Japan 14th – 25th September, 2018

by Daniella-Mae

I was so excited when Alisa, a friend from university, invited me and my best friend Zoe to visit her in Japan for a week. I had been a little starry-eyed about Japan since before I could remember: my parents met taking Japanese language classes, so I tried to teach myself in my early teens (…mostly through anime!) and could not wait to book a flight.

I had never been to Asia before and I was not really sure what to expect from the people or the place, so I was glad that we had Alisa there with us on our first visit. Her dad’s apartment in Yoyogi (not far from the Shibuya ward in central Tokyo) made a great base for the week, and her family really helped us to get settled in, from great tourist advice and delicious home-made sushi from her step-mum Hiromi (Hiro) to her dad’s hilarious sing-alongs to the Beatles.

His apartment was typical for the area: pretty compact and part of a complex—a sign of Tokyo’s large population and its need for tightly-packed housing. But despite all this it was surprisingly quiet, perhaps a testament to the ‘respectful’ aspect of Japanese culture and also because we were in a strictly residential area.

“However, [she] also pointed out the women-only carriages on trains (specially designated after increased cases of unwanted groping on mixed carriages at night).”

The most surprising thing was how safe it felt everywhere we went, even at night. For starters, none of us were catcalled once—although we had some comments from a few brave tipsy party-goers on an evening river cruise from Odaiba. Plus, the only stares I got on pretty much the whole trip were (I guess) friendly/curious ones at the onsen (Japanese baths) … Presumably, this was because I was quite a different shape, size and colour to the other women there.

When we met up with our friend Becky, who was on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, she told us that she was on her way back from a shopping trip when she realised that she had left a bag (with her laptop in it!) inside a shop. When she arrived back at the shop a few hours later, the bag was still in exactly the same spot! However, she also pointed out the women-only carriages on trains (specially designated after increased cases of unwanted groping on mixed carriages at night) and other problems, which makes it clear that the society is far from perfect.

Whilst people may love or hate the bustling atmosphere of Tokyo, there is no doubt that Kyoto is absolutely beautiful. We got the best nights’ sleep on the whole trip on tatami mats and futons in the beautiful guest house there (Waraku-an—go for the deluxe room if you can!) and we only scratched the surface of all the things to see and do. Wandering around one UNESCO world heritage site after another, spotting terrapins, heron and koi from picturesque bridges over ponds and feeding bowing deer makes you feel rather special…

“…most people were quite welcoming of us in traditional dress and I gradually started to feel more at ease after a few compliments and more cups of bad free wine.”

One thing that struck me was how foreign I felt. Japan’s population is noticeably very homogeneous- something unusual for me, being from South East London where no two people really look the same- and it took a while to adjust to standing out. Plus, we were a pretty unusual trio- being three young women, all of different mixed heritage, so even for tourists it was clear that we were not all native. This made it a bit tricky for Alisa at times, especially in Kyoto, when people addressed us all in English and she had to make it clear that she could speak Japanese. Since people largely went off of appearance- Alisa being half-German, half-Japanese- her heritage was not immediately obvious to natives.   

Zoe and I could not have stood out more than when Alisa encouraged us to rent yukata to wear to the evening boat party, which involved a slight panic over whether the fabric would be long enough on us. A small army of skilled dressers assisted us, wrapping us up with bows like stuffed parcels in layers of fabric. It felt a little uncomfortable (in both senses), but most people were quite welcoming of us in traditional dress and I gradually started to feel more at ease after a few compliments and more cups of bad free wine. It is not something I think I would do again, but it was interesting to experience and share in part of the culture.

Overall, Japan really was an incredible trip and I am saving up for another chance to go back. It is an amazing place for anyone who is interested in going—so long as you are aware of the dos and don’ts of social customs and practice your noodle-slurping beforehand!  

Scenic Highlights:

After a day of straining to see Mt Fuji through the clouds, finally catching a glimpse as the sun was setting on our way back to Yoyogi. Then the next morning, getting to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto as the sun was rising and enjoying a couple of hours of crowd-free roaming to the top of the mountain.

Food Highlights:

tsukemen (cold noodles with meat and greens that you dunk into a hot broth and slurp!); karupisu (calpis- a questionable-sounding milk-based drink that ia tasty by itself and in cocktails) and yuzu (a delicious fruit that is amazing in everything, especially ice-lollies).

