Within the Heart of Europe

By Puja Daya, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

Not only did I fall in love with the city, I fell in love with the people I met, the places I saw and the things I learned. I guess this is the experience Erasmus gives to any student of any ethnicity. Although, being my roommates first ever Indian friend or person she knew was astonishing to me.

With my home country of England being so multicultural, for the first time, I found myself to be the only person of colour in a classroom or in most rooms in fact (though the streets were filled with people from all over the world). Did this effect the way I felt or the way I was treated? No. As my difference was appreciated and embraced by the people I met. In fact, I learnt more about myself through the questions asked about my background and culture and began to love it more than ever before.

Prague itself maybe a loved newly upcoming destination for holiday goers and expats, however the many ethnicities of Asians and Africans are not officially recognised within the demographics (being very few of us who set up home there) … nevertheless it flourishes with Vietnamese culture, people and food. Expanding itself with a number of traditional restaurants of Thai and Indian origin, allowing it to be seen as the most multicultural city in the Czech Republic.

So I’ll end with the note that travelling doesn’t just show you different cultures, it allows you to embrace your own.

 

An African Girl in Europe

by Caroline Meryl Achieng, CROATIA, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

As a dark-skinned girl, walking through streets in Rijeka, Croatia was horrifying as men in traffic from the opposite direction to where we were walking, kept on hooting, shouting lewd comments, and making gestures as we made our way up the hill. I chose to ignore them completely though I could hear the taunts. Going from Mostar to Sarajevo was a little unnerving for me as a drunk guy grabbed my hand and planted slobbery kisses the length of it including the back of my palm, as he cooed, “My sweet chocolate”. Then there have been guys that I have met around Europe that have said they loved my lips like that was meant to be a compliment. In parts of the continent where blacks are rarely seen in the flesh, and mostly viewed half-naked in music videos, the approach has been whack, outrageous and frightening to say the least.

Having said that, my travels in Southeast Europe haven’t all been plagued by negative experiences. From the moment we got off the bus at the Mostar station, there were women milling around, welcoming us into their country. Maybe it was because they were touting hostel rooms, but they were very friendly. During our time at Hostel Nina, everyone was polite and I didn’t feel like a foreigner. On the train from Mostar to Sarajevo, as we were entering, a small boy who had spotted the man holding my hand and kissing it beckoned me to follow him. He led me and my daughter to sit with his family in the train, and we were soon engaged in conversation with other passengers in our cabin- a young university guy and his mum, and a couple with a small baby. As the train journey came to an end, I thought to myself how friendly Bosnians were; they created such a communal space and were sort of looking out for each other.

 

To read more stories of Caroline’s travelling experiences in various countries around the world, visit her blog ‘Travelogues of an African Girl’: https://africanahgirl.com/

A Nanny Noir

by Olivia Konotey-Ahulu, FRANCE

When I first moved to France, it seemed as though every week I would be asked whether I was ‘métisse’, or mixed race. Inevitably, this prompted an identity crisis over whether people thought I was actually white-passing, but fortunately baby-sitting two young French children quickly put an end to that line of questioning. At least once a week, the fact that the nanny was ‘noir’ seemed to come from nowhere; once, when the four-year old was listing colours, she added, ‘noir, comme toi’, as though she knew I needed to know. It made me aware that, even in Paris, it’s possible to live in a racial and cultural bubble. But, bizarrely, it was nice to be reminded of my colour.

She Called Me Sierra Leone

by Khadija Koroma, ITALY

She called me Sierra Leone

I don’t know why

I took offence

Why I felt a pang

I am Sierra Leone

Was it her tone

Her attitude

Her judgement

That made my insides

Scream England

That made my blackness

Fade to white

Or was it just me

Am I still in the darkness

Two passports

But I only use one

Two accents

But you only hear the one

Two homes

But I only live in one

What’s happened to my blackness

What has the world done

What have I done

 

I wrote this poem when I was in Bologna in Italy, and I was doing a two weeks 6 cities tour of Europe. And Bologna was my second to last stop. All throughout my travels I’d been referred to as ‘English’ ‘British’ and a ‘Londoner’. So when my friend that I was visiting introduced me as Sierra Leonian to her friend I felt a pang inside and I just had to write down what I was feeling. And that is what this poem is; what I was feeling in that moment. I felt offended at first and then felt ashamed of myself for being offended. I love Sierra Leone and where I’m from and I was so disappointed in myself for being ashamed of where I’m from. Even if it was just for a second.

