Koreans in Chile carry on traditions of home

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 31, 2013 - 19:59
  • Updated : Mar 31, 2013 - 19:59
SANTIAGO (Yonhap News) ― Almost all of the tables are occupied this afternoon in Sukine, a small diner, and the air is filled with a confusion of languages. A party of British tourists near the window is enjoying a bowl of chili paste fried pork ― the house favorite. At a smaller table nearby, a Korean woman and her two daughters have just given their order to a young Chilean waiter. A couple that just sat down is studying a large menu on the wall with images of over 20 specialties, from kimchi stew to rice cakes in spicy paste, while behind the register, an older Korean woman is nonchalantly flipping through the pages of a newspaper.

This restaurant in the Patronato neighborhood of Santiago, the capital of Chile, seems to be the point where the Korean community and mainstream Chilean society intersect. Trendy among Chilean youth and a source of comfort food for Korean residents, Sukine is a vibrant example of how Koreans here adhere to the traditions of their homeland while adapting to those of their adopted country. Except for the diced South American hot peppers, the food is authentic; hidden within the kitchen, though, is a Peruvian chef. 
A mural of a Korean bride and groom adorns the front of Goryeo Minbak. (Courtesy of Matthew Crawford)

Diplomatic relations between South Korea and Chile were established in 1962, and, since the arrival of the first Korean immigrants several decades ago, the community has grown slowly but steadily. According to figures provided by the South Korean foreign ministry, about 2,500 South Koreans were residing in Chile in 2011.

The level of engagement between the two countries has been increasing as well. The past year was a high point in relations, with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera visiting Seoul in March and his then counterpart President Lee Myung-bak making a trip to Santiago in June.

Korean residents still take interest in the politics of their home country. Lim Ki-moh, the owner of Sukine who has lived here for the past 27 years, voted in Korea’s presidential election in December through the embassy. 
Long term residents of Chile, the owners of Goryeo Minbak pose with a guest from Busan. (Courtesy of Matthew Crawford)

Stepping out of Sukine and onto the streets of Barrio Patronato, one enters a decidedly South American neighborhood where bits of its Spanish colonial past remain, and yet there are traces of Seoul all around. Officially described as “the commercial and cosmopolitan neighborhood of Chile,” Patronato is evocative of Dongdaemun Market in Seoul, except that the neighborhood is slow to come to life in the morning and the shops close early.

Here, Home Plus and E-Mart are a small grocery store and a stationary shop, not the South Korean megachains. One-story clothing stores Aritaum and Migliore give a nod to the eponymous cosmetic brand chain and lower-end department store. Many of the shops in this commercial area are owned and managed by Koreans and staffed by young Chileans.

While members of the Korean community seem ambivalent about life in Chile, they are unanimously in agreement about the hectic conditions back in South Korea. The Korean husband and wife who run G-Market ― an import grocery store carrying the name of Korea’s online shopping site ― originally intended to immigrate to Canada, “a boring heaven” in contrast to the “exciting hell” of South Korea. Asked about the lifestyle in Santiago, the husband shrugged before offering the warning, “If you drink the local water, you’ll get kidney stones.”

One street north, Kim Sung-il sells general merchandise in Corea Mall, including piggy banks shaped like stacks of 50,000 won Korean bills. It’s the weekend, and his teenage daughter is keeping him company behind the counter. He believes that South Korean society “is so busy that people are at their wits’ end.” Another local businessperson, Park Sang-shin of De Park Market, says that South Korea, on the family’s most recent visit, was “the same as always ― so busy.”

There are some surprising similarities between South Korea and Chile. Both are mountainous countries with a long coastline, both require men to serve in the military, and both have strong family values, as well as unhealed historical wounds left by a dictator’s rule. Their cultures, however, are radically different. Perhaps as a result of this, except for its commercial activities, the Korean community is insular and self-contained.

Park, who enjoys chatting with Korean and Chilean customers alike, describes the Korean community in Santiago as “the type of community you would find in a tiny village.” It is both tightly knit and remarkably in tune with what is taking place back home.

“We preserve our food and customs,” said Park Eun-yong, who runs Goryeo Minbak, a Korean guesthouse, with his wife and is known as Dr. Alfonso Park to his acupuncture patients. “We exchange information with each other, we comfort people who are suffering from loneliness overseas with Korean food, care for those who are sick in mind and body, and share the warm jeong that Koreans have,” he said, using a Korean word that roughly translates as “deep affection.”

This community closeness is maintained through five Korean churches, a society for the elderly, a golf club, a youth organization, and a school, which provides Saturday classes in Korean.

At the other end of the spectrum from the melting pot of Sukine, but only a few blocks away, is the “Asociacion Colonia Coreana en Chile” ― the Korean community office, which also serves as the office of the newspaper for the Korean community in Chile. Although the office was closed for the day, Shin Myun-woo, the 73-year-old editor of the newspaper, was reading South Korean news online while waiting for his wife to finish her dental appointment on the floor below. A kindly man with gapped teeth and a small frame, he was wearing checked pants and smoking a cigarette.

Unlike many other members of the community, Shin cannot speak Spanish ― started learning too late in life, he says.

He last visited Seoul 17 years ago, and even then it seemed like a completely different country to him. “The Seoul suburbs were filled with high-rise apartments,” he remembers. “People’s mindsets were so materialistic, and their lives were so busy.”

His wife’s dentist appointment complete, Shin fetches her and rolls her wheelchair to the window. In the stillness and silence of the office, they are gazing not at high-rise apartments and neon lights but at San Cristobal Hill, baking in the furious midday heat and crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Serene and contemplative, they seem successful at harmonizing the country they carry within and the country they are gazing out upon.