The Joy and Pain of Travelling While Non-white

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On a travel forum, there was a long thread in which women of different ethnicity were talking about how difficult it is to travel while being black, Asian or some other ethnicity.

They were saying how they found it hard to get service at restaurants or by taxis, how people would stare at them or would use local language racial slurs from afar — often enough that they’d learn the slurs, sadly.

One woman talked about being shamed at Laotian border control for having tattered local currency, as if that weren’t a common occurrence. “Black people never have money. If you have no money, you should not travel! You don’t belong here!” she was taunted loudly.

Another Muslim woman said “it hurts sometimes, but we deal with it. Did you know that some couchsurfing hosts from Muslim countries (Morocco, Iran & Egypt) refuse to host me, but their profile is full of western guests.”

A minority of white travellers on the thread attempted to empathise. “It’s really tough for us, too,” they said. “People assume we’re just bags of money.”

But being asked to share wealth is not the same as being ignored, dismissed, or taunted.

Being of Eastern and Western Asian background while travelling (while non white) brings a unique set of challenges.
A Persian Australian and a Korean American walked into a bar. “A diet coke and a water, please” said the Persian Australian who sounds vaguely british, to the Korean American’s embarrassment. “Can’t you even order a normal coke?” she complained.

In Egypt, landlords often refuse to rent to people from neighbouring Gulf states. In Singapore, many apartment ads still say “No Indians or PRC”.

Even in Canada recently, a group of black American guests were asked to leave by an AirBnB host who used a string of racial epithets to get the point across.

All of these examples are at the extreme. But we’re somewhat unique as travel writers in that we’re not black, not white, not Muslim, not Christian… and never the majority. We don’t experience the edge cases of racism and taunting, but we do get labelled, everywhere we go.

In the US, Europe, or Australia, life as a non-white (and non-black) is mostly normal, but still replete with subtle micro-aggressions. We all have our stories, like that time in New Mexico when a restaurant owner inexplicably never had a table for us, or the time in Noosa, Queensland when someone inexplicably started doing a monkey dance in front of me in a parking lot.

Or just all those times people ask us where we’re from, trying to place us into a bucket of “other”, when really, we share 99% of the same experiences as the person asking. Same cities, same schools, same passport, same language, same accent.

The worst examples, by the way, of this are when I’m told “But you don’t look Australian…” This feels worse than being asked where I’m “really” from, because rather than asking if I have some other heritage, it’s denying me my own. And it happens everywhere; even in America a few times (even once, to my surprise, by a Persian American… I didn’t let him get away with it).

What’s interesting is how all this changes when we’re abroad.

Normally, as an Asian and a “brown” person (we’re Korean American and Persian Australian), we’re lumped into the broad category of “foreigners”. But it depends on in which part of the world we’re travelling.

Being a Lao Wai in China

In China, I was broadly considered a lao wai (老外). This loosely translates to “esteemed outsider”, and is a somewhat respectful term for a foreigner.

It’s a common enough thing to be a lao wai so that in a place like a bank people would use professional communication between each other to say things like “I’m serving a lao wai who wants to transfer money…”.

In the general category of lao wai are Europeans, British, even Middle Eastern and West Asian people. Basically, everyone but other Asians and black people.

Generally, being a lao wai is a positive thing in China, at least superficially. I could walk into the Four Seasons Hotel and stroll about, and ask people casually for things like how to get to the top floor restaurant, or if they could lend me an umbrella. No problem.

In places in China where I was the only foreigner, people like security guards and others would help willingly, especially when I asked in Chinese. There wasn’t too much risk of being ripped off just based on ethnicity.

This contrasted with the experience of my Chinese friends, who were under much more scrutiny in fancy places, and asked more questions. One time, a friend of mine with a physical disability was interrogated and bullied for so long by the building security that she arrived at my apartment in tears.

The main problem with being a lao wai in China was the assumption that I was a cultural buffoon.

“China is complicated,” people would often tell me, by way of explaining why things were ridiculous. Like why I had to pay quarterly property tax with a bag of cash after figuring out what the amount was myself.

