So Yun Cho is a graphic designer, who left South Korea for the U.S.A in 2012. At the moment she is living and working in Los Angeles.
Why did you leave Korea?
So Yun Cho: One of the biggest reasons was to be independent from my parents. Since my parents live in a metropolitan city, it was impossible to avoid my parents’ surveillance and intervention with my life. Considering the fact that many Koreans are not so aware of respecting privacy of others or individual boundaries, my parents were even more above the level which often contradicted myself.
The second reason was that my way of design was not favorable in Korean market. I found it difficult to survive from the small market of non-commercial design world which tends to be monopolized by ‘well-known’ designers. I soon realized that it would be tough to pursue my career in Korea because I longed for complete independence from my parents, both financially and emotionally.
Were there any incidents that made you want to leave Korea?
SC: As I worked in various workplaces, I realized that one needs to be employed by a large and commercial company, in order to survive as a designer for a long term; however, due to my naturally born personality, I knew that I would not be able to adapt myself to the culture of large companies. Thus, I kept looking for other ways to continue my dream. At the same time, I wanted to get a deeper insight of my visual language and to master it. Also due to my childhood trauma from my parents, I wanted to escape this place, which was in fact, the major reason for leaving Korea. Luckily, my parents could afford my studies in overseas. But even as I started preparing for my departure, I didn’t even have any initial thought about how to stay after my study in the United States. When I visited Korea again during my masters, my former teacher told me that L.A. suits me better than Seoul. His words made me feel confident that I finally decided to settle down.
How long and how did you prepare for studying/working abroad?
SC: At first, I was aiming to get in to a school in Berlin, Germany, as I had lived there before when I was taking a year off from my university. At that time, I was also quite ambivalent between the U.S. and Germany, so I applied to the both, in a hope that I would get into one of them. But I soon realized that employment in Germany would be difficult to those whose German is not good enough, and Berlin itself was not a big market for graphic designers who are not in the tech. Furthermore, discrimination that I experienced in everyday life as an Asian woman was difficult. Meanwhile, I received an admission letter from one of the schools in the U.S.
In order to apply for schools, I started preparing portfolios and Artist Statement for 1 - 2 years. after I graduated from the university. I did not put extra effort into making a whole new portfolio but rather, I gathered all the work that I did during my freelance and some projects I did for fun, and added them my portfolio. After that, I asked my friends and teachers who have already studied in the States or who are from there, for their advices and critique. Through this process, I could refine my thoughts on what I really wanted to achieve. At this moment, I didn’t have any concept of getting a job in the U.S. yet; I just concentrated on my studies.
As the graduation came near, I started worrying about my visa and the employment in the U.S. To a foreigner who has neither citizenship nor permanent residence, getting hired was a difficult task. In the United States, international students who get the most chance of getting job offers are those in tech. My major had nothing to do with UX-design and my school I went to was an art school. So my chance of getting job offers was very different. Even though I overheard that it is difficult for a foreigner to get a working visa in the U.S., I never realized how hard it would be before I experienced myself. Nobody talked about it.
One week before my student visa expiration date, I received a reply from a Korean American company which I had a job interview with without much expectation, stating that they would sponsor for my permanent residency – of course, I still had to pay for all the expenses needed for permanent residence application (lawyers, etc.) myself. The working culture of this company was rather much more conservative and bureaucratic compared to the Korean peninsula’s one, so I was having a difficult time there. After a while, the company unilaterally told me that I should leave the company. I was then in a desperate search for work for over a year while I made my living doing temporary freelance work. During this period, I was even cheated by one of the clients and at the same time, the pressure from my parents was getting bigger. Currently, I’m working for a company as an independent contractor which has a good working environment and I like their offer. So I am finally paying my credit card-debts off. I’m not yet a full-time employer though; still waiting for their final decision.
What was your reason for choosing the city and the country you live in now?
SC: I have always wanted to live abroad, as soon as I decided to be independent from my parents. That’s why I took the short leave during my college and went to Berlin for half a year. As I was living there, I realized that Berlin wasn’t for me, so I decided to study in the west coast of the United States.
At that time, my only goal was to get into a college in the States. I had never been to this city, before I was admitted here. The reason why I chose here was the influence from my former teacher: he was an alumna of the school and I have always liked his curriculum and visual language. When I started my first semester here, I realized that I was the only person who had never visited the school before the application.
