Navigating Life As A Black American Abroad

Rapper The Game recently posted on his Instagram, “We would cripple America if we moved back to Africa!” The post sparked a lot of commentary with regard to how people, especially African Americans, felt about expatriation — living in a country other than your native land. Many people centered their thoughts on the fact that they had never traveled outside of America, so how could they possibly do better in a place they’d never been? Others agreed with the idea of picking up and leaving America in search of something, anything better. The post has since been removed, but the question remains: are Black Americans better off living abroad than in America? This question has been asked for centuries, and famously through the efforts of the Pan-Africanist movement, which demanded freedom and liberation for African nations and people.

My decision to buy a one-way ticket to Egypt in 2015 followed the end of a long battle with depression where I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. I was barely making ends meet — I had been living on food stamps, subletting a room, working three jobs, and attempting to finish a degree without taking out more student loans. I had no job lined up when I landed in Cairo but received an offer the next day from an international school to teach English literature for 10th and 11th grade. That series of decisions changed the course of my life, forever.

I had a bit more access to privilege in Egypt as an American; I had a tax-free salary and rent equivalent to $200/month for a fully furnished two bedroom apartment. Language was the only barrier, but it only took a short amount of time to grasp conversational Arabic for my daily interactions. Thankfully, I had moved just after political unrest, which sparked protests and led to the removal of President Mohammed Morsi. Therefore, I had to respect the leniency of being able to openly talk about the injustices of my people at home whereas my students in Egypt often echoed a distaste for their government and how their country had been run during the last decade and beyond.

Months into living in Cairo, I attended a program hosted by the NFL called American Football Without Barriers. The international program teaches high school and college-aged young men how to play American football. It’s also where I met my husband, who was the head coach of the American University in Cairo’s football team.

My husband, Terry Bates, is originally from east Buffalo, New York, and graduated from high school with a G.E.D. He played football at a junior college before transferring and playing a year of professional football. Without a degree, the likelihood of coaching on any level past grade school or high school was very slim in America. However, a friend who had been playing football abroad informed him about the many benefits of living abroad.

“He told me that I’d have the opportunity to be a head coach as opposed to being an assistant or positions coach for years and years like I would be if I were in the states,” Bates said. “At first, I really didn’t understand what I’d get from it. I didn’t know about the American football scene abroad. At first, my hesitation was due to knowing the scope of what I could do in America as opposed to traveling abroad basically into unknown territory,” he continued.

From the time that his friend introduced him to the idea of coaching abroad, Bates had coached in seven countries, including the United States, Italy, France, Poland, Egypt, Spain, and China. “I have a lot more free time coaching abroad. It’s not a seven day a week job. I’ve never had an assistant job. The practices are much shorter which gives me time to delve into other interests, like writing. Also, I never had living arrangements set up for me when I coached in America. Whenever you get a new job, you have to find your own housing and pay your moving expenses. Overseas, it’s the complete opposite,” he said. This is a major difference from the 55 percent of Buffalo residents that cannot afford to pay their rent, according to the Partnership for the Public Good.

For many who leave America to go abroad, the burden of student loans follows. However, many Black Americans have found a way to pay off their debts due to not having extraneous expenses. Chicago native Chanell Harris-Smith had always been anxious about her accounts and bills prior to moving to China. “I did find myself no longer shopping at Whole Foods and heading to Aldi, much more. I would sit and do my monthly bills at work and calculate what was going where, down to the penny,” she stated.

Now working as an instructor in Shaoxing, China, Harris-Smith proudly shared that her student loans are automatically deducted from her bank account and she finds no need to check her account for any reason. Her housing and utilities are paid for, and she also receives a card for food expenses which leaves Harris-Smith with the flexibility to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Her situation is radically different to that of the 80,000 Black Chicagoans that have left the city between 2012 and 2016 due to unemployment.

Oftentimes, Black Americans find themselves having a hard time with where to start if they’ve made the transition or how to go about making the move. Katrina Daniels-Samasa, a Detroit native, decided to create a Facebook group where she could showcase her experiences as a Black American living abroad. “When I moved to the United Arab Emirates (August 2011), one thing that stood out to me was that many people from around the world did not understand how I could be American and not a daughter or granddaughter of African immigrants. Very few understood or knew our history,” she said. The group has now grown to over 10,000 expats and other Black Americans interested in learning more about life abroad.

Daniels-Samasa also pointed out, “As I began my research, I saw many expat perspectives from a white American point of view or from that of an African, but not one group that was solely for us. I needed a space that culturally catered to me. It is also essential that we note that Black Americans are not a monolith, so even our experiences are varied, based on a myriad of factors.”

In those experiences, all three mirrored the sentiment that when encountering what appeared as racism, it was not as severe or pervasive when compared with the United States.

Bates believed that as a Black man, he is much safer abroad and breathes easier without the constant anxiety of looking over his shoulder. Harris-Smith knows that racism exists in China, but affirms that it’s more the result of ignorance and fewer encounters with Black people. Daniels-Samasa said that being a Black American toughened her skin and that learning to delineate between blatant racism and inquisition is a skill she actively uses in her interactions.

Language barriers and cultural nuances can often be the hardest part of living life abroad. Learning how to navigate in a culture you are not accustomed to is difficult and takes time to become acclimated. Although it is a solution for some Black Americans, to say that all have the same desire, access, or privilege to move abroad ignores and minimizes the need for America to change its value system regarding the treatment of Black Americans at home. It would also negate the constant struggles of native people in foreign lands that do not own a blue passport and must flee while risking their lives for a better quality of life.

About the Author

Imani Bashir is a former sports broadcaster who, after years in media, decided to try her hand as an educator teaching literature abroad. She believes in raising her son as a global citizen and has lived in three countries (Poland — where her son was born — Egypt, and China). She discontinued teaching in a formal classroom setting and is a full-time consultant and writer, currently working on her first memoir about being a traveling first-time mother. Her bylines include The Washington Post, Glamour magazine, The Points Guy, and many more.