It’s been exactly one year since I touched down in South Korea on a winter afternoon in the middle of February. There’s nothing quite like being welcomed by an icy breeze that bites through four layers of clothing, ushering me into this new country while simultaneously sending a signal that I am indeed very far away from South Africa. I’d be lying if I said the thought of making a U-Turn and climbing back into that aircraft did not cross my mind, at least twice.
So, fast forward a couple of months and I have successfully conquered just about every subway map (When living abroad, there are very few things as pleasing as knowing exactly where your destination is and how you’re getting there.) I have a circle of friends whose domicile of origin stretches across the globe and surprisingly enough, I get through each day with only enough Korean to express gratitude and greet those I walk by, paired with a bow of-course. Would you mind if I carve out a second or two for a self-dap and add my insanely impressive metal chopstick skills to the list? More emphasis on the metal part as you could imagine how using metal chopsticks as a tool to put food into your mouth could quite easily be labelled as an extreme sport. Koreans take their cutlery exceedingly serious.
This year has been a whirlwind, to say the least. It has consisted of the highest highs and lowest lows with “Are you fucking joking?” moments in-between. It has forcefully made me stand on my own two feet, whether I felt ready to do so or not. Barring my countless travel adventures and time well-spent engaging in conversations, which almost too often ends up comprising of endless comparisons of our home countries, with people whom the likelihood of our paths crossing were slim to none had it not been for Korea- there is another side to living abroad that I have not delved in…
It's lonely, really lonely. The concept of solitude has brought new meaning into my life and although it was something I knew I needed to be engulfed in, I am not entirely comfortable in it as yet. Being immersed in new cultures and a disparate way of life can bring forth a sense of alienation as everything around you is foreign. The feeling of ‘belonging’ is lost and whilst occupying a homogenous space, you never truly find your place in it. For someone like me whom at any given time would undoubtedly choose their own company over that of others, it is quite telling that I am mostly antipathetic towards the idea of seclusion and it should give you a better understanding as to just how unbearable it can be from time to time.
Living abroad is challenging, living abroad in a homogenous country is challenging and then some. Being exposed to different cultures my whole life, the concept of homogeny wasn't something I applied much thought towards. Okay, picture this: You’re the only Black person in the city in which you reside in, you are constantly stared at and are subjected to ignorant commentary about your hair, while having onlookers turn to look back at you because seeing a Black person occupy the same space as them is an outlandish concept to grasp. Now picture this happening every day, Wild right? You’d think my narcissism would have reached exponential levels as the mere base of the insane amount of attention that I command lies purely in the color of my skin.
Particularly for a person of colour; microaggressions along with ignorance wrapped into one big giant “count to 10” moment aren't something you are able to escape and avoid, especially amongst a locality where you are the odd one out. Fortunately for my sanity, I have learned very early on that not every battle needs to be won or even deserves my attention for that matter.
I have acquiesced and learned to exercise tolerance. Although I must admit, there are countless times where I have allowed it to overpower me, which reminds me of a certain incident that took place a few months ago. I was on my way home from work, carrying the weight of the day’s annoyance and challenges in the form of stress knots on my shoulders and just needed my Mom. (I probably sound like a 5 year old but my mom will forever be my saving grace.) Whilst on the phone conveying information to her and managing to squeeze in an extra side of ranting, I felt someone forcefully tug on my braids from behind. What proceeded to come out of my mouth does not need to be repeated, however, I am glad it’s unlikely she understood my foul words, although my brash tone and the look on my face was more than enough to aid in translation. It was an old Korean woman who had a handful of my braids in her hand and was examining them as if it were an extraterrestrial specimen she had just discovered.
This incident is just one example of the many absurdities that I involuntarily find myself being part of. I could write up a thesis on “Being Black in Korea”, but that's tea for another day. That being said, I'm grateful that I am currently well equipped to retell this story and accompany it with a chuckle or two at the ridiculousness of it all, until the next snarky comment and outright eye roll moment sneaks up and takes me over the edge.
For me, living abroad is synonymous with being on a rollercoaster- The only difference is it doesn't stop, you just learn to adjust yourself and tighten your grip at the scary and uncomfortable dips.