On Being a Black Man in Korea
Life as a Mash-Up is an ongoing search for your authentic self, set in a complex web of identities, cultures and languages. Taking that show on the road and across the globe is tough — especially when you discover that other people’s perceptions of you and your Americanness may be even more entrenched than the ones that you find at home. Our Black-American Mash-Up Troy Wiggins, originally from Tennessee, now teaches English in South Korea with his wife, Kimberly Taylor. He shares how he deals with constant staring, cultural miscommunication, and corn on pizza. Hint: It has to do with ramyeon, and love.
Interested in what it’s like being a black woman in Korea? Read his wife’s story here.
“You’d have it easier here alone than I would,” my wife says over lunch: a roll of kimbap, kimchi, and the most delicious bowl of ramyeon that I’ve ever had in my life.
“I mean, you live in your head. And you’re a dude. I think you could make it here alone just fine.”
I contemplate her statements between slurps of noodles. Meanwhile, the elderly couple at the next table has been watching us eat for the past 26 minutes. I execute a clumsy seated bow, my third, and greet them as formally as possible. They smile and nod, and I assume that they’re happy to see us enjoying the food, but neither of them stops staring at us.
Black men get a stamped Bad MF’er card at birth. It’s in the rules.
Maybe she has a point. Black men get a stamped Bad MF’er card at birth. It’s in the rules. I was born into the belief that I am tough as hell. But I’m sitting here listening to two young Korean men doing a remix to a popular American rap song, with two old married people watching me eat noodles, and it sinks in: I don’t know if I could make it here without her.
I worry — am I lesser man? A lesser black man?
Korea is awesome. Did you know that there are four distinct seasons here? I can go outside, fall down, and land right on top of some beautiful scenery. I have mountains in my backyard. I have health insurance for the first time in three years — not to mention prescription medicine is loads cheaper. And the food! I’m a Southerner, and I really admire all of the things that Koreans have thought to do with pork. Heck, even K-pop is growing on me, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t give it the time of day.
However, after nearly two years in the Land of the Morning Calm, I now have come to an understanding: My wife is wrong. I need her here.
I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for her. The idea was broached casually four years ago, over dinner (I think it was pork tenderloin and potatoes). This was before I knew that I wanted to marry her, and the idea of moving abroad scared me. I’d just only gotten comfortable, and now we were talking about jumping across the ocean, to a place that I only knew about from video games, and even then only minimally. But I didn’t want her to leave me. I asked her to wait, and she did.
We’ve celebrated our second and third anniversaries here in Korea. Since being here, we’ve made friends and done things we never thought we’d do. We’ve climbed mountains together and visited ancient seaside temples together. We’ve watched the sun set while sitting on a beach on the other side of the world. We’ve even worn hanbok during a traditional Seollal festival. And through it all it has been the two of us, together.
Yes, I know what hip hop is. Yes, I like basketball. No, I don’t have a gun. Please stop staring at me
I’ve been to a few other countries, but Korea was the first place I went where everything was way out of my frame of reference. After six or seven months, when the new adventure smell was gone, I quietly unraveled. Why are so many people bumping into me? Why is there corn on the pizza? What is — is that a bomb siren? Are those women doing a K-pop song and dance routine from the back of a truck? Why are you staring at me? Why is your child yelling that they see an African person, and staring at me? I’m not from Africa. Yes, I know what hip hop is. Yes, I like basketball. No, I don’t have a gun. Please stop staring at me.
Like plaque, these interactions pile up atop one another, forming a sort of psychic sediment that weighs you down and, if you’re not careful, can keep you from diving headfirst into the wonderful things that are all over the place. The bitter expat isn’t a myth. Stumble onto any online expat message board, or spend a couple of hours in one of the grimier foreigner bars and you’ll see the signs: hatred of anything Korean, mocking of Korean people’s attempts at English, discounting culture and custom, complaining that the food isn’t as “complex” as foods in other countries. The list continues ad nauseam.
I could have been one of those men, but I have something that a lot of them don’t. And it’s not my Bad MF’er card. It’s my wife. Cultural miscommunication at school forcing me to scrap two days worth of work? Kids yelling “What’s up man?” and “Yo, yo, yo, I love tha hip hop!” while I’m walking down the street? No need for me to stop by the expat watering hole and get lost in my cups, only to go home and fall into bed holding a killer grudge.
No, there’s love and understanding at home for me. Moving through a country that understands me about as much as I understand it can rub me raw. My wife is a balm, to smooth the rough edges, to keep me going and to keep me seeking when the positives of being in Korea don’t seem to outweigh the psychic cost of being a black man in Korea. After two years, I know what keeps me sane when I feel most alone and vulnerable: a person who will, without fail, look at me and say, “I love you, no matter what. And I’m on your team. No matter what.”
We make our way together.