Girls Abroad

Disclaimer: every country has different stereotypes about different groups of people, and I am by no means saying that white girls are the worst off here. I am saying that I have only experienced travel as a white girl, and as such all my examples will be from this perspective. Thanks for listening!

Dear fellow women, here’s what you should know before you travel anywhere.

People in the country you’re travelling to may never have met someone of your race before. They may be basing their presumptions about you on what they’ve heard, or seen on the news, or have been told via Hollywood movies. And ladies…it’s not always positive.

There are probably people at your destination that think – through no particular fault of their own – that white women are without exception rich, immoral, and promiscuous.

I had a Nigerian friend once, who came to England for his studies. After a few months he wrote on social media to his friends at home something along these lines: “England is great, but I came thinking white girls would be easier. If you’re thinking of coming here to find a girl, I don’t recommend it.”

Now, all of the examples in this post are one-offs, and only represent the views and misconceptions of individuals, rather than the countries they are from. My point, though, is that there are people who think like this, and it’s better to know that than to be caught off guard.

I remember sitting crammed into a little public bus in Rwanda, setting off on a three hour trip. The guy next to me was delighted that I could communicate in French, so we started chatting. It was very chill – an absolutely normal conversation. After a few minutes, he said to me, “Shall we get a hotel room after this?”

I was so shocked that someone who had been politely chatting a moment before would ask me a question like that! “No,” I sputtered, too shaken to think of anything else to say, and ended the conversation.

“What?” he said. “Don’t you think it’s romantic to sleep with someone while you’re on holiday?”

We sat the rest of that journey in silence.

I don’t think that man meant me any harm – I didn’t feel in any danger, and the friend I was travelling with was close by! But somehow, to my embarrassment and offence, he felt like that was a reasonable question to ask me.

These aren’t just the perceptions of keen men – let me take you to China for one last little anecdote. I was in Beijing, a city that is pretty accustomed to foreigners in most areas. I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, so made my way over to a pharmacy to get some cream.

I walked into the store, and realised I had no idea how to ask for bite cream. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged lady with a slightly disapproving expression, made her way over to me as I fumbled with the dictionary on my phone.

“Don’t worry,” she said, taking my arm. “I know, I know.”

She led me over to the shelf of condoms.

Not that there is any shame in needing to buy condoms, but I was surprised that her first, confident guess of what this awkward white girl needed was contraception. Not sanitary products, not make up…condoms.

In case you’re interested, I did find the word for bite cream, and the shopkeeper suddenly became a lot more friendly.

So, why do white girls abroad have this reputation? Do we earn it? Maybe in part. Maybe foreigners haven’t been as careful about respecting the local moral code as they should have been. Or maybe people have just been misinformed by the movies and TV shows they’re fed, where women are often sexualised.

But what do we do about it? I personally don’t want people to hit on me because they assume I’m ‘loose’, or an easy target. I don’t want people to think I’m immoral because of what they’ve seen of my country in films. But I also think getting angry or overly-offended about these things isn’t the answer. (That is, unless you have had a crime committed against you in which case please do make a fuss! Report it.)

Here are my general tips for women travellers who want to shake free of those stereotypes and unwanted advances:

