Korean-German Identity: An Interview with Suin Roberts


Korean nurses pictured outside of St. Johannes Hospital in West Germany

In my last post, I wrote about the German Village, a community of elderly Korean repatriates from Germany on Namhae Island in South Korea. My inspiration for the post stemmed from a recent series of articles in The Korea Times about the nearly 20,000 South Koreans who went to West Germany in the 1960s and ’70s to work as miners and nurses in the wake of the Korean War. Although they were originally under obligation to leave Germany after 3 years, many stayed and started families. As a result, there are 30,000+ people of Korean heritage living in Germany today. To put that in context, that’s the 14th largest Korean population living outside of Korea worldwide and the  2nd largest Korean population in Europe behind the U.K.

Featured in the fourth and final article in the Korea Times’ series on the subject is Suin Roberts, associate professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Dr. Roberts was born in Germany to a Korean miner/nurse couple who decided to stay. She has also written a book called Language of Migration: Self- and Other-Representation of Korean Migrants in Germany and graciously agreed to do the following interview about her personal familial, cultural, and linguistic background for this blog. I’ve compiled a few additional resources for anyone who is interested in learning more about South Koreans in Germany, including a German-language Deutsche Welle article on the question of integration for second-generation Koreans, an English-language post on where to experience Korean culture in Berlin, and a dual German- and Korean-language online forum for cultural exchange.


Suin Roberts

RK: Your parents were a miner and a nurse who came from Germany in the 1970s, correct? Did they meet in Korea or later, in Germany?

SR: My parents were from South Korea and actually met in Germany. My mother (from Gwangju) went as a nurse and worked in a psychiatric hospital in Langenfeld (in fact, she is still employed there) and my father (from Seoul) worked as a miner in Aachen. Later, he retrained and became an electrician and worked for Bayer (Leverkusen).

RK: What brought your parents to Germany, and why did they decide to stay? Were they involved in the 1977 protests?

SR: My parents had decided to leave Korea for economic reasons and a feeling of wanderlust. They needed to earn money for themselves and their families back in Korea and saw the recruitment to Germany as an opportunity: It was something that could help them escape struggling post-war Korea and in addition to that, it would allow them to see and explore Europe.

During the time of the 1977 protests, they had already been living in Germany for several years. Even though neither of them had originally planned to stay in Germany, they decided to stay, because they had met each other and started a family together. At the time, quite a few Korean nurses, who had already worked in Germany for at least three years, were looking into immigrating to the US. My mother had also applied to a hospital (and received a contract offer) in Chicago, but in the end, my parents decided to stay in Germany, because they thought that the healthcare system in Germany was better and more reliable at the time.

RK: What was the linguistic environment in your home like when you were growing up? How much Germans did your parents speak, and how much Korean did you grow up speaking?

SR: I would say that I was certainly a native speaker of Korean during my first few years, but I don’t remember myself as one. My memory only goes back to preschool (Kindergarten in German, so children between 3-6 years in Germany attend Kindergarten) and by that time, I was completely fluent in German. As long as I can remember, I have always spoken German with my parents. While my parents spoke both, Korean and German, at home, I have always felt more comfortable speaking German with them than Korean. I believe that my parents tried to use more German at home in the beginning, because back in the 1970s and 1980s, migrant parents were told to speak German at home so that their children wouldn’t struggle in school. I did attend a Korean Friday school (a few hours of Korean language instruction provided by a local Korean association), but of course, this type of school was more about socializing with other Koreans and less about language learning. So, not surprisingly, my friends and I would always end up speaking German during recess.

In retrospect, I spoke very little Korean growing up. My interest in Korea and the Korean language is more recent, maybe since graduate school, when I took Korean-language classes and started to explore K-Pop culture.

RK: What was the general attitude toward Koreans in Germany while you were growing up, and what is it now? How does it compare to attitudes in America?

