Written by Nakisha McNeal ETA’08-09
One recent evening, after finishing my teaching responsibilities early, I went shopping. I spotted the perfect pair of pale pink stiletto sandals in a store window and had to have them. I went inside the store to try on the shoes. While I was trying on said footwear, the storeowner sat beside me.
I smiled sweetly at her and resumed admiring the shoes on my feet. I then felt a light caress on my arm. So light that I was certain it’s just a March breeze and ignored it. That is, until the light caress turned into a steady rubbing. I then looked at the shop-owner and noticed that she was rubbing my arm, and then pausing to look at her fingertips. The storeowner noticed that I had caught her and becomes embarrassed. I was amused at her discomposure. I let out a giggle and she abruptly got up from the bench and went to help another customer in the store.
Some of you may be wondering what the storeowner was doing. It may help if I told you that I am a Black American. She was doing something that I have had quite a few Korean people do to me during my eight months in Korea.
She was curious to see what black skin feels like — and if this blackness could rub off — so she rubbed me. After I arrived in Korea, I consulted with the few black people I encountered here. Each of them assured me that I would have at least one person “try to rub the black off.”
I thought that was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I couldn’t comprehend that anyone would think that my color would rub off. That is, until people actually began to try it — on the subway, in line at the supermarket, etc.
When I was being informed of the “black rubbing,” my informants seemed annoyed and angry. Yet, whenever it happens to me, I just can’t seem to get angry. It’s too funny to me. Plus, I respect curiosity. I have dark skin and dreadlocked hair. These things are very different from the appearance of the average Korean person and many of the other people living in Korea. It’s natural to be curious of things that are different. However, I can understand where the discomfort and anger of my black friends come from. A lot of times, people will touch and examine me without even saying hello. This is hurtful and dehumanizing. I am not an object. I am a human being and deserve to be treated as such. Touching me without acknowledging me or asking my permission is impolite. Although I don’t get angry, I can understand why someone else might.
My purpose in writing this is to say that I love that Korean people are curious about me and other black people. I feel the same way about Korean people — that’s why I wanted to live in this amazing and beautiful country. I saw coming here as a way to learn more about a culture and a people that were unfamiliar to me.
That said, I don’t go around rubbing random Korean people. My suggestion is this: Whenever you see an interesting black person, simply say hello and shake their hand. That way you get to touch a Black person — and see that the black doesn’t come off — and possibly build a friendship with someone who is probably more like you than you could ever imagine.
This article was originally published in The Korea Times on April 17, 2009.