As everyone knows, your race, culture and nationality are all crucial factors that shape how you see the world and experience things. One of these things that people of colour experience differently is travelling.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the ability to travel to over 46 countries and many of them I have visited more than once. Since I started traveling- almost a decade ago- I have noticed that the climate of traveling has evolved (due to the advent of social media) suspicions have grown and security concerns have become tighter. While each racial/ethnic group has their own struggles from fetishising to ostracizing, I’ve used this post to jot down a few common ones that I think most of us can relate to.
You’re hyper aware when passing through airports
This was not something that used to give me anxiety when I first started travelling but in later years, its become a stressful ordeal as places have become wearier of non-white travellers. I am extra careful with what is packed in my carry on bags and triple check visa requirements before I hit immigration. I am used to being searched, questioned about my possessions, spoken to like I don’t speak English (loudly and slowly as taught at the Immigration Officer School) and treated with suspicion. Picking which immigration officer looks the friendliest is an art I have gotten down to an expert level. This isn’t because I’ve ever been deported or have a criminal record- as a person of colour you know that you can be singled for no good reason.
You can be interchanged with any other person that’s your colour
“Hey Priyanka Chopra!” the street vendor called to me as I walked through the local market. “Brown Sugar!!” another one yelled as I aimed my eyes down and sped up my pace. While these don’t seem like terribly insulting things to say to anyone (we should all be so lucky to bear a resemblance to Priyanka Chopra), after a while it does become exasperating because I have often had to deal with the annoying stereotype that all brown people look the same, so it isn’t 100 percent easy to laugh off. (A white ex-boyfriend’s parents simply could not tell the difference between myself and my South African Indian friend; we don’t even have the same height or hair type).
You are sometimes representing your entire nation
As a South African person of Indian descent, I sometimes travel to places where I am the first person of my ethnicity or nationality that locals have met. While this sounds like a wonderful opportunity to educate people, it also puts a lot of pressure on me. I don’t want to be that South African who ruined their impression so they now they think all South Africans are rude and unfriendly! In Cambodia I was talking to a group of Spanish students who had never met anyone from South Africa. Even though I was exhausted after a long day of sightseeing, I forced myself to be my most engaging and attentive self so as to not give them a bad impression. In other countries I felt like I had to be an extra generous tipper or speak English EXTRA well. When people make it clear that they’re noticing you as a minority or the first person they’ve met in a category, it’s hard not to feel like you’re acting on behalf of the entire group.
You’ll be stared at for no apparent reason
While everyone gets stared at in India, not everyone gets stared at in Slovenia. Sometimes I would forget where I was and wonder why I was getting stared at on the bus or on the street. Was my lipstick streaked across my cheek? Was my hair doing something weird?No- I was just the only person of colour in the vicinity. Before I travelled to the Czech Republic my friend warned me about her country, “People will stare at you because they think you are a gypsy. You have the hair type and skin colour.” While I thought this was a beneficial thing because I thought I would be perceived as an EU citizen, I read up about the way the Romani people are perceived and treated in European societies and experienced it firsthand when people stared, were rude and pushed past me on the street when I was in smaller towns.
You may be in other families’ portraits
Sometimes people aren’t staring at you to be rude and are genuinely curious. Sometimes they take it one step further and want photos with you. This happened often in the 2 years I lived in South Korea and I learnt not to be surprised by it. I wonder what those people were saying to their families when they showed them the photos with me in it, “And this is a girl who had hair like noodles so we asked her to take a photograph with us!”. Another time at Sheikh Zayed Mosque, I offered to take a photo of a Chinese woman and her husband but realized that she wanted me to take a photo with her husband. It was especially awkward when Expat Polar & Lion were standing a distance away and laughing loudly.
There are places where you fit in and enjoy privileges
When I heard the prices that people paid for things in Tanzania and Jordan, I am utterly shocked. It took me a while to realize that in some places I was quoted prices based on the colour of my skin which were far less what ‘western’ tourists had to pay. Expat Polar still makes remarks about what he had to pay in Nepal when he went and how I paid no entrance fees when I went last year. In Malaysia no one ever gave me a second glance which was weird for me after living in South Korea where I stood out like a sore thumb. I enjoy these instances very much and consider them my reward for putting up with the unpleasant aspects of travelling as a person of colour.
If you’re traveling with someone of a different race…
People will wonder what you are doing together
When Expat Bee and I walked around Hallstatt in Austria, people gave us strange looks. What was this tall white European doing with this petite brown panda?In Sri Lanka, it was even worse when people were just plain rude and ignored me but asked her, “Why are you travelling with her?” Expat Polar and I always receive some questioning looks when we travel out of the Middle East together with people looking from him to me as if to say, “You two are a couple?” It can be amusing at first but after a while it definitely becomes annoying.
You will pick and choose who will interact with locals
When you’re with a person who is white or white passing, there will generally one person who assumes dominance in interactions with locals depending on your whereabouts. In Kenya, I assumed responsibility for all interactions as Expat Lion’s unmistakable American accent was getting us silly prices for souvenirs. Whereas in Germany, Expat Bee took the lead as did Expat Polar in Azerbaijan. When you have good friends who travel with you often and understand the dynamics race plays in travels, you don’t even have to converse about these things. They know when to keep quiet and when to speak up.
You will make a realisation that impacts on your travels
You eventually make a realization that despite all these additional challenges added to your travelling repertoire, youare not deterred from travelling and will continue to do so! I’m sure I have garnered more than a lifetime’s worth of looks for speaking fluent English or not looking like everyone else around me. Sure there have been ugly incidents where someone was rude to me/ignorant remarks were made based on the colour of my skin.
But I realise that just because other people may not understand or accept your culture doesn’t mean that they can control your level of enjoyment while traveling. Some people never leave their town, let alone their country, or have access to other parts of the world and I have to make the most of the opportunities I have created for myself. Nothing can compare to winding through the streets of Shiraz, Iran and stumbling upon hidden shops selling saffron and olive oil. Or hiking into a canyon in Oman to find some secret rock pools. I just shrug off any racial incidents as the price of creating the kind of rich, diverse, well-travelled life I want to lead.
Can you relate to these points? If not, what are some of the experiences you have had while travelling as a person of colour? Let me know in the comments below!