Krabi Town in Thailand broke me. It was the first and one of the only times I cried on the trip. I was tired, far too hot, weak and I had a long bus journey to Bangkok ahead of me. I was ready to cry.
Then we entered an air conditioned department store. The noise and busyness was overwhelming. As we strolled through the departments, I noticed a pattern. One girl would spot me, her jaw would drop, she’d turn to her colleagues and then after a second they’d all turn around and point and scream with laughter. It kept happening, again and again and so blatantly. Others would see me, look away and laugh to themselves.
“Do I have a sanitary towel stuck on my forehead? Is my ass on show? Have I shat myself? Honestly what the fuck is so funny?” I asked myself. I begged Alessio to leave the shop immediately. On the steps of the store and I sat and cried.
“I’d just, for once, like to travel and be Black in peace. Is that too much to ask?”
I began to get used to it. In Myanmar, staring and giggling became the norm. The first was a lady who discreetly slapped her husbands arm when she saw me and he looked at me with a dropped jaw. The practice of one person seeing me, telling their friends, then all of them turning around and laughing happened over and over again, in each new country. I was pointed at and stared at and glared at. Some women would frown if I smiled at them. Women and men pointed at me, and didn’t think to be discreet when I stared back – they just kept pointing and laughing. Once, I felt a tug on my hair as I walked because someone had grabbed a few braids to feel. On two occasions at tourist sites, older Asian male visitors took artistic photos of me with DSLR cameras without asking – once in Angkor Wat as I posed for my own pictures, and another in Hanoi by the lake. They looked at me very sheepishly, and I asked to at least see the pictures. “Thanks… I guess.” Unsolicited pictures were regular, and I often ranted “Are these people here to see the bloody temple or here to see me? Shall I stand here and start charging them?”
A young hiphop-loving Vietnamese new friend was bemused as two men took a photo.
“This happens all the time? It’s because don’t see people like you a lot. Crazy.”
It wasn’t all bad. Youngsters in caps and sportswear always said hey and smiled. Tables of people would call to me and cheer when I said hello back. People called me beautiful. When I waved, or smiled at people who were staring, some would wave back and give a friendly smile. People asked me to meet their family. I took so many selfies with people who asked kindly, and they thanked me later. Often one girl would take a picture of me and her friend, then hesitantly look at me like a sad puppy as they walked off.
“Do you want a picture too?” I’d ask
“Yes! Oh, yes please! Thank you!”
“What is your name? Are you Vietnamese?”
Is this how it feels to be Beyoncé? Am I as nice to my fans as Lady Gaga?
My favourite was a young Burmese Muslim woman in Mandalay. She saw me and began giggling. When I waved back, she jumped up and down happily and buried her face in her friend’s shoulder.
The nice treatment balanced out the bad and the upsetting. I knew the reactions were because they probably had never seen a black person before. Some maybe only knew of a few Western black people and pictured most to be tribal Africans. I don’t know, but I was certainly seen differently to the white European travellers who passed by without a second glance. I knew their behaviour was not coming from a place of hate, malevolence or racism. I knew it was curiosity, confusion, maybe excitement. But even the good and funny experiences were as tiring as the bad. I sometimes had a little sense of dread when leaving the hotel because of the weight of being so conspicuous. No matter how big or touristic the city, I was conspicuous. I was pointed at, stared at, glared at, laughed at, waved at and photographed.
I understand in Asia, white people are also “other”. I know white people also get stared at and pointed at. Overwhelmingly however, the majority of other Western travellers were white. It’s not rare. If I travelled to around 25 cities and saw a maximum of six other Black people in two months, you can imagine how regularly they see black people. I was the “other” other. If people were curious about Alessio, I was a damn exhibition.
In Inle Lake, Myanmar I was walking towards the pier. Alessio tapped me.
“You’ve made a friend.”
A black girl in a café was waving at me with a huge grin. By now Alessio was used to the Black solidarity smiles that happen every time we’re away.
Five minutes later, the girl caught up with us, out of breath.
