Would you learn about Korea from Canadians?
Yes, if they’re Simon and Martina Stawski, who are so popular their YouTube channel is the 18th most subscribed in South Korea. The UrbanWire speaks with YouTube celebs in the league of Korean boy-band Big Bang and guitarist Sungha Jung at a Starbucks outlet in Bucheon, South Korea.
These unlikely ambassadors of Korean culture to the world run the Eat Your Kimchi website are better known as Simon and Martina on YouTube, where they upload 3 videos weekly, speaking about topics ranging from Korean pop music, local products and events.
Many of the over 750,000 monthly hits on their website are probably drawn to the expat couple’s knack for humour, given their comedic sketches and how-tos about daily life in Korea, like the “How to speak Korean like a pro” series, which touches on speaking the language.
Simon – ‘Some of the best Korean food is not in Korea’
But how did the Stawskis’ love for Korea start to blossom? Simon, 28, attributes this to their food experiences at Koreatown in hometown Toronto, where they first had a taste of Mul naengmyeon [물 냉면], a traditional cold buckwheat noodle dish.
“The best Mul naengmyeon I’ve ever had is in Canada,” Simon attests, smacking his lips with glee.
Still what compelled the high school teachers to decide to move to Bucheon, a small city sandwiched between metropolitan Seoul and Incheon? Martina, also 28, explained, “We wanted to go overseas and thought we might go to somewhere we’re comfortable with. Since Simon taught at a hagwon [학원 – private school], he got to know more about Korean culture through his students, so we decided to settle in Korea.”
Simon describes his experience with teaching Korean students as “wonderful” and so when the “golden opportunity” to teach in Korea came, he had to “take a chance at it”.
The couple finally came to Korea in 2008 to teach English as a foreign language.
Their first experience with the country was, as Simon quoted, “amazing”.”When our fellow teachers drove us to Bucheon, we were amazed at how tall the skyscrapers were and just overwhelmed by the sights and colours.”
Becoming YouTube celebrities
The first day in Korea also marked the birth of their path to Internet fame – they filmed their first video. “We had a Sony point-and-shoot camera and we took (a video) of ourselves eating Sundobu jjigae [순두부찌개 – soft tofu stew],” describes Simon. “We wanted to show our family what life was like in Korea.”
So it came as an enormous surprise when the Stawskis saw viewership of their channel climb into the millions in 2009. “No way,” Martina said, on whether they expected so many views and subscribers to pour in. “We’re still totally shocked, we act like how we do in real life, so we thought people won’t be interested (in our videos).” Still, the Stawskis are thrilled when people leave comments and video responses to their videos.
“We have a fan from Japan who watches our videos to cheer (herself) up, after being crushed by what’s happening there,” Simon said, referring to the earthquake and tsunami.
The Stawskis usually upload music reviews on Mondays, known as Music Mondays and on Thursdays, a product review segment called WTF – Wonderful Treasure Find.
Requests from music fans are taken in for Music Mondays, and the songs or music videos with the highest number of requests are considered before filming a review for the song begins.
Filming, as Martina explains, seems like the easiest part of the video-making process. “It takes us 2 to 3 hours to write scripts, setting up and recording takes another 2 hours, but editing and uploading is the most tedious – takes up to a full day to accomplish.”
So now that the Stawskis are living it up with their popularity online, do they encounter fans in real life? “We do, we have met up with fans in real life. Some of those whom we’ve met just sit and gawk at us like we’re celebrities,” chuckled Martina. “Besides Korea, we get a lot of viewership and fans from Singapore too.”
Their partnership with YouTube has brought a new source of income for the Stawskis, which, Simon revealed, is close to how much they earn as teachers.
Simon works full-time on the Eat Your Kimchi website, and he will be joined by Martina, when her teaching contract ends in June. “By then, I want to work full-time on the blog, take more trips around Korea and also travel to other parts of Asia,” Martina adds.
Next stop, Singapore?
My eyes lit up on the mention of traveling around Asia. Could they be planning to come to Singapore soon?
As a quick intro, I fished out a small silver figurine – the Merlion, Singapore’s famous tourist icon.
“Mol-la-yo? (몰라요)” Simon asks, remarking that the icon with a lion’s head and a fish’s tail sounds like “I don’t know” in Korean.
Could they really be unfamiliar with our country or was it a joke, since they had mentioned having fans from Singapore? Martina’s message to Singaporean fans was certainly assuring.
“We’d absolutely love to come to Singapore. We’d even love to do travel videos when we get there!”
Look out, fans. Eat Your Kimchi is coming to Singapore soon.
Simon and Martina’s YouTube channel is at youtube.com/simonandmartina. Their website is at eatyourkimchi.com.
Photography by Luqman Hakim Khoo.