“Your Trend, My Normal”: A Review of ‘Black in Asia’

 “Your Trend, My Normal”: A Review of ‘Black in Asia’
Photo Credit: James X. Morris

What you need to know

Through a series of 23 vignettes, 'Black in Asia' examines personal accounts of navigating Asia’s social spaces that lack the lived experience of what it means to be Black.

“I am obvious but not consumable,” Melissa Watkins writes of her experience in Seoul.

“Don’t assume your trend is my normal.”

There are many such quotes in Black in Asia, an anthology of experiences by Black writers living in the Asia-Pacific. Through a series of 23 vignettes, the book collects and examines personal accounts of navigating Asia’s social spaces that lack the lived experience of what it means to be Black, where media and pop culture often inform common perceptions of Blackness.

Black in Asia is published by Spill Stories, a “storytelling platform uniting womxn of color around the world,” founder Tiffany Huang writes in the preface. Released this past summer, Black in Asia is the platform’s second publication.

The book’s storytellers encompass a Black perspective on life in countries from Myanmar to Japan, with many places in between. The stories highlight Asia’s general unfamiliarity with Blackness as the writers tell tales of work, love, family, and friends.

Lived truths

What is a Black perspective? Can it be equally applicable to all of Asia? The book allows the stories to provide these answers. Huang’s preface provides the perspective, writing that racial issues in Asia often go unnoticed because unlike elsewhere, the distinction is difficult to make or that others are unaware of prejudice because it exists as inter-Asian colorism.

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Photo Credit: James X. Morris
Taiwan-based authors Bernise Springer (R) and Whitney Cele (C) chat before the book event with panel moderator Zethu Dlamini (L), a Taiwan-based fashion stylist and co-founder of h.e.rtiquette, who is from the Kingdom of Eswatini.

The writers’ stories discuss a range of topics from an understanding of the lived truth of being Black in Asia, to the local appreciation of Black aesthetics as a pop-cultural feature, ignorant curiosity, and resistance rooted in native colorism. The book tactfully acknowledges there is a general bias against deeply melanated skin in Asia and returns again and again to the unpreparedness of Asia for — and in some cases resistance to — Black hair.

Spill Stories hosted its first book launch party in Taipei on September 12. Taiwan-based contributing writers Bernise Springer and Whitney Cele were present to read their chapters and answer questions.

Both women’s stories touched on their hair, and elaborated more in an interview for The News Lens. For Springer and Cele, “Blackness” is defined by hair as much as the skin tone.

“I think hair texture’s a big part of it,” said Cele, an aspiring writer from South Africa, currently teaching English in Taiwan, whose chapter observes the reactions of her Taiwanese students to her wearing her hair naturally.

“It might not necessarily be the hair. It's the pattern and the texture.” She emphasizes 4C hair, the tightest and curliest hair texture on the Walker Hair Typing System. “It grows upward and outward versus thin, straight, and flat. It has a tight and kinky coil, and that's the problem, right!”

But that’s Eurocentric standards,” said Springer, who came to Taiwan from Saint Lucia as a student and now works as a Foreign Service Officer, adding It’s only until you come here that you have no choice but to face your natural hair and to learn how to be able to grow with it. You understand?”

Starting the conversation

“In Asia it’s tough to get people to be interested in conversations about race,” Huang said, estimating the percentage of Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, and other nationalities in Asia with exposure to Black people in their home countries is relatively low.

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Photo Credit: James X. Morris
Springer and Cele sign copies of Black in Asia at the Taipei launch event on September 12.

Black in Asia grew out of a March 2020 online writer’s workshop in Hong Kong and brought together a few volunteers and contributors in Korea with the interest of discussing race, color, and the heavy subject matter surrounding it in Asia.

“It needed to be run by people who were Black,” Huang said in an interview with The News Lens, recognizing the need to let the project develop from the writers themselves. “I just want to emphasize that I come from no position of authority in all of this. I’m trying to figure out my own understanding and education of race. I’m trying to make books at midnight on weekdays. I’m learning as much as any other reader.”

The project gained momentum when Black Lives Matter became an international protest movement following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Only six or so of the 23 stories originated from the original March workshop. The majority of them were submitted after Floyd’s murder.

