From South Korea to Iran, from Iran to Turkey: Korean Zeynep’s Story of Life
Mersin is a city of foreigners where you can meet people even from South Korea. Today we will tell you about the adventures of a woman who left South Korea for Iran, Iran for Turkey and finally for Mersin. She calls herself Korean Zeynep.
In fact, the meeting with Zeynep was a complete coincidence. I was working at a book fair when she came to me with her daughter. It was the first time I had seen Koreans in Mersin, so I wanted to meet and to talk with them. We exchanged phone numbers and began to meet frequently.
Her life from Korea to Iran, from Iran to Turkey, seemed very interesting to me. I decided to tell you about this strong girl who is full of love for people and the world.
Tell me about your life in South Korea
I had a normal life. I lived with my parents and was raised in a middle-class Christian family. I grew up among Christians, but I was not so religious as they were, and that worried me. I had good friends, we had a great time together, but next to them I felt myself so little. I kept asking God, why if the world is so big, then I was born in small South Korea and why he did not make me beautiful. I asked all the time, but could not find the answers. And then I started reading books about the world and women.
My father was a good person, but he always seemed a bit duplicitous to me. He was going to church, praying there, however he was very cruel with us at home. That was the reason that I began to hate adult men. I couldn’t understand, why men exert such pressure on women.
What challenges do the women face in South Korea ?
I haven’t been to Korea for ten years, that’s why everything I will tell you happened a decade ago. Approximately twenty percent of the population in Korea are Buddhists and as many are Christians. The Buddhists believe that after the death of parents, their souls return to their children, that’s why on the anniversary of the death, the children make the favorite dishes of their parents. When the table is already set, only boys can be inside the room, while the girls should wait outside. This is the reason, that the adults want to have boys, as they are afraid that nobody will set a table for them after their death. The families takes a great care of the boys and if they have only girls, it is a great sorrow for that family.
What was your job there?
I completed teacher training, then I worked as a teacher at school for 12 years. As a teenager, I was always depressed. However, when I started loving myself, I began to meet with problematic teenagers in order to help them. Together with them we were travelling to not rich countries of the world. It helped them to look at the world differently. After those trips, the teenagers had a desire to learn English, get an education and enter the university.
How did you decide to move to Iran?
Once, when I was thinking of my further trip, I opened the Quran. My attention was attracted by one of the prophets, called Krosh who turned to be one of the kings of Iran. I started wondering what country that is, what kind of people live there. As I found out, it was a closed Muslim country. I was thirty years old then and was sure that God had created the wonderful world for us and we should travel and see all its beauty.
My mother didn’t want me to go to Iran, as she was thinking that it is a dangerous country and I had nothing to do there. Once I showed my mother a film about Islam. It was about two brothers, living in Iran. Having seen the film, Mother was very impressed and allowed me to visit Iran.
I met a student from Tehran on the internet and asked him how I could stay in Iran. He offered me to send a letter to the University with a request to study. So, with his help I sent a letter and got a permission to study there.
Tell us about your adventures in Iran
Iran became my passion. Only now I realize that it was too courageous when decided to go there not knowing even English. All I knew was that I wanted to go to Iran and see that country with my own eyes.
When I arrived in Iran, I was shocked. Now it seems to me that I went to Iran only because I knew very little about the country, otherwise I would back myself to do that.
The day after I had arrived, I already started studying Persian at the university. It turned out to be a very difficult language for me. The alphabet is similar to Arabic, but the grammar is very different. Therefore, I tried very hard to learn that language. To come here, I showed great courage, persuaded my mother for a long time, so I could not give up and return in a short time just because it was difficult for me. I wanted to stay and continue to live in that country.
In 1979, Iran established Sharia in the country and since then the country hardly could develop. Families were showing me their photos taken before 1979, where the women were dressed as they wanted. However, after the establishment of Sharia, everything changed. The women with sadness remembered those times.
In Iran, girls enter the universities to avoid early marriages. They are married out early, at the age of 16 or 17. Those, who don’t want to marry early, enter the universities.
I liked the education process in Iran, as it is completely free and it is also difficult to enter the university. Therefore, those who enter, do their best to graduate. However, after the graduation many graduates can’t find job. The women, especially are very limited in their right to work. Almost all the work is done by men. I have never met a waitress in Iran, for instance.
The men there start working at a very young age in order to get married. As a result, the women have to get married, as they have no opportunity to get educated or work. This is one of the reasons of the high divorce rate in the country.
Another reason is the polygamy allowed in Iran. It happens that after the second marriage, the man leads the second wife to his home. Therefore, a woman who feels uncomfortable in this situation, may divorce.
In Iran, people read a lot, they are well aware of how life works in other countries. It is forbidden to use satellites in the country, but almost every house has its own satellite system secretly installed. And women, having seen the difference between the marriage in Iran and other countries, either don’t want to marry or soon divorce.
When I lived in Korea, I was worried that our country was too unfair to women, and the women were always under the men’s pressure. However, compared to Iran, it was nothing. I cried a lot and prayed for Iranian women.
