“Trailblasian,” Black Women in Asia, Part 1

book cover

The title of Trailblasian is a coinage of ‘trailblazers + black + Asians. The book is an anthology of personal experience stories written by black women living and working in Asia. The editor, T.K. McLennon, Trecia, found most of the contributors online. She was inspired by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who in a TED talk warned against “the danger of a single story.” Trecia explains, “When you only hear one story or a narrow set of stereotypical stories about a group of people, it keeps you from knowing or having a better balanced understanding of that group.” Trailblasian shows us seventeen black women far from Hollywood stereotypes, namely dealing with a variety of situations in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia.

Part 1 of this interview focuses on the book, part 2 on Trecia’s own experience. We talked via Skype while she was in Toronto and I was in the Philippines. Since the interview she has taken on a job as intercultural co-coordinator. (Link)

 Trecia’s story

Who do you see as your target reader?

Black women are the primary target readers, but also others: anyone interested in travel or globalization or intercultural relations, anyone nervous about an upcoming study abroad, anyone working with people who are crossing borders or living in an environment where they are the exception rather than the rule. What I had in mind was a little girl pulling the book off the shelf and being inspired travel.

I asked because several contributors write a lot about their feelings during the earlier part of their experience .So the book seems aimed more at people who are contemplating going to Asia or have just arrived rather than those of us who’ve been here for a while.

Right. With some exceptions, like the woman who wrote about the earthquake in Japan, the stories are about getting over the initial hurdles. Historically, in black communities travel has not always been seen as positive, but as very risky, often as crazy or as something for white people. For example, in the African-American experience, in times of Jim Crow and segregation there was the Green Book. (Link) It told people where it was safe to go and when it was safe to do so. Its very existence shows how dangerous leaving the community could be. It’s in our collective memory.

In Canada the history of discrimination is not as well-known as in the US, but there were black communities here even before the split between the US and Canada. In Nova Scotia and Ontario, black communities go back seven, eight, nine generations. Black people fought on the Loyalists side. They were promised their 40 acres and a mule and were given a bunch of rocks.

There’s a similar feeling about leaving the close-knit community. It’s a big risk. You’re concerned about whether you’ll be accepted, whether it will be safe for you—both physically and psychologically. People point and stare, but the reaction could be more than just curiosity. I think the fear is that the reaction could lead to an unsafe situation.

So part of the purpose of this book is to say that, although you do need to be mindful of those things, here are the experiences of people who have actually lived in Asia. Rumor has it that it’s not safe, they hate black people over there and you can’t go. One of the writers said she was told that if she went that far away she’d lose the protection of God. But times are changing. It’s not yet mainstream, but in some places travel is becoming trendy, and there’s even a bit of snobbery: “how many stamps do you have in your passport?”

For me going to Asia was a very freeing experience, a wonderful opportunity to spend time with myself as a person without society’s continually beaming information to me about who I am and what I can and can’t do.

When you wrote to me about your book, I immediately remembered a student who told me about “the hierarchy of the races” with whites on the top and blacks on the bottom and everyone else in-between. That was around 1990. Attitudes have changed some in Korea, but one of your writers was confronted with the same hierarchy. I was absolutely appalled at what my student said, and my response was to put together a textbook with American writers who were different in ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. It was a bunch of stories with discussion questions that started with a passage from Alice Walker about the unseen wound all Americans suffer from that’s the legacy of slavery. But while I was in Asia it was with ethnic Asians that I found the most heart-breaking evidence of discrimination. 

My first interaction in Korea came after I landed in Incheon. I’d never been in Asia before, and didn’t know how to get to the airport in Seoul for my domestic flight. I must have looked kind of lost because a Korean woman came up to me and said, “Are you lost? Do you need help?” She took me to the Kimpo airport with her. It turned out we’re from the same area in Toronto. She explained that in Korea I might run into ignorant people with something to say, but I shouldn’t take it personally. She said a lot of wise things that turned out to be true.

That encounter was an encapsulation of my entire experience, which included so many random acts of kindness that I felt special and looked after. On the other hand, little kids pointed and yelled “weigukin” [foreigner]. I had braids, so little boys yelled “Rasta Man.” I hadn’t come with any expectations. I thought if this was the worst it was going to get I could live with it. I think you should be prepared if you land in a mostly homogeneous population and you look different. But also, I was born and raised in Canada in the 70s, where I didn’t exactly blend in. So it was not a totally different experience for me.

Earlier this evening I mentioned this interview to my Filipina housekeeper, and she asked whether you were bullied. She said she knew black people were and that the indigenous population was too.

Parts of Asia, like Indonesia, do have indigenous folk that might not look exactly like me, but tend to retain some features that are associated with Africa. There’s significant discrimination against many indigenous peoples. In Canada it’s a national disgrace how indigenous people are repeatedly marginalized.

From some of the stories, it’s clear the writers encountered that racial hierarchy thing. For me, being in Asia was like being visible and invisible at the same time, which is also true in North America to some degree. The difference is that Asia doesn’t have a 500-year history of grandfathers and great-grandfathers saying black people are bad. Racism against blacks is not institutionalized. People have their prejudices, as most people do, but they’ve probably had no direct interaction with black people, so they’re more likely to take you at face value. But then, I’m speaking as an English speaker from North America. There is one story in the book by a South African woman, but I don’t know how similar it would be for another woman from Africa.

