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Susie Mun, student and first generation Korean-American
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승인 2010.06.12  21:19:55
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▲ “It’s probably the hospitality that’s gotten me to like Jeju the most. Even if it’s just my aunt’s friend who I met 20 seconds ago, people always want to help in some way.” Photo courtesy Susie Mun

While many 19-year-old American university students spend their summers lounging by the pool, catching up on sleep and rebooting for the fall semester, Susie Mun has opted for a more cultural approach to her summer vacation. As a first-generation Korean-American, Susie is spending the first months of her summer in Jeju living with extended family, tutoring and working at her aunt’s restaurant. At the end of the month she will attend an international business program through Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

With a maturity that surpasses her age, Susie has immersed herself in Jeju life, receptive to all the challenges and unfamiliarity that come along the way. “Every single day is different and I experience something new,” she says.” And, as much as I love it, you really have to be open-minded about the differences, and only hope that others will be accepting.”

Where are you from?
Poughkeepsie, New York. It’s two hours north of Manhattan in the suburbs.

What’s your life like back in the States?
I go to school at Clarkson University. I’m studying Global Supply Chain. It’s a new major that came out about 10 years ago.

Can you describe growing up as a Korean-American?
Well, we eat Korean food at home. It’s funny because we kind of mix American food with Korean food. We’ll have a steak, but then have rice on the side.

I remember growing up it was a little stressful with my mom just because she was used to Korean culture: women are kind of supposed to stay at home, there’s a lot of pressure to study and all that, but later on I’ve been able to appreciate it. I’ve gotten mostly the American culture, so coming here has been quite a shock, which I didn’t expect at all.

Is this your first time in Jeju?
No, I came to Jeju five years ago. I was younger, so all I kind of put focus on was going out and shopping, but now that I’ve come back this time, I’ve really taken an interest in the culture and even the hierarchy.

What are some of the cultural differences that you’ve noticed this time?
I work at my aunt’s restaurant, and one that I’ve noticed every day is just the level of respect you have to give to your customers. If you slack on that for even one second they get really upset. Also, another difference that I’ve noticed, which I see more as a negative, is the women serving the men.

What kind of restaurant does your aunt have?
The restaurant is called Song Juk Won. It’s a jjimjilbang and a restaurant combined. It was built about five years ago and serves Korean food. There are course meals, so it’s more high class.

What’s the best part about working at the restaurant?
The best part is that I get to joke around with the other people I work with. They’re interested in me and I’m interested in them. We have different views. For example, we always eat lunch together, and one day this one woman was talking about how I shouldn’t work out. She said I should be like a glass cup, fragile and beautiful until I got married. I was shocked. I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or not, but I think it’s just tradition. It’s funny to hear these things anyway.

What are some of the challenges you face at the restaurant?
I would consider myself bilingual, however, I have the vocabulary of an elementary student. I can understand and say simple words, but when they ask for things that I don’t know, like a bottle opener, I just try to make sure I memorize the word, so I can repeat it a second later and find out the meaning.

My pronunciation is pretty accurate; I just can’t structure the words because it’s a direct translation from English to Korean. I also have trouble with the polite form and the impolite form, which customers get upset about at times.

Did you grow up speaking Korean in your house?
My brother and I would always speak English to each other, but when we spoke English to my mom she would respond back in Korean. In that way, we kind of had to learn Korean.

Although I’ve learned the Korean language, I’ve learned the Jeju dialect. So, I would use it in Seoul and people would look at me funny. I wasn’t able to distinguish what was dialect and what wasn’t. My aunts think it’s pretty funny.

What are some of the differences between you and your cousins?
I love exercise. I love riding bikes, I love going for a run. I just find it really refreshing, but all my cousins, the girls at least, find it very surprising. They think I’m very manly in a sense.

Do you share any similar views?
I don’t really know any similarities. I think it’s because we always highlight the differences that we don’t really see the similarities.

What do you like to do in Jeju outside of working in your aunt’s restaurant?
When I came five years ago I went to yoga with my aunt. I decided this time I wanted to do it again. It’s definitely an experience. I think it’s very different from yoga back in the States, although I’ve never been. The yoga instructor really pushes you to work hard. I think there’s also this belief that pain actually means your body is becoming healthier. They really want you to feel the stretch. After that hour you’re just sweating and exhausted, but it’s been a lot of fun.

What else do you like to do?
So far I haven’t done too much. I’ve been working. I’ve been tutoring. In my free time I’ve been going out and I’ve met some friends, so we’ve hit the bars. The nightlife is quite different. I love to go out and people watch.

What have you enjoyed most about your time in Jeju?
It’s probably the hospitality that’s gotten me to like Jeju the most. Even if it’s just my aunt’s friend who I met 20 seconds ago, people always want to help in some way. It’s just an act of giving and receiving.

Do you have any favorite spots on the island?
I went to one place last week, Ire House. It’s a little hard to find, but it’s a coffee shop in a gorgeous house with a bread shop downstairs. It’s a little expensive, but it’s so beautiful.

What are you looking forward to for the rest of your time here?
I’ve actually managed to convince my friend from America to come all the way to Jeju. It’s a funny story. He didn’t get an internship, so he was looking for something to do, but as soon as he booked his flight, he found out he got an internship. He’s still excited to come.

Where do you plan on taking him?
We want to try biking to Seogwipo. We’ll check out the World Cup soccer field and the Manjanggul caves. I’m really excited. It’s just going to be hilarious watching him live with my aunts. They’re going to find him so fascinating.

How would you describe Jeju to the rest of your friends who aren’t able to visit?
Everybody thinks Jeju is like a small barren island because they see it on the map and they think it’s absolutely tiny. When I do describe it, I usually say it’s like Seoul, but 10 years behind. Tradition is very well grounded here. There are gorgeous places and it’s not just all tourism. You can find your own niche.

Would you ever consider teaching in Korea in the future?
I never really thought about it until I met the foreigner community here. Everybody that I’ve met, in Jeju at least, loves it and seems to be having a good time. I still have two years left of university. I never really thought about traveling, but I think I want to, so I’m definitely considering it.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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