Or people would explain that it was normal that my friend had to wait three months for his shipment of coffee beans to clear customs, all the time rotting in the humidity of the port (something obvious to the importers).

People would also use that catch-all: “China is different.” No place is that different. China is just another chaotic place where rules are vague, people are enterprising, and rent-seeking is rife. Nothing is that new, but being a lao wai, some people thought it was all new to me.

People regularly took the opportunity to patronisingly explain things, either the way business worked (“I get it! It’s called kickbacks!” I wanted to retort constantly), or how to correctly hold chopsticks (never mind that I heard at least three authoritative ways of doing it completely differently).

But this wasn’t that bad. Because relatively speaking, as a lao wai, I was left alone.

The fact that I was of Persian background in China was a minor detail next to my general lao wai-ness. I was put into this category of outsiders by virtue of not being Asian (and thus not sharing in traditional Asian values of deference to elders, filial piety, and mathematical aptitude… I kid), and not being black.

If I explained I was Persian and so knew about things like drinking tea, eating on the floor, and having a sense of shame, it was often met with interest, but there was still a barrier of being non-Asian. Anecdotes about being Persian seemed to be perceived as unrelated to anything about China.

Being lumped into the same bucket as most other foreigners was initially refreshing. It was new for me. Nobody made terrorist jokes. For once, in China, I was the same as everyone else… even if “everyone else” was a foreign population.

But after a while I began to resent it. I don’t need to feel different, but I want my unique experiences acknowledged and respected.

It’s just like how any Chinese person would want to be celebrated for being culturally distinct from Koreans or Japanese, and not lumped into a general bucket of “Asians” by some outsider.

And if someone knows the difference between regional or ethnic variations within the diverse country of China, even better.

Despite whatever I experienced though, it’s much harder being Black in China, I understood.

I’m not black, but I had enough Black friends to know that it was harder. At best, people on the street (not our educated friends) are benignly, naively, and excessively curious.

If you’re travelling as a Black person in China, you’ll see that many Chinese (especially tourists from outside the major cities) will aggressively want to know the texture of your skin or hair, and ask to be photographed with you. It makes going out in public comical at best, and frustrating most of the time, because in most public places you will be harangued.

For example, this report:

It was amusing at first. And then it wasn’t. We couldn’t concentrate on tours because of all the cameras pointed at us. We couldn’t walk quickly due to the crowds swarming us. We were grumpy. What we looked like was ruining our chance to enjoy where we were.

What it’s Like to Be Black in China, National Geographic

People who are blonde, or very tall, or red-headed in China would explain similar things to this — being photographed a lot, particularly. For Black people, it gets worse than benign curiosity, though.

There are a lot of stereotypes about Black people in China, and they’re not great. They don’t bear repeating. Suffice it to say that I would often hear people I’d meet (like taxi drivers) volunteer things like “Yeah, you lao wai are alright. But I don’t like Black people.”

This led to my Black friends telling me, for example, that they simply could not catch a cab. Nobody would stop for them. Didi drivers would cancel rides. They’d often have to have someone else ride with them — or get a bicycle.

At least occasional Chinese people volunteering they didn’t like Black people would always prompt me to have a conversation about stereotypes, which would generally end in “I guess all kinds of people have their good and bad.” I would hope that person’s mind was a little opened by the end of it.

Being an Agnabi in Egypt

In Egypt, we were both classified as agaanib (اجانب), the plural form of agnabi (اجنبي) which simply means “foreigner”.

An agnabi is anyone who’s not from Egypt and isn’t of Arab descent. If you’re of Arab descent they’ll call you what you are, e.g. a Bedouin, a Moroccan, Lebanese or whatever.

As an Asian, Jo was definitely an agnabi. At times she was the only Asian person I saw for stretches of weeks.

But I admit that I was surprised that I got the classification of agnabi given I’m of Persian descent. Look at my black hair and my olive skin! Look at our alphabet! Don’t I fit in as a fellow national of Greater Brownestan?

