[TRADING PLACES] After decades, Indian and Korean friends reunited
“India is not one country,” Kim told a gathering of friends and strangers at the diplomatic residence of Ambassador Vikram Doraiswami. “The language, the food, the culture and everything - it’s a country of 20 countries.”
“Of course, when you talk about India, each region is different,” said Agnel Joseph, a literary translator in his eighth year in Korea. “For example, Punjabis are famous for being open hearted and friendly at the first opportunity.”
“You actually have to back away and say ‘I really don’t want to be that friendly with you,’” said the ambassador, giving his booming laugh that easily fills up a room. His father was born and raised in the region of Punjab.
“The first time they meet you, they say come home, have a drink,” Doraiswami said, “or have many drinks.”
“But they immediately make you feel comfortable,” said Sangeeta Doraiswami, whose family lines speak for themselves when it comes to the diversity of the country. Herself born in New Delhi and raised in Calcutta, her mother is from present-day Bangladesh and her father from Kashmir.
Beginning with the rasam vada soup from the southern part of India, which the ambassador called something “closest to doenjang jjigae [fermented soybean soup] of Korea because an Indian meal isn’t complete until you’ve had rasam with rice,” and moving on to the appetizer pav bhaji, popular in western India, the group set off on a culinary tour around India on the evening in central Seoul, reminiscing memories from the South Asian country.
“Do you trust the Indians?”
Kim said this was the question he got the most during his 15 years of leading businesses in India.
He would see the way some Korean companies worked there: pairing an Indian to a Korean for even the most minimal tasks, and only letting Korean expats brief the meetings even when Indian employees had prepared the materials.
Kim Kwang-ro: The key to my success in India was trust and empowerment of Indian employees. We had some 3,000 Indian employees and only 23 Koreans. Indians were in charge of manufacturing, management, marketing and sales. And it was the right decision to have them in charge because once I almost fired a sales director for creating trouble at a sales agency in Haryana, north of New Delhi. The local employees were against the decision though the man had repeatedly caused trouble, and I didn’t understand why until they told me that the man is a Muslim, and that firing him over a conflict with a sales agency whose head is a Hindu might just be the worst PR decision ever.
Agnel Joseph: No doubt, religion is important in India. Even our names are linked to religion. That’s how important it is to our identity. While growing up, I thought everybody had a religion. In fact, the first person I met who told me he had no religion was the Korean visiting professor at my college.
Vikram Doraiswami: That’s interesting, because it was also a Korean who first told me about some extreme religious groups here.
Kim: How do you feel about Korean missionaries trying to convert people in India?
Vikram Doraiswami: Different Indians react differently. Some are uncomfortable with the premise behind conversion and the way such activities take place. Personally, looking at India’s civilizational legacy and unbroken cultural history, and since we’ve been around in various ways for about 5,000 years, I’m pretty confident that it would take more than a few missionaries of any faith or extremists to change India. It really can’t. Agnel here is a Catholic, I’m a non-observant Hindu, my wife is comparatively more observant than I am, we all have friends from all religious groups and we all get along perfectly well.
Sangeeta Doraiswami: I went to a Christian school with Irish nuns. When we were in Bangalore, Muslim neighbors would celebrate Holi with us.
Vikram Doraiswami: We have so many religions in India. For example we have people of Parsi community in India who are Zoroastrian in faith and ethnically Iranian, but who speak Gujarati and yet have kept their own prayers and rituals. They get Indianized in the sense that eat the Indian food and speak the languages, but they preserve their culture and religion however they want to.
A first taste of fish - Korean style
Agnel Joseph, born in New Delhi to a family from Kerala, had studied medicine in high school, following his parents’ wishes that he would become a doctor. But their dreams were dashed when Joseph realized he had a weak stomach and couldn’t eat fish, let alone take the sight of an animal dissection.
“They’re happy now,” Joseph said as the entree dish of rajma, chicken tikka masala and achari prawns to go with saffron-infused rice and carrot salad was served. “My parents are from Kerala, and everybody there is a big fish lover. I was the only one in the family who literally hated fish.
“But I ended up in Korea, and when I was studying here, my roommate was a Muslim Egyptian, and he could only eat halal food. So through him I came to try out grilled mackerel and other seafood.
“I remember calling my mom the first time I tried fish and she said, ‘OK that’s one good thing of you going to Korea.’”
Joseph majored in Korean in his undergraduate studies after his uncle, a professor in Japanese, first sparked his interest in East Asia. He now works as the only foreigner employee at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
Joseph: The great thing about Korean literature is the abundance of exceptional writers, like Pyun Hye-young, Bae Su-ah, Han Yu-joo, Kim Un-su to name but a few, who write on a wide range of subjects. There’s something for everyone, and, no, not everything is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami.
Joseph: I like writers who talk about serious stuff with sarcasm and humor. One of my favorite Korean writers is Park Min-gyu whose book I’m currently translating. For me, he’s like the Kurt Vonnegut or George Saunders of Korean literature. I’m also on the lookout for a similar writer in Hindi literature, which I’ve recently begun translating.