I had only been to the east coast of the U.S. and at that time, I never really felt like living there. Only after I started the college here, I was able to make friends and connections here in Los Angeles. The artist community here suits me as well. Furthermore, since L.A. is one of the biggest cities in the States, it is diverse and open to different cultures so the Korean community here is also very big. The climate and the nature are also pleasant and beautiful like exotic resorts, which probably explain the character of Angelinos. Of course, once I graduated, I have realized that no city is perfect, but I am still very satisfied with the weather and the atmosphere here.
How much is the cost of living in your city? How much do you pay for rent? What is the living environment like?
SC: Los Angeles has one of the highest living expenses in the U.S. but compare to New York, it is still affordable. Rent varies depending on neighborhoods of the city, but the rent in my neighborhood is comparably not that high. The public transportation of L.A. is not the best compared to the rest of the cites of the world, so getting a car is a must. It is also mandatory to get an auto insurance in California plus some regular car related expenses. I would therefore say that the expenditure in the beginning of the settlement is pretty big. More and more people are moving into L.A. from other cities, so the rent is increasing as well. Speaking of that, traffic jam is also getting worse every year and L.A is notorious for its worst traffic in the U.S. So one must consider the home-work-distance or the home-college-distance when looking for a house in L.A.
Are there any differences in working environment for female designers as compare to Korea? When yes, what are they?
SC: On the first day of the work, I received a company policy manual, and it said that any kind of discrimination is strictly forbidden and stated all the legal statements regarding sexual harassments and abuse in office. There was also a guide on reporting domestic abuse in the manual. I’m not sure how employers are informed with such issues in bigger companies in Korea nowadays, but as for someone, who had worked in midsize companies in Korea, this was a cultural shock to me.
Regulations regarding maternity leave differs per state, but the company where I’m working at, offers an unpaid leave up to 12 weeks, which is quite short compared to other western European countries.
There are interview questions that only female applicants are asked among Korean American companies: whether you are married or unmarried, if you are planning to have a baby or not, along with other personal questions. I realized only later, that such questions are forbidden to be asked during job interviews in the States.
Even though the US seems to be a fair society from outside but you can witness that it is mainly white males who are at managerial positions.
Do you experience any sexual discrimination and/or racial discrimination? How do you deal with it?
SC: Because the U.S. is quite sensitive about racial issues compared to other western countries, I don’t experience the kind of discrimination I had when I lived in Berlin. But I came to witness my male colleagues having a better chance of getting promoted with better jobs even though we all graduated at the same time. At first, I thought this was a kind of discrimination only against foreigners who were not born from here. But after talking to another Asian American female friend of mine who was born and raised in the States, I’ve realized that she has been experiencing the same issue. I felt that there is a subtle and structural discrimination.
This kind of discrimination surely exists and these things cannot be easily changed by myself so it sometimes makes me feel helpless and frustrated. But if I let myself merge into such negative emotions, my mental health would be in no good shape, so I get a lot of help from yoga and meditation. Now thankfully I’m working at a workplace where I can show my full potential and ability surrounded by colleagues who support my ideas . I hope that this would help people change their stereotypical views of Asian workers (that Asians are more used to authoritative work environment and do only what they are told, and thus are good at calculation but lack of creativity and artistry, etc.)
Compared to when working in Korea, do you now have more free time after work? How different are your weekends and holidays here in L.A.? How do you spend your free time?
SC: If I have other part time jobs outside work, I stay up late even on the weekends, but still compared to Korea, I work less here. It’s just because I work as a freelancer, I often have to do the work for other clients, which doesn’t make much difference. There are actually quite a lot of people here in the states, who work two-jobs or even three-jobs. It all depends on individual’s cases and abilities. You take full responsibility of your time and manage it. When I have plenty of time, I do like to cook but nowadays, I rarely have time for myself so mostly I eat out.
Weekends are relaxing days for most of the time. I would meet my friends or go for hiking or camping to countryside and in summer, I would sunbathe at a beach. If I finish my work within a given period of time, I can apply for leave any time – there is no pressure or whatsoever. Soon, I will be celebrating an anniversary with my partner and have planned to visit another city. So when I noticed my boss about my leave for a few days, she was really happy for me and approved without any complaints which was impressive. In a Korean company where I worked previously, if I were to apply even for a half-day-off, I would definitely hear a few complaints from my boss.
What are the hardest parts about living overseas? How do you overcome?
