Black hair is beautiful and unique; we know this. But sometimes taking care of our natural hair can be a process. This can especially be the case when you move to the other side of the world and it feels like you’re learning how to take care of your tresses all over again. As Black women we often also feel pressure to conform to our new surroundings in order to fit in. So it can be difficult navigating something like hair in a country that’s relatively homogenous, like South Korea.
Thirty-year-old Kendra Isaacs made the move from New York to Busan, South Korea three years ago to work as an English teacher. She’s been documenting her amazing experiences on her blog and on her wanderlust-inducing Instagram page. Here she breaks down her experiences taking care of her natural tresses in South Korea and also gives us the best tips for maintaining Black hair — in South Korea.
What has been the general reaction to your hair whilst you’ve been in Korea?
I’m mostly met with fascination and curiosity from colleagues, people in the street and from my sixth grade students who had loads of questions at first.
Prior to moving to Busan I researched the Black Female experience in South Korea. I found a lot of mixed reactions from different Black Youtubers, specifically around natural hair. This made me a little nervous about how I’d be received and fearful of random touches. I had the mindset of ‘how can I style my hair without bringing more attention to myself?’ At first, I rocked a lot of slicked back buns and felt like I had to ease people into the life of natural hair. Now I try to wear my hair however I want—confidently! I also did a culture lesson with my students on Black hair recently—specifically cultural appropriation and hair discrimination. They were surprisingly receptive.
Have people asked to or simply reached out to touch your hair?
It’s only happened once. It was a random older lady on the train. As I was taking a phone call, she reached [out] and touched my hair—I froze. Due to the language barrier though, I couldn’t verbalise my uncomfortability. I think she was just fascinated though.
Is it difficult being natural in Korea or even wearing protective styles? Are there any unspoken pressures to conform to straight hair?
When it comes to hair and beauty, South Korea conforms to the typical European standards. You are vulnerable emotionally and mentally in various ways due to these standards and the fact that you can’t meet them. I’ve gone through periods of confidence but also times when I’ve wanted to straighten my hair to feel beautiful, which is something I’ve not felt in years.
There’s also the combination of culture and language barriers to think about. I’ve had backhanded compliments from Korean coworkers. Once when I straightened my hair a colleague casually said to me, “you should always straighten your hair.” I’ve had comments like this in the US as well.
I’ve gone through periods of confidence but also times when I’ve wanted to straighten my hair to feel beautiful, which is something I’ve not felt in years.
What have been your experiences taking care of your hair in South Korea?
It’s definitely been a whirlwind of a ride. Firstly, the water is terrible for hair and skin—the water is hard and the pipes are old. I would definitely recommend getting a filter for your shower if you can. The air quality and pollution is awful. The fine dust also contributes to hair feeling rough and products not working as well.
I also dealt with alopecia. I had a huge bald spot at the front of my hair, the size of two golf balls. It was a really difficult time and I was consistently donning comb overs. After visiting the doctor I discovered I had PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome]. I definitely think the combination of PCOS, air pollution and the hard water conditions contributed to my alopecia. Your environment definitely affects your body and so much has changed since being in South Korea. Weekly treatments of laser and scalp injections, topical treatments and oral remedies helped me deal with the alopecia. There are also plenty of resources though and Facebook groups like Black Women in Korea, specific to Black women or natural hair in South Korea.
Your environment definitely affects your body and so much has changed since being in South Korea.
Are there Black hair products available in South Korea? Are they hard to source?
Honey Hair is a Black-owned hair store based in Pyeongtaek—about an hour outside of Seoul. They also have an online store but there’s a huge demand so products sell out quickly. Amazon does ship to South Korea and you can get products in about a week and a half. You’ve definitely got to plan ahead for products.
Have you tried out any Korean hair products?
I tend to stick to what I know in South Korea. I’ve tried one Korean product—Mise en Scene Damage Care shampoo and conditioner—to combat environmental damage. It was recommended to me in one of the forums. The product is OK, but I didn’t really see a massive difference and this was also before my diagnosis.
Have you visited a Black salon — what was your experience like?
I’ve never visited a salon in Korea myself, but [I know] there are a few in Seoul and a lot more services available as it’s the capital city. Also, wherever there is a military base there is usually a store or a salon catering to Black hair. Black women in the expat community also tend to recommend stylists to each other so it’s definitely about who you know and speak to. There are also Black expats offering independent services, but this can be a little pricey—costs between $150 and $300—and may require a lot of travel. For this reason I’ve learnt to become so much more independent with my hair. YouTube is my go-to and I’ve taught myself how to install some of my favourite protective styles and how to trim my hair myself.
I’ve learnt to become so much more independent with my hair.
Managing your hair if you’re moving or travelling to South Korea
Kendra also shared with us her top 5 tips for managing your hair if you’re moving or travelling to South Korea
- Purchase a shower filter! The water in South Korea may be safe to drink, but it’s incredibly harsh on both the skin and hair. It has been known to cause skin breakouts, excessive shedding and/or balding.
- Pack 1-2 months worth of products in your checked luggage. In addition, pack four months worth of your products beforehand to be shipped to your living space in Korea. It’s good to be prepared.
- Protective styles are your best friend, especially during South Korea’s ever changing seasons. The winters are dry and harsh, leaving natural hair feeling dry and brittle, while the summers are excessively humid and make it difficult to wear most hair styles outside of extensions.
- YouTube will become your best friend. While there are stylists and expats alike who offer hair services, you’ll eventually find it more cost-effective and feasible to just do it yourself. Learning how to trim and style your hair yourself is inevitable for many Black women here.
- Wear your beautiful mane (or TWA.) however you want and with confidence. People will stare regardless.
More and more Black women are taking the plunge and moving to South Korea. Adapting to a whole new country can definitely be a challenge and as Black women, hair is always something we have to consider and plan ahead for. However, as Kendra has shown us, it’s possible to acclimate to the challenges our hair may face in new surroundings.