My Catalonia Experience

by Aseye Kesiah

I lived in Catalonia for a year and a half from January 2015 till June 2016. During that time, I worked as a conversation assistant, an au pair and an English teacher in a language school.

Initially, I was apprehensive about the move, especially as a lone black woman. I had been accepted onto a conversation assistant programme and had been assigned to a small Catalan town called Sant Fruitós de Bages. The population was tiny; a mere 9,000 people compared to 8.5 million in London. Nevertheless, I embraced this brand new environment and discovered many perks of the Catalan lifestyle.

I worked in a concertada (a private school partially funded by the government), which was based in the same town. The education system is a lot more relaxed compared to the UK: teachers are known on a first-name basis; uniforms are non-existent; lunch was three and a half hours long – a luxury I could only dream of in London- and students would make jokes to teachers, with teachers laughing along with them.

My students had a particularly positive impact on my teaching experience. They were amazed by me and I was equally amazed by them. Their frankness, vibrancy yet relaxed nature helped me settle in greatly. They were all so open-minded and refreshing to be around.

“Catalonia served as the get-out I needed and it helped me grow tremendously.”

The Catalan landscape is beautiful. They are a people who adore the mountains and I went up with my host family to Monserrat. I also stayed in the Pre-Pyrenees in a caravan during the summer, which was incredible. Being in such proximity to Castilian Spain meant that I could easily travel to other places such as Madrid, Jerez de la Frontera, Granada, Toledo, Valencia and Andorra.

I loved the festa majors which are local festivals that take place in summer. The whole town comes out to celebrate and participate in many different activities, including music concerts, amusement parks and much more. Everything was new and eye-opening for me; most events in the UK are monetised so I could not believe that all of this fun was for free. It was wonderful to see all communities fuse together and share in the light and merriment of the celebrations.

For Sant Joan, which takes place in July and marks the summer solstice, we went to the Costa Brava to a seaside town called L’Estartit. There was a massive fire on the beach along with a party with DJs playing French dance music as we camped by the beach. There is also La Patum, which is celebrated in either May or June. As I was only free on weekends, I missed the actual processions but was there for the evening street parties. The festival is also infamous for the production of an alcoholic drink called barreja, which has an overly sweet taste but gets you quite drunk in a short period of time- so drunk that the taste no longer matters!

The language barrier posed the biggest obstacle to my experience in Catalonia, since my Catalan and Spanish was non-existent when I arrived. Initially having to learn by ear, I decided to take free Spanish lessons that the agency I worked for was offering. I supposed that Spanish was more useful in the grand scheme of things, although I did also pick up Catalan as it was what I heard spoken daily, especially through the children. When people would engage with me in shops, they automatically spoke to me in Spanish, as the assumption was that since I clearly looked an outsider, I must have spoken Spanish.

“There was also being mistaken for a sex worker. To give context, sex work is very visible in Spain and Catalonia, especially in major cities.”

My time in Catalonia was not completely plain sailing. There was a boy who once said to me, “I can dance like you, I can dance like a n****.” The subsequent feeling of realising that I was the only black person present for miles dawned on me, and the lack of diversity was quite isolating.

There was also being mistaken for a sex worker. To give context, sex work is very visible in Spain and Catalonia, especially in major cities- in this case, Barcelona. I was waiting for a friend on the street when a man came up to me with a lewd look on his face and whispered, “Africana”, to me. Luckily this was the point at which my friend emerged and yelled, “No” at him, dragging me away. There was also the prevalence of blackface, especially during events such as the Three Kings and Carnival. Touching on these issues would necessitate another article. The blackface along with justification behind it was atrocious. During the Three Kings procession in January 2016 in Barcelona, citizens made a big show of actually using a black person. However, this was not played out in the smaller towns, which is where I was based. The impact of such experiences, combined with my boredom of being English teacher led me to make the decision to come back to the UK.

I missed London so much whilst I was away, especially my friends and family, the food, the culture, the music and the diversity that not many places can replicate. Living abroad put many things into perspective for me. Being in London before had started to drain me emotionally and financially and I was hating it. Catalonia therefore served as the get-out I needed and it helped me grow tremendously. It would have also been naïve of me to believe that it would have been wholly a good time. I wanted a new experience – I got one. I got to experience a different culture and a different way of living, which changed my life in so many ways. It helped me explore my independence in a way that I could never have imagined living at home. I want to live abroad again, and I hope to do so soon.