Huang, who grew up in Taiwan and the United States and now lives in Hong Kong, identifies colorism and racism in Asia as a significant problem, a cultural inheritance which was buttressed by white colonialism influences such as Eurocentric beauty standards Springer and Cele discussed, and later assumptions reproduced in western pop culture.

“I’m not an expert in history or social movements, but I think it’s just not a coincidence that these countries in Asia do not know how to talk about race. Period. Whether it’s just lack of exposure or their lack of education, the way the media portrays Black people in Asia is really toxic and unhealthy,” Huang said.

Huang’s preface to Black in Asia indicates we have all inherited racism from our cultures. “What’s the entry point for the conversation? What’s that first conversation that people are willing to have? It’s kind of like you have to meet them to where they are. If most people in Asia sincerely haven’t learned about race, and it’s no fault of their own, that’s the system they grew up in.”

The book attempts to make readers think and acknowledge the systemic ways groups of people are othered, and what the reader’s place in that is. As Korea-based contributor Kami Rose explains clearly, “all preconceived ideas are negative if they take away my voice.”

Withholding judgment

Black in Asia is not a panacea. It is a starting point for conversation, education, and understanding. By sharing stories, Black in Asia is presenting a perspective of life as it is, for internalizing and reflection, rather than for confrontation. One thought which it provokes: in another place or another life, this could be me.

Springer’s story tells the tale of a helpful Taiwanese woman who prays for her to get a job, commenting on her hair and skin, with the assumption it was an obstacle to her career.

“Should I have reacted?” Springer asked herself at a book launch event in Taipei last month. “Is it a betrayal to those who would have reacted?”

Like many of the stories in Black in Asia, Springer’s reflection doesn’t criticize her host, but contributes to the overall focus of the book, placing the reader in a position of recognizing where they sit in the system of privilege. The amah had invited Springer into her religious space and prayed for her fortunes. The microaggressions were from a limited context, of what she knew of life.

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Photo Credit: James X. Morris
The Black in Asia launch was a success, as the room reached full occupancy. The event included readings, a panel discussion, a Q & A session, and a reading of poetry by Taipei-based American Angeline Ramírez.

This is the goal of Black in Asia. For this reader, it is a goal the stories accomplish effectively, thoroughly, and with introspective force.

If there were a criticism, it would perhaps be that the stories are western-oriented.

The stories tell of what it is like to be a non-Asian in Asia, to stand out based on appearance, and how to navigate a space of preconceptions or ignorance. For a westerner of any race in Asia, there are elements in every story that feel relatable. But for a native Japanese reader in Tokyo who has never traveled abroad, for the Korean in Seoul, or the Taiwanese in Taipei, the lived experience may be an element found lacking.

Unfiltered experience

For anyone who has lived abroad — and tried to truly live abroad — at some point a chapter will hit you with a “this is me” moment. The stories generate a confrontation with one’s own position on the privilege spectrum.

Shanghai-based artist and influencer Tone Twisted writes, “I’ve literally gotten jobs just because of the color of my skin.” Although the Detroit native explores the positives of being Black in Asia, there still are awkward questions about slavery and race-mixing.

For Cele, letting her hair be free was symbolic of rejecting another’s imposed structure. Her students picked up on the symbolism. Perhaps too well. She still gets comments about the attractiveness of her hair when it is contained.

“I have embraced my hair,” she says. “I love you, but I don’t care what you think about my hair.”

Today, writes Huang, “biracial people are often not accepted in their home countries until they win an Olympic medal,” as was the case for Japan’s Naomi Osaka. Colorism exists natively in Asia, but was reinforced by colonial white supremacy in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Based on their experiences in Taiwan, both Springer and Cele suggest Black people do take the opportunity to come to Asia.

“I think it’s a great experience and I think I would definitely encourage one to come,” said Cele. “However, I would say be mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to deal with the resistance to your Blackness. And to stay resolute in that Blackness.”

“Research first,” says Springer. “I would encourage anyone to just come over here. For some people, it’s almost a break.” She cautions, “I think also be very cognizant of the fact that anti-Blackness was here way before you came here. So you have to navigate that space. The past couple of years I’ve been in Taiwan have been the best years of my life. You grow in this space because there are unfiltered experiences that you have no choice to be watered by. It forces you to grow.”

Spill Stories will host a second launch party for Black in Asia in Hong Kong on November 7 followed by a third event in Seoul on November 8.

READ NEXT: Sharing the Black Experience in Taiwan

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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