[TRADING PLACES] Every Canadian is a diplomat, says ambassador
“It’s a shame we’re seeing each other for the first time right now!” she said to Jim Paek, the coach of the Korean ice hockey team, as they embraced.
“Well, you’re too busy on TV,” Paek said.
“What about you?” Kang said, laughing. “I can’t believe it. What about all those family pictures, remember?”
By the time the three sat down together for dinner, the words “what a small world” seemed to sum up their relations.
Jim Paek: Within a couple of degrees of separation, everyone knows each other in this circle of friends. For example, I had dinner with Paul [Hong, the owner of Paulie’s Brick Oven Pizzeria] and his best friends here, Wayne and his wife, whose matron of honor was Grace Lee, and she went to high school with a buddy of mine that I played hockey with, and it’s just like holy-shmoly, boom-boom-boom, everybody knows everyone.
Eric Walsh: I often tell people I have an easy job because there are literally tens of thousands of ambassadors for Canada in Korea. I mean there are just so many Canadians here of Korean origin, hence all these mixed stories about growing up together, whether it’s in Toronto or Vancouver. I recently met Nancy Park, who is the spokesperson for foreign media at Pocog [PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Games], and she was born here but she grew up in Canada.
Paek: I just texted her today. She’s in Switzerland right now.
Kang: Small world out there.
Immigration to Korea
When June Kang immigrated to Korea 23 years ago, it took quite a while for Korea to take her as she is, a Canadian, born and raised in Toronto.
Paek: When you first came over, I think it was probably more difficult compared to coming over now.
Kang: It was really tough. And I had no relatives here and I didn’t have any friends, it was really the twilight of me. You see, I was the only Korean face in most of the schools that I had attended, and growing up, I never knew that I was different. I never knew - I just thought I was Canadian. I never knew I was different.
Kang: So I’ve lived a very Forrest-Gump-y life, I feel, since I married my husband who was the feather that landed on me. After 10 years of being a housewife here, I applied for a position at the Seoul Foreign School, and my first project was to build an international school with the Seoul city government. It was the first international school that Seoul city was building in prime land, and we fought for that piece of land. Now, when we were going through that project, we needed a foreigner to be the legal entity of the project. It didn’t mean that the person would have any liabilities or anything, they just needed to create a legal entity and they needed a foreigner. And as I was working on that project, it was very fitting that I could just be the legal entity for that project. And Seoul city said, “But you’re not a foreigner.” And I said, “But I’m Canadian.” I was born and raised in Canada. But, they didn’t take it - I needed to be a white face. And I felt gutted when that happened.
Walsh: I, of course, coming from the other side, I was in high school and there was a whole bunch of different people in different colors and faces and with not-typical last names, but the funny thing was, I didn’t know who was from where really, back then. And it was only after I went to university, after I joined the diplomatic corps that I thought back and was like, “Oh, that name, that must have been a Persian name,” or a Pakistani name, Bengali name, that was more of an Indian name. You grow up as a child without realizing all of those differences, and because Toronto especially is so multicultural, there have been different waves of immigration where you have different groups living in one area together, but most families, I think, would just live by where they work, so their kids will go to a very mixed school.
In his third year of posting in Seoul, the ambassador enjoys getting to know the nooks and crannies of suburbs outside of Seoul in his free time. In one occasion, he was gifted with an unforgettable item - a pear floating in an orb-shaped bottle.
Walsh: It’s called Yeoncheon byeongbae. A colleague of mine and I went up to Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi, and they have a peace museum up there. And this was a gift from the museum, it’s what Yeoncheon is known for. So they put a pear in the bottle when it’s really small, and it grows in the bottle, and the idea is that when you first get it, the liquid is clear, but as the liquid gets darker and darker, it’s sort of infused with the pear and eventually you can open it and drink it.
But there was more than one occasion when the gift-giving culture here was a bit too much for the ambassador.
Walsh: It happened again to me this morning. You know in Canada, if you go to meet somebody, or you have a meeting in your office, we’re ?not used to giving gifts for everything. And in fact, in the Canadian government there are all sorts of restrictions on receiving gifts, which means that giving gifts is awkward because you can’t necessarily reciprocate. Whereas here in Korea, the actual gift-giving culture is so important that if I go to see somebody without bringing a gift, or if I receive a gift and say I can’t accept that, it’s too valuable, you keep it, that’s like giving huge amounts of offense to people.
Walsh: And as I was saying, even this morning, I met someone for coffee, a Canadian-Korean. And she paid for her coffee and my coffee. It wasn’t like thousands of dollars or anything, but she paid. And at the end, she was like, “Oh, here’s a gift.” I really was not expecting that. I did not bring a gift to the 8 o’clock coffee morning meeting.
When it came down to being courteous and respectful in a Korean sense, Paek and Kang also had their fair share of encounters here.
Paek: When I played in the NHL [National Hockey League], and I’d come over to Korea to do hockey clinics, the coach was older, so no matter what I said, to him, I had no idea what I was talking about because I’m younger. Thank God I’m older now, and everybody’s younger. The only problem with that, though, is that when we go out to dinner, I have to pay now.
Kang: In my first year, I invited out all of the Miss Koreas, because I knew no one in Korea. I said, let’s get together for a reunion. And I think about 25 of them were able to show up. So we went to this sushi place, and I kept ordering, I said, “Why don’t we get this,” and “Why don’t we get that.” And I was having a great time, and in the end people were filing out one by one. But right at the end, one of the Miss Koreas stayed with me and she said, “June, I don’t know if you know this,” right, and I said “What’s that?” And she said, “Do you know that you are paying for this all?”
Kang: And I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness. Why am I paying for this,” right? She said, “Because you invited everybody, you know, you did this.” And I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness.” So I called my husband from the restaurant and I said, “I’m really sorry, but I didn’t know this, and now I have to pay for the bill.” He thought it was very funny. He said, “No, that’s okay. You know, you’re supposed to do that when you’re in Korea.” I was so angry at all the girls (laughs).
Hockey and two Koreas
Paek’s ice hockey team has qualified for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the first time that the national team has qualified for the Olympics. Part of it, he said, was changing the culture of the team.
Paek: I think that was the number one thing, to change that culture, especially the tier of respect level, and the seonbae-hubae [senior-junior in Korean] relations. When you come to the rink, you have an environment when the rink is a destination and you want to learn, and have fun. And then the culture, all that changes. Everybody’s a team. Everybody’s a family. When they play it’s not “the oldest players play the most” kind of thing, it’s whoever’s playing the best. So they have to earn everything they get. And so they adapted to that. That was the biggest challenge. And you can see the outcome when you see when we first started and now to how we’re playing.
Last month, South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan suggested creating an inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team.
Paek had actually played against North Korea before.
Paek: When I played for the Canadian national team, we played North Korea.
Walsh: Oh, really?
Paek: I don’t know how we got into the university games, because we were all pro hockey players, but we took a course at the University of Calgary so it allowed us to. We played North Korea, and we had to win by 20 goals to win the gold. We beat them 21 to 1. So we ended up winning the gold medal, but it was a brawl. It was a scary brawl. You didn’t know if the guy was over here was going to hit you over the head with a stick. All I remember is Stu Barnes, you remember Stu Barnes?
Walsh: I remember the name, yeah.
Paek: He’s in the penalty box, and there are three of the North Koreans in there and they’ve got a hold of him and they’re kicking him. So I jump in the box, grab whatever I can, start swinging like crazy, swearing at them in Korean, which, of course, surprises them.
Though he grew up in Toronto, spending his childhood going from street to street with his net on his back and challenging friends and neighbors to a street hockey game, Paek said he is honored to represent Korea for the sport of his life.
Paek: When I go to the world championships and I watch Canada play, I’m always rooting for Canada. But I was born here and my heritage is Korean. I was raised as a Korean, and I’m very proud and honored to represent Korea in the Olympics, but it’s not Canada versus Korea kind of thing. You know what I mean? It’s two hockey teams that you want to play and have success. It’s who has the best players, who’s going to play the best game, and let the better hockey team win.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
Canadian Ambassador Eric Walsh
Eric Walsh was appointed as the Canadian ambassador to Korea in February 2015, his fifth overseas assignment since he joined the foreign service in 1995. The top envoy was posted in Turkey, Romania, Geneva and Germany, and also served as the director for the East Asia and North Asia divisions of the foreign ministry. Walsh said he likes to venture out to the country here when he has a chance, and the ambassador has recently completed a trip down to Gongju, Jeonju, Suncheon, Yeosu, Haeinsa, Andong and Danyang.
Born and raised in Toronto and a graduate of the University of Western Ontario, June Kang came to Korea 23 years ago when she married her husband, actor Choi Min-soo. The two have two sons. Kang worked at the Seoul Foreign School as the assistant head of school for advancement for 13 years from 2003, before taking on a new job as the host of weekly home shopping program “June Kang’s Good Life.” A former Miss Korea, Kang says her memoir in Korean will soon be available in stores.
Head coach of the Korean national men’s ice hockey team since 2014, Jim Paek is reported to be the first Korean-born player to play in the National Hockey League. Immigrating to Canada when he was one, Paek has trained as a defenseman in Alaska, Ohio, Texas, Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, Nottingham in England and Ontario and Alberta in Canada and has won two Stanley Cups. Paek said he first found out that he “might have a chance” with ice hockey at age 16 when he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League.