This January, when I decided to leave New York behind to live and work on my jewelry company in Bali, Indonesia, I did minimal research, planned to stay for about one month, and had no idea what city I’d stay in. I was ready for a drastic change and all the unknowns that came along with it. But I was not completely ignorant before my arrival; I’d visited in 2013 for two weeks and assumed my second visit would be a longer version of the carefree vacation vibes I originally fell in love with. I ended up living in Canggu, Bali, a beach town that attracts many expats and surfers. There are some things you can research, like how to getchu a bank that won’t charge any foreign transaction fees and how to extend your 30-day visa, but the topic of how it feels to be Black in Bali is much more elusive. As one month turned into five, Indonesians’ and fellow tourists’ mentalities toward Blackness slowly became apparent.
How locals react to Blackness
I’m Afro-Latina, but I don’t walk around thinking, “Wow, I’m Afro-Latina, how rare!” I wear my Afro, moisturize my skin with coconut oil, eat my plátanos maduros, and keep it moving. One weekend while shopping at Zara and minding my own business, a pair of Indonesian women began giggling and pointing at me. I’d love to say I had the grace to smile and keep walking, but I began mocking them in return. Petty, I know. This is only one instance out of several that angered me before I understood that I was the first Black person many of these people had ever seen. Their pointing and staring were less racial slights and more reactions of disbelief.
All I can do is love myself and hope to inspire others to do the same!
Though most Indonesians—men and women—take extreme measures to refrain from getting darker (think sweaters in 102-degree weather and socks with flip-flops), to the local eye, your brown skin is a mystical phenomenon that inspires curiosity. This concept of appreciating but not wanting to embrace one’s own Blackness is a common side effect of colorism, but I was still surprised when a new friend, Tammy, who is a well-traveled Jakartan woman, casually mentioned that dark skin was frowned upon within her circle of friends and family.
What I learned: It’s not always personal. An individual’s qualms with their skin tone have everything to do with their upbringing, society, and their self-view and nothing to do with me. All I can do is love myself and hope to inspire others to do the same!
Daily macro and microaggressions from tourists
Let’s be honest—Bali is known for its magnetic ability to attract droves of white people to yoga retreats. What is less publicized are the microaggressions that come with European and Asian tourism. Cue overt cultural misappropriation and blatant disrespect of brown and indigenous cultures. Like the time I was at a local club’s hip-hop night where native headdresses were passed around by the club owner as props for partygoers to take photos in. What the heck?! The teasing I experienced while out shopping that I mentioned earlier, though hurtful, came from a place of surprise and immaturity, but this went beyond teasing. This was a hauntingly familiar, gross display of white entitlement and insensitivity. White people having fun at the expense of brown histories in the midst of a party honoring hip-hop was enough to rattle ya girl. I was even more upset at the dizzying lack of concern, the way it seemed that another Black friend and I were the only ones who were unsettled. What was the solution here? Intercept drunk white adults to explain the irony of colonization in this scenario? What exactly is an effective method of teaching when a) you are at a club and b) white people aren’t there to learn about their destructive histories?
This was a hauntingly familiar, gross display of white entitlement and insensitivity. White people having fun at the expense of brown histories in the midst of a party honoring hip-hop was enough to rattle ya girl.
What I learned: You won’t always have an answer for white ignorance. All you can do is take it day by day, be as transparent as possible with how microaggressions and racism affect you, and do your best to educate when you have the energy, will, and ability to do so.
Get used to people (Asian tourists, tbh) trying to take sneak photos of you. Either confront them directly and explain how annoying that is, or offer to take a photo with them and create an opportunity for cultural exchange.
White men will try to touch your hair. Don’t be alarmed—be prepared. Simply stating, “You touching my hair makes me very uncomfortable” can spark a conversation, but explaining your personal space gets exhausting. Each time a man patted my Afro in the club, I would aggressively grab their hair back and give a “How u like that?” look, because who has time for race talks over loud music?
My new and reduced beauty routine
I mistakenly left my makeup bag in New York, which meant that my only makeup for five months was the Ruby Woo lipstick I frantically purchased at the airport’s MAC Cosmetics store. What did I do to maintain a beauty routine in a country that sells skin whiteners as casually as it sells gum? I adjusted.
What I learned: You don’t need much! It is too damn hot for concealer or foundation. Wear sunblock instead. But if needed, be sure to pack your shade of makeup, because trust me, they won’t have it there. Also, pack your own face wash—many Indonesian brands contain skin whiteners. While you’re at it, bring your own hair products. Indonesia offers plenty of natural oils, but nothing like the custards, creams, milks, and edge controls we crave. Girl, pack it all. Pro tip: shoulder-length twists or cornrows are the perfect way to beat the heat.
Bali is diverse AF!
Being “the only” can take an emotional toll on you. How to combat the loneliness? Find your tribe. Mine was dancing! I met dancers from Brazil, Germany, and Spain. What were we doing? Dancing kizomba and salsa . . . in Bali. Who would have ever guessed?! I even managed to take an uh-mazing dancehall reggae class and a pole-dancing class, both taught by women who felt underrepresented in Bali.
What I learned: A great way to meet people you vibe with is to join classes that interest you. Other people of different backgrounds may feel just as alienated as you do, so take the opportunity to support them, share your story, and connect!
I even managed to take an uh-mazing dancehall reggae class and a pole-dancing class, both taught by women who felt underrepresented in Bali.
Afro-Indonesians and my shade toward other Black tourists
Let’s be real: when I see another Black person abroad, my heart skips a beat. There’s something about meeting someone who looks like me and understands the struggle of finding a proper moisturizer in Southeast Asia. When I arrived, I was blessed to be introduced to and welcomed by a community of Black people living in Bali. After a couple of months, I had met the majority of brothas and sistas and was part of a great group of folks who supported one another. Any Black person I saw outside of that group of familiar faces—and there were quite a few—I avoided interacting with, which is out of character for me. I am usually the one to start conversations with complete strangers. I appreciated meeting other Black travelers, so why the shade? The main reason was that I didn’t want to seem desperate or presumptuous; not all Black people are looking to connect with other Black folk. Some were on honeymoons, some were on fun group trips, and others were on business trips. I assumed most Black people I saw were just visiting, so I didn’t feel pressured to go out of my way to introduce myself to someone who was leaving anyway. Which is a terrible excuse, I know.
Something strange happens when you are thrown out of your element. Late one night while in search of a late-night snack, I happened upon the lady pictured above, who was selling handmade goods. For a split second, I thought she was Black. She was, in fact, Sumatran. Perhaps because she was not the type of Black I was used to or because she could not speak English and we could not have the typical drawn-out introductory conversation, I went out of my way to introduce myself and ask for permission to photograph her. Sometimes pushing one’s own boundaries can point us in the right direction.
What I learned: There are Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to Black people abroad. There are Black Indonesians who look like your grandparents and have nappy hair too! Greet random folk on the street as much as possible. Do not alienate yourself. A simple “hello” can go a very long way in starting a conversation, a lifelong friendship, or even a business partnership.
For your sanity, try to cultivate grace, speak up for yourself when you can, prepare, and do your best to love yourself into blossoming in this new environment.
Blackness in Southeast Asia can be an oracle everyone wants to investigate, and some days you just want to eat the ice cream you ordered/dance in the club/walk down a crowded street in peace. Your Black girl magic will be questioned in piercing eyes, in inappropriate pats of the hair, and in giggles as you pass. Your calm will be challenged in uncomfortable racial aggressions but, for your sanity, try to cultivate grace, speak up for yourself when you can, prepare, and do your best to love yourself into blossoming in this new environment. Now, get to shining, sis.