was the most extreme case that I had encountered, people stopping and staring at a young black traveler is not uncommon.
Here are three suggestions that will make your “traveling while black” experience more comfortable:
1. Be Open
Let’s be honest, the majority of the Non-Western world does not normally see large groups of young, black travelers. Seeing young white travelers backpacking is rather common – we, unfortunately, are not. Keeping that in mind, be open to the possibility that you may be the first black person that an individual has seen. Typically, the stares and gawking is out of sheer curiosity & and isn’t intended to be spiteful or rude.
2. Do Your Research
Before traveling anywhere, do research on the currency, history and most importantly, the culture. Learn what different hand signals and gestures signify, look into social norms and currents events. This will help you gauge how to interact with the locals. Unlike the United States, in China, it is not considered rude to stare. To mitigate this, I would smile and say hello in the native language. With that, I would either make a new friend or the staring would cease.
3. Reach One, Teach One
Do not allow what outsiders see in music videos and pop culture define the perception of young black travelers. Be willing to share with others about your culture and where you come from. There are is much to learn from everyone and everywhere we go. I remember being called a “ni**er” by a Kenyan man while in Nairobi as if it were a term of endearment. His perception of the word was from American rap music, my perception was very different. Over a beer and a burger, I politely explained the true meaning and impact of the word in my society.
Above all, if you are to have an adverse experience based on your outside appearance, do not let that alter your travel experience. The world is meant for us all to explore, learn, and love each other.
This story was curated by Rachel Hill