It turns out I don’t fit in as a Persian in Egypt, and it mostly comes from having been raised in the West. There are many give-aways before I would even open my mouth.

I stood out in Egypt because I dressed differently — sometimes in subtle ways, but differently. My hair was cut differently (before my first Egyptian haircut anyway) and I walked differently. I’m shaped differently. “Most men your age are fat!” a friend told me bluntly.

As a foreigner in Egypt, the way I’d behave in a store would be different, too. Tentative and shy, self-aware, not brash and comfortable like everyone else (especially men). All the clues added up very quickly.

As soon as those clues that we were foreigners in Egypt were registered by most people a few things would happen.

Firstly, they’d try to sell things to us. The intensity level of harassment would increase, the rationale being if they follow us around for long enough, we’d eventually buy something, I guess.

Secondly, prices would inflate. (Tip: You can always tell when prices are inflating because people pause for a moment before giving you a price for the only thing they sell.)

Being an agnabi in Egypt wasn’t all negative, though. Egypt, too, has that established concept of believing foreign things are better — known as “foreigner complex” (3a’dit al-khawaaga, عقده الخواجه).

Foreign things in Egypt are considered better: foreign media, foreign technology, foreign education.

Many locals in Egypt hate this notion of self-imposed inferiority to foreigners. But for us, it meant, again, that we could walk into expensive locations even while looking a little shabby and be welcomed. There’s a general assumption about us, as agaanib, that we have deep enough pockets for anywhere we’re walking. At least, anywhere we tried walking.

Also, Jo was definitely foreign enough for people (always women and children) to ask to be photographed with her. I mean who wouldn’t?

Travelling while being non-white - Jo being photographed
Jo being photographed for the fifth time in about ten minutes.

Unlike Asia, the Middle East is less culturally united. There are strong stereotypes of people from different countries, or even different ethnicities within a country.

The Egyptians make jokes about people from Sa’iid, Upper Egypt. And there are just offensive jokes about Black people. Our friends aren’t the type to hold these views, I should point out, and nobody in modern educated Egypt would be. It’s just something we learned exists from by asking people, and from cultural references in the TV shows we watched (which, to their credit, had scenes where people were criticised for making racist jokes).

So you don’t even have to come from very far to experience prejudice in Egypt. Just a little further south, where skin colours were darker, and you’d be the butt of jokes and get fewer employment opportunities. It was a little depressing to know.

At least the word agnabi is benign. There’s another word in Egypt for foreigners, khawaaga (خواجه), that’s not so nice. It is the former, colonial-time word reserved for (wealthy) Europeans.

The word khawaaga is not used very much these days, except in jokes. Like sometimes I’d casually comment to Egyptian friends about a cafe in the centre of town: “Lots of khawaaga in here.” It worked well for me in that sense, because it meant I could put some distance between myself and “other foreigners”. And really, that’s probably as far as I could go.

Being a Mzungu in East Africa

Lastly, we’re learning what it means to be wazungu (the plural of mzungu) in East Africa.

In general, in Tanzania as foreigners, we feel overwhelmingly welcome, particularly out of Dar Es Salaam. In fact, people often say so. They either volunteer “You are welcome!” in English, or they say the word that they’re translating from Swahili: “Karibu!” or “Karibuni!” as a plural. This word comes from the Arabic word for “being near” or “to approach” (قرّب, qarrab), i.e. something like “Please, come near!”

But still, there’s an implication in the well-meaning greeting: “You are welcome [, foreigner]!”

There are a few words for foreigner in Swahili, but mzungu is the most common. It’s a Swahili word but is shared by most languages in the Bantu family, and so is said in Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique, and many other countries in the “Great Lakes” region of South East. (Other countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia have their own words for the same concept.)

East Africa is a little different to most of Asia and the Middle East because of the strong and recent influence of colonial rule. There is almost a learned behaviour that wazungu can afford to pay more for basic products and services: transport, souvenirs, and food.

So as wazungu in East Africa, we get harangued with the word “taxi!” constantly, no matter how far from downtown we go. Sometimes a minority of children just say “mzungu, money”. In the markets, people constantly try to sell us spices, as if we might have a sudden need for a year’s supply of cinnamon.

