Author, musician, and comedian Jennifer Neal on her journey from the US to Japan to Australia to Germany, her experiences as a Black woman abroad, and the perils of jaywalking in Germany.
Chicago native Jennifer Neal, author of the forthcoming novel The Colour of Her Blood, has spent her adult life trying out life overseas—from teaching in Japan to seven years in Australia to stand-up comedy in the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany. Along the way, she volunteered for Obama’s campaign, wrote a column for The Root on Black peoples’ experiences traveling and living abroad, and served as a host for the video series The Perfect Dish with Anthony Bourdain, hunting down the best meals in Jakarta and Singapore.
In Berlin, she has found a home. For now. Jennifer and host Nathan Thornburgh sit in her apartment in Berlin and drink “hot dream” tea and talk about it all—from MC’ing Burlesque shows in Amsterdam to the perils of jaywalking in Germany.
Nathan Thornburgh: Let’s roll it back from before the video series you did with us. The reason I was first into you was because of your writing. How does it fit? You do stand-up, you do writing, you do film projects with us as they come up. But writing was the start of it for you—or was it stand-up first?
Jennifer Neal: Writing was definitely the start. I’ve always been a writer. I had never really got paid to write until I moved to Germany. I was a senior editor at Bauer Media in Australia, but that was business stuff, business tax. Every time I think about what the life was beforehand, I just think, Thank fuck that’s over, because there are only so many different ways you can talk about tax in an exciting way. And that was my job, and my blog was always about politics and travel and art and sexuality and I decided to try to make a living out of doing that. So I moved to Germany. By then I’d been doing stand-up for maybe a year, and the way I got my foothold in Germany was by doing stand-up. That’s how I made all my friends, made some connections.
There was this great moment where people were flinging dildos as part of somebody else’s act. And one of them hit me in the face.
Thornburgh: So once you dropped your bags here, the first thing was go to a comedy club and figure out how to get into that scene.
Neal: Yes. In fact, when I was doing my recon tour before I moved to Germany, Berlin was on one of my tour spots and I did two gigs here. One was open mic, five minutes, and the second one was a headliner, and it went so well and I met so many great people, and I said, yes I’m going to come back here.
Thornburgh: And did you do stand up in other parts of Europe?
Thornburgh: That’s a great way to try to locate your next spot. Just like, I’m going to go do a set, see how it feels, see how the crowd is, see if I’m getting the love back that I deserve. And you felt it here.
Neal: It is a good as indication as any, and you get to really know a culture, a people by their sense of humor. London was fab. It was fantastic. And I was actually more set to go there, but then Brexit happened.
Thornburgh: They like to keep their humor in their politics. They like to do funny things at the ballot box.
Neal: Funny slash terrifying slash catastrophic. So I said, I’m not going there anymore. And then I also did a gig in Amsterdam, and that was for a burlesque show, and I was MC’ing and I had to dress up in a shiny corset and thigh-high stockings and big hair and high heels. The Dutch have a great sense of humor by the way. There was this great moment where people were flinging dildos, a sort of part of the acts, not my act, somebody else’s act. And one of them hit me in the face, and I said once all the laughter died down and everybody went back to their drinks and whatever and were waiting for me to speak, I said, What’s the matter? You guys are acting like I just got slapped with a dick in my face. And then everybody was just like, Aaaaah. And then I thought, yeah, this place is pretty cool.
Thornburgh: I’m trying to unpack what you just told me. They put you in a corset, in big stumpy boots, big hair, threw a dildo at your face, and you said, okay.
Thornburgh: All right Amsterdam. But you didn’t go to Amsterdam.
Neal: No, because the visa requirements were much more complicated to move there because you need to have employment.
Thornburgh: Besides just getting paid to get hit in the face with dildos and crack jokes?
Neal: Yes. Can you believe that? I think that’s a perfectly legitimate profession. Just ask any sex worker.
Thornburgh: Absolutely. So then Berlin came, but mentioned you are Australian. Your accent is not deeply Australian. Walk me through how you started this vagabond, peripatetic, itinerant, globe-trotting…
Neal: Sure. You can say any of those things. You could also say confused. I was born and raised in the States and we moved around frequently, every three years within the States. And then when I graduated from Florida State University, I went to Japan to teach there and had a ball.
Thornburgh: You were on the JET program?
Thornburgh: Where did you go?
Neal: Yamaguchi [Prefecture]. Do you know it?
Thornburgh: Yamaguchi, that’s where my wife’s family’s from.
Thornburgh: They’re from Yanai.
Neal: I lived in Kudamatsu. That’s so interesting. It’s the smallest, most armpit-holiest part…
Thornburgh: Well, why do you think they’re Californians? So you were in Yamaguchi, that’s great because that shows you shit that you would not get to see if you were just stuck in Tokyo.
Neal: Absolutely. And that’s why it was much easier for me to pick up the language, because I was in a rice paddy in the middle of nowhere and nobody spoke English. So not even my Japanese teacher spoke to me in English. She spoke to me only in Japanese from day one of lessons. So I was like, all right, here we go.
Thornburgh: That is about as different from North Florida as you could get.
Neal: Yeah. And I’d done some internships and jobs and traveled in lots of other places like China and Spain and Mexico. I’ve been all around. And that was my first time living abroad, and then I went back to Chicago to go to art school slash work on Obama’s 2008 campaign as a volunteer. I really wanted to be a volunteer for his campaign.
Thornburgh: Well, that worked out.
Neal: I’ll think about coming back sometimes, and then after I finished art school and after the election, it was December and I was in love with an Australian at that point, and I moved to Australia and was there for seven and a half years.
