I was chosen along with 14 other American students to travel to Mongolia, a landlocked country between Russia and China, to study the difference between urban and nomadic cultures. The capital Ulaanbaatar is the only major city. The country has the smallest population of people per square mile and it’s very homogeneous. I was one of three Black students on the trip. My biggest challenge was the reaction of a homogeneous country to my race.
It was my third day in an environment that was still completely foreign to me. We were shopping at the well-known Black Market in Ulaanbaatar. The Black Market is a huge flea market in the middle of the city where you could buy anything from traditional Mongolian deels, a tunic-like garment, to sunglasses and food. It is also a hotspot for pickpockets. That is why I was nervous when I felt something tickle the back of my head. However, as I turned around, I saw a young girl holding onto the bottom of my braid. She wore glasses and a light pink dress. Her family stood behind her silently and watched for my reaction. I felt shocked, confused, and didn’t like being the center of attention. In that moment, there was nothing I could do but smile awkwardly. When I look back, I think that even if there wasn’t a language barrier between us, I would still react the same way.
Not long after, we visited a reindeer herder in a more remote part of the country. There was an elderly woman there and she was so fascinated by the three of us with dark skin. She pulled us out from the rest of the group and gestured to take a picture. The entire group found this extremely awkward.
Race and culture is a very touchy subject in the U.S. and the conversation about living with those differences remains a painful ongoing process. My group leaders and the other American students were concerned about my feelings. But, then I realized this wasn’t the U.S. and the attention to my race was about something else. I took a step back and was able to put it into context. As far as I could tell, I may have been the only black woman in the country.
Before I left home, my best friend told me to remember that “ignorance does not mean harm.” It was not the fault of the young girl in the market that she had never seen anyone that looked like me and wanted to touch my hair. This didn’t make the old woman a bad person because she wanted to take a photo of black people. In all her years, she had never come across anyone who looked like me. Her curiosity made her want to capture it and remember it because she may never see anyone else with my skin color and hair.
These experiences gave me another purpose in Mongolia. As the only black person they may ever meet, it was up to me to teach them about my culture. Being in Mongolia forced me to learn about cultural appreciation, respecting differences, and educating others. I went from feeling singled out to seeing opportunity to engage with the Mongolian people in a different, unexpected, and fulfilling way. It also broadened my perspective on race beyond the American context.
Jadeen Samuels went to Mongolia on the Experiment in International Living in 2015. She is a senior at The Hewitt School in New York, NY and will be a Sociology major at Boston College this fall.