The term mzungu itself has a wide range of harshness. It’s mostly benign. Children often yell it to get our attention, but they just want to wave at us.

In the rural villages in the north of Tanzania, we’d hear children yelling “MAAAZZZUUUNNGUUU!!!” long, long before we could see them. Other children in the hilly ranges would hear them and join in the chorus.

We can tell it’s benign because we’d often speak to them (when we got much closer) and it’d stop immediately. After that it’d just be regular Swahili, kicking a ball back and forth, or whatever.

Sometimes it does come with “piga picha!” (take a picture) or requests for the gifts that wazungu traditionally give kids: pens, candy, and empty bottles. It’s cute, almost like giving pens has become known as a thing white people traditionally do when meeting someone.

Among educated professionals in a big, cosmopolitan city, mzungu is just a description of a person. In a hospital ward, the triage nurse would say there is a child here, a Maasai there, a mzungu over there, and so on, and mean nothing by it. Much like you may hear someone say “I spoke to an Asian lady”, political correctness of mentioning race aside.

But it can take a harsh edge when in the middle of a bigger city you hear an unexpected adult voice yell mzungu! from afar. It doesn’t need to be pointed that we’re foreigners because it’s obvious. So if you’re pointing it out, you mean something by it. And it doesn’t feel good.

In restaurants, the difference is often official. Local food costs a fraction of mzungu food, but the higher prices are all there on the menu. Want a large plate of rice, beans, meat curry and vegetables? That’s 5,000 Tsh (about US$2.30). Want a pizza? That’s 20,000 TSh (closer to US$10). But you can order either.

So I see the menu of prices in a restaurant as a metaphor: choosing a mzungu life is a conscious choice.

When we go just one level beyond the tourist levels and explore in Swahili, we quickly find that we’re treated just like anyone else.

In the markets in East Africa, for example, we pay the same price everyone else pays for basics like vegetables, eggs, milk, and bread. There’s no “foreigner price”. Or indeed any bargaining at all.

If I buy a few oranges from a guy on the side of the road in Tanzania or Kenya as a foreigner, I won’t pay a single shilling more than anyone else. They don’t hesitate before quoting a price, and I often see people around me paying exactly the same price.

There are definitely degrees of foreign-ness in Tanzania. I’d say it’s roughly in this order: black, non-black and non-blonde (this is us), and then blonde.

There are other black tourists here, both from elsewhere in Africa as well as from other countries like the US. They do stand out as visitors with different dress and style. They’re still foreign, but people don’t call them mzungu, and from asking our friends, people are less inclined to call them or treat them as such.

On the other end of the spectrum are the blonde/light-haired visitors. They’re typically taller and dress very differently. They stand out a lot, like lighthouses, and instantly gather fervent and enthusiastic attention from anyone selling anything. So much so that we learned to walk behind them in crowded places. Kind of like being towed by an icebreaker.

In the middle of the spectrum there’s us. We are not from here, but we’re a different kind of foreign. And so we got a different, lesser degree of attention.

In some ways, the fact that we as non-white non-blonde people get less attention feels like a form of racism. When we watch blonde European visitors get harangued by hawkers, we think… Why not us?

Is it benign prejudice, not haranguing us as non-whites, assuming that we’re maybe less wealthy, or less willing to part with our money? Or is it malicious, assuming that we’re just not as good?

It’s likely mostly the former, but the fact that we suspect the latter is an example of how growing up microaggressions will affect us for life. We’ll forever have the suspicion we’re being judged as “not quite good enough”.

It’s definitely frustrating for any foreigners in a less wealthy country to be targeted so much as people willing to part with their money, but it’s totally understandable.

Even if a visitor feels like they’re not made of money, the price of a ticket to Africa from anywhere else in the world is more money than many will make in a year. People who are employed in Tanzania with decent jobs make around $500 a month — but this is a rough median within a huge range. You can work in a village in rural mainland or anywhere in Zanzibar and earn something like $100 a month, or less.

