What It’s Really Like Having Natural Hair Abroad

The following is an interview with Sheryll Donerson, as told to Taylor Bryant. Donerson is a beauty blogger and expat who lived between South Korea and Vietnam for four years. She recently moved to Thailand to explore, write, and focus on her blog, The Wanderlust Project. Standing Out
The last time I was in Korea, two years ago, I think the population was around 98% Korean — something ridiculous like that. It is very, very much a closed society. Aside from the military bases, there aren’t many foreigners, and even fewer Black men or women, so I chalk a lot of people’s behavior up to curiosity. I would constantly get stared at. There would be people trying to touch my hair. This didn't happen as frequently in Vietnam or Malaysia because they have a sizable community of Africans and darker-skinned Malayans, but in Korea it was persistent. On the subway, shopping at stores — I felt like I was on display all of the time. I even had a kid start crying once when he saw me at the grocery store. I was like, 'Seriously? I don't know why you're crying.' I taught English at a very small middle school during my first year in Korea. This was pretty much the first time any of the students had seen an African-American teacher in real life. They’re taught what curly hair is, so it’s not really an excuse, but my kids would call me “reggae hair” or “ramen hair” constantly.
Curly Concerns
Before I moved to Korea, I thought my biggest struggle would be finding skin-care products. I thought everything would be whitening, because that's all I had heard (which definitely isn’t the case). In reality, skin-care products were the easiest thing to find. Hair, on the other hand, was a whole other story. It's very difficult — if almost impossible — to find products for natural hair in Asia. There is a website called iHerb that ships to Korea and, at the time, they had a great selection of natural hair products. I would either order items from there, or, whenever one of the women in my Black-girl tribe would go home, we would all send her a list of stuff and she would bring items back. We had a whole system going. When I went home to Alabama, I would bring an extra empty suitcase and come back with it filled up with hair and makeup products. I had to stock up and ration out. The water quality in both Korea and Vietnam is terrible for natural hair. As soon as I moved to Korea, my hair was so dry and brittle — it felt like straw. I was part of an expat Facebook group where members shared their tips about hair. I went online and was like, "What is happening?" And everyone was like, "Girl, you need to get a water filter!" So, from that point on I installed one in my shower, which would help to filter out chlorine and other minerals. I even experimented with using bottled water because my hair was terrible. The texture changed completely, it was so strange.

Hair-Cutting Woes

Pretty much all of the Black girls that come to Asia learn how to do their own hair. My friends will go to Bangkok if they need braids or extensions because no one here can do that. You kind of have to become self-sufficient, which, when you're used to somebody doing that stuff for you, can be hard. Once, when I lived in Korea, I went to get my hair straightened. I went to a salon that everyone mentioned was great with non-Korean hair, which I guess translated to caucasian hair. I don't find my hair terribly difficult to style — it's very thin, it's fine, I don't really have that much. So, I was like, 'Hey, it's not going to be that difficult, I'll explain, I'll show a picture.' But as soon as they started washing my hair I was like, 'No, this isn't right.' Here's how it went: She shampoos it all on the top of my head and it immediately turns into a tangled mess. She finishes washing my hair, takes a towel, and starts rubbing it all over my head — I'm just like, 'Oh. God. What did I get myself into?' I go to sit in the chair and the guy looks at me, dumbfounded. My hair is still curly and wet and he reaches for the flat iron. I had to shout, "No, no, no, no! Blow-dry!" He then takes the blowdryer and just places it over my head — doesn't brush it through to straighten it first or anything. I physically had to take the blowdryer and the brush and show him how to do it. He finally finishes flat-ironing and the end result was okay. But, at that point, I thought, 'I'm never going to a salon in Asia again, ever.' It's been two years since I've had a haircut now. It's one of those things where there's a language barrier. If it was America, I probably would've said no and left. But there, I wasn't sure if they would understand me. So, you just kind of suck it up and deal with it. With The Bad, Comes The Good
There's a little breakfast shop that I usually go to in the mornings, and one day I saw a mother and her daughter there; the little girl was half Vietnamese, half Black and the first time she saw me, her whole face lit up. "She has curly hair like me, she's brown-skinned like me," said this beautiful little girl. She ran up to me like I was her aunt or something. And her mom was like, "Oh my gosh, she hasn't seen a brown woman like you, she's just so happy. She's always telling me that she wants different hair and then she saw you." Older women in Korea would actually come up to me and ask what kind of perm I had, because they wanted curly hair, and they wouldn't believe me when I told them it was natural. Even though everyone has straight hair there, the whole wavy/curly perm movement is huge.

When I went home, I would bring an extra empty suitcase and come back with it filled up with hair and makeup products. I had to stock up and ration out.

Teachable Moments
Most people are very friendly in Korea. I never encountered someone being outright rude or racist. I know some Black expats get annoyed that people stare and try to touch their hair, but it made me realize that my hair is badass! When you can turn heads and have people try to take photos with you because your hair looks so good (this literally just happened to me at the Bangkok airport!), it's a confidence boost. When my kids would call me “reggae” or “ramen” hair, I was slightly annoyed, but I realized that a) they’re kids, and b) they’re kids who are learning English so maybe that’s their closest point of reference. They never said it in a malicious way and I used it as a teaching moment to tell them no, it's not reggae or ramen hair. If you see someone with hair like me, it's called curly hair. Having natural hair in Asia shows people in different parts of the world that Black people are varied — we have different textures of hair, we have different skin tones. A lot of Asians know Oprah, they know Barack Obama, but that's about it. It's a very narrow perception of what an African-American person should look like. To them, they think Americans are white with blonde hair and blue eyes. They don't consider that Black people come from America, too.
Thankfully, things have improved since I’ve left. There are Black women who have opened up their own beauty supply stores with products for natural hair, and there are more hairstylists in Seoul that cater to Black women. I definitely think the shift had to do with the natural hair boom in America. Before, most of the hair retailers in Korea that did sell Black products carried mostly relaxers and weave and oil-sheen products. There’s a store in Korea that recently opened up called Honey Hair that’s mostly catered toward natural hair. The lady who owns it has aztec clay, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, Shea Moisture, etc. Honestly, I thought about opening up a place myself, or bringing back extra products and selling them because it was so rare. There are definitely people willing to buy these things, they just can't find them. Expat Advice
I would tell anyone living abroad or living in Asia in general to not be put off by what you assume is going to happen, or what you've heard — everyone has different experiences. YouTube has been a great resource for finding different ways to do protective styles, to trim my own hair, or finding different DIY treatments. It is pretty disorienting when you first move somewhere and you realize you can't just run to the local CVS. But, while it's hard at times, it won’t always be. Bring your own stuff, watch YouTube, and you'll make it through.

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