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.

 

“Jeter un coup d’oeil”: Taking A Glance

by Daljinder Johal, FRANCE

I now find myself explaining my appearance as being somewhat ethnically ambiguous. It’s not that I actually am, it’s just that most people may stare, but don’t really look. Egyptian, Arabic, Mexican…I’ve had reactions such as ‘namaste’ when leaving Pere Lachaise (wrong religion mate) to outright belligerent interrogations of where I’m from. Or, as my POC friends and I now translate such cross-examinations as: “why are you not white?” While this may seem harmless enough, the racial segregation of Paris has made me even more aware of not fitting in. Even after we found ourselves in various states of disbelief and shock, glued to the news during the events of November 13th, it wasn’t just the terrorists my loved ones feared but the vengeful retribution of those who don’t look properly.

Some people don’t see the chiming bangles, glittery heeled shoes and my love for my friends. All other traits are erased with the assuming glance that I want to see the TATA family grave. Even the label of traveller is replaced by the belief that I am a working, talking exhibit for the pleasure of others. But don’t forget, tokens can’t be “too Asian” – too unpalatable for certain bland tastes. Only some ‘spice’, some ‘exoticness’, too much will burn delicate feelings. That’s why some people that I’ve known or lived in Paris with have got bored: they want the pat on the back from their token brown friend, not to listen to how daily microaggressions or outright racism leave you feeling exhausting and wanting the security blanket of home.

But, if I’ve learnt one thing as a traveller: that thick skin developed from the years growing up as a POC hardens but the almost-impenetrable inside is even softer and more loving for those who give you a home away from home.

The Thin Ice Between Colour and Expectation

by April Roach, THE NETHERLANDS

I thought little of race growing up in a very culturally diverse area in South-East London. It was only when I moved to the Netherlands at the age of eight that I began to realise my skin colour meant that I often stood out. My sisters and I enjoyed teasing the Dutch who would boldly demand where we came from and would keep pursuing the question when we answered that we and our parents were born in England. For many of the children who pointed and whispered at us, we were the first black people they were seeing. I’ll never forget the shock of when someone from the audience of one of our ice-skating shows came to congratulate my sister and I on our performance, specifically because he was amazed at how we were the only black girls on the ice. At first we were dismayed, wanting to be congratulated on our performance and not our skin colour. But now when I look back on the experience I remember the admiration in the man’s eyes. He saw how we stood out from the rest and yet he was impressed with how we skated in spite of that difference.

Joining the One Percent

by Adeorike Oshinyemi, CANADA

When I got my admission email for Queens University in small town Kingston on the outskirts of Toronto, a quick Wikipedia search into the demographic of the town let me know that I’d be one of the few black people at the university- to be precise, the population of black people in Kingston totals 0.9%. This fact was slightly daunting, but being the only black person on my course at Warwick meant that this would not be completely alien to me. Admittedly, when my dad and I arrived, we did receive subtle stares on the first day; whenever we’d see other black people it was as if we secretly shared looks that said “thank God, I’m not the only one!” However, I was lucky enough to spend my year abroad at a university with a huge exchange programme that enables me to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds. All in all, being black in a predominantly white, affluent town wasn’t the hindrance I thought it may be. The fact that I am a black girl of Nigerian heritage from London just became another fact that enabled me to have interesting and insightful conversation, allowing me to open up about my background and culture to people from all over the world who may have not had the chance to grow up in a diverse setting.