I once started a blog post on why blacks don’t travel. I finished it and reread it, then decided to drag it into the little trashcan in the lower right hand corner of my screen. It was depressing. But it also wasn’t entirely true and didn’t move the conversation forward at all. Sure, I don’t see many black people during my world travels, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others like me out there right now traveling. Of course there are. Just like there are other black people right now living in Asia. So while I can’t tell you why not as many black people travel abroad as I would like, I can tell you what it’s been like for me living abroad, in hopes that it will inspire someone to give it a try.
Imagine going to another country and not seeing someone who looks like you the whole time you’re there. Well that’s part of the beauty of traveling. You can be transported to a place so unlike where you are from that you enjoy the stark contrast or just being different and standing out. Now imagine that you live there and this is your experience day in and day out. Here is when it becomes difficult. It’s not just that no one looks like you, but it’s also that no one has the same experiences as you or really understands where you come from; even other expats. Sure I work with other Americans or even Californians, but until this year I didn’t even have another coworker who knew what it was like to be black. If it weren’t for one of my close friends and coworkers who is Puerto Rican and understands the struggle, I may have lost my sanity my first year in Singapore.
The truth is occasionally there is some ugliness in this experience. But while I have experienced a couple of incidents of racism on a small scale while living abroad, I’ve been far more affected by racism or ignorant comments from other American expats. Some American expats leave the U.S. only in body, not in mind. The question…“But you’re black, why don’t you sing and dance?”…came from an American, not a Filipino. I was called a ni#@er bitch while in Singapore by an American, not a Singaporean. And even when I do encounter something from an Asian, so far it hasn’t seemed to come from a bad place, just from a lack of information. For example, having someone come up to me and eagerly use a racial slur while rapping, thinking it’s cool. Or having a Filipino tell me I’m so beautiful or nice for being an African.
I realize the differences from other expats the most when discussing U.S. news. It’s interesting to sit back and listen to all of the different experiences and opinions, but so often I have these conversations and sit listening in silence because I differ so much on the topics. I also have moments where I contribute perhaps too much and am left feeling misunderstood. In the past two years or so I’ve really been on my own a bit as I listen to U.S. news and hear about yet another black death at the hands of the police. Why aren’t people talking about this more? I may be 9,000 miles away from home but it still hits me the same. Only now there is no one to talk to about it. Sometimes I feel this strong desire to be around someone I can just look at and know that they not only feel the same but have the same fears as me. But I have to hand it to Trump, he’s bringing people together. I can definitely relate to so many more American expats now in that we are all sitting around thinking, “wtf is going on?”
One of the biggest impacts becoming an expat has had on me has been the gift of freedom. I have a financial freedom not known at all when I was working and living in the U.S. Like many college graduates these days, particularly other minorities from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, I have a ton of student loan debt. I invested in property as well before the housing market bubble burst, so the debt was overwhelming. While living in the U.S., I worked to live. As soon as I got paid, the money was gone. Rent and transportation alone ate a huge portion of my salary and every month all of my money went towards bills. Even still I was barely paying the minimum towards my debt. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of debt and couldn’t see the shore to save my life. Working abroad has made this a thing of the past. I now am able to put so much more money towards my debt and still travel often. I feel like Atlas getting to finally put down the world. Chasing the American dream was killing me. I now feel like I’ve gotten out of the rat race and am so appreciative for this life I could only create through changing jobs and moving abroad (or winning Powerball).
I also have this amazing opportunity to meet people from all over the world. In addition to meeting and making friends with Filipinos and Singaporeans, there are also lots of Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Chinese, South Africans, South Americans, etc. etc. that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. So while it’s comforting to have someone who knows where you come from, it’s incredibly eye opening to hear from others from around the world. I wouldn’t have met my boyfriend had I not been living abroad and he has opened my eyes to a side of Canada I’d never seen, as well as shared his experiences of living in Ghana, Malaysia and New Zealand.
And oddly enough, living abroad has actually strengthened my bond with my family. When I was living and working in the U.S. I lived in a different state than my family because of my job opportunity. I was only able to travel back home to California twice a year. I do the same now, only I’m able to visit home for weeks at a time as well as fly my family in to see me. I never felt like they “got” my life before, but now that I’m abroad I think they are beginning to understand more of who I am and they are proud of my fearlessness (fearlessness coming from the cry baby of the bunch mind you). I’m also so much more appreciative of them. No one knows you like your siblings and really I don’t think there is another person on Earth who knows what it’s like to be the awkward black Puerto Rican kid growing up in 1990’s Korea Town, Los Angeles. So my time with my family is precious and I treat it as such whereas maybe before I took it for granted. The same could be said for the friendships I’ve maintained since junior high or even elementary school. If I was living in the same city I might have let those friendships slip away, or taken them for granted. But these are the people I’ve grown up with and a familial love exists between us. I’m always overwhelmed with gratitude when I come to town and they go out of their way to organize a get together so I can see everyone.
Really this whole experience has been so overwhelmingly positive when I sit and think about it. But if I had listened to the opinions of others I never would have taken the leap. And while sometimes I ache for old school R&B to come on in the club or salsa that moves my soles blaring throughout my mother’s house, the majority of the time I’m fine. I love to travel and I am doing what I love. I adore this journey I’m on and I wish more people who look like me would give it a try.