[Interview] Cuban descendants of Korean independence fighters look back on their time in S. Korea

Posted on : 2020-02-24 15:31 KST Modified on : 2020-02-24 15:31 KST
Melissa and Ariane studied Korean thanks to program in S. Jeolla Province
Melissa (left) and Ariane, two Cuban women descended from Korean independence fighters. (provided by the Jeollanamdo Office of Education)
Melissa (left) and Ariane, two Cuban women descended from Korean independence fighters. (provided by the Jeollanamdo Office of Education)

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to forget what bulgogi and jjajangmyeon taste like,” said Melissa and Ariane, two 18-year-old Cuban women, referring to two popular Korean dishes. The two women, who are descended from Koreans recognized for their contribution to Korean independence, had been asked to sum up their year in South Korea on Feb. 20.

Melissa, who is from Havana, and Ariane, from Camaguey, will be leaving South Korea on Feb. 28, after completing a program organized by the Jeollanamdo (South Jeolla Province) International Education Institute last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Mar. 1 Movement.

The two students are descended from Koreans who traveled via Mexico to Cuba during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, 110 years ago. Lee Seung-jun, Melissa’s great-grandfather, and Kim Ho, Ariane’s great-great grandfather, didn’t forget about their fatherland while performing grueling labor on sugar plantations in Central and North America: they raised money to support Koreans fighting for the country’s independence from Japanese rule, including a group of students in Gwangju.

Since Cuba doesn’t have diplomatic relations with South Korea, Melissa and Ariane’s visit to the country was arranged by the Havana trade officer of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) in March 2019. It wasn’t easy for them to adapt at first, since they could barely speak Korean. The two women coped with their anxiety early in their time in Korea by staying in touch with family members on social media.

After diligently studying Korean during their stay, Melissa and Ariane managed to reach level four and two, respectively, on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). They got so good that, toward the end of their stay, they were able to give a handwritten letter to Jang Seok-ung, superintendent of schools for South Jeolla Province. “We’re grateful for the warm treatment we’ve received. We’ll take happy memories with us when we leave. We want to come back to Korea someday to keep learning,” they wrote.

Melissa and Ariane. (provided by the Jeollanamdo Office of Education)
Melissa and Ariane. (provided by the Jeollanamdo Office of Education)

In their first semester, Melissa and Ariane studied beauty techniques, including haircuts, dying, perms, and nail art, at the South Jeolla Cosmetology High School in Naju, gaining enough knowledge to land a job. In their second semester, they stayed at the Jeollanamdo International Education Institute in Yeosu while visiting sites such as Jeju Island, Gyeongju, Gunsan, Jeonju, and Busan to learn about Korean history and culture. The sites that the two women found most memorable were Haeundae Beach in Busan and Bulguk Temple in Gyeongju. Their course of study included club activities and after-school classes at Yeosu Girls’ High School. They also got a taste of Korean family life by staying three days on weekends at the house of students’ their age. In January, when it came time to say goodbye to the students and families with whom they’d spent the past four months, they embraced each other and bawled until their eyes got red and puffy, in a typical Korean scene.

Melissa and Ariane said they were “really touched” when they were given school uniforms as a present by their friends at Yeosu Girls’ High School. “When we get back home, we’ll take the lead in making Cubans more aware of South Korea and never forget about our Korean ancestry,” they said.

Given her outstanding linguistic ability, Melissa is planning to enroll in a university in South Korea after completing high school. Her dream is to major in history or culture at college and to become a travel guide in Cuba or a Korean language teacher. Ariane, who is good with her hands, is working on a plan to open a hair salon with the beauty skills she learned in South Korea.

By Ahn Kwan-ok, Gwangju correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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