Twenty years ago, John White gave me my first Portuguese language book—I was headed to Brazil and didn’t speak a word. Some of the early advice he shared with me as I set off for my study abroad, he repeated in our interview, “Travel freely, do a bit of research and planning in advance, but remain flexible and willing to improvise. Pack a Rough Guide and if possible, find a local to take you under his or her wings.” A veteran traveler and former expat, over the years I found myself returning to speak to him about my experiences abroad. An inspiration to me in my youth, I asked if he would share some of his life as a globalcreator on Internationality in the hopes it might give other the push it gave me. His recollections are presented in two parts—this interview and a piece about being Black and American during apartheid.
I became aware of other ways to live in community that seemed virtually impossible to duplicate in America
Currently working as a science teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in his off time John is a mentor to local youth. His commitment to community may be traced back to his travels in Swaziland in the early 1980’s where he observed, “I had a sense that everyone mattered: even total strangers. I was no longer able to walk past a person laid out on the sidewalk, without at least confirming that s/he was breathing.” He, a native Brooklynite, was now a member of a blended family—an American mother, and Swazi stepfather, stepsister, and stepbrother. In this context, he began to understand a new sense of family and society. “I became aware of other ways to live in community that seemed virtually impossible to duplicate in America. Any person’s needs are supposed to be met by their immediate kin and their extended relations—everyone with the same last name, maternally or paternally.” This sense of responsibility and the community disgrace heaped on those not caring for a destitute family accounted for the lack no homelessness and begging.
Over the next two decades, John would return to the region six times, taking the opportunity to visit South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. From 1984 to 1988, he tutored and taught high school science and math in Swaziland. A highly educated individual John remarks, “I believe that living abroad taught me how to meet people where they are: observing, listening for, and discerning clues that they may have different cultural practices, before articulating my preferences and expectations.”
Many Swazis knew far more about American stars than I did
An educator and researcher his observations of how America was perceived caught him off guard. And for a period, he admits to becoming idealistically critical of and embarrassed by how American foreign policy was carried out inconsistently and often in ways that diverge from the country’s stated values. While the government was viewed in an unfavorable light, he recalls, “I was totally unprepared for the widespread appreciation of our entertainment and sports—particularly the Black superstars who dominated them. Many Swazis knew far more about American stars than I did.” The dichotomy between the disdain felt for his country and the affection shown to him, an American, is one of the unique occurrences played out traveling while black one may encounter across the globe.
I had cordial interactions with the police without fear
In discussing one of the more profound shifts in attitude his time abroad brought, John recollects how it felt to no longer fear racially provoked attacks from police or soldiers, “I would not be abused by them because of my skin color.” He inhabited a space where he did not have the constantly conscious feeling of being Black in his dealings with security forces and White people, “I had cordial interactions with the police without fear. People’s ethnicities seemed not to be rival or aligned with prejudices or stereotypes. So people were just people, and I was just a man.” Upon returning to the United States, he had to re-learn, “…how to conduct myself in American department stores or in encounters with the police.”
While certain aspects of his life were liberating, John found his American notion of upward mobility challenged. Class structures were rigid and the American tales of a former slave’s child who becomes a doctor were as foreign an idea as surfing in the landlocked nation. It was hard for him to accept societal understanding that not all people were entitled to opportunities to attain higher living standards and acquisition wealth, regardless of their origins, or as John explains, “The gardener or maid is not supposed to aspire to attend a university and become a professional.” This like other ingrained values are what made him understand, “As much as I thought I could become a chameleon and completely go native— as well as I could ever cook Swazi, speak Swazi, dance and sing Swazi, etc.—I could not escape being an American at heart.”
I could not escape being an American at heart
Being part of a family, living a daily life that was more routine than adventure, and developing friends and colleagues within his profession gave John a sense of freedom and a new appreciation for what people share across nations and cultures. When reflecting on this he finds, “The American ethnic conflict baffling, given that we broadly share a religion or two, values, tastes in entertainment, ancestry, and ideas about democracy and freedom—this in contrast to the differences between Northern and Southern Sudanese for example. I recently appreciated the film I Am Not Your Negro for making this point.”
For those just starting out, John offers this advice, “Read the State Department’s travel advisories for info on possible things to avoid: not to gauge risks associated with traveling abroad. Ideally, travel with a like-minded sane friend or two, and be cautious about clubbing, consuming drugs and alcohol, and getting intimate while abroad. If possible, find a local to take you under his or her wings. This may be a cab driver who gives you the low down on where to go when; offers to come get you wherever at whatever hour; and introduces you to cool people and institutions. My last advice would be to avoid borders whenever possible, except when crossing from one country to another. Hanging out near a border fence can make you suspect to smuggling or illegally crossing a border. The security forces can detain, shoot at, or harass you, especially at night.*”
*For those traveling in Africa or Southeast Asia, the last piece is especially noteworthy.