Finding Black Girl Magic in South Korea

The answer to the question “Where are you from?"—South Africa in my case—has lead to both interesting and awkward encounters during my time in South Korea. Most locals usually guess “Miguk" which means America and when I say “no, South Africa," they give me a perplexed look. It's as if they're trying to connect the dots, like, "how did she end up all the way in South Korea." After a slight delay they respond with an “ahhh Africa." On a good day someone will say “ahhh, Nelson Mandela." Which leaves me hopeful; at least someone knows where I'm from.

Moving to South Korea happened quickly so I didn't have time to research other black women's experiences living in the East Asian country. I was overwhelmed by all the paperwork and the thought of leaving my old life behind to start a new one.

During several job interviews, interviewees tried to explain that I would experience culture shock, and that locals would act very surprised to see me. I was also informed that the food would be very different and that it was really going to be a massive change. But I didn't think too much about how it would be as a black woman, besides the issue of people touching my hair and how I was going to respond.

I think I remember telling some of my friends that I'm no stranger to any of these things—for instance, when I had holiday jobs during school holidays I had a few white customers who were surprised at my mastery of English. I also had white friends who were amazed at my weave or braids. If I was going to be othered, it was nothing I had not experienced before. I did watch a few YouTube videos on interracial dating in South Korea because I was interested in what was going to happen to my dating life, which was almost non-existent before I left South Africa anyway. Thinking back, nothing shocked me. I was feeling pretty confident.

My first few months were pure bliss. I was happy to be away from home and I was happy to be in a new environment, to be meeting new people, and to be living in South Korea. But the hype started wearing off when I had an experience on a job where it literally felt like I was in high school and a group of mean girls were picking on me. It led me to start thinking about race and what life in Korea is like as a black woman.

The answer: it's complicated.

I began having conversations with other black women in South Korea. Some have lived in other parts of Asia too. I wanted to hear about their experiences. Here's what they had to say.

Social Life

Emi Mwendapole, 27

Nationality: {First generation} American

When did you first move to South Korea?

In August 2012. I was here for a year and nine months then left and returned in August 2014.

What was it like when you first arrived in South Korea?

It was [interesting] getting used to the new environment and getting used to being othered.

What do you mean by saying getting used to being othered?

Well, I guess I wasn't used to people watching me and looking at me because they weren't used to seeing black people. This was when I first arrived and lived in Jeonju. It's not like that in Seoul.

What else was interesting about traveling or living in South Korea?

Being considered American all of a sudden. Because in America I know I'm American but there isn't that much emphasis. I'm first generation American.

Do you feel more American in Korea?

Well, when I first arrived a lot of Koreans didn't think I was American because I was black. But that's changed quite a bit. The perception has been that black people are not from America.

Do Koreans still respond that way to black Americans today?

Over the past few years Korean [young people] have been exposed more to America through music, social media and culture. Hip-hop music is very popular here. Thanks to trap music we [black people] are now seen as Americans.

Do you get unwanted attention? Have you ever been treated differently?

No, if anything the attention has been great. Since living in South Korea I have started getting modelling gigs. Koreans will tell you if you look good. So I've been really lucky here. I've kinda popped up. The only thing I see as negative is how people see black people—it's surface-level based. There's no real understanding of black people.

What's been hard about living here?

Trying to get a job as a black person is hard. This March I was looking for jobs. I interviewed with the recruiters who were happy and a few days later they called me to tell me the school didn't want to hire black people. Young people are open to black people, maybe it's not quite the same with the older people.

Any quirky stories?

People smelling my hands and touching my skin wondering why it's so soft.

Do you see yourself living here and settling long-term?

No, I'd consider doing business here maybe and being between here and somewhere else. I respect Korea for coming from nothing and building themselves up to where they are today. I like the hustle.

Jennifer Bobinski , 26


How long have you lived in South Korea?

5 years. I have been back and forth.

Why did you come to Korea?

In university, my major was Korean studies. I wanted to learn more about the people and the culture. So my friends and I decided to visit. A lot of my teachers encouraged us to visit South Korea.

What were some of the things you thought you would encounter in Korea?

We were all from France but a lot of us are children of immigrants. I thought we would have a lot of difficulties but the opposite was true.

How so?

Old people were a lot more open without any shyness. Young people would come to us with the “ Yo, what's up," attitude. If you're black in Korea, you're from America.

So you left Korea and came back, what made you come back?

The atmosphere; the party life is crazy and everything is open 24 hours. Compared to France the economy is still growing.

Since the first time you arrived in Korea to now, how are things different?

I have not seen much of a change in the way Koreans interact with black people. Guys still come up to you in the club and say things like, “I'm sure you can dance," or “ you're really pretty, you're American?"

Do you have Korean friends and do you have conversations about race?