“Hey! I just ran to catch up with you guys! I am SO happy to see you! I ran as soon as I saw you! Wait, do you speak English?”
Her name was Simone, and she was a solo female traveller. She had been travelling for only a week, and had cried every night. The staring, pointing and laughing had worn her down too. We agreed it was exhausting, and it felt so good to meet someone who understood. Then she said the keynote.
“It feels like you have to always be so nice and so polite because their entire opinion of black people rests on you, and it’s so tiring.”
It was everything I knew but hadn’t yet put into words. I could see in her whole element she was sick of it – even moreso than I was. I could see how I also had it easier. She was alone. I was travelling with a white man. As regressively 1950s as it sounds, travelling with him made the weight so much lighter. The asking and answering of questions fell mostly to him. I walked closely by him. When people pointed, I held my head high and his hand tighter. It all said “I’m not that different – I’m with him”.
In Phnom Penh I took a stroll alone. I felt the difference. Without the protection of distant whiteness I was sneered at in a way I wasn’t the day before in the same city, and without distant maleness I was fair game. Curiosity, for that brief time, morphed into a meat market. When coincidence meant I ran into a friend from another city, a white girl, I let out my breath and laughed. I’m with her.
There was another, stranger aspect to my experience. I was sure some people, including Westerners, thought Alessio was paying for my company. It was confirmed when a local asked Alessio why, if yesterday he paid for a Cambodian girl, did he “choose” a different girl today? The fact he had seen Ale before was gas since we’d only just arrived in the city – but it reiterated what I had suspected and what other women of colour in relationships with white men had told me. Brown women and white men together meant money was involved, not love.
A drunk white man stumbled down Khao San Road, fondling and groping at the three Nigerian sex workers he had hired for the night. Some were older, but one girl looked my age. Her braided hair was tied up, just like mine. By chance, we had to wait in the lobby of the guesthouse-brothel-travel agency where they worked as cleaners by day. On the way to the toilet, I saw the same girl cleaning some plates and I smiled. She studied me for a few seconds and looked away. She later seductively winked at Alessio, and I understood everything.
We were not the same. Not to her. I had an expensive DSLR round my neck, writing in my travel journey about an experience costing an incomprehensible amount of money. I was Western, walking around with a white Western man who held my hand not my ass. She was an immigrant sex worker on one of Thailand’s most notorious, sleazy roads at night and cleaned toilets in a brothel for Thai sex workers by day. If I had any audacity to assume mutual solidarity, she soon taught me I had no right, and no idea. If other people didn’t see the difference, she certainly did and if I was having a hard time, she was having it harder.
In Sapa, Vietnam I explained the process of hair braiding to my tour guide. “Wowwwww! I saw one other girl like you before, last year! Wow… that’s so amazing. In Vietnam we have such thin hair, we never have curly hair like this. We can’t do hair like this. Can I put your hair by my face to see how it looks? I love it.” I heard her telling other Vietnamese women how they braid afro hair. When she held up nine fingers and pointed at me, to tell them it took nine hours to braid my hair, they all gasped “wow” in chorus. I smiled. That’s my favourite part of the story too, I thought.
The staring, the pointing, the tiresome weight. It makes it seem all bad.
Travelling in South East Asia whilst Black can be beautiful. I cannot overstate that enough. I can’t overstate how much you can take the curiosity in your stride. You start to shrug it off, wave, say hello back and by the end of the day you barely notice anything at all. You can have fun with it. Pull faces, blow kisses, wave as soon as the whole group turns around so they think you understand the language when really they’re just so obvious. Do whatever you need to do, until it’s part of the background and you can focus on being in a really beautiful part of the world.
And that’s exactly it. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. Remember that no one at all means any harm. Unlike some parts of the world where Blackness is unwelcome because it connotes badness and criminality, your skin here mostly is a fascinating novelty. As tiring as that can become, it’s not worth the days, hours, and minutes of incredible wonder you could miss out on if you only stuck to places where people were used to you.