The experience of black people in Korea was one of the things I researched most while preparing to study abroad in Seoul. While most comments were positive, I could not help but feel anxious as a result of the few horror stories I had read: unauthorized touching and grabbing, blackface and so on. Even though I understood that these incidents may happen in the United States too, there was something especially off-putting about the thought of experiencing racism in a foreign country.
Luckily, I am happy to say that, having been in Korea for a little over a month, my overall experiences have remained largely positive. That is not to say that I have not had unique experiences as a result of my foreignness and, more specifically, because of my blackness. I am constantly stared at — especially by older people — in most places I go. I have had people ask to take my picture. I have had people ask me about my hair. I have even had people not want to sit next to me on the subway because they were afraid — perhaps moreso because I was foreign. When I first got here, all of this attention — both good and bad — made me quite uncomfortable. Even though I was prepared and had done my research, experiencing it first-hand was quite different from what I expected.
By now, I have become so used to being foreign that I hardly notice it. But I cannot say that I am completely comfortable in my exoticness here. For me, it is slightly degrading, because it makes me feel less like a human and more like a public exhibit, though I know that most Korean people do not intend it to be that way. I sometimes try to put myself in their shoes and imagine living in a country where 97 percent of the population looks as I do, talks like I do and shares the same history as I do. If I, by chance, suddenly encountered someone who did not have any of these things in common with me, my reaction would probably be similar.
Then again, this feeling of being uncomfortable in my blackness is not a new one. Lately, I have been having a lot of thoughts comparing and contrasting my experience in Korea to my experience back in the U.S., especially with the spree of police killings of black people that have been making headlines this past week.
One difference is that I do not fear for my physical safety here in Korea, which is unfortunately a legitimate fear of mine back in the United States, but I still feel like an outsider in Korea. When I walk into a room here, the first thing people notice is the fact that I am foreign. While most of the attention is positive, I would honestly prefer if there were no attention at all. I like the fact that back home I am “normal,” and I blend in. I feel significantly less self-conscious in my appearance because I know that I am not constantly being stared at because of it.
However, I have also struggled a lot culturally in the United States because of my blackness. I am afraid of perpetuating preconceived notions that nonblack people may have of me, but I am also afraid of not fulfilling the expectations that other black people may have for me. Growing up, I was always the kid who was—to quote Earl Sweatshirt’s “Chum” — “too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks.” I guess, for me, Korea just highlights how far I must go in being comfortable in my skin and my identity, because if I truly were, none of this would bother me.
I do not see all of these emotions and thoughts that I have been having as a bad thing. I take it as a challenge, really. And I am quite thankful that Korea has brought this to my attention. If I could only overcome my concern about other people’s gazes, I think I would be much happier with myself.
Jasmine White is a junior in the College. Settling in Seoul appears every other Friday.
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