Travelling while black in Asia
Hong Kong, December 2018. Our cab driver honked. Hard. It wasn't until he abruptly stopped the car in the middle of the street that I realized that there was an issue. During the first two minutes of the ride, I was taking in the city's vibe. It was late. The streets were empty, but for a few pedestrians. Businesses were closed. The cause of his rage: a sikh man riding a delivery scooter. There we were, Hubs and I, just a couple minutes from our hotel, in the middle of what looked like a road-rage incident.
I ended 2018 with a bang! I went on a 16-day trip in Asia with Hubs and Ti Val. A 10-day cruise took us to Naha and Ishigaki, in Japan; Taipei and Kaohsiung, in Taiwan; and Manila in the Philippines. We boarded in and sailed back to Hong Kong. After the cruise, we headed to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) for a 2.5-day jaunt. This was my second trip to that part of the world. In 2016, I travelled to Japan (main land) and South Korea. Lebanon and Turkey are the two other Asian countries I've visited. Before I talk about my experience as a black woman travelling on that continent, it is important that I give you some context. I was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Although I travelled to North America from the time I was a toddler, I only moved to a country where people who look like me are a minority when I was 26. Until that time, using the term “black women” to refer to myself probably wouldn't be among the top 5 describers I'd use. Don't get me wrong: if you asked me then for the colour of my skin, I would have said "black". After all, Haiti is the first Black Republic. Plus, Haiti's very first constitution deemed all Haitian to be black. But using the term “black woman” just wasn't a thing in a majority Black country. I'd describe myself as Haitian, a woman, a Christian, a law student, a Port-au-Princian, etc. before thinking about saying black. Not because I was in denial, but because in a predominantly black country this descriptor doesn't really weigh much. But don't get it twisted, thanks to colonialism, us Haitians use a slew of terms to describe the variety of shades we come in. And, of course, proximity to whiteness, in terms of skin tone, comes with its privileges. It is not uncommon to hear folks say that light skin people are never ugly or that a girl is pretty “for a dark skin girl”. In Haiti, colourism is most definitely a thing.
Ironically, most of the time, racism doesn't see shades of black. Before moving to Canada, I understood, somewhat vaguely, how racism worked. I read books, news articles, opinion pieces. I watched movies. I learned about colonialism, Apartheid, the Civil Rights Movement. But I only got a better understanding of how that system plays out when I moved to North America. I got to experience your garden variety racism, so casual that you either don't bother addressing it or you hardly recognize it for what it is. I've delved into its systemic manifestations, learning about its mechanisms. I'm learning everyday. Another, very important, caveat: this is my experience as a tourist. A status that, sometimes, offers a certain amount of privilege. I was fully alert. The 16-hour flight from Chicago hadn't dulled my senses. The driver got back in the car only to get out of it again. All the while he was yelling at the delivery man. His limited English vocabulary included the F word, which he spat at the other man with disgust numerous time. The third time he got out of the car, he went to his trunk. The PauP girl in me took over. I reached for my door. My plan: exit the vehicle at the sight of anything metallic. I guessed he'd pull out a gun or a jack, at the very least. I didn't think to look into the trunk when he was helping us with our luggage. Was he packing? I remember thinking how I didn't know anything about Hong Kong's gun regulations. He came back empty-handed. But he got really close to the other man, towering him, ordering him to get the F out. The scene probably lasted less than a minute. Before heading to a destination, I have gotten into the habit of reading about the experiences of other women (mostly Black women, because intersectionality) who have travelled there before me. As a woman, I need to find out about appropriate attire and culture (i.e. how women are treated overall), so that I can pack accordingly and prepare myself mentally. As a Black woman, I try to find out how people who look like me are typically treated to determine whether or not I need to be extra cautious. Thanks to the reading I had done, I knew exactly what the old Greek dude meant when he said “people will like you here”. Dude thought my friend and I were prostitutes. *sigh* When I read about travelling to Asia, there were talks of stares, of photos taken surreptitiously and of hair