There is an interesting anniversary being marked here in Germany right now that means something to me. It’s one of those events that leads you to think about all of the parallel lives you could have led: “What would my life have been like if my parents had never moved to the US from Korea?” “If I hadn’t decided to study in London thirteen years earlier, where exactly would I be living right now?” But I live in Germany right now, and I know exactly why. It’s the 50th year anniversary since the first Korean guest workers arrived in Germany. Like all of the other guest workers of this generation, they weren’t meant to stay. But many did. And for this reason, my young family and I call Germany home.
My parents-in-law immigrated from South Korea, then a very poor country devastated from years of war and occupation. They were amongst the lucky few whose numbers were drawn to fill the burgeoning labor needs of post-War Germany’s economic boom. Specifically, Korean men came to works as coal miners and Korean women came to be trained as nurses. For them and all the others that embarked on this life-changing adventure, this was an opportunity to get a job that paid considerably better than what they could earn then in Korea. Most of the men were well-educated, inexperienced and in good health. And I always imagined for women especially, that the opportunity served much like being a flight attendant did back then, a rare chance to get out and see a completely different world.
I often think about how otherworldly 1960s Germany was to 1960s Korea. Even in 1983, the first time I ever went to Korea, the US and Korea were planets away from each other. In the 60s, Germany and Korea must have seemed like universes apart. Even now, the hole-in-the-floor Asian toilets would turn any Westerner uncomfortably around. Now I worry about how my future Korean au pair will deal with a culture that eats bread instead of mostly rice or the presence of cold cuts instead of kimchi at the table. Luckily, she’ll be eating at my table where there is plenty of rice and kimchi, and she will have done plenty of reading online and talking to others who have lived in Germany to at least have an idea of what to expect. For my parents-in-law, it was a scary leap of faith to leave their known worlds behind and see what Deutschland had in store for them. Like a sizable number of their compatriots, my parents-in-law met and married here and stayed in Germany where they knew they could give their children a better education leading to more opportunities. Despite the isolation and the feeling of being aliens on another planet, they chose to not go back to Korea and instead made Germany their home.
The journey of the 18,000 Korean guest workers is being marked with a photo exhibition that has just opened in Berlin at the Korean Cultural Center. You can see here where and when the exhibition will be in other German cities and in Seoul.
Learn more about the history behind Korean migration to Germany in this entry.