The Spring of 2020 has been a time rife with despair and palpable fear. With the racial inequities of the healthcare system further exposed by COVID-19, to the watching of videotaped lynchings of Black bodies, some African Americans are wondering if they can truly live their “best life” in the United States of America? With a cursory internet search, one can find several platforms encouraging Black Americans to move abroad. There are listings of racism-free cities with universal healthcare and enforced gun laws; any place painted with the right brush, can seem like a paradise.
For decades, artists like Josephine Baker and Nina Simone sought reprieve from American racism by living overseas. And like Richard Wright, before him, James Baldwin moved to Paris to escape the racism of the 1950s. Yet even for these artists, the expanse of oceans didn’t protect them from racial violence or anti-black racism. In their memoirs and works, many speak of the nuances of being a Black American expatriate, opposed to an African from a former colony, within the societal and economic class hierarchies. A quick scroll through one’s Instagram feed, will show that many people are turning to Baldwin’s writings to articulate their sense of feeling trapped, and unwanted in one’s country.
As a black woman, who is deeply affected by the current turbulent climate, I feel compelled to spend the remaining years of my youth, elsewhere. Although my first foray into living overseas was not a “success”, I did come away with a great deal of insight and knowledge that makes me feel almost ready to make the move again. So, to those of you who are contemplating moving abroad, here are some tips to consider before you sell your furniture and break your rental lease:
1.Visit the place
This might seem pretty straight forward. However, with colorful Instagram feeds and high quality photography, it’s easy to be digitally transported to locales that you’ve never set foot in. Most people travel during the summer, but before moving abroad, to get a true feel for the climate, return to the same place, at different times of the year. I visited Portugal in the summertime and had a wonderful time. However, I doubt that I’d be able to amble up and down the rolling hills and cobblestone streets of Lisbon, during the rainy winter months.
In addition, it would be a good idea to stay in a short term rental and do mundane chores like grocery shopping and going to the pharmacy. From performing these basic activities, you would be able to determine if the location is ideal for you, without the rose colored lens of being a tourist.
2. Figuring out employment
When I moved to Germany in 2017, one of my biggest obstacles was employment. As a psychiatrist with United States credentials, I was unable to ‘practice my trade’ in the European Union. Therefore, it was key that I obtained employment from a US based company before venturing overseas. Once I decided to move, I sought out telemedicine companies that would allow me to practice medicine, from abroad. Throughout the process, although I crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s; due to a variety of factors, the promises made by the company did not materialize.
On October 2, 2017, at 2 a.m., I wrote in my journal:
“Happiness isn’t for black girls. I’ve been in bed for the past 90 minutes, tossing and turning about my future… And although all of these obstacles were unforeseeable…I still blame myself for thinking that I could live in a romantic comedy. “Yah I’ll just go live in Europe and just figure it out…’”
In retrospect, my thoughts were a bit melodramatic; but, living in a foreign country with a lack of income, can be a scary experience. It is important to know that regardless of your training or profession, you should have backup streams of income outside of your particular field or expertise.
3. Recognizing cultural differences within the same country
My husband is a very good sales person, and three years ago, I was unaware of his ability to sell water to a well. Shortly upon my arrival in Hamburg, I soon realized that the cold and sterile social culture of the city, didn’t match my personality. Having spent four years in loud, bright and over the top Miami; Hamburg’s bleak skies, silent city centers and hushed tones of people in public spaces, was a slow death for me. I longed to hear loud, hearty laughter at brunch and to see overt expressions of joy in the streets. From a racial perspective, the city was ethnically diverse; but there was a dearth of professional blacks. For many, I was the first black doctor they had ever encountered, which seemed to garner veiled prejudicial comments.
In contrast, on our weekend trips to Berlin, I felt alive. The city vibrated with energy that reminded me of NYC. A two hour train ride away revealed the stark cultural differences of these two cities, and highlighted the importance of finding a place that fits one’s individual needs within the same country.
Even on the African continent, as a person of color, there can be cultural clashes. On an outing one day, I wore a loose fitting black dress that stopped just above my knee. Within a few moments of walking through the crowded streets of Dakar, men began to stare and chastise me, for my outfit. I grew increasingly terrified, as a mob of sorts started to gather, and I ran back to the safety of my father’s car. Two months before my trip, two friends from the USA had journeyed to the same city center outfitted in shorts and mini-skirts, without any issue. However, because I phenotypically appear Senegalese, I was subjected to the rules of Islamic modesty that apply to local women.
4. Distance from loved ones
Since I was about 8 years old, I have spent alternating summers in Barbados or Senegal, often traveling alone. At 17, I left Brooklyn and started college in Atlanta. So at 30, when it was time to move to Germany, I didn’t give it much thought. Only at the airport, as I hugged my mother goodbye, did the gravity of the move set in. The real feelings of homesickness and being away from friends and family are not always immediately revealed. However, the value of these relationships in one’s daily functioning become apparent when one is separated by time zones.
Also, many of us can save up for a one way ticket to whatever foreign locale we desire, , but what about when there’s the need to return home? In the case of an emergency or just a short visit; the cost of a ticket; and the time needed to reach one’s destination must be taken into account when thinking of living abroad.
It is key to remember, that as a person of color and especially a woman, there will discrimination and prejudice, wherever you go. The questions are: can you tolerate the brand of racism you may encounter and is the quality of your life improved, by being in this new country? Also, remember that wherever you go, you “take you with you”. A change in environment can definitely bring out the best or worst traits in an individual; but your insecurities and quirks will always reveal themselves, regardless of the time zone. So once you’ve assessed the driving motivation behind your desire to move/relocate; you’ve identified your goals; and set up some contingency plans, you are sure to flourish wherever your feet may land.
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