Seoul searching in Chennai

Updated on: Jul 24, 2013
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Koreans make up the largest number of expatriates in Chennai today

“I simply love the dosas and idlis served at Sangeetha’s (a south Indian restaurant in Chennai),” says Juwon Seo. The 25-year-old Korean also loves to hang out at the Phoenix Market City and Express Avenue malls during the weekends, apart from spending Sunday mornings at a church.

“I am eager to explore the beaches in Pondicherry,” adds Seo, who works for the Korean Ministry of External Affairs. Seo is in Chennai to help set up a Korean Consulate. (Chennai currently has an honorary consulate headed by TVS Motor Chairman Venu Srinivasan.)

A few years ago, Seo and his Korean counterparts would have probably preferred being on their own. But they now want to absorb the cultural and culinary experiences that Chennai has to offer.

The largest expatriate population in Chennai – there are 3,000-4,000 Koreans living in the city today – is still a reticent lot. But there is greater cultural assimilation and integration with the city compared to a few years ago, when they were known to be an extremely close-knit group. The city is also opening up to them.

Changing attitudes

A slow but sure change in attitude is taking place among the Koreans today, says Nandini Menon, Manager – Teaching and Information, InKo Centre, a not-for-profit culture and information centre that facilitates inter-cultural dialogue between Koreans and Indians.

“The main issue is obviously language. This leads to a communication gap in terms of what they say and don’t want to say. But things are changing. Many Koreans have stuck to the city for over five years and some are even happy to come back for another stint,” says Menon. Expensive auto rides and frequent power cuts bother them, but they are slowly getting smarter and more adaptive, she adds.

For over 15 years, the bustling manufacturing hub of Chennai has been home to several Korean chaebols such as Hyundai, Samsung, LG and Lotte. Several small and medium enterprises, mainly automobile spare parts, logistics and engineering companies, such as Hwashin, Dong-Sung and Doowon, have sprung up over the years to support these large firms. According to the Korea Trade Centre, there are 150-200 Korean companies in the city. So, it is no surprise that there are so many Koreans today.

Support system

The Korean employees belong to the executive and mid-manager levels. Most of them live with their families. They draw a lot of support from organisations such as Global Adjustments, which provides relocation advice and support to expatriates, and InKO to adapt to the city’s culture and way of life.

InKo provides a platform for Koreans and Indians to meet and interact with each other. The institute conducts English language classes for Koreans and Korean classes for Indians to bridge any communication gap. It also holds classes in ceramics, calligraphy and taekwondo and organises performances in fine arts and theatre.

At InKo, the Koreans are also exposed to yoga and taken on heritage walks to learn about Indian history and architecture. At the cooking club, in association with the Taj group of hotels, Koreans get to try their hand at Indian recipes. Daskhina Chitra, a heritage centre that preserves and promotes South Indian arts and culture, and Lalit Kala Akademi, an institution which promotes Indian fine arts, also support InKo from time to time.

Many wives of executives take active interest in these activities, says Menon. The children go to international schools such as Billabong, Chennai Public School and American International.

Exposing locals to Korean culture has also helped Indians understand Koreans and Korean etiquette better, says Menon.

To cater to their gastronomic needs, there are quite a few Korean restaurants in the city, such as In Seoul and Deok Su Gung, dishing out kimchi (tangy cabbage), minced pork and beef bulgogi (barbequed beef). There is also a Korean restaurant in the manufacturing hub of Sriperumbudur, near Chennai, which houses the factories of Hyundai, Samsung and other smaller Korean firms.

While these comfort their taste buds when they get home sick, the Koreans also love exploring the local cuisine. Saravana Bhavan and the restaurants at Raintree and Park Sheraton hotels are amo among the favourites. Apart from South Indian sambar and chutney , the Koreans also dig naan and butter chicken. When not mall-hopping to get branded goods much cheaper than in Korea, the Koreans are busy teeing away at the sprawling golf course in Guindy, a bustling neighbourhood in South West Chennai. Thousands of miles from home, the Koreans are clearly striving hard to feel at home.

(With inputs from Deeptha Sreedhar)

Published on July 24, 2013

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