Stories of migration

“Always Having To Perform Twice as Well” – Interview with Martin Hyun

Martin Hyun; Foto: Felix Park, © privatMartin Hyun; Foto: Felix Park, © privat “Lautlos – ja, sprachlos – nein”– this is the title of a book (in English: Silent –YES, Speechless - NO) about the integration of Korean guest-workers in Germany that is equally as moving as it is informative. It is the highly acclaimed debut work of Martin Hyun. This is an interview with this 30-year-old son of immigrants. He is the one who for the first time has given voice to the feelings of these wanderers between the two worlds of Korea and Germany who tend to have been somewhat overlooked by society due to their inconspicuousness.

Mr Hyun, you are considered to be a role model in Germany, proving that not all immigrant children miss out on opportunities. Your career as an ice-hockey pro in the German league, your academic education and not least all the committed, voluntary work you do in the field of social and political matters. Do you then see yourself as a role model?

My life so far has been too insignificant and my contribution to society too small for accolades like that. One thing is true though - doors did not open that fast for me, neither in the realm of sport nor in my education. I always had to perform twice as well in order to make the grade. The fact that I did not get left behind I owe to my parents who would have given the shirt off their backs for my career. And – St. Michael’s University in Vermont that granted me a partial scholarship despite the fact that I am not an American citizen.

Don’t start anything you can’t finish

Cover of “Lautlos – ja, sprachlos – nein”; © EB-Verlag Hamburg My father taught me at a very early age not to start anything you cannot finish. My parents were also very keen on me developing some form of social awareness – helping those people who have not been dealt such a good deal in life. This is what prompted me to start the mentoring project along with some friends in my hometown of Krefeld – a project that strives to give new perspectives to young people from a disadvantaged social milieu. The problem is that Germany is still far removed from being able to provide adequate opportunities for the growing number of people with an immigrant background.

The Korean community in Germany is considered to be the perfect example of successful integration. Why is that so?

That is only true in part, for example, when it comes to linguistic competence, education and qualifications. Many young people might well have a German passport, but that does not automatically turn them into fully fledged Germans. It is not so easy for Asians to brush the external physical features of their origins under the carpet. According to surveys their above-average integration can be put down to an allegedly active contact with Germans. This also includes the relationships that many Asian women have with German men.

I think we can only really start talking about successful integration when free access to all sectors of society is guaranteed. Including politics and business, and here I mean the top positions in the political parties, as well as at the top companies on the DAX, the German stock exchange. Maybe we will even have a Ministry for Integration one day with highly qualified people from an immigration background working in it. Up to now in those areas where integration is of the utmost urgency, there is unfortunately hardly any noticeable evidence of the much publicised diversity.

Very little is known about the reasons for Koreans emigrating to Germany, can you give us some information on the background and circumstances. What, for example, brought your parents to Germany?

After decades of Japanese occupation and in the wake of the Korean War the country was impoverished and politically unstable. Germany was looking for guest-workers for hospitals and for the coal mining sector and that is why it signed a recruitment agreement with Korea at the time of Park Chung-Hee’s military dictatorship. Between 1963 and 1977 about 20,000 workers emigrated to Germany, among them many unemployed academics. After the death of his father in the war my father was unable to study at university as money was short. That is why, when he came out of the army, he followed the call to go and work in the coal mines of Germany. My mother’s father was deported to North Korea in the war and never seen again – a victim of the North’s attempt to drain the South of its intelligentsia. My mother had been imbibed with the Confucian responsibility ethic and this is why she went to Germany to work as a nurse so she could support her family back home and it was there she met my father.

Do you yourself have any connections with your parents’ home country?

Since 2002 I have been regularly flying back to the place where the rest of my family lives. Somehow I need the hectic lifestyle, the noise and smog of Seoul in order to recharge my batteries. After my stint on the pro circuit I even lived there for a year. I was a Visiting Fellow in the Korean National Assembly and worked in the Ministry of Health. I have to go back to stay in touch with the friends I made in that period.

The usual stereotypes

Do Asians, like the Koreans living here in Germany, have to deal with any special forms of resentment and have you, personally, had any bad experiences?

Martin Hyun mit seinem Freund und Co-Autor Wladimir Kaminer; © privat Apart from the usual stereotype thinking, hardly any. Although sometimes, when I applied for positions in the public service sector, my loyalty to Germany was questioned and any possible conflicts of interest were discussed. I am referring here to the interviews I had for a UN post in the field of sport and development and for the Deutsche Olympische Sportbund (German Olympic Sports Confederation). I have however been spared experiences like what happened in Rostock when people applauded the torching of a Vietnamese refugee hostel. Nevertheless it is not without reason that highly qualified German-Koreans either end up working for Korean companies in Germany or they emigrate to Korea. They have no other choice.

What actually motivated you to write your book?

“My” primary aim was to give German-Koreans the attention they deserve. It was particularly telling, for example, that pressure was necessary at first to make sure that Koreans were invited to take part in the integration summit conference – they simply forgot about them the first two times the event was held. Otherwise I wanted to show that integration demands a willingness to make sacrifices and that there are German-Koreans here in Germany who want to take responsibility and to help shape the country. At the moment by the way I am working on my second book. I have given it the significant title Machtlos – Ja, Wahllos – Nein (in English: Powerless –yes, but not without a choice).

Martin Jong-Bum Hyun was born in 1979. After a professional career in the German Ice-Hockey League (DEL) he went on to study political science in the USA and Belgium. After doing a PhD on migrant workers he committed himself to working for various immigrant organisations and projects, among others, the Intercultural Dialogue Europe, the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Leadership Program for Managers from Immigrant Organisations or the German Federal President’s Forum on Demographic Change.
Roland Detsch
conducted the interveiw. He is a free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2009

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Funny stories about horses and soccer-players – read out on Arabic and downloadable as a podcast to be listened to anywhere!

Where to? 21 questions on migration and refuge

Learning German for Refugees

Arriving App

The guide for your first weeks in Germany

My way to Germany

Videos and practises for German learners