All Eyes on Me

by Shanae Ennis-Melhado

11.30pm, Suncheon, South Korea. I step outside to try and catch a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower and realise that my attempt is futile as the heavy clouds obscure even the most dazzling stars. On my way back to my flat, I encounter a middle-aged man and woman – a husband and wife, perhaps – and give them one of my brightest smiles. However, their mouths remain fixed and their eyes stay glued to my presence.

Sometimes there is curiosity behind the gazes that follow me, especially when they belong to children or to the elderly. These people have most likely never seen someone like me before, given that South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. Foreigners of various skin tones are a rarity here and get their fair share of stares. Nevertheless, my yarn braids and dark skin seem to attract more than the average number of eyes pointing in my direction.

People stare at me from their cars as I wait for the green man to tell me that I can cross the street. Children gawp at me as I chat with a friend at a restaurant or do my weekly shop at Homeplus (Korea’s Tesco). Tourists from other countries have even asked to take a photo of me and when I have declined, they have morphed into paparazzi, snapping unflattering pictures of me and blinding me with the obtrusive flash on their cameras. My appearance even caused one guy’s jaw to drop to the floor as he glided past me on his two-wheel scooter. A few of these instances may sound trivial to some people, especially since several of the stares I get are accompanied by compliments such as, “you are very beautiful” or “your hair is beautiful”, which is pleasant to hear in a world that brands black women as undesirable. In spite of this, each stare eats away at my humanity.

As an introvert, I like to blend into the background and avoid being the centre of attention. I could easily do this in my multicultural hometown of Wolverhampton: a trip to the nearest corner shop is a breeze and exploring my city’s attractions has not given me nearly as many stares as strolling in Suncheon. I do not even remember feeling as hyper-visible when I moved to the tiny Spanish city of Ciudad Real at the age of twenty.

I recognise that we will always be stared at in places where blackness is a novelty, as it is a person’s natural response to react to things that are unfamiliar to them. Nonetheless, having eyes constantly follow me and people touching my hair without my permission are aspects that bother me the most about living in a foreign country as a black person.

“These uncomfortable experiences have not and will not prevent me from visiting other places in Korea, or different parts of the world, thanks to my wanderlust and desire to experience other cultures.”

Fortunately, I get some respite from being hyper-visible. For instance, there are some Koreans who make me feel anonymous: there is no intrigue, hostility or uneasiness in their eyes when they encounter me. One Korean lady did not hesitate to help after I asked for assistance on how to pay with my debit card at a self-service machine in Myeong-dong, Seoul. Two women who worked at an iPhone service shop gladly called the customer service centre of another company on my behalf regarding a missing package I had ordered. Experiences such as these make me feel like a human being and not a tourist attraction because my race is never the focal point of the interaction.

Before I moved to South Korea, I rightly anticipated that I would get some stares and attempts to touch my hair, but I never imagined how often they would happen to me. These uncomfortable experiences have not and will not prevent me from visiting other places in Korea, or different parts of the world, thanks to my wanderlust and desire to experience other cultures. Reading personal stories from other black people travelling or living abroad on Facebook groups such as Brothas&Sistas of South Korea and on blogs like The Travellers of Colour Collective also help me to continue travelling, even if my presence is seen as odd or unwelcome.  Nevertheless, my experiences in South Korea have led me to conclude that living in an area where black people are a source of fascination is not for me. Perhaps I will be more comfortable living in a more diverse Korean city like Seoul- or maybe it is time to return to the UK.

I Know Who I Am, but Where Am I “Really” From?

by Mazzie Lafa

My name is Mazzie. I was born in Nigeria, to a Nigerian mother and a Ghanaian father. I grew up in England, living there between the ages of four and twenty. For the last five years, I have called Spain home- and wish to do so for now. Whilst I could claim British, Nigerian and Ghanaian nationalities, l do not feel particularly connected to just one. Culturally, I guess I am more “European” than “African”, just in the way I ‘think’ and ‘behave’- well so I have been told by my cousins who live in Nigeria, as well as relatives who have grown up in other Western countries.

