Black Americans traveling outside the United States for the first time often worry about how they’ll be treated. What they find often takes them totally by surprise.
A funny thing happens to black folks when we travel outside the United States for the first time. We find out that we’re Americans.
More specifically, we find out that the rest of the world often sees us more fully as Americans than do a lot of our so-called “countrymen.”
We also find out that being perceived as an American often makes a difference in how we’re treated abroad — compared with, say, Africans.
We’re treated better.
All this is gratifying in some ways, unsettling in others. Either way, it’s not what we expect when we get that U.S. passport stamped with its first foreign visa.
When you grow up in a country, any country, your life experience in that land shapes the way you see yourself, and the world.
Growing up black in America means learning to see yourself as being “different,” a few degrees apart from the mainstream. We didn’t voluntarily separate ourselves from that mainstream. We’ve been pushed and walled off from it — blatantly in my elders’ day, more subtly in mine.
TWILIGHT ZONE CITIZENS
You go through life being viewed by turns as a threat, a freak of nature, an issue, a cause, a voting bloc, a market, a whole series of stereotypes — almost anything, it seems, other than just another U.S. citizen.
For that reason, black American citizenship often has a kind of Twilight Zone feel to it. You’re an American officially, but not entirely. Your citizenship status comes with a psychological, emotional asterisk that never goes away.
So when you venture beyond your borders for the first time, you expect the rest of the world to come at you more or less in the same manner.
When you step off the plane in Paris or Istanbul or Sao Paulo or Beijing — or for that matter, Dakar or Lagos or Cape Town — the locals see you exactly as what you are.
Someone born in the United States, steeped in the American life experience and thoroughly saturated in American culture.
In other words, an American.
You don’t have to wear a USA T-shirt. You don’t have to say a word. One look at you and they just know, instantly. American, through and through.
WE DON’T BLEND IN
Even in urban, sub-Saharan Africa, where you might expect to blend in seamlessly with the locals, you don’t. You stick out like a sore red-white-black-and-blue thumb.
For the black American traveler, this has both advantages and drawbacks.
Among the biggest drawbacks: Everybody thinks you’re rich. After all, everybody’s rich in America, right? Our television shows, our music videos, our movies are broadcast the world over — and on screens large and small, we sure look rich.
Which means that when you walk into the local market or shop, the vendor instantly raises his prices, just as he would for any other American. Beggars and street hustlers will follow you a little farther down the block than they would some other tourist, and much farther than they would any local.
You deal with it. You learn how to haggle, how to fend off the hustlers. It goes with the territory. You’re an American.
But there are advantages, too. For one thing, you’re likely to find out that, contrary to some of the political propaganda you hear back home, most of the world really doesn’t hate American people, even if it’s appalled by American politics.
People will smile at you, especially if you smile at them. People will talk to you, no matter how pathetic your halting attempts to speak to them in their native language. They will welcome you to their country, maybe even invite you into their homes. If you run into problems, they may go to extraordinary lengths to help you.
All because you’re an American, and you cared enough to come for a visit.
You also may find yourself periodically displaying the same kind of cultural chauvinism abroad that “other” Americans do. You’ll know it the first time you catch yourself thinking, or even saying aloud, “Wow, that’s not how we do things back home!”
And when you laugh about it, you’ll be the only one who gets the joke. After all, you’re kind of new to this whole “American” thing. From that point on, you just accept it, the way virtually everyone else around you does.
That’s when you realize that all those worries and fears you had about how you would be treated were just so much excess cultural baggage, dead weight that won’t be coming with you on your next international trip.
Even this little bit of delight has a flip side, however. You realize that the moment you see how Africans are often treated abroad.
THE FLIP SIDE
When you see taxi drivers in London or Paris or Beijing stop to pick you up — unlike the way so many of them pass you on the street in, say, New York — you may not realize at first that those same cabbies who were happy to stop for you will pass up Africans all day long.
Just as you might be followed throughout a shop by store security back home, so too will the African be followed overseas. Discrimination in jobs, housing, education, systematic hassling by the police — the full gamut of the black American experience — the African from the Caribbean or the Mother Continent receives elsewhere in the world.
But not you. You’re okay. You’re an American.
That may jar you a little bit. It also may explain why, when you give that little nod to the African passing by on the street — that little nod of acknowledgement that many black Americans traditionally give one another — the African may not return it.
That, too, can be unsettling. Actually, it hurts. Both sides have some serious bridge-building to do.
But pretty soon, you’re back to enjoying your unexpected status as an American abroad. People being nice to you. People treating you as if you were the same as everybody else.
For the first time, you really understand why so many black American soldiers, shipped to France during World War 1, opted not to return to the States. And you find yourself wishing every day could be like this.
But even as you’re having the time of your life, in the back of your mind, the clock is ticking. All too soon, you will have to get on the plane to return home, where all that’s familiar in your life will be waiting for you.
Right down to that asterisk.
That’s the tradeoff that comes with travel. It always opens your eyes, but it doesn’t promise that you’ll always enjoy the view.
Edited by P.A.Rice
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