Seoul, South Korea is known for many things. Samsung. K-pop. Kimchi. Super fast internet. Bomb-ass BBQ. Psy.
It is also well-known for its homogeneity and extreme expectations of beauty. Walking through the streets of Seoul, you will be surrounded by thin, fair-skinned Koreans, with straight, dyed hair. As someone who is melanin-rich, it’s safe to say that I definitely stand out in a crowd. Considering that I’m very far from the Korean standard (chocolate, thick, with big, natural hair), it only makes sense that I’d have some different experiences here in Korea.
Since I’ve gotten so many questions from Black women about things that they should expect during their trip (or move) to Seoul, I decided to make a quick list of some things you might experience while you’re here. So, here goes:
- People are going to stare. A LOT. If you’re really lucky, you’ll even encounter the folks who stop, gasp, point, talk ish, and stare all at the same damn time. At first, it’s extremely annoying and makes you feel uncomfortable as hell. But you’ll get used to it and/or find ways to deal with it. Sometimes I just stare right back. Yeah it’s awkward, but you’d be surprised how many people keep staring even though you’re looking right at them. Other times, I just imagine that they’re staring because I’m so beautiful and they can’t help themselves.
- Random people may ask to take pictures with or of you. Don’t feel obliged to take one if you don’t want to. Usually, I’ll take one with them because it makes me feel like a celebrity. And, I usually pull my phone out as well so I can get a copy of the pic too. But if you’re not in the mood, politely decline and keep it moving.
- If you’re natural or if you like to change your hair a lot, you will be asked about each hairstyle. People are genuinely curious, so use this as an opportunity to educate. It’s great that people are interested in your hair and want to know more about it. I remember spending almost an hour with my co-teacher watching natural hair videos on YouTube, and my students are always confused when I switch it up. I just tell them it’s the #blackgirlmagic.
- Also, some people may ask to touch your hair, and some people may even be bold enough to touch it without asking. Do what makes you comfortable, and don’t be shy to say “no.” If people touch your hair without permission, you can touch theirs back and they’ll see how awkward it is. (*Note: this has the potential to backfire if that person actually likes getting their hair played with. It happened to me before, so I thought I should warn you).
- Speaking of hair, if you have some favorite hair products, bring them so that you can do your hair once you get here. You may be able to buy some products online and get them delivered to you, but it’s always best to have your own just in case. The same goes for make-up.
- If you decide to go out dancing, don’t be surprised if people come up and want to dance with you or ask you to teach them how to dance. Many people think that just because you’re Black, you can sing and dance, which we all know isn’t true.
- If some random hits you with the “Wassup!” or “Yo, yo!,” hit them with your fiercest side-eye and keep it moving. We don’t talk like that. Come correct.
- The N-word. No, no, no. Just no. They can’t say it. The end. If someone tries to say it around you, kindly shut that ish down.
- Some of the older Koreans may look at you and automatically assume that you are African because many of them are under the assumption that all Black people are African. Even in 2016, there are people who are under the assumption that all white people are Americans and all black people are Africans. It’s great if you’re African, but if you’re not, let them know where you’re from. If you really want to be shady, you can ask them if they’re Japanese (because all Asians must be Japanese, right?).
- Also, many Koreans think that all black people look alike. I’ve had people tell me I look like Oprah. *Insert side-eye here* I’ve had a co-teacher tell me, “I know that many Westerners think that we[Koreans] all look alike. But it’s ok, because we think you look alike too.”
And the most important piece of advice:
- Do you, boo!!! The truth is, you’re going to encounter ignorance no matter where you go. There are going to be people who love you and are excited to meet you and there are going to be people who don’t understand you or like you. Explore, learn more about the culture, but don’t let anything deter you from enjoying yourself. People are going to stare regardless, so you might as well wear your biggest twist-out, walk your fiercest walk, and be happy!