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Korea, People, Racism

ICAL TEFL

Photo Credit: Tate Nanje

Korea is a unique country that has a lot of offer. But one thing the country does lack is diversity. As a result, you feel isolated, belittled and often times, hated as a foreigner. Especially a black foreigner…

We’d like to welcome Tate Nanje as a guest author of the ICAL Blog.Originally from Cameroon, Tate grew up in the USA and first worked in Korea as teacher in 2009. Here he talks about what it is like to be a black teacher in South Korea.

South Korea‏‎ is a unique country that has a lot of offer. The food, the people and the culture make you wonder why you haven’t or hadn’t visited before. There is something for everyone whether you are a beach-lover, hiker or food enthusiast. But one thing that Korea lacks is diversity. As a result, you feel isolated, belittled and often times, hated as a foreigner.

When I first arrived in Incheon International Airport in Seoul, I was alone, nervous and in more ways than one, lost. But there was a gentleman who I had never met before who for no reason other than to be good to another human being, guided me all the way to a bus that went to the town I was going to, Pyeongtaek.

I arrived that evening and the next day I had to teach. That’s Korea for you. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know how I would be received. So that evening I ironed my best shirt, groomed and got ready for my first day of teaching. But I was not ready for what happened.

I arrived at the school and the Director met me at the door and together we walked upstairs where the school was. Right before exiting the elevator, the bell rang to signal the end of class and coincidentally we walked through the door as the students left their classes.

The looks of shock on the students faces were priceless. They had never seen a black person, me. Some were running and screaming in Korean, I later learned, “Gorilla, gorilla, monkey, monkey!” and one brave student came up to me to rub my skin to see if the blackness rubs off as if it was paint. But that was not the end of it.

Month after month I came to learn more about not just not what the students thought, but the Director who owned the school thought as well.

I sat down with another teacher from Canada who had been at the school for about 8 months before I arrived. As we ate our sandwiches at Dunkin Donuts this is what he told me, “The Director told me he only hired you because he couldn’t find a white teacher.”

He continued, “This might sound strange to you but in Korea, racism is in your face”.

I couldn’t believe it when I heard him say these words. And since then, although I have met and continue to meet great and wonderful people in Korea, I occasionally meet some very racist ones as well. That goes for a lot of places.

Racism I find is not only practiced by one country. Some do it better than others for lack of better words but Koreans just do it more openly. I have found most Koreans have a healthy curiosity towards black people simply because they have never seen a black person before. Others are simply being ugly. I had one lady whom I work with and thank goodness I do not see often since our offices are separate, try to wash me because, “I am dirty” as my skin is black.

I could go on with countless stories and references towards me being black in Korea but that would take more than a blog post.

Tate Nanje

Tate is a travel blogger currently in South Korea teaching English. You can find more of his stories at The ESL Chronicle where he shares lesson plans, photos, and travel tips.

Further Reading

You’re black so that makes you a monkey – Tate Nanje on racial insults and Korean life.

Racism in TEFL – a look at racist attitudes in TEFL teaching.

Cultural Exchange: A confrontation exposes racial attitudes – a young African American teacher and an older Korean man are involved in a dispute on a bus; the reaction is a reminder of how foreigners are viewed in South Korea from the LA Times.

Teaching English in South Korea – an overview of what it’s like teaching in Korea.

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