Gugu Mpofu shares her experiences of self-discovery, wellness and being Black in South Korea
Travelling is a powerful way to broaden your perspective, grow your mindset and indulge in self-discovery. Every year, many students choose to study abroad or take a gap year to discover the world and seek new experiences. However, travelling for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, especially as a woman alone, can be scary.
Researching the safety of the destination for BIPOC is an important part of preparing for a trip abroad. Nonetheless, this did not stop McMaster alumna Gugu Mpofu from moving halfway across the globe to South Korea to teach English.
Mpofu had wanted to become a teacher since she was in high school. It was also then that she was first introduced to South Korean pop culture through K-dramas and K-pop. Four years after graduating from McMaster in 2014 with a degree in anthropology, she made the bold decision to move to a small city called Jeoncheon in South Korea and teach English.
Although Mpofu was excited to start her new journey in Korea, as a Black woman, it still came with certain fears.
“I was really scared of racism. That was my biggest fear. I was scared to go outside during the day [for the first month] because I was like, “People could see me,” and so I [went] out at night and covered myself up just in case. But nothing [racist] happened in my city,” said Mpofu.
The locals’ response to seeing Mpofu was mostly of surprise and curiosity. Living in an ethnically homogenous country, some were seeing a Black person for the first time. They wanted to learn more about her and approached her with many questions about her story and background.
However, acts such as old ladies touching Mpofu’s hair have occurred throughout her time there. She also recalls one incident when one of her students was feeling her skin and comparing it to their own skin out of curiosity. Despite these incidents, Mpofu was glad that she was placed in a smaller city because to her surprise, she faced more overt racism in larger cities.
Most of the discrimination in bigger cities occurred in the night scene. She has been denied access to a nightclub that claimed to not allow foreigners in even though she witnessed white girls walk in before her.
Another time, she tried to tell a DJ not to use the N-word, only for the DJ to respond with hostility saying, “This is Korea, I can do whatever I want. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Much of the racism towards other people of colour in South Korea comes from stereotypes picked up from Western media and ignorance of the country’s own problem with racism.
Recently, with increasing global attention from the rise of Korean pop culture and movements such as Black Lives Matter, Mpofu has noticed more discussions about racism in South Korea. She has had conversations with her Korean co-workers and seen more conversations on social media platforms, such as TikTok, about BLM and Korea’s prejudices against other people of colour. Although small, there were also a few BLM protests held in South Korea.
Mpofu found her first few months difficult to adjust to the new culture. The greatest source of support and help for Mpofu was her students, who are still her favourite part of her job. She was her students’ first foreign teacher and they were excited to get to know her.
Living in a small city, teaching is one of the most popular work opportunities for foreigners. This has allowed Mpofu to also meet others who hail from outside of South Korea and even fellow Canadians.
Moving across the world to South Korea has taught Mpofu that she is resilient.
“I have much more strength than I thought I did and I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it. I don’t let fear stop me. I think [moving to South Korea] was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” said Mpofu.
Mpofu has also learned more about herself and become more adventurous and outgoing. She is proud of her growth as an independent woman who is able to handle difficult situations on her own and is comfortable being by herself. She has also travelled to other countries within Southeast Asia and discovered more about other culture’s ways of life.
Apart from her job as an English teacher, Mpofu shares her enthusiasm for wellness and travel through her Instagram account where she showcases ways of self-love, growth and self-care. By documenting her experiences in a foreign country as a Black woman, she hopes to show that it is safe for BIPOC to come to these places and have a positive experience.
The Mindfulness Passport is another aspect of her blog that focuses strictly on wellness and self-awareness. She offers free journal prompts to help people with self-doubt, confidence and healing.
With limited opportunities to travel during the current pandemic, these journal prompts offer a way to practice mindfulness and wellness at home. Being vulnerable and authentic with her own wellness journey has always been important to Mpofu and she is grateful for the positive responses from her audience who are on a similar path and have a similar passion for travel.
“I became this confident woman who was comfortable in her own skin [through travelling] and I just wanted to show other people that they could also be authentically confident,” explained Mpofu.
As a wellness coach in-training, Mpofu hopes to inspire and help others to be open-minded, curious and become their authentic selves.