In the past week I have encountered many “strangers” and have been regarded as a stranger myself. It was spring break for NYU London this past week and I decided I was going to go backpacking on my own through Athens, Greece and Interlaken/Bern, Switzerland. Being on my own, and encountering new people, has really shaped how I view myself while abroad.
In Athens I was a stranger to the locals. I did not know anyone, didn’t speak Greek, and did not know my way around. I also looked different. The amount of black people I saw during my entire four days in Greece was less than 10 (and if subtract the NYU students I crossed paths with, it’s even less than that). So by default, I was an “other” based on my skin color. Two of my black female friends told me that when they went to Athens they asked their Airbnb host if they would look like tourist if they walked around with a map. He told them that they would look like tourist simply because of their skin color. This idea of being an “other” started with appearance and set the foundation for how I viewed myself and others while traveling.
Rewind to the day before I went to Greece, I had an overnight layover in Barcelona (it was an unexpected layover). After walking through the city at two in the morning looking for a hotel to sleep in, I ended up asking a guy on the streets for directions. He ended up stealing my phone. I laugh about this situation now, because everyone I’ve met told me Barcelona is notorious for this, but I believe it was my “otherness” that made me a target. I had a map in my hand and was walking around aimlessly. The guy saw me, did a double take, and then came up to me speaking barely recognizable English. Looking back, I realize there was something about me that looked “strange.” I shouted tourist and foreigner! That’s one way that being an other can have a negative affect—you become a target—but other cases of being a stranger bonded me to new people.
In Athens I stayed in a very lively hostel. After a long day of exploring I went to the rooftop bar to have a drink, and possibly socialize. In minutes I met a pair of travelers (young adults on a short holiday) and we kicked it off. We bonded over the fact that we were strangers to this new country, and that we were traveling, young, spoke English, and came from similar backgrounds (one lives in London now and the other works in Frankfurt). It was with these strangers that I spent most of my time. We went out to local restaurants, took a trip to cape Sunio to spend the day at the Temple of Poseidon, and just spent time getting to know each other amongst the ruins and streets of Athens. If we were in our respective homes, would we have spent so much time together and grown so close? I don’t think so. They were eager to meet new people, and the idea of fully engaging with a person you just met is something I think is unique to strangers who travel. While we—strangers—may be outsiders to the societies we immerse in, we join a new community of travelers who have the same desire to explore and have fun.
It was in Switzerland that I had an uncomfortable realization of how “strange” I was. Interlaken is a tourist city, where half of the population during high seasons is made up of tourist. I saw more South Korean tourist then I did Swiss people. And I was constantly reminded this by the amount of stares I gathered as I went through the city. Walking into a train turmoil, getting on a bus, sitting in a restaurant, all of these situations merited about half, if not all, of the room to stare at me. From locals, I thought it was understandable, I saw even less people of color in Interlaken than I did Athens. But the tourist were the ones who really “otherized” me. I had multiple groups of Koreans ask me for my picture, because they claimed they didn’t see many black people back in their home country. I was not only seen as a stranger, but also as a novelty by these Korean tourist, who are also strangers to the country themselves. You would think that since we are all tourist in this new country, we would all bond over our similar situation, but no. There are levels to “strangeness” and certain factors separate you from certain groups regardless of how much you have in common. This is a reflection I wrote on FB about my experience:
I’ve become much more aware of my identity as a black male since leaving the US. In Switzerland, I’ve encountered many Asian tourist and my interactions with them have been unsettling. I feel as though I get stared at by 1 out of every 3 people I pass (when people break their necks to look at me I feel justified in saying this). One Korean man, who spoke very little English, came up to me and asked if he could take a selfie with me. When I said why, he just said, “cause you so handsome.” He was obliviously lying, and after further questioning him, he told me he and his friends don’t see many black people in Korea.
I think it’s problematic that people can be so sheltered, but the real issue is that certain cultures are so sheltered and homogenous that when they meet people who don’t look like them they treat them as a novelty instead of a human. I’ve heard all of the stories of black/POC expats who go to various Asian countries to live/work and experience the same thing. But to experience it for myself, for the first time, is eye opening. As a potential Japanese expat myself, it really makes me doubtful of joining a society where I will be viewed as an “other” to the point of objectification. Gives me something to think about, but for now I can only educate others and be the change I want to see.
BUT Switzerland has been amazing, and I don’t want to go back to London haha
These were the tip of my “stranger” experiences. I met many people, successful retired travelers, business men, tour guides/chefs, a guitar playing masseur, a young Swiss students, etc. We all bonded because we shared something similar, our desire and action of traveling. Even if they were locals, they understood that I came from a background that still had many similarities to theirs, and by recognizing this a relationship blossomed.