A little bit of Korea in Chennai

A little bit of Korea in Chennai

Chennai: Up two flights of stairs well hidden behind Dosa Calling—one of those eateries defined as quintessentially Chennai—in the suburb of Adyar, a bevy of girls practise twists and turns in their ballet shoes.

They are training in Hanku Muyong, the Korean national dance, taught by Lee Young Suk, a graduate in dance from the University of Korea. The students are also mostly Korean, with a Japanese or two among them, and a lone Indian.

Emmao Dance Academy is only one of the many surprises that gives the city the nickname Little Korea, a hub for South Koreans employed mainly with Hyundai Motor India Ltd’s plant in Sriperumbudur, near Chennai, and its vendors and their families.

Also Read the first three parts of the series

Hyundai in 1995 decided to locate its India plant in Sriperumbudur. The number of Koreans in the city has doubled from 1,500 to 3,000 in the past three years, making them the largest expat community in the city.

Right across the dance school, facing a Ganesha temple, is a store selling imported Korean food and domestic products. Like the dance school, the store is hidden behind the facade of a dental clinic and bears no signboard.

Step into its brightly lit aisle and you can spot Korean families browsing through racks stocked with packed pre-cooked sticky rice, multi-grain cereal, olive oil, sauces, lemon grass, kimchi (pickled cabbage), whole-fried squid, a whole range of seafood and Lotte biscuits.

“The fish is local, of course. But the Koreans love it anyway," says the manager, Ramachandran, who uses only one name. Other food products, often imported on order from customers, are sold at a premium of 20-30% owing to the duties that they’ve attracted on their way. The two-year-old store now has competition, from a market that has been bold enough to flaunt its name, Pure.

Amma Nana, a store that has been selling food products imported from all over the world for 30 years, has recently allotted a whole section for Korean food, with a dozen varieties of noodles and olive oil alone.

A touch of home

Inseoul, the nostalgic Korean restaurant and bakery, is hugely popular with the Chennai Korean community.

The Madras Korean Church, which was established 30 years ago, has 400 patrons now. “We hold three Sunday services, and one service daily, these days. There are about 200 children registered with us for Sunday school," says Ezra Lee, the church pastor. “But the real function of the church lies in it being a weekly community centre, hosting lunch and an afternoon singing session."

K.H. Shin, chairman of the Korean Welfare Association in Chennai, says the increase in Korean numbers in Chennai came about because of the migration of families rather than individual workers. “Many employees of automobile companies here brought their wives and children to live with them in this period," he says.

The association sells 2,000 copies of its monthly Korean publication, with the English title Hello Chennai. There are four Korean restaurants in Chennai, and five in Sriperumbudur, the automobile hub on the outskirts of the city where Hyundai Motor and its vendors have their facilities. Out on the dusty Chennai-Bangalore highway, at the village of Thandalam near Sriperumbudur, Korean establishments are not as inconspicuous as within the city. Korean signboards intersperse with Tamil ones, pointing to food markets, hardware shops, restaurants and serviced apartments.

According to the association records, 1,000-odd single Koreans work and stay in Sriperumbudur for periods of 6-12 months, while those who’ve brought their families have been living in Chennai for more than three years. The 80 direct employees of Hyundai, along with its 42 vendors and their employees, comprise 90% of this Korean community.

“There are also some Koreans employed in the Samsung factory here, some in LG Electronics, and in Lotte Foods, which is expanding its market in India," Shin says.

Their children are about 800 in number, 250 of whom attend the American International School in Chennai, while the rest are split between six local schools. There are about 50 students, whose parents are not in India, studying in colleges in Chennai and Bangalore. “They mainly study information technology, and at times, languages, in Anna University and the colleges under Madras University," Shin says. “Interestingly, the University of Korea, which used to have a certificate programme in Hindi, has now introduced one in Tamil, too."

