Tips For Traveling And Living In Korea And What It’s Like Being Korean And Black

It’s a normal Korean spring day and I’m walking along a bustling Seoul street. While minding my own business, a group of three ajhummas (Korean for middle-aged-cranky-married women with short curly permed hair) approach me. They look at my hair in amazement and chat amongst themselves in Korean.

Traveling While Korean-Black and Korean

Ahjumma #1: Wow! Wow! Wow! Look at her hair!
Ahjumma #2: That’s all of her hair.
Ahjumma #3: No, that can’t be. Could it?
Ahjumma #2: That’s her hair! It’s so big and pretty.

I overhear their conversation and give them a big, infectious smile. Most Koreans don’t think I speak Korean because of my skin color, but oh, do I prove them wrong!

Me: 감사합니다. (Gam-sa-ham-ni-da or “Thank You” in Korean)
Ahjumma #3: Is that all of your hair?
Me: Yes! It’s all mine.
Ahjumma #3: Is it a perm?
Me: What? A perm? What’s that? No! Natural curls.
Ahjummas: What? No perm? Unbelievable! Can we touch your hair?

Since they ask nicely, I let them touch an inch of my ends.

Traveling While Korean-Rebecca

Ahjumma #1: I wish my hair was thick like yours. By the way, your Korean is very good. You speak like a native Korean.
Me: Well, I am Korean and my first language is Korean.
Ahjummas: What? No way! I don’t believe you.
Me: Yes, I was born and raised in Korea. My mother is Korean.
Ahjummas: Ah, I see! No wonder your Korean is so good.

See the thing is this: Being Asian does not necessarily only come in a “yellow” shade of what is customarily known to the world. There are mixed individuals like myself who are perceived by some of the world as not being Asian due to skin color. Now, does skin color truly influence who you are? Unfortunately, the answer should clearly be “NO,” but the world we live in today would state and show otherwise. The world has become so twisted and ignorant. So I, the Black and Korean a.k.a Blasian, caramel skinned, thick lioness curly hair, freckled face girl will break down what it’s like to bridge this gap in understanding.

Traveling While Korean-Mom

To get a better idea on how a Blasian woman like me came about, let’s go back to when my father and mother met.

At the time, my father was in the U.S. Army stationed in Korea. The concept of a Korean dating or marrying a foreigner was frowned upon. It was not accepted since it did not go along with the tradition of maintaining the Korean bloodline and culture. However, that’s what happens when you have military personnel in a small town. It’s bound to happen. As a result, my siblings and I were born in a time that being a mixed breed was not kindly looked upon.

No matter, my parents and grandparents did a good job in laying the foundational blocks for both cultures. There was never a time we felt out of place in a country full of Asians while being Black. So for the first five years of my life, Korea and the Korean language was all that I knew.

Traveling While Korean-Being Mixed

Upon moving to the States at the age of five, America was a foreign country to me. So foreign, in fact, that I refused to learn English until the 2nd grade and had Korean teachers until the 4th grade. Thus, at an early age, I began to blend the two worlds together on my own.

Since then, blending the two worlds together hasn’t been an easy feat. The biggest struggle and hardship that I face–and still have to experience­–is when Korean’s do not believe I am Korean.

Even when I lived in Koreatown in Los Angeles, California, it was still unbelievable for Koreans and Korean Americans to think that I am half Korean. When I moved back to Korea in 2016, I still ran into the same struggle even though I knew the language and culture, sometimes even better than Korean-Americans, yet was still not seen as part of their community. Was it really my skin color that made Koreans not accept me as “Korean”? Does my skin color have to be a lighter shade? Must I be skinnier?

I love my caramel slim thick thighs and nice size 34C cups. So the true and real struggle lies elsewhere and not within me. I love who I am both on the inside and out, a woman who tries her utmost to blend the best of her two worlds. I’ve learned to come to terms with this “battle” of being accepted as a “Korean”. You can’t force someone to open his or her mind.

Traveling While Korean-Selfie

As a bridge between two worlds, here are some tips for traveling to Korea.

Koreans are nice and helpful individuals when given the chance to step up to the plate. But for someone outside of Korean culture, there are some things that may be off-putting.

