traveling while black.

african, discrimination, prejudice, race, travelingwhileblack

Growing up in the predominantly black suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia perhaps shrouded me from ever feeling like I was different. I grew up submerged in sea of other people who looked like me, spoke like me, listened to the same music as me. There was no clear separation. It wasn’t until I went away to school at Mercer University that I grasped what it meant to be within the minority.

And being in the glaring minority was only amplified, to gross, sweeping levels when I moved to Madrid in the fall of 2013. I had never experienced the phenomena of being the “only one” because I was always one of many, many, many others who were just like me. I had never identified with the isolation, confusion and frustration of constantly having to navigate my (literal) physical space within others who were not like me and clearly did not understand me, nor where they committed to, in the very least, of being tolerant of those like me. I never had to stuff down the constant anguish of doling out explanations of who I was for the sake of sanity or knowing, intimately, how a little bit of you dies and breaks off each time you have to negotiate within yourself to do it.

Maybe if I was more deluded, more in denial, more oblivious, I could pretend one of my greatest passions behind writing (ahem) and cooking — travel — bears some affect when my race comes into the picture. And no, I’m not just pulling the “race card,” holding a chip on my shoulder, being overly sensitive or reading too into things. This is something I know firsthand from the several experiences I’ve had over the past year, when me, my Black self, was jetting around the world in search of adventure, and I realized, a sober realization, that doing so was a revolutionary act in itself.

I can reflect on London, strolling the cobblestone streets. My feet, exposed and uncovered frozen solid, my teeth chattering, the layers of clothing I attempted to wear still rendering me frigid. Eating a kabob loaded with pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, succulent lamb juicy and bursting with flavor and a cooling yogurt sauce, dripping onto my the front of shirt, laughing with my cousin and his friends. Staring bright-eyed, in childlike wonder, through the wrought iron gates, speckled with gold leaves which looked as delicate as foil, at Buckingham Palace at the change of the guards, the guards clad in morose, somber grey posts instead of the red pea coats I thought I’d see.

But I only, mostly remember, slapping a vibrant head wrap on my head the wee hours of my departure before heading to London Gatwick airport. I remember, vividly, being asked if my head wrap was donned for religious reasons and when I shrugged in confusion, leading the border control agent to believe I meant no, urging me to remove my headwrap, exposing my nappy natural hair, my TWA, matted to my head. I remember her roughly fingering my hair, attempting to feel my roots but only snagging my kinky coils, and causing me to yelp in pain. And being asked, with vitriol and aggression leaking in her voice, only seconds later, to remove my shoes, although I was originally told I could keep them on.

I can reflect on Brussels, stumbling into Grand Place, where one of the most ornate, beautiful and awe struck cathedrals I’ve seen with my naked eyes — outside of The Duomo in Milan and the Catedral de Sevilla in Sevilla — or pushing my way through the Godiva where the smell of freshly churned chocolate tickled my nostrils and aroused my taste buds. I remember the nine hours I spent there, not knowing a word of French. Eyes being cut at me, like I was a suspicion, a threat, someone to be feared. People bursting my bubble of boundaries, demanding I answer them in French, because of course, I’m Black. My skin is brown. I have to be African which means I most likely speak French. But I didn’t. Not then, not now.

But I only most remember, going through passport control at the Brussels airport and the officer looking at me stunned, blown away and utterly bewildered. After looking at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport, he cocked his head to side and peered at me and asked, “What happened?”

I squinted back at him and stuttered, not sure what I was supposed to say. And okay, maybe I did look different. In my passport photo, I had honey blonde hair stringy and broken off and in person, I had a dark haired (my natural hair color) nappy coils which were short and low cut. But did I really look that different? My face looked the same. These were the microaggressions. The demands to explain.

I could also go into grave detail about how dozens of times I’ve been “randomly selected” to undergo extra screening before jetting off to a new locale. Asked more questions then necessary. My belongings being rustled through for an indeterminate amount of time, threatening me to miss my flight. Or being stared at like I have three heads when out and about in a foreign city. Or feeling like I was abnormal or strange because of the color of my skin. The whispering, the pointing, the slower than slow service because of my brown face, because of course, I’m not deserving of the customer service that other, White customers, receive.

But I think you get the point. I think you can see that I’m not exaggerating. That these are very real micro aggressions which can wear on someone who is so determined to see as much as the world as possible but when other people are determined to remind you of the global appeal of anti-Blackness. How Black faces being unwanted isn’t just an American construct and how it is a global one, in every truest sense of concept, one bolstered by colonialism and White supremacy coursing through the veins of every living soul.

And yes, many will argue with my passport, my blue passport emblazoned with a gold eagle on the front presents me with a horde of privilege. But let’s also be real — what difference does my blue passport really make, that when whomever flips it open to the photo page, and they see my un-American name? When they look at it, and instantly, know it’s not American? When they know I’m foreign, in some sense of the word, and decide, right then and there, to discriminate?

