In the last few years, several Korean expats have not only settled in Gurgaon, but also opened restaurants, started a magazine and made friends here. Sakshi Dayal takes a look at how the city, and a new sub-culture, have found and enriched each other
Inside a bungalow located on a relatively deserted street just off Golf Course Road in Gurgaon is the office of ‘Namaste India’, a magazine published entirely in Korean, by the Korean Association in India, for the Korean community in the country.
The magazine is full of advertisements for Korean food joints, churches, and photos from the latest events organised by the Korean Cultural Centre. Already 127 issues old, it offers a glimpse into the lives of the Korean community in India.
A walk along Golf Course Road, right next to the office of the Korean Association in India, reveals the many ways in which members of the community have made Gurgaon their home. Several apartments in the gated high-rises are home to Korean tenants. Malls across the road have Korean stores, which provide everything from crab claws to Korean instant noodles , and Korean food joints, which offer delicacies such as rice cakes and kimchi stew.
The South Point Mall and D T Mega Mall, located within 4 km of each other on this road, also have three Korean cafes, which are becoming increasingly popular among non-Korean residents as well, and even a Korean hair salon.
According to the records from the Foreigners Registration Office, over 3,000 Koreans live in Gurgaon and most of them came to India on student or business visas. “Most of them work for major Korean companies like Hyundai, Samsung, and LG. As many as 80 per cent of them stay with family and almost 90 per cent stay in apartments along the Golf Course Road,” says Harry Shin, general secretary of the Korean Association in India.
The Korean sub-culture that has emerged in Gurgaon provides expats from the country a familiar environment to make their home in, and also exposes residents of the city to a culture relatively unknown to them.
Kim Jin Bum, who came to India as a student 11 years ago, is today the owner of Gung the Palace, a popular Korean restaurant in Sector 29. He had not only seen the evolution of Korean sub-culture first hand, he has also played a major role in extending its influence to the non-Korean community.
“Ten years ago, no one knew what Korean food was,” he says, sipping tea in his restaurant. In Gung The Palace, most customers are served in 10 private rooms, named after the ‘Ten Symbols of Longevity’, a central part of traditional Korean paintings. Each of these rooms is on an elevated platform and customers have to remove their shoes before entering. Once inside, they seat themselves on one of the cushions on the floor, and await their meals on the low table before them.
“I used to find small Korean dhabas illegally running inside houses and serving terrible food, which was not even Korean,” says Kim. “As a Korean, I used to feel so bad… that Indian people may think Korean food is like this. To offer a taste of authentic Korean food, I started my restaurant. Fortunately, we got a good response, and 50 per cent of our clientele is now Indian,” he says. Most other Korean cafes and restaurants in the city have a similar story to share. While their clientele was mainly Korean or Japanese, today they have many local customers.
Schools have also played a role in promoting Korean culture among Indians in Gurgaon. G D Goenka World School, for example, is attempting to popularise the culture through literature by trying to make Korean books accessible to students who do not know the language. “Majority of international students here are Korean… they are children of diplomats and expats who are here on assignment in India,” says Madhu Bhargava, the school librarian.
“We offer Korean literature to our students since it is included in the IB curriculum and also keep Korean books and literature in the library. Since these are difficult to get in India, we request Korean parents to keep donating books and take the help of students to translate them into English. We try to give them a flavour of their culture,” she says.
The evolution of Korean culture in Gurgaon also makes Korean expats feel more welcome in the city.
Jung Ae Yoon, owner of Seela Food Mart in South Point Mall, had no difficulty adjusting to the city when she first arrived here five years ago. As she stands outside her store, supervising the employees emptying the recently-arrived cartons of Korean goods, Yoon says she felt very comfortable in the city and had even managed to establish a Korean friend circle. However, she admits that the pollution was something she still had not got used to.
Other than the level of pollutants in the NCR air, safety is also a major concern for the community.
“They prefer staying in gated societies, as safety is a major concern for all of them. They don’t feel safe living in independent houses. They are very particular about it,” says Sachin Lal, manager of the Korean Association in India.
Beyond these drawbacks, however, Gurgaon has been able to establish itself as an attractive home for Korean expats in India. The Korean community has, in turn, gifted the city with a rich and thriving sub-culture.
Jagdish Kapri, secretary general of the Indo-Korean Amity Association, sums up the relationship between Gurgaon and the Korean community when he says, “People here literally look to the East, and not to the West”.