Politics

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

Parisian

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

American

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.

Culture

The Best African Memes of 2018

Laugh with us into 2019 with OkayAfrica's best African memes of 2018.

Meme culture has become a mainstay on these internet streets. It's essentially an alternate form of communicating, of commentary and of simple laughter. 2018 had its fair share of highs and lows, and young Africans continue to utilize memes to celebrate or to cope with the nonsense.

To reflect on the African memes that broke the internet this year, we tapped contributors and African meme tastemakers to list the best African memes of 2018.

Laugh away below.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.

News

J Hus Has Been Sentenced to Eight Months in Jail for Knife Possession

The rapper has been convicted following an arrest in June.

Gambian-Biritish grime rapper J Hus has been sentenced to eight months in prison for knife possesion, reports BBC News.

The artist, neé Momodou Jallow, was arrested in Stratford London in June when police pulled him over near a shopping center, claming that they smelled cannabis. Police officers asked Hus if he was carrying anything illegal, to which the rapper admitted that he had a 10cm folding knife in his possession. When asked why, he responded: "You know, it's Westfield."

Hus pleaded guilty at a hearing in October after initially pleading not guilty.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.