Like most people who aren’t from Asia, I was tempted to paint South Korea and Japan with the same brush. Not because I had read ample historical literature about them and had come to an educated conclusion, but because I was lazy, young and stupid. Should you find yourself fascinated by tae kwon do, kimchi and K-pop, and contemplating a trip to the peninsula for further research, I hope that you’re also entertaining the idea of being less foolish.
Although I was only there for an extended weekend more than 10 years ago, the sprawling metropolis left a lasting impression. As someone visiting from Japan, I was immediately struck by the binary cultural traits. In Japan, we go out of our way to save face; in South Korea, people go out of their way to correct you—loudly. I’ll never forget the time my friends and I were waiting in the train station to go to a party, jabbering away excitedly. An old man who looked like he should’ve been shaking his fist from the patio at a nursing home where nobody visits him shouted at us, “You stupid Americans, shut the FUCK UP!”
In Japan, the epitome of beauty is embodied by colors, shapes and patterns found mostly in nature, and fervently shielded from Western influence. In South Korea, beauty is bright, often cosmetically enhanced to be more Western; it overloads the senses and dabbles in cutting-edge style. In Japan, the food was understated, fresh and exquisite—sushi being the perfect example. In South Korea, the flavors are bold and peppery, and the dishes are abundant and colorful—and spice is limited only by one’s personal constitution.
That’s not to say there aren’t similarities; of course there are, from social hierarchies and test-score education to skin-lightening products and the prioritization of whiteness. But like most genetically related (not identical) populations living in close proximity, neither the Japanese nor the Koreans want to be reminded of them.
Korean identity has evolved at odds with Japan after a series of wars, brutal Japanese occupation, comfort women, and conflict that has created an attitude of resentment, mistrust and conflict. Anyone on either side of the Tsushima Basin will only be too happy to enumerate those in more detail. So if you find yourself in a heated argument because you conflated the two cultures, then I can’t help you. Your embassy can’t help you. And the Holy Ghost herself can’t help you. You are on your own.
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Here’s another difference that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough: Tokyo is often romanticized by nerds the world over for its tech culture, but take it from me: Seoul puts the Land of the Rising Sun to shame with everything from electronics innovation to internet speed. In Seoul, everything is digitized, but in Japan there are still large towns, nay, prefectures, that still operate on paperwork—including parts of Tokyo. So if you, like me, are feeling dejected after the recent FCC ruling on net neutrality, never fear—Seoul is the perfect Christmas stocking stuffer ready to go for all you blerds. There’s a reason they call it “the city of the future.”
But for all of its tech prowess, the country has light years to go on race and xenophobia. Just ask Reggie Robinson-Whaley, who decided to move to Seoul from Dallas in 2006.
“I just didn’t want to work in America. I wanted to leave … I just wanted to bounce,” he says. A discussion with one of his college professors led him to initially look into moving to South Korea to work as an English teacher.
“I just Googled it and I came out here. Japan was too expensive, China wasn’t paying up, so I was just like, all right, I’m going to Korea!” he adds.
After he landed, Robinson-Whaley says, he was too relieved to be out of the U.S. to fully realize the gravity of his decision, or the challenges he would face as a black man in an ethnically homogeneous country.
“When I first came here, I didn’t really have culture shock,” he explains. “I was just happy to be out of there. But two years in, I started to have culture shock because I started to understand the language.
“It was like, oh, snap, I am literally the only black person here,” Robinson-Whaley continues. “Now I don’t really notice it, but the stares are initially what got to me.”
He says that discrimination has been most tangible in the teaching field, because so many of the hiring decisions made by school staff are based on the attitudes of parents who are heavily influenced by negative stereotypes of black people in the media.
“That’s the hard part of teaching—is being turned down so many times because you’re black,” Robinson-Whaley says. “The parents have a stereotype, so sometimes they just don’t hire black people. Sometimes they only try to hire white teachers.”
His students will occasionally try a “gorilla joke” on for size, but Robinson-Whaley says that the kids are easier to deal with because they’re still open-minded enough to be educated about the history and hurtful nature of racist epithets.
“You have to tell them, ‘Yo, that’s not cool,’ and you have to explain to them why,” he says. “Then they never usually do it again. I’m cool if a young kid makes a mistake like that. They’re initially kinda scared, but they end up loving me.”
