How Being Black in Asia Became my Renewed Liberation

Leah Shaw discusses traveling to Taiwan in this three part series on Black Millennial Travel.

Leah Shaw discusses traveling to Taiwan in this three part series on Black Millennial Travel.

“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”- Maya Angelou

Almost a year ago, I, a millennial travel-hungry Black Latina from Rochester, moved to Taiwan. I was determined to have the proverbial “find yourself” journey, see a different part of the world, and experience the kind of living that my previous cubicle couldn’t give me.

For some context, Taiwan is a small island off the southeast end of China, about the size of Indiana. It’s home to approximately 23 million people and just 713,000 of the total population is foreign, says the China Post. And to be honest, daily life looks pretty homogenous.

[Related] Read More from Leah Shaw: That Time I Actually Quit My Job to Travel

Consequently, I stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s a reality I honestly didn’t consider, coming from Rochester, where multiculturalism is an oversight. But life on this island means that weeks can easily pass without seeing someone who looks like me in public, and there is no community that shares my culture. When I wear my hair out, I get stares. When people see my brown limbs pass them by on my scooter, they rubberneck. But surprisingly, my confidence has never been higher. Being black in Asia has forced me to relearn the meaning of comfort and courage—which happened through both desire and necessity. While it’s been mostly exhilarating and a little bit scary, I have ultimately been given the chance to embrace my truth all over again.

Provided photo

Provided photo

Through research and upon arrival, I quickly realized the many challenges to living in Taiwan. Shopping trips come up empty because finding flattering clothing for my body type is unrealistic. It’s near impossible to find haircare that works for my afro texture. When I walk on the street or supermarket, kids stare, whispering to whomever is close enough to hear them.

When this first happened to me, I squirmed. I found myself looking down when passing strangers. If I don’t look at them, I can’t see if their looking at me.

[Related] Traveling out of the Country Soon? 10 Tips to Deal with Culture Shock

While it’s been mostly exhilarating and a little bit scary, I have ultimately been given the chance to embrace my truth all over again.

One weeknight I was bored and stopped at a nearby clothing store for some retail therapy. As I circled the sock display, a woman turned the corner, faced me and after hesitating for what felt like five seconds, pointed at my unkempt afro and said, “Cute!” Caught off-guard, I blushed through a few “thank you’s,” feeling flattered that someone would have the courage to compliment my hair in their foreign language. I felt my spirits lift. Months later, on an amusing failure of a hiking trip, a woman from a nearby group tour insisted on taking photos with my Eritrean friend and I, soaked from a downpour. She was super happy to meet us and I will never forget our rib-aching laughter.

As the months passed, I settled into daily life. I twisted my mouth around a handful of useful Mandarin words. I made friends, bought a scooter and found “my” fruit stand, and “my” restaurants. I realized that I could do this. This opportunity wasn’t only to understand and live within a completely different society and culture, but also a chance to create my new reality. I could feel isolated and live in regret, hiding my melanin and hair that reaches to the sky, or I could rewrite my story. I could continue exploring who I am, against a different backdrop.

Shaw exploring Taiwan. Provided photo.

Shaw exploring Taiwan. Provided photo.

[Related] Quinisha Anderson: Taking Black Millennial Travel to the Next Level, #NomadLife

As I got more comfortable in Taiwan, the staring seemed to happen less, and now when it does, I make eye contact and smile. The attention just makes me feel special. I wouldn’t trade the amount of uncomfortableness I’ve felt here for anything. Why? Because Taiwan was the best financial, cultural and tropical intersection I have found. There are still days when I feel self-conscious, and that’s ok. The lack of multicultural diversity is a reality.

But for me, being black in Asia means accepting the fact that you may never find your crew and that’s OK too. It means reconnecting with your uniqueness—in the way you look, your life philosophy, culture and personality. It means embracing a new environment where you can rewrite your story, or at least start a new one. Being black in Asia means loving every inch of why you stand out and never hiding your shine.

5 comments

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