Being Black and studying in Asia never seemed weird to me until other people told me it was.

Growing up in Maryland, I had a lot of classmates who were of Asian descent. More specifically, I had a lot of Korean classmates who I grew to become lifelong friends with. In high school Spanish class, I was asking my Korean classmates to teach me Hangul, and after school I would go to my best friend’s house to share a bowl of Shin Ramyun while listening to Big Bang and the Wonder Girls. I still can’t quite put my finger on what makes me feel so connected with Korean people, but that initial connection to my high school peers was so strong that it inspired me to better understand Korean language and culture firsthand.

By the time I went to college, there was no doubt in my mind that I would study in Korea. Having attended a predominantly white institution where few people studied abroad, I was yet again a bit of an outlier when I decided to drop everything to study Korean for a year abroad at Sungkyunkwan University’s intensive language program. Nothing about this decision felt weird or grand to me, I was just doing what I wanted to do. However, the experience proved itself to be much more impactful and insightful than I ever could have imaged. It sounds strange to put it this way, but Korea led me to understanding myself and my Blackness in ways I had never before.

I came back to the States forever changed by the experience. So much so that I decided to pursue a career in international education where I could encourage other people like me to study abroad. After serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Mokpo, South Korea in 2016, I pursued an MA in International Training and Education at American University in Washington D.C. where I focused on access to study abroad through national fellowships like Fulbright, Gilman, Critical Language Scholarship, and Boren. I’ve since continued down this career path, now working in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

I learned about NABEA from a grad school friend who was working in a role focusing on Japan. I hadn’t spoken with her in a while, so it came as a surprise to me when she sent me a dm on Instagram saying, “Hey, have you heard of this thing? I feel like you’d love to connect with these people.” She was right. It’s funny looking back on that now. Being Black and connected to Asia were more of my public-facing identity than I had thought.

In NABEA I have found other “weird” people like me who are shameless and comfortable with their ties to Asia. Though each of our stories are unique, there are many striking similarities in our experiences as Black people working, studying, and living in Asia. Having the opportunity to connect and talk with others who just ‘get it’ makes engaging with the NABEA community worthwhile.

I was, and continue to be, incredibly impressed by the people in this network. It really is a community filled with Black excellence. To be honest, and I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this before, I had pretty much given up on having a professional connection to Asia before I joined NABEA. But seeing my peers, my fellow Black peers, working in these fields and reaching highly advanced levels of professional fluency and expertise in their studied Asian languages and cultures is truly inspiring. Connecting with my mentor and peers in the pilot NABEA mentorship pod program has further inspired me to pursue my genuine interests and passions unapologetically. I like that NABEA gives me and my Black peers a space to grow together and nurture one another.

If you are looking for a community where you can just be who you are to learn, grow, and connect with other Black professionals with ties to Asia, I highly recommend NABEA. You will quickly find that nothing about being Black and having interest in Asia is abnormal, strange, or odd. You will find your people.   


If you identify as Black American or African-American, join our Slack community to connect with other Black Asia experts by filling out our Slack sign-up form! Also, fill out the Database sign-up form to be added to NABEA’s Database, a publicly accessible resource for institutions to find Black Americans across academia, government, and private sector industries who specialize in the Indo-Pacific.

If you do not identify as Black American, sign up for the listserv to receive newsletters and stay up-to-date on NABEA’s activities and programming. Also, please spread awareness by sending this information to any Black American, Asia specialists in your network.

Why I Joined NABEA – Payge Jennings
Tagged on: