by Shanae Ennis-Melhado
11.30pm, Suncheon, South Korea. I step outside to try and catch a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower and realise that my attempt is futile as the heavy clouds obscure even the most dazzling stars. On my way back to my flat, I encounter a middle-aged man and woman – a husband and wife, perhaps – and give them one of my brightest smiles. However, their mouths remain fixed and their eyes stay glued to my presence.
Sometimes there is curiosity behind the gazes that follow me, especially when they belong to children or to the elderly. These people have most likely never seen someone like me before, given that South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. Foreigners of various skin tones are a rarity here and get their fair share of stares. Nevertheless, my yarn braids and dark skin seem to attract more than the average number of eyes pointing in my direction.
People stare at me from their cars as I wait for the green man to tell me that I can cross the street. Children gawp at me as I chat with a friend at a restaurant or do my weekly shop at Homeplus (Korea’s Tesco). Tourists from other countries have even asked to take a photo of me and when I have declined, they have morphed into paparazzi, snapping unflattering pictures of me and blinding me with the obtrusive flash on their cameras. My appearance even caused one guy’s jaw to drop to the floor as he glided past me on his two-wheel scooter. A few of these instances may sound trivial to some people, especially since several of the stares I get are accompanied by compliments such as, “you are very beautiful” or “your hair is beautiful”, which is pleasant to hear in a world that brands black women as undesirable. In spite of this, each stare eats away at my humanity.
As an introvert, I like to blend into the background and avoid being the centre of attention. I could easily do this in my multicultural hometown of Wolverhampton: a trip to the nearest corner shop is a breeze and exploring my city’s attractions has not given me nearly as many stares as strolling in Suncheon. I do not even remember feeling as hyper-visible when I moved to the tiny Spanish city of Ciudad Real at the age of twenty.
I recognise that we will always be stared at in places where blackness is a novelty, as it is a person’s natural response to react to things that are unfamiliar to them. Nonetheless, having eyes constantly follow me and people touching my hair without my permission are aspects that bother me the most about living in a foreign country as a black person.
“These uncomfortable experiences have not and will not prevent me from visiting other places in Korea, or different parts of the world, thanks to my wanderlust and desire to experience other cultures.”
Fortunately, I get some respite from being hyper-visible. For instance, there are some Koreans who make me feel anonymous: there is no intrigue, hostility or uneasiness in their eyes when they encounter me. One Korean lady did not hesitate to help after I asked for assistance on how to pay with my debit card at a self-service machine in Myeong-dong, Seoul. Two women who worked at an iPhone service shop gladly called the customer service centre of another company on my behalf regarding a missing package I had ordered. Experiences such as these make me feel like a human being and not a tourist attraction because my race is never the focal point of the interaction.
Before I moved to South Korea, I rightly anticipated that I would get some stares and attempts to touch my hair, but I never imagined how often they would happen to me. These uncomfortable experiences have not and will not prevent me from visiting other places in Korea, or different parts of the world, thanks to my wanderlust and desire to experience other cultures. Reading personal stories from other black people travelling or living abroad on Facebook groups such as Brothas&Sistas of South Korea and on blogs like The Travellers of Colour Collective also help me to continue travelling, even if my presence is seen as odd or unwelcome. Nevertheless, my experiences in South Korea have led me to conclude that living in an area where black people are a source of fascination is not for me. Perhaps I will be more comfortable living in a more diverse Korean city like Seoul- or maybe it is time to return to the UK.