10 Magazine aims to explore the art of insightful local living in Korea. In this light, we have decided to introduce a new series to our publication: “Expats of Korea.”
Throughout the month of June, we will publish a sequence of interviews that showcases people from various backgrounds in various stages of life. These articles will explore the aspects of daily expat life, from finding a job in Korea to practicing your Korean at the hairdressers.
This week our interviewee is Paul Sneed, who is currently writing a book on Brazilian Gangsta Rap as he lives in Korea with his trilingual and multicultural family. Paul works as a professor of Brazilian Studies at Seoul National University.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Introducing Brazilian Gangsta Rap to Korea
We met Professor Paul Sneed on a snowy Friday morning at his office at Seoul National University in late February. We had asked to meet him in a place where he was the most comfortable and walking in, we immediately understood why he decided on his office at SNU.
The walls are lined with rows of academic books on Brazil and Latin America and three flags proudly sit on top of the bookcases: the flags of the United States, Brazil, and Korea. To our surprise, Paul is not alone. His nine-year-old son, Cael, is with him today, as his school is on holiday. Cael is quiet at first, Paul tells us, but he will talk our ears off once he’s a bit more comfortable.
Cael attends a Korean elementary school. He is linguistically challenged, but in the sense that he is raised in the midst of 3 languages. His mother is from Brazil and speaks Portuguese. His father, American, speaks English. Both parents speak English and Portuguese fluently, and Cael himself goes to a local elementary school, where he learns how to read, write and speak in Korean. Paul and his wife, Jeyla, try to be as accommodating as possible to Cael’s multilingual environment. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the family speaks Portuguese only. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, they use English.
While we settle in and make small talk with Paul, Cael asks if he can play his favorite game, Rolling Sky, on the office computer. As the game loads, music suddenly starts to blast from the speakers and Cael, with wide eyes, frantically searches for the volume button so as to not interrupt us.
“Need some help there, buddy?” Paul asks. Cael nods sheepishly. Paul finds the volume settings and turns down the sound, and we take a moment to compose ourselves after giggling at Cael’s panicked expression before we continue.
Paul tells us that since his family arrived in Korea in 2014, both he and his wife have tried to master Korean at least at a practical level. Paul has taken classes and tries to brush up on new vocabulary through self-study. His wife regularly goes to Zumba classes, where she chats with neighborhood ajummas. They really make an effort to include her in chats and activities, Paul says, which has made him consider joining in on the lessons as well.
But anyone who’s been exposed to a setting where they’re forced to learn and utilize more than one language at a time will understand the difficulty of switching back and forth constantly between languages.
“I am already starting to notice the influence Korean has on my English,” Paul tells us. He gives us an example of how when his wife was in Brazil with Cael during Christmas break, he finally had the chance to grow out his beard.
“After some hard work, I was left with a full, white beard, a little bit like Santa Claus,” Paul says motioning to his chin and stroking an imaginary beard. “My family was curious at this point, so I wanted to make them a video saying “Merry Christmas.” I caught myself saying it the Korean way: “Merry Keurisemaseu!” (“메리크리스마스!”)
“It’s a sign,” Paul tells us, “that we are seriously engaged with the culture of the country we are living in and love. Many of the Korean habits are becoming natural! I always use two hands when handing something and bowing is becoming normal.”
“However, my wife will tease me if I give her something with two hands…” he says laughing.
Brazil has always been a big part of Paul’s life. He moved to Brazil in the 1990s to work on his Ph.D. dissertation on Brazilian Gangsta Rap– an unexpected topic of study coming from a man who does not seem to radiate the typical “gangsta” vibes.
He wrote his dissertation by emerging himself into the squatter community of Rocinha, an underprivileged neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. While working on his dissertation, Paul also worked with a group of local and international friends to create a nonprofit organization, Two Brothers Foundation, which set up programs to teach English to underprivileged children.
