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Travelling Europe as a Person of Colour: How to manage your expectations

People stare. They always will. As a Chinese-Jamaican, I've always experienced the world as a minority - even in my own country - but when you meet me and I say I'm Jamaican, you get it, because you can hear it. But you can't speak Spanish with a Jamaican accent. What then?

The main goal of studying abroad for a whole semester is to immerse yourself in the culture and experience your host city like a local - to go beyond the tourist stereotypes. But in a predominantly white Spanish society with little diversity, as much as I tried, I was never going to fit in. No matter how fluently I spoke in Spanish, or how well I knew the streets of Sevilla, I didn't look like them, so I was always going to stand out - and that's okay.

Growing up in Jamaica with Chinese heritage has always been something that I appreciate and celebrate, because I'm able to take part in two rich cultures simultaneously, and experience their confluence and the ways in which it has shaped Jamaican society. Despite being Chinese, growing up, I'd never really felt the need to define myself as anything more than Jamaican. I still don't. To me, 'Jamaican' means diversity, and "looking Jamaican" is a fallacy.

Leaving Jamaica to study in New York, I quickly learnt that race plays a much bigger and much different role in the United States, and that when I'm perceived by new people, they only know that I'm Jamaican when I say it. And then I'm met with, "Oh, yes, now I hear your accent!"

But how do you navigate a new continent's society where your defining feature is hidden? When you can't just "talk Jamaican" to new people to let them "hear your accent". How do you explain to every new person (in Spanish), that you're born and raised in Jamaica, studying abroad in New York, studying abroad in Spain and you look Chinese because your great grandparents came to the island generations ago? I wouldn't be surprised if some people I met in Spain thought I was just BS'ing them for the fun of it.

Managing your expectations

1. People stare.

One of the things that you should know before travelling to Europe for an extended stay is that many Europeans you'll meet have only been to Europe. More still, many haven't even left their own country or general geographic region. Implications for you? They've never seen someone like you before. They're fascinated. You're "exotic" (true story - I was called exotic once after giving my origin spiel to an older lady in Spain.)

Almost every single time I rode the subway, there was at least one older white Spanish woman staring at me the whole ride until one of us got off. It's really the older people that'll stare at you. Younger people are certainly living in a more globalized world with social media and I think they understand better the concept of diversity despite not having travelled outside of Europe either. I got used to it, and I even had some fun staring back sometimes. This is one of those things that you're not going to be able to avoid when you travel to Europe as a person of colour, so being able to expect it and ignore it is my best advice.

2. You're not a local, but that's okay!

The second thing you should expect is that integration into the society will be hard, and that you might end up never feeling fully immersed because you stand out. For me, however, this didn't mean stop trying. I frequented places popular among locals, and found ways to ignore the feeling of "othering" that you'll experience at local places. As I said before, it's okay to be different. When I met new people and exchanged life experiences, it was even more rewarding because I found that people were living lives that I had never conceived of and that my life that I consider to be 'normal' to some extent is actually a lot more interesting when I was able to understand their perspectives.

3. They're curious.

As I said, they're fascinated by you. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience that's foreign to them, so take every opportunity you get to educate and share what you've lived with the people you meet. I volunteered at a local high school in Sevilla teaching English, and I found that while the students (and teachers) could barely place Jamaica on the map and much less conceive of a Chinese Jamaican (because everyone must look like Bob Marley), they were extremely receptive to learning about a new culture and even a new language. Funnily enough, although I was asked to teach them English, I had a few classes where I taught them Jamaican Patois instead, so if you run into a Spanish teenager a few years down the line and they greet you with "Wah gwaan" instead of "Good morning", I take full responsibility.

4. Words, words, words.

Every culture is different. Yes, I accept that. So when I arrived to Spain, and they called the local bazaar a "china" in Spanish, I had no choice but to accept it. Did I feel uncomfortable? Yes. And so I found that race, again, plays a different role in Europe than it does in both Jamaica and the United States, so expect to hear words in other languages that are to an extent, racially charged. Languages and colloquialisms are the result of history, and while it made me uncomfortable, it's something that came with living in another society. Manage your expectations of it.

My Takeaway

The greatest thing about studying abroad and immersing myself in another culture comes down to one word: perspective. Living in another country in another continent for an extended period of time allowed me to widen my lens on the world, and understand that what I might consider normal is something fascinating to someone in another part of the world - and that goes both ways. What I consider fascinating, for some people is their daily lives.

That perspective is powerful, because it helps me not only to appreciate difference, but to also appreciate similarity - to appreciate that while we're all different, whether that be in language, religion, heritage or race, there's things that bind us together as humans. Finding those things that transcend culture and geography like music, love and curiosity has changed my perspective on meeting new people and the ways in which I connect with people too.

I sincerely hope that if you get the opportunity to study abroad or travel to Europe (or anywhere in the world), it helps to change your perspective too.

Until next Sunday,

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