  • Talk to women who know the area. Not just the country – cities and even streets will have different reputations and varying levels of safety, so do your research. If possible, talk to women of your race! They’ll be able to tell you how modestly you should dress, whether it’s appropriate for you to go out alone, or if you should stay with a group. It’s also worth asking if it’s normal for women to go out at night, and which establishments might be seen as ‘immoral’ (for example, in some countries respectable women don’t go to pubs). Take all the advice you can get, and do your best to respect your host country’s culture. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – because you’ll be much safer, feel much more comfortable, and you’ll be a much better and more respectable ‘ambassador’ for your country!
  • Question your local friends. Wait, was what I said accidentally flirty? Is it normal for a guy to hug me? Is spending time with him giving the wrong impression? Cross-cultural friendships can be a minefield for this sort of thing, so be brave and quiz your local friends. They’ll know what’s up, so trust what they tell you and act accordingly!
  • Watch the alcohol. If you can’t trust yourself to make good decisions and continue respecting local rules and customs when you’re under the influence, you need to watch how much you’re drinking. British people in particular have such a bad reputation for this – we are the noisy irresponsible tourists! If you want a holiday just to get drunk, choose a country where that won’t be as scandalous. In fact, in some countries, you’ll need to avoid alcohol altogether. Do your research, and put safety and respect before your right to drink alcohol.
  • Wear a ring. When I went to Marrakesh, one of the items on my suggested packing list was a fake wedding ring. And to be fair, if you are going somewhere for a short visit and don’t have the language, what better way to wordlessly say ‘please don’t even try’?
  • Walk confidently. I use this tip wherever I go – it doesn’t matter if you’re lost, if you have nowhere to go, or if you’ve suddenly realised you’re walking in the wrong direction. Move confidently. Walk with a purpose. Don’t keep checking your phone. Wandering or looking obviously lost can make you look like a target for unwanted conversation or flirting, or worse.
  • Be kind. Ultimately, if you don’t like the way people view you, don’t be the negative stereotype. There’s no need to get preachy about it – be your kindest, truest self and show people that there are other types of foreign girls: that there are nuanced, respectful people from your country that they can befriend. The only way we can beat this kind of stereotype is to be an exception.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were all judged for ourselves rather than the media that portrays our people? That works both ways – let’s not base our ideas about people on fiction. Let’s meet people where they’re at, with love and respect for their countries and cultures. Let’s be people that prove the movies wrong.

Oh, and girls? Stay safe!

Love, Dani

  • What are your experiences as a women abroad? Have you ever had any problems?
  • What advice would you give to women travellers?

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently. 

“I’m Still Here”: Staying Friends From Afar

The worst part about living in globally mobile circles is the constant stream of ‘goodbyes’. What do you do when your friend leaves the country? They’re off to build a new life in a new place and with new people, so would it be best to just let them forget you and move on?

It’s true that they might have less time to talk to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to! I’m going to talk about this in terms of Third Culture Kids, but this is also true of ex-pats and global nomads.

TCKs often spend good chunks of their lives moving from place to place, in a cycle of new beginnings and fresh starts. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need stability. If your friend is going to go to a new place, don’t back off. Be understanding that there will be new pressures on their time, but if you can make the effort to let them know “We’re still friends, I’m still here,” you can help them make the transition. You can be a steadying factor in a world that keeps changing: a reminder that their past lives haven’t disappeared. “I’m still here,” can be the most meaningful and comforting words.

And if you’re like me, and you’re questioning whether you were close enough friends to merit staying in touch, or if that person really liked you enough to want to keep talking to you…message anyway! You can make that decision, because the chances of the other person appreciating it are pretty high. And what’s the worst that could happen?

Excuse the bad-quality picture, but one of my favourite ways of keeping in touch with English-speaking friends while I was in China was finding funny translations. For those who can’t make it out, this is a notebook with the following poem: “Rain. / Rain is falling / all around. / It falls on field.”

When I moved to China, I loved my new life: my friends, my routine, my lifestyle…it was such a positive move. I was living my dream. That said, every time I opened my laptop a little part of me was desperate to see a new Facebook message, or a new email from someone from the UK. Every little ‘hello’ from someone who knew me in my ‘old life’ suddenly meant the world to me – even though I was so happy in China. Moving will change you, but it doesn’t turn you into a new person. I didn’t want my UK community to forget me, because I absolutely never forgot them.

And all of this is not to say that long-distance friendships are not hard. They are! They take discipline and effort and creativity. Being an “I’m still here” friend can be as rewarding, as it is emotionally challenging.

What does a good long distance friendship look like in 2019? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Snail Mail. Post things to each other! Whether that’s postcards, Christmas newsletter, or little mementos from a place you’re both familiar with, being able to send something tangible can make the friendship seem much less abstract.
  • Voice Messages. Texting is great, but I love sending and receiving voice messages. It just seems a lot less clinical, and it makes the friend feel a lot closer. They are also less effort than having to type, so they can be much chattier!
  • Remember Birthdays. And other important days – let them know they’re on your mind, even if you can only send a little message.
  • Send them things that remind you of them. Memes, news articles, jokes, photographs…you don’t have to be in full-blown conversation all the time, but you can keep enjoying the things you have in common! If you have the chance to make your friend smile, just go for it.

