Yeon Joo Hur, a hard-charging finance expert, told me stories about ancestor worshiping days in Korea, being a “tai tai,” or housewife, in Singapore, and hours spent singing with her family. As a thirty-six-year-old Buddhist, she wishes to see an end to the world’s conflict over religion.
Q: Tell me about where you grew up in Korea.
A: I was born in Busan, which is the second largest city and the largest port city in South Korea and has about 3.6 million people. It’s located on the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula. Busan is famous for the freshness of the seafood and the famous “Haeundae” beach. When I was growing up, the city was pretty humble, compared with the capital, Seoul. But lately it’s becoming more cosmopolitan. Despite all the changes, I still feel the warm welcome from my hometown every time I visit. I stayed in Busan until I was fifteen and left for New York to pursue my piano studies.
Q: What are some of the similarities and some of the differences between Korean culture and your current community in Hong Kong?
A: Korean culture is largely influenced by Chinese culture. For example, Confucianism is an ancient Chinese ethical and philosophical system that was originally developed from Kong Fu Zi. It focuses on our human morality and good deeds, which became very important ideas that spread throughout Asia. It deeply influenced East Asia, including Korea, China, and Japan, for almost 2,500 years. Respecting elders, ancestor worshiping, every-day manners, how to behave during mealtime, and so on, was deeply rooted into our thinking.
My grandfather is an excellent example of a strong believer. Every time we have the ancestor-worshiping day (“Jae Sa”), all the family members get together for the ceremony. I believe we had thirteen or fourteen “Jae Sa” (it is the actual funeral day for the family member who passed away) a year. My mother was a wife of the first-born son, and she had to carry out the preparation for all the events, mostly preparing food for the ceremony and for the guests. It would take her about two whole days to prepare everything according to the strict recipe—for example, no garlic and only certain kinds of ingredients.
These days in Korea, many people have converted to Christianity, so they no longer follow the strict ceremonial rules.
Hong Kong is very cosmopolitan and has a collection of diverse cultural backgrounds, but is still part of a very strong Asian culture. Among the Chinese and other ethnical groups, I do find some similarities with Korean culture, but I also see some differences due to the geographical, historical, and cultural background. And I still see some remaining influence from the British colonialism among the elderly people in Hong Kong.
Q: What do you think are some of the most powerful commonalities between women living in different regions of the world?
A: We women around the world have different cultural and religious backgrounds, but despite the differences, we are capable of multi-tasks, like being responsible for oneself as well as for others. We are more sensible and detail-oriented, and we can achieve in many different careers as well as men. Now more than ever, we have shattered the glass ceiling of the professional world and compete extensively against men. I’m particularly proud of all the women—whether they are single, married, or divorced—who focus on their lives and pursue their happiness.
We as women have the most power to influence society, as we influence the next generations of mothers, wives, and colleagues.
Q: What has your career been like, and how has that changed/continued in Hong Kong?
A: I see myself as very fortunate because I’ve had the chance to live in the U.S., Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong.
I am a pianist, a teacher, was once a full-time housewife, and now work in finances. As a pianist, I truly enjoy the thrilling moment of performing and find joy from teaching students.
After finishing my studies in the U.S., I returned to Korea and started teaching. Then I married and moved to Singapore and became a full-time housewife (they call it “tai tai” in Singapore) for a short while. But soon I was involved in the local music community with some of the keen amateur musicians, formed a chamber group, and performed occasionally. I enjoy playing solo pieces, but it’s always so much fun to play with a group.
After two and half years in Singapore, Hong Kong reminded me of New York City, which is dynamic and vibrant. As a curious human being, I was always interested in doing something else besides the music, and Hong Kong opened the door for me to work in the Asset Management Company. At first, all the financial terms seemed like a foreign language to me, but over time, they became more familiar. I’m still learning something new every day and I enjoy meeting new people in different fields. But deep in my heart, I’m still a pianist and continue teaching during the weekends.
Q: Tell me about your family.
A: I grew up with very loving parents, a sister and a brother. They all live in Busan, Korea, and I’m the eldest. My mother and father are the ultimate role models for the kind of parent that I want to be some day.
My father is an architect, runs his own business, and is still active at the age of sixty-five, but lately he is spending more and more time with my nephew and niece. He just cannot have enough time with them and I can see his unconditional love toward them.
My mother is a full-time housewife, once a teacher before she married my father. Sometimes I make fun of the fact that she has a degree in home economics, which made her the best bride candidate of her time. My mother is very traditional and successfully carried out the role as a wife of the first-born son, which is not easy under my family’s strict household. Two winters ago, my mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and during that time, I couldn’t bear the fact that I might lose my mother forever. Luckily, now she is fully recovered and healthy again. I knew my mother as a quiet, conservative, sensible person, but this incident reminded me of her unbelievable inner strength and I’m very proud of her.
My sister is married to a doctor and has two children. They live very close to my parents, so they get all the good benefits of babysitting. She studied voice and was a voice teacher before she married. But now she dedicates most of her time to her children and whenever she has free time, she helps out my brother’s café business.
My brother is the youngest, studied painting, and now runs his café business. Once we considered him the black sheep of the family, but luckily, he is enjoying working at the café. He is becoming more mature dealing with customers, and he has gained a lot of credibility.
My parents love to sing. They don’t play instruments, but they gave us opportunities to learn music. Whenever we all have the chance to get together (not very often these days because now I have an office job), we gather around the piano and have fantastic family singing sessions. We always sing our hearts out for about two hours, and believe it or not, this makes us all quite hungry.
Q: If you could change the one thing about the world today, what would it be?
A: I consider myself a Buddhist, but not particularly religious. All religions have messages about how we should lead our lives, and I have great respect for all of them. But when we look back on our history, how many wars and conflicts were caused by differing beliefs? If I had the power to change the world, I would build respect toward all the religions and make them work together. It might help us come closer to achieving world peace.