Esiri is in her final year of studying Computer Science and Multimedia at Queen Mary University of London after studying abroad at Seoul National University. Read Esiri’s post to explore some of her insights and experiences of studying abroad as a Black woman in South Korea.
“Is that your real hair?” I’m asked in Korean, as an older woman takes a grab at my braids from behind, while I sit in a restaurant about to have lunch. Here is the manifestation of my nightmare in the shape of a 153cm Korean elder.
In the spirit of Black History Month, I thought it would be fitting to talk about navigating my way through Korea as a Black woman. That short anecdote was one of the many experiences I had, where I was confronted with the fact that I was very obviously different in a rather homogenous society.
Before any trip, the search phrase ‘Black in ____’ is likely to be inserted into Google and YouTube by many of us. I believe that there is a lot of the fear and anxiety that is brought upon by reading about and watching the negative experiences of other Black people. Attached to that search phrase are numerous anecdotes of racism and discrimination; doing that search can stop a Black person from going to places they always wanted to go to. I was definitely in the same boat. After watching a plethora of videos, I was overflowing with ‘what ifs’. ‘What if I’m constantly stared at?’, ‘What if I’m made to feel like an outsider?’, ‘What if I face racism and discrimination abroad?’. Unease and uncertainty started to creep in. However, I wasn’t ready to let fear stop me. It was a vice that I was ready to overcome, because it was time to live carefree!
Upon my arrival in Korea, I very quickly noticed that I was the only non-Asian in my train carriage. It was definitely a culture shock leaving behind one of the most diverse cities in the world to live in one of the least. But, with backpack and suitcases in tow, I took my seat and revelled in wonder. One year in this new environment!? The excitement and apprehension filling my stomach.
The best part of my first week in Seoul was spent holed up in my Airbnb. The fears and anxieties, the ‘what ifs’, all filled my mind. I wasn’t quite ready yet to face the finality of my decision to move away from all that was familiar to me. The few times I ventured out for food, I felt hyperaware of every time I made eye contact with a passer-by. As I had gone to Korea alone, I only had myself and my thoughts to occupy me, and that definitely lead me to overthinking every interaction I had.
Just before the start of the semester, Seoul National University held two orientations for international students. With people from all over the world surrounding me, it felt a little like I was back in London, and I finally started to feel a bit more comfortable. Talking to those around me, I realised my feelings of isolation and my worries were shared; there were people who could relate to me. In the two weeks that followed the orientations, I was thrust straight into Korean university life. While juggling exploring, assignments and socialising, my fears of being ostracised quickly disappeared. Life was carrying on as it always did. People didn’t stop mid conversation and point out that I was Black. I wasn’t constantly asked where I came from and I didn’t always get questions about the ins and outs of my hair. Being Black wasn’t my whole identity.
During the Chuseok National Holiday, which was a few weeks after the start of term, I visited the Jongmyo Shrine and Changgyeong Palace. The shrine and temple visit gave me a chance to experience some of the cultural aspects of Korea and see some of its traditional buildings. It was the first time I was able to truly take in the new setting I was living in. It was interesting to realise that against the backdrop of a busy metropolitan city, such unique and historical architecture remained, and beautifully contrasted it. Though Seoul was similar in terms of being a busy city, it was so different to London and I was excited to see more of it over the course of my study abroad.
“Did you experience racism over there?” is the most frequently asked question I receive once people find out I lived in Seoul. And the answer is ‘yes’. I can’t sugar coat the fact that one of my biggest fears did come true. Stares, comments, hair-touching and ignorance were things I couldn’t ignore while staying abroad. But they weren’t a daily occurrence and events were few a far between. Luckily, I had a supportive network around me that helped me through.
Touching base with other Black people, staying true to myself and speaking my truth was important and necessary to stay afloat. To someone considering a year abroad, perhaps you may not be able to find solace in the people around you, so I definitely recommend having a confidant to share experiences with either abroad or back home. I feel blessed that I was able to build close relationships to people from all over the world while in Korea, and in particular with some other Black women that initially had the same fears as me. With the help of these new friends, I was able to find the all-important Black hair shop and buy my braiding hair, as well as share some horror stories such as my lunch table encounter or a strange look I received on the subway. It was a true comfort.
Despite a few minor incidents, the year that followed was full of fun, food and adventure! I travelled to over 10 different cities, visited 6 different UNESCO World Heritage sites and met so many amazing and interesting people!
I can’t pretend there weren’t times when I felt lonely and isolated as a Black woman, or when I was one stare, ignorant remark or hair touch away from losing it, but those weren’t the moments that defined my time in Korea, it was amazing scenery! The food! The international friendships formed! And the immersion into a new culture and the way in which that shaped my outlook on life!
I hope this post can encourage you to take the leap out of your comfort zone and not let fear of the unknown hold you back. If you are thinking about doing a study exchange abroad but are still unsure about whether you are brave enough, my only advice is – take the leap! Being thrust into the unknown gives you no choice but to embrace yourself and those around you, which is a really amazing feeling that I don’t think anyone could ever regret.
I look forward to reading about the exotic locations you choose to visit for your year abroad!
If you’d like to reach out to Global Opportunities Ambassador, Esiri, please email Study Abroad manager Jess Tan on firstname.lastname@example.org and she will put you in touch!