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Michelle Morris in Seoul: “I Found My Tribe”

Michelle Morris (center) surrounded by six young Korean women who hug Michelle.
Michelle Morris (center) surrounded by six young Korean women who hug Michelle.

When she arrived to start her internship with the Seoul Deaf Korean Association, Michelle Morris quickly found that her expectations and reality didn’t quite line up. Originally presented at the 2018 Joining Hands Symposium, Michelle reflects on finding purpose, finding one’s tribe, preserving self-esteem, and navigating South Korea as a black deaf woman.

Cultivating a Fascination

I am truly obsessed with Korea. And Korean drama. One summer in 2010, my best friend and I were stuck in our hometown, I'm from Florida.  And we didn't have a car, which means that we couldn't go anywhere at the time. And I was really stuck at home. My friend and I decided let’s go ahead and watch this awesome show. And I thought to myself I'm not so sure about this, but my friend encouraged me to watch it. It just happened the name of the show was: “Boys Over Flowers.” That drama really spread all over the map, it was something everybody was very interested in, people started watching it around the world. And it just happened that summer I watched so many shows, and also I just became curious about what they were talking about. I had never seen the language before. And I decided I wanted to go and study Hongul, which is the Korean alphabet.

So all summer I started studying and watching and learning more and more about it.  And then by the next time I went back to school I told my mom, “please, let me take a Korean class!” In DC, there's a Korean cultural center. I was allowed to go to the class and take language courses there.

One semester, I felt this real passion that I wanted more. I wanted to know where the Korean community was on my campus at Gallaudet in Washington, DC. I wanted to know where the Korean students were. I started talking about Korea and I knew in my heart of hearts that I had to go to Korea and visit. 

Part of the requirement for my international studies major was to do an internship. And there was a Korean student at Gallaudet who said they wanted to do internship in Seoul, so we decided that we were going to go and work with the Deaf association there. At the time, I thought to myself: “Wow, absolutely. I want to go and do that for sure!”

So I decided I was going to go and study Korean for one more semester at my university. I met some Korean friends and started learning Korean sign language. In the summer of 2011, I decided that I was finally ready to go to South Korea. I set up my internship and arranged to attend summer school courses in the local university there.

A Not-So-Smooth Landing

When I got off the plane in South Korea, I was flabbergasted. My friend, who was supposed to pick me up, never met me at the airport. I was lost in Seoul! Imagine a black deaf woman in South Korea stuck in an airport not having any clue about where she was going to go. I knew how to just say three words in Korean, that was it! I didn't know what to do and was terrified. The two of us were wandering around for five hours before we finally found each other in that airport. My friend was very very sweet, and that night she introduced me to many friends over dinner. To my surprise, I paid for nothing for an entire week. People took care of me. I thought it was wonderful how open hearted people were. And that was very positive. 

There was something that wasn't so positive. I had to catch the Metro every day, and everytime I was on the Metro, I swear, people stared at me! Once, an older Korean woman came over to me, touching my hair and rubbing on me. I thought to myself, "What is this? I've never experienced this before!" I was very, very uncomfortable with how they reacted to me.

I wondered whether I should go back to Gallaudet and be in my safe zone again. I tried to remain focused on the positive.

After about a week being there, I decided to start an internship at the Seoul Deaf Korean Association. I had some expectations when I arrived there: “I was deaf, they were deaf, we would be able to sign and communicate with one another.”

That was NOT the case.

They didn't know English very well, and didn't know American Sign Language either. And I didn't know Korean, and I didn't know Korean sign language very well either. As you can imagine, those first few weeks of my internship were challenging. I sat in my cubicle, kind of staring into space thinking about what was I going to do with myself. 

Finding Purpose, Finding a Tribe

But the cool thing that happened is they were very, very welcoming with me. They always said “Come on out with us. Let's go to the government meeting. Let's go visit the deaf school. Come with us.” They wanted to establish something like a youth group within their organization. And finally, after I sat there just looking pretty everywhere I went, they said to me, “why don't you go ahead and teach ASL to us?”

