Beauty & Identity In Seoul, South Korea

Living in Seoul has made me more conscious of my skin color and my size; but, that’s not all.

Beauty & Identity In Seoul, South Korea

I am surrounded by people with pale, white skin and black– sometimes brown or blonde, hair. Their eyes often make half moons in their faces, and when their eyes meet mine what do we really see as we stare at each other– so similar and yet so different?

Yes, living in Seoul, South Korea has made me more conscious of how dark my skin is and how tall and big I am– at least compared to the locals, some of who seem to be just as white as the clouds in the city sky and only as tall as my Nigerian American legs are long.

I’ve become more conscious of both my skin color and my size– and just how beautiful humanity truly is in all of its shades, shapes and sizes. I feel empowered by my differences and encouraged to be different by the different people around me.

Yes, there are times when I have faded into the background while standing next to my beautiful blonde friend from France, with stunning blue eyes, pale white skin and a slim frame even she doesn’t find slim enough in the presence of much slimmer girls and women.

Yes, there are times when I have felt less than beautiful in a sea of fish who look nothing like me– and don’t want to look anything like me as they swim towards their own standards of beauty, for better or for worse.

If you want to survive and thrive in Seoul, just keep swimming. Those times have forced me to explore myself– to swim deep in my own ocean and find myself. Oftentimes, I was there– lying on the bottom, forgotten. I’ve resurfaced time and time again with more and more pieces of me.

I never want to lose the pieces of me that empower me and encourage me– and not just when things are at their best but even when things are at their worst; because, somehow, I have lost those pieces of me– lost even my dreams.

With Hongdae’s colorful hip hop scene just a subway stop away from my quiet home in Sinchon, on the weekends I can take off my Tommy Hilfiger suits and trade them for name brand-less clothing that– like my favorite song by Vienna Teng, sings:

“All my maps will only show me how to lose my way.”

The funny thing about being lost, being less and being different is that they are the only way to become found, to become more and to become– and be, me.

That which defines you is not what is on the outside, but who is on the inside.

As my Dad recently told me, “Life is tough, but you are tough on the inside.”

We are all tough on the inside, but sometimes we don’t dig deep enough. Don’t be afraid to be tough or to dig deep and find– perhaps, your own missing pieces.

8 thoughts on “Beauty & Identity In Seoul, South Korea

  1. My dad once said to me several years ago that putting an iron rod into fire only makes it stronger. I’d like to add to that that it also makes it more malleable and more flexible. You can shape it into anything. Into the most beautiful creation. To say that going through those rough patches only makes you stronger and also more openminded and accepting of other people.

    To be honest, when I think of moving to Korea i’m a little afraid. I’m afraid that I might not be strong enough to face those moments where I standout because of my skin colour or my weight. Or those moments where someone decides to point out my difference. I’m afraid that i’ve become too sensitive over time and that as a result my dream trip might turn into a sour memory, instead of being an empowering moment of growth.

    I’m afraid, but i’m also of the “keep swimming” school of thought. After all, i’ve experienced fading into the background standing next to my beautiful, tall, model-like friend right here in extremely diverse Montreal (those types of exclusionary beauty standards certainly aren’t exclusive to Korea). I’ve been the “ugly”, average height, chubby girl with glasses. I’ve questioned everything about myself. But somewhere along the way, I stopped feeding into that negativity. I too felt empowered by what were once pain points. Mind you, they resurface every now and then.

    I’ve learned that being comfortable in your own skin is the greatest gift you can give yourself. It’s the work of a life time, but each little step counts. How do you get comfortable in your own skin? Through self exploration and by pushing your boundaries. You invariably get to know yourself better.

  2. You have no idea how I’m blessed for finding your blog I’m lit having a reading Marathon lol I keep reading your articles and never fail to teach me something new and for me you are the first black girl that thinks in a really different amazing way I keep on seeing youtubers who are black complaining bout koreans behaviors toward them..and even blame koreans for not accepting them just because of their skin I’m white but never considered it as something that will guarantee me having bunch of korean guys waiting to friend me cuz I know the language and culture understanding is the real keys to be immersed into any society and not only korean so I spent years learning korean it’s something I like to do it’s was for me before anyone else.I’m sure if these girls or any other girl thinks she can’t socialize because of her skin colour height weight or anything they are just creating limits that actually don’t exist.I know korean obsession about beauty but this should be seen in a positive way didn’t the korean lifestyle changed us to better person by taling care of our skin etc… a lil effort learning the language won’t hurt.and this is what I like in your personality Jennifer ♡ nothing stopped you.keep it up and I’ll be supporting you^^

