“I Didn’t Think Americans Could Look Like You”: Reflections on Being a Fulbrighter of Color

July 17th, 2017

Written by Nikki Brueggeman (ETA 2015-17)


Wanted: Foreigner model for tourism advertisement. White only, please.

I glanced over the ad posted on the foreigner Facebook page for the city of Jeonju. What followed was a tense discussion in the community about the ad’s content with the original poster finally declaring, “stop bringing your [western] ideas of race into this. Korea is different!”

For me, it was another Tuesday in Jeonju. South Korea, like every nation faces challenges when it comes to dialogues surrounding race, culture, and immigration. While I count my positive moments much higher than my negatives, I consider the narratives of people of color as essential to Fulbright Korea’s history.

The author with a doll found in a hostel in Seoul, South Korea.

Since its conception, Fulbright Korea has been a space of cultural exchange and through it people of color have shown communities the complexities of identity within American culture. While we face challenges, it is in these moments that Fulbrighters of Color step forward to humanize the situation and expand dialogues.

I met Markita Helton (Kita) at orientation in 2015. With her hair in twists, sitting in the back of the bus, bleary eyed from her 18+ hours of travel from Kentucky, she looked ready to sleep for a thousand years. Two years later she is someone I talk with nearly everyday. When I called her for this article, I started at with a simple inquiry…

“Tell me about being black in Korea.”

Markita Helton, front right, the author second to the left with other ETAs, 2016.

Kita let out a deep sigh as she told me about her interactions at a hip-hop venue in Seoul. “When I was there, people would always try to impress me or be in my space, as if I could give them some type of credentials for their participation in black culture… but it [hip-hop] is not about being cool and it is not a costume.”

This struck a nerve with me as two weeks before Korea had been rocked by a scandal where an actress donned blackface for Saturday Night Live. Watching your skin and culture become a costume was a reality both of us had experienced many times in our lives, but it was even more exhausting as we resided outside of our culture, disconnected from a wide community of support.

“So what have you done?” I muttered out, sitting up on my bed. “Have you addressed this in any way with your students, of showing them how aspects of black culture are integrated into things they use?”
Kita’s voice livened up as she recalled a recent lesson on slang and how she showed her students its origins in black queer culture. “It was this really opening moment and it was embraced [by the students]. And even me just being there at the school has brought attention to the Africa jokes.”

“Africa… jokes…” I knew the answer that was coming.

She recounted a story of students joking that one of the darker skinned pupils was from Africa. In the midst of their glee, Kita mentioned to the group that “that’s alright… my ancestors are from there… Africa is cool.” The jokes stopped instantly and the students apologized. “It wasn’t a joke anymore” Kita mentioned, “when my students say anything about blackness I relate it to me. If I say, ‘that is about me too’, then it humanizes the situation.”

Kita has not heard an Africa joke in a while.

Bringing a new identity into workplace is a challenge anywhere in the world. It causes coworkers to ask questions, criticize their own cultural standards, and even dismantles preconceived notions of other cultures and people. In Korea, these conversations are happening with Fulbrighters in their midst.

Zerin Tasmin (2014-2016) with some of her students.

Zerin Tasmin had studied abroad in South Korea before her Fulbright grant, but when she returned to Korea things had changed. ISIS was now in the news and pictures of Syria broke the hearts of all who saw them. Recalling the global setting, she mentioned, “My co-teachers began noticing I was…different. This raised a ton of uncomfortable questions and I suddenly found myself as the token Muslim… with features that neither fit into the ‘white’, ‘black’ or ‘east Asian’ category, I also received curious questions about the lifestyle of people from a country that I was no longer familiar with (Bangladesh).” When she reflected on how these conversations played out, things did not always go smoothly:

“The conversations questioning me about ISIS were largely uncomfortable because I barely knew the facts and the origins of ISIS myself… My relationship with my coworkers in my first year was troublesome so I began avoiding them and staying in the office alone during lunch so I didn’t have to have those kinds of conversations. Sometimes, it’s difficult to be a cultural ambassador and mitigate all stereotypes and I realized that was okay.”

Recalling how she addressed issues of around her identity, Zerin recalled one moment from her second year at a samgupsal restaurant where pork was the main course served. However, at her new school the co-workers opted to order beef instead, allowing Zerin the opportunity to dine with them. It was within this space that a conversation about Pakistan and Bangladesh was opened with some teachers assuming the two nations were the same. “However as I began to explain the differences, another teacher chimed in and explained how different the countries were as well. While this might not seem like a big deal, it really a big for me.”

Zerin and I could not speak on the phone. She lives in New York City, while I still reside in Jeonju, but reading over her answers I understood all too well what she meant. Some days there are no victories, there is just silence. Then there are the days where something small happens, like someone else speaking up and it is monumental.

When casually mentioning this to my friend Vinnie, he calmly reminded me: “Find if this is an opportunity to talk about [your] culture, about race, or do [you] need to leave? Understand how your interaction may frame someone’s view. For every negative situation, if you have the right mindset there will be many positives. ”

Vinnie Flores

If the Fulbright Alumni Relations Committee had a gold star awards program, Vincent Flores (Vinnie) would be one of the first initiated members. After completing his grant, Vinnie stayed in South Korea and currently serves as the Regional Educational Advising Coordinator for EducationUSA. While most of our conversations revolve around food and dogs, this time the chat was a bit more serious.

Vinnie taught in Pohang, and although there were moments of confusion about his identity as a Chamorro he recalls an overall positive experience:

“There were conversations when people would say “I didn’t think Americans could look like you” – they were getting the idea of Americans from media and so when students would ask me… it was innocent and it was a conversation starter about what Americans can look like… I did a few lessons about America and I would teach them about Guam, my family, and the ocean. “

I listened, remembering instances where I had shown pictures of America to my students and paid attention to assure the pictures were showcasing the diversity of my homeland. While well received by my community and students, I also felt an exhaustion at having to explain my racial identity multiple times and relate that to being an American.

“17 years Vinnie…” I finally answered, squirming a bit in my seat as I tried to think of how to word my question. “Many Americans, particularly, people of color do not stay in South Korea (or other countries) that long. Why are you still here?”

The answer was instantaneous:

“I loved the potential of what I was doing and creating opportunities for students.”

Vinnie echoed my interviews with Zerin, Kita and even my own feelings about being a person of color in Korea. It is not easy and some days you do become tired. Then there are these moments where you explain about your culture, where you open a dialogue, and can watch the world flood into conversation.

Senator Fulbright once commented, “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy–the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately.” When we arrived at Incheon, we came with the vision of Fulbright in our hearts- to be ambassadors of the United States and to share its language, culture, and history with the people of South Korea. From my three interviews I have found that even when faced with the challenges of sharing culture, Fulbrighters of Color have risen to the occasion and opened dialogues to create progress on discussions of race and identity.

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