People often asked me which country is more racist, America or Australia, because they were always betting on me to say America.
Thornburgh: My goodness. All right. Seven and a half years in Australia. And why did you leave?
Neal: Well, we broke up in 2013 after five years together and I decided to stick around. I got my Master’s there and that’s when I was switching gears into journalism and I thought, okay, I’ve got my Master’s here, which was pretty much free because I had the Commonwealth-supported placement because I had good grades, and I was a permanent resident at that point. And then I got a new job and decided I wasn’t going to tuck tail and leave just because my relationship ended. And once I was single again, I realized how unhappy I was in Australia. I realized that the country is extremely racist.
Thornburgh: Wow. That’s saying a lot. You’re coming from America.
Neal: I’m coming from the United States.
Thornburgh: We had a hold on that stuff.
Neal: Europe technically imported that, but America perfected it, and then Australia just took it to a whole new level. And people often asked me which country is more racist, America or Australia, because they were always betting on me to say America. And I would say, that question is misguided to begin with because you’re asking me that question not because you want to fix racism, but because you think that if it’s better in one place then I should just go there and you won’t have to deal with my critique of racism here, and I’m not going to do that.
Thornburgh: You reject the premise of that question.
Neal: Fuck that question. And I always say that well, both countries are wildly racist, I suppose. They’re both post-colonial, white hegemonies, super imperialistic, and have annihilated their Indigenous populations. But in America the conversation on racism is leaps and bounds ahead. It’s generally accepted that we’re racist. This is a racist country and you have much more representation and visibility of people of color there. Whereas in Australia, the overall national conversation is still, No, this is not racist. We are not a racist country. The fragility, if you tap it with your fingernail, it’ll crack into a thousand pieces.
Thornburgh: Deeply tough, but fair. But you said that you reject the premise of that question, but the column that you wrote that I had first started reading and I thought was so fascinating was this amazing and humorous exploration of, What it’s like to be Black in different countries around the world? How did that column get started?
Neal: It was just an idea I had after I really wanted to write for The Root at the time and I just realized that there were not really any Black travel journalists writing about that experience. And I came across the phrase “Blaxit” randomly, I think it was my sister who sent me this link: “If Trump gets elected, we’re going to Blaxit, and here are all the things we’re taking with us. We’re taking shea butter, we’re taking these comedians, we’re taking the Obamas, we’re taking all of these people. You can’t have them.”
Thornburgh: Setting the terms of the divorce. I love that. Basically, if you’re going to do this to us as a community, we are going to be the fuck out of here and go somewhere. So then you put that in motion, you said, What does Blaxit actually look like? Where can we go?
Neal: Exactly. And the first look I took out was Stockholm. Not for any particular reason, just because I went there and I thought, oh, there are Black people in Stockholm. I’ll talk to them. And I was like, holy shit, this place is super racist as well. So then it became on a personal level, my hunt for a better place but also an exploration of places where Black people live that isn’t normally discussed or dissected. Black people in America, sure, Black people in the UK, sure, Black people in Africa, sure, but nobody talks about Black people in South Korea or Black people in Australia or Black people in Japan or Black people in Berlin. And I would have wanted to go to Africa and all these places that are predominantly people of color and if I were ever getting paid for that, but that narrative seem to me to be elaborately explored already.
I really want to reject the idea of where Black people should and should not belong.
Thornburgh: You have chosen these destinies for yourself, but you are continually putting yourselves in societies and cultures that are not Black.
Neal: Yes. Not intentionally. Well, sort of intentionally, because I’m going to the places that have the best health care, and there are lots of factors that go into moving to different countries. One I was in love, then I came here, etc. And I would like to live in an African country at some point. I often ruminate on the idea and think, God, what’s stopping me? All these white-ass German people, they really want me to leave. Maybe I should just go. So that’s not something I’ve closed myself off to indefinitely, but I still maintain the fact that speaking to Black Hungarians is an extremely interesting narrative that hasn’t been told enough.
Thornburgh: Right. And also Lord knows there are 5,000 things that I would never know or understand about the situation, but it does seem like one of the things it would be nice to have in the world is the ability to live where you’d like, which you’re exercising on a year in year out basis, and not to be restricted. Just because you’re Black shouldn’t mean that you don’t get to experience the awesomeness of a hot dream tea in your beautiful flat in Pankow in deep Berlin. You get to live on this fucking planet just as anyone else does.
Neal: Ideally, and also I really want to reject the idea of where Black people should and should not belong. And this is a conversation where Black people have a really strong opinion of, and white people have a really strong opinion of, and I’m often criticized by other Black people as well, who say the only place where Black people should go back to is Africa. And I’m like, nobody tells me where the fuck I should and should not go. I don’t care what the color of your skin is. I’m reclaiming my time, as Auntie Maxine would say. And I really think that the most important indication of progress or equity or anything is the ability to act as flagrant and as irresponsible and as stupid and as wildly bold as white people.
I’m tired of having to do everything 10 times better than everyone else, just to get my foot in the door. It’s exhausting. If I were a white dude, I would be the CEO of something by now. Or I’d already be three-times-published author right now, but here I am in Pankow, sipping on my lemon and ginger tea.
Thornburgh: It sounds to me you’re getting a lot of the good of Berlin. But you might be near the end of your rope here, or are you sticking it out?
Neal: I ask myself this question every day and the answer is today, I don’t know.
In today’s society with the instability of politics and in both of my national countries and even here in Germany, I don’t really know from one month to the next where is a good idea for me to be. But I think it’s really important to be mobile and to be adaptable and to really seize opportunities that present themselves as being more secure for me in the future, because I don’t think it will last here.