The Blog Spot

An ongoing series of Black narratives

Three Times the Unicorn

July 12, 2016




1. A mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead.

Before I left the U.S. to travel to multiple countries in Asia, I was told by a few people, “They probably have never seen a Black person over there before”. A few folks even suggested that I could pass as LeBron James in a few countries. Let’s just be clear on this before you get the wrong idea about where this is going- I have not been passing as LeBron James and the thought of trying to do it hasn’t crossed my mind.

To be honest, in both Japan and Bali, there wasn’t much of the “OMG it’s a Black guy!” There was one interaction in Fukui (a small providence in Japan) when a teenage boy pretty much lost it when he saw me. My friend and I had been stopped by a group of middle school girls that were having a laugh as they practiced their English on us. This has been a common experience- as I pass a local they will say “hello” or “what’s up” then immediately start chuckling when I reply. These particular girls had been carrying on the conversation past the initial greeting point and were actually doing a good job of having some small talk in English, when the young boy walked up. As soon as he saw me, his eyes became huge and he was unable to speak. Humored by this, I said hello and held out my hand. He stood frozen and ignored the extended hand. At some point he mouthed what sounded like “what are you?” then continued for a bit with broken sentences, alternating between English and Japanese. I never really got to the bottom of what he wanted to know or say, but I’m sure we can imagine that it had something to do with “Where did this Black guy come from?”

That experience, though somewhat uncomfortable, was nothing compared to the daily life being Black in Ha Giang, Vietnam. A small town close to the northern border of Vietnam, Ha Giang is not a place where the local Vietnamese people are accustomed to seeing a tourist. Here, a non-Vietnamese person walking down the street will draw stares. But when that tourist is Black, the stares and confusion is double folded. Just three nights ago, while getting drinks, a man came to me and showed me a picture on his phone. Though he didn’t speak any English, I knew in an instant what he was trying to tell me. The picture was him, another Vietnamese man, two white people, and a Black guy whose face reflected the same enthusiasm mine had as I looked at the picture. I stood there for a second wondering if the Black man in the photograph was feeling the same exhaustion from being the token symbolic “unicorn” that I was feeling in that moment. I wondered if he too was wondering ‘what’s the correct way to navigate being consistently reminded of how different you are while still wanting to engage genuine curiosity’.

In case you aren’t up to date with your knowledge of the climate in northern Vietnam, it’s really really hot. It’s easily the hottest place I have ever been in my life. Even though the locals have adapted to the heat here and are visibly less bothered by it than me, they certainly aren’t walking around un-phased by the heat. I still decided to tempt fate and go for a morning jog my third day here. I was informed (too late) as I finished my jog that people here don’t really run for exercise because of the heat. Although, I didn’t know this before the jog, I probably could have guessed this 10 minutes into my route. The sight of a non-Vietnamese person, who happens to be Black and running down the street solicited some of the strongest looks I have ever received in my life. I wasn’t just a unicorn; I was three times the unicorn, significantly different than the norm on just as many levels.

I knew as I began my stay here that there would be looks. From what I have gathered, it’s not in their culture to remain silent with their curiosities. The first day of the English class I teach, at least a dozen students grabbed my arm and started scratching at my tattoo to see if it would come off. When I entered the classroom in my building the first morning, I watched the shock hit each kids face as they turned to see me behind them. I thought I’d be ready for what would happen when I went running, but to be honest after about 15-18 minutes I found myself deciding to run faster so I could get a break from the onslaught of attention. I started noticing how increasing irritated I became as more and more of the looks felt rejecting rather than curious. My feet started moving faster while the heat blazed and hard gazes hit me as I passed by. I was too far from my homestay to either sprint or continue this way. I had to do something…

As I passed by a local man whose stare seemed to say “who the hell are you”, I raised a hand and smiled as I said, “Hello”. I can’t even explain how surprised I was when his face melted into a smile as he waved at me; as if my greeting woke him from deep thought and brought him back to earth. I repeated this for the rest of my run and watched in awe at how people that seemed to be repulsed at the sight of me, each returned big smiles at me. Half a mile of running and about 20 smiles later I finally made it back home. This story explains how, in my opinion, being Black makes you a Triple-Unicorn or even a Double-Unicorn when in a foreign place. Thinking about my run reminds me that we must look for the good in people and believe that it is there. Just as I was ready to curse someone out and go inside to hide under a pillow, I realized even the hardest looks can be misconstrued.

Good luck to all of you unicorns as you navigate the gaze of unfamiliarity.

Justin Sankara