In 2018, I completed a 10-day tour of China, which opened my eyes to the experience of Black folks visiting and living in Asia. I felt completely safe in China, though taken aback by the number of people staring. The people who kept their gaze on me, took photos, or wanted to touch me, were from rural China and had never seen a Black person before. There was no malice, or at least I didn’t feel any. I felt people had a genuine curiosity, which is slightly different from my experience in Singapore.
Overall, I have met several kind people who tend to be reserved until they warm up to me. The students I’m working with are the most loving, kind, and accepting folks I’ve met here. However, I still experience low-key or blatant racism on my walks in the community, riding the MRT, or touring the city-state. It reminds me of my travels across the US, especially my experiences in middle America and the Pacific Northwest. As the other in a foreign place, I make sure to smile, greet people, and express gratitude whenever I can. It’s those moments when someone cuts in front of me or bumps me, rolls their eyes when I say hello, turns their back while I’m speaking to them, or holds their purse close to their chest when I’m walking by that’s triggering.
There are times when I am out with friends and people pass by, stare and make a comment in another language. I have noticed my Singaporean friends cringe in those moments, and I can tell by the tone, laughter, or look of disdain that the words were offensive. I experience this several times a day when I am alone, but to watch those with me have a visceral reaction about the comments has an impact on my spirit. It’s in those moments that I feel demoralized, but I still have to hold my head up.
When I discuss these incidents with the people here with me, the typical responses are: “Don’t let it get to you.” “Tell them to stop.” “Take it as a compliment that they take your photo.” Those words are equally triggering because it’s an attempt to sweep the issue under the rug and discount my feelings. To have my photo taken at the Zoo as a spectacle and not act out in rage, is a restraint that I have had to exercise. As a Black woman and representative of the United States, I have the added pressure to remain calm and professional regardless of other people’s insensitivity.
I connected with a former student who has been living in South Korea for three years. I remember sitting in my studio encouraging her to travel the world and writing her recommendation for the position in South Korea. I’ve watched her journey, triumphs, and dope time living out her early 20’s. I looked back through our IG chat history and two years ago I wrote, “They don’t want me to come to South Korea,” when she was going through a tough time. She’s family and I’ve always wanted to protect her. Recently, when I reached out to her, I became the student when she showed her support and said, “So what I’m hearing is that I need to catch a flight,” and some other words 😂. Thank you, Aaliyah! The irony, is that last week I encouraged her to stay one more year overseas.
I love to travel and have explored a number of places. There’s something about hitting the open road or hopping on a plane to an unknown destination and discovering new things about myself. Yes, it is a privilege to be here, experience another culture, and conduct research. I recognize the cost-benefits of this journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything (as long as I’m not in danger). It took me a month, but I am more conscious of my need to recharge, prioritize my mental health, and reach out to Black folks on this side of the globe. I can tell you my posture has improved because I refuse to shrink in order to make others feel comfortable.