▲ The Oh family in their restaurant near Jeju City Hall. Photo by Steve Oberhauser
“I’m a man with three names,” said Albert aka Oh Eun San in Korean or Ito Yuundai in Japanese. His family just opened up Mama’s Dining Restaurant a few minutes south of Jeju City Hall. It serves various international dishes in a comfortable, open setting. Their story is distinct and colorful on the island. Albert has more stories that are fit for ears. Here are some fit for print about the 29-year-old, younger sister Oh Young Joo, mother Kim Kwang Ja (Ito Mitsuko in Japanese) and father Oh Sung Kun.
Tell me briefly about your family.
It’s quite unique. My father is a Korean. My mother is a Korean who was born in Japan and grew up in Japan. I was born in Japan, too. But, I am biologically Korean ... I have a different type of passport (so I can go to a [foreigner-only] casino).
When I was eight years old, which was in 1990, we went to an island called Saipan. It is a tropical island. All of our family went there. My mother started a restaurant serving okonomiyaki [or Japanese pizza]. It was a small restaurant, but there were many customers and we [managed to] fit in well with the foreigners. We started with a restaurant where 15 maximum people could get in. After a few years, we opened a big restaurant where almost 100 people could fit in. And, we had many, many Japanese AAA celebrities coming and eating.
My sister graduated from high school and they all wanted to move back to Korea and Jeju was definitely on top of their list. They had been resting for three or four years, because they had been working all of their life. Recently we opened a restaurant which is okonomiyaki. We moved to Jeju six years ago and the restaurant has been open for two or three months.
What happened to you once you moved from Saipan?
I graduated high school in Saipan when I was with them and I moved to Korea. Obviously, my Korean was not good. But, I was in student council and I did many different activities for performance and really blend well with the Korean culture. I also went to Minnesota to teach Korean to the American kids as well. It was at Bemidji, at the Concordia Language Villages. I went there for two summers.
After that I decided to go to Shanghai, and work in the video game industry for two years. Actually, in foreign marketing sales.
Describe your language ability.
I grew up speaking Japanese from my mom and Korean from my father and English at school. [My proficiency in each] depends on what topic it may be. And I speak a little bit of Chinese.
Why did you return to be with your family on Jeju?
I went to Shanghai when I was 23. When I came to Korea, I was 19. It was a whole new place, too. I went to Shanghai and I challenged a lot of new jobs and I was to the point where I was a firstborn, so I had to be with my parents and I decided to come to Jeju. For the first few months I came to Jeju and taught at an English school or hagwon. It started for me to become a love for the island, where I really wanted to do something more, I thought I am capable of doing something more.
Tell us about what you are currently doing?
Right now, I am working for the Jeju Free International Development Center, which is a government subsidiary company that is designed to develop the island. There are six core projects. Right now, I am in the physical business department in the investment team. It's been one year. I was with the theme park for 10 months. Now I am with health care.
What are some of the challenges of living on Jeju now?
I guess it is always about the communication and the blending. The island culture is a bit afraid of taking in new people and new things. So, I am coming here and people may look at me, like I speak three languages, so they have a stereotype of me and even at work they have high expectations. I am just a common guy that you can find anywhere. I am studying the Jeju language. Working for JDC for one year, it’s great. They love me and treat me like brothers. The hard part was the blending part. They have their own culture they want to keep. Once you break that wall, it’s always about blending. It’s a challenge. I believe I was able to get through that challenge.
What do you say when people ask, 'Where are you from?'
Sometimes I joke around. I say I am Asian. Recently, there have been many things about Japan and Korea. So, when I say I am Japanese-Korean they understand.
Is it true you have already fulfilled a dream after just moving to Jeju?
I used to work at Arirang Radio for three months. I worked there last year. I was one of the people that first started on Jeju, with the team.
I had two corners or segments every week. One was called a Happy Tag Interview. People always do interviews with famous, rich, and respective people, and politicians. I thought about common people. I tried to interview people around the world, anyone, a teacher, a jobless person and ask them, 'What is your value of happiness. What’s happiness and what keeps you going?' When they are done they introduce someone from another foreign country. I started that and I finished that. We had a lot of interesting stories as well. Another one is making the kids speak English and we asked them questions. Little kids would answer them in English. That sounded cute.
That was part time and working for JDC was taking a lot of time.
Being in radio was a dream, a dream come true job. I wanted to do a five-minute show, funny and philosophical. I auditioned and the Seoul people loved it, but unfortunately, I'm a newbie and not allowed to talk for five minutes.
What are some of the other things you are involved in on the island?
Being in JDC is an opportunity. In Jeju, there are a lot of foreigners. And the way Koreans look at foreigners as usually either investors, tourists or teachers. There are many local foreigners that really love the island. So I want to give them an event where foreigners can express their love of Jeju. An opportunity for Koreans to both see and feel that. I am producing an event called Foreigners’ Love of Jeju Art Festival. It can be about photographs, sculpture, paintings, and they can express their love and exhibitions, plays and music. The festival will be an opportunity to give Koreans to see and feel this love. The planning stages are to hold it in early November. I am already working with my company to do things that have not been done before.
What are some interesting things about your father?
My father is a Vietnam War Veteran. He was also a manager for the most well-known Korean singer, Nam Jin. Really. There is a picture there [on the wall]. He is like the Elvis of Korea, in the 1970s. We have quite a different background.
He was a US Marine. He has a green card, that enables him to stay and work like an American citizen ... It was possible because he toured in the Vietnam War and he has one of the youngest age record in the War. Back then there was not Korean Marines. He was there and joined in the US Marines. He is Korean. He went to the War. He has a card, but that does not mean he can speak English. He is a paper American in some sense, a Korean-American with dual citizenship.
