After working as an English teacher for the past three years, Kinam decided it was time to brush up on her English skills. Taking the chance to apply for a specialized English educator’s training at Cheongju National University, she entered the program in the Fall of 2004. But little did she know, this would be a moment that would change her life forever.
What started as a professional student-teacher relationship with her Canadian mentor quickly blossomed into a formidable friendship. Upon the completion of her six-month training, her trainer became her beau. It’s been fifteen years since that serendipitous encounter, and now they share a life together in Busan with two adorable sons, ages seven and three. Just like any relationship, the life they led and continue living isn’t one without complications, and the issues that arise for a Korean woman married to a white-Canadian man in Korea can be a little...complex.
At the start of their relationship, Kinam and her husband, Colin, had to overcome the obstacles that existed outside of themselves. When she first introduced the idea of dating a foreigner to her parents, they had more than some qualms. “My parents were completely against the idea,” Kinam told me, “my mother advised me not to get too close.” Sadly, it didn’t seem to just be her parents that had issues with it. Early on in their relationship, there was an instance when Kinam and Colin realized just how unwelcomed their interracial and intercultural relationship was in a homogeneous country such as South Korea. A normal ride on the subway quickly turned for the worst as an elder Korean man turned to Colin and decided to hurl some explicit insults his way. Being a newcomer to Korea, Colin didn’t understand what the man was saying, but Kinam did. “Older Korean people still have a distorted view of foreign men,” she explained to me. “They associate [white] men with American men from during the war and they think of Korean women prostituting [to the American army-men].” Kinam decided she wasn’t going to let someone disrespect her and her man. “We were so close to physically fighting,” she continued, “but we got off at the next stop to calm down. I was so upset.”
The conservative and nationalistic views of older Korean natives took their toll on Kinam and Colin. For two years, they lived separately, but Colin was ready to live closer to Kinam. She enjoyed the idea, but, “Now things have changed, but back then to live with someone before marriage, AND he’s a foreigner...there would be some big problems. That was an absolute no.” Kinam was ready to move forward in her relationship but wasn’t going to get married simply to live together. Luckily, at the time she was looking into graduate programs in Australia, so they ventured out together: she as a graduate student, and he as a teacher. During their year in Australia, Colin proposed. After meeting Colin, Kinam’s parents warmed to the idea of their relationship, and they’ve been married for the past decade.
They’ve conquered the insulting comments and disapproving looks, but they weren’t prepared for the crisis to enter their home. Kinam and Colin’s firstborn son, Liam, now 7, has recently started the first grade. Initially, Kinam and her husband planned to move to Canada, and is the custom, their son has his father’s last name. His middle name is his mother’s maiden name, Choi*. In Korea, people go by their family name first, and then their given name. So Liam’s name is O’Donnell* Liam Choi. Distinctively different from all the other children. He has dealt with mild bullying with children calling him a foreigner and telling him he’s not Korean. These issues have seemed to have moderately affected Liam’s perception of his identity. “He came home and said his name is Liam Choi. Not O’Donnell,” Kinam admitted solemnly.
Liam’s premature identity crisis reminded me of my experience growing up in a Trinidadian household, and no one around me being of the same home culture. On top of that, my parents are of mixed race. It was hard to make friends at such a young age, and even in my adolescence after befriending a diverse crowd, the insecurity from my childhood still festered within me. “When did you finally feel confident in yourself and accept who you are?” Kinam asked me obviously worried about the experience of her own child. “Like a few years ago,” I said honestly with a slight chuckle. “But I think it builds character and really makes you appreciate the differences in yourself and your family.”
Although the family wants to move back to the Toronto area, it seems quite difficult. They are anticipating the sticky situations and complicated questions that come with being a mixed-race family in South Korea.
Kinam recently returned from Canada, leaving her boys and her husband to relish in the chance to spend some quality time with his family. She shared with me a variety of warming memories and adorable pictures of her two sons with her husband. Their family is a picture of adoration, but there are layers to peel back: A battle was won to make their family happen; a daily struggle they will have to continue to confront, but for their kind of love...it’s worth fighting for.
*names changed for privacy and confidentiality