Meet the African-American expatriates of EBONY.com’s “Expat Diaries,” a weekly series detailing the varied experiences of Black Americans living abroad. If you’ve ever wanted to pack up and leave the United States to soak up foreign cultures in search of adventure, live vicariously through the “Expat Diaries.” From Paris and Berlin, to South Korea and beyond, “Expat Diaries” dips into worldwide cultures and tells the truth about blackness all over the world!
When it comes to Black American expatriates, we usually get visions of Josephine Baker taking Paris by storm—we never think of South Korea. I felt that way myself when I moved there in the Aughties. Fresh out of law school, I wanted a couple of years to live abroad and travel. With South Korea, I knew I was going to a country where I wouldn’t run into a lot of people who looked like me.
When I researched moving to Seoul, I sought out other African-Americans who’d been there or who were there, and they were all encouraging. By contrast, general Internet forums dominated by non-Blacks painted horrible tales of how bad it was for non-white foreigners in South Korea. I chose to believe the stories of the Black folks I’d contacted instead. Sure enough, they were correct. Much to my surprise, I stayed in South Korea much longer than I expected; I was there for roughly eight-and-a-half years.
I returned to the States in 2009. These days, Elliott Ashby carries the torch on his nightly radio show with Seoul’s Traffic Broadcasting Station (TBS), Night Vibe. I met Elliott shortly after he arrived to Korea in ’08. When I recently asked him how he got to Korea, he answered without hesitation: “I was tricked!” He explained that a friend of his moved to South Korea for a Korean language program at a university in Seoul and wanted Elliott to join him.
Elliott initially had no interest in Korea. He told his friend, “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. I don’t even know anything about Korea or Korean culture.” But his homie insisted that he send his résumé; jobs teaching English are plentiful in Seoul and other Korean cities for Americans with bachelor’s degrees. His friend started submitting Elliott’s résumé to schools, and sending Elliott job offers. A student at Arizona State University, Elliott knew he wanted to live abroad after graduation, but was more interested in Spanish-speaking countries.
Still, teaching contracts only last 12 months. He decided to take a chance and accept a job offer. And after one year, he realized he wasn’t ready to go. A former media production major, Elliott got involved in the Seoul spoken-word scene, and started scoring acting jobs and voiceover work.
He also got into hosting with the help of his Black American Night Vibe co-host, Pinnacle theHustler. He and Pinnacle met when Elliott shot a video spoofing the “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” video. (Elliott’s video was titled “Drank Dat Soju Boy”—soju is a liquor similar to vodka that’s popular in Korea.) The video went viral with over 50,000 views on YouTube, but Elliott’s job asked him to take it down. Pinnacle later won a TBS talent contest that led to more TBS appearances. In 2010, he became a weekly guest on The Steve Hatherly Show and asked Elliott to fill in for him.
Months later, a TBS producer asked Elliott to become a radio reporter. Six months afterwards, the network paired Elliott and Pinnacle together to host Night Vibe, the first urban-themed show on TBS. Night Vibe is produced in Seoul and runs nightly from 10pm to midnight. Night Vibe is “the first and only show in South Korea dedicated to urban music… a mix ranging from classic soul to the newest hip-hop and everything in between.”
Elliott and Pinnacle have interviewed a number of African-American celebs touring through Korea, including Swizz Beatz and Nick Cannon. “Nick Cannon was a great interview,” Elliott remembers. “He’s not that much older than my co-host and I, and he’s been able to establish himself in so many different areas.”
When asked about his experience there as a Black American man, Elliott reminded me he’s from Arizona; he was used to being a minority and dealing with racism. He’s experienced it in Seoul, but doesn’t know if it’s any more pervasive in South Korea than what we see in America. Taxi drivers sometimes won’t stop to pick him up, and there are discriminatory hiring practices, but he was quick to say it didn’t shape his experiences living there.
“I get along well with most Korean people,” he said. “President Obama’s election changed the way Korean people view Black people as well. After his election many taxi drivers would tell me in broken English, ‘Obama good, Bushee bad!’ [My goal is] to continue to build community between Koreans and expats in Korea through the events that I host.” Today (12/12/12), he releases a new mixtape, Twelve: The Tape, featuring himself with various other talent he’s met in Seoul and beyond.
When I lived in South Korea, it was always interesting to see how African-American culture was admired and appropriated, sometimes without due respect or credit. Now that Blacks like Elliott Ashby are working in Korean media, more of us are given the opportunity to talk about our culture.
Regina Walton (formerly known in the Twitterverse as @ExpatJane) manages social media for small businesses. She is co-organizer of SFNetSquared, an online/offline community exploring the use of tech for social impact and benefit. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaWalton.