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In search of the Berlin better life

We meet Korean Berliners and find out why they came to the Hauptstadt. From Gastarbeiter nurses to today's young families, students and entrepreneurs, each generation had their own reasons, but they're all here to stay.

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Helena Parada Kim was born in 1982 in Cologne to Korean-Spanish parents. With her vivid oil paintings she tells the story of her mother, aunt and other women who came to West Germany as caregivers during the1960-1970s.

Look at the census and you will see there are about 5100 South Koreans living in Berlin, but that’s not the full picture. Figures don’t account for the second generation of Korean-Ger­mans, who in most cases hold a German passport – dual citizenship did not yet exist when they were born. Their parents, who came to work here in the 1960s and 1970s, often opted for German citizenship when they could – for convenience or to prevent their sons from being drafted into the South Korean army. All in all, Berlin’s Korean population is much broader than you would think. It is a quiet, close-knit community little known to outsiders – a subterranean Korea-town of sorts with its pastors, its doctors, its hairdressers and lawyers. Its history dates back to 1960s West Germany and unfolds like a vintage K-drama, with some 900 nurses in the leading roles.

Berlin’s Korean nurses

“I was 21 when I travelled here on a plane full of other nurses. We all wanted a placement in West Berlin because it meant more money, the Berlinzuschlag!” starts Yun-Soon Kim, reminiscing about October 5, 1973, when she landed in Tempelhof, as the result of a bilateral agreement that was to ease the West German shortage of care personnel. It was the second time the FRG invited Korean work force to the country: the economic boom that had kicked off in the mid-1950s had led to a treaty bringing mine workers from South Korea. In total, Germany welcomed around 8000 miners and 10,000 nurses.

Kim is sitting in the com­munity room of Berlin’s official “Verein Koreanischer Krankenschwestern und Pflegehelferinnen e.V.” on Schöneberg’s Geßlerstraße. The association has just over 300 members in Berlin – all former nurses – and in 2017 won the Bezirk’s integration prize (worth €1000) for its 45-year-long commitment to teach­ing its members German (along with English, health and skin care tips). Next to Kim sits fellow retired nurse Kyoung-Ae Stolle. The two women sip fragrant corn tea and nibble on mini chocolate Leibnitz biscuits as they recall their arrival in West Germany, almost half a century ago. Both women say they came here to support their families who were living in a country suffering the economic after­math of war. Back in South Korea, the positions for nurses in Germany were broadly advertised. Kim read about them in a paper and swiftly decided to apply: “My father was against it and my sister thought I was crazy. In order to qualify for the programme I had to first take a basic training as a medical assistant. For that, I needed the equivalent of 1500DM. My family was poor, but my mother secretly gave me the money. She told me ‘you have to feed the chicken that is supposed to lay eggs’. I will never forget that.” Kim ended up paying the money back within six months of arriving in Berlin and for years continued to send a portion of her paycheck home: “I told my mother that she could now simply enjoy the mon­ey her daughter was earning.”

But the first years of work weren’t easy. “Oh, I was home­sick! Of course I was,” Stolle exclaims. “We all wrote letters home every single day.” – “Phone calls were expensive and you had to make an appointment at the post office,” Kim adds. “When you heard your dear ones’ voices on the other end, the tears would come streaming down your face and the three minutes you’d paid for were up so quickly – and three minutes cost 48DM!”

They lived in hospital nurse quarters in Neukölln and Kreuzberg respectively and would sign up for all the “unpop­ular shifts” – the nights, the weekends, the holidays, anything that would make them a little extra money to send home. “I lived in the Frauenklinikum on Mariendorfer Weg, above the hospital ward. They could knock on my door and I’d be there any time,” says Kim. “We worked really hard,” notes Stolle. “We didn’t have anyone here, so we put our heart and soul into the work. The patients called us ‘angels’ and would take our hands and thank us. Who knows whether we’ll get such good care once we need it,” Kim muses.

She remembers that many miners used to come to Berlin to socialise with the mostly single nurses. She herself married a miner whom she had met at church and who went on to open Berlin’s first taekwando school. Kim and Stolle’s original contracts were for three years and they say that most nurses did not want to stay beyond that. Still, many ended up getting their visa extended, then receiving unlimited residence permits and sometimes citizenship, ultimately staying a lifetime. Kim herself returned to Korea after eight years in Berlin. “I wanted my children to go to school in Korea, but it didn’t work out so well. I couldn’t find my identity there. Here, when I was on the hospital ward, everyone knew my name and I could make my own decisions. In Korea everything was different and I felt I didn’t have any options – no space to breathe.”

After eight months she decided to return to Berlin. “Luckily, the hospital took me back right away. I am still very thankful for that!” Both Kim and Stolle retired after more than 40 years’ service, and are now grandmothers of German children and grandchildren.

A new generation of K-immigrants

Fifty years down the road and South Korea is one of the world ‘s fastest growing developed countries, enjoying an annual GDP increase about twice that of Germany’s. These days, money growing on Berlin’s famed Linden trees surely can’t be what motivates Korean nationals to make the move to the German capital. Yet ever more young singles and families settle here. “They come for a better life,” says Julia Yoon, the daughter of a nurse and one of two Korean lawyers in Berlin representing other Koreans seeking to relocate to Berlin. “They give up their secure jobs in Korea because they want a better future for their children – and because they want to have more of a family life: in Korea parents are so insanely busy with their jobs and the children with all-day school and after-school lessons, they barely have time together. And no holidays as we know it here.” Another reason Yoon mentions is that, in Germany, they don’t have to pay to send their kids to school. “That’s also why a lot of students come here – their parents only have to pay their cost of living but no tuition fees.” She says she cannot count how many families she’s helped find the best way to start a new life here, which for them often meant coming up with a business plan that would appeal to the immigration office.

