40 years later, Germany’s still foreign: Nurse“I cried so hard because I missed my country so much. It feels like it happened just yesterday, but 40 years have already passed,” said Choi Jeong-hwa.
Ms. Choi, who moved to Germany at the age of 28 to work as a nurse, will soon turn 70. Speaking at her farm on the outskirts of Berlin, her voice quavered with emotion. She looked weary. Earlier that day, she and her husband had visited a hospital to have her pancreas treated; she has to carry a small medical device that monitors her condition at all times.
“After 30 years of grueling work as a nurse, I feel pain throughout my body,” she said with a sigh. In her eagerness to tend to others, it seems Ms. Choi may have neglected to take care of herself. Yet she’s proud of her work. “The sweat and tears shed by Korean nurses working in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s greatly helped Korea’s economic progress,” she said.
Ms. Choi was one of 126 Korean nurses who arrived at Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin on Oct. 15, 1966, just five years after the Berlin Wall went up. Almost 40 years later, Ms. Choi is the leader of Dandelions in Berlin, a group of retired Korean nurses who arrived in Germany at about the same time. Recently, she attended an event in Frankfurt commemorating 40 years since the arrival of Korean nurses in Germany. More than 1,000 nurses from all over the country came together to share their experiences. It was there that Ms. Choi spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo about the joy and sorrow of Korean nurses in Germany.
Q. How do you feel about the 40th anniversary?
A. I had initially planned to return to Korea after my three-year contract expired, but here I am, 40 years on. It certainly wasn’t easy. In order to adjust to life in Germany, I had to go through a lot of pain and sadness, and I had to prove a lot to my co-workers. I would often question what I was doing there, and I remembered my mother saying, “Even if you become a beggar, you should live in your own country.” But the situation in Korea was just too difficult at the time.
Can you remember how you felt when you first arrived?
There were a lot of misunderstandings due to differences in culture and lifestyle. Every morning, I had a really hard time swallowing rye bread, which was even hard to chew. I used to throw away yogurt because I’d never had it in Korea, and Germans criticized me for that. It tasted sour and I thought it was contaminated. One time, my boss took me to a bakery and bought a cake, and I was grateful. I was shocked to find out later that the cost had been deducted from my monthly salary.
What was the biggest difficulty?
In the beginning, speaking German was so difficult. I felt really angry when German nurses blamed Korean nurses for mistakes that they made. Though there was no difference in the work we did, local nurses looked down on foreigners, even if they didn’t always show it. We were also at a disadvantage in things like promotions, and it was hard for us to stand up for ourselves. Even women who had been head nurses in Korea didn’t have their experience or credentials recognized in Germany. Most of them ended up doing menial chores like cleaning toilets.
How is life now for Korean nurses here?
Most Korean nurses who arrived in Germany have already retired, and many have returned to Korea or emigrated to other countries. There is one thing the women here agree on: We don’t feel entirely settled in either Germany or Korea. I don’t know where I am going to be buried. That’s my main worry.
by Ryu Kwon-ha
More in Features
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?
A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages