If you don’t like reading, I’ve made a video about this on Youtube (10 things you will hear/experience as a hijabi in South Korea- My channel is ‘Nasra Living’)
So I know a lot, a LOT, of Muslim sisters who wear hijab are interested in visiting, working, or studying in South Korea. It’s an exciting country with great technology, a great culture and amazing sights. I currently live and work in South Korea, and there aren’t many hijab wearing women on YouTube, Instagram, and other social networking sites to share their experiences and/or give advice to other hijab-wearing sisters about what they can expect from daily interactions here.
I have compiled a short list below of things that you might hear or experience. I will put out a disclaimer here that these things are by no means reflective of the entire Korean population and might not be experienced by every hijabi here. Here we go!
The airport experience
This is probably the worst part of traveling for Hijabis. Having a stranger massage your head, looking for possibly “hidden items,” treating you like a criminal. (Okay, pause. Some of you guys have the BIGGEST hijab buns EVERRRRR, looking like you’ve hidden a suitcase in your head.) All jokes aside, the airport can be a very traumatic place. I’ve been through four airports in South Korea, and I’ve always had the best treatment. Customer service is a big thing here, so staff are going to treat you like a human being, which is how it should be everywhere. There either very determined to ensure that you are safe and happy, or they are very nonchalant.
You’re one of three ethnicities
So, Koreans aren’t really aware that Muslims are everywhere in this world (I mean … there are two billion plus of us). A lot of Koreans will assume that you are from Indonesia, India or an Arab country. You can’t be from Africa and you certainly cannot be from Europe. Telling Koreans I’m both African and from Europe (London town represent!) always blows their minds, and they always want to know more. So, if you’re not Arab, Indonesian or Indian, be prepared to either adopt one of these 3 identities or to give a concise history about your ethnic background.
Questions about terrorism
Muslims constitute as close to 0% as you can get of the overall population in South Korea, and the media here does not paint Muslims in the best way. Oppressed, terrorists, out to harm the world etc. Those prejudices are real here and I’ve had many awkward conversations with people thinking that I have IS on speed dial. Don’t always be quick to justify your religion and or explain certain aspects. Allow people to overcome their biases and prejudices themselves by deflecting questions and asking questions. Make sure you begin by stating that there are over two billion plus Muslims in the world and then proceed to asking if they think all of us are evil/oppressed/harmful etc. I should also mention that Koreans however are very intrigued by non-Koreans in their country, and will naturally want to ask questions. I feel also that Koreans give a lot more agency and space for people to explain things such as different cultures and religions and are always willing to learn and have conversations with you.
Again, I did not witness many Muslims, and pork/meat/dairy are staples of Korean foods. And while people in Seoul, or any other metropolitan city, will most likely know that you as a Muslim have dietary requirements, knowledge of what those dietary requirements are is another story. If you’re in the countryside like me, be prepared to do a lot of explaining…
The marriage question
This has probably got something to do with, again, the portrayal of Muslims and specifically Muslim women in the media. We apparently cannot be synonymous with independence and free will, so some Koreans will “naturally” assume that you are here with your husband, or are looking for a husband, or have a husband at home. If you’re outside the main cities, you are more likely to experience this, as a lot of the non-Korean women moved here specifically to marry (so I’ve been told.)
The reality of prejudice and false portrayals of Muslims
A lot of Koreans have this perception that Muslims are dangerous people that should not be trusted. The number of times I have overheard this from people, had conversations with this about people or have had friends tell me that this is what a Korean person has told them is upsetting. As a result of this, Koreans are not in a rush to befriend you over another non-Korean foreigner. Friendships can be somewhat superficial, conversations somewhat awkward and you will really feel it. This irrational fear of Muslims is global, and you should not let it negatively impact you as YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. This of course is not true for ALL Koreans, again, I emphasize.
Your colleagues will have questions
I work as an English teacher here, and my colleagues are always asking me about what I eat, when I take my hijab off, what I believe etc. It’s great that they want to learn more about me and my religion and culture, but some days, the constant questions and assumptions really make me feel like I’m “different,” an “outsider.” It’s a pain sometimes to know that other English teachers are getting asked about their classes and students and I’m being asked if I shower with my hijab on.
If you speak even a word of Korean, you’re #winning
This has probably got something to do with the fact that a lot of non-Koreans who settle in Korea do not speak the language. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been applauded just for saying hello in Korean. When I continue to speak in Korean, it’s a standing ovation and I really feel like a genius even though I’ve just asked, “Where is the toilet?” If you want your ego filled, learn some Korean words before coming here.
Social life lit
Korea is the land of 24/7. 24/7 convenience stores, cafes, computer game rooms, karaoke … Clubs are still pumping at 6am, street performances go on well into midnight and night food markets are open until about 11/12pm (depending on where you are in Korea). As well as this, there are so.many.things. to see and do in Korea. That can be saved for a whole ‘nother post.
- You are a holy person
Religion does not constitute a large percentage of the lives of many Koreans, so they will respect you a lot for the fact that you are in “connection with the most High,” seeing you literally as a “holy” person. It’s weird. I definitely feel that Koreans see me this way sometimes, especially when they bow and hand me items with one hand on their elbow (a sign of respect). I meannnnnnnn …. I ain’t complaining *flips hijab and walks off in to the sunset*.
If you want to hear more about my escapades in Korea, subscribe to my Youtube channel (Nasra Living) and follow me on Instagram (@nasraliving).