“Up until 2016 or 2017, opening a restaurant was the go-to route and relatively easy to do. You’d immediately get a three year residency permit. But it’s become more difficult, because the city’s saturated with Korean restaurants and the chamber of commerce, which works with the immigration office, no longer sees potential in Korean restaurants. So it’s getting trickier,” she says. “You have to try to include a unique selling point in your business plan – such as offering cooking courses or kimchi workshops. And it depends on where you want to open your place: Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are really difficult.” There are also more and more IT specialists coming here, she says, mostly individual entrepreneurs who’ve already been running their businesses in Korea for 10 years or so. According to Yoon, students and young creatives have it easier: “Students only have to prove they have €8000 to get to stay for a year.” As for musicians and artists, who make up a sizable part of the new Berliners – “they only need a simplified business plan. If they’re lucky they’ll get their residence permit on the day they apply.”

Escaping conformism

When Eunjin Choi decided to “escape” Seoul in 2010, the then 19-year-old’s move was made relatively easy thanks to a new working holiday visa programme allowing young Koreans under 30 to travel abroad for one year. Choi had grown up in Seoul in a state of perpetual, quasi-visceral rebel­lion towards her surroundings. “In Korea, I was always a black sheep. My personal­ity was never suited to Korean culture, which is all about conforming, fitting in – it starts at school with the colour of your socks and hairband,” she says. She distinctly remembers that day at middle school she showed up in her well-ironed girl’s school uniform with slightly tinted lenses and, without a word, the teacher walked up to to her and slapped her in the face: “You have three days to get new glasses.” An extreme example that ac­cording to the now 29-year-old wasn’t un­common back then. “I hated it so much! This feeling that society can rule over me, my appearance, my whole life. My reaction was always to do the opposite of what was expected. No one liked me – I dyed my hair pink, I ran away for a week, I dated a girl… I tried everything” – even to fit in, which meant attending mass with her hardcore evangelical mother and studying her butt off to pass her high school certification. But after a futile last and desperate attempt at ‘fitting in’ to the no-less formatted environment of art school, she arrived at a chilling question: “Do I want to live or do I want to die?” The answer was clear: “I wanted to live. I had to find another place.” And she did: “In Berlin I suddenly felt space, I felt I had found a place that could accept me.” Despite the early struggle to master the language, she says she could easily adjust to German society. Eunjin thinks that Koreans and Germans have many similarities – starting with a certain social stiffness and their work culture: “The way they want things to be done, the paper­work, to have things in Ordnung is also an important value for us… and to follow or­ders. Be it wrong or right, you need to fol­low.” But one fundamental difference she sees is “this culture of sacrifice”. “In East Asia you sacrifice for your children, for your country. So, in Korea, if you say ‘I want to live for myself, I want to build my own happiness’ – it’s just not acceptable.” Ten years after her move and Choi is not yet 30, happily married (to a man from Norway she met on Tinder), working hard climbing the professional ladder (“I guess that’s my Korean side: I want to be rich!”) and is not ruling out children. But the memory of her self-sacrificial mother having to serve her father, despite being the only family breadwinner, had a lasting impact on her. “I want to be a good wife,” she says before immediately adding “but it is clear, I will always pay my own bills and serve no one.”

Deutschland over Korea

The policing of women, the drive for standardisation and perfection – “per­fect skin, perfect hair, perfectly ironed socks!” – is what Sumi Ha also has trouble dealing with every time she goes to Korea. The 40-something German entrepreneur grew up in Frankfurt with a single mum – a Korean nurse who moved back to her homeland after two decades in Germany. Much like many second generation Germans of Korean descent who grew up speaking German and hold a Deutscher Pass, she neither feels entirely German nor Korean. But with the Koreans, she shares what she calls the Korean sense of fun. “Koreans really like to get together to party, to eat, to drink or to sing Karaoke – it’s really a culture of fun! I guess there’s so much pressure in everyday life, people have to let off steam. They call us ‘the Italians of East Asia’, as we’re more spontaneous than other Asians – even physically, we don’t maintain bodily distance like the Japanese or even the Germans!” She also acknowl­edges a melodramatic streak – “there’s a reason Koreans excel at soap operas – we are a very dramatic people! We like to have a double, a triple layer of cheese on our drama rice cracker!”

Yet, she couldn’t imagine living in Korea. “I tried once, 10 years ago. I stayed for three months and it drove me insane,” she says. “It’s difficult being an individual there, it’s all about belonging – to your family, to your country… And standing out from the crowd is frowned-upon,” Ha adds, remembering how people gave her dirty looks on the un­derground for wearing flip flops – a sign of poverty in Korea – and how she hated herself for giving into the social pressure of wearing sandals like everybody else: “Mostly because I didn’t want my mother to feel embarrassed. I guess that’s where it starts. You don’t want to embarrass your mum.” Today her 15-year-old son, a German-Korean Berliner proud of his bicultural background but “sadly” not speaking the language of his grandmoth­er, is part of the third generation. Could she have imagined sending him to school in Seoul? “No way. I’m too appreciative of the open, free society we have here in Berlin and I hope for him to become an informed, open-minded individual,” she says, before reflecting: “Growing up there would have been a lot harder – I have no idea of what I would have turned into! Look, after 15 days I was already taking off my flip-flops!”