Lives of Creatives
It can seem like harrowing landscape for expats wanting to participate in the creative industries in South Korea. With the visa requirements and lack of inclusivity, it can seem like a pipe dream to pursue a job in the creative fields. However there are those who have accomplished such a feat and made a way for themselves. These individuals are viewing Korea as place ripe with unique opportunities. Momentum Seoul spoke with two such individuals: Freelance model Tamás Sebők, and Jazz vocalist Karen Lyu.
Tamás Sebők’s calm demeanor and sophisticated, yet casual appearance matched the atmosphere of the dimly lit cafe in Itaewon. We had come there for an interview because the space was familiar to the both of us. As a foreigner working as a freelance model here in Seoul, his image is one that is becoming more and more familiar. In the year that he has been modelling, his list of accomplishments are impressive. He’s done commercials for Esse, Nescafé, Samsung, Huawei, and promotional videos for Seoul Sky at Lotte Tower, and the Love for DMZ tour. He has also modelled for Discovery Expedition, Mindbridge and Hugo Boss. Tamás, known as Tomi for short, was incredibly kind and spoke honestly about his experience.
25 years old Tomi (27 in Korea) is originally from Veszprém, Hungary. Having attended culinary school in Hungary, he is a professional chef. He’s worked in London, Budapest, and Melbourne as a chef and actually started working in a restaurant when he first came to Seoul in February of 2017.
Being that he is a well-rounded individual, his interests are centered around travel, food, and music. He works out regularly, plays acoustic bass, enjoys trying different restaurants and cuisines, and watches movies and documentaries mainly about food, nature, and health. He says his biggest passion is cooking of course, and he regularly invites friends over for dinner gatherings.
“What I like about Korea the most is the opportunity as a foreigner,” said Tomi.“I actually didn’t come here to be a model, it was an opportunity that I got and I jumped on. I can do things that I might not be able to do outside of Korea. Bigger opportunities come to me every week or every month and it allows me to do more and be better.”
I was a little surprised by the optimism in the answer to my questions about his view on Korea. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been because he is in fact managing to do freelance modelling full-time here. If you don’t see a lot opportunity, then that’s not an endeavor you’d take on. It shows that the experience you have here in Korea is what you make of it, when you have an ability and the right outlook. I sought to delve deeper and asked about the pros and cons of living in Korea and his answer was straight-forward and telling.
“One thing that annoys me is the way so many Koreans waste everything: plastic, paper, electricity, and endless amounts of water. They waste so effortlessly and it really scares me. They don’t think about it. Environmentalism is non-existent,” Tomi gave his earnest opinion as he is advocate of conservation. “They recycle a lot, but who’s to say how much of it actually gets recycled. There really needs to be more education on the topic.”
It was interesting that he mentioned the topic especially when Korea is in the midst of a ‘plastic waste crisis’ ever since China stopped importing plastic recyclables. This sudden disruption is forcing Korea, and other countries for that matter, to take a good look at the waste they produce, but I digress.
“You get used to the fact that Korea really convenient, getting around it super easy, online shopping and delivery is probably the best in the world.” He said, and most people living in Korea would agree about on the exceptional public transportation and extreme convenience.
“As a foreigner, especially as a white guy, I tend to get better treatment than most people I would say. Sometimes it’s a bit too much, I feel like I don’t deserve it.” He revealed.
Though this is technically a pro in his case, he touched upon a truth about race and image in Korea. It could mean the opposite is true for someone of a different ethnic background trying to follow a similar path.
After speaking with Tomi for awhile, it is my opinion that his humility and calm, yet ambitious approach to life that has taken him this far. This was the conclusion I came to when he replied to my next question about the challenges he faced while modelling.
“At first, I had no idea about posing or where to look. My facial expressions were weak and my chin was always up. Out of 100 pictures, I’d only be satisfied with five or ten. Luckily I’m a fast learner.”Tomi admitted. “Because I am a chef, I am used to working non-stop. Modelling is 90 percent changing clothes and waiting; you’re waiting for the production team to set up the lights and the cameras for hours depending on the situation. You have to be patient.”
One challenge that many foreigners face when trying to work in entertainment or a related field is obtaining a proper visa. There are two types of entertainment visas, the only difference being the length: three months vs. one year. Both of these visas allow the visa-holder to work any entertainment related job (i.e. acting, modelling, music), while restricting work in any other field. These elusive entertainment visas require sponsorship and even then certain restrictions can make it more difficult for the visa-holder to sustain work and expand their career.
