Written by Elliott Ashby
Published by Groove Magazine
Korea is like a girlfriend that you love, but sometimes she gets on your damn nerves! That’s honestly how I feel sometimes.
On the lovely side of things, I’ve never experienced so much random kindness until I moved to the Land of the Morning Calm. One cold winter day in 2009 an older Korean lady walked up to me, took off her scarf, and wrapped it around my neck. I tried to refuse the gesture but she smiled and insisted I take it.
People have gone out of their way to make me feel at home in their country time and time again. Strangers have led me to my destination when I was lost. Local restaurants routinely show me love by hooking me up with free stuff.
Good things happen to me in Korea and what’s why I stay there for 5 years.
On the flipside, Korea has also surprised me with ignorance and discrimination. Back in 2011 when I was applying for a new job, I went to a popular job site to search for positions and I found a pretty good one. The pay and the hours were great, but as I scrolled down the page I reached the preferences section where they made it clear they preferred a White woman for the job. If that wasn’t clear enough the next few words plainly stated job applicants could be mixed but, ‘Not 100% Black.’ This was not an isolated incident, it’s a reality for many Black people living in Korea. It’s a lot more difficult if you are from Africa.
That’s why at times, Korea gets on my damn nerves! That, and the cold nights after work when I stood watching as the taxis breezed right by me, picking up everyone else except me. I had a lot of those nights.
However I am optimistic about Korea’s ability to change. Most of the discrimination I’ve witnessed in the country is bred out of ignorance and fear, not hatred. And we are all ignorant in some respects until we are exposed to the truth and educated with facts.
I was once very ignorant about Korea too. Beyond eating Korean BBQ and going to Noraebang in Los Angeles, I had virtually no exposure or knowledge of Korean culture. My education of Korean culture began the moment I stepped off the plane. I learned that not all Asian children are good at math and not every Asian person knows martial arts.
My shallow understanding of Korean culture was matched by the oversimplified ideas many Korean people had about Black culture. I encountered Koreans who were knowledgeable about iconic Black figures like Michael Jordan and Jay-Z but they didn’t know much about relating to Black people. My students rubbed my skin and asked why I was Black. They didn’t understand how I washed my hair or why my palms were a different color than the outside of my hands. The people I encountered on the streets must have been equally confused because they typically just stared at me.
But I get it. The same way many Americans live in a bubble and don’t think about the world around them, many Koreans live in an insular society that hasn’t interacted much with foreigners. This has led to a lot of awkward moments, but it’s also allowed me to challenge people’s notions. One time in class I took a break from our lesson and pointed across the room to a world map. I asked my students if Southeast Asian countries and East Asian countries were similar or if they had significant differences. They told me that there were a lot of differences between Asian countries. I agreed and moved on to my next question. I asked them if there were a lot of similarities between East Asian countries. Again, the majority of my students told me China, Japan and Korea are all very different. Then I pointed to another location on the map– Africa. I asked the students if the continent of Africa had the same diversity. They immediately said no. I said , “You mean to tell me a continent with over 50 countries, 2,000 languages and four uniquely separate regions are all the same?” I smiled at them as I watched their brains put the pieces together.
Racism and discrimination are not a problems unique to South Korea, they are worldwide problems that will always exist. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t work toward eradicating the ignorance that breeds them. All foreigners and Koreans have a responsibility to act and speak out when discrimination is happening around them. By using ignorant comments and unfair treatment as teachable moments we will, in fact, make Korea a better place. Koreans have taught me a lot and replaced my ignorance with knowledge, I just hope we all, as foreigners, have had a similar impact on them.