Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

What does it mean to travel as a person of colour?

Having to actually confirm what POC stood for with a friend, before acknowledging that I do in fact count as a “person of colour”, was a very strange revelation. A phrase I’d heard referenced before, but tried not to put too much weight behind because like all labels, stereotype comes with it. Still, it got me thinking about my general experience of travel as a “POC”, and whether or not, despite the fact that I may have been oblivious to it, this factor had impacted my trips.

The beauty of big cities, amongst their modern skylines, old architectures and other classic clichés is arguably the multiculturalism of their inhabitants. Having grown up in London, the only time I felt I stood out as a minority was during the transitory shift from primary to secondary school. Later, being introduced at college to an entirely new demographic that wasn’t predominantly white made me appreciate once more the diversity of London as a city. My visits to Paris, Rome and other capitals led to similar reactions, and I welcomed the label “tourist” for my status as a temporary sightseer, as opposed to one assigned to me due to the colour of my skin.

Berlin’s U-Bahn was filled with all sorts of characters

Likewise, living in Berlin for a semester abroad allowed me to once again witness a collection of different races occupying the city space harmoniously. Much like the London underground, Berlin’s U-Bahn was filled with all sorts of characters, visibly from a range of different ethnic backgrounds. However, sadly the same could not be said for some of the other German cities I got a chance to visit.

The divide between Berlin and Hannover in particular stood out to me. There to see my grandparents over a weekend, I felt the reception was slightly colder than that of the country’s adored capital. Well aware that Germany, among other European cities, has faced recent struggles with its refugee crisis, I tried to justify the difference of treatment in my head, all the while still disappointed that it had occurred.

This did not mean I received different treatment than my fellow volunteers of Caucasian decent

This divide between “local” and “foreigner” is not unique to the West; however, interestingly the dynamic is entirely the opposite in other parts of the world. Volunteering in Malaysian Borneo for 10 weeks introduced me to a new type of warmth for strangers I’d never seen before in my life. In particular, our hosts at Kampung Mempakad, the rural village where we worked on a gravity-fed water system, welcomed us into their community with eager smiles and a feast of local fruits and dishes. I was even mistaken for Malaysian a few times, yet this did not mean I received different treatment than my fellow volunteers of Caucasian decent, who in that situation had become the minority “people of colour”. POC lost its traditional meaning, reaffirming the concept itself as a social construct less existent outside of the West.

Speaking to a friend who had recently completed a year abroad in Hong Kong provided both insight into what it was like living as a POC in East Asia, and reinforced the idea of a reversed dynamic. Stating that her experience was mainly positive, she described the local people’s focus and fascination with her hair extensions as opposed to her complexion. Having her hair stand out and referred to as beautiful, she recognised that this was more a reaction out of genuine curiosity as opposed to contempt or disgust. Maya also fondly recounted her experience travelling in Sri Lanka. Embraced like a sister by the local women, she noted the difference between travelling in the West and around South East Asia, stating that she felt a lot freer away from the strong racial stereotypes still entrenched in our society.

Similarly, throughout all of these reflections, I have realised that I too ironically feel more confined by the label “POC” at home, as opposed to when I am abroad. Whether this is because we all end up getting classified under the same title of “tourist”, or because “visitor” does not divide according to race, one thing is clear: POC itself is a loaded term. Furthermore, there is room for subjectivity too, as it is unclear to what extent someone has to have a darker complexion to count as a “person of colour”. Though like me, she is ethnically Afghan, my cousin is paler than most of my Caucasian friends. Does she still count as a POC? So perhaps the problem lies in the wording of the phrase. Quite obviously highlighting difference, one should take care with its use. And while some do tend to understandably use it for personal identification, both outgoing and incoming treatment should remain the same, regardless of whether or not you are a POC.

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