Vikram Doraiswami: I have an example for you. There is a great book called “Raag Darbari,” written by Sri Lal Sukla. The whole book is about a courtier who panders to the king and the ruling class and so this whole thing is set around what the author thinks are corruptions in our democracy. Absolutely brilliant. I would also recommend works of Saadat Hasan Manto for my Korean friends to understand some of the savagery that people visited upon each other during the partition between India and Pakistan.
Vikram Doraiswami: There is something here we have in common with Korea. I was enchanted by “Ode to my Father” (2014). I understand an Indian film production company recently bought the rights to make it into an Indian movie, because the context is very similar. The Korean War and the partition of India and Pakistan, somebody losing his home and everything - you can make the same story in India because we had a similar experience.
The guy’s name is Kim Jae-hun
As the cham cham and komala kheer, desserts from eastern India, were served around the table, Ambassador Vikram Doraiswami recalled his first day in Seoul.
He arrived alone in this very house on April 13, 2015, as his son was finishing up his school in grade 10 in Tashkent, his previous posting. After arranging a few things here and there, the ambassador called it a night.
The next day he awoke to shouts of a little boy calling his father outside the house.
“Appa, appa, the boy called, and I remember waking up completely disoriented,” Doraiswami said. “Appa is exactly what you use in south India to call your father. I couldn’t imagine where on earth I was.
“Growing up, I didn’t imagine that I would one day become an ambassador here,” he said. “But a good friend of mine, Korean, somehow knew it all along.”
Doraiswami met Kim Jae-hun while he was stationed in the Commission of India in Hong Kong as the third secretary in 1994. He first met Kim’s wife, Han Jan-di, his classmate in an elective course on Mandarin at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who introduced the two to each other.
Vikram Doraiswami: “One day you will be an ambassador to Korea,” Kim told me. So I laughed and said it’s a far-away thing. But he’d insist, “No no, one day you’ll come and we’ll meet in Korea.” He had introduced me to somaek [a mix of beer and soju], gimbap and Korean-style raw meat and such - things that an Indian would not have had normally. But this was pre-email era. So obviously when I finished my language course, we moved and we lost touch.
Vikram Doraiswami: The first thing I told my secretary when I got here was that I am looking for my Korean friends. She said, do you have their address? I said no. Email? I said no. Names? I said of course I have the names. The guy’s name is Kim Jae-hun.
Vikram Doraiswami: She said, do you know there are maybe some 100,000 Kim Jae-huns in this district of Seoul alone? So I said well I do remember that his wife had an unusual Korean name. I told her that maybe she’s teaching Chinese here.
Sangeeta Doraiswami: He gave her the photographs, too. Which were from like 20 years ago.
Vikram Doraiswami: (Laughs) Which is not so helpful, so my secretary said. But after two to three months passed my secretary came to me and pulled out a photograph from the internet, looking exactly like the same lady, Han Jan-di, but a little bit older. She was teaching Chinese at a university in Seoul. Of course the university wouldn’t give her number due to privacy laws, so I left mine. She promptly called, saying, “I can’t believe it, how did you find me?”
Vikram Doraiswami: There was a third chap to the friend group, Oh Dong-geun. It was also not an unusual Korean name and we had given up the search after a while. But then last January, I was invited by Samsung to brief their annual president’s meeting. Afterward, I got an email from a guy, saying, “I work at Samsung now, I don’t know if you remember me, I saw your name in our internal report that the Indian ambassador came. Because I had a memory of you and I just wondered who the Indian ambassador was, so I looked him up and to my surprise it was you!”
Sangeeta Doraiswami: And so Vikram had connected all the pals, because they had lost touch amongst each other, too.
Vikram Doraiswami: So we organized a lunch one day, we had them all home. Their kids were all grown up and they all had grey hair. So if you think about it, Korea was more than just a posting for me.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
Indian Ambassador Vikram Doraiswami and Sangeeta Doraiswami
Vikram Doraiswami arrived in Seoul in April 2015 to take up his post as the ambassador of India to Korea. After receiving a masters’ degree in history from the University of Delhi and working for a year as a journalist, Doraiswami joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1992. Following his posts in Hong Kong and Beijing, Doraiswami also served as the private secretary to the prime minister of India, coordinator of the fourth summit meeting of the BRICs in New Delhi in 2012, director general of the Americas Division of the Ministry of External Affairs and as ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2014. His wife Sangeeta Doraiswami is a primary school teacher with 17 years of experience, with a masters’ degree in psychology from Bangalore University. The Doraiswamis have an 18-year old son.
Agnel Joseph is a literary translator based in Seoul. He works as a program officer at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea in southern Seoul and edits the Korean Literature Now magazine. A winner of the LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators and the Korea Times Modern Literature Translation Award, he was also selected for the Emerging Translator Mentoring Program by Writers’ Centre Norwich in 2016. He tweets as @AngelMisspelled.
Kim Kwang-ro took charge of LG Electronics in India in 1997. After joining LG in 1974, he had been an LG expat for 20 years, starting from his post in Dubai in 1977 and moving onto branch offices in Chicago, New Jersey, Panama and Dusseldorf. Within four years of his post in India, LG Electronics became the market leader. He retired in 2012 and is now an abstract painter.
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.