Recorded in / Translated from Dutch: Libelle Magazine
(Nr. 45/3645 – November 5, 2015
Reporter: Karolien Joniaux. Photos: Ann De Wulf.)
Here I come from – The United States
Jun (40) swapped out the bustle of the big city for the peace and warmth of Flemish village life.
Jun lived from thrill to thrill. She had a rough time at first, with the slow pace here. Then she realized how much pleasure was to be had with a life like this.
Who is Jun Song?
Jun Song was born in 1975 in South Korea, but starting at the age of four, grew up in New York where her parents owned a fruit and vegetable store. In her 20s, she climbed the ladder in the banking sector on Wall Street and even acquired some national fame being on Big Brother – eventually winning. Five years ago she met Flemish Davy, and it turned her world upside down as she traded in her busy single life in a cosmopolitan city for a rural storybook life in Evergem. Three years ago, their son Noah was born.
She has 25,000 followers on Twitter – a result of her time on Big Brother which gave her a glimpse of the American celebrity life. And yet lives Jun (pronounced ‘June’) in all peace and anonymity now. In our country. “What’s great about Belgium is that no one can cares that I was on some tv program. And so it should be. My time Big Brother encompasses but three months in my entire life. It is but one experience in so many.”
How did your ‘ordinary’ life in America look like?
“As a child I was given a strict Korean upbringing. My father embraced life in the US with open arms, but my mother still held on to her homeland. At home I was raised in the Korean language and Christian religion, and Korean rules had a prominent place. In my adolescence, I tried to rebel against my Korean roots and tried to even turn my back on it. When I moved out of my parents’ home when I was nineteen, it was considered a disgrace to the family. You just don’t do that, especially as a girl. But for me it felt like a statement. I wanted my parents understand that I did not fall under just one flag. I did not want to be seen as just Korean or American, but as an independent woman.”
You went to work on Wall Street, the symbol of capitalist America. Was that a part of your rebellion?
“I chose indeed the radical ‘American way’. In the 90s, when I first started working, the banking sector really was full of the stereotypes you saw on television. It was a really a man’s world where money, cigars and sexual harassment were the norm. I knew that I, as one of the few Asian women in the banking industry, was seen as sex symbol, but it didn’t bother me at that time. I was taking part in meetings with some of the best brains in the financial world, and meeting people who had more money than I could have ever imagined. I jumped from one adrenaline rush to the other. I really liked that world.”
And yet you finally chose a different road.
“As a result of the financial crisis of 2008, I lost my job. I decided to change my life’s direction: perhaps teaching English in Paris? Or perhaps enrolling in culinary school? I was up for anything. But then in my travels I met Davy, and this was something I had no planned at all. As soon as I saw him, I knew that he was the one.”
Did you settle immediately into a life in Belgium?
“To be honest, I knew nothing about Belgium. I only knew about ‘Belgian waffles’. I even had to look at a map to know exactly where it was (laughs). But as soon as I saw how small your country was, I got excited. This is what I wanted: To depart from New York – not because I hated the city, but because I had done everything I wanted, and I was ready for a new adventure.”
Your new life is the complete opposite of the old. Big city to small village.
“After living my whole life in apartment buildings, this was refreshing. As a child I had always fantasized: ‘When I grow up and get married, I’ll live in a house with a cute garden’. My own fairy tale. In the matter of one day everything just fell into place.”
HOME IN KOREA, NEW YORK AND EVERGEM
Can the reality match the fantasy?
“I always remain realistic. Davy was no knight on the white horse (laughs). At the time I left New York behind me, I knew it would not be so simple to go from my single ‘Sex and the City’ -life to family life. And indeed, there were times when I had doubts: Can I be a good wife? Can I adjust to life here? And ultimately, can I live a Belgian lifestyle?
Does it differ so much from the American lifestyle?
“Yes of course. In particular, the slow pace of life here is what I had to get used to. I remember the first time at the bakery where everyone waited single file until it was their turn. I thought: What is this? What’s taking so long? In New York you just barge your way to the counter and whoever gets there first ‘wins’. If you go somewhere and have to wait too long, you call for the manager and demand an explanation. When I first got here, I thought constantly ‘Come on, let’s go!’ but then one day I realized: Why the hurry? I’m not actually in a rush? Nowadays, I enjoy taking the time to talk to the baker about how our weekends were, and how my son this year started kindergarten. I can do this.”
Do you get more done in a day in New York than you do in a day in Evergem?
“Actually less, and that it is surprising. It’s as if time itself slows. In other parts in the US it might be different, but if you live in the city that never sleeps, it is totally normal to get shopping done at eleven o’clock at night, or answer emails in the dead of the night. Day and night, in the week and weekend, running into people other a lot more. Of course here there are also people who work at night, but generally there is more structure in the days and it pays off. You get the most important things done. Although I have seen in the last five years changes that are happening: things like Panos or Starbucks give you the feeling that you must always be on the go, always busy and rushed. Little by little, Belgium is becoming more like the US.”
