Living in Korea is a daily adventure. I remember before coming here I spent hours on YouTube looking for videos of other Black women who had decided to come and teach in South Korea. Their stories prepared me for the realities of coming to this country having kinky, coily natural hair and brown skin. Many people will wonder what it’s like to walk around as a not only a foreigner in Korea, but a VERY VISIBLE Black female foreigner. Well, here are some of my experiences:
When I first arrived on the island of Jeju, I knew that I would attract stares, questions from my students, and probably touching of my hair and skin. Before coming to Korea, it’s very easy to think that constant attention because of your appearance won’t really bother you. The reality is, however, when you arrive in Korea with braids or twists or curly hair and brown skin, you WILL attract attention almost everywhere you go. Now, this attention is normally just coming from a place of curiosity or fascination because you look different. While most teenagers and young adults will ignore you, many older adults (especially women) and children will ask you questions about your hair and your country of origin (your skin, they understand, is naturally brown, but the hair throws them).
In regards to my hair, I usually get questions like “머리 진짜?”- or “mori jjinja?” meaning “Is your hair real?”. I also get comments that my hair is “yeppuda”- meaning pretty. These comments are very common and represent an urge to understand something that is different from the beauty norms in Korea. I have not, in any way, been condemned for being different since I’ve been here and no one at my school has ever suggested I straighten or alter my hair to appear more “professional”.
Now, is it always fun to have extra attention? Absolutely NOT. There are days when I am sitting at a restaurant, enjoying a meal and minding my own business after staring at me and commenting on my hair in Korean, some brave “ahjumma” (Korean term for a middle aged woman) will indeed run her hand through my hair (without asking) or ask me to take a picture with her. OR my favorite: come and break up my shellfish for me and spoon feed me, then make sure to take a picture with me after my meal. Yep. That actually happened last summer back when I rocked large marley twists. Children are always asking where I’m from and why my hair looks so different than their hair. My students have grown accustomed to my hair, but whenever I change hairstyles they are sure to make a comment about it, ask me what I did to it, and every now and then, they’ll sneak up behind me to touch my hair. I’ve also had small children follow me at the public library to ask me questions about my hair. The point is, there are those days I just want to feel as normal as possible and not have eyes follow me everywhere I go. Being in Korea, however, does not make that an option.
Overall, I would say that if you plan to come to an Asian country as a Black female, don’t let anyone deter you from doing so. Don’t fear that, for some magical reason, everyone will hate you because of your brown skin and different hair texture. Mostly, they will be fascinated by your differences. Of course, you should prepare yourself. Personal boundaries are different across cultures, so touching and asking for pictures is common. It can be annoying , but you will adjust to this! You will learn to put on sunglasses and stick in your headphones and ignore the stares you get from simply entering a room or boarding a bus. And one last thing: Bringing your brown skin and other different features to Korea and other Asian countries, subtly prepares the children of these places to be comfortable with diversity. My students assumed I was from Africa when I arrived but they now understand that a woman who looks like me can be from America or many other Western countries (and just today my new students guessed I was from Cambodia, China and the Philippines).
So, in conclusion, yes sometimes being a VERY VISIBLE Black female foreigner is hard and annoying, but overall it has been a great experience, and I walk with confidence as I represent my heritage and my culture and my identity.
*Next time: A Black History Month Festival in Daegu, South Korea*