Ogunlowo’s creative response to prejudice, stereotype against Nigeria among Koreans
For Chris Ogunlowo, the Asian continent until recently, existed in his imagination in patches drawn from movies, pictures, travel documentaries, and the occasional soccer encounters between Nigeria and any of the countries that form the continent.
With an area of 44,579,000 square kilometres (17,212,000 sq mi), about 30 per cent of earth’s total land area and 8.7 per cent of the earth’s total surface area, one country in the continent is South Korea, which is located in East Asia, constituting the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and sharing a land border with North Korea, and its capital in Seoul.
Ogunlowo had accepted a jury duty for an advertising award in the continent, 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.
Narrating his experience from the journey that began to take a telling turn from his layover in Dubai, he said: “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 man 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 in succession.
“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 already being called to board,” Ogunlowo stated.
The scene continued to weigh in his head as though he had witnessed a laceration, even when he checked into his hotel room in Busan, South Korea’s Metropolitan City, and the second largest city in terms of population. Exhausted and hungry, in between trying to settle down, his mind continued to replay the scene.
According to Ogunlowo, he had travelled against the backdrop of a recent story of some Nigerians nabbed by the FBI. So perhaps, he should endure the security protocols since, on supposed justifiable grounds, he might as well have been a member of the syndicate or a cousin to one.
A day after, he strolled around to find a currency exchange shop and a grocery store. He found two beside each other on the ground floor of an imposing hotel. After exchanging currencies, he went to the grocery store. By this time, he had figured that his fate in communicating with non-English speaking locals depended on his 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,” he told The Guardian.
He continues: “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.
“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? I had found on YouTube that eating kimchi, a Korean staple, is a stereotype that Koreans generally contend with.”
He reviewed the idea with some friends. Taunting him with jokes, one he writes: ‘I am about to be donated to North Korea as a burnt offering’. Another suggested that he include an image that the 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.”
With thoughts of how to make this a reality, Ogunlowo hit the market in search of plain shirts and a printer. With help of Google Translator and Google Maps, within few minutes, he 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.”
According to the creative, 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.”
“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.”