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A Black Man in Korea: The Will Smith & Obama Effect

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I spent the better part of four years in South Korea trying to transcend my blackness, but, thankfully, Koreans didn’t allow me to. Several symbolic moments helped me reconcile with my circumstances. Without having to compromise myself, I was able to exchange ideas with Koreans on how to accept and respect our differences.

This may sound superficial, but Will Smith’s and Barack Obama’s international popularity represented the “exceptional black man,” and I wanted to live up to that perception by displaying the multidimensional ways of being black.

No matter how much we want to be color-blind humans holding hands under a colorful rainbow, our cross-cultural experiences will always be shaped by rigid social constructs. Under that fictional rainbow, we spill stereotypes, xenophobia, prejudice, racism, sexism, and all other “isms” into that pot of worthless gold found in every prideful country.

My American nationality, unlike my white colleagues, was not a default for me in Korea. I was considered African first (which I didn’t mind at all). And my long dreadlocks stood out like peacock feathers. And, at times, I felt like an X-men mutant. Despite many awkward interactions, those four years in Korea was, by far, one of the best experiences in my entire life. I encountered myself, and redefined what it meant to be human.

I’ve chosen 5 of my videos that best illustrate the power of love & happiness:

1. The ajumma (elder woman) who touched a black man for the first time:

She was eager to touch my black skin and hair. I never took offense because I understood the value of human touch and immediately recognized her good intentions. It was an innocent desire to physically connect because human touch is our greatest way of communicating.

Location: Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival (정월대보름들불축제), Jeju-do island.

2. My Students Taught Me Jeju Dialect (제주 사투리)
Due to President Obama’s well-acknowledged oratorical skills, Koreans could no longer assume that every black person spoke “black” or “ghetto” English. Obama’s international popularity, at its height in 2010, symbolically validated my teaching position. I was able to teach my students about regional English with a quick point of reference. And, in return, my students taught me Jeju dialect (제주 사투리). Koreans on the mainland can’t speak or understand Jeju dialect; Language obviously has the power to unite and divide people. 

3. Old ahjussi (elderly man) sang a classic song for me
A long day in school had just ended and I was on my way to write for the Busan International Film Festival. The local gardner saw pure fatigue dripping down my face, and knew that the act of singing had the potential to uplift my psychological wellbeing. He asked if I missed my hometown, and proceeded to sing 꿈에본 내고향, a classic Korean hometown song. I didn’t understand the lyrics, but it didn’t matter at the time. The passionate delivery soothed my tired soul.

4. A Korean teaching Arabic to an American
Teaching abroad is, in fact, a learning experience. An English camp intern, who spent sometime in Dubai, taught me a few Arabic words and explained her “reverse culture shock” experience in Korea. Something as small as greeting gestures can make one feel alienated in a different country. Bow or shake? Hug or kiss? Actually discussing our similarities & differences was a form of mental therapy.

5. Deep interviews with students about society, fear and aspirations.
Aside from simultaneously breaking racial stereotypes, my students and I talked about educational pressure, their aspirations, fears, suicide (off camera), friendship, music (Kpop), culture, and everything else that made our connection genuine and sincere. I taught elementary, middle school, and high school–my middle school boys were, by far, the most introspective.

“I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.” – James Baldwin

These are the top 5 questions I received after returning back to the U.S.

1. “How was China?” No, I was in Korea. “Oh, why the hell did you go so far anyway?”
-I went, because…well, why not? I wanted to escape my American bubble for a while.

2. “How was the food? Did you eat that Old Boy octopus, too?”
No, but I was fed octopus from a Jeju diving women (Haenyeo). Korean food was great–too many favorites.

3. “How was the dating life? Compare it to West Palm Beach and Miami”
I dated both foreign and Korean women. Love is universal–cultural differences is just the seasoning that adds a little flavor.

4. “How did they treat black people? Are they even aware of Haitian-Americans?”
It didn’t take too long for my students to understand my hyphenated identity because I arrived several weeks after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. I was suddenly a Haitian-American ambassador, because I was one of a few in the entire country, and the only one in Jeju at the time.

5. “Did they like your dreads?”
Koreans were extremely fascinated by my hair. I mean..almost, too fascinated.
Dreadlocks (like beautiful natural hair on black women) creates a powerful presence–some people love it, others are intimidated by it. Know your market and move on.

As for the main picture, this lady didn’t ask for permission when she grabbed my hair, so when I turned around to show her, she was quite intimidated. Perfect shot!

I actually enjoyed my existential roller coaster ride in South Korea–it will always feel like a second home. Greetings to all the beautiful foreign and Korean friends that I’ve made over the years. I’m back in the U.S. now, but I’ll see you soon. We have more connecting to do. OneLove!


Content Director at OogeeWoogee. I'm a nomad; I like to engage in cross-cultures experiences---I'm a wanderlust, eating pancakes everywhere I go.