  3. Same. I spent many years learning Korean, and I’ve noticed that regardless of your skin color or race or whatever, it’s the people who put in that effort to learn the language and learn the culture that have a wonderful time here! I think it’s easier to blame skin color or race rather than stop and think, hey, maybe I am doing something wrong or need to work harder. It happens all the time, and not just when it comes to surviving and thriving in South Korea!! >.< Yes, racism here is real but there are sooo many Koreans who have welcomed me with wide open arms– all ages by the way, so I can't just say so easily that everything is because of skin color or race. And I have had darker skinned friends experience the same positive environment, so…

    Korea is very obsessed with beauty but on the regular Koreans are just as regular as we are. We don't all look like Beyonce or Scarlett Johanssen. haha Its definitely whats on the inside that counts, and how hard you try to make whats on the inside show as you share life with other people. Thanks so much, I am very happy to hear from you and hope my blog posts will always show people the world I imagine we can all live in if we work hard and keep an open mind and an open heart! ❤ Don't let anything stop you, too; and yes, I am much prettier (and healthier) thanks to the Korean lifestyle. 🙂

  4. My friend is married to a Korean and she been to Korea a few times and noticed a difference between the way she is treated and the way Koreans treat white people and she is almost fluent. Like she said she had to make more of an effort so that Koreans would talk her or she usually had to make the first move whereas her friend would just have people come up to her and wanted to be her friend without her even trying. Overall she enjoyed her time there but i don’t like that people dismiss claims of racism as just having a negative attitude. I’m glad Jennifer has had mostly positive experiences but not everyone has the same experiences when they go. Jennifer is also working in a completely different job field than most black foreigners sad to say a lot of the racism black people experience in Korea seem to be from the school they work at since most of them come as English teachers.

  5. I mentioned making more of an effort, and I think thats a given even for black people in America. You have to work harder. That’s how I was raised, and I could simply take that willingness to work harder (without regetting or resenting the system or society) for granted– at least here in South Korea! America, I can easily say that is a different story.

    I don’t think having to work harder is inherently good or bad, because many people encounter discrimination or just difficulties they have to overcome in life whether they are black or not. Rather than discussing what is fair, I will simply say that by overcoming we can do better for next generations.

    This willingness and next-generation mindset seems to be more common outside of America. I see it in my friends and their families who come from all over the world. I suppose its the shared mindset of immigrants and first generation Americans.

    So, I don’t think its necessarily about having a bad attitude, for me, but more about not having that willingness.

    Before I forget, I also want to add that being black and being female is ALWAYS different from being black and male no matter where you go. Its really our brothers who deal with the worst racism and discrimination all around the world. Outside of America and here in Seoul, they deal with it and do well, so how can I do anything other than deal with it and do well, too? And yes, there are communities for us on Facebook, etc., where people share their stories. I prefer FB to Youtube, where people just do things like reinforcing negative beliefs for views. We all know Korea is racist, but thats not the full story…

    My problem with black teachers who talk about racism is South Korea is that they rarely if ever know or talk about the full story: Racism against both white people who are not American or Candian (they always want teachers from the US or Canada, just look at CL ads) and Southeast Asians in particular. I would even go so far as to say that its more about nationality first, race second.

    Anyway, they rarely tell the full story, but I do understand speaking from personal experience rather than many different perspectives.

    Finally, not only do I work in a different field, but I also love in a different area. Many black teachers are forced to work in the countryside, where people are less educated and often more prejudiced and more racist.

    My friend from Khazakstan and I were talking about how much Korea has changed, and how people stare at us less and smile at us more. And we were both here for the first time in 2012. Korea is changing– no, it really already has. Sure, Korea still has far to go, but as an American I know my country has much, much farther to go.

  6. Your comments always get me going. Few more things:

    A lot of Koreans will not make eye contact or approach me, especially when I am with my French blonde friend. She is much easier to approach. There is this fear of the unknown, of black people, but making the first move makes that go away. So, its not a good sign or even example of racism to have to make the first move– not to smash negative stereotypes or anything but just to soothe someone’s shyness.