Journeys

by Harvin Bahl, FRANCE/ESTONIA/CHINA

Hi, my name is Harvin and I’m a British Asian currently living in Beijing. Being brown (as I casually like to call it) is something that I hardly notice whilst I’m at home in London or at University. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot in the past few years, and these kinds of travels have been instrumental for me; helping me really to gain a deeper understanding of my identity.
I grew up in a privileged environment, knowing that I was a British Asian, but being unaware of what this gift entailed and the story behind it. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to come to terms with my identity and realised all the work that has been put in by my parents and their parents before them to allow me to not even bat an eyelid at my brown skin for the majority of my childhood. As I began to travel, in an effort to enrich my experience of the world and experience a wide variety of cultures, I became more aware of my ethnicity and the fact that outside of India, I’m still a minority. My travel narrative has been as follows; Estonia, France and now China – the vast differences in attitudes and culture in these countries provoked a plethora of different emotional responses from me, but the one thing I drew from every experience was the ability to embrace my skin, embrace my ethnicity and to embrace myself.
Estonia was a massive culture shock for me; to go from such an ethnically diverse country like England to a place where immigration is a rare phenomenon was mind-blowing to say the least. The thing is with places like this is that you can never be completely sure if you’re purposely being made to feel like an outsider or if these issues are exacerbated in the mind; I find the latter can be a very real thing. The richness of the Estonian landscape was juxtaposed with the begrudging kindness from most of the public. Don’t get me wrong I made a few friends and had the time of my life, but for the first time in my life I found myself wishing I could blend in a little more.
France was a very interesting place to live and work. Being in the country at the time of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris heightened the feeling of uneasiness for French POC, but also made me think of the struggle people sometimes face to even prove they belong in the country that they live in. The mainstream media painting entire religions with the same brush is more problematic than we can fully understand; the arguments I heard from some French people, “They have brought nothing to our country but problems” served as a harrowing echo of the same rhetoric we hear from some in the UK. For me this was the first time I actually realised that we are ultimately united in this struggle – the fact that to someone somewhere I look like just another immigrant. In France however, the integration levels outside are low. By this I don’t mean how many POC or other immigrants live in the major French cities, because this number is high. I mean how the different groups of people are socially mixing; from my experience, this is a completely different story. It seems that neither side are interested in adopting the other’s cultures, with some of my POC friends saying disgusting things about both France and the French people. I absolutely condemn this; distancing yourself from others because of colour is not the solution.
This leads me onto China, a country in which I have met some of the warmest and most genuinely friendly people. The controlled state of the media here means people are genuinely interested in foreign concepts. Of course I have had experiences where a person may stare, or ask how I can be English if I have brown skin, but this is purely due to ignorance. Be it blissful ignorance or intent to spite, its time to stop responding in anger and time to start sharing and educating. I have made this mistake in the past, responding to racism or ignorance with venom of my own; it is not productive. “Kill them with kindness” is an expression that comes to mind – when abroad, I always remember that I am representing not only the UK, but I’m representing India, representing Sikhs, representing the colour brown. If someone is staring at me on the Beijing subway for example, I meet the gaze with a smile and sometimes say hello. What is staring back going to achieve? I find that a small act of kindness can go a long way – the person you say hello to may feel more at ease to strike up a conversation with you or another POC.
It is in an effort to become a global citizen, a man of many identities if you will, that I have really come to know and appreciate my own. I’m proud of the story of my people, and I intend to build upon the reputation my ancestors have carved out for me. I no longer see my colour as another thing to worry about when I’m abroad, I see it as an opportunity to open up my background to anyone who is interested, in a hope that they can learn to appreciate it as much as I have. This is by no means an easy task, but I’m up for the challenge.

Sending all my love and support to all the POC living abroad, I’m proud of each and every one of you.

A Black Girl in Spain

by Amarah Mckenzie-Lyle, SPAIN

I spent a year studying at a Spanish university in Toledo Spain (a small, beautiful town very close to Madrid), a town that once simultaneously shared itself with three different communities: Muslim, Arab and Jewish and hence referred to as the city of three cultures. It is therefore steeped in so much culture and history and no stranger to the importance of tolerance and coexistence. I can say that this experience truly opened my eyes; Toledo was not a big bustling metropolitan city like the London that I was used to and although there wasn’t much of a culture shock, I found the Spanish to be open, very welcoming, extremely friendly and always willing to help me if I was lost and were patient with me especially when I attempted to practice my Spanish!

