Sam Okyere is the most famous black man in Korea.
Within the last few years, Okyere’s built up quite the reputation as a T.V. personality in South Korea, where he is also known as Sam Ochiri. His fanbase is so strong that he often gets mobbed everywhere he goes in public.
Most recently, he went viral for a video where he recounts all the racism he’s faced during his time in Korea.
However, it wasn’t always like this for Okyere. About eight years ago in 2009, Okyere had just set foot into South Korea after getting into the Korean Government Scholarship Program. Participants of the program must learn Korean within a year, followed by a five-year university program.
Okyere was one of two applicants who were accepted into the program from his native country of Ghana. Although similar programs exist in the U.S. or the U.K., they’re extremely competitive due to high demand, which is why Okyere applied from Ghana knowing he’d have better chances of getting accepted.
One year later, Okyere was accepted into the program with another fellow Ghanaian. To this day, he vividly remembers the first day he landed in South Korea for the first time on March 29, 2009.
“It was so cold,” Okyere told NextShark. “I’ve lived in a hot tropical region all my life, and in Korea, it was supposedly spring but it was really cold. I remember going, ‘Wow, this place is very cold.’”
“I was very blown away by the technology. Compared to our airport, which is very small, it’s huge, monitors everywhere. I was like, ‘This is a whole new world.’ I remember absolutely nobody looked like me except the guy that I came with who was from Ghana.”
During the one-hour bus ride to his dorm, the driver didn’t speak anything but Korean so it was quiet. This allowed Okyere to look out and observe the new world he would spend the next few years in.
“It was totally different from where I was coming from,” he said. “The roads were all paved, every single car had a GPS in it, something I had never seen in Ghana. Everything was really fast and everything was a very well organized system.”
The first person Okyere met at the dorms was a Kenyan man who spoke fluent Korean. Okyere was blown away that he was able to learn the language within two years. That same man would help Okyere assimilate into Korean culture in the months to come.
“I remember when I went to the dorms it had a very particular smell,” he said. “It smelled very different from where I’m from. Everything was different and I liked that. I realized that I’m in a whole new world. I’m ready to meet new people, try new things — just really pumped up for the journey ahead.”
Okyere’s journey was not an easy one. He felt lonely early on and it hit him hard during his first Christmas in South Korea. Most of his other friends were from Asian countries a short flight away, but Okyere didn’t have this luxury.
“For the first time in my life I wasn’t able to spend Christmas with my family,” he said
“That really hit me hard. I remember I went into the lounge for the students and I was listening to a lot of Christmas carols and I was crying because I really missed my family. I was very sad.”
What made it even tougher for Okyere was the constant racism he dealt with during his years in Korea.
“I remember eight years ago when I first got here fresh, I wanted to go play basketball. I walked to the court where a few Korean guys were playing. I was like, ‘Hey, let’s play two on two.’ They literally packed their bags and left.
“People stared everywhere I went with my friend. There were some times the bus drivers wouldn’t want to pick you up — they’d be really rude. Taxi drivers never wanted to pick us up for some reason. You saw the taxi driver, they’d look at you, you’re a Black guy and they’d just speed off.
“When we first came and were learning to use the subway, nobody wanted to sit next to us. It was so weird. I was like, ‘There are empty seats, people are standing up, obviously they want to sit but not next to a black guy. What’s up with that?’ I asked my Kenyan friend, ‘Do you get this all the time?’ He’s like, ‘All the time, bro.’
“Some of the innocent experiences, the little kids would come and try to lick your skin thinking it’s chocolate. Some children when they see me they try to take a napkin and clean my skin. They think by doing so it’s going to turn white or get lighter or cleaner.”
When asked why there’s such prejudice in South Korea towards Black people in particular, Okyere shared this thoughts:
“I once overheard a professor explaining why Koreans haven’t really opened up to Black people. After the war there weren’t any Black people around. Some believe it reminds them of their past when they were poor. When they look at people from Africa, they instantly think we are poor. They don’t want to associate themselves with that. Of course if you think about it, Koreans are trying to be like the White people because the White people have succeeded.
“Koreans are very obsessed with image, obsessed with looking good, looking very beautiful. I feel like they do have a certain perception about beauty when it comes to people from different nationalities. They expect an African to look a certain type of way. If you don’t look like that when they first meet you, they assume that you’re African American. For some reason they definitely think African Americans look better than Africans, I don’t know why but that’s the first thing that comes into their heads. You talk to them, you tell them you are from Africa and they’re like, ‘Wow, really? You don’t really look like you’re from Africa.’ Africans have to have maybe a big nose or wide lips or have to look a certain type of way and you don’t really fit in that description.
“For me, I feel like my experience has been different because when Koreans see me, the first thing that pops into their heads is Will Smith everywhere I go. It’s crazy. I don’t know where they get that from but every Korean I’ve met who knows Will Smith, they look at me, they speak to me for a bit and be like, ‘You remind me of that guy on TV, the actor Will Smith. You look exactly like him.’ Yeah, I take it as a compliment. He is the standard of being handsome for a black person in Korea. Sometimes you get some of these compliments and they’re not really packaged properly so you don’t really know how to accept them.”
These experiences, combined with his loneliness, made Okyere contemplate on quitting the program altogether and returning home. However, one Korean friend he hung out with managed to not only convince him to stay but change his opinions about Korea completely.
“I realized instead of always complaining about the fact that they’re ignorant, why don’t I do something to change it? I really wanted to break that whole thing of colorism. I didn’t want to be the Black friend, I wanted to be the friend.”
With that, Okyere starting dedicating most of his time to learning Korean. He tried hanging out with mostly Korean people and studied their culture religiously. However, it wasn’t until he was offered his first television gig that Okyere realized he could make a bigger impact through media.
He was first offered a gig on a Korean reality show called “Island Village Teachers”, which premiered in 2013. That was the first time he realized that language can break barriers. The fact that he was able to communicate with Koreans in their native tongue made him realize how powerful language is.
“I did not necessarily look at TV as an avenue to make money,” he said “I knew it was going to pay but I realized the power that media had. I said, ‘If you want to be a voice for people, you want to be a voice for change, you can do it through the media.’”
Okyere worked hard to build up his entertainment career. He was able to land gigs because producers thought he was new and different. However, they saw Okyere more as a novelty that would wear off over time.
It wasn’t until he was featured on another reality show called “Hello Counselor” that really put Okyere on the map. During the segment, he shared his experiences of racism in Korea, touching many viewers and making Okyere an instant hit. From then on, he was getting calls left and right for television gigs.
As of now, Okyere is considered the most famous black man in Korea. He can’t go anywhere without getting mobbed and has a handful of masks he wears when he goes out.
Despite considering Korea his second home, Okyere doesn’t plan to stay there forever. He aims to do more humanitarian work and help his native country Ghana. He predicts he’ll be in korea for another 10 to 15 years before he moves back.
Until then, he’s prepare to do more work in cultural diplomacy and work with both the Ghanian and Korean government to build a stronger bridge between the two countries.
“I want to be a person who’s going to create change. I want to contribute. Of course because the Korean government has helped me too so whichever way that I can help I will help, especially in bridging the gap between Korean and Africa, especially Ghana where I’m from. That is my biggest motivation to start TV.”
Special thanks to our friends over at Asian Boss for helping us set up this interview. Check out their interview with Sam Okyere below.