SR: In my home town (ca. 50,000 people), there were only a handful of Korean families while I was growing up. My experiences were mainly positive, which means that I didn’t experience any open racism or discrimination. However, I was teased on playgrounds once in a while for my “exotic” appearance. Overall, however, the general attitude towards Koreans during that time was neutral, I would say, ranging from indifference to friendly interest. Either way, one was perceived as a foreigner (Ausländer) most of the time.

Today, I believe the attitude towards second- and third-generation Koreans in Germany has become more accepting, in that one is now being perceived as a German with migration background rather than an Ausländer. Or to say the least, we are in the process of moving towards this attitude.

Korean-Americans have had advantages: 1. The US has always been perceived as a country of immigration. 2. Citizenship laws are based on ius soli (which Germany (partly) introduced only recently), 3. The English language allows for hyphenated identities (Korean-American), whereas in German, one always has to choose one identity over another  (e.g., Deutschkoreaner). Hence, Koreans in the US may have had a different, maybe smoother road to travel on in terms of identity construction…

RK: Did you grow up surrounded by a Korean community? What is your sense of cultural and national identity?

SR: As I have mentioned, my immediate, local Korean community was very small, however, my hometown is situated between Düsseldorf and Cologne, which boasted bigger Korean communities. I did grow up within a network of Korean family friends. So, there were gatherings and get-togethers, where I heard Korean and had Korean food. There were also fieldtrips and yearly cultural events, which we usually attended.

In terms of cultural and national identity, I believe cultural identity supersedes national identity. While in Germany, where I lived my first 24 years of my life, I felt mostly German, however, also Korean in terms of values and mentality. My lack of Korean language skills kept me from pursuing a stronger Korean identity.

While I have lived in the US now for the last 13 years, I have felt mostly American even though I don’t have American citizenship (yet). But life in the US has shaped me culturally and linguistically. I feel as comfortable speaking English as I do speaking German. Actually, when it comes to my research and work, I prefer speaking English.

How would I self-identify? In terms of national identity, it’s a matter of passports for me. I have a German passport and I have applied for American citizenship, so soon I’ll be a dual citizen. But in terms of cultural identity, I have become a Korean-German-American, in that particular order with the focus being on American.

RK: Have you ever traveled to or lived in Korea? Are you close to extended family members living in Korea?

SR: I have spent two summers in Korea during my teenage years, and most recently, I have been to Seoul in 2008 for conferences and in 2013 for an invited lecture at the Goethe Institut. I would like to go more often and actually, I’d love to live there for a while. Korea has changed so much over the years. It’s become such an interesting place in terms of culture, architecture, nature, etc. It has a lot to offer, and I’d like to explore it more.I have uncles, aunts and cousins, and friends in Korea, with whom I try to visit whenever I am there. Recently, we’ve been communicating on a weekly basis via Kakaotalk, a text messaging app. It is exciting to connect this way.

A Piece of Germany in South Korea

Korea mapIn anticipation of spending the next year teaching English in South Korea, I’ve started making a list of places to visit while I’m there. The most recent addition to my list is the German Village, a German-Korean community located on Namhae Island in South Gyeonsang Province.

Germans in South Korea, you say? While it’s true that most foreigners in South Korea hail from the U.S. and other parts of Asia and that most Korean expats live in China, the U.S., and Japan, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 South Koreans moved to West Germany in the 1960s and ‘70s to work as ‘Gastarbeiter’ (lit. ‘guest workers’) due to the economic devastation caused by the Korean War. Many of them ended up staying in Germany and starting families; as a result, Germany is now home to the second highest number of people of Korean heritage in Europe.

German Village - Namhaedo - South KoreaA little over a decade ago, South Korean authorities offered former guest workers who had lived in Germany at least 20 years an incentive to come back to Korea, offering them and their families land and subsidized German-style housing in an area Koreans call ‘Dogil Maeul’ (‘German Village’) on Namhae Island. The most seemingly reliable stats I could find on the Village come from a 2012 article run by Der Spiegel stating that there are 35 houses in the Village, although some informal sources I’ve seen put the number at anywhere between a dozen and 75 (there’s probably an accurate number listed somewhere on the Village’s website, but someone with better Korean than mine is going to have to get back to me on that). Some inhabitants live there full time, and some split their time between South Korea and Germany.

