By Yetunde Olagbaju
I have never considered my race an issue while at Beloit College. I have never felt ostracized or unwelcome because of my skin color. So, naturally, when applying for the Hong Kong study abroad program I did not think twice about my skin. I figured liking Chinese culture and liking new people would be enough.
Fast forward to a month before I left; I was nervous. “What if they don’t appreciate my charm? What if they don’t like me because I’m American? What if I don’t make any friends?” I left with a fluttering pulse, a sweaty brow, and the naïve idea that Hong Kong would not be that different.
I do not want to express any sense of contempt, dissatisfaction, or despondency with my study abroad experience. In fact, I am utterly grateful for it. What I do mean to express is my disappointment with myself for failing to mentally prepare for being black and abroad. It is no secret that living and studying abroad can be a personal challenge for anyone. However I believe when being a minority of the respective culture you are put in a state of personification and, simultaneously, isolation. The feeling that you somehow represent your race but are different enough to offend can be a hurtful and confusing state of being.
While I expected a fair amount of the awkward “Are you from Africa” questions, I never expected to be called a “black devil,” to have children run away from me in fear, or to be gawked at like I was an ape in a tutu. It is hard to constantly be in the spotlight. It is hard to represent an entire race. And it is hard to, in the end, not be angry.
Fast forward again to September of this year. I came back to Beloit as a different person with a new major, to many faces I did not recognize, and to a place where I once felt comfortable. I thank Hong Kong whole heartedly for what I believe to be the most self aware months I have lived through. I theorize that there is always a paramount moment in one’s college education where they stop and say, “What am I doing?” These are always the moments that we often never elaborate on but that everyone can see. Instead of floating on the inconsequential aspects of social life, you are driven. You have purpose. You know what you want to take out of this whole money-sucking sham.
Those months of isolation and self-evaluation have given me this. And while I do not think I will go back to Hong Kong soon, I could not be fonder of it in my memory. I look back on the experience and smile to myself. Perhaps this new confidence would have mysteriously occurred through osmosis but I doubt it. I am still not entirely sure what my intentions are for writing this piece. It could be to encourage studying abroad. It could be to encourage perseverance. But mostly I want to encourage self-awareness. I am encouraging knowing what makes you feel fulfillment.