The country’s first Korean-German notary-to-be, Chuna Kim is torn between his bicultural family values and… the Berliner Luft!
Germans may be known as diligent and fleißig, but Korean parents know how to take the stereotype to the next level. “When I look back and think about the main thing my parents passed on to me, it’s the idea that hard work pays off. You have to define a goal and work continuously and without distraction until you get there,” starts Dr. Chung-Hun, aka Chuna Kim, in a measured, courteous tone that matches his starch white shirt and tie and can’t have failed to impress during his eight-year law career working at prestigious law firms. At almost 40, Dr. Kim is now about to take the next step on the career ladder as the country’s first notary of Korean descent. Born in Marburg in the German state of Hesse, Chuna is the youngest son of a Korean couple who’d come to study in Germany in the early 1970s. When he was four, his dad completed his PhD and moved back to Korea, taking him along. They’d decided that his mother would stay behind to finish her psychology degree.
“When I got there, nobody could tell I actually was from Germany, but my brother who was six years my senior had it a lot harder and got so homesick that he was sent back to Germany,” he remembers, juggling mixed memories involving an aloof dad, an older nanny and long afternoons spent in the rice fields catching frogs and dragonflies. But Korean discipline kicked in when he entered school: “My dad threw away all my toys so I wouldn’t be distracted.” Teachers would beat inattentive students with a cane or slap them in the face. Little Chuna bowed his head and studied hard. “Part of that is still in me, and I think that is where my work endurance comes from. It definitely helped me with my studies and later in the corporate world. This and taekwondo,” he says, “my master taught me fortitude and perfectionism through hard practice – he had a real impact on me.” At eight, Chuna started to practise Korean martial arts when sent back to Germany to live with his mother and stepdad. “After Korea, school in Germany felt like a piece of cake.” For the Korean boy it was easy to adapt. “I was smart and so polite, I was a real hit among German parents – I was the perfect child they wanted their kids to befriend!” he muses. Meanwhile, he developed a passion for the piano which, in his words, meant “playing like a maniac until I mastered it”. “My mother wanted me to become a professional player – but the pressure was slowly killing the fun, and it started to bore me.”
It was the late 1990s and the world of international business, its cross-border mergers and takeovers excited him. “I particularly remember Vodaphone’s takeover of Mannesmann, and it fascinated me that lawyers were the fixers of those transactions – they made it possible.” He enrolled at Munich’s law school and found that here, again, he could easily fulfil expectations. “So I set my goal: I’d become an international business lawyer.” It also seemed like the perfect way to use his bicultural background and when the time came to pick a topic for his PhD, he chose to research legal transfers between Germany and Korea in the 19th century, and made sure he wrote “a good book”. He attended fraternity balls, met his wife and moved to Berlin in 2014. “Marrying into an old German family felt closer to home,” he reflects, citing core values he could easily identify with as a Korean, such as an unquestioned respect for elders and a deference for traditions and ancestors.
“At first no-one was happy with our union – my mum dreamt of a good Korean wife for me, and I was the first non-European to be entering my wife’s family.” Today, for the father of three girls, aged two to nine, tensions from his bicultural upbringing have resurfaced: “I feel my kids take many things for granted. I want them to understand that to achieve something you need to fight for it.” Korean style? “No, from my German upbringing I learned that there are more efficient ways to work than brainless, all-consuming practice for 12 hours a day. I also want them to enjoy life as I did as a teenager. In Korea it wouldn’t have been possible.” Meanwhile, he’s disappointed they didn’t warm up to their grandparents’ language. “I tried to speak Korean with them, but I was not at home enough,” he says, referring to the seven years he spent working 80-hour weeks at top law firms in Frankfurt and Berlin, a city he’s learned to appreciate like no other German city before.
“Berlin is so diverse and open minded, here you can be different without fear of being judged and rejected. You can be yourself!” After decades of adjusting back and forth to the expectations of his surroundings, Chuna Kim feels he can finally “do things my own way”. So not yet 40, Dr. Kim is going solo and working hard on opening his own, new law firm, with one simple goal: “be the best notary I can be.” He’s also re-evaluated his priorities as a dad: “I want to be someone my daughters will, also as adults, look up to. And I’m slowly realising that ‘being a good parent’ is first and foremost about setting the right example, and this involves values that neither my Korean nor my German backgrounds have prepared me for: the courage to be who you are and stand for your own happiness” he says, slightly loosening his tie. “Berlin has changed me.”