My KBOP Monday: What Was Korea Really Like As A Black Man?

There are many people who wonder what Korea is like.  Korea is country where about 97% of people who live there are Korean.  It is not unusual for people in some parts of Korea to have not seen many, if any, non Koreans in person. Because many do not go to Korea, they are only left with other people’s view of Korea and Korean people.  For a long time, this has included the view that Koreans hate Black people and do not want them in their country.  Often times I am asked questions about what Korea was like for me in the brief time I was there, and how Korea can be for a Black person.  So here is my take on what it was like for me in the time I was in Seoul, Korea, from My KBOP.

What I Was Told Korea Would Be Like

When people found out I was going to Korea, a number of Korean Americans tried to “warn me” about the realities of Korea.  Things such as “people will hate you because you have dark skin”, “no one will find out attractive because you are Black” “people will point at you, stare at you and make fun of you”, “don’t expect to make any friends while you are there” and so on and so forth.  Not everyone was so negative about things.  Some that I knew thought I should have gone to Korea a long time before I actually went.  But most expressed things that they felt I should have looked out for. Their view of how I would be treated, and how I was actually treated turned out to be totally different.

What Korea Was Really Like

As a lot of people do, I spent most of my time in Seoul. Seoul is divided by the Han River and divided in to different Gu’s or distracts.  So I spent my time in Gangnam-Gu and Dobong-Gu.  Gangnam-Gu is not only famous for a song by Psy, but is also called by some the Beverly Hills of Korea.  A number of famous KPop stars live in Gangnam, as well as many offices for different businesses in Korea such as KPop entertainment companies and Google. Gangnam is also known for plastic surgery centers.

Being a tall, dark, heavy set Black man would cause people to stair at me in many parts of the US wondering what I was doing in an area.  But that didn’t happen any where in Seoul, or Korea for that matter.  No one crossed the street when they saw me, women didn’t switch their purses to the other side of their body, I wasn’t followed around by anyone, no one made fun of me or treated me with prejudice while I was there.  Not on the bus, not in the subway, not walking down the street, not in restaurants, not at street vendors, not anywhere.  I was treated like a human being.  Little kids weren’t afraid of me, well one was when he realized his dad wasn’t holding him, but some thought it was cool to see a Black person speaking Korean to them.  (I walked by a school in Dobong-Gu and a kid called his friends over to look at me when he found out I could speak Korean.  On a subway ride, a couple of kids thought it was cool that I waved at them.  But no strange stories involving kids.)

What about the notion that Koreans don’t want Black people in their country?  Given the history of Korea, one could argue that some Koreans don’t want any non Koreans in their country, including other Asians who are not Korean.  But the people I came across didn’t feel that way.  Some still ask me when I’m moving to Korea and to what part of Korea I’m moving to.  Some Koreans have adopted me as part of their family.  In short, everything that I was “warned” about didn’t happen.

Why Did People “Warn” Me About Korea?

The people who warned me about Korea were Korean Americans who were basically letting me know what their feelings are about me and anyone who looks like me.  To sum up what some of these people feel about Korean culture, one Korean American, who had been drinking at the time he said this, tried to explain that only non Koreans who will allow Koreans to treat them however they feel like and will do whatever they are told should be welcomed into the culture.  He also advocated treating non Koreans horribly in the beginning in hopes that they will go away.  Needless to say, I don’t associate with people like this and am proud of the fact that they don’t consider me to be their friend.

But what about the people who wanted me to go to Korea long before I did?  I remember one such person who asked me not to judge Korean culture and Korean people by what I was seeing in my area.  Once I got to Korea, I realized what he was talking about.  Korean culture is a complicated one to say the least.  My experience in Korea and around Korean people is not the same as everyone else.  And there are different factors that go into what a person goes through.

My advice to anyone, regardless of their color, that wants to experience Korean culture?  Go to Korea and see if for yourself.  Don’t allow other people’s view to cloud your judgement.  As a Black man, I love Korea and the life of the average person there.  And I’ve met a number of Black men and women who feel the same way.  But just because we love it there, it doesn’t mean you will love it there also.  In life, you have to take chances to gain knowledge.  My recommendation is to take a chance and experience Korea for yourself.  You may be surprised at how good of a time you have, how much love you gain and how well you are treated.  Seoul, Korea is truly a special place to be, at least from My KBOP.