In Austria during the post-war reconstruction years, when foreigners were few and bicultural couples rare, a young Austrian girl and a Korean student met and fell in love. They were determined to overcome all obstacles in order to build a life together. This is their story.
Waltraud posing for a photo.
By Waltraud Kim
Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to marry an Asian.
My first interest in Asia was aroused when I was about 7 or 8 years old. We were invited to the house of some friends of my parents. At that time, it was around 1953, my twin sister and I did not have many things to play with. Books for kids were scarce. So we were brought up in a rather modest way.
We were thrilled to go to the house of our parent’s friends because they liked to tell us stories about far-away countries. There, I first learned that there are many more countries in the world, with people that look and talk differently from the way we do. My interest grew.
When I was told that the Chinese and Japanese have black hair and black eyes, “just like you,” I was thrilled. Only the form of their eyes is different, I was told. Their eyes are more slanted. The fact that I could look slightly different from my twin sister inspired me to work on my eyes to give them a “Japanese form”, a little slant. I started to pull the corners of the eyes upwards to give them the desired exotic form. But how sad, they did not stay the way I wanted them. After many fruitless attempts I gave up. But from now on I was very interested in China and Japan, and whenever I could get information about these countries, I absorbed it like a sponge.
When I was 17 years old (it was the year 1963), I wanted to go to a dancing school. In Vienna it was, so to say, a “must” to know how to dance waltz and how to behave appropriately in society. Things like etiquette were also taught there. Of course I also wanted to get to know a partner, and the dancing schools were an ideal place for singles. There were many dancing schools in Vienna, big ones with a very good reputation and smaller schools which were unknown. I don’t know why, but I felt attracted to a small, almost shabby dancing school, which was near our apartment.
The first day of class approached. I bought myself a fashionable, tight, pink cotton dress with a big, gray bow tie around the waist, and gray, high heeled shoes, which were so tight that I needed some extra massage for my feet after I wore them, because my feet were hurting so much.
In the school, which consisted of a foyer and a big dancing room, the ladies and gentlemen had to sit separately in two rows opposite each other on both sides of the wall. What disappointment!
Now we realized that my sister and I, as well as our friend, who came with us to the dancing school, were the only ones who did not bring a partner. This meant that most of the time we were just sitting there watching the others dance and had to wait until you were asked to dance by one of the gentlemen. How boring! We were frustrated. I regretted that we decided to go to this dancing school.
Next lesson was the same and also the following lesson did not bring much change. One more time we would go, and if there were not more gentlemen, we would not come again.
The “last” lesson came. I put on my fashionable tight pink-gray dress, which I started to hate, squeezed my feet into the shoes, which in the meantime had created two big blisters on the big toes, and went to the dancing school. But this time the atmosphere was a little different. The teacher welcomed us, saying that from now on we would have the chance to dance more, as three gentlemen without lady-partners were coming and so the balance between ladies and gentlemen was given. Problem solved!
We sat down at our places at the wall waiting for the start of the lesson, when the door opened and the three gentlemen came in. Here they were! Asians, from Japan, without doubt, their hair and eyes were black and their eyes were slanted.
Until then I had never seen an Asian in person and was a little excited. My interest for Asia, which was sown in my childhood, came up again. I rejoiced. Maybe I could learn more about foreign countries, and they could tell me many interesting stories about the other side of the world.
But foreigners, at that time, were not approved of as marriage partners. After the Russian soldiers withdrew from Lower Austria, marking the end of the Allies’ occupation in 1955, there were only a few foreigners left. In general people could not understand why you took a foreign husband, when there were Austrians to choose from instead! The big hope of finding a husband disappeared as fast as the wink of the eye. For in that time it simply was impossible to get married to a foreigner.
Still, I “mentally reserved” one of the Asian guys for me, one who I thought was the most sympathetic, and decided to dance with him as often as possible. He was as tall as I, had a very friendly face expression and was simply “handsome”. I felt attracted to him from the very first moment.
We danced very well together and from that day on I enjoyed to go dancing. Gradually we got to know each other better and better and went together to dancing afternoons into coffee-shops from time to time. Dance Cafés do not exist any longer these days; they cannot be compared to discos. Dance Cafés offer a very good atmosphere with candle-light, excellent food and life dance music, where all the classic dances like Cha-cha-cha and English Waltz and so forth can be danced. At that time those were quite fashionable dances which almost everybody knew how to dance.
The first time in my life I was really happy and my life started to become exciting.
I would learn very soon my dance partner was a student at the Technical University in Vienna and came from South Korea. Korea at that time was so far away and untouched, as is the Antarctica nowadays. A trip to Korea lasted at least two days by airplane, as there was no direct flight connections and one had to stay overnight somewhere.
At that time nobody would chose Korea as a vacation country because of the Korean War, which raged there ten years before, and the country was still struggling to build up again. My dance partner, whose Christian name was Leo, had come to Europe to get a good education in order to help to build up his home country.
