[TRADING PLACES] Discovering jeong on the streets of Sao Paulo

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[TRADING PLACES] Discovering jeong on the streets of Sao Paulo


From left, Rosana Serra, wife of Brazilian Ambassador to Korea Luis Fernando Serra; Andre Luiz Nunes Martins, a native of Minas Gerais state in Brazil and a master’s candidate at Sungkyunkwan University; Ku Hye-won, the first Seoul National University student to pursue an exchange program in Brazil; and Ambassador Serra pose together as he takes the group on a tour of his residence in central Seoul on March 7. [PARK SANG-MOON]

It is a happy coincidence, says Brazilian Ambassador to Korea Luis Fernando Serra, that he is the fourth in his family to serve as the top envoy of the South American country to Seoul.

His cousin Celina Assumpcao do Valle Pereira was the Brazilian ambassador to Korea from 2006 to 2009. Before that, his other cousin, Sergio Barbosa Serra, was stationed in Seoul as ambassador from 1997 to 2003. And the one who started it all in the family, Joaquim de Almeida Serra, father of Sergio and uncle to the current ambassador, was in Seoul from 1973 to 1975.

“When my uncle came to this country in 1973, the country was completely different,” said the ambassador. “I heard stories, but it was another country, of course. It has transformed from what it was in the last 30 years.”

Much has changed since the time the ambassador first met a Korean in 1974, in the capital city of the Amazonas state, Manaus.


I’m just Brazilian

Strolling down the street of electronic shops in Manaus more than 40 years ago, Ambassador Serra saw many Asian faces inside the shop windows. They were the third and fourth-generation descendants of Japanese immigrants to Brazil, who started arriving in 1908.

As decades passed, many lost their grandparents’ language and it was more common to find them fluent in Portuguese than in Japanese by 1974.

But that wasn’t the case with a staff member Serra met at an electronics store in Manaus that summer. The man spoke broken Portuguese.

“I’m from Korea, I came some four to five years ago,” the man said.

Luis Fernando Serra: That was the first Korean I met. They started coming in 1963. Now they are doing very well in cities across Brazil. This is the thing - some Brazilians are still outdated in their thinking and perceptions of Korea. They still have their image of Korea as a country that sent immigrants to Brazil.

Andre Luiz Nunes Martins: The Korea that I experience today is very different. It’s a great country for startups and entrepreneurs. I interned at Hyundai Motor Company and for Samsung for a few months.

Serra: The Brazilian Embassy has been working with the Brazilian students here and the Korean companies to introduce them to internships and employment opportunities at Korean companies. And you must know, Hyundai is doing very well in Brazil right now. It recently sold 120,000 units of its HB20, which made it the second-best seller in the country.

Ku Hye-won: If the Korean immigrants started arriving in the 1960s, they are very different from what they were. I met a second-generation Korean-Brazilian in Sao Paulo. You know how in the United States, terms like African-Americans or Korean-Americans exist? I asked the second-generation Korean-Brazilian, “So are you a Korean-Brazilian?” and she replied, “No, I’m Brazilian.”

Martins: If you look at my group of friends back in Brazil, they could be Germans, Americans, Africans and Asians - many of them descendants of immigrants, who spread out all over Brazil. So when you look at the people and you’re not able to tell where they’re from, that’s totally OK in Brazil. We’re all Brazilians.


Left: Andre Luiz Nunes Martins posing with students from the cultural awareness program in Pohang, North Gyeongsang, in the summer of 2013 after they played football together. Right: Ku Hye-won, center, poses for a photo with her students in a rural town in Bahia state, Brazil, in 2013. Alongside her co-volunteer from Japan, front left, Ku taught the students English and helped the townspeople build fireplaces and bus stops. [ANDRE LUIZ NUNES MARTINS, KU HYE-WON]

Finding a balance

Andre Luiz Nunes Martins was teaching a class at Geunhwa Girls’ High School in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, on a summer day in 2013. It was his last class among the dozens he led throughout the Pohang and North Gyeongsang region as part of the Unesco Cross Cultural Awareness Programme.

After introducing the students to Brazil’s history, food, and pop culture, including soap operas and Carnival, Martins received just one question from his audience - “How is the student life in Brazil?”

It was a question he almost always got when he met with Korean students. But it was one he never felt comfortable answering.

Martins: A lot of my students told me that if they cannot get into a university here, then it means they have failed life. I was born in a family where my parents were the first generation to get a university education. So going to a university was also my reality but it was quite clear to me that it was not the only option.

Ku: When I was a high school student, I studied for 16 hours a day. But I was shocked to find out during my homestay in Sao Paulo that the daughter of the family, a high school senior repeating her last year to study and apply for universities, would spend her weekends partying with her friends. And what’s more, her parents would take her to the party and also pick her up after. That completely blew my mind. In Korea we joke that high school senior repeaters studying for college entrance exam are not jaesoo-saeng [high school repeaters in Korean] but in fact jwaesoo-saeng, or prisoners.

Martins: During my internship I saw people doing extra hours after work almost every single day and not spending as much time with their families. I also saw people using their lunchtime to protest in front of the office buildings.

