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Staging the struggle: Olivia Hyunsin Kim

Hot off the stage from her “Say my name, say my name” premiere at the Sophiensaele last month, politically involved choreographer Olivia Hyunsin Kim talks her personal struggle of having a hyphenated identity and being reduced to her Korean half.

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Photo by Lydia Goolia. Choreographer Olivia Hyunsin Kim: “You don’t need to be either/or to belong to somewhere.”

Choreographer Olivia Hyunsin Kim asserts her hyphenated identity in a society caught up in stereotypes.

“I was lucky”, recounts Olivia Hyunsin Kim. Born to Korean parents, she lived in Siegen for most of her childhood, where she was surrounded by people from different backgrounds. “Although it’s just a small university city, it had a lot of migrant workers. I grew up with Korean, Turkish and Moroccan influences. Our street was the foreigners’ street.” As a kid, Olivia’s main exposure to Korean culture came in the form of VHS tapes of soap operas. “Whenever anyone went to visit Korea, their task was to record new TV shows for us to pass around,” she recalls. Another important cultural link was in the kitchen, though this involved a little culinary creativity. “There were no Korean ingredients here when my parents arrived. They would have to wait months for a package to arrive and packages were expensive.” Kim’s favourite invention: sauerkraut kimchi, a fermented fusion dish that somehow symbolises her own hybrid identity. But beyond the Korean community, Olivia soon had her first brushes with a discriminatory society that afforded little space to her as an Asian girl. She remembers it being out of the question that a child with a migrant background would be cast in the lead role of her school’s Mozart musical (they were the ‘triangles’ while blonde kids got to play ‘cello’ and ‘violin’) and somehow she and the Bosnian girls would always end up in the back row of the choir. Kim remembers always feeling very clearly that she was an Ausländer. “I always felt Korean.”

Then, when she was 12 years old, her family was deported because the Ausländerbehörde made a mistake by setting an early deadline for the family’s annual visa renewal. Her father, who was teaching at Siegen university, couldn’t continue working in Germany, and the decision was final. The Kims relocated to Korea. “At first, I thought I would finally feel I was like everyone else. But I soon found there were things I couldn’t understand in Korean culture, like the patriotism, which was weird for the German in me,” Kim recalls. “In Siegen, I never even learnt the national anthem. In Seoul, they sang it every day.” Later in her Seoul years, while studying literature and international relations at the Seoul National University, she caught a guest performance of Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet, which left a lasting impression on the aspiring actor. “I was so amazed by Lars Eidinger’s performance that I packed my bags and moved to Berlin.” But the then 22-year-old’s dream of a career in acting was soon confronted with a German theatre industry built on stereotypes. “I was only ever offered to play the silent woman that gets killed, often a prostitute, or the one who speaks broken German and sells noodles. And even these roles only came along once a year.” The now 32-year-old has since shifted her focus to choreography and performance, and deals with exoticism in relation to non-white, “other” bodies. “I wanted to distance myself from being this submissive, hypersexualised, silent Asian woman that you so often see in popular culture,” she says, referring to her internationally touring performance series “MeMe”. More recently, she has extended her critical glance to robots: in the piece “Say my name, say my name”, premiered last month at Sophiensaele, she portrays the sexist issue of feminised artificial intelligence that continues to carry out silent, submissive care work. Olivia is also politically involved off-stage, as a member of the Asian-German artist networks Korientation and D.A.M.N. (Deutsche Asiaten Make Noise), which provide support, co-ordinate campaigns and fight against stereotypes in the culture industry. Although her personal struggle is real, as she feels too often reduced to her Korean half, she remains adamant in her ideological view points and asserts that “you don’t need to be either/or to belong somewhere.”