Traveling through Asia to places such as Korea, China, Japan, and the Philippines as a black woman was both a pleasurable and interesting experience for me. I lived in South Korea for twelve months as an ESL teacher, which was absolutely amazing. However, being a black woman living in South Korea had its ups and downs. I was generally welcomed by everyone: my students, my colleagues, and random strangers. I was stared at by children and adults but I knew the stares were out of curiosity and not malicious in any way. I would frequently be asked, “Where are you from?” by inquisitive elderly people who were intrigued to talk to me and by taxi drivers making conversation during our rides.
As well as being asked questions by strangers, I would be asked many questions by the students I taught. I got used to being asked, “Why is the color of your palm lighter than the rest of your body?” I had never been asked a question like this before but it was with these sorts of interactions that I was able to explain to them that people around the world are different.
On another occasion, I went out with a group of Korean friends to a cafe and one of my friends mentioned that they like black people because we can dance, sing and are nice. While I know that this came from a place of good intentions, these are the kind of common generalizations that black people are used to, but can also get tired of hearing. I made sure my response was calm and collected–I smiled and proceeded to tell him that stereotypes shouldn’t determine how you view someone.
My time in China felt overwhelming at times. At tourist locations, I would hear phone shutter sounds and would turn around to see a camera or phone being pointed at me. I felt slightly uncomfortable in a few places because people did not ask to take my picture but, despite this, I was still able to really enjoy my travels. I found that although people are friendly, someone might still take a picture of you without your consent. Again, this was not malicious behavior, but done out of curiosity and excitement.
In Japan, I felt more of a sense of normality, since I was not being treated like a celebrity or a tourist attraction. I could go about my business without worrying whether someone was going to take my picture behind my back or ask multiple questions about my hair.
Even though I experienced a few negative experiences during my time in Asia, I also had double the amount of positive experiences. On many occasions, I would get comments such as “small head” which is a compliment in Korea. My students would forever tell me I was beautiful and taxi drivers would always make conversations with me. In Hong Kong, I was told that my skin is beautiful. I really enjoyed my time there and my positive experiences overwhelmingly outweigh the negative.
Some people you meet in Asia may have never come into contact with a black person before, having only ever seen black people in the media. This can sometimes result in stereotyping. While these stereotypes can be negative or positive, the majority of the time their intentions are purely out of curiosity and are not malicious. Overall, I found Asia to be a refreshing place to travel to and I would definitely recommend going. My advice for black women traveling to Asia is to be prepared for how you may be perceived when you visit so that it does not come as a surprise if someone touches your hair without asking or stops and stares.
Header photo by Frank McKenna.