I’ve had a passport since I was a freshman in high school. I’m now 32 years old with 1 blank page left in passport number 3. Time flies just like I do – as I type these words 32,000ft somewhere over the Atlantic in route to Geneva, Switzerland.
Back then, travel was about exposure, experiences, and excursions – or at least that’s what my parents had in mind when they put me, my sister and my pseudo-siblings on a plane to Spain and Portugal with 2 of my high school teachers and a host of classmates. The only thing I was excited about was the possibility of copping a fresh pair of Nike sneakers that could not be purchased in the United States and were exclusive to the country I was traveling to. That’s right – I wasn’t excited about paella or Portuguese, but sneakers. I ended up blowing all of my spending money on fresh kicks, but it was worth it every time someone offered to sell me their first-born child to purchase shoes they’d never laid eyes on right off of my feet; great for a teenagers self-esteem (ego)! Luckily, shoes weren’t the only thing I came back with.
I WAS exposed to new culture. I DID experience new things. And I journeyed into parts unknown and liked it, a lot (shout out to the parents!). I’ve been traveling abroad since. Only travel looks quite different for me these days – places in conflict, places maimed by disease, places where decisions are made for the whole world; places where I’m the only black person they’ll see all year.
During almost 20 years of international travel, my skin as a “thing” abroad has really only become apparent to me in the last decade – some experiences for the better, some for the worst, and some just for a funny story. The most common assumption is that I’m military – because that’s clearly the only way people of color are allowed to move about the world freely. Or that I’m an African National studying in another country as many Africans do. My favorite is the association made with sports and hip-hop when it’s revealed that I’m neither military nor a brother from the Motherland, but an African-American; because that’s what the blacks do in America – rap, sing, run, and jump.
When I lived in Buenuos Aires, Argentina I tried to emerse myself in the culture while remaining true to my native self. So when I showed up to the dance studio – sneakers, hat backwards, white tee, and black as the pit from pole to pole – they assumed I was looking for the break dancing class, when I really came to tango! Break dancing has never been on my agenda by the way; if I ever tried it the only thing I’d likely break is my neck. Tango helped me break stereotypes however, and by the end of the year I had introduced at least 2 other African-American expats to it.
On the weekends I would go play basketball in the “hood”. I’m a decent athlete and an okay basketball player, but that didn’t matter much because I knew no matter how many people were waiting for “next” on the court, I would be picked up by a team. I knew it because I was young, black, and taller than everybody on the court (and in the country for that matter), and the only other tall black men young Argentinians identified with were NBA players. Because I was an African American they automatically assumed I was good at basketball (thank God they didn’t ask me to play soccer).
When my fraternity brothers came down to South America to visit, they became my NBA teammates. People asked to take pictures of us and with us, but no one ever asked who we were and we never cared. We didn’t mind playing along at all. Anything for our fans!
My porteño (“people of the port” as Argentinians often identify as) papa would always ask me how people treated me – particularly older people? At first I didn’t understand the question, until he explained to me Argentina’s history of whitewashing the country by forcing out people of color over time. For the most part I found older people to have been very kind and welcoming to me; which he said was likely a result of guilt by those old enough to remember how they treated people who looked like me back then. I appreciated the hospitatlity that was extended to me nonetheless.
The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States during my time in BA helped my cause some. It gave the international community something other than music, movies, and sports to identify with as it relates to African-Americans. I went from being called “Morocho” by strangers, which is slang for “guy with black face”, to being called Obama. Taxi drivers would shout “Obama!” out of their windows as I crossed the streets, and we’d share in a mutual victorious fist pump in spanish. I was proud to be black and abroad.
The “Obama Effect” doesn’t work in my favor everywhere, however. In Israel I can be sure to be detained and questioned extensively at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv every time I enter and exit the country, simply for the color of my skin. Before recent changes by the government, Israel would rank travelers by perceived threat level on a scale of 1-6, 1 being the least likely threat (Israeli citizens) and 6 being the greatest perceived threat – exclusively based on looks. I was consistently ranked a level 5 which earned me full body and baggage searches and questions like, “Do you speak arabic?” or “What are your parents’ names?” to investigate whether or not I was muslim or have muslim ties. My favorite question is always, “Why do you keep traveling here?” which is a valid question given the harassment I endure. Because I am young, black, and male I am instantly profiled as a threat who has come to push the State of Israel into the Mediterranean Sea, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I come in PEACE – on behalf of both the people of Israel and the Palestinian people – and peace can come in all shapes and sizes, colors and cultures. Peace can even come in a keffiyeh and a Pittsburg Pirates baseball cap.
On a brighter note, I was once mistaken for a famous actor walking down the street in Jeruselem. I asked him “which one?” and he said “you know the black one”, because we all look alike. I assured him I wasn’t the one and he proceeded to tell me how beautiful I was nonetheless, asking if I had a girlfriend…or a boyfriend. It was then that I realized he wasn’t complimenting me – he was flirting . I said thanks (because a compliment is a compliment) and confirmed that I like women, and we wished each other a good day. I suppose being hit on, even by the same gender, is better than being treated like a terrorist .
The reception in S. Korea was markedly warmer. On more than 1 occasion I was invited to lunch by strangers – once by a man who was old enough to be my father who just wanted to hear of the United States, and the other a young college student who saw me struggling with a map at a street corner and invited me to just have lunch with her since that’s what I was looking for – food. Thank god for her because without her I would have been choosing lunch on the basis of the pictures! The older gentleman who welcomed me to lunch had children my age who lived in the states whom he spoke of fondly. We talked about faith and politics in both of our countries, and when it was time to pay he insisted that lunch be his treat as a gesture of welcome to his country. I must say, I was particulary surprised, knowing the xenophobic history of the Republic of Korea as one of the most homogenous societies in the world. I can gladly say that was not my experience.
In Armenia I was just embarassed that the most well known association they had to African-American men was Kanye West . I’m sure every Armenian saw me and thought I was only there to find a Kardashian. I wasn’t; I was there to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide as a member of the executive committee of the World Council of Churches. I did however visit the same lake that Kayne jumped in during a concert just a couple of months before I was there. I did NOT try to walk on water like Yeezus did, however.
Whatever the international community’s perception of me might be as a young, African-American male who has been blessed to travel the world, rest assured that I will not stop traveling – and know that when I do travel, it will always be to seek justice; to make peace; to have fun; to change the world.
auf Wiedersehen from Munich, Germany!