black african american woman travel

What I’ve Learned From Being Black, Abroad and a Woman

by Chelcee Johns, October 11, 2016

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black african american woman travel

This week marks one year that I have lived as a Black woman abroad in Bali, Indonesia. A journey that if documented solely by Instagram-worthy pictures would have you believe it is all revelatory solitude, lush rice fields and winding roads bursting of culture. It is, but it’s also so much more that sometimes goes undocumented.

I’ve been privileged to build a sister circle in my time abroad that includes Black women from across the globe with over 7 years worth of expat living under our belts, and we’re sharing what is often missed when it comes to the realities of living as a Black woman abroad.

The Ambassador

The consensus from almost everyone in this sister circle is that as a Black woman abroad a bit (read as a lot) of teaching falls on our shoulders. However, the fortunate side of this is that the ignorance regarding Black women abroad is typically not steeped in negativity and racism. Instead, it is a true lack of knowledge and experience.

“What helped me a lot was to think of myself as an ambassador. I was representing Jamaicans wherever I went, and as an ambassador to my culture and country, I want to give the best experience possible. It was a good way to deal with it, but it can still be tiring because not everyday are you in your best form,” said Nicola Durrant, 38, an engineer and designer born in Jamaica, raised in London and who has lived in Scotland, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Amsterdam and Bali.

The other women shared similar stories of needing to be a lighthouse in the dark waters of stereotypes leaked from WorldStarHipHop.com or witnessed watching Love & Hip Hop.

“Black women are often very sexualized and I’m honestly not against it because I think it’s amazing to be a sensual person. However, I think the way they depict it on mainstream media sends the message that we are brazen, loose, hyper-sexual beings,” said Valerie Ogoke, 30, a travel and lifestyle blogger who has lived in Australia for five years. She has been able to successfully survive the murky dating waters and find love abroad by being more open to teaching and building relationships with others that are open themselves – and not so gullible to the media’s depiction.

While we take on a new burden abroad, we also put ourselves in our host country’s shoes. We are honestly immigrants if we take away the shiny “expat” label and we know that much is seated in pure curiosity. This title of ambassador, whether chosen or not, empowers us to redefine Black women abroad.

The Shedding

The truth is the weariness, the breaking down of stereotypes gets you to see yourself at your core; sometimes for the first time.  Nicola described it as, “Constantly having to run into myself in day-to-day living.” We are more astutely asked to question Western values and traditions that may not actually fit who we are. You shed the taboos as you are awakened to them and dress yourself in a more fitting wardrobe, now often influenced by your new country.

“For Black women particularly, we get to see how the world can really be our oyster and accept us, as well as, how we can accept ourselves. We start shedding away more of the oppressor’s teachings and limiting beliefs,” says 29-year-old Chicago native Ashley Johns. “The more Black women travel, the more healing will come into our lives because we start to love ourselves in a different way and then we can pay it forward to our children, our children’s children as well as uplift our men.”

By being immersed in another culture you find your body in places you didn’t realize you left it. Eventually, you get to a place where you are not always on. Not because you are no longer teaching, no longer an ambassador, but because you are now your own student of self-reflection.  You sit more comfortably in your skin amongst the crazy, exhilarating, sometimes tiring every day expat life. In reflection, Ashley noted the waves of culture shock that arrive. We often carry preconceived notions that culture shock will be a one-time ordeal, but it comes in waves – testing your resilience and true love for the new country. This is my story.

Six months in I wish someone had told me to be more patient and compassionate with myself in the process. As Black women we are used to a certain grind, held to a certain standard, always needing to be better to be equal. It takes time to shed that unconscious pressure. I wanted my new business launched and to have seamlessly assimilated, instead, I was only on the heels of feeling like home, still slowly adjusting, still juggling waves of culture shock.

“I think that as a Black American woman, it can be hard to ask for help because you are supposed to project the ‘strong woman’ image. Living in a place where having domestic help is normalized, I still found it difficult to simply ask for help” said 35-year-old Rukiya McNair, who has lived in Bali for three years with her two children.  

For Deanna Lewis, 39, who has called Johannesburg home for the past 7 months, culture shock showed up for her in South Africa’s story of apartheid. 

“Culturally, they don’t take issues and complaints of Black people that serious here. It’s the legacy of apartheid. The entitlement of the white Afrikaners here and how Black people reinforce it can drive you crazy, if you let it,” said Deanna, a retired public healthcare professional from California.

So what’s a Black girl to do? Forge relationships, especially with locals.  That curiosity early on gives you a special seat at the table to not only teach, but learn even more. The culture shock still simmers, but you build a community to help you rise above it. 

The Liberation

Life abroad can be a good kind of weary for the Black girl. The kind of weary that wears out everything that does not fit you. The kind of weary that returns you to yourself, jetlagged, but whole. By taking off the ‘oppressor’s limiting beliefs,’ we snuggle into an unhinged spirituality, a more aware and alive Black culture, a deeper sense of self.

A month ago, Ashley walks into a café after I put out an SOS for sisterhood due to an unrelenting week. When she walks in and hugs me, I break down.  

“You look really pretty. I feel like I’m seeing more of the real you,” she said. That’s the liberation that takes place if you surrender to the process of life as a Black woman abroad.

For Ashley that brought a deepening journey of spirituality. For Rukiyah, the ability to trust her intuition. For Deanna, new freedom and love that honors her needs. For Valerie, the ability to be present in the moment. For Nicola, the opportunity to see herself. For me, the opportunity to just be, to not attach my worth solely to my work. To honor myself, my God and my ancestors in a way that calls me closer to my own culture and identity.

“I’m much prouder of my definition of myself. I had to see myself – and not having the option to melt into the crowd forces you to do that. I’m thankful for it, because I’m much more comfortable in my skin as a result. I’m much prouder of my definition of myself as an amazing, beautiful Black woman,” said Nicola.

She speaks for us all.

Chelcee Johns is a writer, editor and digital media strategist (and red wine “connoisseur”) passionate about social justice, purposed living and all things literary. She is currently living the Eat, Pray, Build life in Bali working on a start up company. In a recent past life, she was an editor at Moguldom Media Group and NYC literary agent. Chelcee has written for MadameNoire, Essence and Official Black Wall Street amongst other publications.

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