Women are under such pressure that can’t go out on their own. Little boys, for instance, take their older sisters from school. The point is that, any girl must be accompanied by a boy, and it doesn’t matter that it is still a little boy. It is difficult to understand and accept this situation. I also noticed how women were hastily covering their heads after the plane landed at Iranian airport.
Every time I left my house, I thought about what would happen to me that day. When walking along the street alone, there is a risk of exposing yourself to both insults and harassment. Every time someone tried to pester me, I regretted not learning taekwondo in Korea. I prayed to God to protect me. Living in Korea, I had never prayed so much and so often.
Nevertheless, you decided to stay in Iran. What was to stop you there?
The people. They are very supportive and friendly. I was teaching the Korean language in Iran and had several students. When I realized how kind they were, I liked the life in Iran more. When I left the country, I was still missing it and wanted to return there.
What else were you doing in Iran?
During a year I was learning the language. Then I started working in the field of tourism. I was working with the tourists from South Korea, was inviting them to Iran and showing them the country. The tourists visited Iran to see its holy places, which are described in our holy books.
For five years I lived in Iran and for five years I was engaged in tourism. The business was developing unless the Iranian government changed its policy. The tourists are perceived by the government as a threat to the closed culture of the country. Therefore, many tourists have problems with getting a visa.
When living in Iran, one of the tourists introduced me to my future husband. We began to live together, engage in the tourism business and were the only ones from South Korea who sell tours to Iran. Our business flourished, we thought it would continue like that until the Iranian government started to create visa problems for the tourists.
How did you decide to leave for Turkey?
We did not know at all what we would do if we returned to South Korea. We knew that we would not return to our previous job. Many of our tourists who visited Iran did not immediately return to South Korea. They visited Greece, Turkey, Europe. My husband and I were thinking for a long time whether we could continue our tourism business in Turkey. Before that, we both went to Turkey and we really enjoyed it. In the end, we decided that we could continue our business there and so moved there.
How did you make a decision to live in Mersin?
At first we arrived in Istanbul, but it seemed to me a very turbulent and expensive city. That’s why I didn’t like it. Our friend, living in Adana, told me about Mersin. It is a port city and in the past a holy city of Christians, called Tarsus. We were deeply impressed by it. Seeing Mersin, we realized that it is a quiet and beautiful city and therefore decided to move there.
What do you think about Turkey?
I first came to Turkey in 2002 and then visited many Turkish cities. Turkey is a Muslim country, but, in comparison with other Muslim countries, the Turks are open people, you can live comfortably here. For all my life in Turkey, I have never faced harassment on the street. The Turks are as kind and hot as the Iranians, but here, unlike Iran, there is no pressure. And so here I want to continue to live.
Was it difficult to learn Turkish?
When I was learning Persian, it was very difficult for me, because that language has nothing to do with Korean. But Turkish was not so difficult, because Turkish and Korean have more in common, and the Turkish alphabet is much easier than the Persian. I spent two years studying Persian, but could speak Turkish for a year.
Could you please tell me about your life in Mersin?
I have my own art studio in Mersin. Those who come to me want to learn Korean and learn to draw. On Sundays, I invite close friends to the studio to pray. On special days, such as Easter, neighbors come to us and join our celebrations. I like my life in Mersin, because I can live comfortably there. I am surrounded by tolerant, warm and friendly people. The only thing I don’t like is that the summer is too hot here.
I know that you have a ten-year-old boy. Could you tell me about her and her education in Turkey?
My daughter was born in Iran. When she was one year old, we moved to Turkey. My husband and I lived in different parts of Korea that’s why we have different accents. Therefore, thinking about teaching our daughter, we decided to teach her the correct capital accent.
My daughter speaks Korean and Turkish well. When we come to Korea, she misses Turkey. She loves life here and her Turkish friends. Besides, she is a very successful student. I cannot say that Turkish education is worse than the Korean. Maybe even better. But in Korea, the approach towards the education is more rigorous and disciplined. After school, Korean students go to additional courses and it is very tiring for them. However here, my daughter comes home after school, does her homework and goes for a walk with her friends.
What would you say about Turkish and Iranian food?
I eat any kind of food, however the Iranian cuisine, in comparison with Turkish, seemed to me too heavy. We like Turkish food. My daughter especially likes lahmadzun and tantuni.
What can you say when comparing South Korea, Iran and Turkey?
South Korea is a developed country, people are quiet there. Koreans mostly live their closed lives, in their families, trying not to disturb others. People from Iran are not simple, they always think about something, research something, study something. In terms of art, I consider Iranians to be successful people, especially in miniature and painting. The Iranians have fire inside them, very beautiful fire and sometimes they cannot restrain it. These people are very passionate and nervous. I see Turkey somewhere in the middle between these countries. In Turkey, people of all ages, men and women can dance and have fun together. I love Turkey and want to continue living here.
Translated by Manan Ajamyan