A close friend once sent me a quote that went something like “traveling leaves you speechless, but fills you up with stories.” I will admit that travel is a luxury most of us can’t really afford, but it’s a life changing investment filled with beauty, wonder, and self-discovery.
Traveling challenges you to think outside in a way in which you are forced to decolonize yourself from the simple ideas you have been taught to conceptualize. Ideas such as holding the door open for others and having people ride motorcycles on the sidewalk.
About a month ago I left the east coast, more specifically my home of Rhode Island, to travel 14 hours to study abroad in South Korea for one year. That’s one year away from comfort, family, and friends, but it’s also a year filled with change, self-reflection, and beauty. No “one” study abroad experience is similar. However, being a person of color abroad, many of us share similar experiences of prejudice and racial discrimination.
My color doesn’t define me as a person, but in a homogenous place it’s clear that it will continue to affect how others define me. In Korea, I’m just black. Black, meaning the all-encompassing term that includes natives from Africa as well as those in the diaspora. Although the intersectionalities of my class, skin tone, and sexuality don’t directly intersect with my race, I’m viewed as just a black female foreigner to many in Korea.
Because of this, more often than not, my blackness becomes a novelty for others. To Koreans and foreigners abroad alike, due to lack of education I’m often viewed as a token black girl or the voice for all black people. They look at my actions as a standard for all black people. Here I am homogenized, and every day is a day filled with micro-aggressions and reminders of my color — and the serious misconceptions that people have of us.
All this race talk may make it seem as though I’m not enjoying my time in Korea, but that’s far from the truth. I have climbed mountains, seen beauty unimaginable to others, partied in the craziest clubs, and met people that will probably change my life forever. But as a person of color, race is my life. Therefore race plays a large part of my experience abroad.
Through all these struggles, there is something beautiful that comes from the tears, constant stares, and the more than occasional ignorant comments — and that is growth.
After the anger subsides and my tears dry up, I feel myself grown stronger mentally. With being more resilient comes the desire and drive to push myself harder to break through all of these racial barriers, in order to prove people wrong.
Although often times I feel burdened with the feeling that I have to give every person a quick 10-minute course on POC issues, black history, and the diaspora, I know that these talks (and my decision to quickly correct people on their ignorant comments) makes me feel better. If I can make one more person socially aware to my discrimination, then I might have made the world just a bit better.
I wish I could conclude this with a happy ending that solves my fellow POC’s problems with marginalization and racism, especially while being abroad, but there is no real happy ending to this story. The most I can say to myself, as well as to others who are going through this same struggle, is to take it all in: the prejudice, the love, the stares, the comments and grow from it.
I know it will take a mental toll on you, followed by intense vent sessions with fellow people of color, but just keep on moving. Don’t let it hold you back, because traveling is a luxury — not in a materialistic sense but a spiritual sense. It’s the time to learn, challenge yourself, live, watch yourself grow, and develop in positive ways while paving the way for others like us.