My experience in being a Black woman in South Korea

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Arts + Sciences

Authored By:

Floriesha B.

One of the things that I feared the most was having my Blackness interfere with my experience studying abroad. Upon choosing South Korea as my host country, I was already under the impression that the experiences of Black people varied; some loved it stating that they felt safe while others expressed experiencing microaggressions and being held to fit the typical stereotypes about Black people. Even though I was scared of experiencing any form of racism, my desire to travel and learn about new cultures was stronger than using my race as a factor to dedicate the host country I choose. Thus, due to my extensive research, which I did through YouTube but mainly Tiktok, I was able to get a feel of the experiences of Black women living, visiting, and studying abroad in South Korea. In this blog, I am specifically referring to my experience, so this may or may not be the universal experience for every Black woman visiting Korea. 

To begin, in comparison to the US, I do feel A LOT safer in South Korea. Unfortunately in my home country, America, citizens are being killed for being a minority (including the lack of gun control laws); take the Black Lives and Asian Lives Matter movements as examples. However, I do think that a level of racism exists within South Korea. Though it's important for me to point out that it's a level of racism that doesn't impose physical danger or threaten your existence. It's more on the surface level of racism; subtle microaggressions and stereotypes. From my understanding, South Koreans develop their perceptions, and knowledge about the Black community through the media, which historically portrays Black Americans in a negative light; Black Americans are mostly represented as thugs, gang members, poor, dangerous, threatening, athletes, dancers, cooks, etc. Thus, American media plays a huge role in South Korea's understanding of the Black community, thus they mostly understand Black Americans through that limited and harmful lens. But I will say that I don't feel like I have experienced racism here. Though, I have had a few instances where people touched my hair without permission, which was very shocking and a bit uncomfortable. Even though it was out of curiosity, it still felt unusual for a stranger to touch my hair without asking. I did have a few people ask whether it was real or not, asked to take pictures of me, and there was one lady who suddenly sat next to me and asked to touch my hair.

In addition to the fascination with my hair, I am still getting used to the hyper-visibility of being a Black woman in South Korea. The staring is something that I still have not gotten used to even though I have been here for about 3 months. It's not like people are giving me disgusting looks, I think it's just unusual for Koreans to see foreigners, and a Black foreigner at that. However, staring causes me to feel a bit anxious and I become very self-conscious of everything; I monitor how I walk, talk, where I look, if my outfit looks good all the time, etc. It’s a bit exhausting at times. Also on the topic of appearance, finding clothes here was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I don't have problems finding tops but bottoms are extremely hard or almost impossible for me to find here. As a person who has curves and hips, it’s a bit hard to feel confident when most of the clothes don't fit me properly. Therefore, I would advise all my curvy girlies to bring a wide range of bottoms upon embarking on their trip to South Korea.

Furthermore, I am still having issues discerning the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation within South Korea. South Korean pop culture; specifically k-pop draws inspiration heavily from Black African culture (hip-hop/rap/r&b and more). As this is also an issue for me in the US, I am still taken aback when I see non-African Americans wearing protective hairstyles (braids, dreads). I think that many South Koreans are fans of Black African American culture and music yet at the same time don't quite understand the historical significance behind the culture nor are aware of the cultural sensitivities around Black African American culture. This is very apparent in the ways in which K-pop has transitioned from having a local audience to a global audience; international fans are calling out cultural appropriation and the lack of cultural awareness around the cultures they are emulating and drawing influence from (this is also seen within K-rnb, K-rap, and k-hip hop). Seeing that Korea has been homogenous historically for many years and doesn't have much experience with interacting or having exposure to those outside of their society, the country seems to not have much knowledge about cultural awareness, especially Western cultural history, and sensitivities. 

For those reasons, I would recommend every Black person (and other POCs), especially Black women, to visit South Korea. While keeping these things in mind, as I have mentioned before, your experience may be totally different from mine, even though I would say that my experience in South Korea is very positive. Here’s my advice for the Black folks: Don't let the lack of knowledge within South Korea (in addition to other countries around the world) about our race make you feel like 1) you need to educate others or 2) feel like you need to represent the Black community. Come here as yourself and experience South Korea in the ways you feel is best during your time abroad. 

With warmth,