It was in a village where I felt it most of all. Dark children huddled around me, pushing and pressing against each other. A million tiny fingers pointed and mouths opened in laughter.
“Negrito! Negrito,” they chanted, and already I could feel myself leaving my body, floating away.
In the Aeta villages of the Philippines, I roamed past shacks of dark-skinned families with tattered clothes, no food, and no schooling. In their kinky hair and dark skin, I saw myself, but as they pointed at me and laughed, something deeper in me became hard to contain.
“You’ll find our people there,” my black friend who had visited the Aeta people a year before had said to me.
By the time I visited some of the Aeta villages, I’d been in the Philippines, a part of the world I’d never expected to explore, for three months. Manila, the concrete wonder, reminded me so much of certain parts of my summers as a child in Jamaica. The beaches were white and the waters were blue. People kept bandanas in their bags to cover their children’s mouths to filter out air pollution. On the city streets, coconut water and the laughter of old men was plentiful.
I’d expected to see poverty and the other consequences of colonialism in Southeast Asia and to be humbled by seeing it. I hadn’t expected, however, to be humbled by the strange humiliation it is to be a black American abroad.
For the first few weeks, it was common for neighborhood men to come to my Couchsurfing host’s door and demand that I hang out with them in the street. The neighborhood had long cement alleyways of stacked homes and tiny stores that sold cigarettes or phone credit. The men laughed hard when I made jokes about knowing LeBron James (which was a lie) because I’d grown up in Cleveland. They bought me beer and were shocked when I told them I drank 4 by 4, a cheap glass bottle of gin that costs 200 pesos.
“Oh, you are a negrito for sure if you like 4 by 4,” one man said to me in a bout of laughter.
There was the sweltering day that I explored Chinatown alone. Stalls selling produce were all around me. Teenage boys rushed out to say things to me like, “You want to smoke?” or “Wiz Khalifa!”
A woman pushed a dark-skinned baby toward me and said “Father?” as she laughed. I laughed too as I walked away and stomached the discomfort. When I sat down on a stoop to drink water, street children circled around me. By this point, I’d learned that most children there had a fascination with my hair, so I pointed to it and said, “You want to touch?”
The children nodded happily and lined up to touch my locs. Eventually an adult came over, ran them off, and gave me a strange look. If every stare led to 50 pesos, I could have bought a ticket to Africa and ate mangoes while laying in a hammock. I could fly back to Ohio and cry in my mother’s arms before she’d look at me and say, “Well, what did you expect? There’s not many of us out there.”
One night I was lost while trying to meet my traveling buddy Eli at a club. A cop car pulled up next to me and the window rolled down. Two men smiled at me from inside.
“Are you lost, my friend?” one of them asked.
I assessed the situation. My phone had died. I was anxious about keeping Eli waiting. I had no idea where the club was. On the other hand, the international news was reeling with headlines about the war on drugs instituted in the Philippines by its new leader Rodrigo Duterte. In the months following his election, he allowed police to kill thousands of poor Filipinos who were alleged to be addicts or drug dealers. The human rights violations were rampant. I was a black person right in the middle of it all.
“Yeah . . . I’m trying to find my friend. Do you know where Black Market club is?”
The policemen looked at each other, nodded, and ushered me into the car. I got in and they started driving.
“How old are you to be traveling on your own in the Philippines?”
“I’m 23. I actually travel a lot. I’ve been here for two months.”
“You must be so trusting.”
I should’ve answered right away, but I froze. These men could be impersonating police. They could hold me for ransom and take my identification. Hell, they could plant drugs on me and my photograph would be splattered all over the news once I didn’t show up to the club.
“I grew up on the East Side of Cleveland,” I replied coolly, “a lot of things don’t surprise me.”
The men laughed. For police officers, they didn’t seem to know the area or the clubs in it.
“So how are the black girls in the United States?” the cop in the driver’s seat asked.
I coughed and wished that I could roll down the window. After weeks of traveling in this country, I’d grown accustomed to this kind of question. Everyone assumed that I was straight and a womanizer.
“Black women are beautiful. My favorite kind of women in the world.”
“You been with a Filipina yet? I bet they love you.”
I chuckled and pulled a piece of gum out of my pocket.
“So is it true what they say?” the cop in the passenger seat asked.
“Uh, I’m sorry. What?”
The cop in the passenger seat turned to face me and smiled, “Oh you know what they say. How big is your dick?”
“Big . . . enough.”
Moments later, I noticed my friend standing on the sidewalk. I urged the police to stop and jumped out as quickly as I could. I thanked them and jogged over to Eli who gave me a look.
“Why were you just in a cop car?” he asked.
“Not important!” I slapped my hand on his shoulder and started for the club. “Let’s get fucked up tonight.”
I talked to Eli over drinks about the questions in the cop car. Through his laughter, I could sense his discomfort with the situation. Until that trip, my life had largely been a struggle to liberate myself from white supremacy’s grip on the United States. In the Philippines I learned that grip could take hold of me anywhere in the world. Maybe the police officers weren’t threatening me, but they’d proven that they hadn’t really seen me as a human being.