I decided, okay, that' gives me something to do! And so with the deaf association there, it was a little bit of a rocky start, but we kept going. I found my purpose: I was able to do something that made a difference!

I met a lot of different people. That in itself really helped me, because at first, I was scared about how different I was from everyone there. But finally, I found my tribe. I felt that that was really, really important.

In terms of an international experience, it is very important for us to find people that understand us and think the way we do. I was able to find some comfort in the community – the deaf community – in South Korea.

But I wasn't able to fit in totally. As a black woman, I couldn't find comfort in the Korean society as a whole. Until then, I didn't really realize to the full extent what it meant to be black abroad. Or what it meant to be black and deaf in another country. And that was very, very hard to navigate. Up until this point here in the United States, I felt like there were no barriers, nothing that I couldn't do. There was nothing that really was oppressive to me. But in Seoul, when I tried to reach out and get a taxi, the taxis would just pass me without stopping. People kept coming and touching my hair freely, and it was really difficult for me. I lost my self-esteem.

“Korean people are curious,” is what I told myself. “They don't know. This is my opportunity to expose them and to educate them.” And so I decided to do that in order to persist through all of this. 

After six weeks of being in the deaf association, I started to pick up Korean sign language, I started to make friends, and I was starting to feel better and better about myself. It was time to move to the summer school program that I was planning to attend at Yonsei, the university there in Seoul.

In the Korean Classroom

I was really excited to take Korean classes, and I also wanted to take eastern Asian philosophy and international law. When I got to class, I told the instructor, “By the way, I'm deaf, and I need you to speak up so that I can hear you.” The instructor said that this was fine and would start by speaking loudly. However, with time, she would turn her face away from me and forget to speak up. To advocate for myself, I had to keep reminding the instructor, who didn't seem to hold on to what I had asked for in terms of accommodations. I started to feel more frustrated because she would always kind of point on me and call me out in class because she thought I was behind. But the real issue was that I just couldn't hear her.

After struggling and struggling I decided to withdraw from that particular class. Later, I learned that I was losing my hearing and that my progressive hearing loss was increasing, so I had less and less ability to hear.

After really struggling during my first summer there in South Korea, I decided that I was going to go back again to continue studying the Korean language. I thought back to my experience where I had struggled with the teacher and I thought to myself, “do I really want to do this again?” I decided that, yes, I did want to return to Korea! In fact, I was going to stay six months this time!

This time was better for me. I communicated my needs to the teacher. I talked about testing, and how I needed things to be very loud and I needed things to be recorded. The teacher was very accommodating to me, but at the same time, I didn't have the same level of support that I have here in the United States in terms of accommodations. Again, it was frustrating, but I wanted to be successful. I wanted to do my best. I wanted to educate and teach people that deaf people can do everything. 

I actually was able to pass my class after about six months being there. After my experience in South Korea with the education system and not being able to have the practical support that I needed for access, I found that I could keep going because I had a community of people who were supporting me outside of the classroom.  My deaf community there was very supportive to me and I was able to make my way between the two different experiences, and that allowed me to keep myself going. 

What Keeps Me Going

I did it! I studied abroad in South Korea even though I had to face so many different barriers. Each time I went to South Korea, I felt really excited and motivated. I did everything on my own, but now I know that people who come after me won't have to do it alone.

Today I work in the field of international education, and I use my experiences in South Korea to think about how people with disabilities and people who are deaf can be supported as they’re traveling abroad.

I especially think the following are important:

  • Pre-departure orientation for people before they go abroad to gain some exposure about the culture.
  • Connecting communities across the countries, including different deaf communities in the world. We need to be connected with one another. Partnering with local deaf organizations or setting up exchange programs with different deaf communities are two ideas for doing this.
  • Mental health. We have to find things that keep us going while we are abroad because we face so many things that we aren't used to: things that we haven't thought about and don't understand. 

Finally, one really important thing I learned about being a black deaf person in Korea is that I'm not alone. My experiences may be different, but they will not prevent me from what I need to do. 

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