It’s not realistic to keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met. But it’s also not realistic to ask yourself or others to constantly be making new relationships, and forgetting old ones. We can actively decide who to maintain contact with, who to put in that extra bit of effort for. And we can treasure and foster relationship with those who do the same for us.

So if you can be an “I’m still here” friend for someone (even if the ‘here’ is metaphorical), all the better.

Love, Dani

  • How do you maintain long-distance friendships?
  • Are you, or do you have an “I’m still here” friend? How has that helped with your/their transition?

“Our Colonial Masters”: Being European in the Aftermath of Colonialism

“Hi, I’m Dani from the UK, where are you from?”

“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”

This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.

What is Colonialism?

The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.

Jean-Baptiste Say

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.

Frantz Fanon

Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.

So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.

This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.

There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.

Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies

The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.

Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.

Mary Robinson
All the pink countries have, at some point in time, been colonised by Great Britain.
If you want to see a full list of former British colonies, click through to the World Atlas site.

Facing Today in the Light of History

How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?

Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.

Nathan J. Robinson, ‘A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism was Bad’

I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.

That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:

“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”

“Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”

So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?

First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.

Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?

Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.

George Monbiot, ‘Imperialism didn’t end. These days it’s known as international law.’

So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!

Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.

  • I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
  • Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
  • We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.

Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.

Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?

I think so. I hope so.

Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)

Love, Dani

These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?

How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?

5 Ways to Look After Yourself When You Move Abroad

So you’ve just moved, or are about to move, to a different country? Great – what a wonderful, enriching experience for you! Also, it’s going to be super hard.

The thing is, we all have different personalities, and we’ll all deal with country moves in a slightly different way. So although I’m planning to give some pointers today, you can take everything with a pinch of salt. You’ll have your own, unique needs. I hope this helps anyway.

I moved to China in 2018, and I heard all sorts of methods to integrate with the culture. “Open-door policy” was one – the idea was that your apartment would always be open and available to your friends and neighbours, at any time. That idea stressed me out so much that I didn’t even try, but I know it really worked for the family who suggested it.

“Avoid having too many ex-pat friends” was another philosophy. I do understand the thought behind this one: if you want to really get involved in and learn about China, of course you need to invest in some Chinese friends! But I also learned a lot from my ex-pat friends, because they were also looking at Chinese culture from the outside, and they could see and articulate mannerisms, values, and habits within the culture that someone who had never left China probably couldn’t. Also…my Chinese isn’t very fluent. I really appreciated being able to relax and speak English occasionally!

So that’s what didn’t work for me. Here’s what really did:

  1. Take naps. Seriously, take naps. Be kind to your brain. Moving to a new place can be so emotional and overstimulating that your energy levels will be a little lower than usual. For the first month (or three), make sure you have times in the day to let your brain rest. You were never going to feel comfortable in that culture straight away, so why get worked up about it?
  2. Indulge in home comforts. To clarify, I’m not suggesting you become one of those ex-pats that won’t touch local food. I’m just saying you don’t need to deny yourself things that bring that little sense of home. For me, I ate Chinese food every day, but brought a little stash of Galaxy chocolate and Yorkshire Tea from the UK. Find your own balance.
  3. Don’t call home too much. Your parents might not be thrilled about this, but hear me out! You need to be fully present in your new country. Your home and your family are incredibly important, of course, but they don’t need you to call them every day – not in the first couple of weeks, at least. You need space to build up your new life and let yourself start cultivating new routines and relationships. Call your parents more once you’re settled, maybe.
  4. Learn to laugh at yourself. You will make language mistakes. You might get confused in the supermarket, or get on the wrong bus, or have a misunderstanding with a stranger. No new ex-patriate ever has a completely smooth run, so learn to laugh it off! The challenges are all part of the experience, and you’ll probably learn a lot more about the country because of them!
  5. Look after other people. Does your neighbour need a hand with those heavy bags? Could you hold the door for that older lady? Does your ex-pat friend need a friend to moan about homesickness with? When you keep an eye out for other peoples’ needs, not only do you become a more integrated and appreciated part of the community, but you forget about your own problems! Moving countries is hard, there’s no doubt about it, but remember that everyone has struggles. Make friends, be helpful, be hospitable, and you’ll find that sense of community much faster.

Love, Dani

  • What would your tips for moving to a new country be?
  • Do you have any stories about your mistakes in a new place?