By Maya Allen
Being a young, African American woman, completely immersed into a 12-month fellowship in South Korea, one of the most homogenous countries in the world, is not a task that just any individual can take on.
It is a task that 22-year-old Spelman College graduate Taylor Allen has set her mind to and achieved. Her fearlessness and independence has allowed her to step outside the boundaries and borders of the United States that many never cross.
“Being a black woman who graduated from a historically black college like Spelman, where they charge us to have the mantra of changing the world, I felt like I needed to broaden my worldly perspectives. I decided not only to just take a short trip but to actually live in another country abroad,” she said in an interview.
A native of Portland, Ore., Allen had never been outside of the U. S. before landing in South East Asia. She knows that being conscious of today’s society and its ever-changing world is vital. Her experience abroad is allowing her to understand other cultures and become a world citizen.
Allen is a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, a post-grad fellowship that allows her to teach conversational English classes to over 1000 students per week at a private Christian high school in Daegu, South Korea.
She chose the Fulbright program for many reasons. One of them is because it is the only teaching assistance program that would actually allow her to live in a Korean community with a homestay family, reinforcing complete immersion into the country.
She explores their racial, ethnic, and gender differences through her teaching experiences and also through her daily interactions with other Korean teachers, friends, and family members.
“I knew that as a woman of color coming to South East Asia would be a complete culture shock. It’s something I did to challenge myself. I knew that we are a minority in South East Asia and I wanted to start to think about the intersections of difference between being an African-American woman and being Korean, trying to see how those worlds and cultures have commonalities and differences.”
African American college students make up only 2.9 to 3.5 percent in study abroad programs when last measured in 2006, according to Medill Reports, “Open Doors,” which is an annual publication of the Institute of International Education. “During the same time period, Caucasian students averaged 83 percent of those studying abroad, the report states.
Allen chose to challenge the norm and she encourages her other African-American counterparts to do the same.
“I didn’t come with that many expectations, which I think is a good thing,” she says. “You don’t want to come to a new country thinking that you’re going to do specific things because that’s such an exceptionalist idea, which I believe many Americans have. I came here and I immediately just had to adjust.”
Allen believes experiences abroad will not only broaden one’s worldly perspective, but also broaden one’s understanding of one’s self.
“Be open to everything when it comes to food, language, the way you dress and present yourself. You have to be completely open to changing yourself and who you are. That will allow you to have the most beneficial experience.”
Allen’s teaching experience has been an eye-opening experience thus far. She describes it as a “totally different world.” The music, humor, and conversations are all distinctive to the Korean culture. When teaching her students, she literally crosses all cultural barriers, trying to meet them where they are in order to facilitate an enjoyable classroom experience.
“I have to be open to learning about them and what they like, which I tailor my lesson plans to.” Allen’s life outside of the classroom has also been an intriguing experience.
“Of course I feel like a minority, but in Korea it’s interesting because they do not emphasize color and race as much as they emphasize beauty. If Koreans think you’re beautiful, they’re probably not going to say anything about your race. Here in Korea they seem to be very concerned with body image, so it’s not inappropriate to comment on one’s body or weight. My students actually get in trouble for putting on fake eyelashes or putting on makeup in class. The first thing they’ll say is, ‘teacher you have a very glamorous body.'”
Glamour translates into ‘You are slender.’ In America, if someone said, “Oh teacher, you have a nice body,” it would be considered inappropriate. In Korea, her students comment on her body all the time, it’s almost like a commonplace.
Allen has grown used to the everyday stares she feels walking down the Daegu streets. She actually hears, “‘You are so pretty, you are so beautiful,'” verses, “‘You’re Black,'” she says. “I think racism and thinking about Black and White is a lot more prevalent in the United States. They definitely see me as a foreigner, but their standards of beauty supersede thinking about race. That’s only because it’s such a homogenous country. I stick out in a crowd but I have not been treated differently.”
One of the biggest challenges Allen has faced in Korea has been depending on others for simple tasks, such as setting up her own international bank account.
“It’s like a continuous war. I always tell myself I can figure it out, but then I realize that I do need help.”
This eye opening experience has inspired her to make learning the Korean language her priority. She also plans to travel to at least six more South East Asian countries in hopes of learning how cultural differences impact our everyday lives.
Allen will attend law school after her fellowship and explore public interest law. “I want to study law that actually helps and works for the greater good of people. It could be human rights international, civil rights, immigration, or education. Whichever calls me, I will do.”
She is considering getting her masters in public policy as well. She knows that this will empower her to think critically about situations and circumstances while also having the educational degree to become a global change agent.
“You can take advantage of being abroad for one year, but there’s so much more you can learn about yourself in two years. Everyday is a challenge and I’m sure that in two years I would grow and learn so much more about myself. Living in another country for a long period of time reveals so much about yourself.”
Allen has started to make a community and network of people in Korea in order to learn from them. She has a language exchange once a week where she speaks with two other Korean teachers who are learning English. Together they talk about different controversial issues in Korea, which teaches her so much about the country.
“I think those types of experiences and this type of knowledge couldn’t come anywhere else when you are interacting with the people. Everyday is different and every day my interactions are different in a way that I feel is really fulfilling, even if it is challenging sometimes.”