Understanding Increased Visibility Abroad
Diversity is a common conversation topic in the US. It is a centerpiece of American cultural and political dialogue: how do all many races and types of people live alongside each other with civility and respect? While this question remains a puzzle in the US, our exposure and awareness of the possibilities for difference affects how we interact with those who are different from us. This exposure and awareness should not be taken for granted. For example, from my understanding, while East Asia is not entirely homogeneous, experience with Black and Latino populations is slim. As a Liberian-American, my experience in China (while unique to me) highlights some of ways of interacting with difference.
Being a person of color (POC) elicits different reactions once abroad. During my time in China, I was also part of a collegiate cultural exchange program with students from China, Sweden, the UK, the US, and Singapore. For my Singaporean friends, I was the first black person or even POC they had ever met. They would sometimes make faux pas out of their inexperience: such as assuming that I knew the entire personal history of the only other African-American on the program or that I listened to hip-hop music.
These initial experiences were my first real exposure of being a cultural and racial representative. At first, my friends' comments surprised and annoyed me because I approached the situation from my narrow American perspective. Once I realized that I had an opportunity to positively shape and nuance their opinions on the US and African-Americans, my response shifted. Rather than reacting in irritation, I tried to explain how those stereotypes and generalizations negated my identity as an individual. I challenged them to think of how it would offend them if I reduced them to stereotypes. In this way, I did not try to explain the perspective of all who are Black or different even as I was a representation for them of what Blackness or difference could be.
Once in Beijing, I became more aware of how visibly different I was. My exchange program had taken us to visit some of China’s most famous sites: the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square. In these landmarks, I felt like an attraction myself. A tour group of young children shunted aside my Singaporean friend of Chinese ancestry to read an English speech to me and take a picture with me. After them, something of a line of would-be picture takers formed: a university student, a woman and her two children, an assertive older woman. Most of these picture-takers, I believe, were tourists in Beijing themselves, having come from other, more rural areas of China to see the big city. So, for them, I was likely an unusual site. For me, it was a brief moment of that was completely unexpected but not necessarily unwelcome.
My conversations with my Singaporean friends and celebrity status in Beijing allowed me to somewhat better understand how African-Americans may be perceived abroad. Since I have never personally identified with hip-hop music or other similar stereotypes, I was unprepared for others to assume I did. I was equally surprised by the picture-takers’ unmasked delight and desire to take photos with me. For any would-be travelers, my advice on coping strategies is to know your own limits. You might not be able or willing to always be a cultural or racial ambassador. At those times, you can politely excuse yourself from the conversation or interaction. When you do engage, just present your perspective. I am not a scholar on race so I merely offered my opinions and experiences. Hopefully, your conversations on race and culture will be pleasant and mutually informative.
Now, I feel it necessary to end with a disclaimer. I have discussed my own experience in China. While I use this to illustrate how I dealt with difference and the encounters that resulted from it, I know that mine will not be everyone’s experience. That is fine. Still, perhaps my story can start you thinking on this social aspect of traveling to a new culture. As always, I must point out that this role of racial or cultural ambassador can happen even if all you’ve done is move states. People are inherently curious: we like to know about new people we meet – where they come from and what it’s like. This is something that will be consistent no matter where you go.