Nahee wasn’t even aware of Ireland or where it was. “I honestly didn’t know about Ireland. I literally told all my friends that I was going to Ireland and in Korean, ‘Ireland’ and ‘island’ sounds the same. So, they thought that I was going to some island in Korea, they didn’t even know that I was going to a completely different country. Some of them thought I was going to Iceland, so they thought I was going somewhere covered in ice, it’s covered in snow.”
“The biggest reason that we moved here was to learn English,” Nahee said. “English is like a huge subject, it’s a compulsory subject in Korea. So, if you can speak English, you’re going to get good grades...so that’s a huge advantage to have. We only planned to come here for a year and a half. And then we decided to kind of stay.” But what was supposed to be a stint of a year and a half turned into seven years.
Ireland’s education system led her, her sister and her mother to stay. She describes the Korean education system as “very, very competitive” and it’s “very hard to get into universities and the course that you want. In schools, they make you compete with your friends.”
“I kind of had difficulty making friends in secondary school because at the end of every semester you have a final exam. The teachers put up your name and your grade on the board so that everyone can see your grade,” she continues. “Everyone’s like ‘oh yeah you’re first place, you’re second place.’ Everyone knows who’s in what place.”
Unfortunately, her father had to go back to Korea for “financial reasons”. He had to move back to get a job because “if you don’t have the language skills, basically it’s very hard to get a job here.” He now supports Nahee’s family from afar and sends money from Korea to Ireland and visits occasionally.
Nahee moved to Sligo in 2012 and lived in a small community. She describes the people as “very very open” despite the fact that “most of [the community] have never seen or have talked [sic] to an Asian person.” She found that the elderly people “were very, very nice” and open about learning about her Korean culture. They would even invite her family at Christmas time “because we don’t have our relatives here during Christmas. Sometimes, you kind of feel lonely during Christmas.”
To cure her homesickness, “food definitely helps.” She feels that Korean culture is very connected to food and they “value food very much.” She and her family have access to ingredients through Asian markets, but they sometimes get things shipped from Korea through her aunt, “little things” like spice that one just can’t get in Dublin so she can have the same food as if she was in Korea. “Even bibimbap makes me feel at home.”
With the help of the local church, she was able to settle in Sligo, but she had to adjust to some social niceties in Ireland and tried “really, really hard to blend in with my Irish friends and I really altered my personality as well. I used to be really bubbly.” Subtle things such as facial expressions and tones of voices were different for Nahee. “My Irish friends tend not to express emotions that much because Koreans use loads of facial expressions, loads of hand gestures and the tone kind of changes a lot. So, if you’re talking to a friend, your tone varies. If you’re talking to a teacher your tone is completely different. But in English, it’s kind of more constant. If you’re talking to a friend; if you’re talking to a teacher; if you’re talking to your parents it doesn’t vary that much compared to Korean so I had to adjust to that.”
She describes an “identity issue” between the ages of 16 and 17, where she questioned whether she was Irish or Korean. She concluded that she is more Irish to her Korean friends and to her Irish friends she is more Korean: “[I] stopped being torn between the two and accepted the fact that I may be both Irish and Korean. It doesn’t matter if someone calls me Korean, it doesn’t matter if someone calls me Irish it’s just me. That’s all. I’m happy with myself now.”
She initially felt a little embarrassed of her culture and would not mention watching K-dramas and listening to K-pop music, but now, she is “very, very surprised” with how big and how trendy K-pop has become.“It wasn’t trendy back then” and this recent explosion of interest is very “exciting” to her and her Korean friends in Dublin and gives her immense pride.
She still has a hard time blending in because of her visa and she doesn’t feel she is settled completely. “Because I have a student visa and I’ve been having it for seven years so, every single year you have to go up to the immigration centre and you have to ask permission to stay in Ireland. It’s very hard because they ask you why you are in Ireland and why you are doing that course in Ireland. They just keep throwing at you ‘why’. It’s very hard to explain because Ireland is my home. Ireland is where I am and Ireland is where my education is and where I see myself in. This is where my future lies.” She hopes to get a G-1 visa, apply for a job permit and after two or three years, she could try and apply for citizenship, but “it doesn’t mean that they give you the citizenship” and in the face of ever changing policies this might become more difficult for her. “By the time it’s 2023, I want to apply for citizenship and I might not be able to because of the policy change. So, it’s a very unstable...If I don’t get the visa next year it means that I have to leave everything behind. I would be kicked out of this country.”
She describes her meeting in the immigration office after her Leaving Cert. “I went to the immigration office because I didn’t know what to do after the Leaving Cert. I asked if I could do a gap year and the man was really cold with me and said ‘no, if you want a gap year you can do it in your own country.’” It’s these little realizations, little moments that hit her hard and make her realise that she doesn’t have the same opportunities as her Irish friends. She may change her mind and move elsewhere, but hopes to still stay in Ireland.
Coming to Dublin for college, despite being surrounded by foreigners in Dublin city centre, she feels that she hasn’t “blended” into Irish society. She could get varying treatments from strangers depending on which part of the city she’s in,“if you go to Dundrum, I feel like the shopkeepers there are nice to me and they don’t assume that I don’t speak English, but in the city centre they assume that I don’t speak English.”
“The biggest thing that I get is the question “are you Chinese?” Every time I meet someone: “are you Chinese?” They don’t even ask you where you’re from. Sometimes little kids come at you and go ‘ching chong ching chong’.”
If you were born from immigrant parents and grew up in Ireland or you were born and lived in another country before you came here, we would like to hear your experience. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.