The friends that have lived outside of Korea can speak openly about race and they are more aware.

Work and Social Life

Yonela Noruwana, 29

South African

You've lived in South Korea and Cambodia, how has that been?

I really like South Korea, I have a lot more freedom here than in Cambodia or South Africa.

What do you mean by freedom?

Financial freedom mostly. And I haven't really felt oppressed by restrictions (such as the way you are expected to dress), I wear what I want, I party the same way I did when I was back home.

Do locals stare at you and how is that different or similar to living in Cambodia?

People stare all the time. It doesn't even bother me anymore. I just smile. It's something I had to live with when I was in Cambodia, where people aren't even ashamed to stop their cars to look at me. People even take pictures of you without your permission or they'll pretend they're taking a selfie to sneak you into their picture.

Is it the same for other foreigners?

There are not that many black women in Cambodia. While I lived there I met 4 other black women. I think that's the reason white women don't get stared at as much.

What was it like as a black woman in Cambodia?

I felt like there was so little regard for us. You get overlooked a lot. In the way that locals and other foreigners speak to you and treat you. Men, locals and some European foreigners very often made inappropriate remarks like “ do you want to make boom boom?" They look at you like you are an object of desire.

What was the hardest about living in Cambodia?

I was teaching at a kindergarten, the principal pulled me aside and told me the parents didn't think I'd be suitable. I found out that it was because some parents did not want a black teacher teaching their children. There is quite a bit of blatant discrimination. As a black woman you will normally work in a kindergarten and get paid less. I had a male friend who had the same job as me, at the same institution, who was getting paid more.

Have you experienced similar incidents here in South Korea?

I was out with my friends (who are foreign) in Seoul once. My friends went in the club, I went somewhere else quickly. When I came back to try and meet them inside I was told “Korean's only."

Dating Life

Regina, 26


When did you first more to South Korea?

I first came here as a student in August 2012 and left. Then I returned in 2014.

Why did you come back?

I really missed Korea. It was the only thing on my mind, it felt right to come back. I really enjoyed the atmosphere here.

Living in Korea as a black woman, what is that like?

Being a black woman can be difficult, it's not easy but it has its advantages.

What do you mean by advantages?

In terms of dating, you stand out. More men are interested because we seem more exotic.

And you enjoy this?

It's nice to stand out in the Korean dating scene but it feels terrible to be fetishized.

And what is life like in general?

It's good mostly but I have experienced some difficulties with a few companies that won't hire you specifically because you are not a white female. I have a Korean friend who has spoken with me about how racist Koreans can be and how much he hates it.

How do you deal with some of these situations?

There is racism in Korea, but I feel like it is easier to deal with than the racism in America. The racism in America is deep seated hate. We are taught to hate ourselves.

And the racism in Korea, how is it different?

In Korea people are ignorant. They don't know that touching your hair is not okay. Or asking if you can sing or dance. But when it comes to marriage they are really against interracial marriage. This is why I have decided to stop dating Korean men.

What's the Korean dating scene like?

Since arriving in Korea I just wanted to marry a Korean. But then realised and accepted that I don't qualify in their eyes.

The author, left.

So, that's what some women had to say. It may seem mild to some of you. You might be thinking, “it can't be that bad if you're still there."

What annoys me most is when offensive and racist behavior is pardoned because of ignorance. I'm sorry but in a country with the fastest internet speed; with no censorship laws like China for example and where young people have access to and are obsessed with American and Hip Hop culture. I find it really hard to believe that the issue is still ignorance. It's quite easy to become more aware of one's behaviour. The ongoing use of ignorance as an excuse exposes an unending willingness to legitimize inappropriate and ill-informed behaviour.

I had an interesting encounter at the market in my old hometown in Jeollanamdo, I went to the market to buy some fish from the ajumma's (a term used to address elderly women in Korea). As I was trying to explain in broken Korean that I wanted some mackerel, I noticed an ajumma behind me who was about to touch my hair, her companion hit her hand and must've told her not to in Korean because she didn't end up touching my hair. It's the first time that has happened.

How does one person ( an elderly person in a small town) know that touching my hair is inappropriate? I am not going to spend all of my days correcting every single person's behavior, it's tiring. I have let a few people touch my hair, because I see that it is out of genuine interest. Perhaps I am guilty of condoning inappropriate behaviour.

However, when it comes to Korean men, I have all the time in the world to tell them off. There have been a few incidents where I have been in sticky situations, in all instances I have stood my ground. I argue that there is no misunderstanding when it comes to being sexually inappropriate. Universally we all know what is ok and what is not ok. I have had old men who has asked whether they can come to my house and I'm like … “ to do what"?

I would go as far as saying there is slight disregard for black women and women of color and this disregard will stick if we condone this othering of ourselves.

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