When people ask me where I am from, I say London. When I am asked of my family background, I say I am Nigerian and Ghanaian. Whilst I am proud of my West African identity, I still feel a sense of detachment towards both cultures. Having lived away from Nigeria for twenty-one years, there is a lot that I have missed in my home state of Osun- governmental, educational and other various social changes. As an adult, I have not visited Nigeria, but my cousins keep me up to date on what is going on, such as the recent Nigerian political elections. I know little about my Ghanaian side since my Dad is the only living member of his small family and, as far as I am aware, I do not have any other relatives residing in Ghana. Having said all this, I am not completely disconnected from West African culture. My familiarity with my Nigerian side comes from growing up with my mother. It was important for her that my siblings and I not only knew the language, but that we were also familiar with traditional cuisine.  Living in Spain, whenever I hear (the very) occasional Yoruba being spoken, my ears perk up. When I go to my favourite West African restaurant in Lavapies, Madrid, my taste buds are just as alert.

“I accept and embrace my multiple cultural identities as something that will always be part of me, and I view this as my special quality.”

Whenever I would go back to England to visit family, I would feel little connection to the country, besides completing my formal education there and meeting some of my closest friends. Since living outside the UK, for almost six years, I have gone back twice in an attempt to settle permanently. Both times only lasted two months. Even though I would earn more money working in the UK, that was not enough to keep me there. I had friends, but they still could not keep me there. I do not know why I have such a disconnection to British culture. I guess it was the country I had to grow up in as a child. As I became older- and more responsible- I realised I could now choose where to live.  During my teenage years, I would regularly think about what it would be like to live outside the UK, in places such as America, Australia or Canada. At the time I did not know what my future would look like, but when I started teaching myself Spanish, I started leaning towards South or Central America. As it turns out, I have found myself in Spain.

Madrid is my home and I have adopted Spain as the country I see myself living in for the rest of my life. I am currently in the process of looking for a house. I have settled into my job as a quality controller. Ironically, I work in a predominantly English speaking environment, but this is not to say that I do not have opportunities to speak Spanish. Outside of work, I converse with friends and roommates in Spanish. I also live in an area with very few English speakers, thus forcing me to practise my Spanish with locals at almost all times.

Whenever I travel, the feeling of not belonging anywhere rings in my mind. I am familiar yet unfamiliar with Nigerian and Ghanaian cultures. I have largely grown up in a British environment, yet have always felt- and still feel- estranged from the British way of life.  I understand Spanish culture in the five years I have been here, but I still feel I have a lot more to learn.

Sometimes I think that my identity would have been much easier to grasp had I been born and raised in one place and that be it. However, I accept and embrace my multiple cultural identities as something that will always be part of me, and I view this as my special quality.

Volunteering in Haiti: Dismantling Stereotypes, Recognising Potential

by Dahianira Camacho Monclova

Being a traveller of colour is different when you embark on a volunteer trip. Most destinations for this type of work are underdeveloped, economically poor and disadvantaged. When you are a tourist, you do not feel the need to fully immerse yourself in your new environment because your time there is spent superficially observing and experiencing everyday life in that country. When you are a volunteer, however, you live with communities, engage in their practices and, depending on the length of the project, may even start speaking their language.

By 2016, all of my trips had been volunteering. That year, I had the privilege of participating in an ongoing health promotion project in Haiti, just less than 400 miles from my home. As the first black republic in the world, Haiti has struggled since 1804 for international recognition from other nations. The country has also endured widespread poverty, food insecurity, dictatorships, inequality, infrastructure, and all other aspects that hinder a nation’s stability. Six years after being hit by an earthquake, an NGO from Puerto Rico, of which I was a part, went to a town near the capital, Blanchard. We spent a week giving conferences to residents of the community about preventative methods against various diseases, as well as teaching them about recycling and creating water filters.

“To link colour with need is the biggest fault in volunteer work, and it is imperative to erase the stereotypes that exist around this notion.”

As a Puerto Rican with a fair complexion, my biggest fear was being viewed as a “white Western saviour”. Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s inhabitants are black, and it is a shock how they still face racism from countries like the Dominican Republic, who share a pre-colonial history with them and a piece of land in the Caribbean Sea. The constant wave of volunteers that are predominantly light-skinned can influence the way in which Haitians perceive each other and their potential to move forward by themselves. With this in mind, we elected Haitian community leaders who could pass on the knowledge we provided them to their peers, with the aim of creating more educated neighbourhoods.

As an organisation, we do not want countries to get used to our help; our goal is to empower them to thrive independently. To link colour with need is the biggest fault in volunteer work, and it is imperative to erase the stereotypes that exist around this notion. We have a lot to learn from these communities; their struggles, their resilience, their potential. We must not let colour define a nation’s capacity for self-management and we must not let race be the base of superiority or inferiority complexes.

Nothing will get us farther than education, and nothing will get us closer than unconditional love.