  • Do not expect an ‘excuse me’ if you get jabbed with an elbow while entering/exiting the subway/bus or even while walking down the street.
  • The older the person, the more they think they’re invisible while cutting the line, just so they can get a seat first. This might be perceived as being rude for other nationalities, but this is just how they are.
  • If you’re a foreigner and riding on public transportation, don’t expect people to sit next to you right away. You will not be their first choice. They are hesitant because they see you as an outsider.
  • If you happen to ask a question in English, since their English is not up to par, they want nothing to do with you. Although, some will go out of their way to speak to you if you look lost or confused.
  • In Korea, it is polite to bow when you meet someone.
  • It is also custom in the majority of Asian households to take off your shoes before entering a home.
  • Koreans struggle with staring and not smiling. When I tell you that they have the most smug faces around, it’s almost as if they want to walk around looking miserable. I have a 3 second rule and so far it has worked every time. If I see a person staring at me, I count 3 seconds and if they’re still staring, I smile and say hello. Everyone has reciprocated a smile and a hello right back.
  • If you’re the type to always smile at everyone, don’t expect Koreans to smile each and every time you show your curve. However, if you do catch a smile from them, smile back because they get very happy and giddy, making you question everything you just read.
  • I love Koreans, but sometimes the struggle is real. Nonetheless, always be polite no matter the number of elbow jabs you receive, empty seats next to you on the subway, and unreciprocated smiles. You, after all, in their country.

Traveling-While-Korean-train.jpeg

South Korea is a country founded upon rich culture, customs and beliefs that date back to the GoJoseon Dynasty (est. 2333 B.C.).

Korea prides itself on its history and tradition, but at the same time, it is slowly but surely breaking the mold of certain traditions when it comes to accepting “foreigners.” In more recent years, Korea has been welcoming foreigners to be a part of its culture at every turn. Living in Korea, I cannot recount a time when I wasn’t asked to participate in events to delve deeper into the Korean culture. Events are held throughout the year and can be enjoyed by foreigners and citizens alike.

A favorite event I’ve had the pleasure of participating in is the “Yeon Deung Hoe” (연등회, Lotus Lantern Festival). This 3-day festival takes place during the second weekend of May. The festival wishes the world great happiness when lanterns are lit and fill the streets, allowing the brightness into each and every one of our hearts. Beautiful music, dance performances and a splendid show of lanterns parade down the streets at night. The streets are packed with the performers and paraders holding hands, chanting and dancing alongside each other. Just like how the lanterns of different shapes, sizes, and colors fill the streets, Koreans and people of different nationalities come together to enjoy their time. Experiencing this is so touching for me because I can tell there is a bridge being formed between Korea and other countries. Seeing this, I know I’m not the only one who can build a bridge. Literally anyone who puts their heart to it can.Traveling While Korean-South Korean Flag.jpeg

Traveling While Korean

The dreaded question, “Where are you from?” was being asked left and right during the summer of 2017 when I was traveling throughout Southeast Asia for two months. I’d answer them by saying, “I’m from South Korea.” Blank frozen stares, followed by, “WHAT? South Korea… But you don’t look Korean. You’re Black and dark like me.”

I’m sorry, but what is that supposed to mean? You asked me a question and now don’t like the answer you received? Is it too difficult to think beyond your box of what you’re so accustomed to? It is irksome to know that we live in a world as big and connected as this and people play ignorant to the fact that the concept of breeding one race with another procreates a mixed breed. This common misconception follows me more often than not.

Traveling While Korean-Korean people

Different countries receive me differently depending on how familiar they are with Black people rather than Korean people. I receive everyone with an open mind until proven otherwise. However, let me say that the best thing of traveling while being Korean is helping Koreans when in a country where English is the main spoken language. It is always nice to lend a helping hand! And honestly, the shock and surprise on their faces to see a Black woman speak fluent Korean is always an added bonus. They’re so thankful that someone could help and give clarification. These are the times that I truly do feel like a bridge between two worlds, whether it be Korea and America, or Korea and another country. With my help, they can experience a country that other Koreans may not be able to experience.

Traveling While Korean-Korean friends.jpeg

Travel for me is a book with pages filled with adventure and experiences waiting to be embarked upon. It’s always fun traveling to another country and seeing and experiencing their culture, food, and way of life. As a mixed individual in a pretty homogenous country, I believe one of the best ways to continue bridging the gap is to become a part of it. It is always great to know basic cultural differences and customs. Learning a few basic words like “hello” and “thank you“ make a huge difference. It also allows the country’s people to see a different side of the world through you. At the end of the day, being an individual, whether mixed or not, shouldn’t stop you from spreading awareness of different cultures and people.

Traveling While Asian-Korean Pride

If you’re ever traveling in Seoul, South Korea, reach out to me. I’ll be here, so let’s connect. Thanks for stopping by.

Traveling While Korean-Black and Korean

About The Author

Rebecca Chapman was born and raised in South Korea with roots based in Los Angeles and New Orleans, USA. She holds  a J.D. but realized she didn’t want to practice law and moved back to Seoul, South Korea in 2016. She now has her own private tutoring business and her career as an educating entrepreneur has offorded her a life of travel and freedom.

