[TRADING PLACES] From Minsk to Jeonju, finding the sweet and sour

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[TRADING PLACES] From Minsk to Jeonju, finding the sweet and sour


From left: 10-year resident of Minsk Kim Lee-sun; Belarusian Ambassador Andrei Popkov; his son Daniel; a Belarusian student at Seoul National University, Matsvei Sabaleuski; and the ambassador’s wife Olga Popkova pose together for a photo, after they shared the ins and outs of living in Korea and Belarus while enjoying a Belarusian dish of draniki, potato pancakes, at the Belarusian Embassy in central Seoul on Feb. 22. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Ambassador Andrei Popkov and Olga Popkova had experience living outside of Belarus for years when the top envoy was assigned to represent the country at the United Nations headquarters in New York from 2001 to 2005. But living in Korea was a different matter for their 10-year-old son, Daniel, who had experienced holidays in Turkey, Cyprus and Bulgaria for a few weeks at a time but had never called another country his home.

But Daniel became a passionate taekwondo fan and fell in love with Lotte World, a popular amusement park in southern Seoul. Clad in his training outfit minutes after the interview concluded, Daniel seemed quite content to be here.

“Everything!” he replied when asked what he loved about Korea.

The family arrived in Seoul on a warm August day last year. By the time the seasons changed, the Popkovs had settled in perfectly. Mrs. Popkova always took public transportation when they had the time, after finding out how convenient it is in Seoul - which didn’t always work out as planned.


Left: Matsvei Sabaleuski, right, participates in the traditional Buan Masil Festival at Buan County, North Jeolla, in the summer of 2015. Right: Kim Lee-sun, front right, poses for a photo with a family she found in Gomel, Belarus, in May 2013. She calls the elderly couple her grandparents in Belarus because though they are not related by blood, they share the roots in the same country. The couple are descendants of Korean immigrants to the Russian Far East. Kim met them and visited them every few months or so, though it takes hours by train to get to their house in Gomel from Minsk, where Kim lived for 10 years. [BUAN COUNTY OFFICE, KIM LEE-SUN]

Struggles in Sincheon

Andrei Popkov: One day, Olga was very insistent that we use the subway to get to a gathering with our colleagues near Sincheon Station.

Olga Popkova: I was told that I should take the green line, and the station name is Sincheon. So I found on the subway map Sinchon and I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the letter “e” was missing.

Andrei Popkov: It was only when we came out of the subway that we realized it was the wrong one. And the two stations are as far as they can be from each other on the green line - 20 stations apart! We found our way to Sincheon Station eventually, but our colleagues had to wait an hour and a half.

The Popkovs were not the only ones to mix up the two stations, and hence, the city government changed the name of Sincheon Station to Jamsilsaenae Station in December.

There was also the time that Olga made kimchi at the festival hosted by the mayor of Gwangju, just three months after they came to live here.

The couple made a visit to the World Kimchi Festival in Gwangju at the invitation of the mayor. Arriving at the scene, they saw men and women pacing about, all outfitted with white hairnets and plastic gloves.

Andrei Popkov: Ambassadors were asked to make the kimchi, but [looking bashfully at his wife] I entrusted this mission to Olga.

Olga Popkova: A lady gave directions on making a specific style of kimchi. It was very spicy when we just made it. But we took it home and the taste improved over time.

Andrei Popkov: We also have our own style of kimchi in Belarus. It’s made of fermented cabbage and salt, which is put in a special cask for several months before it is consumed.

Kim Lee-sun: Korean students in Belarus called it Belarusian kimchi. They liked it. It’s like the white kimchi in Korea. There is also a type of soup in Belarus that really hits the spot for some Koreans - it’s called solyanka.

Andrei Popkov: It’s a Slavic fusion. I would also recommend borscht, beetroot soup, and shchi, made of sour cabbage.

Matsvei Sabaleuski: If you haven’t noticed yet, Belarusian food tends to be sour. For example, we like to put sour cream into… everything.

Head south for conversation

Matsvei Sabaleuski, in his last year at Seoul National University where he is pursing a master’s degree on cognitive science, knew that learning Korean would not be easy when he tackled it for the first time six years ago.

He got the best practice with cab drivers in Jeonju, North Jeolla, where he studied Korean for a year from 2014 to 2015. The moment he got in a cab, the driver would start asking where he was from, and recount his own stories of travel. It didn’t matter how much Korean Sabaleuski understood.

So it was quite a shocker when Sabaleuski started living in Seoul two years ago, where he noticed people avoided speaking to him because he was a foreigner.

One day he went to a drug store near his university. He handed the doctor’s prescription papers over the counter. More people filed into the pharmacy and handed over their prescriptions. “Mr. Kim,” or “Ms. Lee,” the pharmacist would call. One by one they collected their medicine and left. No one was left in the pharmacy. Yet the pharmacists showed no signs of calling him over.

Sabaleuski approached them and a pharmacist plaintively asked, “Can you speak Korean?”

When he replied in Korean, their faces brightened. It turns out they didn’t know how to explain the drugs and their uses to the foreigner.

Sabaleuski: Outside of Seoul it’s not much of a trouble because most people start to speak to you in Korean first if you go to a shop or restaurant. But in Seoul, in many cases, they try to speak English first - maybe it’s because there are more tourists here.

Kim: In Belarus, people are not shy to talk to you if you are a foreigner. Actually, sometimes they’re quite straight-forward in their responses and facial expressions, too. Once I entered a drugstore in Minsk, and I wanted to buy some drugs. I had at the time just learned a Russian expression skazhite, pozhalujsta, which is “tell me something” or “tell me,” and it was so useful I used it almost every day. I asked a lady over the counter, “Tell me, skazhite, pozhalujsta, do you have that drug?” and she said, “I don’t tell you - ja ne podskazhu.”