What is your citizenship?
I am a Korean citizen. I also have a Japanese permanent residence card which allows me to be there without having to have a work visa.
How did your parents get married?
As my mother grew up in Japan, she does not speak Korean at all. Now she speaks a little. My father [also] did not speak Japanese. They could not communicate with each other. Whenever they talked my grandmother translated, controls the way she wants. My grandmother made the big magic and told my father: 'My daughter loves you.' [Soon after they were married.] They had to bring a dictionary to their honeymoon in 1981. I was born in 1982. At the age of five I was translating Korean and Japanese. I am now 29 years old. I have one of the most curious families you could ever imagine.
Are there any difficulties with your parents living on Jeju and running an international restaurant?
They still seem to have a little trouble. They are very American. At first our signboard was in American: 'Sorry, We're Closed.' You know those red boards you can find in the US? Koreans ask, 'What is this?' My parents just took it off.
How does Mama's Dining operate?
We first started with a concept of multicultural food. We wanted different food from different countries. We still kind of keep that way, but we still go by okonomiyaki [Japanese pizza], the main dish. We have Chinese-type food, Korean-type food, European food and Japanese. My father and mother are the owners. They both work here as does my sister who is fluent in English. I do not come here often. I have my work. We have done no advertisements. It's been slow in the beginning. We just started with the banners.
You have an interest in design and the ajuma's perm?
It started as a hobby and I was in Shanghai. I just start selling it and people liked it. I have character drawings, printed on a cup, T-shirts and stickers.
Recently, I wanted to come with something more focused. I want to draw something that has to do with Jeju. It is my slogan, to brand Jeju. I've been drawing Dolhareubang a lot. I have not figured out how it should be. This is all drawn with my finger. I was never trained.
The things that we sell here, all moneys are being donated to a donation box. I love the Ajuma Perm. I realized that every ajuma around the world has the same hairstyle, even Americans. My mom. Chinese. The perm unites.
What are some of the things you had to deal with growing up in Korea with parents from a different background?
I grew up in Korea when I was eight years old, and back then there was still a lot of discrimination. I went to school and my teacher did not allow me to use a restroom. I had to pee in my pants or go home. I was born in Japan and after three months came to Korea. And when I was 15 I went to Saipan. In second and third grade, on my way to school, people would throw rocks and say, 'You are [expletive] Japanese.' Another time, I needed one pencil case. At the stationery store they would not sell it to me because I was Japanese. At the time my mother did not speak Korean. And when my mom was not around, that is when they would pick on me because I was little. Whenever I was alone, people would throw stones, threaten me and it got really bad. That’s one of the reasons we had to move to Saipan because my sister was four years old and she was a girl.
What discrimination did you face in Saipan?
In Saipan, there is a Japanese community. My mother was happy because she had people she could speak with. The Japanese kids are so nice to me in front of her, and once they were gone, they would pinch my skin and say, 'No matter how much you speak Japanese or no matter how much inside your skin you are a Korean [expletive].' That was only 10 years old I'm talking about. So here I am, no Korean, no Japanese. What is going on, just like those movies. Who am I? Then, I met the foreign friends, the Filipinos, the Chinese, the locals, that became my opportunity to learn English.
This was a very important thing that happened to me, because if this did not happen, I would have never went to Saipan. And, if I hung around Japanese, I probably would not have had to speak English at all.
So in a sense, racial discrimination became good?
I hated Korea. After I graduated high school, I had an option to go to the United States or go to Korea for university and my best friend told me, you hate that country so what is there for you to lose? Just be there and that is already enough challenge for you. I came here and, oh my goodness, history has changed. If you can speak Japanese you are a hero, a celebrity. I went to Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. I decided to go to China because I wanted to start everything over. I had the worst year of my life, and thought about suicide. I've seen many cultural things, the fights, the arguments. It was always good to get along, it’s that easy.
Specifically, what did you do in China?
The company was headquartered in Japan, a best friend of Nintendo. Our company was called a ninja company. Why? You know Nike shoes are not made in the US. They are made in China or third-world countries. Video games are made by third companies. We made games for the AAA companies around the world, but our company’s name is not there, so we have to stay hidden. My role was to visit the foreign customers. I was a producer. For example, I worked with a game where there is a Korean celebrity. Five Korean singers teaching Korean to a Japanese audience. A mobile game.
Why did you leave China?
I had a big commitment to this company that I wanted to work with. Learning is usually not fun. A serious game is made for training for NASA and the FBI. Well I was working on that kind of game company. Unfortunately, I failed and my parents wanted me back and my health was getting bad. I was living by myself for 10 or 11 years at that time. I always wanted to be on an island anyway. I was teaching in a hagwon and thinking teaching English for the next generation is meaningful for the island but, I had an opportunity to work for the JDC.
What are some of your immediate goals?
My goal is for this to be, not an "international" city but a global community, where you do not have to worry about discrimination and where you are from, just enjoy the island. We mingle, we party, we eat. Right now there is still tension between the locals and the foreigners and the locals and mainlanders. We still have that tension. I think it is possible. I grew up in a classroom where my classmates were from six different countries.
Jeju Free International City. Everyone thinks, what the hell are you talking about free? My interpretation of the "free" is it stands for "free from discrimination." Free from stereotypes. That’s the goal. I will work to make that come true. My festival event is the beta-stage experiment with the company, because they have the power.
Island culture is always sticky. Once you fall for it, it is really hard to go away. It's been a dream come true. I've always wanted to teach, done that, then in radio, done that. Now I am more committed for the island's future. My family's dream is to stay on Jeju.
Mama’s Dining 2015-18 Ido-2-dong Jeju City Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Phone: 064-721-0033
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