Although I’m not an expert in labor laws here, I hear that Korean companies are quite powerful here, and the law protects the companies more than the workers. In Brazil, the law protects the workers - and this makes a big difference, because workers can go on strike with confidence that they will not lose their jobs over it.

I see some of this culture getting to some of my foreigner friends, too. I’ve seen some leave Korea after studying for a few years, as they lose their motivation to continue on in this fashion.

Ku: There is too much pressure to succeed and do well here. That’s why I love Brazil. For me, it would be ideal to spend 70 percent of the days in a year in Korea and 30 percent in Brazil.

Serra: It’s a dilemma - finding the right balance between happiness and educational pressures. A part of my task here is to show the Brazilian government what Korea is doing and the good results that followed. Korea today is not what it was in the first half of the 20th century. The country understood that education made the difference and it put pressure on kids to be good at school, and the people who were good at school have built the country. I think there’s much to be learned here.

Whose party?

Ku Hye-won was the star of the class when she came to live in Ulsan after graduating from an elementary school in Seoul in 2005.

Known as “the Seoulite” in her school, she seemed to draw everyone’s attention wherever she went. But her fame was short-lived.

Six months into her time at the new school, people she considered her friends quickly lost interest in her.

“Why can’t you speak like the rest of us do?” was the question she often got from her classmates, locals of Ulsan who spoke with a heavy accent of the region’s dialect.

“Don’t pretend like you’re better than us just because you come from Seoul,” another classmate told her.

The school library quickly became a refuge for Ku. Since then, much of her time was spent on studying. The efforts paid off and she earned a place at Seoul National University, a dream school for many Koreans.

Though she achieved a pinnacle of success for a Korean student, she felt like she missed a feeling of community in her life. Ku says she found this feeling only when she was on the other side of the world, volunteering for a nongovernmental organization in a small rural village in the Bahia state in northeastern Brazil.

Ku: It was New Year’s Eve in 2013, and some 60 to 70 townspeople gathered to celebrate together. We had prepared for the celebration for two months, decorating the village entrance and preparing Secret Santa gifts. Soon we were counting down for the New Year’s and something unexpected happened.

Right at the feliz ano novo [Happy New Year in Portuguese] moment, people started hugging each other and crying, and friends and strangers alike came over to me, each hugging me and telling me that it was a good year and that next year will be better. I think I was hugged by every single one of them.

At first I didn’t know what was going on. But then everyone kept telling me that they all love me, and soon I was hugging everyone, too, and I felt like...

Martins: You were part of a community.

Ku: Yes. I know Korean people are known for their jeong [a Korean word to describe the feeling of affections, love and passion felt between two people] but I didn’t feel much of that growing up here. I mean, everyone’s so busy now, sometimes we don’t even know who is living next door. Maybe my grandparents experienced this kind of jeong in their lives. I just didn’t expect to find it on the other side of the world.

Ku also experienced Brazilian-style jeong during her semester abroad in Sao Paulo in 2014.

One day, a Brazilian she had befriended in Canada during a language immersion program in 2013 called to see if she was free to join a birthday party.

“Is this birthday boy someone I know?” she asked.

“No, but it’s OK because I don’t know him either,” said her friend.

Ku: In Korea, you’re rarely invited to birthday parties unless you’re very close to the people celebrating. I found out then that it’s quite normal to go to parties hosted by a friend of a friend in Brazil. I tagged along, congratulated the stranger on his birthday, and became friends with him since then.

Martins: Yes, everybody is friends of friends. But Koreans do get a little taken aback when they find this out for the first time. Once, my Korean friends came to Brazil and I showed them around the Iguassu Falls, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

I would talk and play soccer with people we just met, and my friends would be really surprised with how friendly I was with strangers. They asked, “You don’t know them, so why do you play with them?” but my answer is, why shouldn’t I?

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

Brazilian Ambassador Luis Fernando Serra and Rosana Serra

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Luis Fernando Serra was appointed the Brazilian ambassador to Korea in July 2016. After graduating with a law degree from Rio de Janeiro State University, the ambassador has been serving in the foreign service for 45 years. Before his posting in Seoul, the ambassador was stationed as the top envoy in Ghana and Singapore. He is a porcelain and arts aficionado and enjoys finding hidden artwork in antique shops and markets throughout the world. The Serras have two sons and one daughter and have been happily married since 1974.

Andre Luiz Nunes Martins

Originally from the city of Janauba in southeastern Brazil, Andre Luiz Nunes Martins is pursuing a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Sungkyunkwan University’s Suwon campus in Gyeonggi. He came to Korea in 2012 as an exchange student at Pohang University of Science and Technology in Pohang, North Gyeongsang. Participating in a cultural awareness program run by Unesco, he taught students from kindergarten to high school about the culture and traditions of Brazil, which he called an eye-opening experience.

Ku Hye-won

After deciding that she wanted to learn Portuguese, Ku Hye-won took the first opportunity to travel to Brazil in 2013. Through an eight-month volunteer program with a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, she landed in a small town in northeast Brazil after two and a half hours on a plane from Sao Paulo to Salvador, seven hours on an express bus, one hour on a shuttle van, and 15 minutes on a motorcycle taxi. Since then, she has been finding ways to go back, becoming the first Seoul National University student to study as an exchange student in Brazil in 2014.

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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