He spotted me from across the room, plotting his route over. The guy was simply another unnoticed face in the crowded room of Ratchada SNOP Club in Bangkok, Thailand, but sometime in the midst of chatting and listening to stories of everyday life in other countries amongst my fellow tourist acquaintances, I could see him etching closer and closer to our table. After an intense yet whimsical session of over-exaggerated fist-pumping and jerky dance moves (I mean, how else do you dance to EDM music), he appeared two tables down. Unbothered, I took a few swigs of my rum and coke only to turn back around a few minutes later and see Mystery Man introducing himself to the Thai locals at the tables next to us. He lingered there a bit, obviously waiting for the perfect moment to slip into our circle. In the blink of an eye, he appeared at our table, as if a magical white cloud of dust dissipated around him. As he stood there, I could tell he was nervous about making his next move, but of course, I kept a cool demeanor and an unwavering pokerface. I was interested to see if he would actually go in for the kill.
“Ay, uh, I’m Henry!” He pivoted in my direction, shouting over the raging Thai dance music in what I recognized as an Aussie accent. Henry stood a couple inches taller than me with sandy blonde hair, green eyes, and a big, childlike grin on his face. He offered his right hand, hunching with a bit of boyish timidity. I shook it, and instinctively, we both leaned in shoulder to shoulder to talk into each other’s ears.
“Hey,” I yelled, wide eyed and grinning, “I’m Olivia! Where are you from?” That was my go-to icebreaker when meeting people in a tourist country.
“I’m from Australia! Sydney! What about you?” he asked
“I’m from America!” I yelled back to him, furrowing my eyebrows as my voice competed with the music. He began to fidget a bit more with stifled excitement, putting both hands in his pockets. Henry leaned to ask another question, then turned away out of hesitation. I chuckled to myself; how amusing it was watch this grown man squirm like a five-year-old kid. For some reason, I knew he wasn’t exactly thinking of a master plan to get me back to his hotel room. He had intentions to know something much more insightful.
He leaned in to me again, scratching the side of his face. “Are you…umm, are you..Black?” Fearing that he had said something to offend me, he leaned away slightly with a small smirk on his face, etched with caution at the same time. A huge grin swept across my face, and I blinked slowly glancing down at the club floor then back to him. In the split second before I answered, I read a complete sincerity in his eyes.
“Yes. I am,” I responded smoothly, tilting my head slightly to one side and bowing it forward. That goofy grin was plastered on his face now, and I couldn’t help but imitate his awkward beam.
“…at’s so cool! That’s–man, that’s awesome! Honestly, I’ve,” he hesitated, “…I’ve never really met a Black person before,” he confessed.
At this point, I was more so intrigued by him than he was by me. Despite the fact he lived in a country notorious for it’s racism and discrimination, my instincts read something very genuine about Henry’s inexperience with people of African descent. Needless to say, I wanted to see where the conversation was headed.
We followed the crowd outside the club and waited by the entrance, sharing stories about our lives back home and trading our experiences in Thailand thus far.
“A walk down the street is always interesting!” I laughed. “You know, ‘cause Thai people look at fair skin and straight hair as the epitome of beauty, so I am gawked at all the time for my differences. My coily hair, my skin color…” I trailed off.
“Wow, I’m sure that feels weird to you; to be stared at like that, yea?” Henry asked, completely fixed on our conversation.
“Well, yeah, of course. I wore my hair in a big afro the other day when I went to the Wat Pho, and one older man, like, completely stopped what he was doing to turn around and just stare as I walked by.” I held my hands out with my palms down, as I scanned my eyes across an invisible horizontal line, mimicking the the amazement of the old man a few days prior. We both laughed. “But I can relate to them here, you know,” I said empathetically. “I live in a society scarred by colorism, too. That’s nothing new to me.”
As the conversation continued, Henry enlightened me on his theory about how passports were created as a worldwide tracking system, and my inner conspiracy theorist listened with intrigue at how passionate he became about the topic. Having some background knowledge about the early inhabitants of his country, I asked him if he had ever met someone from the descendants of the Indigenous Australians that migrated from Africa thousands of years ago.
“Well, what about the Aboriginals? How are they treated in your country; are they kind of shunned from the population or…?” I tapered off.
“No.” Then with contemplation, he added, “Well, I don’t know much about them. They don’t really hang around the same areas as I do– or that most people do.” When asked, Henry briefly spoke about life in Australia, but inquisitively, he always found a way to redirect the conversation back onto me.
“You know, probably the only representation of Black people that I get to see is mostly through television, but I’m sure that’s not all true, right?”
I shook my head before he could even finish his sentence. “No, no, no, no. Most of that is such a misrepresentation of who we are–it’s shameful. The same way that the American media may reinforce certain stereotypes about Australians is the same way they misconstrue Black people in America– only, it’s more about keeping racism alive and way more degrading. I continued telling him about the tension in the U.S. and the police brutality against people of color. I was presently surprised, and delighted, to had found myself in such an insightful conversation. Amid the commotion of a raging club and the drunkards stumbling out the entrance where we stood, Henry gave me his sincere, undivided attention.
The Universe never ceases to amaze me. It sweeps us across the paths of strangers in the most unlikely places, even if only for a moment in time, so that we may inherit or pass on small gems of knowledge to broaden our perspective of the world and its people. In the middle of a booming, Bangkok club I became someone’s “first impression”, so to speak, of Black America. That night, I was moved by the magnitude of my presence to the world: my story, my history and my perspective are all vital pieces to its existence. Through my passion for world travel, I have the power to help eradicate the prejudice that other countries have developed toward the African race and its diaspora, but to Henry and others like him, I can only stand as one representation of what it means to be Black in America.
Whether we come from a middle-class, working family, were raised by immigrant parents, or grew up in the inner-cities of our districts, it is our duty as Black people to get as far outside the comfort of our realms as we possibly can and tell our own stories to others around the world. Whether we make it to India or Indiana, Bangkok or Brooklyn, a village in Nigeria or a small town in Texas, we can no longer rely on others to pen their perspective of our existence. The emerging phenomena of Black travel is a movement which carries with it great importance; through this medium, not only can we spread our truth, but we are able to see and understand, first hand, the deep connections we have to the world in ways we have yet to comprehend. And that’s something I obliged myself to live out until my last day.