Up next in my Bossy Travelers series: an interview with Tyreek, an African American/Japanese traveler from the United States. He shares how he’s lived and worked all over the world, what it’s like to be a Black traveler in Central Asia (hint: pretty sweet), and then some.
From Caucasian Adventure Adonises traveling in ALLCAPS on YouTube to blonde Backpacker Barbies flooding Instagram feeds, unless you’re actively searching for something else travel media is White AF.
Whitewashed travel media is problematic for all kinds of reasons, but from a practical standpoint, it makes it difficult for many travelers to find accurate advice. No matter where you are in the world, a nonwhite traveler will almost always be received differently from a white traveler. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but it doesn’t hurt to get tips from someone slightly more relatable to you than pasty vloggers who brag about free swag all day. Just sayin’.
Problem is, finding those voices isn’t always easy. After more than two years traveling in Central and South Asia, I can count the number of Black travelers I saw on my fingers. Black travel bloggers writing about those regions? Aside from casual Taj Mahal coverage, I couldn’t find any. (Recommendations welcome.)
But last week, through a Mongolia-related rabbit hole, I stumbled upon Tyreek’s blog, World Away From Home. It was my first time to read blogs from a Black (and Asian—he’s mixed-race) traveler about countries like Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. I emerged from the shadows to see if he’d be interested in talking about what it’s like to be a Black traveler in Central Asia, and I soon learned he’s lived a far more international life than many of us could ever dream of:
Heya Tyreek. To start, how about introducing yourself?
I’m from the United States, the state of Maryland to be specific. I currently work as a U.S. diplomat, so I travel a lot!
Other than that, I’m just a normal guy that loves to travel. I’m of mixed heritage (African American and Japanese), I grew up speaking English in the house, but I do speak Japanese.
Whoa, cool. I imagine you can’t divulge too many secrets, but can you give us an idea of working as a diplomat actually means?
I can’t talk about my day to day operations in too much detail, but I can give you a general overview of what I do.
I move every 2-3 years, depending on assignment, mostly overseas. I work to help carry out the foreign policy of the United States and aid U.S. citizens abroad. Each diplomat has a specific focus, and this can be anything from economics to politics, law enforcement to consular. Everyone’s story is different, but the end goal is the same.
Your international life didn’t start there, though. How did you get started living abroad? Where have you lived?
I’ve lived in the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and China so far.
I was first exposed to overseas life through my father’s job, which was at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. I lived there for four years, and this experience is what solidified my desire to continue living abroad.
Shortly after graduating from university, I took a job as an English teacher in South Korea, a job I knew was fairly easy to obtain as a newly grad with no experience.
After two phenomenal years in South Korea, I attended graduate school in Tokyo, Japan for 2 years.
At the time I was finishing up school, one of my close friends had just moved to Shanghai, China. He spoke very highly of the city, so I figured I’d give it a shot. He was pretty well connected and helped me land a consulting job a few months after I graduated.
Next summer, I’ll be moving to Khartoum, Sudan. I’m extremely excited to be living in Northeast Africa 🙂
I’m curious – international as they are, what does your family think of your life of travel?
When I was younger, my parents thought I spent too much money on traveling and recommended I save my money. But, as you know, once you get the travel bug you can’t stop!
My parents and siblings fully support my international travels now that I am stable career-wise and financially; however, they are still perplexed by the destinations I travel to. They don’t understand how I desire to travel to places like Mongolia over France.
Can definitely relate to that desire! What are some of your favorite regions you’ve traveled to?
Like most travelers, Southeast Asia is probably one of my favorite regions. It has everything you can ask for: it’s affordable, adventurous, naturally stunning, backpacker friendly, etc.
But, aside from Southeast Asia, I absolutely love Central Asia. I find it to be the most fascinating region on earth. You often hear about how the U.S. is a melting pot of cultures, but so is Central Asia. I immediately think of places like Kazakhstan, a country where the majority of the population is of Mongol ancestry, but speak Russian, and practice Islam. Seeing how all 3 of these blend together makes for a fascinating story.
Central Asia is one of the lesser visited regions on earth, which makes for the ultimate travel experience. Traveling here is challenging, but rewarding. Not to mention, there are tons of hidden gems in this area of the world. Kyrgyzstan, more so the Karakol region, is the most stunning place I’ve ever seen.
I’ll be frank – I haven’t seen many Black travelers in Central Asia (and other offbeat parts of Asia). What was your experience like?
My experience as a Black traveler in Central Asia and Asia as a whole has been tremendous. In Kazakhstan in particular, I felt like a mini celebrity. It wasn’t uncommon for people to ask to take photos of me or just strike up a conservation.
Maybe they thought I was John Legend, haha. I found Uzbekistan to be the most welcoming; everyone wanted to speak with me and know where I was from.
Bahaha, that’s great to hear. But celebrity life can have its ups and downs – did you ever encounter unpleasant situations because of your race?
In China I encountered a few awkward situations. An older gentleman once asked me why my skin wasn’t so dark though I was Black. I didn’t take much offense to his comments given the region I was in. These types of blunt questions are ones you can expect in rural China. Outside of situations like these, I can’t think of anything else.
A bit of bluntness is manageable! How about some positive experiences from traveling while Black?
I’ve experienced a number of positive experiences due to my appearance.
One place in particular that comes to mind is South Korea. Over there many young people use the word heukheyong( 흑형) to refer to Black men, which means “Black Brother.” The Korean word “heug-in” means Black person, and “hyeong” means brother. “Hyeong” is used as a term by Koreans when referring to someone older than them and those they feel close to or respect. Interestingly enough, this term of endearment only exists for Black people and not for any other racial/ethnic group. I could be at a bar and a group of Koreans would call me over and just want to be my friend for no other reason than my appearance, I assume. I remember my first week as a teacher, a student yelled out, “Teacher! I like the Black people!” Haha.
I befriended an older Korean gentleman during my time there, and he became a good friend of mine. He would take us out to parties, dinners with his family, and showed us what South Korea was all about.
Both awesome and reassuring to hear. As you know, colorism can run deep in Asia, and some POC travelers worry about traveling to parts of Asia because of the racism they might experience. What would you recommend to them?
Unfortunately, colorism runs deep no matter where you go on earth. My advice for travelers of color is to ignore all of that and just travel!
Racial issues are so ingrained in many of us that we assume every negative encounter we suffer is a result of our race, and we let it consume us. Travel without prejudice and live your life. 9 times out of 10 you’ll have a pleasant experience. Learn the local language if you can too, this can go a long way! Smile, respect local customs, be polite, respectful, and carry yourself professionally no matter where you go.
Do you have any advice for people hoping to to travel as much as you do?
My advice is to create a budget and stick with it! The problem I see with most people is no self-discipline. If traveling is your priority then you’ll make it work.
Sometimes that requires a lot of sacrifice. You’ll have to cut down on things like drinking, eating out, and taking taxis/Ubers everywhere. Here’s how I save money to travel.
Finally, just for fun: if you had ten million dollars, all the time in the world, and COVID wasn’t a thing anymore… where would you go?
I’d definitely start a backpacking trip in the Xinjiang region of China in the summertime, and make my way west towards Tajikistan into Turkmenistan. I also wouldn’t mind spending a few months in Tibet gathering my thoughts. $10 million dollars is life changing money, so I definitely would want to think my plans through before setting off.