For general/work/booking inquiries, contact her at reb.chpman@gmail.com or follow her journey by clicking on the social media icons below:

13 thoughts on “Tips For Traveling And Living In Korea And What It’s Like Being Korean And Black

  1. I love this post! I think it’s vulnerable and insightful. When I was in Haiti I met Haitians with Middle Eastern heritage. Their parents and grandparents were born in Haiti and were more Haitian than some of the Haitian Americans I know. I’m embarrassed to say this but I made a comment essentially discrediting their Haitian identity. They politely corrected me but explained how common this is. I appreciated my interactions with them and I’m so grateful for this piece because I am able to expand my previously limited definitions on culture/heritage/race. Thanks Rebecca for sharing and thanks Kiona for this platform!

    1. Thank you Abena for sharing that experience with us! Culture/heritage/race goes beyond what’s seen, and it’s a journey I’m on that is still being expanded upon today. Through interactions with others is when I truly learn the most. I truly appreciate you taking the time out and reading this article. Thank you <3

  2. What a great read Rebecca! I can specially relate to scenarios of when people don’t believe me about being born in Brazil or the fact that no Spanish is not my native language. It can be sooo frustratingat times. When you say “You asked me a question and now don’t like the answer you received? Is it too difficult to think beyond your box of what you’re so accustomed to” OMG girl, you know how many times I thought that in my head and wanted to roll my eyes?! But I usually take the high road and take the moment for an opportunity to teach and open people’s narrow perspective even if just a little right? Anyways, great insight for when I go to Korea someday and well written too.

    Ana

    1. Thank you so much Ana !! Yesssssss to taking the high road and using it as a teachable moment!! I wholeheartedly agree with you on that! Well when that day comes, hopefully I’m here and we can meet in person! Thanks again Ana for sharing your relatable story with me!! Much love!

  3. I loved this post! It made me want to go to Korea. It’s always helpful to get this kind of primer from someone so you can recognize when certain customs are just part of someone’s culture and not something to take personally. Also, you’re adorable and a badass! I hope that as the world continues to become more connected, people everywhere get better at thinking outside of the box instead of meeting you with skepticism.

    1. Thank you for your beautiful comment and compliments!! You too are a BADASS!! Love that!! Come visit Korea when you can ❤️✨.

  4. Becs ! Love this post. I am so thankful for you sharing it. I’m so looking forward to Korea next year ! And these tips will help me mentally prepare. Ahhhhhh… love that we (as culture based) are all so different, yet, very much the same.

    1. Charliiiiieeeee!! Queen!! Thank you for reading it and leaving this comment!! Yessssss to mental preparation for next year!! Can’t wait for you to experience the culture when you come! I’m so excited for our journey to come! Love you!!

  5. This is such an awesome post! One of my best friends has been living in Korea for about 13 years and is pretty fluent in Korean. Given that he’s African American, Koreans are always shocked when he starts speaking. We got onto an elevator once, and there were already two older Korean women inside. One woman said something to the other, and then my friend started speaking to her in Korean. She exited the elevator with a look of embarrassment. When I asked my friend what happened, he said that she told the other woman “That’s creepy” when we got on. He asked her: “What’s creepy about two Black guys on an elevator?”
    In any case, Korea is one of my favorite countries! Especially since my best friend lives there, I try to visit once or twice year. (He’s been trying to convince me to move there for a while.) Something about it feels like “home.”

    1. I absolutely LOVE your best friends response to them!!! Yesssssssss!! Go best friend! Thank you for your support. Korea will always be a great place!

  6. I enjoyed reading this very much. It’s nice to get a perspective about traveling in a way which is different from my own. I like that you take pride in being able to help Koreans when traveling to enhance their experience. I’m sure they’re surprised and happy to find that someone they thought may have not been to help is the one who actually does. Traveling abroad is a luxury that not everyone can afford or do frequently and when the opportunity presents itself to be in another country, I always wish that everyone has the best time possible. I’m glad there are people like you who try and help to make sure fellow travelers have the easiest and more rewarding time. Thanks for the tips on traveling in Korea. They seem useful and will give some knowledge which may not be in a tour guide or book.

    1. Thank you Evan for taking the time out and reading this article! I’m glad that I was able to provide a different POV about traveling for you. Having a great time in another country is essential because we all, at the end of the day, want to have a great time. I hope the tips provide you with some great insight. Thanks again!

  7. I loved this!! It helped me so much. I was reading other articles about blacks going to Korea and how it was normally a negative way they treated them, but your article gave me sooooo much insight and it really changed the way I think. I’m hoping to go to Korea sometime next year and i’m slowly but surely learning Korean. I hope to also one day be apart of that bridge. Thank you sooo much I will definitely remember your advice when going there.

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