Black Woman in a red dress in Greece

The Unintentional Expat: Kenya Evans [Medellín, Colombia]

Kenya Evans wasn’t initially looking to go abroad but when the opportunity presented itself, she took it.  In this interview, the Milwaukee native dives into how she became an accidental expat, the challenges of dating in Colombia, and the must have experiences when visiting Medellín.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you first move internationally?

About seven years ago, the economy was going through a slump. I was working for myself when I decided to move to South Korea. I was self-employed for about four years. I was doing freelance writing contracts. I was also teaching hip hop dance and yoga. However, many of those writing contracts started to dry up and cash flow was getting slow. Plus, I was starting to get bored. I get bored really easily and was looking for a change. 

That’s when an opportunity came along. I had received an email from the continuing education department from the university I had graduated from with information about EPIK (the English Program in Korea). I inquired about it and it turns out the recruiter had done the program. She was informative and detailed and very frank.

And I figured why not. I love travelling. At that time, I had been to five countries. Friends were saying, “You’re young, you’re single, you should do it.” And I thought they were right. So I went.

Where are you living now and what brought you there?

I am in Medellín, Colombia and I’ve been here three years. I spent three years teaching English as a second language in South Korea. After that stint in 2016, I made an uncharacteristic decision to not plan ahead – and to just go with it – and see where I end up. When I finished in Korea, I ended up going back home and living with my mom in Milwaukee (where I’m from), for about six months. The entire time I was trying to find a job – either doing marketing in Milwaukee, which was my background, or teaching abroad somewhere else.

I applied to a lot of different places and I discovered an opportunity to teach in Colombia. I went through the process and got hired. But there were a few problems. I would’ve had to wait until their next hiring cycle which would’ve been another two or three months. The pay was really low. Also, I would’ve had to pay $400 for a down payment to secure my spot. The money would’ve gone towards someone to help you get settled in Colombia (such as finding you a place to live). The [company] said I would get it back but only at the end of the contract and only in Colombian pesos. I’ve never had to pay someone to secure a job position so I didn’t want to start doing that.

I decided to keep looking. I ended up getting hired to teach in Saudi Arabia but that didn’t last long. It was supposed to be a year long contract. I was there for four months. My escape route from Saudi Arabia was Medellín. When I was offered the initial position in Colombia, I did research on Medellín and learned about the cost of living and lifestyle from other travellers.

I also had a couple of friends who had been in Korea who were now teaching online. I had one friend who was making good money and teaching full-time and I figured I could teach part-time and live in Medellín. It was supposed to be three months as a transition until I found what I was going to do next – and it ended up being three years. I have been primarily teaching online English to young children in China.

What has the Colombian experience been like for you?

This was my first experience in South America. The mountains here are the most striking. Every time I take an Uber or a taxi, I just look at them. I’m from a flat city but all the cities I’ve lived abroad have been mountainous. They are so beautiful. The unique thing about Medellín is that people live in the mountains. So at night, they light up like Christmas trees. It’s very picturesque. It’s called the City of Eternal spring, but it really is summer weather. Sandal and sundress weather everyday. 

Did you speak Spanish before you moved?

No, I didn’t. I’ve always been trying to teach myself and it hasn’t happened. I’ve been here three years and it still hasn’t happened. But I haven’t been taking classes consistently. Enough people speak English. But I also know enough Spanish to get what I want. It’s very beginner level, but I can fumble through it.

Image Courtesy of Kenya Evans

As a Black woman, what has stuck out to you living in Medellín?

So many things! I didn’t know that Colombia has one of the largest Black diaspora populations globally. Many Black expats come here because of that. However, they get a little surprise when they get to Medellín because, like many places, most of the Afro-Colombians are on the coast. You have to go to Cartagena or other coastal cities because that’s where the slave trade happened. But there are still a considerable amount of people around. To me, I see Black, Afro-Colombians every single day. But other people are like, “Where are all the Black Colombians?”

Whenever, particularly for Black Americans, when Blackness comes up, race and racism is right behind it. As in most countries, outside of America, people will proclaim there’s no racism here and they definitely sing that song here. But when you look at the dynamics of culture, society and how people live and all the Black folks are on the bottom you have to question that. Yeah, that’s not by accident.

What about dating? 

Dating, in particular as a Black woman, kind of comes to a halt here. It’s not that it is impossible. Just a whole other game. A lot of men come here for sex tourism, as prostitution is legal. They are either coming here to get the Latina girlfriend experience or for prostitutes. I’ve never seen so many Black men from the US travelling in groups ever in my life. They are coming here for their bachelor parties, or boys trips, or whatever.

I have a lot of friends who have lived here for three to six months and then they go back to the US and they’ll say how much they miss the male gaze. People are actually looking at me in a desirable way [in the US] because here there is a specific type of attractiveness or sexiness. So when they return to the US their dating life is on and popping.

Black women from America are direct. American women, in general, are more direct than a lot of women. Even with Tinder or whatever, the dating dance is different. How you approach a person is very different than in the US.

And then there’s the issue of fetishization. Some of the Colombian men will fetishize Black women the way other men come here and fetishized Colombian women. It’s gonna take some mining to get a diamond.

Are you seeing this struggle with everyone?

An expat man in Colombia is rarely checking for any Western, expat woman, period. I say this for Black women. I say this for White women. Whoever. They are often looking for something very specific. They are looking for people who can’t speak English. There’s a group of retired Black men here who have full on relationships with women where they don’t speak Spanish, and she doesn’t speak English. One guy was like, I don’t ever want to date a woman who speaks English again. Something ain’t right. <laughs>

In these dating streets, there are so many things. If you’re a woman trying to date a Colombian guy, there’s a lot of things that come up. There’s a financial discrepancy that comes up. It’s just obvious. Even if you aren’t making a lot of money, you’re making more than the average Colombian. And you have to figure out where your mind is at when it comes to the whole chivalry thing. Does he pay? Do you pay? Do we split? The average Colombian is not necessarily going to be going to the places where the expats hang out. The cost is definitely cheaper when you convert from US dollars to pesos, but it’s still pricey for the typical Colombian. It’s those things you have to think about and the machismo is skyrocketed out of the roof here.

How have you found community?

Here, you get a lot of people who are digital nomads, remote workers, start up businesses, people know how to network. They are creators. They want to make things happen. In general, the expat community here is awesome. The locals are social and very friendly. There’s a good Black expat community here, too, but it comes in waves. Medellín is a good place to get some Colombian Spanish speaking experience and also have some people to relate to.

What should someone know when considering Medellín?

Colombian culture is very laid back. It’s easy living here, especially as an expat. Cost of living is less than the US. People can get by here. Transportation is not the best, but overall, it’s fine if you can afford to Uber or taxi everywhere. 

What is a must have experience in/around Medellín?

For someone who likes history, I would say do the walking tour. There’s a Real City Walking Tour. It’s about four hours but it gives you a whole round of the history of Medellín and the cultural aspects, and they also touch a bit on Pablo Escobar, depending on who the tour guide is. It gives you a good intro to Medellín and all the guides are local.

You should also visit Guatape. It’s not in Medellín and it’s about an hour or two away. They have tours where they take you to the massive rock which gives you a special view. It’s a bunch of little islands and there’s a small town where you can walk around and see the colorful pueblos (houses). You can do that with a tour, or you can just take a bus there.

The other thing off the beaten path is to go to Museo El Castillo. It’s a nice half day trip to do something different. It has a great view of the city. It’s a museum that was built in the 1930s and the land around is French gardens. It’s just something different than you would typically see in Medellín. Almost like a nice day in the park, but a fancy park.

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