“Most Americans, most people in the world, are not willing to engage in a paradigm of oppression that does not offer some type of way out,” writes Frank B. Wilderson III, a leading Afro-pessimist thinker, “ . . . but that is what we live with as Black people every day.”
It was meeting my friend, Paul, however, that began to help me see a “way out” of the growing anger inside of me. We met through mutual friends at a gay club in Quezon City. I initially perceived him to be stoic because he spoke little and his dark eyes avoided my gaze. After the club we went with a group to a restaurant. Over food and drinks, Paul and I concentrated on each other.
He wanted to know about my travels, why I wrote the things I did, and what brought me to such a different part of the world. Clairvoyant, he asked what no one else had in my time in the Philippines, “Does it ever scare you to be so angry at how people react to you?”
It seemed to be his God-given talent to be able to dig so deeply into me in such a short period of time. When we parted ways at the end of the night, my body felt like it had restarted. I wanted to see everything in a new light on the way home.
Over the next week or so, I wrangled with my thoughts and messaged hostels on Facebook to inquire about work exchanges. When a few of them responded, I realized I had little money and a choice to make. I begged my mother, a hairstylist, to give me money for a flight back to the United States. She sent it immediately. I booked a flight to South Korea and set up a volunteer position at a hostel in Busan.
A few nights later, we went to a club in Quezon City and Paul was there. My attraction to him paled in comparison to my need to close this chapter before I boarded my flight the next day to South Korea. I wandered around the crowded bar, lonely and drunk. The strobe lights blasted in the corners and couples made out on couches. I walked outside to find someone to offer me a cigarette. A friend pulled me aside and spoke closely to my ear, “I just talked to Paul and seriously, he is so into you. What are you waiting for?”
My feet took me to Paul, who was standing alone. We stared at each other for a moment and smiled.
“My roommate is going to be really angry if he sees me talking to you,” he said.
“Well, we’re just two good friends talking. I think you’re interesting and you probably think I’m interesting,” I said, biting my lip, “How are you feeling tonight?”
“A bit lost, you know? It’s been a weird year. I’m trying to make clothes and do things the smart way. It’s not easy.”
“What’s not easy?”
He turned to face me more, “Opening up to people. You said you’re leaving tomorrow?”
His candor struck me. Suddenly we were the only ones there. The music’s volume lowered.
“Why are you leaving?” he asked.
“I’m tired of feeling like an animal in a cage. I keep trying to think of this day on the back of a motorcycle my first month here, but it’s hard to see. It’s hard to feel it again. How did I become this person that’s angry at children?”
Paul sighed, then looked into the distance for a bit before he spoke again, “It’s weird. You remind me so much of someone . . .”
“This guy that broke my heart. Just up and disappeared.”
The rest of the night blurred as Paul and I talked. The more I thought about the starved look in his eyes, the more I realized what I needed to do. I told him that I appreciated meeting him because he was beautiful and more interesting than most people I’d met, but also that it was okay for him to open up again, even if it wasn’t to me.
The night ended a few hours later as I failed to convince Paul to go to a restaurant. His roommate possessively nudged him away. In our last moment together, we stood face to face in the street. I tried to imagine our futures tangled together. Then the truth set in. I was leaving the country in eighteen hours. The decision was made.
“It was nice getting to know you. You’re a beautiful person,” Paul said as he shook my hand.
Already he was around the corner and I was walking home among the quiet 4:00 AM streets of Quezon City. I spent the next month in South Korea in a haze — cleaning hostel rooms, letting people touch my hair at bars in exchange for drinks, sneaking around to smoke weed, and thinking of what could have been. I wandered through the neon streets in Busan in a stoned daze. At one point, a friend from the UK said to me as we were in public, “Holy fuck, dude. Don’t you notice everyone staring at you?”
Something about the stares in South Korea felt different, maybe it was because their culture was more Westernized than the Philippines. Maybe I’d learned to compartmentalize my rage or maybe my heart was a little bit healed. The more I traveled, the more I would leave parts of myself wherever I went. I just couldn’t decide which parts of myself anymore. For black bodies abroad, it is a special separation.
On my last day in South Korea with just a few dollars to my name, I stole food and slept in a café before taking the train to the airport. For those last hours, I was a ghost, and I would be until I reached Cleveland, where black bodies fill the streets. Everything below the place shrank in size. I forced myself to imagine the past four months shrinking, turning to the size of a pea, and then disappearing.
For a moment, that felt good. Then it did not. In the darkness that all of it would have disappeared into, so too would disappear the drinks and laughter with men in ghettos that reached beyond the anger. So would disappear the evening ride on the back of a motorcycle as it hurdled down a Manila highway under a sacred, purple sky. And Paul’s dark eyes and emerging warmth would have gone away too. He was strange in his ability to recognize the beauty beyond the pain while still shivering with fear.
Maybe, if I decided it for myself, that beauty could be enough.
Originally published at http://www.maskmagazine.com on November 12, 2018.