'A Black Man in Korea: The Will Smith & Obama Effect' have 20 comments

  1. August 11, 2015 @ 1:03 pm Barbara

    I enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing Wilkine :-) I lived in Taiwan for three years while studying for my mastersf degree and study Chinese. Much of what you said is so reminiscient of my experience there. I found myself under a microscope which was disconcerting at first, but so necessary for my personal growth. I hosted a radio segment with a group called ‘Black in Taiwan’.

    P.S- I’ve never loved my afro more than when I was in Asia. It was like a crown of jewels upon my head.


  2. August 11, 2015 @ 3:54 pm Daniel Wooden

    I love the videos, especially the first one haha. I can’t wait to visit Korea sometime in the future.


  3. August 11, 2015 @ 6:02 pm Simon

    Has to be the old boy singing for me. He really got into the zone and had a great voice too. I always loved your ‘Men in Blackness’ vid which is the first one I saw of yours and made me think a lot about how representations and ambassadors of ethnic groups in the media can shape public consciousness, especially in such a tight-knit society like Korea.


  4. August 11, 2015 @ 11:14 pm Nancy

    I have to say, this is one of the many great articles that you have written. I enjoyed all the videos, especially #2, your students teaching you jeju dialect (which was absolutely cute BTW). :) Not many people are open to different cultures and diversity like you are and I can see how much you really enjoy teaching people about your Haitian-American culture as well as learning about theirs. You are definitely a great mentor when it comes to that and i admire your great passion and courage for it. Thanks for sharing your experience in Korea.. I hope one day maybe I can visit that country myself..


  5. August 11, 2015 @ 11:40 pm Tino

    Great article. I live in Seoul 4 years and now in Japan for a few years more. I am latino and I can relate your experience and open state of mind. Yes South Korea is my second home. Looking forward to return.


  6. August 12, 2015 @ 1:32 am Dar

    I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoy everything about your experience. Your openness and willingness to learn about a culture you knew little about. I love all the videos of your interactions with them, on in particular, your natural interactions with the children. They seemed to have a fondness of you, not as a black man, but a human with an open heart and mind.
    I’m soo inspired by your passion to cross barriers; while learning, and teaching one another.
    I enjoyed reading this :)
    Continue being you….


  7. August 12, 2015 @ 1:48 am Chris

    This was such a fantastic thing to share. When I traveled abroad to share and learn capoeira, I passed through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Korea. Having mocha-colored skin and dreadlocks was a point of fascination for so many who observed me. I was with a friend who also had locks. In Malaysia, as we were walking along the sidewalk, there was a man who reached out and felt my friends locks as he passed. It was a strange experience, but we both laughed at how okay that man thought it was. The immediate feeling was one of objectification–would that man do that to other people he observed who didn’t quite fit his realm of perceived normalcy? The reality is that not everyone would do that, and for those that do, they become caught up in the immediate need to experience something that fascinates them. And I can appreciate that! Even more so after reading this. Makes me want to come back to Korea so I teach English and capoeira! Keep on keepin on!


  8. August 12, 2015 @ 7:37 am James

    Great article. I respect your sense of awareness and openness to new cultures and experiences. Your Korean language speaking skills are impressive. Best of luck in all of your future endeavors.


  9. August 12, 2015 @ 7:42 am thegoodrick

    Spectacular! Watching the videos took me right back. I was there for 4 years too + 6 weeks on Jeju before I entered the mainland. I miss you brother. You are a great man. I’ll have to show you the videos we made for our Chinese students. They came from questions they wanted to ask Americans. Experience is priceless. Cheers.


  10. August 12, 2015 @ 11:41 am Bart

    Thanks for sharing this. I lived in Korea for 12 years. Also miss it like crazy sometimes. I love how you made it through the awkwardness and chose to embrace the attention. I’m sure you changed people opinions. They in turn told your story and changed other’s opinions. Your positivity and mirth absolutely shine. #abandonseoul


  11. August 12, 2015 @ 10:19 pm SeoulHunter

    This is completely fantastic. I loved the video with your students. I teach here in Gimcheon (rural/central) and I would love to do an interview video with my kids. Unfortunately, I teach elementary now instead of middle, so they are usually way too shy to do it.

    Great page overall here. A topic that needs to be talked about.


  12. August 17, 2015 @ 8:17 pm Sans

    Dear Mr. Brutus,

    This is why I love traveling! When I was in the Navy, I had traveled extensively through the Middle East and parts of Europe but I wasn’t able to go to the eastern part of Asia. I wish I could have experienced that (and I still want to go but it’s kinda expensive as a civilian). Your videos are really fun, funny, and you speak Korean waaay better than I do (I’m Korean-American)! You have such an open mind and great sense of humor (I’m not sure I would have been down w/the touching w/out permission but you really turned it around). Thank you for sharing your amazing experience! Please keep on keeping on! Luvs!


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