A community forged in shared culture

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Lifestyle - Life at Sea / December 11, 2019

By Captain Jenn Jackson

As Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ottawa conducts its deployment on Operations NEON and PROJECTION, within its bulkheads a small community with personal ties to some of the many ports visited has developed.

HMCS Ottawa currently has aboard six members born in the Republic of Korea, many with close family still living in Pyeongtaek, Incheon and Busan – three of the ports visited during the deployment.

“One of the highlights of this deployment for me was being able to come alongside Busan. I’m glad Ottawa had a chance to appreciate my family’s hometown and it made me proud to be Korean-Canadian,” says Sub-Lieutenant (SLt) Hyunji (Ann) Lee, bridge watchkeeper-under-training.

“Another highlight of the deployment for me has been going into Pyeongtaek,” she adds. “It was a difficult time because I was exposed to a much higher level of Korean than what I am used to, but acting as a translator proved to be a valuable experience and really made me appreciate the efforts my parents had gone through to make sure I still retained Korean as a language.”

All six Korean-Canadians aboard Ottawa speak Korean and grew up speaking it at home. It is not uncommon to hear them speaking Korean in the flats or messes of the ship.

“I grew up speaking Korean at home, although my vocabulary could use some work,” says SLt Jong Won Joseph Hahm, marine systems engineering officer. “It’s good practice to have an opportunity to speak Korean on the ship and it has helped build our community.”

For Leading Seaman (LS) Guyeon Kim, weapons engineering technician – sonar, his Korean heritage has built strong ties within the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and at home.

“I have found a solid bond with the other Korean-Canadians because we have a lot in common, coming from similar backgrounds,” he explains. “I have experienced this not only in HMCS Ottawa, but in other ships as well.”

“I keep very close ties with Korea,” he adds. “All three of my children were born in Korea and speak Korean as their first language. I have taken some of my parental leave in Korea and when I deploy my wife and children stay in Korea with my in-laws.”

While all have family remaining in Korea, maintain close ties and attribute the sense of community to mutual cultural understanding, they are also diverse in their occupations in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the reasons they joined.

Of the six, three are officers, three are non-commissioned members and all six have different occupations: naval warfare officer (SLt Lee), marine systems engineering officer (SLt Hahm), naval combat systems officer (SLt Joo Whan (Kevin) Yun), weapons engineering technician – sonar (LS Kim), boatswain (LS Isaac Moon), and steward (Able Seaman (AB) Thomas Park).

Family connections, both Korean and Canadian, played a role in influencing several of the Korean-Canadians to join.

“My dad was an infantry officer in the Korean Army and I grew up hearing stories and seeing his old military medals. I guess subconsciously I developed a willingness to join the CAF,” explains AB Park. “I am now approaching 3.5 years in the glorious RCN and cannot wait to see what the future brings.”

“I joined because of my older brother,” says LS Kim. “He was a member of the CAF before I was and told me about all the benefits he was receiving and the subsidized educations plans. I decided to take a chance and joined the RCN.”

For some, the decision to join was a sense of adventure.

“I decided to join for the experience,” says LS Moon. “Beyond work experience, I can’t deny that the RCN has provided life experiences, travel and unique opportunities – such as being a member of the naval boarding party.”

Just as in other areas of life, being in the RCN also comes with its challenges. For example, although not common, incidences of racism can occur.

“I encountered a racist experience during San Francisco Fleet Week 2018. I was acting as a tour guide in HMCS Vancouver with other trainees and a tourist came up very close to my face and asked me what kind of Asian I was. Once I answered, he proceeded to say things like, ‘You guys are as bad as the Australian Navy.’ When I replied, “What do you mean, sir?”, he continued to point out the other Asian RCN members on duty and went on a rant about how negative it is to have ‘coloured’ personnel on board,” says SLt Hahm.

“It doesn’t happen often, but often enough that you just learn to laugh it off,” he adds. “It is tough however, when you’re in uniform and composure must be maintained while these things are being said to you. For me, the only way to resolve these situations is to move on and don’t look back. Ignorance seems to thrive on attention.”

Despite challenges such as this, the group feels that the deployment and their time aboard ship is made easier because of the community they have formed. All would encourage others, Korean-Canadian or not, to join.

“There is a definite sense of community between all the Korean-Canadians in Ottawa despite the various age differences and occupations,” says SLt Yun. “We can relate to many things like our love of Korean food, our cultural similarities and our similar backgrounds. All of that aside, I have met lots of people from many backgrounds while serving in the RCN. I would encourage anyone to join – but only if they are 100 per cent sure it’s right for them.”

While one of the many small communities that exist in HMCS Ottawa, the multiple port visits in the Republic of Korea during Operation PROJECTION provided unique and welcome opportunities for the group of Korean-Canadians. It is the most junior who sums it up best in the end:

“Getting to visit Korea as part of the deployment was pretty cool. I had the opportunity to visit family and friends…oh, and the food,” says AB Park, who continues with a smile. “I love Korean food and sharing ramen noodles with LS Kim and LS Moon in the Junior Ranks Mess every night…how could we not form a close bond doing that?”