Many others will tell me that yes, as a Black woman, a tall Black woman, I’m warranted the stares and the ogling I get whenever I go somewhere where I’m not in the majority. People will tell me to expect it. That it’s just because I’m tall, as a I stand, statuesque at almost six feet. And in the same breath, they’ll also tell me to extend an olive branch, to be more understanding of their confusion and the subsequent ignorance which arises in their questions and their ignorance. They’ll tell me explain, to be a good example, to be a representative on behalf of countless others.

But dammit. That isn’t me. The me I am, the me I have grown to be, isn’t interested in that. The me I am isn’t interested in extending nary of even a damn twig branch. The me I am isn’t here to be your bridge to cultural understanding. The me I am isn’t here to be representative of what it means to be Black, to be Black American, to be African. The me I am doesn’t want (or ask) to be affronted with the different treatment and surely doesn’t want to be exhausted to have to bother to explain. To me I am understands that Black American and Africans aren’t a monolithic group. That there are differences and wavelengths that vary along gender, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic levels. And to be asked to be a representative is insulting and denounces the vasty amount of diversity that exists within us, among us.

I understand my existence, for most, is audacious. That daring to be a Black American and African woman who is unapologetically proud of who she is…unfathomable. But who I am is who I am. Who I am is proud. Who I am is authentic. And who I am won’t stop daring to see the world, one city, one town, one country, one continent at at time. And the who I am doesn’t ever want to, have to, desire to, have to explain.

paris

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home and hearts.

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My hair fluttered in the wind behind as I walked, the leather jacket I’d purchased at Zara on a street minutes away from my flat in Madrid briskly brushing past my hips and tailing my body. I rolled my suitcase with my right hand and clung to my black carry-on bag as I exited the Marta train station, where my mother waited for me in the family car–the car I  had driven many a time when my car was in the shop or decided it was having an off day. 

I had arrived home, in Atlanta, for an almost three-week stay. Coming home had been a loaded gun and for the most part, I was exuberant and giddy with enthusiasm. The last week before I left Madrid had been one filled with bouts of sorrow and the resolve I would most likely not return to Spain after the Christmas break. In fact, somewhere deep in my mind, I fathomed I would only return, as my roundtrip ticket I had purchased months before was non-refundable, to gather my belongings and shed my woeful attempt to living abroad and starting a life full of travel and adventure. 

Maybe I had not been fit to make it here, I thought over and over again before boarding that 10-hour flight to Atlanta. I looked around at the sights, the long Metro ride to the airport, the nearly two-mile trek to the gate to board my flight and imagined how life would be if I just gave up, if I just said goodbye to a long held dream of mine. 

And so I pondered these possibilities, how giving up must feel and knew it had to be like this, as I rode home and half-way listened to my mother gab about the goings on in the neighborhood, my mind elsewhere. Giving up sometimes doesn’t follow a lack of attempt, but instead a good fight which withers into situations, people and leaps that just don’t work. What I didn’t have the answer to is just how life would feel back in my hometown after having such an intense three-months away from the comfort and sameness which had characterized my entire existence. 

But twenty minutes later, after almost running into the gray stucco home I had grown up in, the house where life as an adult strangely mirrored my growth and development as a child, I stared into the room previously known as mine, my mouth agape. My mother thought my speechlessness equated to my gratitude for what was a complete remodel of my room, but it was the finality of how much had changed, how life had continued to zoom ahead without my presence there felt real, tangible. And it was horrifying. And isolating. And strange. 

Over the next few days, I visited with friends, people who I felt like I used to know but instead only felt an eerie amount of distance from. They talked to me about their jobs, complained about gas prices and the latest drama in Atlanta. They laughed and smiled at me, asked me questions here and there about Madrid, but only, it felt different. I felt like I was just a visiting friend, someone who didn’t belong and an outsider to even the people I knew the most. 

These sights were familiar. The smells were familiar. The people, the faces were familiar. 

But the only difference was I wasn’t the same. Only three months had passed since I was no longer in the United States living my day-to-day, drab, monotonous, predictable and lackluster life. In that short time, I had shifted. I had become more conscious. I had become more in-tune with my spirit, my soul, my emotions, my conscience, what made my inner-being smile. 

My life was no longer about grasping to make ends meet between rising gas prices, the bills that never seemed to end and overpriced nights out in the city, but instead about rushing to the Metro to catch the train before I had to wait another three or four minutes. Or rushing to the bank to deposit my money before they stopped accepting deposits at 2:30. Or shopping for one at the grocery store and separating meals into tupperware containers so I didn’t have to cook during the jam-packed weeks. Or staying up (and out) too late on the weekends and sleeping until three or four in the afternoon, the taste of alcohol lingering on my tongue when I awoke and memories of a fun night out reverberating in my brain along with the slight throb of my head from a hangover. Or lesson planning for all my classes, laughing at my students when they laughed at my shoddy Spanish. 

Life had become about me, about marching to the beat of my drum and doing what felt best, in every moment. Authenticity. My life had authenticity, something I no longer felt the need to prove to anyone, even myself. And reflection. Slowing down. Basking in the moments of silence. Pausing to have a cafe con leche in that extra five minutes versus being glued to status updates on Facebook, new videos or pictures on Instagram or my Twitter timeline during my lunch break. 

