Facing Racism in South Korea: Ostracized as a Black Woman
I have never felt blacker than being here in South Korea. I know foreigners here all buck upon the same problems or issues, but I think living in a very rural town has put me in a very special circumstance. This past week was my last week at school, and as I was leaving I didn’t feel emotional or sad. In fact, I literally felt like holding up my two fingers and saying “deuces.”
When I first arrived at my school, I didn’t really get a warm welcome. There was no tour of the school, no one talked to me at teacher dinners. I had to figure everything out on my own. My new co-teacher blamed my old co-teacher for being too busy with her own kids to do that stuff with me.
When I first arrived at my school, I didn’t really get a warm welcome. There was no tour of the school, no one talked to me at teacher dinners.
The only time I ever spoke is when I taught classes. I can understand that there is a language barrier, however most of them know enough English to at least have a basic conversation. At first I chucked it up to me being a foreigner, however my white and Asian counterparts didn’t have these issues. They were hanging out with their co-workers, grabbing coffees, and going to dinners together. It really made me feel sad.
I think this was a big part of why I decided against renewing my contract, because I can’t continue to work somewhere that I don’t feel welcome and where I am offending people with my presence.
Teacher dinners are a big deal here in South Korea–they happen roughly twice a month. All the teachers and staff at the school gather together to eat and drink together. There is a particular way in which you drink with people. If you want to have a shot with someone, you take your shot glass over and have that person fill it up and then you take the shot. You then give them that same shot glass and fill up the glass, and then they shoot it back. With me, that wasn’t the case. They never shared a glass with me. It was as if my germs or lips were infected.
In Korea, everything is very communal and that is how they show respect and friendship. I got the message loud and clear. I have even had someone not eat from the area that I ate from with my chopsticks. If anyone has ever been to a Korean meal – it’s all sharing and communal – you have to leave any fears of germs at the door. So for them to pick around where I ate really hurt.
No one ever shared a glass with me. It was as if my germs or lips were infected.
Another instance of my non-acceptance was an incident in the “secret tea room.” When you arrive in Korea, they tell you that when you get your first paycheck that you should buy something really nice for your principal and the teachers. So I decided to get the teachers a cake from the local bakery. I arrived at school and informed my co-teacher that I wanted to share this cake with everyone. She said, “Fine, Danielle. Come to the second floor at 10:40 in the room off the stairs.”
Of course I was given no tour so I had no way of knowing where this room was. But I found it, and I was so happy to walk in and give my cake to my co-teacher. All of the teachers were in there eating and drinking coffee when I handed my co-teacher the cake. She said, “Thank you! Goodbye!” She didn’t ask me to stay or if I wanted some of the cake I bought. Again, Koreans are generally people who share, so I was just so shocked. Since that day, only one month into my contract, I’ve called that room on the second floor the “secret tea room.” I was never invited.
With all of those incidents, I just chalked it up to them maybe just not liking me. I hoped and prayed that it had nothing to do with my race. This past week my replacement arrived. I met her at my going away dinner: she is white, blue eyed and from Ireland. What more could they ask for. In her first week, she has been given a tour of the school, she has gone on a hike with the teachers and she has been invited to the “secret tea room.”
It amazes me that in 2014, I still have to prove myself and fight harder to be accepted. I can no longer blame this on rural ignorance. It is blatant racism in South Korea, and once again white privilege has won over.