Tapping the expat market

Shin himself owns a 12-year-old construction business locally. People of his kind, running independent businesses such as beauty parlours, restaurants, bakeries and even the dance school, have immigrated for the commercial opportunities that the Korean expat community offers.  Suk, the dance teacher, flashes her PAN (permanent account number) card, and explains: “I came with my husband two years back when he got posted here. Looking at all the Korean children here, attending international schools, and not taking part in many other activities, I took a business visa and started this school. I even pay my taxes in India now."

She has also enrolled in Kalakshetra, a centre for arts, to study Indian forms of dance, but is wary of the linguistic difficulties.

The language barrier does seem to bring Koreans across as a community that keeps to itself. Chennai pubs are introducing Karaoke, a Korean and Japanese singing obsession, but they aren’t attracting many Korean guests. “I believe they are not comfortable with the English albums that we play," says Rajesh Reddy, who runs 10 Downing Street, a pub where Thursdays are karaoke nights.

“Initially, it feels like everything about Indian life and people is different from Korean life and us," concedes Sam Yuel Park, employee relations manager at Hundai Motor India. “The food seems devoid of meat; house flooring, roofs, water, electricity are all unfamiliar." Park says he is getting used to the Indian lifestyle and is even noticing similarities in culture. “Some Indian gravies taste like our sauces. There is commonality in the culture of sitting, dining and sleeping on the floor."

Park Sheraton Hotel, which enjoys a significant Korean patronage, helps its guests settle down by connecting to reliable house dealers and resettlers. “They don’t face too many problems in settling down as their numbers are fairly large and they have a strong network," says its spokesperson Prathima Vasan. “But they do have their preferences, like politely enquiring about the availability of a bathtub, an essential part of their routine."

‘The art of compromise’

R. Sethuraman, vice-president of finance at Hyundai Motor India, has noticed marked differences in workplace behaviour between Indian and Korean employees. “The characteristic that defines a Korean worker is focus and single-minded problem solving," he says. “Whereas an Indian employee is better at handling a variety of smaller problems. I notice this even among my superiors, where Koreans stick to their domain and the assignment in hand and the Indians always consider the larger picture. Even if our cultures are similar, I believe we’ve learnt different practices in our training. For example, the military training that Koreans undergo reveals itself in their fad for processes. Every assignment is a time scheduled flowchart to them."

Sethuraman is part of the senior management at Hyundai Motor India, which is a mixture of Indian and Korean managers. Junior executives are mostly Indian, guided and monitored for quality assurance by a team of Korean coordinators. The team advises Korean managers to give their Indian engineers specific, unambiguous instructions for execution of small-term targets so as to maintain focus.

“But we cannot push this so far that the Indian employee starts finding his job dissatisfying. Already our attrition rate is above average. So we are learning the art of compromise that Indians are well-versed in," Park says. “We also need to understand that Korean employees have fewer distractions here. Our wives are in fact happy that we don’t have pubs and gaming lounges to spend every evening!"

The firm has been attempting to Indianize its workforce over the last three years by reducing the number of coordinators from 110 to 80. But the plant has expanded from making 120,000 cars to 600,000 cars per annum, and hence more Koreans keep coming.

“Even though Korean companies may prefer to localize their workforce here, we believe Indo-Korean trade is here to stay," says Rathi Jafer, director of  InKo—the Indo-Korean cultural centre—a non-profit organization supported by Hyundai, TVS Motors Co. and a host of Korean firms. “With trade and corporate interaction happening between Indians and Koreans, we encourage social and cultural mixing, too."

InKo runs certified Korean language courses for students as well as business persons; it organizes Korean film festivals in the city and conducts yoga and taekwondo classes in its premises. “India is gradually moving from its westward outlook to becoming an active Asian member. There are an estimated 150 Korean SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in Chennai and Indians have started travelling to Korea for work," Jafer says. “Being the absorbent people that we are, Koreans are no flash in the pan for us. We are bound to rub off some of our cultures and practices on each other."