In that time, I remembered why I began writing in the first place, why it had become so important to me and I knew leaving behind Journalism was never the answer. The answer was pursuing writing that always meant something. To be true to myself and to remember my words had a higher purpose than scoring me validation, admiration. 

So, I knew, almost instantly that leaving Madrid behind wasn’t the answer. There was still so much to uncover about myself left. Because home isn’t necessarily a geographic location. Home can be within the warm embrace of a person. Home can be a temporary setting away from the norm. Home can be anywhere your mind feels free, where you feel you can best breathe, whether it be a spare closet you escape to in stolen moments or the high rise condo overlooking a metropolis.  

So here I remain, here I will be, here I will live until I know, without a doubt, what makes sense for me, for Nneka and no one else. 

I am home. 

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Sunrise in Conde Casal from my morning commute to work.

the expat existential crisis.

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The Metro stop nearest my flat that I’ll walk to every morning for the next four weeks (or more) to get to my TEFL certification course.

“Calle General Yague, por favor,” I mumbled, barely above a whisper to my cab driver, the man I hastily selected as I exited Barajas Madrid International Airport and filed into the cab line, behind many others who lugged their suitcase or suitcases behind them.

The cab driver drove a beat up Mercedes Benz, the color of pearls gathered from a deep sea diving expedition, with black skid marks to and fro, a sure sign that he either he or other Spaniards weren’t the best drivers.

As he struggled to lift my two suitcases into the small trunk, making a dramatic grunting noise for the biggest of the two, I rolled my eyes and walked over to the right door of the backseat. By the time I had fastened my seatbelt and told him where I needed to go, he had already revved the engine and pulled forward.

My ride to the flat I’m staying in was no more than 15 minutes, just as Google Maps had stated when I checked the night before my 16-hour journey to Madrid, a journey that took me through three airports and ended in me leaving my passport in the slip in front of my seat, causing a momentary second of panic when I went to exchange my last savings, $2,000 U.S. dollars for what amounted to $500 dollars less in Euros.

Nothing is the same anymore.

It’s only been five days and already, I’m not the same person. I no longer wake up each morning with dread rolling around in my stomach, not ready to tackle another workday at a workplace and profession I have fallen out of love with. Each day holds a sense of mystery; I don’t know what I’ll be faced with or what to prepare myself for. This is both exciting and terrifying.

Confusion and frustration steadily trade off on becoming my middle name, and I suppose it’ll be this way for quite some time, until I fully adjust. I realize I had some lofty and unrealistic expectations that it’d be easy as pie (because I had been yearning to move here and start my life in a new direction). Or at least, I didn’t take the time to think about what difficulties and challenges would be mounted up against me.

And believe me, there are plenty.

I don’t feel confident speaking Spanish, although I know the bare minimum to order a meal, ask for a drink or engage in a conversation if I get lost. Before any words fumble from my lips, I’m second guessing myself. I’m running a quick Google translation on my phone to see if what I’m thinking is in the ballpark of what a Spaniard would say. Will I be found out if I say something stupid? Will they look back at me and know that I’m a pathetic American struggling to take on a language that she didn’t grow up speaking? Even things I used to enjoy like grocery shopping are now difficult, as labels I don’t understand stare back at me.

Owning the title of being an adult is daunting as well. I paid rent for the first time five days ago. I folded up several Euro bills and handed them over to the sweet, older Spanish woman who I’m renting a room from. She smiled and took the bills between watching a show on television. She didn’t realize how huge of a step, a moment, that was for me. For her, I was yet another tenant that she has graciously, kindly and warmly taken in, but still, just another person that is helping her meet her own cost of rent to her landlord.

I’ve had to create a budget and determine what I will and will not spend the little money I do have until I finish my TEFL course, find work and start earning money. Each time I Skype or Facetime my mama she tells me, almost in a patronizing tone, to let her know if I end up in a financial bind. I hear her, and I know she worries. I’m her oldest daughter and her only daughter that has ever dared to move to another continent, but I’m determined to make this work, even if that means I’m eating crackers, meat and cheese for a few weeks to say that I remained within budget and took care of myself.

The hardest part, the most disheartening part of all, is that I can see, almost a mile away, that things have already changed with the people who I called close and dear to me before I left the States. I can already see that no matter how many Skype convos, Facetime sessions, stray iMessages or Google Hangouts, that eventually, they’ll stop wondering about my life on the other side of the world. Our conversations and the way we relate will change and fade away in unexpected ways, and I’ll no longer feel home with them in the way I used to. I’ll become a stranger, despite my best intentions to keep in touch and find common ground.

And I hate to admit it, but right now, in this moment, I feel very alone. Because none of the loved ones I’ve left behind truly know how this feels, to be stuck in a weird, awkward  way between two worlds and trying to figure out where you’ll fit in–on one side over the other.

I’m happy.

I love it here.

This move was the right decision, but it has dawned on me, and I realize with such finality that nothing will ever be the same. But, see, no one tells you that. No one tells you that when you decide to become an expat, when you decide to leave everything and everyone you’ve ever known behind, that nothing will ever be the same, in an almost palpable, sobering and earth-shattering way.