Photo: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

4 Things I Learned Traveling as a Person of Color

by V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi Mar 10, 2017

While I’m proud of my Colombian heritage, there lingers a negative stereotype that pervades everything I do, especially traveling abroad.

To many, the simple fact that I am Colombian-American means I must have drugs on me, particularly cocaine, which I have never tried in my life. When I traveled to Colombia in the summer of 1994, to visit extended family and learn a little more about my culture, I was 13 years old, and as naive as they come. I remember that upon returning to the United States (Miami, where my sister lives), my suitcase was singled out and rummaged through by several TSA agents. Looking back, I know they were probably suspect of a young teenager flying to Colombia and back by herself. I was a prime target for a search simply because of where I was traveling to and from.

Fast forward 22 years. I am returning home after visiting my aunt and uncle in Phoenix with my mother. The TSA agent asks about my Hungarian last name. After a quick conversation, I claim I haven’t visited Hungary and mention that “she” (my mother) is Colombian, in an attempt to explain that I have another parent from another country. Bad idea. After some bottled hot sauce was found in my bag, I was pulled to the side, my bag was searched, I was patted down extensively by an agent, and my phone was tested for any dangerous residue. It was both ridiculous and embarrassing. I was treated like a criminal, and it was in Arizona.

In an effort to save you the drama I had to deal with, here are some things people of color should take note of while traveling:

Be aware.

I come from San Francisco, which is multi-cultural and generally very accepting of others. Don’t assume people you are visiting know anything about your culture. I would never negate who I am or where I am from, but this travel experience has reminded me to keep my eyes open and be aware of my surroundings. Some places may even be dangerous for you to travel to, so research beforehand. When I was traveling to Colombia, I was told not to wear jewelry, leave my bag anywhere in the airport, or hold anyone else’s bag. This was to prevent me from getting robbed, or inadvertently transporting drugs from one country to another.

Expect to be looked at.

While I was traveling in Thailand, someone joked that our group looked like the UN. We had African-American, Asian-American, Caucasian, Latino-American, and other races and ethnicities represented. People would stare at us when we went out as a group, and some people even wanted to take a photo with our African-American friend.

This happens abroad, but could also happen right here in the U.S. Not every city or town may be as diverse as where you live now. Just try to remember that people always notice what looks different, so try not to take offense (unless it is something obviously offensive). When in Colombia, my style of dress, and the music I was into was in contrast to what people in the neighborhood I was staying in were accustomed to. Also the fact that I spoke fluent English proved to be quite entertaining to some of the local teens. These differences were a good opportunity to learn about what was on trend there and also introduce my music and culture to others.

Know your stuff.

It is important to know the laws of wherever you are going, as well as your rights in every step of the traveling process (airport, at your destination, etc.). This will keep you informed and prepared in case anything happens. Know where the American embassy is in the country you are visiting. Finally, research the customs and culture of your destination. I made sure to read up on the customs of Thailand and Cambodia before traveling there. I learned how to say hello and thank you, that one should cover their shoulders and legs in Angkor Wat temples, and that it is illegal to insult the King of Thailand.

What may seem as discrimination or rudeness in another country could simply be due to a culture doing things differently. It is respectful to know how to be polite in any country, as it will save you from embarrassment or misunderstandings. When traveling to another place, especially another country, I like to research etiquette and customs of the culture I will be around. It is also nice to learn the basics like “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.”

Remember to enjoy yourself.

It can be frustrating to be out of your element and feel like an outsider while traveling, but you have to remember to have fun regardless. Just because other people may not understand or accept your culture doesn’t mean that they can control your level of enjoyment while traveling. Some people never leave their town, let alone their country, or have access to other parts of the world. In Colombia, my jean shorts were seen as too short (when in fact they were normal by American standards), in Phoenix, I was searched by TSA after saying my mother is from Colombia, and I’m sure I have garnered more than a lifetime’s worth of looks for speaking in Spanish or not looking like everyone else. Does that deter me from traveling? Not at all. It does, however, make me more aware, and I hope it makes you aware too.

Discover Matador