This gave him a more intimate view of the neighborhood. He started understanding the daily struggles of the people living in the squatter town. Healthy, happy connections were a challenge in these areas, and this realization left a great impression on Paul’s life.
“I am currently working on my book on Brazilian Gangsta Rap here in Seoul, which might seem odd,” Paul said to nods of agreement from us. “I think, I am in exactly the right place though.”
Explaining, Paul tells us that a lot of the themes he covers in his book he feels are very applicable to Korea right now. His book details the influence of gangsta rap in squatter towns in Brazil and tells a story about hope, community, social global justice, and above all peace.
“Here in Korea, with the Candlelight Protest and Pyeongchang, we can see this same hope for peace,” Paul tells us. “The collective struggle in Korea to find a solution to the conflict has inspired me even more in writing my book.”
We ask the ever-difficult question: how much of yourself would you consider Brazilian, how much American, and how much Korean?
“Boy, that’s quite a hard question…”
How Paul identifies himself has changed throughout his life. Growing up, he always felt very American, but when he became interested in Brazil and moved there, he suddenly felt very Brazilian as well.
“I felt like a Brazilian trapped in an American biography.”
Brazil is a very inviting country because the people are social and want to make you feel at home, he tells us. The influence Korea has on him, though, has surprised him. Though he’s only lived here for four years, he already feels a part of the Korean community. Despite not speaking the language very well (“yet!”), he loves practicing his Korean. In taxis, getting his hair cut, going to the restaurant, he tries to talk as much as possible. “I am still very limited to talking about my family and hobbies, but I feel I’ve got that down well at least,” he says.
“In terms of percentages, I’d say I am 50/50 American and Brazilian.”
Paul tells us that though Korea has impacted him greatly, he cannot put his “Koreanness” into percentages just yet.
“In Brazil, you are part of the group almost immediately. However, here, it is a longer, more subtle process. You are often seen as a foreigner, and not yet part of the Korean community.”
“Above all, I am a Christian and a person first. I am on this earth with my fellow brothers and sisters. I believe that if you are willing to be a person first, you will be accepted with open arms into the community.”
Back in February, when we met with Paul, the tensions between the two Koreas had just started to thaw and the Pyeongchang Olympic games were coming to a close. Like everyone living here, Paul is careful and concerned about the inter-Korean tensions, but not overly worried. In his eyes, it is not something that should bother your everyday life.
“I think that Korea is actually an amazing place to be right now,” Paul says. “There is a lot going on that concerns every human being, especially in regards to responsible stewardship of our beautiful planet and harmonious living.”
“The most important thing to remember is that all of us are people, sharing this earth and a conflict should not, and will not, tear that apart.”
The Pyeongchang Olympics actually gave Paul an idea of how to bring the two Koreas closer together. As Brazil is fairly neutral in the conflict, Paul believes it could play a role in seeking a solution. He thinks Korea and Brazil can learn a lot from each other. Koreans are strong spirited and hard-working and Brazilians are incredibly creative and ingenious.
His idea: to create a Zambo Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, music, and acrobatics) team here in South Korea, and one in the North. The two groups could meet on neutral ground, like the Amazon in Brazil. “It combines everything I love together: music, the Amazon, and Korea! The idea is still very embryonic though,” he tells us smiling.
During the Olympics, Paul kept up with the games on TV. His favorite moment was when he was watching a speedskating match at home with his son and his son’s friend. All three of them were rooting for Korea and no matter how many reruns of the winning moment they saw, they cheered just as loudly every time.
“When a Korean wins a medal, the moment gets replayed over and over again on TV. I don’t mind though, I think it is endearing how excited people get. I get excited too. I cheer just as loud at the replays and I tear up every single time.”
“In the end,” Paul says, “the important thing is that we come together, no matter our differences.”
The next interview, to be published on June 10, will be about a Korean-American student discovering her Buddhist heritage in Korea. Stay tuned every Sunday this month for “Expats of Korea.”