Although he understands the impact a simple gesture like this can have on a lifetime of potential racist attitudes, Robinson-Whaley is cognizant of the burden this places on him as a “model minority.”
“Not only in my own country do I have to represent black people as a monolith, but here I also feel like I have do it as well—because a lot of these people have never seen black people before,” he says.
While Robinson-Whaley sees a big difference in Korean attitudes now compared with 10 years ago, it’s an attitude that’s moving at a snail’s pace. Beauty still revolves around a pillar of whiteness, and attitudes toward white people as inherently safer residents still operate in full force, even while Donald “Cheeto-Chin” Trump constantly threatens to blow up their imprisoned northern neighbors. And don’t even get me started on attitudes toward interracial relationships or children.
No, wait—get me started.
Han Hyun-Min, South Korea’s first black supermodel, could probably explain it better. At the tender age of 16, he has been subjected to nationwide discrimination for being featured in high-end fashion magazines and runway campaigns, despite the fact that he is also half-Korean and, in case it’s not abundantly clear, freaking gorgeous.
In South Korea, mixed-race children are derided as “tuigi,” a racial epithet that literally translates to “crossbred animal.”
It’s another thing that they, quite sadly, have in common with the Japanese.
Anti-blackness has gotten so bad, in fact, that Ghanaian TV personality Sam Okyere, who studied there as a computer engineering student, found his way to national Korean television to speak about anti-blackness and racism—something that had never been done before.
For Ty Pittman, from Los Gatos, Calif., the investments of her peers like Robinson-Whaley and Okyere have made a huge difference in helping her to acclimate to life as a super-duper minority in Seoul. She says that she is amazed at how prevalent hip-hop is in Korean culture, and she thinks it’s another reason she feels so welcome.
“It’s weird to go another country, [where] the people don’t look like you, yet they’re consuming the music that’s closest to your heart … hip-hop is everywhere,” she says.
Pittman was hired to work for a company in Seoul because it needed an expert in a particular software program that she just so happened to know inside out.
“They just said to me, ‘Can you come out to Seoul and help us figure this out?’” she says.
It was only supposed to be a short training session, but nearly a year and a half later, Pittman is living in an apartment in Seoul’s Jamsil neighborhood, or dong, attending drinking parties with her work colleagues, trying new foods (with hesitation) and relishing her first real experience in a completely different country.
“I’m really enjoying just having an awakening of other cultures and living somewhere that is not familiar,” she says. “Being out of my comfort zone with everything around me is really stimulating.”
Pittman says that her senses are experiencing South Korea in a unique way that she never took note of in the Bay Area; it was one of the first things she noticed when she stepped off the plane. “It is really hot here. That was my very first impression. And the smells! To me South Korea smells much different than my home country.”
Pittman’s South Korean colleagues have made a significant effort to include her in after-work activities, and they are genuinely happy to have her there with them, but she says that the cultural differences have presented challenges at times, especially with the workplace hierarchy.
“When your elder says something, not only do you listen, but you have to bow your head and say you’re sorry,” she explains. “If you do something wrong, even if you really didn’t do something wrong, you kinda have to take it.”
Pittman attributes this discomfort to coming from such a drastically different environment, where management structures are more flattened and people usually speak their minds.
“Especially as African Americans,” she says. “We have a lot of different range in our culture [and] in our attitudes. It takes some adjusting!”
Pittman says she’s happy in Seoul; even her kids love visiting her there.
“My best friend was driving my daughter, and she [my daughter] said to her, ‘Yeah, I really miss Mom, but I can see why she loves it there,’” she says. “That really made me feel good.”
When asked about the staring that every person of color inevitably receives when visiting a place as homogeneous as South Korea, Pittman says that she chooses to approach it with an open mind and an open heart: “I look for good in the world. I focus on the positive. Whatever negative is going on, I just don’t want to give it energy.”
That’s an attitude that will take you pretty far no matter where you go—but learning Korean, not being loud, liking spicy foods and keeping “Japan” outcha mouf will also help. Trust me.
With a population of more than 10 million people and a tragic history with its northern (and eastern ... *cough* Japan *cough*) neighbors that competes with any Game of Thrones episode, the city has a level of intrigue equaled only by its variety of hot sauces … did I mention hot sauces? There are SO MANY.