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Why I Left: The Journey of a Suburban Black Girl from Pittsburgh to Bali

North Fayette native Rukiya McNair shares why she now calls Bali "home."

It’s 3:18 a.m. in Bali, Indonesia and here I am, browsing through music on iTunes, a far cry from Oakdale, the suburb west of Pittsburgh where I grew up. As I sit on my bed in our cozy wooden home located in the middle of rice paddies in a small, quiet village outside of the town center, I listen to 9th Wonder, Blitz the Ambassador, and Gregory Porter, and I reflect on the life I chose to leave.

Growing up in a boring, predominantly white suburb had its range of positives for a Black girl like me. For instance, I learned the inner-workings of white privilege, subtleties of racism and the Eurocentric way of thinking. I learned that having Black skin doesn’t make you Black. What makes a person Black is their worldview, their respect and love for other Black people and their willingness and desire to preserve Black culture.

Rukiya McNair

Rukiya McNair photographed by Heather Bonker

I remember sitting in art class in high school, and watching a group of white male students joke about their Black “friend,” using the pencil shading chart on the wall. One boy said to the others, “So, how Black do you think Damen* is, according to this chart?” They all snickered.

The boy pointed to one of the light grey shades. “I think he’s about here,” and they all burst out laughing. Damen* wasn’t there to defend himself. I didn’t defend him either. In that moment, though, I felt disgusted and angry, but not surprised. Why should I be? This, for me, was suburban life in Pittsburgh. I learned by watching first-hand that no matter how much you try to assimilate into white culture as a Black person, the only person you’re fooling is yourself. I didn’t know it then, but it was a culmination of situations like this that would later be the foundation for why I would leave Pittsburgh.

Back in middle school and high school at West Allegheny, my soundtrack included Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and Jodeci. Acrylic nails, box braids, and Cross Colors were in, so that’s what I wore. There was a time when fitting in with the other Black students (who transferred in from the city) was a priority. Over time, though, I realized this wasn’t me. But what was me? My peers were either Caucasian; Black and from Pittsburgh’s inner-city; or Black yet unaware of their Blackness. Where did I belong? Adolescence was complicated and at times very rough for an acne-prone, artistic, culturally aware (thanks to my parents), introverted teenager like me.

In 1999, I left the Steel City for Kent State University in Ohio. I also gravitated to a new soundtrack that ultimately changed my life. It included Black Star, Common, The Roots, Slum Village and Dilla. My time at college was transformative. I finally found people who were like me. Black suburbanites, yet aware and confident in who they were. I found the friendship and understanding I never knew could exist. I partied, I studied, I loved, I cried, and I grew. I graduated from KSU in 2004 with a degree in Pan-African Studies and with the confidence that I could and would create a career for myself, as opposed to competing for one and working for someone else.

I decided not to move back to Pittsburgh like my oldest sister had after graduation. I noticed the more time I spent away from Pittsburgh, the more clearly I saw that it was not the city for me. I felt as though I had been cheated by the very city I grew up in. The closed-mindedness, lack of diversity, and racist undertones of tha Burgh’ were the reasons I moved in succession to northern Virginia; Indonesia; Washington, D.C.; the Virgins Islands; and Puerto Rico.

Rukiya McNair

Rukiya McNair at home in her joglo in Bali

In Puerto Rico, I added artists like José Gonzalez to my soundtrack, but later that year in 2012, I started to have a change of mind about Pittsburgh. What if I was wrong all this time? What if I could make it work there? By this time, I was married with kids, and my husband was working in Afghanistan. I wondered if my children would prefer to leave the sunshine in order to live closer to my family. Maybe it was time to give Pittsburgh another chance. I mean…Wiz Khalifa made a whole song about Pittsburgh. Why not?

Instead of moving back to the Pittsburgh suburbs, I decided to move to the city near my sister in East Liberty. I think she moved away from the suburbs because she felt the same way I did. Being closer to family and friends was amazing; I hadn’t lived that close to my people in what felt like ages.

