▲ Left, Davaa Ganchimeg, a winner of the Korean Speech Competition. Right, Saran Gerel Ganchimeg, an interpreter for the Jeju Multicultural Family Support Center. Photos by Yang Ho Geun
“A Mongolian woman is strong, strong, strong,” Saran Gerel Ganchimeg would repeat to herself during difficult times as a foreigner living on Jeju. Her mantra was a source of strength for when she felt alone in this strange place among strangers. Though she had to endure hardships here, she now lives a happy and productive life with her Korean husband and two daughters.
According to provincial government statistics, as of February 2010, 206 Mongolians live on the island, including 166 workers and 28 students. Ten of the women have married Korean men.
In September 2000, Saran Gerel, then 23, visited Jeju holding an entertainers visa as a member of a circus troupe that performed Mongolian horse riding acts in Seogwipo City. It was her first visit to Korea and as the eldest daughter of parents who led a nomadic life living out of a yurt (a Mongolian traditional tent), she had a difficult time adapting to her new circumstances.
“When I first came here, I couldn’t adapt to life in Jeju. Korean food was too spicy and there are no large prairies like Mongolia in Jeju.”
In 2004, a Jeju native saw her while she was performing in the circus. Soon after they started seeing one another regularly and it was was not long before she and Kim Young Sam fell in love.
“At that time, Kim, now my husband, always worried about me and helped me,” she said. “We registered our marriage in 2004, and we live in Pyoseon-myeon, Seogwipo City with two daughters, Areum, 5, and 3-year-old Nayeon.”
In October 2007, in an odd twist of fate, Jeju native Oh Soon Cheol hired Saran Gerel to be his guide for his trip to Mongolia. There Saran Gerel introduced Oh to her maternal cousin Davaa Ganchimeg, who was a 24-year-old medical student at the time.
After returning to Jeju, Oh kept in contact with Davaa for two months, then returned to Mongolia in December of that year to propose. Davaa and her father were taken aback at first, but eventually agreed. The wedding was held in April 2008 in Jeju and the couple now live in Seogwipo City with Miran, their 20-month-old daughter.
These two Mongolian ladies underwent many trials on Jeju. Saran Gerel said “the biggest obstacle was communication with my in-laws because they speak Jeju Island dialect.” Her husband remained a constant source of consolation to her though, during her original difficulties living on the island.
Saran Gerel studied hard to learn Korean and has worked for the Jeju Immigration Office as a Mongolian interpreter since 2007. She has also translated for Mongolian tourists at the Jeju International Airport.
“I have interpreted for the Jeju Police Office about Mongolians who have been caught in a general crackdown on drunk drivers or received illegal employment,” Saran Gerel said. “During this work, I realized that Mongolians have many problems here including overdue wage payments and lack of medical insurance.”
Taking this opportunity, she became interested in the human rights of migrant workers and social welfare and enrolled at the Jeju College of Technology, majoring in Public Welfare Administration. She also took an interpretation and translation test at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and now works for the Jeju Multicultural Family Support Center.
“I think that [the number of] Mongolians who live on Jeju will increase in the future,” she said. “I will help to create harmonious living among Koreans and Mongolians in Jeju and I will promote the beautiful natures of Jeju to Mongolia and of Mongolia to Jeju.”
After her marriage in 2008, Davaa said she was lonely on Jeju because she was pregnant and isolated. She resolved to learn Korean during her pregnancy and watched Korean dramas on TV to help her learn the language.
“I thought I should be learning Korean so I watched Korean TV drama every day and it was very effective,” said Davaa.
In October 2009, after the birth of her child, she felt confident enough about her ability to understand Korean to participate in a Korean speech competition for foreigners at Jeju National University where she won third place.
In July 2010, she participated in a Korean speech competition for migrant women in Jeju and was awarded first prize, and then participated in the national Korean speech competition for migrant women as the representative of Jeju and came in second place.
“I spoke of the ‘Seolmundae Halmang’ tale in Jeju,” Davaa said. “I spoke Jeju Island dialect and it went down well with the audience.”
In September 2010, she participated in a Jeju Island dialect speech competition for foreigners in Seogwipo City and won first prize for those from the southern city and second prize in all of Jeju Island. Currently, she volunteers at the Seogwipo YWCA and teaches Mongolian culture to kindergarten students in Seogwipo City. She also narrates children’s stories at nurseries.
In addition, Davaa was granted a certification of nail art and completed a tour guide course for Mongolians at the Seogwipo Migrant Center. Next year, she will get a driver’s license, she said, and wants to continue helping migrant women on Jeju.
According to historical records, Mongolia occupied Jeju from 1273 to 1374. Some intermarried with Jeju islanders as they used the island as a garrison base for occupying Japan.
Now 700 years on, two Mongolian women are the bridge between Jeju and Mongolia. They have learned both Korean and the Jeju dialect and help Mongolians in Jeju. Their efforts in fulfilling the role of honorary ambassadors are helping bring Jeju one step closer to being a global city.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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