    I’ve wondered if some people were racist only to make the first move and hear how pretty I am and how they’ve never met a black person before and how well I speak Korean, all while they speak shyly. Then the flood of Korean starts!

    So, lets move on to the main barrier here: Language.

    Its not that Korean schools are racist, but if they hire black Americans or Southeast Asians or white people from unknown countries… the parents of the students complain. Koreans hate dealing with complaints, it slows things down. And they don’t explain well either, they just tell you No Black Teachers. No Vietnamese Teachers (my friend). Etc.

    Parents want the best English teachers for their students, and they think that means white and American because of what they see on TV. Real impact of media and stereotypes here!

    Finally, I actually worry more about my French (white) friend because the majority of people who approach her when we go out just want something from her. That goes for all foriegners including me, but especially her. They want a foriegn (white) friend or a one night stand with a white girl or a white girl friend… or English lessons…!

    I have had similar experiences but speaking Korean helps keep people with ulterior motives away. It starts to become obvious. However, she doesnt even speak Korean.

    Finally, we always talk about using foriegners for sex rather than serious dating or marriage, but its girls and women from (and in) Southeast Asian countries that are most at risk (Kopino babies).

    Just dropping some lines before work! Trying to put things in perspective, because living here has really done that and I think you have to keep that open mind and open heart or you start losing that– perspective(s). 🙂

  7. I think work ethnic is a good thing but I do view working harder than someone else to get the same things just because you look different to be a problem. We can say everyone experiences difficulties in life but that does nothing to solve the problem rather than pointing out the obvious.

    I think in America being black AND a women is worse, In words of Malcolm X “the most disrespected person in America is the black women”, but I can’t say how we are treated across the world since I’ve never been outside this country besides Canada anyways. We experience police brutality too yet our stories are often silenced and Black males are basically the face of the movement even though black females are victims a lot of the time too. We make less for being both black and female and we have less representation in the media outside of your mixed/light skinned black women. But still if a black male talks about how he experiences racism more than a black women I am not going to dismiss it as “complaining” and thats what I don’t like about that comment. Whenever black people talk about racism people dismiss us as “complaining” “whining”, its everything but racism if you just did x racism wouldn’t happen to you. I hate those arguments because it rids other people of any responsibility they have to challenge the racism in their communities. If I am willing yeah for sure I’ll probably overcome most obstacles that come my way still Korea needs to do their part and overcome the issues they have with nationalism and racism in their country as well. The responsibility doesn’t just lye on black people. “Deal with it” to me is like almost saying this issue is okay. For example, I don’t follow many youtubers mostly because I feel like a lot of them exploit Korea but I won’t get of topic… But anyways one girl that I do follow seems to be pretty positive but she has had case of her students putting on blackface and coming up to her saying they look like her. Or when she shows a presentation foreigners in it and when a darker skinned black person is on screen her students will laugh and say they are ugly. Thats not something she should have to deal with or have the willingness to overcome. She complained to her school about this but nothing happened, and thats something that the schools should have handled and addressed but didn’t.

    But yeah I am aware that you work in a different field and different area, that is why I comment on this person to say that your experience wasn’t really a representation of what most black people in Korea experience because this person seems to think that your “willingness” is why you don’t experience racism when there is a lot of factors to why you don’t experience it as much. You aren’t living in the country side and you are not teaching at a school are also factors. Also learning a language isn’t easy. I’ve been studying Korean for 4 years now and I still am barely at intermediate level. But yeah, me ranting about this is not to say racism is a huge issue that is really going stop black people for having fun in Korea in fact most people there will say they’ve had more good experiences than negative I think. I just want to say that when people do talk about the negative I wish people were not so dismissive about it simply because they don’t like others saying “bad things” about Korea.

  8. Okay thanks for your perspective. I’m honestly not trying to be negative but like I said in the above comment I the comment sounded dismiss to me. Also, If both white and black people are foreigners why is it that black people are only feared of the unknown? Are there really that many more white foreigners there?

    Also yeah I’ve heard that about dating in Korea sadly…but since I’m not going to South Korea to date I guess its not really an issue but If I did choose to it would suck if that was their motive but again you get that here too. I’ve had white guys try me cuz they’ve never been with a black girl before.

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