“What is it like being black in Korea?” is always a question I get asked when talking to other black people about my time in Korea. This general topic is very interesting but a sub-topic under this general umbrella is “What is it like being African in Korea”?
While I am British Nigerian and definitely benefited from “British Privilege” I was able to see and come across perceptions that some Koreans may have about Africans. I find this topic so interesting that I have decided to retell some travel stories of some experiences I had in South Korea in regards to what perceptions of Africans are.
Teaching At School Being African
I taught in a primary school in South Korea and after I was introduced to the school and went back to my office some first graders knocked on my door and said to me “Africa”. They were laughing so much at this, now the issue is not that they thought I was from Africa, the issue was that they were laughing. My thoughts were “What’s funny? What is funny about that?” “Why would first graders think it’s funny to be from Africa? Where do they get that from?”
At my school we used a textbook that had a black boy in the book. I think their aim was to make it diverse, but some students would laugh at him. Now not all students would laugh at him but I just thought it was a shame that some thought it was even remotely funny.
Once when teaching at my school we used a textbook that corresponded with an interactive book that we used on a television screen. This particular animation on the screen showed an African with leafs around their waist like a skirt. This did not make any sense to me because I felt they were unconsciously teaching the children incorrect information about Africans. I was upset about this and tried to look in the text book to find a contact email to send a message to the authors of the course but there was none and I didn’t feel like my co-teachers would understand since they saw nothing wrong with the animation. This was clearly an assumption on my part and should have made more effort but I will say at this point I was very much over a lot of things.
General Life of Being African in Korea
Here are some experiences during general living of life in Korea.
Once when I went to the dentist and was sitting in the reception area there was a advert on the TV screen. This advert happened to be a red cross charity type of advert where they were showing malnourished children from Africa and were asking for donations. My thoughts were that if this is all many people in Korea are seeing about Africa and have not really interacted with an African. They will naturally think that this is what the whole continent of Africa is like and will no think any different .
On another occasion was when I was talking to a friend who was also my landlord’s son. He spoke great English because he was studying English at University. We are both Christians so he was telling me about a trip he was going on with his church to South Africa. I was excited to hear this news, told him I really wanted to visit and that I thought he would enjoy it! He sounded very nervous but I wasn’t really sure why. When he returned from his trip I asked how it was and he responded “ I was so shocked, I thought it would be like a Jungle but it was kind of like Europe”. All I could do was laugh because I laugh when I am nervous but really I could have put in more effort to discuss it with him further. I pretty much confirmed that South Africa was not a jungle and let it be.
Sam Okyere – African in Korea
Now although there are negative perceptions about Africa there are also people helping to create positive perceptions. One of those people is Sam Okyere from Ghana who is a TV personality in South Korea. He happens to be fluent in Korean and has also appeared in 30 under 30 on Forbes. He first moved to Korea as a student and started off with modelling and has pretty much become a celebrity.
My co-teacher once used a clip with Sam Okyere and other foreigners in it in class and my students knew who he was and happened to really like him. This made me realize that it requires more Africans to learn Korean, to really be able to relate and to speak to them and to provide culture exchange.
Other positive experiences I had were when some Korean men who worked at Hyundai asked me if I was Nigerian. I responded yes and they proceeded to spoke very well of the Nigerians who worked in their offices. A very similar thing happened when I went to a language exchange where they spoke well of Nigerians again. There is also a Seoul Korean Festival that happens yearly which I think is a wonderful time for cultural exchange.
This is a topic I find very interesting and as you can see these are based on my experiences. It is not all bad and can be very balanced. Obviously not all countries in Africa are a bed of roses but it would be great if the narrative of Africa was a lot more balanced.
What do you guys think about it? How do you feel perceptions of Africa could be improved? Do you have any experience with living or studying in Korea?