As Told by Tonya

Always the “Other”

June 6, 2017 Comments Off on Always the “Other”

When you leave the country you can expect certain trials that aren’t familiar to you – New people, culture, foods, customs etc. When I left for South Korea in August of 2013 I had read every article, blog and watched any videos I could find to prepare me for the huge culture shock I’d experience moving to another continent and into a homogeneous society.
The funny thing is, I had prepared myself so much that the “shock” wasn’t that intense. I knew that anything I deemed “normal” would probably not be the case, I expected to eat food combos that never would’ve crossed my mind to consume, and of course I expected to be stared at for being different.



Tteokbokki (떡볶이)- Korean spicy rice cake. A new food that quickly became one of my favs!



Watching couples sport “couple outfits” in the streets of Seoul #foreveralone #notanymore!

I’ve wrote a post previously about being a foreigner in South Korea, if you’ve read that, don’t worry this isn’t a repeat post. In some ways, is an extension to it.
I recently moved to Arizona. I am originally from Catonsville, MD. It wasn’t until recently I truly realized how diverse my city is. It wasn’t until I visited my fiancé’s family and neighborhood in Michigan, then drove cross-country to Arizona (stopping many times along the way) that I really realized not every American neighborhood is as colorful as mine. Where I’m from there isn’t a race or nationality I’d be surprised to see and interracial couples and families are common.

Although I was aware that not every neighborhood in Maryland was like this, for some odd reason the blessing I had of growing up in such an area truly didn’t hit me until this trip to Michigan and cross-country road trip! (Don’t judge me.)

Touring Seoul for the first time with fellow TaLK program scholars

So when I was in Korea I was comparing two extremes: my diverse city to the homogeneous city of Seoul. Not in an negative light, but I saw life in Seoul as a completely different world, not realizing how much it has in common with various cities and towns across America.

So now to the present moment in Arizona. While my life, or rather, our life is worlds different than what it was in South Korea; one thing sometimes feels the same. We are still the “other”.


Driving cross-country with style 😉

Since I left Maryland I have been the “other”. In Stephen’s hometown the predominant race is Caucasian and this was the case throughout the majority of our road trip to Arizona. Here in the town we reside in Arizona, Latinos, mostly Mexicans are the predominate minority.
The Asian and African American communities are present but extremely small. One uncomfortable point my fiancé and I have discussed was that many negative stereotypes of our prospective ethnicities hold true where we live (a conversation for another post!).

But what do I mean when I say the “other”? I’ve obviously known I belong to a minority group my entire life. But after living abroad for 3 years in Asia and returning to my “home” country and facing some similarities, I started to get this weird feeling. Why were “home” and a “foreign country” so alike?

Example 1- In Korea when I’d see a fellow African American I’d light up and get excited and if I was with Stephen or a close friend I’d actually say, “Oh! Look! A black person!” in my excitement. Now in Arizona, I do the same…okay with less surprise and enthusiasm but it happens. Or instead of stating it, I realize that I notice when I see another black person (something you don’t do when you live in a melting pot city).


“Oh hey girrll!!!” Me when I see black girls in Korea 😂 (don’t mind my friend tying up her hair..)

Example 2- I love Marley twists. They are my go-to protective hairstyle. Naturally when I found out that a Black hair store was opening in Itaewon, Seoul I was hype. Then to find out they sold Marley hair basically brought me to tears. In Arizona, I Googled the best Black hair care supply store. Reviews were good but when I went there I found a poorly stocked store full of empty spaces on shelves and like two color options of Marley hair. I could only think to myself “This is the best we’ve got?!”

Example 3- People know us. In Korea, staff at the restaurants and shops that I went to often would naturally remember me. This actually helped me feel more comfortable and part of the community when the restaurant ajumma (older woman) would greet me with a smile and ask, “The usual?” in Korean. Of course this happens in any small town however it happens quite often to Stephen and I as a couple here. Understandably so, AMBW couples are still rare, but people remembering us is just something we have noticed.

AMBW love

#ambw #ambwlove #swirl #theothers

When I think about these similarities between my experiences and interactions in South Korea and various cities of America, I initially had a negative feeling, a bit of sadness about not having a “place”. I was sad because I felt I’d often be different, need to explain my existence, struggle to find things I need, and never find a large amount of people just like me.

Of course this wasn’t the first time I had these questions.

Then another stream of thought began to take over, one that aligned with my truest belief deep within- I am a citizen of the world. I have no borders. I am a free person with a free spirit.

The feeling of “otherness” can only motivate me more to travel, educate and as I always said in Korea “be a walking cultural lesson”. Now that I am in an interracial relationship, a rare one at that, we as a couple are a walking lesson of love between humans. And in times like these, I believe this is exactly what the world needs.