I also opened a business in the heart of gentrifying “East Lib.” I was finally working for myself, as the owner of a boutique in which more than 90% of the fair trade clothing and accessories were handmade by Black designers, mostly women, from around the globe, including artisans from Pittsburgh.

There were a select few in Pittsburgh who I felt understood me, and even helped me add to my soundtrack. What better friend to have in Pittsburgh than your favorite DJ? DJ Selecta introduced me to the music of DJ Spinna, and I updated my music library to include the likes of Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Maimouna Youssef. I vended my handmade jewelry at the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival where I was fortunate enough to see live and even meet a few of these artists.

I really was enjoying myself and growing more as a person while back “home.” But I also finally embraced the harsh reality that for me, Pittsburgh would never truly be home. This gave me closure to an internal battle fought with Pittsburgh for far too long.

Pittsburgh could not give me something it does not have--diversity, open-mindedness, and tolerance.
I was living my dream, so why did I feel like I couldn’t breathe? Why did I feel misunderstood, like I didn’t fit in…just like I had growing up?

I felt my growth was stagnant in Pittsburgh. The city could not give me something it does not have–diversity, open-mindedness, and tolerance. It was time for me to move on. Pittsburgh was changing and so was I. Pittsburgh was gentrifying and whitewashing. I was embracing and exploring. We were moving in two different directions. I said my final goodbye to Pittsburgh as a resident in July of 2014. I closed my boutique and moved my family to Bali, Indonesia where I will be opening Culture Cloz Boutique again this year in Ubud Center. For now, we are home.

My relationship with Indonesia started in 2007 in Jakarta when I taught English as a Second Language for a year. Jakarta was only a 2 hour flight from Bali, so I was able to visit during my time there. I always knew I would return to Indonesia to live, although I wasn’t sure where. However, it was during later visits to Bali over the years since then that I decided Ubud, Bali was the place for me and my family.

Bali is better for me as a mother because it’s family-friendly and safe. As an entrepreneur, I find that Ubud is thriving with young business owners from around the world. The lifestyle in Ubud focuses on organic, healthy and handmade products–all passions of mine.

Rukiya McNair's children

Rukiya McNair’s children, Abeo and Asad, photographed by Heather Bonker

Another attractive aspect of living in Indonesia is the extremely low cost of living, compared to Pittsburgh. For instance, I have a two-bedroom, furnished home on a rice paddie, with a pool, for less than as the three-bedroom, unfurnished apartment I was renting on Mellon Street in East Liberty.

As a Black woman in Ubud, I feel safe and have built a small community of other Black people around me.

The latest additions to my soundtrack include Kendrick Lamar, The Internet, Rapsody and Oddisee. I’m sure there will be more along the way, and I know that Bali isn’t my last stop. I also know that I will be visiting Pittsburgh again one day. At the moment though, enjoying my family and business amongst the sunshine, culture, and peacefulness of this beautiful island is of the utmost importance.

*name has been changed

About the Author

Rukiya McNair is originally from the North Fayette area of Pittsburgh, PA and is currently located in Bali, Indonesia. She has a B.A. in Pan-African Studies from Kent State University and is the owner of Culture Cloz Boutique.


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  • telephonegirl42

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading about your journey thus far. It was a blessing to my spirit and I wish you all the best.

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Awh thank you for reading! I appreciate it!

  • Rae Webb

    What a great journey. Thank you for sharing. I have got the itch, but I don’t know where to go.

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Thank you for checking it out Rae! Take your time and research! You’ll find the place for you!

  • Tonya Webb

    Great story! I can relate, I too am from the Suburbs of Pittsburgh…

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Thank you for reading Tonya! I’m so glad so many people can relation to something in this article. <3

  • HarvestGirl Love

    Very beautiful and inspiring story

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Thank you for reading!

