diversity abroad

To Be (Offended) Or Not To Be (Offended)? Experiencing Discrimination While Abroad

**Disclaimer: This article contains language some readers may find offensive.**

I've had exactly one negative experience in relation to my race since I've been living in Yakutia, unlike when I lived in Indonesia for almost a year.  That was the year in which I, for the first time in my life, became truly aware that I'm Black. During that year, I had rocks thrown at me, got swarmed by a large group of curious women and had, "Chocolate!" shouted at me on the street more than once.

I know, all of that sounds awful and at first it was.  But the awfulness was tempered by some genuinely great Indonesians with whom I interacted on a regular basis.  The awfulness was also tempered by the fact that, several months into that experience and at the prompting of my Black American friend who had far more experience with this issue than I ever want to have, I decided to stop making race an issue and started choosing to not take offense when people made ignorant and offensive remarks about my skin color.

It turned out that those experiences were preparing me for the one big negative race-related experience I've had in Yakutia.

About six weeks after I arrived here, the city celebrated the three hundred and eighty-fifth anniversary of its founding.  It’s an annual celebration that lasts for about three days, from Friday to Sunday. In the evening of that Sunday, the final day of the celebration, I was walking down the street with one of my local work colleagues.  We had spent the previous seven hours or so walking all over the city with the aim of visiting various town squares in order to sample the celebrations. A few minutes before, we had stopped at a small café and bought some to-go food that we intended to eat at yet another nearby town square while watching the traditional dance exhibition that was taking place there.

So there we were at around 5:45 pm, walking down the street with our dinner in hand, making our way past a busy bus stop and chatting away about something or other, when a drunk guy who was a few feet away from us suddenly turned in our direction and started weaving our way.  I happened to notice him at the same moment that he noticed me because he was on my side of the sidewalk as we ambled along. So I was looking right at him when he saw me; he did a classic double take and looked startled for a second then he exclaimed, “Ah! негр!” And continued stumbling along past us going in the opposite direction.

He called me a nigger.  In Russian, this word “негр” is pronounced, “nye-gr.”

Based on the surprised look on his face when he said it and my catching the word spoken with a thick Russian accent, I wasn’t sure but I strongly suspected that was what he had said.  So I asked my companion and she translated it for me. I just shrugged and said, “Oh, OK.” I think she felt a little bad about it because she went on to apologetically explain that some people just don’t understand that it’s not right to say that. 

About an hour before we had encountered this guy, a group of teenagers had walked past us in a different part of town.  As they passed, they kept looking back at me and laughing. They stopped when they noticed me looking back at them and smiling (it was a residual smile from what my companion and I were talking about, not because of them) so I suspected that they were talking and laughing about me. I didn’t let it affect me. It wasn’t even a conscious choice that I had to make. It just happens that I’ve come to a place where it’s automatic that I don’t take offense. In fact, these days I find it much harder not to take offense when people are selfish jerks than when someone has something negative to say about my race.  Go figure, emotional maturity, I guess.

Anyway, the teenagers I easily brushed off as normal, but when the guy called me a nigger I was a little surprised to find myself not feeling at all offended. Honestly, guys, I didn’t. I checked in with myself to see how I was feeling about the whole thing and, while it was a little jarring in the moment because it was so unexpected, I can honestly say that I wasn’t angry or upset or hurt or offended in any way.  However, I did see his unfortunate attitude as sad for him because, even though he was drunk, I believe that he expressed exactly what was in his heart and mind. The alcohol just removed any filter that might ordinarily have been there. 

Also, by that point in the day, so many random people on the street had been nice to me – allowing me to take pictures of them in their traditional costumes and even insisting that I join them in the pictures and hugging me tightly to their sides when I did – that I would have been as big an idiot as the drunk guy if I had allowed his one idiotic comment ruin my perfectly wonderful day.  In fact, to my knowledge, in my recent years of extensive travel, this was the first time and only time that someone had ever called me a nigger. (I say, “to my knowledge,” because people may have been calling me a nigger in other languages all this time, but I didn’t know.) Statistically, this tells me that, when it comes to this kind of thing, idiots are the exception out here in the wider world, not the rule.

When I landed this job, a few friends asked me if there were Black people where I was going. I always answered this question with, “I doubt it, but I don’t know and I don’t care because it doesn’t matter and has no bearing on whether I go or not.”  I mean, come on. What am I gonna do? Find the Black people and form a club wherever I go ?

Teach English abroad in russia

When I made the decision to move here, I was mentally prepared to be a rare species, with no knowledge of whether this would be a good or a bad thing.  Coming here the first time, I was one of only two Black people on the flight from New York to Moscow, and the other Black girl on the flight was with a white guy who I assumed was Russian.  I continue to be the only Black person on that flight whenever I take it. I'm also always the only Black person on flights between Yakutsk and literally any other place I visit. And though there are a few Black people who live here in Yakutsk (they're mostly affiliated with the university, to my knowledge), I very rarely see them.

Of course I notice these things; I’d be blind and stupid if I didn’t.  I’m aware of my color in so far as I know that encountering me is perhaps one of the very few opportunities that many people will have to see, meet or interact with a Black person, and I always want to represent my race well.  I don’t want anyone to see anything that I do, even across an airplane aisle, and think, “Typical Black person,” in a negative way. But that’s as far as my deliberateness with respect to my color goes.

In the two larger cities of Russia that I’ve visited so far, I barely got spared a glance as I walked about, but here in Yakutsk people notice me, and they aren’t shy about looking because I’m very obviously different from them; I’m unignoreable (that’s not a word, I just made it up).  That’s the same as it was in Indonesia and I do not care. When I think about it rationally, I can’t blame people for staring at me because in an environment like this, I’m unusual. If I see something unusual, I also want to stare at it.

Added to that, Yakutians have proven over and over again that they may be fascinated by me, but it's a healthy fascination.  I cannot tell you how many times people who I don't know have stopped me on the street just to smilingly tell me hello and ask me how I am.  It happened just two days ago as I was walking to the bus stop. It's usually the older people who do this. On the other hand, the children are just as healthy about expressing their fascination, which tells me that they're raised to think nothing of people's skin color, even if it's unusual for them to see a person of color.  It's not unusual for kids at my school to want to touch my hair, for example, and I have no problem with that since I also stroke their hair from time to time, especially when I need to comfort them. Also, why should I have a problem letting them experience something that only I can give them? So they touch my hair and they giggle, and they touch it again with stars in their eyes. 

In the end, it all comes down to this: I want to go to places and do things that aren’t considered usual for people of my skin color, and if I had my choice, I wouldn’t stand out in those places.  But I do stand out. And I’m not going to stop going to those places and doing those things just because people stare at me or call me a nigger. That would make me as big an idiot as any racist out there.  So I accept that I stand out and that every now and then I may go through an unexpectedly ugly encounter like I did with the drunk guy.

I don’t care.  I’ll keep going and doing and seeing and loving it all anyway, while the offense rolls off me like water off a duck's back.

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