In trying to label us in Tanzania, some people think I’m an Arab and greet me in Arabic, which is kind of cool. Some say “ni hao!” to Jo, which is not cool, or “Where are you going, Chinese?” (unakwenda wapi Mchina?) which is absolutely not cool.

To try to pre-empt these labels, we chose to break the ice by using local greetings. To Muslims (or anyone in Zanzibar), we use the Islamic greeting salam aleikum, and that sets the tone for a different kind of conversation. In mainland Tanzania, we just start down the complicated suite of Swahili greetings. We use shikamoo as a sign of respect for elders, or a casual Habari yako? Unakuwaje? for anyone younger. A couple of greetings in and we’re friends.

We initiate conversation with someone in Swahili, do a complicated handshake, ask them to help you, get their help, and start to have a normal interaction. In the process we may end up being charged too little, and choose to pay more. For example, the time a kid said he’d fix our punctured bicycle tire for 2,000 TSh. That’s less than US$1. He didn’t find a puncture, and tried to charge me just 1,000 but I paid him the full price anyway. I had taken his time and it was fair.

The experience of foreign-ness in East Africa varies a lot by where you are. In downtown Zanzibar we’re targeted as you’d expect. This got diluted in Dar Es Salaam in hectic suburban life, where nobody has time to care where you’re from. In the countryside in northern mainland Tanzania, children seemed excited about foreigners, but to everyone else were were just another pair of peripatetic wanderers.

Being a mzungu in Zanzibar - receiving a gift of squid from village friends.
Me with my squid. Image size minimized to reduce attention to my dishevelled island villager looks. Don’t look at me! Look at the squid!

But in an isolated rural village in Zanzibar, all pretence totally disappeared. Fisherman chatted with us, and even brought with them welcoming gifts of freshly caught octopus. In weeks there, I didn’t have a single conversation about money. Every time I went out running I would wave to every person I saw and get a friendly wave from every other person, usually accompanied by a call-and-response greeting of “Mambo vipi!” and “Freshi!”

And freshi is exactly how it felt.

The privilege of being able to disappear

There are very few places in the world where we can be wilfully ignored completely. Where we can disappear.

We all have places where we look like the majority of people.

For Jo, this includes the major cities in Asia, like Taipei, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai. In these, she looks like a westernised person of Asian background, a familiar sight. So familiar, in fact, that I lost her in crowds almost daily.

For me, the only place where I’ve vanished among a crowd has been Tel-Aviv. More so than anywhere else in Israel. Tel-Aviv is fairly unique in the Middle East in that it has people that look like me (and many other kinds of people), and also has people who dress and behave like me.

Tel-Aviv the only place in the world where I’ve vanished to the point where people are truly surprised I’m not from there. “You should move here and make babies!” a random person told me on one of my last days. I’d love to, but Israeli Immigration has other ideas about my people. (At least it seems that way by the exponentially increasing time it takes to cross the border each time.)

And for both of us, and for many others, there are the very few true melting pots of the world: New York and London. Maybe others we haven’t been to yet.

In New York and London, people are from everywhere. Nobody (in everyday society anyway) cares where you’re from. Just do your thing and get out of the way.

This sentiment about New York and London is shared by many people I’ve spoken to. We chatted with a Palestinian Jordanian and Lebanese Egyptian couple (“We’re basically the Arab League”, they regularly joke) who feel slightly out of place no matter where they travel in the Middle East. Their accents and slang in Arabic betray them everywhere. Everywhere — except in New York, one of their homes. “That’s why we love it.” Because in New York, nobody cares.

I don’t think it’s possible to escape being foreign when it’s the inevitable truth. We’re all born into our own circumstances and change what we can, and accept what we can’t. But we still have choices to make of how foreign we want our experiences to be. And probably more crucially, we can choose how welcoming we are to others.

So learn the language, adopt the mannerisms, try to see through other people’s eyes. Try, as we are trying, to blend in everywhere.

But perhaps the more powerful thing is to remember to be welcoming to others who are trying to do the same.

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