He knew that after his study he had to return to Korea. Besides, he was the eldest son in a big family with seven children, which meant that according to Korean custom, he had to care for his parents when they were old, as there was no social security system in Korea, and he had to support his younger sisters and brother as well. At that time there were only a handful of foreign students in Vienna, you could count them on the fingers of one hand.
We often went out on weekends to practice our dancing steps in the Dance Cafés. Soon I found out that the people in general were not very positive about our friendship with foreigners, and when we went in the street I sometimes heard comments about our relationship. “Did you see? An Austrian girl with a foreign guy…”
But I cannot say that I ever heard an outright mean comment about us. At that time an international relationship was simply something very unusual. People talked. They would stare holes into us when we were waiting at the railway station. They would turn their heads when we were walking in the streets hand in hand, they would whisper to each other, pointing their fingers at us. Sometimes I felt that we were very special. Sometimes I felt like an animal in the zoo. People who “meant well” told me horror stories about the abduction of Austrian girls into the land of their foreign boyfriend. All this did not affect me too much. There was only one sentence from a relative, which I could not digest well and which hit me very hard: “You have a foreign boyfriend – shame on you!”
My parents, of course, were not very happy either, when they heard that I had a Korean boyfriend. They wisely refrained from giving “good advice”, but from time to time I got to hear that “you know, that you cannot marry that guy”… “Be reasonable and break with this friendship”… Useless comments, when you have fallen in love!
Leo was a very happy, open minded young man, who liked social life very much and laughed a lot. He was the person who led me out from a rather boring, narrow-minded, anxious family and introduced me to a sparkling, positive and active way of living.
He was a very generous man who shared everything he had. He would invite me on weekends to restaurants or cinemas, even when it meant for him that he had no shilling for the next week to live on. It was very easy for him to make friends, a talent which I and the rest of my family were lacking. Whenever he showed up in a society meeting, he immediately was accepted and loved by everybody. But his generosity was not always understood by my parents, who saw a waste of money and extravagance of lifestyle in it.
Gradually I felt very insecure about my friendship with Leo. My head said: “Be reasonable and give him up, it is better for your future” but my heart said: “Stay together, all is possible in life when you believe and especially when there is love”.
One weekend we went again to our coffee-shop. Coffee-shops were our favourite place to go at that time, as I would not dare bringing Leo home with me. This day it was bursting with people, but there were still two places free at a small table, where an older lady was already sitting. She was reading a newspaper. When we sat down next to her, for an instant it seemed to me that she stared at us with this look which, at that time, was all too familiar to us. “Again one of those curious, judging, contemptuous individuals, who cannot accept my friend being a foreigner…” was going through my head.
She hid her face behind a newspaper, while she obviously listened to what we were saying. We therefore talked in a very low voice. A few times she peered over the edge of the newspaper, then continued pretending to read. We felt bad. After finishing our coffee we would pay and leave this place.
“Excuse me, but would you tell me where you are from?” The old lady interrupted the cool atmosphere which surrounded us.
“I come from Korea”.
“Korea…oohhh. I am sorry, but you will think that I am very curious. You know, long time ago I had a friend here in Vienna who came from China. I don’t know where he is and what he is doing now. He had to go back to China after his studies…. I loved him so much… There was the Cultural Revolution in China, maybe they killed him… He was the only man whom I really loved in my life. If he had not returned to China, I would have married him. Maybe he has a son now, who is studying in Austria. He must be as old as you are… That’s why I ask all Asians where they come from.” A tear was running down her face. We stayed for a while longer, and the old lady told us her heartwarming story. She was very happy to recall her youth and grateful to be able to openly talk about her great love to a Chinese.
When we left the coffee shop, I felt comforted and strengthened. Now I knew that I was not alone in my situation and there were more”international loves” out there than I would know. The lady wished us all the best and good luck for a life together. I also learned a very important lesson: never judge other people on their first appearance if you do not know them.
In 1967 I got a good job as a secretary in at an International Organization in Vienna. It was not the work alone which I found very interesting, nor the salary, which was very attractive, but it was the fact that I could work in a completely international field, which gave me the right education for international, multicultural thinking.
My office was called an “international family” by those working there, and as a matter of fact it hit the point. It was THAT place which gave me freedom and satisfaction at the same time. So far my thinking had been very restricted; it was adapted to the narrow-minded bureaucracy of small Austrian offices in which gossip and judging others were part of every day life, which never gave me satisfaction.
But this international office henceforth would be my real” home”. International marriages and friendships were a normal thing there; so normal, in fact, that they were not worth being discussed.
We decided to get married in May 1970.
Waltraud and Leo.
Click here for Part Two of: “Following the East Wind: An International Marriage”.
This article originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine in May of 2006.