Is that a good thing or not?
“On the one hand, it is super easy to, at any time to find what you need. I remember when I was pregnant and at night I’d have a sudden craving for a milk shake. In New York all you’d have to do is run to the corner and buy what you want, or you order it online and within an hour it’s at your door. Not so here in Belgium. In the middle of the night I had to make my own milkshakes (laughs). But these things that I missed in the beginning, I now cherish: The fact that people have the opportunity to sleep at night, the quieter pace, the quality time available for friends and family. It’s as if the priorities are different. So. No, I do not want Belgium to be more like The U.S. There is really something special to this country.”
To what extent do you instill American tradition in your son?
Typical holidays like the 4th of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving have a permanent place in our life. Noah is now three and he understands the significance of Thanksgiving already. And he knows perfectly that he must find the wishbone in our stuffed turkey. I find it really important to pass on both American and Korean traditions too. And because we are the only ones who celebrate them around here, it feels like our own personal holidays.
Can Noah grasp all his different roots? Does he realize that there are more worlds out there than Belgium?
“We Skype in the evenings with my mother and Noah does know that she lives in another country. But next year he will really be aware more than the first time, what the US is, as we’re making a trip for my brother’s wedding. And the next step is a visit to Korea. At this moment we are raising Noah bilingually (Dutch and English), and people ask why we don’t include the Korean language. We will perhaps later, but for me that is not now a priority. I think it is important that he has an idea of his various roots, but above all I want for him to grow up as a Belgian. I would feel awful if he grew up feeling like he was an outsider or a misfit. He must be grounded in his Belgian roots and feel at home here. Later he can spread his wings and move about as he wants.”
And you? Do you feel like you’re an outsider?
“On some days sure. Belgians are very warm and friendly, but at the same time very reserved. They fall back into their small circles, of childhood and lifelong friends, and it is difficult to penetrate. Also, very often, I was seen as someone who was here temporarily. But I followed courses to learn Dutch, and I opened my own business, a Korean takeout restaurant, and try to prove that I’m serious about making a life here.
Your life story reads like a book with different characters: The girl with the strict Korean upbringing, the girl in her 20s with a wild American life and now the mother and her family in Evergem. Which of them is the real Jun?
“At this moment I am more ‘me’ than ever. I have for a long time searched for who I am and what is important to me. In New York I didn’t have enough room to find myself. But that does not mean that I regret anything I’ve done or decisions I have made. On the contrary. I am proud of my previous life. My career on Wall Street, my participation on Big Brother, the move to Belgium, the start-up of my own restaurant… Even though all these choices seem miles apart, there is a common thread: as soon as I see an opportunity, I go for it.”
That is very American, right?
“Absolutely. I’m referred to as the ‘Crazy American’ here (laughs). They say I’m crazy. Firstly, because I am American and Americans are by definition crazy. And then I’m the American who left New York to come and live in Belgium. You have to be pretty crazy (laughs).”
Do you imagine that in the future, you will again change gears completely, and take another big jump in your life?
“My ultimate dream is to be a writer. For years now I’ve been running my own blog, jundishes, and it brings me great joy. If I could just sit and write all day every day then that’s what I would do. Sitting at a desk in Evergem, this would be my ideal spot, I feel good here. I believe that the biggest change in my life is still yet to come, and not in where I am or who I am, but what I will do. And so when I see that opportunity one day, I will seize it.
5 QUICK QUESTIONS
What did you first notice upon arriving here?
“That people take the time to sit on a terrace for some relaxation and quiet cup of coffee. Everything In New York is ‘to go’.”
What American ways do you hold on to?
“I always make a hot breakfast like ‘bacon and eggs’. Bread smeared with Nutella you won’t see in my home in the mornings. Also, I still keep up with my favorite reality shows.”
What do you miss finding in the supermarket?
“Bagels! And maple syrup for my pancakes. So I just make syrup myself, as I do my own barbecue sauce.”
The most beautiful spot in Belgium?
“The Sint-Michels Bridge in Ghent. I saw the city from that bridge the first time I visited Ghent, and I still get goosebumps. It looks almost fake, kind of like something out of Disney World, with the trees, and the Graslei and the beautiful architecture of buildings behind.”
What is your favorite Dutch word?
“Wablieft – just because it sounds so ugly. And that for such a polite question (“Excuse Me?”)! They should have come up with something a little nicer really.”
Recorded in / Translated from Dutch: Libelle Magazine
(Nr. 45/3645 – November 5, 2015,
Reporter: Karolien Joniaux. Photos: Ann De Wulf.)
Thanks for reading everyone!
And Thank You Libelle!