I had students writing essays on regional and ethnic differences, and one kid wrote about going to England and discovering he’d be sharing an apartment with a large black man. His first reaction was fear, but his whole attitude changed almost immediately. In keeping with what you’re saying, probably if he’d had biases really drilled into him it would have taken more than one individual to open his eyes.

Exactly. For me personally, I was 35 years old when I went to Korea. I’d managed to get through my twenties fairly unscathed, and I think I knew who I was. I’d failed enough at a few other intercultural experiences that I had some humility. I found the online groups I now belong to, I saw some people still struggling because they were seeing Asia through the lens they’d brought from North America. It’s like “wherever you go, there you are.”

That’s a good book, too. Have you read it?

Just listened to the audiobook. But I have an example of someone’s bringing himself along. There was a video that went viral of a black guy with dreads. He came upon an old Korean man who was expressing his indecision about something by saying “ne-ga… ne-ga,” like we’d say “um..um.” The black guy completely misread the situation and thought the old man was calling him the N-word. So he assaulted him. It was such a disgrace. The day after the video was released, I got on the bus and felt a much different atmosphere from the day before.

That’s why I think if you’re going abroad as an English teacher or teaching English as a Second Language at home—or whatever you’re doing with another culture–you really need intercultural training. I worked for a large organization which offered that as part of its regular training course.  To have the kind of experience you probably want, it helps to know about culture shock. I see a lot of white people really struggle because they don’t understand cultural differences and it’s their first time being “other.” A lot of black people would say, “Welcome to our world. It happens all the time at home. This is a cake walk compared to that.”

When I was in China “foreign guests” often had to pay ten times what the Chinese paid, like for tickets to a tourist attraction. Some people complained and said now they knew what it felt like to be discriminated against. I wanted to say, “No you don’t. You don’t have any idea.”

Yeah. That’s when I actively choose not to engage: I want to say, “talk to me when you’re a little farther on—if you ever get there.” People are aghast that anyone would put them in a position to feel mistreated. As a black person I find it very interesting to observe and to wonder whether their outrage will lead to some empathy with others. Are they ready for that or are they only wrapped up in their own experience? I try not to be too judgmental. That’s just the way it is sometimes.

Which gets me to another question. Why don’t you talk a bit about the stories told by your contributors and tell me what it was they found in Asia that they did not or could not find at home.

Everyone had her own experience, but a common theme was the lack of support from friends and family. Then there were other issues. There was a specific incident, a specific adventure. One woman was with her husband in Indonesia, in an island paradise with all the visualizations of what that’s like, and then she was confronted by monkeys and things went horrendously wrong in an almost comedic way.

Another incident was the earthquake in Japan, with daily life interrupted by one of the most devastating national disasters. I thought the writer did an amazing job of describing what it was like, not just for herself but for the children at the school, how the administration handled it, how they were able to keep everybody safe and help each other.  It’s a real page-turner.

Then another thing was the social issues. Like the lesbian who was so eager to get to Japan but who took great offense at how she was treated. And the mixed-race woman who wrote about the beauty industry in South Korea. I thought it was absolutely fascinating.

The one whose nose was copied by other people?

Imagine you’re walking down the street and someone comes up to you and says, “Your nose is perfect. I want your nose.” Then a few weeks later you see her wearing your nose. She wrote about what plastic surgery meant to some of her students, like the girl who had her eyes done so she had “double eyelids” like westerners. She said after the procedure was the first time her mother ever called her beautiful.

I think it’s easy to say, “Oh, jeez, those crazy Koreans and plastic surgery.” But that was an opportunity for me to reflect on the beauty standards in our community that we consider normal. Black women and hair. I wasn’t even prepared to go to Korea until I was assured that there were places I could get my hair done. I’ve had mine relaxed to the point where I’ve had scalp burns–three times. This is common. You put lye in your hair. It’s corrosive.

There are a lot of dark-skinned people who bleach their skin. When they banned those creams, a thriving underground market popped up because people decided to keep using them in order to get a job, to get a boyfriend, to be socially acceptable. I’m not in a position to judge anybody, but I do think it’s important to really look at your own culture and think about those things.

You can see it better when you’re some distance from it. For example, in the early 90s I interviewed a guy who was working with the Maryknolls, a Catholic foreign mission society, He was teaching English to women factory workers. He saw how they were abused by their employer and how his roommate, a male factory worker, didn’t get basic benefits like sick leave. As a result, he came to understand why labor unions were necessary. He completely rejected his earlier position— his father’s, actually—which was very anti-union, pro-management, pro-corporation.

If you let yourself, you really can develop compassion and understanding for other people’s experiences. It’s easy to collect your cultural inheritance and never examine its weak spots. When you live abroad it presents a better opportunity.


TrailBlasian: Black Women Living in East Asia (Ontario: Excelovate, 2014) is available online through Amazon.com, AbeBooks.com and Excelovate/CNW Group. Amazon and AbeBooks have it new and used.

A reader writes:

Again another interesting read and eye-opener from a different perspective. All I can say is all the very best, good work!