What It’s Like Traveling When You’re Not White

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Photo by Chi Lok TSANG on Unsplash

I have fuzzy memories of the first time I traveled outside of the US. I was barely a year old, and I was on my first airplane ride to Taipei where I would be visiting my extended family. Looking back, I have almost no recollection of my stay, except only through photo albums at home.

Since then, I would go on frequent trips throughout my childhood. I remember spending school holidays on vacation with my family, as we would road-trip the US, take cruises in Europe and the Caribbean, and embark on guided tours in China, Italy, and Greece. They were a whirlwind of eating, walking, and sightseeing around the globe, and I like to think that traveling at a young age has made me open to differences in culture, languages, and people in the world.

My first time traveling solo was when I was 21. I was studying abroad in Paris for the summer, and I used the time to explore the city and its surroundings outside of school. Before then, I had never really gone out on my own, as I would almost always have family and friends to go with, but the freedom of doing it on my own, whenever and however I wanted, was a huge thrill. That taste of solo travel would foreshadow solo trips I was to take in the future, as I moved abroad and lived in France for the next four years after graduation, all the while exploring a lot of Europe along the way.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I was a minority traveling on my own. In fact, I was more preoccupied getting from place to place, booking flights and trains, and checking out the sights in every European city I visited. Even the hostels I stayed at where I befriended like-minded adventurers didn’t make me register the fact that my case was slightly different from the norm.

It wasn’t until I had a few encounters of being seen as different while touring Europe. Now, I knew I was different because I was traveling as an American, but it never really crossed my mind that I was treated differently for being Asian. The incidents were mild, such as a German tour guide asking if I “was sure” about picking the English-speaking tour to Neuschwanstein, or locals being confused of “where I am really from?,” even after I told them I was from the US. Even more so, a lot of people — locals and fellow travelers — were baffled that I was traveling solo, especially since it’s a bit unusual for Asians to do so.

Such incidents were a wake-up call: I hadn’t really notice that travel (and specifically solo travel) was such a white-dominated space. Think about it. Who are some people you personally know who have traveled to a lot of countries? Who are those you know from their website blogs, YouTube channels, and Instagram accounts that are famous in the travel industry? Chances are they are white, middle-class, and from a Western nation like the US, Canada, the UK, or Australia.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not shaming anyone for being white and able to travel extensively around the world. In fact, I actually love those who get a lot of recognition in the travel business. I’m a big fan of prominent travelers like NomadicMatt, Hey Nadine, and Rick Steves, all whom I’ve followed for years and get inspiration from to go to the places I go. They’re excellent sources for tips, budget, and culture, as well as being great writers and role models for the travel community. I do not deny the fact that they’ve worked incredibly hard to get to the success they’re at today, as the business of travel isn’t your typical 9-to-5 job and requires a lot of hustle, drive, and networking to get to the top. Plus, the niche is over-saturated and difficult to break into nowadays, so it’s even more admirable that travelers continue to succeed in it.

I am an American, but I am of Chinese descent. My experiences traveling solo around the world are different from, say, an American who’s white, black, Hispanic, etc. The issue is that, given that travel is so heavily-skewed towards the white population in its recognition, I don’t believe that many travelers who are minorities (especially from the West) are getting as noticed as others. I see this not only in blogs and YouTube channels I get recommended to watch, but also in community pages on Facebook and Instagram. It’s also reflected in the statistics, as white travelers are likely to get higher views, more Likes, and more sponsors to continue doing what they love to do.

It’s easy to feel bitter that some people are more likely to be successful than others based on one’s ethnicity. I get it — I feel that way, too. But I think it’s more the problem of just how Western-centric our world is. Most places that well-known travelers come from are first-world countries, which happen to have predominantly-white populations. So for a long time, it has been white people who have had the luxury of traveling, and only recently that minorities from these Western nations are stepping up and making a name for themselves.

Personally, I think we could do better in the travel community to recognize those who aren’t white, yet also have the passion and drive for adventure and sharing their stories. We might not be as abundant as our white counterparts, but we can offer just as much insight into the cultures, histories, and people we encounter while on the road, especially from a different perspective.

The way I see it, traveling not only is a means of getting to learn about a culture different from yours, but also to learn about yourself. It’s by interacting with an environment different from what you’re accustomed to that you notice how it compares to how you were raised, to the point that you become the person you are today. And to share this realization with others, especially when it’s distinctive from the norm, can enrich the community even more, to show that travel is truly an exchange of various outlooks on the world — regardless of the color of your skin.

World traveler who has set foot in 50+ countries. Ready to explore culture and the unknown. Also a massive penguin-aficionado.

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