touching. I also found out how colourism had seeped into the culture. From the skin bleaching practices, in India, to people shielding themselves from the sun for fear of getting darker, in Japan. While I didn't read any horrible travel stories, I knew that dark skin tones may, at best, be an oddity or, at worst, not be 100% welcomed. Aside from the incident with the taxi driver in Hong Kong, I never felt unsafe in Asia. Be it when I was roaming the streets of Istanbul on my own or hanging out with a group. People looked at me with various degrees of curiosity. There was never animosity. In Japan, the looks from adults were very brief, when I noted them. Children and teenagers looked for a longer time. The older women who tried to sneak a few pictures of us were tourists just like us. I doubt they were Japanese. In South Korea, people smiled. If they spoke any English, they'd approached my travels companions and I and asked the usual “where are you from”. The other tourist who grabbed Manises's hair wasn't South Korean. The man who asked Ti Val to pose for a photo wasn't South Korean either. In Turkey, I was pretty much invisible when I was with Hubs. When I was on my own, people stared, men cat-called. But that's fodder for another post. In Lebanon, people didn't really pay us any mind, a few looks here and there. Nothing major. In Manila, Taipei and Kaohsiung, there was a mixture of looks and stares. I experienced the most over-the-top reactions in Hong Kong and Cambodia. When we went to one of the restaurants Anthony Bourdain had been to in Hong Kong, we looked like the only foreigners. Diners noticed, but went about their business. The staff was, erm, shook. There's no other way to describe it. LOL That one lady left her tasks, whatever they were, to help us. She spoke no English, so we resorted to the universal language of smiling and pointing. The place served dim-sum; without her assistance, we would have been a bit lost. She grabbed dishes from the trays, waived at her colleagues so that they could bring us certain dishes. When we were all set, she pulled a stool and sat behind me. When I stopped eating to type a Facebook post, she gently nudged me, pointing at the food left in my plate, as if checking to ensure that I'd finish my plate. We exchanged numerous smiles. At the end of the meal, I muttered a very hesitant “Xièxiè”. Hubs and Ti Val later told me that she didn't let me out of her sight, randomly smiling at my chopstick skills. At some point, in Phnom Penh, I thought we'd cause a traffic accident. Tuk-tuk drivers would turn around to look at us, as though to ensure that they indeed saw what they thought they saw. There was that one driver who spent the entire time it took the light to go back to green (roughly a minute) looking at me, a huge smile on his face. It took us a moment to realize that people, men and women alike, paid more attention to me. Of course, I blame my coily hair, a very unusual sight in these parts. I also think my body had something to do with it: I was taller, bigger and curvier than most women I've seen. When the driver returned to the car, he was fuming. He blurted out that he had nothing against these people, migrants, but that they did that all the time. They cut cars off hoping that their would be an impact causing them to fall off their scooters. His eyes went from Hubs to mine. I returned a blank stare. There it is, I thought. There's the othering of migrants/immigrants. There's the “I'm not a racist, but” BS. Does anything good ever comes after “but”? For a moment, being a tourist offered me the privilege of being part of the in-crowd. I was a part of the “us” who should understand that “they” often behave in a questionable fashion.
I can't say that I've had negative experiences in Asia. Certainly, my friend getting her hair touched by a stranger was very unpleasant. I was baffled. My friend didn't say or do anything to her. I followed her lead. If it were my hair, I would be very upset. Touching a person without consent is unacceptable. So is being verbally or physically aggressive towards another person. The taxi driver's xenophobic/racist comments really bothered me. I honestly thought that he would put his hands on the sikh man. And I knew that if I wasn't an obvious tourist, I could easily be a victim of his temper. That I too could be asked to get the F out.
And this, peeps, is what I'd like for you to take away from this post. I can only speak to my experiences. I may have had a smooth trip, met nice people, others may not. That doesn't make their experience any less valid. For example, I believed every single person who described an "Airbnb while black" situation way before Ti Val and I landed in Milan without a place to stay because a host cancelled our reservation for some BS reason.
What is your experience travelling while black?