Black in Korea: Will Smith & Obama Effect
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I spent the better part of four years in South Korea trying to transcend my blackness, but, thankfully, Koreans didn’t allow me to. Several symbolic moments helped me reconcile with my circumstances. Without having to compromise myself, I was able to exchange ideas with Koreans on how to accept and respect our differences.
This may sound superficial, but Will Smith’s and Barack Obama’s international popularity represented the “exceptional black man,” and I wanted to live up to that perception by displaying the multidimensional ways of being black.
No matter how much we want to be color-blind humans holding hands under a colorful rainbow, our cross-cultural experiences will always be shaped by rigid social constructs. Under that fictional rainbow, we spill stereotypes, xenophobia, prejudice, racism, sexism, and all other “isms” into that pot of worthless gold found in every prideful country.
My American nationality, unlike my white colleagues, was not a default for me in Korea. I was considered African first (which I didn’t mind at all). And my long dreadlocks stood out like peacock feathers. And, at times, I felt like an X-men mutant. Despite many awkward interactions, those four years in Korea was, by far, one of the best experiences in my entire life. I encountered myself, and redefined what it meant to be human.
I’ve chosen 5 of my videos that best illustrate the power of love & happiness:
1. The ajumma (elder woman) who touched a black man for the first time:
She was eager to touch my black skin and hair. I never took offense because I understood the value of human touch and immediately recognized her good intentions. It was an innocent desire to physically connect because human touch is our greatest way of communicating.
Location: Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival (정월대보름들불축제), Jeju-do island.
2. My Students Taught Me Jeju Dialect (제주 사투리)
Due to President Obama’s well-acknowledged oratorical skills, Koreans could no longer assume that every black person spoke “black” or “ghetto” English. Obama’s international popularity, at its height in 2010, symbolically validated my teaching position. I was able to teach my students about regional English with a quick point of reference. And, in return, my students taught me Jeju dialect (제주 사투리). Koreans on the mainland can’t speak or understand Jeju dialect; Language obviously has the power to unite and divide people.
3. Old ahjussi (elderly man) sang a classic song for me
A long day in school had just ended and I was on my way to write for the Busan International Film Festival. The local gardner saw pure fatigue dripping down my face, and knew that the act of singing had the potential to uplift my psychological wellbeing. He asked if I missed my hometown, and proceeded to sing 꿈에본 내고향, a classic Korean hometown song. I didn’t understand the lyrics, but it didn’t matter at the time. The passionate delivery soothed my tired soul.
4. A Korean teaching Arabic to an American
Teaching abroad is, in fact, a learning experience. An English camp intern, who spent sometime in Dubai, taught me a few Arabic words and explained her “reverse culture shock” experience in Korea. Something as small as greeting gestures can make one feel alienated in a different country. Bow or shake? Hug or kiss? Actually discussing our similarities & differences was a form of mental therapy.
5. Deep interviews with students about society, fear and aspirations.
Aside from simultaneously breaking racial stereotypes, my students and I talked about educational pressure, their aspirations, fears, suicide (off camera), friendship, music (Kpop), culture, and everything else that made our connection genuine and sincere. I taught elementary, middle school, and high school–my middle school boys were, by far, the most introspective.
“I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.” – James Baldwin
These are the top 5 questions I received after returning back to the U.S.
1. “How was China?” No, I was in Korea. “Oh, why the hell did you go so far anyway?”
-I went, because…well, why not? I wanted to escape my American bubble for a while.
2. “How was the food? Did you eat that Old Boy octopus, too?”
No, but I was fed octopus from a Jeju diving woman (Haenyeo). Korean food was great–too many favorites.
3. “How was the dating life? Compare it to West Palm Beach and Miami”
I dated both foreign and Korean women. Love is universal–cultural differences is just the seasoning that adds a little flavor.
4. “How did they treat black people? Are they even aware of Haitian-Americans?”
It didn’t take too long for my students to understand my hyphenated identity because I arrived several weeks after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. I was suddenly a Haitian-American ambassador, because I was one of a few in the entire country, and the only one in Jeju at the time.
5. “Did they like your dreads?”
Koreans were extremely fascinated by my hair. I mean..almost, too fascinated.
Dreadlocks (like beautiful natural hair on black women) creates a powerful presence–some people love it, others are intimidated by it. Know your market and move on.
As for the main picture, this lady didn’t ask for permission when she grabbed my hair, so when I turned around to show her, she was quite intimidated. Perfect shot!
I actually enjoyed my existential roller coaster ride in South Korea–it will always feel like a second home. Greetings to all the beautiful foreign and Korean friends that I’ve made over the years. I’m back in the U.S. now, but I’ll see you soon. We have more connecting to do. OneLove!
Read this article on OogeeWoogee by Wilkine Brutus, Koreaboo’s newly launched content partner. Koreaboo’s partner platform is where celebrities, content creators and our friends share a unique perspective on Korean content to our readers with original content!
About The Author:
Wilkine Brutus is Haitian-American writer, event host, and YouTuber who spent 4 years in South Korea exploring the intersection between culture, human interaction, and language. He’s the Content Director for OogeeWoogee (website and multimedia studio), and founder/editor-
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