“I have a sponsor. They give me jobs and allow me to do freelance work too,” explained Tomi. “Some people have visas from agencies that give restrictions. They cannot work outside the agency or a huge cut can be taken, like 50 percent of the paycheck. It can be hard to find a suitable visa.”
Tomi has put forth effort to found the right opportunities that allow him the flexibility to pursue a unique dream in a country so far and different from his home. I asked him to tell me about how he first got into modelling and he gave me his story.
Before I came here, it was part of my plan to give modelling a shot at some point, but first and foremost, I wanted to cook. It was not my intention to be an model or an actor. I started modelling as a part-time job after a friend gave me some contacts. I sent an agency my pictures, I had maybe four of five at the time. After several months, I got my first gig, I was an extra in a commercial and I had maybe one second in the video, from there I got the next gig and the next. There was about one opportunity a month for a span of six months, finally I quit my job at the restaurant and started doing it full time.
His story was a logical progression of applied effort that resulted in his budding success. It isn’t an overnight success story but one of open mindedness, willingness to take risks, and seizing opportunities. However, he is tall and handsome, and it is easy for one to assume that he has had it relatively easy. I wanted to know what his thoughts were about such assumptions and what opportunities were available for others wishing to start modelling or acting in Korea.
“Even if you’re average looking you can do lifestyle modelling, which is just being a normal person in a normal situation. Anyone can do that,” Tomi Claimed. “You don’t have to have experience and you don’t have to have good looks to do modelling or acting in korea, I’d say that’s the biggest opportunity. Modelling is about confidence. If you know how to sell yourself, you can do it.”
Karen Lyu – a Korean-American with dreams and a heck of a voice to match – was kind enough to grant me an interview on such a short notice despite her busy schedule. To anyone who knows Karen, this is no surprise: she is not only a kind soul but someone who is eager to share her journey and words of wisdom with the next generation. The topic was supposed to be simple: to talk about her career as a jazz singer.
I should have known Karen has so much more to offer than just her soulful vocals. She is not only a singer but also an actor and a holistic vocal coach. The latter meaning she doesn’t just focus on making her students sound pretty: she works on making each individual feel their best both physically, emotionally, and mentally while performing. Her experience and goals have led her to becoming a member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, a judge for the Hmong Idol USA national singing competition, and the first ever Korean-American vocalist to record jazz album in the US.
With so much love and positivity in her life, it’s hard to ever believe that Karen grew up in an oppressive environment, but it’s true. Karen’s fundamentalist parents wouldn’t even allow her to wear earrings or watch movies and pressured her to become a lawyer. Ironically, it was this overbearing lifestyle that led her to jazz.
“In high school, I would go over to my friend’s house and we would listen to music. The first ever jazz I heard album was ‘Vocalese’ by Manhattan Transfer,” she said. “Jazz was so freeing and fun, which was the opposite of my stifling life. I took to scatting like duck on water, and no one was trying to manipulate me into what I was not.”
Of course, her singing career in Korea didn’t just happen overnight. When she first came in 2011, there were a lot of thing she didn’t know which led to her missing out on any type of job.
“I didn’t know photos had to be included on my resume and I didn’t know a lot of places weren’t hiring Korean-Americans.” The common misconception that many foreigners have about the F4 visa is that life in Korea is easier if you have it. The visa does allow more freedom but financial hardships are still very possible.”
But her visa did mean that she could do performing gigs on the side to earn some extra cash. Unfortunately, even that had its problems from the beginning.
“There was one manager I didn’t like, who refused to pay me and would hit on me and my friend all the time,” Karen recalls with a grim expression.
Her acting career hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park, either. “If I could speak Korean fluently, there would be a ton of roles for me,” Karen admitted. “Or if I spoke English with the ‘Asian’ accent.” Teaching vocal lessons in Korea was also not as fruitful as it had proved to be in America.
“The hardest part about voice lessons in Seoul is that many of my students are transient,” she told me. “Back in Minneapolis, I would have students who would stay with me for up to five years. In Seoul, most of my students are traveling or end up staying for only a short while. So I’m constantly looking for new students.”
Still, Karen refuses to let such things keep her down. If finding roles to act in are hard to find, she simply writes her own short films to act in – one of her most recent short films is even available online. She also doesn’t hesitate to put herself out there with her voice.
“The thing I love about voice teaching is that it’s portable,” she said. “I can do it in person, on camera, or even over the phone.” As for singing jazz, she is in the midst of booking more performances. She even got a new keyboardist with whom she can’t wait to perform with. No matter how difficult things get, Karen wants to continue performing.
“I love the freedom of expression and the exploration of singing jazz, writing songs, acting and now, for the first time, filmmaking. Being creative feeds my soul!”