Until now, the Asian country existed in my imagination in patches drawn from movies, her occasional soccer encounters with Nigeria, her joint-hosting of Korea-Japan 2002 FIFA World Cup, the reels of news stories relating her to North Korea, her picturesque depictions in travel documentaries, the one with Seoul as capital, and the cute winking logo on my TV set that sometimes reminds me of its country of manufacture.
I accepted a jury duty for an Asian advertising award, Ad Stars 2019 and looked forward to joining other creative directors from different countries. The event promised the trappings of an international creativity festival – conferences, thought-leadership panels, networking with some of the smartest people in the world; sometimes over jokes and expensive drinks.
Before any expectations of the journey and the event unfolded, my experience began to take a telling turn from my layover in Dubai.
I strolled to my assigned boarding gate and thought I should confirm if the gate had not changed. Making gate confirmation has become a ritual for me because I once missed an announcement about a change of gate on a previous journey and nearly missed my flight. I insist on confirming even in the face of visible verification on digital displays.
A lady manned the gate. I approached her and just after I asked my question, she directed me, in what appeared to be a contemptuous manner, to her colleague. On the one hand, I assumed that because of a likely cultural misinterpretation, I might have imposed an unintended meaning to her gesture. On the other hand, I dismissed the thought with an assumption that she must have, at least, a fair knowledge of the English language to qualify to work at an international airport and to respond to a polite request.
Her colleague, curiously, requested for my passport. He scanned it and while still holding it, instructed that I take a seat and would be called. I sat by his corner, and shortly, a middle-aged guy asked that I follow him, in a tone that seemed like a polite police command. I followed him to a counter. Wearing a stern look and a voice measured for stringent effect, he asked where I was going, how long I was going to be there, if I was the only one attending the event from my country, if I was going to come back, etc., etc. Within those seconds, I figured I was being profiled in that sort of way that marked me as a potential menace; one whose nationality and skin colour qualified him for extra scrutiny. I asked why I am being subjected to this type of examination. After some hesitation, he handed my passport to me. Passengers were called to board. However, the scene continued to weigh in my head as though I had witnessed a laceration on my being.
I got into my hotel in Busan, exhausted and hungry. In between trying to settle down, my mind continued to replay the scene. I am unaware of ever been at the receiving end of that type of treatment. But I suppose that it might have disguised in other passive forms, as I have come to learn from books and articles on treatment of certain nationalities and cultures. And I entertained the thought that some countries have set up systems that impose extra scrutiny on “suspect” countries. And Nigeria, with the usual reams of headlines about scams and frauds and drugs, seems to rank well on the danger alert list. (I should mention that I travelled against the backdrop of a recent story of some Nigerians nabbed by the FBI). So perhaps, I should endure the security protocols since, on supposed justifiable grounds, I might as well have been a member of the syndicate or a cousin to one.
A day after, I strolled around to find a currency exchange shop and a grocery store. I found two beside each other on the ground floor of an imposing hotel. After exchanging currencies, I went to the grocery store. By this time, I had already figured that my fate in communicating with non-English speaking locals depended on my deft use of Google Translator, especially its “conversation” feature. As I entered the store, I noticed a man who appeared to be counting at the till. Just when I muttered “hello, good evening” and about to spit my request into the Google app, he raised his head, and after a nanosecond of figuring who was at his door, he shooed me away with a “no no no.” That was about the closest I have ever been treated like a stray animal.
I tried to shrug it off. In fact, I attempted to rationalise the scene as to exonerate the man from hostile intentions. Maybe he was having a bad day and it didn’t matter the colour of the person he responded to at the time. Maybe the store had closed for the day and a customer’s entrance irritated him. Maybe he had some awkward experiences attending to English-speaking customers and so my greeting had signalled a trauma. Maybe.
Maybe I should not concern myself about writing this piece. However, as far as frame of reference, confirmation bias and prejudices go, I couldn’t shrug off or trivialise these encounters and more so as they seem like a perpetuation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Danger of Single Story.
As I dragged myself back to the hotel, partly overcome with a type of vertigo, I felt an urge to respond to the whole event. I am a creative, after all; paid to find creative solutions to marketing problems. And I was in the country for an event celebrating creativity. The pieces were ticked for me to respond in a creative way that passes the message that stereotypes are wrong and, hopefully, get people to have more positive attitudes towards others.
