For the month of September, exclusive for the Asheville Citizen Times, I will be photographing and talking with Asian-American immigrants living in Asheville. Chesky spent nearly two years living as a foreigner in Busan, South Korea before returning to his hometown.
Jinwoo Jeong is a handyman from Busan, South Korea.
Nathan Chesky: So, as you know, I lived in Busan, South Korea, for about two years. Can you tell me about your journey from your hometown of Busan to here in Asheville, my hometown?
Jinwoo Jeong: Yes, so I was born and raised in Busan, South Korea. I had lived there all of my life. I eventually got a job opportunity in the Middle East, in Jordan, for three months. I came home to Busan for two weeks, then I moved to America right after that.
N: What were you doing in Jordan?
J: So there was a really big electric company’s plant, and a Korean company was doing the electric wiring. We were doing all of the electric system, low voltage as well as high voltage. I was managing, translating, working in finance, and meeting with other companies.
N: Especially coming from an ultra-safe, as well as familiar, city such as Busan, what was it like living in Jordan?
J: It was so dangerous. Well, the capital of Jordan was pretty safe but still you didn’t know what was going to happen. To get into most buildings or parking lots, they will always check under your vehicle with a mirror and search your stuff. I served in the military in Korea, so I am used to being around firearms and stuff like that. I was staying in fairly south Jordan, which is an extreme Muslim area, which is really ISIS friendly. When I would go outside many times I would see the guys driving by, hanging out of their SUVs with their rifles and shooting in the air. When I would walk down the sidewalk, people were so interested in me. I was the only foreigner. Even the local people didn’t want to stay there.
N: Can you tell me about moving to America?
J: I moved to Raleigh first, almost three years ago. I remember it was Fall. So, three years this Fall. Then I moved to Asheville a year and half ago. Raleigh seemed very normal and common American city. Nothing was that special at that time to me. Everything was more quiet. People there would do their duties and go home. I worked in carpentry and tiling for someone else. I also lived in Durham and I didn’t enjoy it at all.
N: So how did you end up in Asheville?
J: I had visited Asheville before and I really liked it, but at the time I didn’t know how hard it would be to find a job, or a place, and the high cost of living. So, when I moved here it was hard. So I found a guy looking for help on Craigslist. He taught me pretty much everything. I picked up all my skills from him and the experience. So I started growing my own business from that. The homeowners all really like me, and they give me pretty much the best reviews you can get on the online profiles. I have the very OCD, you know it’s a very Korean thing, being very clean and presentable about myself and my work.
N: So do you enjoy working for yourself and what type of work exactly are you doing?
J: I really enjoy working for myself because I can schedule myself. I usually only work about 5 hours a day, and work more if I need money. I work in carpentry such as trim work and crown molding. I also do tile work, drywall, electric, plumbing, painting, and pretty much anything. I do this work in Asheville and around like Weaverville and even further out.
N: What was your first impression of Asheville?
J: The people were so nice! The art. Nature. Those three define Asheville to me. I did a lot of hiking and camping with my friends right away. I went to waterfalls and jumped off the waterfalls. It was really cool.
N: Is there a decently-sized Korean community in Asheville?
J: It is not big at all. I have not really met many Koreans my age except for maybe two. There are older ones inviting me to Korean churches. But my age, there are very few.
N: So I know what it’s like to be a foreigner in Korea, in Busan specifically, and how I felt as part of that city and community. Can you explain a bit about your experience as a foreigner here in the United States, in Asheville specifically?
J: Korea and America are so different. So different. First of all, there are not many Asians here, and so I am in a spotlight here. You may understand what that is like. People here, in Asheville, are really open minded and really open to accept different cultures. More than that, they are really interested and excited about different cultures. So I was shocked, because they were so interested and asked me questions and didn’t mind where you are from or your skin color.
N: Can you explain why that may be different for someone who looks like me and talks like me, who lives in Korea?
J: Yeah, it’s different. In Korea, in South Korea, there are only Koreans. Not even Japanese or Chinese basically almost all full Koreans. So, Koreans my age are open minded but we haven’t seen Westerners much at all until more recently. We grew up only seeing them in movies! Then when you see them it’s like oh wow, they are here. Before there were no foreigners, so there is more curiosity. Here in America, and especially in Asheville, there is still that curiosity but people don’t want to be the same. In Korea there is only Korean culture, but here there are so many different cultures, from everywhere on this earth, so it is very different.
N: What is the best part of your experience here so far?
J: Sometimes Ashevillians will speak Korean to me! I will say, “What did you say? How did you know?” In other parts of America, these bigger cities like Raleigh, I would never have someone come up to me and speak Korean. I never had that experience at all until here. In Asheville, it will happen often. That is why this city is really special. It is definitely not your average US city, not to me.