As Der Spiegel’s article points out, many of the Korean returnees no longer feel at home in their country after having been away for 30-40 years. Cho Sung-Hyung’s 2009 German-language documentary Endstation der Sehnsüchte follows three German-Korean couples who live in the Village and details these feelings of heimatslosigkeit. Below is a short excerpt from the film.

The German Village has become something of a tourist destination, attracting tens of thousands during the summers and at least ten thousand for Oktoberfest, according to Der Spiegel. I get the sense that it’s a lot like Missouri’s own Hermann, but without the wineries or good German drink—apparently beer in a can at the Village’s Cafe Bremen is about as close as you’re gonna get. On the other hand, you can’t beat the scenery, and f0r German- or Korean-speaking tourists, it seems like the residents would be fascinating to talk to. Apparently there’s an American village located on the island as well.

But in the words of Lavar Burton (Reading Rainbow, anyone?), don’t take my word for it. Check out pictures and reviews of people who have been to the German Village here, here, and here, and stay tuned for my next blog post on Koreans in Germany, featuring an interview with Suin Roberts of Indiana University.


Throwback Thursday: Mädchen in Uniform

If The Police had been around a few decades earlier, their hit “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” would have made an excellent theme song for the 1958 German-language film Mädchen in Uniform. As in the song, Mädchen in Uniform deals with a “young teacher” who’s “the subject of schoolgirl fantasies”—but with a twist. While the film’s plot does indeed involve a schoolgirl, the teacher she’s lusting after is, as it turns out, a woman.

Set in 1910 at a Prussian all-girls’ Catholic boarding school, Mädchen in Uniform—a remake of the 1931 film of the same name—is centered around the relationship that develops between new pupil Manuela and her teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg. The headmistress of the school and her cronies run a tight ship—after all, the girls are expected to grow up to be the mothers of soldiers, as our dear Senior Superior points out when her monocle-wielding sidekick says the students have been complaining of hunger. Indeed, Fräulein von Bernburg is the only teacher who shows any affection or nurturing to the students in her care. Manuela, whose mother has recently died, clings to this affection, developing an obsession with the Fräulein. One night, after having a little too much alcoholic punch at the Senior Superior’s birthday party, Manuela declares her love for von Bernburg to the rest of the school and scandal ensues . . .

I won’t spoil the ending—let’s just say the film ends on, well, not the most satisfying of notes, but certainly on a less depressing note than Loving Annabelle, Katherine Brooks’ 2006 modernized, English-language take on Mädchen in Uniform. But more on that in a minute.

Mädchen has long been hailed as a lesbian classic, and this movie is rife with homoerotic vibes. Several students have seemingly romantic relationships with one another, everyone has all the feels for von Bernburg, and none of this is presented as being at all out of the ordinary. However, while Manuela’s affections for Fräulein von Bernburg are of a romantic nature, von Bernburg’s affections for Manuela seem more maternal than anything else—and as this review of the 1931 version of the film points out, the theme of women loving women (which again, is completely normalized in the film) seems to actually be secondary to the film’s overarching commentary on the expression/repression of emotion and affection.Loving Annabelle

Which brings me back to Loving Annabelle. Although it gets its basic storyline from Mädchen, it places far more emphasis on the theme of sexual identity—specifically, the navigating of same-sex desires in a hetero-normative environment. In this case, the feelings between Simone, the teacher, and her student, Annabelle, are mutual and decidedly sexual. (As After Ellen’s review of the film points out, though, the sexual relationship between Simone and Annabelle brings up the issue of Annabelle’s age—although we don’t know exactly how old she is, she’s definitely a teenager and possibly still underage.)

