▲ “It’s awesome if you learn Korean in Korea. Every person in the country is your teacher.” Photo by Elizabeth Holbrook
Vivacious, energetic, humorous — it’s no wonder Kendra Pugh has been filling Korean TV sets with her charisma and charm since coming to Jeju nine years ago. From manning a special snack force on Jeju MBC TV Magazine’s “Snack Attack” to covering tourist delights on Jeju MBC TV Magazine’s “Wonderful Jeju” and Jeju KBS’s Network, hosting a cooking show on Jeju KCTV, and informing viewers on how best to keep their island in tip top shape on Jeju KBS’s “You and I, Making Jeju a Better Place”; Pugh has had her hand in an array of various TV segments throughout Jeju.
Hailing from the States, Lakewood, Washington to be exact, Pugh first came to Korea to learn the language at Yonsei University. While on a Jeju trip post graduation, she fell in love with the island and six months later came back to make it her permanent home. “I remember on my trip I met this old guy that was selling toys and stuffed animals on the street,” she says. “We got to chit chatting and he was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re half Korean, you’re just like my daughter!’ He gave me a stuffed animal, which I still have, and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, this place rocks!’ ”
What made you decide to move to Korea? It all started when I was in the first grade. My mom is Korean so her friends would get together and speak in Korean. All I could understand was, “Blah blah blah Kendra ha ha ha!” I knew she was talking about me, but I had no idea what she was saying. That started my interest, but I never picked it up. I’ve known other Korean Americans who picked up the language, but I never did. Once I finished my two-year degree at community college I came to Korea and went to the language institute at Yonsei University and studied Korean for two years. While I was there, I stayed with my grandma, uncle, aunt, two cousins and two dogs in a house half the size of ours in the States. I stayed with them and went to school everyday.
What was the hardest part of adjusting to life in Korea and living with your family here? This is going to sound funny to anyone besides me, but the biggest thing was adjusting to cockroaches. I have a borderline phobia. My grandma leaves cookies, crackers and candy all over the place. I’m like, “What are you trying to do, raise them? Grow them? Are they your pets? Do you name them?” It sounds funny, but my bags were packed in my head. I was like, “I don’t need this. We don’t need to speak Korean in the States and the cockroaches there have enough manners to stay out of sight!”
How was your experience studying Korean at Yonsei? It’s awesome if you learn Korean in Korea. Every person in the country is your teacher. I can only imagine for Koreans who go to the States how discouraging it would be when they say “hello” and nobody is impressed, but here you say one syllable and they get so excited. I used to do my homework on the subway and Koreans would lean so far over I couldn’t see my paper anymore. Sometimes they’d be like, “No you spelled it wrong!” then they’d grab my pencil and start erasing and fixing my homework.
How did you end up in Jeju? After graduation I came down here with a friend and had a really awesome weekend, but I spent the whole time translating so I didn’t feel rested. I came back down by myself and stayed for two weeks. I didn’t know anybody; I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just kind of wandering around like a gypsy, practicing my Korean. I met a lady who took me to the foreigner bar and ended up meeting Jason and Rorey, who are the only two people still here that I met in the beginning. I ended up hanging out with them, and it was just like, “Wow, this place is freaking awesome!”
What made you fall in love with Jeju? No one believes me, but I am shy. OK, if I’ve had a few drinks I’ll be chatty, but if I don’t really know you that well, I’ll just be quiet, because, well, I’m kind of shy. So when I came here and everyone was friendly and trying to get to know me, I thought, “This place is great, I’m moving to Jeju!” About six months later I was here.
How did you first get involved with TV? My first TV experience was actually a guest spot on a quiz show, but the TV show I did that started it all, happened through a friend of a friend of a friend. Someone at MBC asked the director if he knew a foreigner who spoke Korean. They asked my friend who had been here a good 10 years (he’s gone now) to do it, but he was kind of burnt out, so he introduced them to me. I went and met them, had a screen test and started doing the show. It was called “Wonderful Jeju.” We would go out and find neat things around Jeju. That was a lot of fun. A lot of it involved eating.
Did you ever have to eat anything strange or unique? Pheasant taffy. It’s thick like tar, really sweet and there’s shredded, steamed pheasant in it. This grandmother put a huge spoon in my mouth. I think I should have gotten a Tony because that was some serious acting. She put it in my mouth and I was like (smiling), “Mmmm!” I had tears in my eyes. It was that bad.
Out of all the TV segments you’ve done in Jeju, which did you enjoy the most? Through KBS there was a national show, Network, and that was the most fun program I ever did. It was an experience program, so everything a tourist would want to pay money to do on the island, they would take me there and I would get to do it for free, and be on TV. I got to be in the Mongolian horse show. I went to the dolphin show and made them do tricks. I got to be a haenyo for a day; I went to the haenyo school and went diving with them. There were just so many awesome experiences. It pays to speak Korean in Korea. Also, my grandma is most happy about that segment because it was a national show and she got to watch me.
Are you currently doing TV? Now that I’m under a teaching contract, I can’t do anything regular, but I did do something last month. It was for the third year anniversary of Jeju being designated as a world natural heritage by UNESCO. I had to do a live show, which was brutal because it pissed down rain the whole day. I was picking out my clothes, getting my hair and make up done and it didn’t matter anyway because I ended up having to wear a pink, plastic, disposable rain coat. I was all wrinkled and soaked. I was just a miserable creature, but it was still a lot of fun.
Do you see TV in your future? Right now I have a bazillion ideas. I want to start my own thing and maybe get back into TV. I’ve finally decided I at least want to give myself a go on starting my own business, so I’m here for another three years. I figure that’s enough time to give it an honest try.
What do you like to do when you have a moment to spare? I love reading. I love cooking. I cook when I’m angry, or if I’m stressed I’ll bake and it calms me down. If I have free time I’ll make something I haven’t made before. I like to play poker, but I’m not that good so we do a small, friendly game. I love playing Go Stop, and I’m actually good at that. We used to have a Go Stop night, but it’s hard to get regular members with everyone’s crazy schedules. I love scuba diving, but I’ve been so busy and out of touch that I haven’t been since last year. I like hanging out at the beach and I think drinking soju counts as a sport. It takes endurance, it takes training and you don’t want to go out there without doing some stretching, because it’s serious.
How have you grown or changed since you first came to Jeju? I realized I don’t have to work, which is freeing. I mean I do, but I no longer do anything I don’t want to do, period. It just makes my life so much better.
I’ve also become more comfortable with myself. I’ve allowed myself to no longer try so hard to behave like a Korean. I could stay here until the day I die and I’d still be that American black girl, so well, I’m going to act like her!
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