Kim: I was so hurt that she said with a straight face, I thought she was flat-out rejecting my request.

Andrei Popkov: She probably meant, “I cannot tell you” because she doesn’t have it.

Kim: Yes, I found out later that it is quite natural to say that instead of saying “I don’t know.” In any case, I boycotted that store (laughs).

What’s your father’s name?

The other time Kim boycotted a store in Minsk was over a milk product. She went to a store to buy milk, and using the word eto, which means “this,” she pointed at a milk product labeled kefir, which seemed a popular choice.

Feeling proud that she could order groceries on her own - usually smaller grocery stores in Minsk require the shoppers to know the names of the products, as they have to ask the clerks to hand the items over the counter - Kim brought the milk home, poured a cup and drank it.

It was sour.

Deciding that the clerk had knowingly sold spoiled milk to her, she avoided the store for a week. It wasn’t until much later that she realized it was a different kind of milk product.

For Kim, having friends was essential to survive in Minsk, as she could not speak a single Russian or Belarusian word when she arrived at the city in 2005. And they were very helpful, except for a prank they pulled in 2006.

Kim: In Korea you can address the teacher not by his or her name but by the title - teacher or professor. So when I entered the Minsk Innovation University in 2006, I called my professor, prepodavatel, which is professor in Russian. In any case the professor’s name was too long, too. But my friends told me that this is wrong in Belarusian culture, and that I have to call her Galya. Her full name was Cherikova Galina Petrovna.

Andrei Popkov: And did you?

Kim: I did (laughs). I only found out later that my friends pulled a prank on me, and that you can only call people by their shortened names if you are very close to them. What I did was equivalent to someone who is younger than me in Korea calling me without a title, which can come off rude in Korean culture.

Andrei Popkov: It’s a tradition in Belarus, Russia and Slavic nations to pay respect to the father of the person that we speak to, by addressing their name and then following it with a version of their father’s name.

Sabaleuski: But on the other hand I think it’s quite convenient to have this naming system in Korea, because you can call each professor “professor” and not necessary their names, and people older than you in school sunbaenim [a Korean word used to address people older than the speaker]. It’s an advantage when you meet a lot of people for the first time, because you have extra time to remember each person’s name.

Holidays and families

The more the Popkovs and Sabaleuski got to know Koreans, and the more Kim got to know Belarusians, they realized they may have many things in common.

Kim: There seems to be an acknowledgement of women’s power, especially at home. There is a saying in Belarus that says, “In a family, the husband is like the head and the wife is like the neck.”

Andrei Popkov: Because the head makes the decision, but the neck shows the way.

Kim: In Korea we say the father is the head of a family, but usually the one who has power over the television remote control is mom.

Andrei Popkov: I also noticed that the two countries celebrate a similar holiday: Chuseok, or Thanksgiving Day in Korea, is similar to the Belarusian holiday Dazhynki. The two holidays are rooted in the season of harvesting. In Belarus, the holiday is celebrated throughout the country but a capital for the celebration is designated every year, and that city hosts the biggest festival.

Kim: I also celebrated Maslenitsa in Belarus, where Christian Belarusians attend church together for a week before Easter fasting.

Andrei Popkov: It’s a special ritual, there is special spiritual singing inside, and people stand inside with candles, and preachers tell special stories from the Bible. Holidays in Belarus are usually a combination of folk and Christian traditions. For example, Kupala Night also has a Christian explanation. It is one of the oldest folk holidays dedicated to the sun and efflorescence. Many nations across the globe have holidays related to the summer solstice but it is in Belarus where Kupala Night traditions have survived virtually intact. We hope more Koreans will visit Belarus at these times and join in the traditional festivities.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]


Belarusian Ambassador Andrei Popkov, Olga Popkova and Daniel Popkov

Born in the town of Shklov in the Mogilev region in Belarus, Andrei Popkov has served as the ambassador of Belarus to Korea since September 2016. Having graduated with honours from the Belarusian State University, Mr. Popkov also holds Ph.D. in law from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and Belarusian State University. His 20-year diplomatic career includes work at the Permanent Mission of Belarus to the UN in New York.

Olga Popkova was born in Minsk. She holds a master’s degree in international law from the Belarusian State University and is an author of a number of publications and a monograph on international law as a Ph.D. candidate. Her favorite hobbies are cross-stitch, fancy-work and Tilda doll sewing.

Their son Daniel attends school at the Russian Embassy in Seoul and is passionate about taekwondo.

Matsvei Sabaleuski

A master’s candidate in cognitive science at Seoul National University, Matsvei Sabaleuski started learning Korean in 2010, when he studied for a month at the Academy of Korean Studies in Seongnam, Gyeonggi. Since then the language has grabbed his attention, and Sabaleuski returned to study in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, and Jeonju, North Jeolla.

Kim Lee-sun

Flying to Minsk in 2005 after graduating from a high school in Korea and without being able to speak a single word of Belarusian or Russian, Kim Lee-sun did not initially expect that she would be spending the next 10 years living in the city. After graduating from the Minsk Innovation University, she worked at the Korean Embassy in Belarus for a few years.

Our latest series about the diplomatic community in Seoul, “Trading Places,” focuses on the experience of living in a foreign land. In each installment, an ambassador invites to his or her home a compatriot living in Korea and a Korean who lived in the ambassador’s country. They swap memories - good, bad and amusing - and describe how a distant country that was once an abstraction, a colored patch on a map, became a part of their lives. - Ed.
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