A slice of Ger­man life in the Land of Morn­ing Calm

The Star Malaysia - - Focus -

AS a nurse from South Korea work­ing for decades in Ger­many, Madam Suk Sook-ja al­ways missed her home­town. So when she heard about South Korea build­ing a re­tire­ment vil­lage for mi­grants like her on Namhae, an is­land off the coun­try’s south­ern tip, she jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to re­turn home.

“Even af­ter liv­ing in Ger­many for 30 to 40 years, we are still Korean and long for home,” said the 70-year-old widow.

Madam Suk is one of 20,000 Kore­ans dis­patched to Ger­many to work as nurses or min­ers in the 1960s and 1970s, dur­ing a time of labour short­age in the Euro­pean coun­try, in re­turn for a much-needed loan of 150 mil­lion Ger­man marks made to the South Korean gov­ern­ment.

The fi­nan­cial aid, com­bined with the hard­earned money they sent home – US$101.5mil (RM422.4mil) in to­tal and worth about 10% of Korea’s ex­ports at that time – paved the way for South Korea’s rapid growth from one of the world’s poor­est na­tions to Asia’s fourth-largest econ­omy to­day.

Madam Suk lives in Dogil Maeul (Korean for Ger­man Vil­lage), an en­clave of 43 houses with tri­an­gu­lar red-brick roofs and white walls in typ­i­cal Ger­man style, us­ing ma­te­ri­als im­ported from Ger­many.

The vil­lage came about around 2000, af­ter the county’s then mayor Kim Doo-gwan de­vised a plan to build a re­tire­ment vil­lage to at­tract mi­grants – and their pen­sion money – back from Ger­many.

The story goes that Mr Kim, dur­ing a visit to Ger­many in 2000, heard from Kore­ans there that they yearned to re­turn af­ter re­tire­ment. He acted on it. Ten hectares of land was set aside for the re­tire­ment vil­lage and small plots of land sold at low prices to lure mi­grants back. The lo­cal gov­ern­ment built in­fra­struc­ture and a vil­lage hall to sup­port the devel­op­ment.

Some 35% of Namhae county’s pop­u­la­tion of 45,000 was aged over 65. Young peo­ple had sought jobs in big cities like Seoul and Bu­san, leav­ing be­hind par­ents, who were mostly farm­ers or fish­er­men. Mean­while, some of the Kore­ans in Ger­many were keen to re­turn, given the gov­ern­ment’s of­fer of cheap land and hous­ing sub­si­dies.

And to­day, the mayor’s idea has taken off and ex­panded. The hill­side vil­lage, which boasts ocean views and hosts an an­nual beer fes­ti­val mod­elled af­ter Ger­many’s Ok­to­ber­fest, has since be­come the top tourist at­trac­tion in sleepy Namhae, draw­ing one mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

And it is more than a scenic spot. The res­i­dents here hope that vis­i­tors will walk away with an un­der­stand­ing of Ger­man-Korean ties that stretch back to the post-war era, and gain in­sight into a uniquely Ger­man­in­flu­enced life­style.

Twenty-three of the fam­i­lies op­er­ate pen­sions (guest­houses) from their homes, and res­i­dents also take turns to run the Deutscher Im­biss (which means Ger­man snacks) eatery lo­cated in the main tourist zone perched on the top of the hill, over­look­ing the hous­ing en­clave. They also main­tain an ex­hi­bi­tion hall that ex­plains the cru­cial role that the res­i­dents played in na­tion build­ing.

Madam Suk’s jour­ney started in 1973. Fresh out of high school and trained as a nurse, she saw a re­cruit­ment no­tice in the na­tional news­pa­per look­ing for li­censed nurses to be sent to Ger­many. She ap­plied and was as­signed to work in the small town of Le­ich­lin­gen in the west­ern side of the coun­try.

“With my Ger­man salary, my fam­ily was able to re­pay our debts and my younger sib­lings went to col­lege,” re­called Madam Suk.

The early days were tough. Petite nurses like her strug­gled to lift heavy pa­tients and to learn Ger­man. They would sing the Korean folk song Ari­rang to soothe home­sick­ness. Their hard work earned praises from the Ger­mans, who called them “Korean an­gels”.

Madam Suk was also de­prived of Korean sta­ples like kim­chi and gar­lic, which the Ger­mans found too pun­gent.

“The Ger­mans thought we ate these be­cause we were un­civilised. Now that South Korea has be­come de­vel­oped, I can turn around and tell them they have no idea how good gar­lic is for health, and that the Sam­sung phone used by most of them is made in Korea,” she said, beam­ing with pride.

Since mov­ing to Dogil Maeul in 2003, Madam Suk, who lives alone, has been ac­tively pro­mot­ing the Ger­man con­nec­tion. She has or­gan­ised a camp for Ger­man lan­guage stu­dents, con­ducted tours for vis­i­tors, and started the an­nual beer fes­ti­val in 2010. The three-day event draws about 100,000 vis­i­tors.

Fel­low res­i­dent Lee By­ong-soo, who ran a tour agency in Mu­nich for 25 years be­fore re­tir­ing in South Korea in 2012, said it is also im­por­tant to share the vil­lage’s Ger­manin­spired cul­ture.

“Liv­ing here is very dif­fer­ent from liv­ing in the rest of Korea,” said Lee, 69, who runs the Mu­nich House pen­sion with his wife, serv­ing Ger­man cof­fee and tea to guests ev­ery morn­ing.

“If peo­ple can see the value of the Ger­man cul­ture here, this vil­lage can last for­ever. But if our story is only about the min­ers and nurses, it will end when they die.”

Sus­tain­abil­ity re­mains an is­sue, as most of the res­i­dents are well into their 80s and it is not known whether their chil­dren, many of whom are still liv­ing in Ger­many, will re­turn like their par­ents. Some res­i­dents are also un­happy with un­wanted tourist at­ten­tion, protest­ing against tres­pass­ing and other in­con­sid­er­ate be­hav­iour.

But ac­cord­ing to Namhae mayor Jang Chung-nam, there is de­mand to fur­ther de­velop the vil­lage as a tourist spot. He also stressed the value of main­tain­ing a Ger­man con­nec­tion.

For one, South Korea, which is di­vided from its neigh­bour North Korea, has al­ways looked to­wards Ger­many’s re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion model.

Said Jang: “Ger­many is a coun­try which we need to learn from po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally, and we think Dogil Maeul, which has his­tor­i­cal and so­cial mean­ing, is the place that con­nects us to Ger­many.” — The Straits Times/Asia News Net­work

Cul­tural ex­change: Madam Suk helped to start an an­nual beer fes­ti­val, mod­elled af­ter the Ger­man beer fes­ti­val Ok­to­ber­fest, in Dogil Maeul. — The Straits Times/ANN

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.