Ariana in Hong Kong

Ariana Valderrama is a senior at the University of Rochester majoring in International Relations with a minor in Health, Behavior and Society. Ariana is a Chicago native. yet  she has traveled to Belgium, China, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama and Spain. She hopes to pursue a career in diplomacy or domestic politics and policy.

Growing up in a bi-cultural household granted me an innate curiosity about other cultures. It also created chronic wanderlust. My father was born in Panama and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was in elementary school. My mother was born here in the US and identifies as Black American. The Panamanian heritage my siblings and I share makes Latin America feel quite familiar, although our experiences are uniquely colored by our American heritage as well.

Although I still want to visit each Latin American country, I have always prioritized my desire to travel to distinct unknown locations, specifically in the African and European continents. As a sophomore in college, I got the chance to travel to Europe. I studied and interned abroad for a semester in Brussels, Belgium. While there, I visited a few other Western European countries-- confirming my desire to live abroad for at least a year at some point in my life after undergrad. However, the possibility and interest in traveling to Asia never crossed my mind until I received an email about a scholarship opportunity to spend six weeks this summer in Hong Kong. I knew very little about Hong Kong or Asia in general, but I leaped on the opportunity to see a new place and meet new people. About a week before I left, I began to think how I would fit into Asian culture. I realized  that I had no idea how Asians would  view and treat a Black American women like myself,  so I spent a late night frantically searching for an answer.

Ultimately, I decided that I would find the answer, not through searching on the internet, but through embarking on a journey to live out what I was looking for. Personally,  I enjoy experiencing difference in norms and cultures as I travel around the world. It always interesting how people react to you when you are obviously not a part of that society. In Hong Kong, I mostly received stares and pointing fingers from children on the metro. However, in Beijing it was much more direct; tourists constantly asked me to take photos with them. This just did not only happen to me, but also just as frequently happened to my white, brunette roommate. Our tour guide told us the people we encountered would likely not be locals from Bejing but rather Chinese from other areas of China, especially rural areas, who had likely never seen foreigners before. When we visited the Great Wall, I couldn’t help but notice how Black members of the Melbourne basketball team were swarmed by Chinese people. It seemed as though Blacks always attracted the most attention.

Aside from the treatment of mainlanders and Hong Kongers, it had never occurred to me how other people in my program would view me. Fortunately, I received mostly positive interactions with the students in my program, the majority of whom were Australian, European or Mainlander. Being surrounded by such an international group of individuals resulted in intense and endlessly fascinating discussions about cultural differences. Aside from exploring Hong Kong, the late night metro-ride talks were some of my fondest memories of the trip because I learned so much about the attitudes and values of other countries. These chats ranged from being comical (making fun of accents and expressions), to the exploring our differences in dating, to the realities of American obsessions with guns.

My life has been greatly enriched by participating in those conversations. It is one thing to read about how other countries view you, but another to actually visit and be immersed in how reality is. Hearing and experiencing these views for myself resonated with me more than I could ever read in a book.

My one piece of advice to college students is to study abroad no matter what your major is, especially Black Americans. I believe when traveling abroad, we cannot allow ourselves to become too offended by questions and stares because it is such a unique space. You must be patient and willing to answer any and all questions ranging from the ridiculous to the mundane. By doing this, it allows you to become better knowledgeable about another culture and ideals, but also the people of the host nation have a better understand of what it means to be Black American that is not misrepresented by the media.  This is the time when we as Black Americans have to suck up our pride and represent our race, because we may be the first and only Black American that people around the world have had the opportunity  to meet. As someone who strived to take the time to teach as much as I learned, I promise you taking the time to both teach and listen will be well worth it when you are abroad.