All in all, if you’re in the market for a good queer film, both movies have their merits. Mädchen in Uniform offsets Manuela’s plight with lots of comic relief (the students are all kinds of hilarious, and did I mention there’s a monocle? Just beware, the English subtitles are not always the most accurate). Loving Annabelle is very sensual, but brace yourself for all the long, anguished gazes of inward turmoil and torturous lust.

*At the time of this posting, both Loving Annabelle and the 1958 version of Mädchen in Uniform are available on Netflix, and the 1931 version can be found on the YouTube. For my German-speaking readers out there, you can find a cool German-language comparison of both film versions and the book (yes, there’s a book!) here and a German-language review of Loving Annabelle here.

Femen: Giving us something to talk about

In my last post I talked about Ukraine is Not a Brothela recent documentary following the members of Femen. Originally based in Ukraine and now based in France, Femen is a feminist group of self-identified “sextremists” who lead protests with their messages written on their breasts. Before seeing the film I didn’t know much about the group, other than their chosen method of protest, since most of what I’ve read about the group seems to be exclusively interested in a) the fact that they protest topless (omg breasts—how scandalous!) and b) dismissing most, if not all, of their credibility as feminists based on that fact. Accordingly, many of the pieces that talk about them err on the side of the sensationalist (in the case of the more formal, “factual” media), or the downright patronizing (in the case of more opinion-based media like blogs).

Femen meme

An oversimplification of Femen’s ideology, at best

The way these kinds of pieces talk about Femen makes me uncomfortable in large part because they ignore the complexities of what it means to be feminist in a patriarchal society  and they pay little to no attention to the perspectives of the members themselves. Something that really struck a chord with me when I saw Ukraine is Not a Brothel is the fact that its interviews are exclusively of Femen members. Of the more thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the group online since then (and there are actually more of those out there than I thought there might be), “Rise of the naked female warriors” by Kira Cochrane of The Guardian does a particularly good job of incorporating a member of Femen’s voice into its analysis of the group, and “The femen phenomenon” by Reuters blogger Gleb Garanich (which I mentioned in my last post) definitely wins the award for most humanizing portrayal of the group. Jess Eagle’s House of Flout blog also provides a great, nuanced analysis of Femen’s implications for feminism as a whole.

"Fight for me! Let me be how I want, not how you think is right"

“Fight for me! Let me be how I want, not how you think is right #MuslimaPride (sic)”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms of the group that go beyond their chosen method of protesting. Not examined in Ukraine is Not a Brothel, for example, is the group’s approach toward Islam-specific feminist issues. When Tunisian woman Amina Tyler was arrested following a topless protest in her country last year, Femen activists protested for her cause in front of the Justice Ministry in Tunis, announcing that they were bringing a “Topless Jihad” to the Middle East. This has drawn backlash in feminist and Muslim spheres from those who see this as a neo-colonialist attempt to “save” oppressed Muslim women (sparking the hashtag #MuslimahPride seen in the picture to the right). For an on-point explanation of why people are (understandably) upset about this, I recommend checking out these pieces by Manar Milbes, an American Muslim, and Italian blogger laglasnost.

At the end of the day, the way the media portrays Femen has the biggest impact on what we pay more attention to–their message or their breasts–and currently it’s not their message that’s winning. That probably isn’t going to change, because, you know, sex sells and all (and apparently breasts = sex), but we as media consumers can certainly do better by recognizing the hype for what it is and acknowledging that whether we agree with it or not, there is more to Femen’s feminism than meets the eye.

Femen in Film

Featured at Columbia’s very own True/False Film Fest this past weekend, Kitty Green’s recent documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel  interviews the people behind the feminist protest group Femen. Originally based in Ukraine, Femen has gained international notoriety for the fact that its members protest with their messages displayed on their breasts. (Insert obligatory NSFW warning for the trailer below here.)

