Former Korean-German hockey player on quest for ethnic identity

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Former professional ice hockey player Martin Hyun has been searching for his roots since 2002, when he embarked on his first book project to shed light on the Korean migration to Germany.

Inspired by his parents, who were both migrant workers in Germany and endured a hard life, Hyun decided to help find a way to break the so-called „bamboo ceiling,“ or the barrier that Asian Germans face in the workplace.
His father, Woo-soo, came to Germany in 1969 as a coal miner, years after the signing of the bilateral agreement for Korea to send coal miners and nurses to the European country. Hyun said as a blue-collar worker, his father knew how hard it was making a living and supporting his family in a foreign land and thus, wanted his three children to land white-collar jobs. Woo-soo and his wife Lee Soon-hee made countless sacrifices to enable their children to focus on their studies.

Hyun, 36, now deputy sports manager for ice hockey for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for 2018 Winter Olympic Games, recalled that his father was a typical Korean parent who instilled the importance of education in his children and encouraged them to pursue successful careers in law, medicine or business. His eldest and youngest children followed his advice, becoming a medical doctor and a medical industry manager, respectively.
However, he was a bit disappointed when he heard that his only son Martin would pursue an uncharted career — a professional hockey player.

„In 2004 when I signed my contract, my father was not happy,“ the former professional hockey player said. „At that time, I had already finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but my father still wanted me to pursue a ‘real career,‘ not hockey.“ He had played on a German professional team when he was 16. He went to the United States in 1998, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from St. Michael’s College, a private Catholic college in Colchester, Vermont, and where he also continued to play hockey.

The European Court of Justice’s 1995 decision, better known as the Bosman ruling, which allowed athletes in the EU to move to another club freely at the end of their contract without paying a transfer fee, affected his decision to go to the United States. As the court ruling caused an influx of foreign hockey players in Germany, Martin found it difficult to compete with those experienced players.

In 2004, despite his father’s objections, Hyun believed hockey was the career that he would die for and he wouldn’t be happy working in another profession. After he promised his father that he would balance his studies and his hockey career, his father gave him his reluctant approval. Martin earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury.

„When I was a 7th grader, for example, I had to buy books for eighth graders and study them during the summer,“ Hyun said. „Someone was staying with us to teach me. After studying, I practiced (hockey).“

Hyun was the first Korean to play ice hockey professionally with the German Elite League and Junior National Team. His interest in the sport began when he was five years old. His father always took him to the ice rink to pick up his sister, who was then a figure skater. One day a German coach approached Hyun’s father and said he was looking for children to start a hockey team, a proposal his father accepted immediately.
Without asking his opinion, his father went to a hockey shop and bought him skates. „At that time, the equipment was very expensive,“ Hyun recalled. „My father wanted me to do sports and learn discipline because being a team player is very important for people. My father was always worried about me making the wrong friends and becoming lazy in school, and he believed sports would help me stay on the right track.“

Having been born and raised in the hockey city of Krefeld in western Germany and having watched the sport during his childhood, Hyun said the dream to become a professional player came naturally. As a professional player, he wore the number 71 to commemorate the year 1971 when his mother came to Germany as a migrant nurse.
While playing hockey, he began to search for his Korean roots. His parents were the inspiration for his two books, „Silent-Yes, Speechless-No“ and „No Pain No Gain: How I Turned into a Good German,“ published by Random House. In Germany, Koreans are described as silent immigrants because they successfully adjusted to German society without causing or encountering major problems.

In the two books, Hyun explored the internal dynamics of those silent migrants by tracing the footsteps of his parents before they came to Germany as migrant workers and raising his voice for second-generation Koreans who experience racism.
For the book projects, Hyun came to Korea in 2002, nearly two decades after his last visit to the country. He visited the southeastern land-locked city of Daegu and the small city Hadong, his father’s and mother’s hometowns, respectively.

In Daegu, he paid his respects to his late grandfather at his grave. „That’s what my father asked me to do,“ Hyun said. He then went to his mother’s hometown to get information about how she grew up. However, the house where his mother was born was no longer there, because the city has changed significantly since she left for Germany. Where his mother’s house used to be, he gathered some soil, put it in a bag, and took it back to Germany for his mother. „My mom still has it. This was how I developed my first book,“ he said. „A homogeneous society cannot survive. Diversity has a lot of benefits. These are the messages that I tried to deliver in my second book.“

He continued his research on the Korean migration to Germany for his doctoral program at the University of Bonn. Last year, he successfully defended his dissertation about the migration.

Hyun’s search for his roots led him to join the PyeongChang Olympic committee last January, through which he also developed a bond with his childhood idol, Jim Paek, a Korean-Canadian former ice hockey player and now head coach of the Korean national team. „He was a big idol of mine. I remember when I was growing up as a kid, I collected his ice hockey cards,“ Hyun said. „It was really nice meeting and talking with him in person. The hockey world is very small, and Jim knows a lot of my teammates. I remember him telling me that even though we had been on different continents, we are now back (in our parents‘ homeland). How wonderful it is.“

Hyun wants to do more for Korean-Germans. Once the 2018 Olympics ends, he said he will go back to Germany and establish a foundation to help first-generation Koreans seeking to return to their and ancestors‘ homeland in their later lives.
„Some from the first generation have died, and many of them wanted to go back to Korea, like salmon going back to their natal streams after their journey in the ocean,“ he said. „It’s much more expensive for a dead person to go back to his or her home country. The second generation has a good base in their new country, and they can help (the first generation). I will work on this once I return to Germany after the Olympics.“

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