  • ironkong

    all those places she moved because she never fit in with her blackness..but never tried the motherland??? And now living in a place that is currently committing genocide on the black people in west papua…

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Greetings Ironkong,

      Thank you for reading the article. The genocide happening in West Papua is an atrocity (anyone reading this can find more information about it here:, there is no better way to fully understand what is happening here than to actually be here. I created a group, Brothas & Sistas of Indonesia where Black folk from around the globe who currently live in and frequently visit Indonesia can come together and support each other, one goal of this group is to build relationships with our brothers and sisters in West Papua.

      My family and I have our sights set on several places on The Continent to emigrate to after we leave Indonesia. There is actually a conference coming up you may be interested in that is happening in Senegal. It will be held twice next year and the focus is to help people wanting to repatriate to the country of Senegal. In the meantime, I’ll continue showcasing and uplifting my people in the diaspora by offering their fair trade goods and products in my store in Ubud, Bali, you can find more about it here:

      • ironkong

        appreciate the response sister. can you tell me the name of the conference? I am an African stranded in the Caribbean myself and have an interest in repatriating to Africa

  • William Ford

    i suspect I might feel the same way if I were born and raised in Bali.

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Thank you for checking it out William!

  • Akilah S. Richards

    This really fed my soul! Rukiya, I really appreciate you so beautifully sharing the details of how you and your get down! I’m a mother of two (daughters), and my husband and I have been location independent for nearly 6 years now. We unschool with our children, and we learn through living and exploring, and thoroughly appreciating our lens as black people living about the planet. It’s good to see other people living in similarly free spaces. Good stuff! So glad @smellgoodspa put me on to this essay.

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Thank you for reading Akilah! Location independence is where it’s at!

  • Sara Russell

    This was an insightful read and one to which I can relate. I’m often asked if I’d move back to Pittsburgh and while I miss my family and loved ones there, I can only see myself pressing forward. I am continually inspired by the example you are setting. I wish you and your family only the best!

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Thank you for reading Sara! :)

  • Wanda Mason

    Rukiya, I don’t know where to begin! I am a wife, mother of two, entrepreneur and employee in corporate America; yet I aspire to be a location independent world resident. (My husband is still coming around to the idea.)
    Your story has resonated with me on so many levels. My early years were similar yet from the opposite side of things… I grew up in urban Philadelphia yet went to predominantly privileged white private schools. Being a lighter complexion ONLY brown child attending school, I was always a favorite of my teachers and seemed to be accepted by my white peers. Yet my speech and mannerisms made me feel like an outcast in my living environments and even in my own home at times. So I did as most would, acclimate to those making the loudest noise and therefore forced the most pressure… my neighborhood and home expectations of me, my behaviors and speech pattern!
    But enough about me, THANK YOU for giving and sharing your personal story! Your story has awakened something in me. Now, I need to take a deeper look inside to determine what’s next. Thank you (again) from the most sincerest part of me.

    • RukiyaMcNair

      Hello Wanda and thank you for reading! I’m glad you can relate, if only I knew while I was growing up that so many other people were going through similar issues. The freedom in being location independent is amazing and overwhelming at times. Take your time and research, there is a place for everyone you just need to find it! Thankyou again for reading and taking the time to leave your thoughts. :-)

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  • Saibelle Khaibah

    Hey Rukiya, Hope your well. I appreciate the information share and curious to know if your still in Bali and can help with housing. I plan to travel there for a few months with my son.

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  • Jenny Bello

    Hi! I just came across your article and thoroughly enjoyed it because I can relate to the feeling of being marginalized. I too grew up in a place where I felt I don’t belong. This is where our stories take somewhat of s turn, I became a flight attendant when I graduated high school in search of others outside of the town and country where I grew up. I knew there was more to explore.

    So, I’m going to Bali in July, a dream of mine since I graduated high school in 1997, and would love to get some advice on where to visit on the island.



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