SC: I was gravely sick once and had to stay in the hospital for a while. This was one of the most difficult moments. I don’t have my family here, thus there is no one to look after me in case of emergency. Thankfully, I have my partner near me, which means a lot. You may sometimes feel isolated and lonely living overseas, so I think it is important that you have your loved ones near you.
How do you study English? Do you have any tips?
SC: Luckily, I tend to learn languages fast. When I was young I thought it was cumbersome to have to read subtitles when watching American movies. So I made up my mind to watch and understand movies without subtitles and started watching and listening to English series, movies, music and news. When I was in middle school, which was before I decided to do art, I was studying hard to get into a Foreign Language High School and having private tutoring for it, and there I was more exposed to an English speaking environment, for example, by listening to English news program and dictating what I hear.
Like many say, I think one has to reach a certain stage, where you eventually dream in the language that you are learning. When I was learning English I played English cassette tapes in a small volume not to interrupt the quality of sleep every night and listened to them while I was sleeping, so that my unconsciousness would remember it. I heard it somewhere, that while you are asleep the brain is still awake, thus can listen and remember all sounds.
On top of this, once you find the joy in learning a new language, this keeps you motivated, especially when you become sufficient enough to communicate with native speakers without any problems.
Do you plan to go back to Korea? If yes, what are the reasons?
SC: When I get really old and about to retire, I might consider going back. Seoul would be of a too busy city for elderly, so maybe somewhere quite far away from the city. Some of the reasons are the language and culture, thus I won’t feel so foreign there, and Confucianism is still prevalent in Korea, so I’m guessing it would be convenient to live there as an elderly.
If you don’t plan to go back, what are the reasons?
SC: I am planning to stay here permanently or at least for several decades. There is a law, stating that if one wishes to keep his or her permanent residence, he or she is not allowed to leave the U.S. for more than 6 months. I have been away from Korea for almost 6 years, and Korea now seems foreign to me. I don’t feel at home there anymore. Also because of my family issues, I don’t plan to get enmeshed with them.
Then how are you preparing for it?
SC: I need a secure income/job. Because I now have permanent residency, all the legal problems regarding my visa are solved now, but financially I am still insecure. After receiving permanent residency and paying tax for five years, you can apply for citizenship – this is my plan A. Or else, I would have to renew my permanent residence every ten years and that’s quite expensive.
Do you have a female role-model? Who is she?
SC: Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, the Foreign Minister of South Korea.
What are you plans for now?
SC: To keep working in this field, to be recognized, to keep updating my portfolios and eventually work in a company that pays me well. Especially, I am looking for a job where I can truly enjoy my work and gives me enough free time to enjoy my hobbies and keep my mind healthy – a calm mindful life without having to work overload.
Lastly, do you want to say anything to female job seekers, who are pursuing their career overseas?
SC: If you really want to leave Korea and if you truly believe in your strength and ability, I think it is possible. I would like to re-quote what my boss once told me: Keep pursuing what you want to do. If you only do what other people want you to do, you will end up finding yourself doing other people’s work for the rest of your life. This was an advice to a young designer looking for a job, but I think this is a truth which applies to all angles of life.
The interview was conducted on July 2017 via E-Mail.
Against Forgetting, Tomorrow Girls Troop, Photo: Magdalena Widoycovich
“I WANTED TO GET
A DEEPER INSIGHT OF MY VISUAL LANGUAGE AND TO MASTER IT”
Cosmic Kaleidoscope, So Yun Cho
A FULL-TIME EMPLOYER THOUGH; STILL WAITING FOR THEIR CONFIRMA-TION”
Hidden Feminist, Tomorrow Girls Troop
“EVEN THOUGH THE US SEEMS TO BE A FAIR SOCIETY FROM OUTSIDE BUT YOU CAN WITNESS THAT IT
“EVEN THOUGH THE US SEEMS TO BE A FAIR SOCIETY FROM OUTSIDE BUT YOU CAN WITNESS THAT IT
IS MAINLY WHITE MALES WHO
ARE AT MANAGERIAL POSITIONS”
Against Forgetting, Tomorrow Girls Troop, Photo: Qianwen Jiang
“I AM LOOKING
FOR A JOB WHERE I CAN TRULY ENJOY MY WORK AND GIVES ME ENOUGH FREE TIME TO ENJOY MY HOBBIES AND KEEP MY MIND HEALTHY”
Telecast Baghdad, So Yun Cho
“IF YOU TRULY BELIEVE IN YOUR STRENGTH AND ABILITY,