Traveling While Black: 5 Countries Where I’ve Experienced Racism

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When you’re Black your whole life, you learn how to pick up on things. You develop this keen sense and assess spaces to determine whether you’ll be accepted or not. It’s like a sixth sense in figuring out who is cool with you. Sorta like gaydar but for racism.

Traveling while Black has been something we’ve all lived with but only recently began speaking out about. Whether it’s being mistaken for random celebrities, being propositioned while waiting for a taxi, to being verbally and even physically assaulted – it’s what travelers who look like me encounter every time we travel (and sometimes even within our home countries).

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Update on life in Japan.

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I recently wrote an essay for mater mea, the online publication that has featured me to talk about my move to Tokyo. They reached out and asked for a follow up on our life here in Tokyo. It took me a long time to write this, because I was so occupied with adjusting and dealing with things, that I wasn’t able to reflect on all that has happened. That was part of it. The other part was it has taken me this long to actually sit and be still long enough to reflect. I’ve been moving so much and in such an emotional whirlwind, that I hadn’t allowed myself the space to just be still. Partly because I was afraid of what would happen.

So, one day I sat down and wrote this piece. It was published last month, but I wanted to post it here for you, who have been on this journey with me.

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When I made the decision to move to abroad with my son, I was completely unprepared. Sure I was aware of the culture shock, the challenges I would endure with jet lag and sleep deprivation. I even expected that I would go through extreme withdrawal from Chick-Fil-A. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how moving to this new country would forever alter my relationship with my son.

After being a single mother in the United States for years, being a single mother abroad is an entirely different ball game. You become proficient at making things happen and figuring things out on your own because you have no real choice. But here, not knowing a lick of Japanese, having zero knowledge of the area or the way things work, I was forced to rely on other people to help me with things I was accustomed to doing on my own. I had to learn how to ask for help, and that was hard for me and my ever-so-posturing ego. Being here made me realize that it was okay to do so because I can’t do everything by myself, no matter how much my pride gets in the way.

I’m going to be honest: the last six months have been somewhat of a struggle. I didn’t handle the stress well and it was challenging for both of us to adapt. Because neither of us was ready for what adjusting to Tokyo meant, our relationship took a hit.

To give a little context, Chris went to a progressive school when we lived in Philadelphia. It was a very relaxed environment that nurtured him as an individual and actively sought his feedback to structure his education. The school was pretty aligned to how I have been educating him since birth, so it worked for us both. When we moved to Tokyo, I enrolled him at the school that had a relationship with the school that I would be working. I researched what I could about this school from afar, but it was basically the tuition discount and close proximity that got the vote. But what I didn’t take into account was how the school would fit into our personal pedagogy.

In hindsight, the school couldn’t have been more on the opposite end of the educational spectrum. They were a traditional catholic school, enforced a uniform policy, and had a rigid schedule and homework policy. Some of Chris’ challenges at the school were keeping up with the pace of homework and testing (of which neither of us was a fan), adjusting to wearing a uniform daily, and the school had an issue with his locs. Attempting to abide by the school policy, I braided his hair back to keep it as “neat and kempt” as his then eight-year-old self could maintain on a weekly basis, but it became increasingly clear that there was a personal issue.

In addition to adjusting to this, Chris was showing signs of stress very early on. He was chewing incessantly on anything he could get his hands on, he was wetting the bed, and he was irritable and would basically freak out if anything changed in our schedule without notice. This was challenging – to understand the needs of my child had changed drastically. I’m not so sure I was ready for that. Chris was extremely stressed out, and it took a long time for us to learn how to communicate effectively again and for me to find a way to support him.

After the first week of school, I scheduled a meeting with his teacher to inform her of his challenges and see if we could work collaboratively on a solution. A distressed mother, seeking the help of a fellow parent, I found none. Instead, she took that opportunity to let me know how my child wasn’t measuring up to the “room full of Asians”, as she referred to them. Discussing with me all the educational challenges that I was already aware of, and informed her prior to his arrival, but failed to discuss interventions or solutions. Frustrated, I sought help from the assistant principal and, later, the principal – all with no avail.

After my fifth meeting with the school, it was becoming apparent that I wasn’t going to get anywhere and began to feel helpless and frustrated. Despite my appeals, they insisted that he was happy at school and that there was nothing to help, although I saw another child at home. I knew it was just Chris putting on a mask and keeping it together while at school, but then falling apart at home. It wasn’t until I saw how it was beginning to have an effect on his identity that I decided we needed another school.

During a conversation, I asked Chris how he felt about living in Japan. He told me that he liked it here, but he felt that his school wanted to change him. He went on to say that he was okay with the uniform and even how they learn in the school, but he was slowly beginning to feel that the individuality that was celebrated at his previous school was discouraged at this new one. This translated to his eight-year-old brain that he wasn’t liked and accepted for who he is. And as the person who has spent the majority of his life making sure he has a positive self-image despite the messages society sends, this was devastating to hear. I had to make a change.

After months of trial and error, we are on an upswing. I had to transfer him to a new school that could support him better with this transition. The commute to school is longer for him, but he is so much happier and lighter. On the way home from picking him up on his first day, I noticed he was so much more energetic and talkative. It was then I realized that no matter how resilient they can be, no child should have to carry a weight like that. Nor should any of us for that matter.

In all this, I’m learning to change the way I communicate with him. I’m learning to be more patient and remember to breathe when I feel things are out of my control. We are both realizing that this is hard for the both of us, but in Tokyo, we are all we got. So we’re working on being kinder with one another.

Despite the challenges we faced initially, I don’t regret my decision at all. I have realized that moving here, at this stage in his development, was the best decision that I could have made for us. He is living the childhood I always wanted for him. There is a sense of safety in Tokyo that doesn’t exist in the States. We feel no sense of caution when walking home at night or when taking public transit. We don’t flinch or hold our breath when encountering law enforcement. We don’t experience any aggression from the citizens here (maybe the occasional staring contest, but I always win). He has a supportive environment at his school now, and he is freer than he has been in a very long time. As a bonus, because of our location, we can explore Asia significantly cheaper than we could back home. Right now, I am content.

Sure, it is possible that by living here, he is experiencing a false sense of the reality that we may have to face if we go back to the United States. When he is a man, he may never know how to interact with police officers in a way that doesn’t make him seem intimidating or threatening (I don’t know anyone in the States who knows how to do this, actually). He may never learn to keep his hands in plain sight at all times and learn the phrase “If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide.” I do take all of this into consideration. But you know what? I’m okay with that. Because my only focus as a mother right now is to create an environment where my son can be exactly who he should be at nine years old: a child. And I couldn’t care less on what continent that happens.