The Diary of a Black Sheep in a Homogenous Society
Like any millennial, I did extensive research into South Korea before I arrived, which just means I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read many blog and reddit posts. As someone of African descent, I was worried that Koreans would not be as welcoming to people that looked like me. So, I made sure to watch videos or to read blogs that specifically detailed the African-American/African experience in South Korea. I found a lot of varying accounts, some good, some bad and some downright terrifying. Although I kept all I learned as a precaution, I did not let it deter me from pursuing an exchange program in Korea. I understood that everyone has their own experiences and that no two experiences are the same, so I kept an open mind and hoped for the best.
Korea is a homogenous society with only a small number of non-Koreans. I knew that I would stand out in Korea and I mentally prepared myself for this, or so I thought. I was not prepared for the stares. I don’t mean glances or short stares, but rather intense, non-blinking, long stares. These are staring competition, gold medal worthy stares. The first week I was here, the stares made me feel self-conscious, as if I was doing something wrong. Whenever someone stared at me, I wanted to curl up into a ball and just disappear. In the U.S., I’m just any other person, so I rarely dealt with staring, but this experience really showed me that I was in a foreign country. However, after the first 10 days, I noticed the stares less and less and, nowadays, I don’t notice the stares at all (unless it’s an intense stare). Also, from what I’ve observed, there is no ill-intent behind the stares I’ve received, just curiosity and wonder. Some people have even smiled and said hello to me, so it’s not a negative experience.
I hope that my experience doesn’t deter anyone else who hopes to study in South Korea. To be honest, the stares are only from a small group of the population and I sense no ill-intent from those who do stare at me. In fact, I have had a lot of positive experiences here and most of the Korean natives I have met are very kind and attentive. Also, a benefit of not fitting the societal norms (physically) is that I don’t have to worry about the pressure of beauty standards here. Oddly enough, I feel freer here in Korea than I did back home. Free in the sense that I can dress up as I please and not worry if others think I’m “trying too hard”. Almost everyone here pays great attention to their appearance and, although it sounds odd, it gives me the freedom to try certain dress styles and looks that I may not have felt comfortable trying in the U.S.