▲ Joel and Sookmi (Moon) Young moved back to Moon’s native Jeju so their son Joon, 2, could get to know his Korean family.
It’s not unusual for a foreigner to come to Jeju and fall in love with the island and islanders. Foreign men, many of them English teachers, sometimes end up marrying Jeju women, staying and raising families.
But Joel Young and Moon Sookmi went about it a little differently. While the couple and their 2-year-old son Joon now live near Moon’s family in the village of Yeong Pyeong, they met many years ago in, of all places, Israel.
Young, was a self-described “20-something college dropout” living in Alaska, and Moon was an environmental engineer working in Seoul in the late 1990s. “Each of our circumstances randomly pushed us in the same direction, a kibbutz in Israel,” Young said.
The American came seeking a working travel experience in the well-known Israeli farming commune system. Moon was looking for an opportunity to improve her English, and escape the economic downturn in Korea.
“We met, went to see “Titanic” together, and eventually (despite the movie) fell in love,” Young said. They later married and lived in Alaska, where Young finished his B.A. in social work and Moon obtained a second master’s degree in oceanography.
“Because initially Sookmi had to make the sacrifice to leave her home country for mine, we decided that eventually we would live in Korea,” Young said.
It took nine years, but last fall the couple and their young son moved to Moon’s home, Jeju. “After leaving our jobs, reducing our possessions, and some healthy freaking out, we arrived in Jeju-do in September with the goal of staying for one year and going from there,” Young said.
The family escaped the apartment-hunt that faces most newcomers to Jeju, as they were able to move into Moon’s mother’s vacant house in Yeong Pyeong Dong, a small farming community south of Gu Jeju, surrounded by orange farms.
“We felt we were living the rural life while still being close to town, and we quickly settled into a completely new routine and lifestyle,” Young said.
Young applied for and received an F-2 visa, and the couple found work as teachers in the same hagwon in City Hall.
Moving from Seattle to Jeju with a young child was not without its challenges, particularly for Young, who spoke no Korean before arriving.
“As a family, the transition involved the general stresses of moving as well as my navigating through a different communication style not to mention language,” Young said. “In many ways I am spoiled because as a foreigner married to a Korean I do not have to do many things on my own. Many conversations and decisions are made without my having to talk to anyone but my wife. While a great bonus it does limit my ability to learn the language and truly communicate with my relatives in ways other than ‘you’ and ‘that was a great meal’.”
Joon was only 17 months old when they arrived, and bridged the culture gap with ease. “He met his great grandmother, grandmother and many aunts and uncles who live on the island and loves the attention that is poured onto him,” Young said. “In the past nine months his ability to navigate between Korean and English never ceases to amaze. He has quickly surpassed my level of vocabulary and is providing great motivation to get it together and learn Korean.”
Perhaps it has something to do with his Jeju heritage, but young Joon took to Korean cuisine with gusto. “I consider him a lucky child to already have the word kimchee in his vocabulary, a tasty dietary necessity that I didn’t discover until my 20s,” Young said.
Of course while Joon has adapted quickly to life with his Korean family, but it’s been more difficult for the grandparents back home.
“Fortunately video cameras and internet connections have been able to bridge the gap,” Young said. Young’s parents recently spent a month on Jeju, getting to know the island, Joon’s other grandparents and his large extended family.
Young said he misses some things from the states, like real cheddar cheese, but overall it’s been a rewarding experience.
“Since arriving we have both found comfortable jobs as English instructors, bought a car, and found a routine that allows us to spend time with our son, enjoy the beauty and experiences that Jeju has to offer and stay connected to the parts of our life that are back in the U.S.,” he said.
The family plans to stay in Jeju for two years, long enough for little Joon to call his kindergarten teacher “songsangnim” when he returns to the U.S.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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