Travelling in Europe as a person of colour, in my case as a black girl/morena/negrita often is a unique experience and whilst I had many good experiences occasionally I noticed that some people would stare at me or hold their gaze for a little too long, something I hadn’t really experienced in London where it is so diverse and multicultural. I was a little surprised to see people in blackface during carnival, as I did not expect this to be occurring in 2016. On numerous occasions I was mistaken for being American even after hearing my English accent, I assumed local people thought I was American purely because I was black and spoke English.

In Spain I found it really lovely that walking down the street everyone from complete strangers to your neighbours would say Hola or Buenos Dias. This created a real sense of a community. What I can say, is that I well and truly fell in love with Toledo, the city and the wonderful people that I met there. It certainly will not be the last time that I visit.

Bangkok and Ko Samet

By India-Mae Alby, THAILAND

As a black person, it was when I visited Thailand in 2014 that I realised my dreams of travelling the world would be somewhat hampered by the fact that I wasn’t a) white and b) a female. I’m here to talk about a).
I went to Bangkok with my family and we stayed in an apartment in the financial district for a month. Bangkok is crazy, those roads are nothing like English roads. The people are very interesting – more women than men going to work, dressed impeccably in nearly 40 degree heat, women sitting side-on on mopeds driven by men, their legs nearly crossed. Such a foreign, fascinating environment. I did not realise how foreign and fascinating I was to the Thai people.
The staring was constant. Every day, all day, people would stare and gape at my black skin and plaits. Looking me up and down, from head to toe. Turning around to stare as I walked by. A whole bus of people looking and looking at my mum and I. I later saw, shopping in cosmetics stores, how pervasive skin lightening was. It took me a week to find deodorant that did not have lightening chemicals in it. I read around the issue and found out that light-coloured skin is widely desired by Thai people. Those who work in the fields cover their whole bodies to avoid getting darker. My family and I must have been a bit of a shock to them. I couldn’t help but guess that they thought I was very ugly with my dark, dark skin.
I became somewhat accustomed to the staring, I had to. But one day, we had taken a weekend trip to Ko Samet, an island, and my sister and I were walking on the beach. A group of three Thai women came up to us with a camera and started motioning, trying to communicate. I thought they wanted me to take a picture of them. I reached out my hand to take the camera, but at the same time, the woman trying to speak to me started backing up, with the camera at her eye. Her friends had positioned themselves to pose for a picture with my sister and I in the middle. I don’t know if I smiled, I was too confused. They said thanks and ran away, giggling. I turned to my sister and said, “what the hell just happened?”. I felt like a spectacle, I felt like I had been tricked. It’s just a picture, but I don’t like the idea that there’s some random picture of my sister and I out there, maybe framed in a Thai lady’s house, who knows. “Look, I saw some black people at the beach!”
Going to Thailand made me hyper-aware of my skin colour. I had a great time otherwise, my dark skin got a lot darker under the sun, I noticed that Thai women generally didn’t shave their legs and decided to do as the locals do (liberation from Western ideals imposed upon women yesss), I rejoiced at the ubiquity of french toast as a popular dessert cafe choice and I ate extremely cheap street food. But I felt black in the worst way possible, like walking entertainment, like some freak show act. I wish I would have known beforehand.

Mixed Race in Munich

by Rachel Agard, GERMANY

Having been raised by my single white mother, brought up in a “nice area” and educated at a “good school”, I’d been accustomed, as a dual heritage kid, to being in the minority most of the time. In spite of this, my home city itself is very diverse; there have, therefore, always been people in my school year, my friendship circle, and simply in the background of my everyday life who looked like me. Moving to Germany felt like quite a stark contrast.
To clarify, there are plenty of people of colour in Munich; it’s a big, vibrant city. I’m sure my experience would have been very different if I’d spent my year in a tiny village somewhere in the German countryside. However, when I do see another person of colour in the street or on the U-bahn, particularly if they’re black or mixed race, I can’t help but note it in some way; I’m not, of course, thinking to myself: ‘My god, a black person, here in Germany? How did they get here?!” I just see them and wonder where they get their hair products from, for example, or whether they’ve always lived in Munich.
A striking experience for me was attending a demonstration protesting against the increasing success of right wing extremist groups that rationalise, and give rise to, racism and islamophobia. The protest was literally called ‘Jugend gegen Rassismus’ (Youth against Racism). I hadn’t even realised I’d been expecting the turn-out to be mostly people of colour, but even after over 7 months of living here, I was surprised to find I was one of about 7 or 8 people of colour at quite a well-attended demo, and one of three people who were of dual heritage.