By Niels Footman
LONDON, Jan. 8 (Yonhap) — Arriving in the United Kingdom as a single mother with three young children in the late 1980s, Hyeon-ja Jo harbored great expectations.
“I’d thought that Britain would be a great place,” says Jo. “But in fact, when I got here it was rather disappointing. Arriving at Gatwick (London’s second-largest airport), it felt like Gimpo (an international airport in Seoul): small, kind of provincial. Americans are so tall, but British men … weren’t.”
Twenty-four years later, despite her initial misgivings, Jo remains firmly in the U.K. Arriving in the very year South Korea was announcing its own accession onto the world stage with the 1988 Seoul Olympics, she settled in southern England, where she subsequently remarried, raised her family, and built up a successful restaurant business that now employs all of her children.
“For 13 years I had a virtual monopoly on ‘sundae’ in the U.K.,” she says, thus ensuring a steady stream of home-sick Koreans hungry for the pungent blood sausage. Today, however, thanks to Korean food’s growing profile and a spot for Jo’s restaurant, Cah Chi, on the prestigious Time Out list of London’s top 50 restaurants, so many Brits visit on weekends that “you wouldn’t even know it’s a Korean restaurant.”
While the longevity of Jo’s stay may be unusual, her status as an expat Korean in the U.K. no longer is. Britain is now home to somewhere between 22,000 and 40,000 South Koreans, depending on your source. Of that number, a sizable chunk live in England’s southeast, with as many as 15,000 residing in or around a single, otherwise unremarkable town in London’s suburbs: New Malden.
Surprisingly, given its decidedly low profile in comparison with Koreatowns elsewhere, New Malden is now reckoned to be the largest Korean community in Europe, with roots stretching back almost 60 years. Though its origins as a Korean enclave are hazy, Winny Yoon, who works at the Korean Residents Society (KRS), says that New Malden initially attracted Korean residents due to its proximity to Wimbledon, where the early South Korean ambassadors lived. Next came big Korean companies and their managers, followed by seconded staff, adventurers and entrepreneurs, and a steady stream of students.
Today, New Malden is a distinctly London-esque type of oddity: a little slice of a far-off culture, slotted right in among the trappings of Britishness. On New Malden High Street, amid the obligatory Greggs bakery and Tesco and Waitrose supermarkets, are restaurants with names like Asadal and Sorabol, a Park Jun Beauty Lab, a noraebang (karaoke) and, of course, a smattering of hagwon (educational institutes). Nor is New Malden’s embrace of Korea restricted to the southern half of the peninsula: According to Yoon, many of the shops and restaurants there are staffed by some of the estimated 2,000 or so North Koreans to have gained refugee status in the U.K.
For all its growth over the last two decades, New Malden and the Korean community remain newer and less entrenched than much of the Korean diaspora elsewhere in the world. However, a significant number of Koreans are choosing to come to the U.K. of their own volition, or elect to stay here once they’ve arrived.
Mijeong Cho came to England 12 years ago with her husband, who was working for the elevator company OTIS. Her husband now runs his own removal company, catering largely to Koreans, which has suffered of late thanks largely to tightened visa laws stemming the arrival of new immigrants. But Cho has no plans to leave, and is now applying for a British passport.
“I like living here, but we’re here mainly for our kids’ education,” she says. “It’s a big thing for me as a mum knowing that my kids aren’t stressed at school.”
Housewife Jeong-yeon Choi agrees. “In Korea, competition is so severe, but in the U.K., there isn’t any competition,” she says, in a statement that will surely come as a surprise to British mums. “It’s great that children can just learn naturally.”
However long Korean immigrants stay, life in the U.K. is not without its challenges. Complaints abound of officious bureaucracy — especially regarding business regulations — and poor or just painfully slow service. “If you order a bed in Britain, it can take six weeks. In Korea, it’d take 30 minutes,” says restaurant owner Jo.
Above all, though, is the vexed issue of communication.
Two years ago, at a meeting of the Kingston Racial Equality Council (New Malden is located in the borough of Kingston), the incumbent member of parliament Ed Davey said that because much of the Korean population is transitory, “they feel less of a need to integrate and are not as open. That is a challenge for us.” His Conservative Party challenger, Helen Whateley, added: “People on the doorstep express quite a lot of resentment about some of (the Koreans) because they have not learned English.”
While acknowledging their difficulties mastering English — Jo, despite her many years in the U.K., still speaks of her “horror” at speaking English — Koreans living in the area have their own take on the obstacles to integration.
“It’s not easy to get along with British because they don’t open themselves up,” says Misun Jang, who teaches art history classes at the Korean Community Center in Raynes Park, near New Malden. “I think English women can be quite moody and British men don’t show themselves.”
“Koreans in New Malden would like to integrate, but they don’t know the laws well,” adds Jo. “And because we’re immigrants, our jobs aren’t great and life is busy, so it can be tough integrating.”
“Some other nationalities get heavy government support, but Koreans don’t like to ask for support: we are too proud,” suggests Yoon from the KRS. “We are now trying to break down these barriers with local groups, so we’ll see.”
Despite the misconceptions, U.K.-based Koreans such as Yoon seem to believe that British people are — thanks to football stars such as Ji-sung Park and the growing profile of Korean food and products — growing somewhat more aware of their culture. And for a small but growing cohort of immigrant Koreans, Britain, and especially New Malden, is moving beyond being a career step, a place of study or a tourist destination, and becoming, simply, home.
“New Malden’s homey and comfortable for me, and my house is there, too,” says Jo. “It can be a little limited for youngsters — everyone knows everyone else, so they have to watch what they do. But for oldies like me, it’s just right.”