It might surprise you to know that Femen’s protest methods were once quite orthodox, and their original protests were aimed at the prostitution and trafficking of Ukrainian women (hence the title of the film). In the film, members explain that nobody paid attention to their message when they protested conventionally, but everybody paid attention when they started painting it on their breasts. They also see toplessness as a way of protesting the exploitation of the female body, an explanation that many people find contradictory and/or incompatible with feminist principles  (in fact, blogger Mona Chollet  of Le Monde diplomatique refers to their brand of feminism as “fast-food feminism“).


It might also surprise you to know that one of the original masterminds behind Femen is a man. His name is Viktor Svyatski, and his interview in the film is, er, interesting, to say the least—he comes across as both exploitative and yet oddly aware of the ironic nature of his (former) role as “patriarch” of the group. Inna Shevchenko of Femen France reveals that she moved the group’s base from Ukraine to France two years ago in part to loosen Femen from his control and in part to avoid political persecution in Ukraine.

Going back to the subject of the True/False festival, Inna Shevchenko actually appeared in person for a Q&A with director Kitty Green after the screening that I attended. Unfortunately, I was only able to stay a few minutes before having to run to catch another film, but I did see them walking by on the street later (my one and only claim to fame). If you were in the same boat as me and/or want to find out more about how the documentary was filmed, I highly suggest checking out this interview of Green from the British website Female First.

For more information on Femen’s mission in the group’s own words, check out their English-language website here or their (now-defunct, but still potentially interesting) Russian-language blog here. If you haven’t seen Ukraine is Not a Brothel (or if you have and are interested in something that runs along the same vein), I also recommend taking a look at “The femen phenomenon” by Reuters blogger Gleb Garanich.



Germans Protest the State of Gay Rights in Russia

In Berlin, people have been rallying under the slogan “Genug ist Genug—Macht euren Mund auf” (“Enough is Enough—Open Your Mouth”) in protest of tightening restrictions against LGBTQ activity in Russia, the host of this year’s Winter Olympics.

My favorite sign of the protest

Gotta love those #hashtags

In August, 4,000-5,000 protesters (the number varies a bit depending on the source) marched past the Reichstag to the Russian embassy in the hopes of motivating a repeal of Russia’s most recent anti-gay law, which Russian president Vladimir Putin had signed into effect two months earlier.

Protesters organized again to light a ‘rainbow flame’ on the city’s Potsdamer Platz on the day of the Olympic opening ceremony. They intend to keep the flame burning for the duration of the games, the same amount of time that the Olympic torch is set to burn in Sochi.

Berlin-based drag queen and DJ Barbie Breakout also told viewers to “Open Your Mouth” as she (quite literally) sewed her mouth shut on camera. In an interview with Vice Magazine, she said that while she is not a particularly political person, she didn’t merely want to sign a Facebook petition against Russia’s anti-gay legislation either. You can see the video (as you might have guessed, it’s graphic) and check out the German-language interview here.

Then there was that awkward moment when the media started using the label “gay protest” for things that are not gay protests at all.

For example, the quite, er, colorful German Olympic team uniform has had the internet abuzz since its debut in October—apparently, people have been associating its rainbow design with the rainbow as a symbol of gay pride. Designer Willy Bogner and a spokesperson for the German Olympic team have both denied that the uniform was designed with gay rights in mind or as a protest of any kind (“this is just a fashionable jacket”). While I find the use of “fashionable” a bit questionable here, Bogner’s rebuttal is on point:

„Wer unser Design mit Regenbogenfarben verwechselt, hat noch nie einen Regenbogen gesehen oder gemalt . . . Da fehlen Rot und Violett, und die Anordnung ist völlig anders.”

(Anybody who confuses our design with rainbow colors has never seen or painted a rainbow . . . Red and violet are missing, and the ordering is completely different.)

Now, the rainbow tracksuits in Russian band t.A.T.u.’s lesbian-esque preshow performance at the opening ceremony, well, those were most certainly a whole ‘nother story.