I thought, what if I made a T-shirt that reads: “Not all Nigerians are criminals. Not all Koreans eat kimchi,” and wear it around for the remaining period of my stay? (PS: I had found on YouTube that eating kimchi, a Korean staple, is a stereotype that Koreans generally contend with). The front of the T-shirt will feature the Korean translation of my message; the back, in English.
And with a hashtag.
I reviewed the idea with some of my friends. Besides taunting me with jokes – one said I am about to be donated to North Korea as a burnt offering – they supported the idea. One suggested that I include an image that Koreans can relate to. I was told about a Ghanaian guy, Sam Okyere, who, to my surprise, is a celebrity in South Korea. I emailed him. I’m yet to get a response. But since he’s a star – and public property of sorts – I decided to place his face on the front of the shirt to expand the message to include all Africans. Hopefully, his goodwill will add to amplify the idea.
I had to look for how to make this happen. It was not going to be an easy thing because of language limitations and, bummer, my Google Maps was listing results in Korean. I was already in Seoul and planned to hit the market in search of plain shirts and a printer. This was going to take more time than expected because I had to contend with the typical tourist dilemma of finding places and getting the right information. Add the language barrier to it and you may have an idea of my predicament. But Google Translator and Google Maps were especially helpful in lessening the problem. I found a retail market that shared the same energy with Idumota. I strolled down the veins of the market, bursting through arteries of merchandises.
I bought some plain shirts and printed the message on them. I changed to the new shirt immediately the printing job was concluded.
Everything happened pretty fast. Besides noticing the curious gazes, some people walked up to me to ask about the words on my shirt, and some asked about the back story, which I shared. Some of them shook their heads sympathetically about the situation that led to the making of the shirt, others nodded in approval of my action and wore a look that, I believe, suggest that they share the sentiment expressed on the shirt.
I am not sure which of the encounters is to be considered the most interesting. But I should mention that on my flight to Dubai, a Korean lady – just when the plane had settled in the air – walked up to me and said she wanted to read the details of the shirt. She had noticed it at the departure gate but didn’t have the time to read the full text. I let her and she requested to take photos with me. She gave me her number. I later shared the images and didn’t lose the opportunity to joke that we literally met in “heaven”.
There was an American too; she was en route to Germany and her seat was close to mine at the Exit section. We had struck a random conversation. Then, she mentioned the shirt. She also said she had noticed it and so we took photos together.
At the Dubai airport, shortly after getting a transit visa and waiting to enter the city, I met a South African woman and her daughter. We got talking about famous South African writers. I mentioned that I’m familiar with Nadine Gordimer, J.M Coetzee (She taught me how to pronounce “Coetzee” properly). She recommended other South African authors. Her daughter then interjected and said I looked familiar. I sort of dismissed it and told her I’m not sure we had met. Then she reached for her phone and interjected again waving an image of me that she had encountered on her Instagram Discovery feed. I felt weirded out a bit, realising that the photo of the shirt must have been doing the rounds in some part of the world. The daughter also let me know that she’s currently reading Chimamanda Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus”.
In Dubai, I didn’t expect that people would notice the shirt because of the Korean language in front of it. However, one of my hosts, an Indian friend, observed that people were reading the English text on my back as we waited for our food at the Dubai Mall. We are currently working to create a message that is more relevant for the region.
So presently, I am putting a plan in place to ensure more people get customised versions of the shirt that will be relevant to any region of the world they find themselves. My agency’s Executive Creative Director, Anthony Ekun, and art director, Kolade Akintola, have offered to help in this regard.
I hope this little gesture opens the world to more tolerance and love.
I should stress that I have only taken an opportunity to use the power of creativity to make people rethink erroneous beliefs and, hopefully, make them have more positive attitudes towards others. This is an attitude that is particularly stressed at my agency, SO&U Limited, especially by the Group Managing Director, Mr. Udeme Ufot, who never stops chanting his favourite battle cry – “Impossible is Nothing.”
Chris Ogunlowo is Creative Director at SO&U.