The Expat: Belén Jung

Belén Jung
Belén Jung
From: Seoul, South Korea
Lives in: Flores
Age: 25
Profession: Graphic designer and restaurateur of BAB Cocina Coreana
Education: Graphic design degree from Palermo University
Reading: A Korean book about a DJ
Last film seen: The Hunger Games
Gadget: My iPhone

Graphic designer Belén Jung was born in Seoul but when she was eight, she moved to Buenos Aires with her family, following in the footsteps of great uncles and aunts. Living and working in Flores, the so-called Korea Town of Buenos Aires, she also runs a Korean barbecue restaurant.

Belén says: “My great uncles and aunts were among the first Korean immigrants to move to Argentina 30 years ago — there was a movement of Koreans leaving to live abroad, in 1978, when there was an economic crash. Then in the 1990s, work was going badly for my dad so we came here. My great uncle had said there weren’t any Korean restaurants here and as my dad had always cooked, it made sense.

“The only preparation I did before coming here was to get my ears pierced as my great aunt said all the girls had them done. We also didn’t think there were any hairdressers here so we had very short hair styles cut before we arrived. When we were on our way to Argentina, we went via the US, had 10 hours in transit then flew another 16 hours. My mum had got a Spanish language book so we had time to learn some numbers.

“I felt it was a very empty place as all the buildings were so low, whereas there are a lot of high-rises in Seoul. And I remember that we went to the supermarket but we didn’t know we had to take our own bags so we would come back carrying all the goods in our hands.”

Best days of your life?
Belén arrived in June 1998 and the family went to live with relatives in Flores. “I went to primary school and once school finished at midday, as we lived above our restaurant, I would come home and take food delivery orders, then deliver the food. I only had to note down addresses and to be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on! There weren’t many Koreans at school, just us and our cousins, but going to an Argentine school helped, even though I would cry a lot because I didn’t understand much at first and didn’t know what the other kids were joking about.”

One of the quickest ways for Belén to integrate was to choose a Spanish name — and as soon as her school friends could call her something they could get their mouths around, she started to make friends. That, plus a rucksack filled with sweets helped…

She says: “My great aunt showed me the Argentine name list so I chose the shortest that that I could see at the top — my given name is Mi Kyung. And my grandma would give me a whole rucksack full of sweets for break-time as she thought I would make more friends that way. She was right! My teacher would help a lot as well — I would sit next to her and learn the alphabet by cutting out words from the newspaper then sticking them into a notebook. After two years, I could understand and speak Spanish.

“I’m blessed because I’ve received a lot of good things in life and one of the biggest decisions was coming to Argentina. Our family is closer than ever and I feel like my eyes were opened to a lot of things living here. To come here without anything is very hard — my dad was about 37 when he came here and he had to work every single day for 10 years — every new year, every Christmas. In Korea, people have that work ethic, but here they don’t. But that attitude toward work and values have been passed on to me and my sister and we want to be like him in terms of perseverance.”

Community spirit
Belén says the 30,000-strong Korean community in Buenos Aires is united, which has helped the immigrant family. “Thanks to our national personality, we like to be part of a colectividad. If a Korean came and wanted help, I would give it. We are a bit more closed than other nationalities but blood ties are extremely important to us. Korea hasn’t been built up from immigrants but it has dealt with a lot of war and invasion over the years. Korea has a sad story and it’s now divided, of course. And all of that influences us. I do feel it is very far away and there are 12 hours’ time difference so I can’t call my friends or family when I want. Those little details are very important but make a difference. My mum’s side of the family is here but my dad’s side is still in Korea, so he gets melancholic. And we all know each other — even though there are about 30,000 of us in Argentina.

“In the neighbourhood, I’ll walk one block and greet, bowing, five people — which is good as we are cultured, but also bad because people gossip a lot and are very involved in other people’s lives. If a Korean marries an Argentine, it’s a big deal, gossip wise! ‘Their children will be mestizos!’ My mum said from fifth grade that I shouldn’t have an Argentine boyfriend. But I do think that if a woman marries an Argentine, she leaves her culture behind. From taking off shoes at home to sharing a soup bowl — those are all things that we do that Argentines don’t.”

Given that Belén has grown up mostly in Argentina, certain boundaries have needed to be crossed — but not always by her. She says: “When I was a teenager, my dad always said I had to be home by midnight but my Argentine friends would say they’d pick me up at 11.30pm! But dad slowly became more flexible and adapted to Argentina, and that included curfew times when I went out with friends, to dad eating empanadas. At that point in my life, there was a Belén for the Koreans and a Belén for the Argentines. But I take the fact that I have two cultures, two languages and two names as something positive. I can interact and I don’t have to leave one culture behind. I want to be a bridge, and I have been trying to do that since I was a teenager.”

Study first
Although Belén’s dad had hoped she would marry a Korean guy and have a safe “Korean” job working in a textile store, he also wanted her to get a degree.

“I’ve always studied as my dad has never been able to, but it’s so that I, as a Korean woman, can look after the family should anything happen to the husband. He wanted me to marry someone with a clothes store when I was younger but I didn’t want to. So I went to university and trained as a graphic designer, always with the idea of designing Korean food.

“Last year, I won a scholarship to go to Korea for three months — the first time in a decade. It was for children of Korean immigrants from 70 countries, who spoke 20 different languages. I never let my country go and they never let go of me, and it was amazing to eat the food and meet people. I loved everything but I felt like a tourist — I didn’t understand how to buy a subway ticket, for example!

“My aunt always had a restaurant and she always knew I wanted to have my own place. So when I came back from Korea and she had shut her place down, it came to me — I opened BAB in October. There are a lot of possibilities in South America, especially in gastronomy. People love to eat, and it’s a point of interest for people to become friends. My aim is to be a cultural ambassador for Korea: if Chinese food is for the lower-middle class and sushi is for the upper-middle class, Korean food should be in the middle — accessible, because there’s nothing strange about Korean food!”

Although she has two cultures, two languages and two names, Belén says her friends are mostly Korean. “I get together with Koreans a lot and I have a few Argentine friends but not that many. In my spare time, I like to go to new restaurants with my sister; she likes to check out the interiors while I check out the food. I love trying new things — my friends call me BeluTour as I always like to go out.”

But she admits her most Argentine characteristic is to chat over coffee with friends. “In Korea, people don’t have time to sit down. In fact they sell individual sachets of coffee with thermal cups in kiosks, which they make quickly then down before they leave. Sitting down for a coffee doesn’t exist. I don’t drink much mate to be honest, but it’s good to take time out and have a drink with a friend. I also love eating steak. It’s so expensive in Korea that people might not eat it even once a year.”

Buenos Aires Herald, February 22, 2014
Ph: Mario Mosca

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