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Swinging socialite: Ki-Sook Han

Known among her golf mates as 'Lady Han', the mother-of-two left Seoul in an ocean of tears in 1970 to work as a nurse in Berlin's understaffed hospitals. Now retired, Han tells us her surprising Berlin life story and why she's here to stay.

Image for Swinging socialite: Ki-Sook Han
Photo by Lydia Goolia. The ‘Lady’ on the course, retired Gastarbeiter Ki-Sook Han on why she never went back to the country she still calls “Heimat“.
A lifelong dedicated nurse and choir founder, Ki-Sook Han spends her pensioner days dazzling her golf mates. On the Stolpe Golf course, everyone knows Lady Han. At least among the 80-strong microcosm of Korean golfers who regularly patronise the popular club northwest of Berlin. Like her, many are retired Gastarbeiter from the 1970s who come here to practice their swing, compete at their monthly friendly tournaments and, of course, socialise: it’s mostly filled with couples, some single men and a sprightly Lady Han boasting a dashing all-pink mini golfing dress that unveils a figure she can be rightfully proud of for a woman her age. “I’m the schönste Mädchen on the golf course” she beams over a bowl of spicy beef soup at Hodori restaurant, while insisting that moderate eating habits account for her lasting looks. But Lady Han’s popularity extends far beyond the perimeters of the Stolpe golf club. She’s famed in the community for her Meari Choir, an ensemble of singing nurses she founded in 1991, which became a staple of the Berlin Korean cultural agenda for the 20 years she led it. A highlight was when they performed for Korean President Lee Myong-Bak on his state visit to Berlin in 2011, an event immortalised by a picture of Han shaking hands with said president (who happens to currently sit behind bars for corruption) and published in Germany’s Korean monthly. Ki-Sook landed in Berlin-Tempelhof on a tearful day of May 1970 as one of the 192 nurses on her flight from Seoul, imported to serve at the West City’s understaffed hospitals. “I left Seoul in an ocean of tears, and arrived here in an ocean of tears”, she reminisces. She was 31 and had left a husband and two young children behind in order to take advantage of a bilateral agreement between Willy Brandt and President Park, by which Germany was to welcome some 20,000 guest workers from Korea, 11,000 of which were nurses. “I wanted to see the world. And of course to earn a better living. So when I saw it advertised in a paper, I ran to enlist,” she says. But the young Korean’s first weeks in a worker’s home at the Virchow Klinikum in Wedding, within the then-walled foreign city were harder than expected. “It was very hard. Worst was the food. They’d give us white bread – no rice! We didn’t know what to eat until they paid us a 300DM advance on our wage and the head nurse found a way to source ingredients we could cook with. We could finally buy rice and make our own kimchi.” What also came as a disappointment was the job – university trained in Korea, the young nurses didn’t expect to perform “dirty jobs”, like cleaning the rooms or washing patients. “It was a bit like being a Putzfrau,” she remembers. But the salary was comparatively enviable and soon the women’s diligence and gentleness made the koreanische Krankenschwestern so popular among patients and hospital personnel alike that working permits were extended beyond the initial three years. “I decided to stay. Life was better here and I liked my job. Also, I could send money to Korea to provide for my family.” For years, she sent over half her monthly 2600DM, anticipating the day her husband would join her in Germany. “But he never did. He wanted me back,” she says matter-of-factly. Meanwhile many young Korean women were marrying German men. Wasn’t life lonely? “Not at all. I was working a lot and in between shifts, I took on playing the piano…” she adds, evasively. But Han’s story in Deutschland wouldn’t be complete without the mention of a certain older gentleman whose love (at first sight, after a visit to the Charité hospital where she was working), enduring companionship and financial means, were to sustain two decades of material and emotional fulfillment (including duos on a GDR Eisenberg piano he gifted her). Their relationship might explain why she never went back to what she still refers to as her “Heimat”, even after his death in 1996. Today a widower with two grown-up sons in Korea, she leads a busy social life in Berlin, despite a meagre €700 pension (“More than it would be in Korea,” she insists). An active member of Berlin’s nurse association, she attends mass at Tempelhof’s Koreanische Katholische Mission every Sunday, and devotes her Thursday evenings to singing with the choir she once founded. Add to that her golf routine and “there’s hardly a dull moment,” she says, listing the many functions she’s due to attend “as a guest of honor,” she emphasizes. She only visits Seoul every other year, mostly for the shopping opportunities – like the famed Nam Dae Mun clothing market, where she likes to source the kind of outfit that will dazzle fellow Koreans on Berlin’s Stolpe fairway. “There’s nothing I miss there.” Nothing? “Well we have that saying in Korean: ‘the ripe rice plant bows down’. That’s something you don’t really see here: that humbleness, the ability to bow your head and show respect,” she says, before adding “but that’s also missing in younger Korean generations, anyway.” Lady Han is here to stay.