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New Delhi: Chandan Singh from Orchha in Madhya Pradesh and Sung Bae Kim from Seoul share an unlikely marriage. They met by chance in 1991, when Sung Bae came to India for a short tour with a delegation of 600 Korean students. At the time, Singh was studying Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU); he had a roommate from Korea and so knew a little about Sung Bae’s country.

“At the end of that year I went to Korea to meet her again," he says. “Then, the next year, we got married and she came to live in Delhi." Sung Bae, small and smiling, hastily interjects: “But we wrote each other letters in between—in Korean and English. He learnt to write the Korean script as soon as I left."

Chandan Singh with his Korean wife, Sung Bae Kim, their daughter Sammy and two Korean students at their residence in Gurgaon. Photograph by Ramesh Pathania/Mint.

Twenty years later, the couple speaks mainly Korean in their Gurgaon apartment with their two children Jiwon (18) and Sammy (14). Although the rest of the family prefers Korean food, Sung Bae also cooks Indian dishes for Singh, who still prefers them to kimchi (pickled cabbage). She also speaks fluent Hindi, which she learnt after the newlyweds moved in with Singh’s brother and sister-in-law.

“There was no Korean community here at that time," Singh says, “maybe 50 people maximum, including from the embassy. Then, in 1993, people started coming to India for business and I started to do interpretation for them—it was good pocket money." One thing led to another and Singh soon started a travel firm bringing Korean tourists to India.

“Now I think there are about 4,000-5,000 Koreans in the NCR (National Capital Region)," he says, “and more in Chennai. In total, approximately 20,000." And although the couple is still part of a minority of Indian-Korean marriages, they expect, as more South Koreans move to India, that will change.

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While many Korean students in Delhi seem keen to leave the country after completing their education, they have also adapted to life in India.

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Corporate diaspora

South Koreans are among the newest arrivals of India’s many immigrant communities, and they differ from most in both their relative financial security, and social and cultural independence. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, as South Korea moved out of the shadow of its war with North Korea into an age of rapid economic growth and freedom from martial law, its business community began to look at new markets for investment.

South Korea is now the 14th largest foreign investor in India, according to India’s department of industrial policy and promotion, with investments of $884 million (Rs 4,535 crore today) over the past 12 years. Three large Korean companies—Samsung, Hyundai and LG—entered India in 1995, 1996 and 1997, respectively, spurring both an influx of Korean workers and a growing awareness of Korean brands. Hyundai is now the second largest automobile manufacturer in the country, and Samsung and LG dominate the market for electronics.

There are now roughly 450 Korean companies operating in India, and that number has been growing steadily over the past decade, said S.H. Kim, India director of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. “Korean companies want to expand their presence in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) markets, and the Korean government supports that, especially in India where the rate of growth is impressive," he says.

On a recent trip to Seoul, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh courted South Korean businessmen for investments in energy projects and promised progress on the proposed Posco steel plant in Orissa, touted as the largest foreign direct investment in India, but long delayed by protests by the locals over land acquisition. On 30 March, a top tribunal cancelled environmental approvals given by the government last year for the plant and ordered that the environment ministry review the entire project afresh.

Culture shocks

In sync: Sunday mass at the Christian Methodist Church on Lodhi Road in New Delhi. Photograph by Ramesh Pathania/Mint.

In the brightly lit basement of the Christian Methodist Church on Lodhi Road in New Delhi, pastor K.S. Kim presides over about 150 of his congregants and an impressive quantity of electronic apparatus. Video cameras on tripods record the service, a public address system amplifies the live, orchestral accompaniment around the pillared and windowless room. On a giant screen by the pulpit, the musical score and words to the hymns are projected in Korean script. After the service, the chairs are rearranged and four or five corporate-looking men from the congregation discard their jackets, roll up their sleeves and begin to serve a Sunday lunch of fried chicken, rice, spinach and kimchi to fellow worshippers. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and the various age groups mingle as they eat.

For many Korean immigrants, the church is more than just a place of worship; it functions as a community centre, a canteen and a youth club, too.

Less than 20 years after pastor Kim came to Delhi with his wife, finding almost no Korean community in the city, there are now two thriving branches of the Korean Immanuel Church—this one in Delhi and another in Gurgaon. Among the first congregants of the church were Singh and Sung Bae. “We helped each other a lot at the beginning," says Sung Bae, who now runs the Gurgaon branch of the church.

Pastor Kim estimates that 90% of his congregants are from business families and the rest are a part of Delhi’s growing South Korean student community.

Choe Myeong Jun (“June" to his classmates) came to Delhi to study Spanish at JNU on the advice of an uncle. “When I first arrived, I couldn’t speak a word of English," he says. In class, Choe Myeong is still shy. While his Indian classmates shout and chatter away in Spanish, he consults his electronic dictionary, bought in Korea, and pencils meticulous notes in a narrow-lined pad. But his classroom reticence hides a confidence among his friends—Choe Myeong won the title of “Mr Fresher" for his break dancing at the Language School freshers party. On Sundays, he operates the projector screen at the Korean Immanuel Church.

Many of the Korean students at JNU attend church or are religiously observant in some way. One of Choe Myeong’s friends sports a tattoo on his right bicep of Jesus Christ’s face with the italicized legend “Only God can judge me" on a ribbon underneath. Another, Hee Cheon Seo, or “Danny", came to Delhi with the help from an Indian missionary his father knew. He chose his nickname because “my mother wanted me to be like Daniel from the Bible", he says, referring to the Biblical character who was abandoned in a pit of lions, yet miraculously survived. “I adapt very fast," he adds.

An English education

For Rosa and Sunyool Park, the adaptation process had to happen quickly. The siblings arrived in Delhi when they were 15 and 13, respectively, to study at Amity International School. Although they learnt classroom English in Korea, they quickly realized that their spoken English was almost non-existent—a common problem for Korean children.

South Korean students at the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies in JNU. Photograph by Ramesh Pathania/Mint.

It’s these kind of transferable skills that make India such an attractive destination for young South Koreans, according to Ji Hoon Lee (John), a doctoral student studying international law at JNU. “I’ve been here for seven years now," he says. “I specialize in sustainable development...the Korean government is so interested in the Indian market, and when I go back to Korea, I will have very specialized knowledge about India."

Ji Hoon speaks fluent Hindi now. “Imagine! I was like a backpacker when I came. I had two books—the Bible and Lonely Planet," he says. “In two years I didn’t eat anything from the canteen, I made my own Korean food. Now, I think I’m Indian. I’m surprised by myself."

But despite their new-found familiarity in India, only a handful of the South Korean students want to stay here permanently. Singh’s son Jiwon has plans to move to the US. But nevertheless, Singh perceives a maturing of the Korean community in India, from the increasing numbers of Korean small businesses—mainly restaurants, guesthouses and grocery stores—that have sprung up, especially in Delhi and Chennai, where he worked for the Hyundai factory for three years. “Koreans are the only foreign community in India that have done this," he says. “It’s very difficult for them to get exposed to and accept other cultures, but once they get their heads down and start, then the cases of success are quite good. I have not seen any Korean fail here, and they always follow the crowd, that’s a fundamental fact."

This is the seventh of a 10-part series that profiles foreign communities that are contributing to India’s cosmopolitan culture.

Next: Chinese immigrants deal with the younger generation migrating to Western countries

Also Read | The the previous stories in the series

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