Do you Speak English?
“Do you speak English?”
I was heavily surprised at customs as I landed in India and this was the first question that was asked to me AFTER I handed the officer my blue, American passport. I was shocked. I was asking questions about why they would not let me through, despite my visa being granted, and the first thought was, he doesn’t think I understand anything because of the way I look. It was impossible for him to think I knew English- and knew it well. Little did he know that, while on my trip, many of the residents of India, after hearing my “American” accent, had approached me and asked me to sit with them in order to improve their own level of English! The amount of frustration that took over my body in that moment at the airport was overwhelming, yet again, I had to hold it together so as not to jeopardize my ability to enter the country for a conference. However, the next question was just as presumptuous.
“Where is your other passport?” Confused, I asked him to repeat the question, which most likely wasn't a great idea because he went back to his first question of if I spoke English; However, his implication was that, there was no way I could be fully American. He wanted to see my passport from, I assume, an African country, but I could not provide one. This brought up many other emotions: frustration, anger, pain. The same emotions that my ancestors were feeling when they were forced on boats hundreds of years ago as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, not realizing that they would lose their land, family, home and identity as part of a cruel practice that would last for hundreds of years. They didn’t know that, hundreds of years after their pain and confusion, we would still be feeling the impacts today- including me having no idea which African country would be able to issue me a passport.
You see, maybe I thought that because India was also colonized by a European country, they would understand. But they didn't. They pushed and pushed until they let me go after spending thirty minutes looking up how in the world I got approved for an e-visa online with what they thought would be a secondary passport.
As a black person traveling abroad, I am met with lots of preconceived notions. Many homogeneous countries (not a lot of racial diversity) struggle a lot with these stereotypes. I have so far spent time in China and in India, both homogeneous. If you recall, I met a young boy in China who also couldn't believe I was from America, and so I resorted to telling him I was from Wakanda, a truth he believed and accepted. However, having that experience of preconceived notions thrust upon me with a young boy sat differently with me when it was a grown adult making the assumptions. I walked away from the airport only to have my trip redeemed by the amazing people I met inside India.
There were stares, and sometimes fears, and sometimes curiosity. Over time it gets draining. I will speak to a lot of my Black friends in China who have burnout being asked to take pictures every time they leave their homes because we just aren't seen as often. And for me, I guess, I didn't mind because I knew in sixty days it would all end; but it can be draining. I think the hardest part is that the picture is where it ends. There are ideas about Blacks around the globe, so the fascination does not always create a conversation (sometimes because of language) but it is more a prize to have seen a “Black person.” I always wonder what the caption is on their photo as they post and gain likes from their circle of influence. I think a lot about the fears, too. Sometimes, with children, because they haven't seen someone that looks like me, they will look and look until I look back, and then run in fear like I am some monster. My hair also draws lots of stares with the loc look, which seems to scare them even more. And I am not saying all kids are running; however, one a day will take the joy away. I have to smile through the awkwardness, being one of only two people of color on my team and not having many people understand- maybe because they, too, at one point were a asker of photos. Either way, this can be exhausting.
But what does that mean for me, and you reading this blog, as a person of color? It means travel. Let them see more of us. With American passports. Passports from the continent. From the diaspora. We need to increase representation and not just head to ports at sea for cruises where the regular people don't get to show up.
Fly. Land. Explore. Enjoy the rest of the world. Surprise them with your English. Show them you can code switch. “Street.” Dialects. And many other World languages. Do it for the expansion of the culture.