Residing in a little villa in Gwangju, South Korea, Texan Jen Lee is living the dream of being a comic artist. In 2010, Lee packed her bags in Houston and followed her boyfriend, an English teacher, to the Land of the Morning Calm. It was a unique and exciting opportunity for Lee to move to Gwangju, located some 180 miles south of Seoul. The city is best known for being the birthplace of the modern Korean democratic movement, as well as for its parks, museums and hip urban art scene. “I haven’t moved once since I got here,” says the 27-year-old. “I’ve grown fairly attached to this lovely city.”
As an adolescent, Lee often felt isolated from the Korean community in Texas. Her parents immigrated to the United States a few years before Lee was born. “I never really identified with the Korean side of myself,” she recalls. “That being said, growing up where my cultural background was mostly unknown to everyone around me came with its awkward moments.” So Lee turned to art. “According to my mother, I was drawing before I could form proper sentences,” she says. But it wasn’t until elementary school that she began drawing comics.
The idea for her popular comic strip, “Dear Korea,” stemmed from conversations with fellow expats about the funny and odd moments they’d experienced living in Korea. “I thought it would be interesting to create a comic that highlighted what it was like to live in Korea as a Korean American,” explains Lee. “While people like me are technically expats, I think our perspectives may be a little different from those who grew up with little or no Korean influences in their lives.”
Anyone who has lived on her own or has an interest in Korean culture can relate to Lee’s comics. Indeed, though “Dear Korea” started out as a Web comic, it has since branched out and the strip is now published in various magazines and publications around the country. “From what I can tell, my comics are read by expats from all over the world,” says Lee.
In addition to the opportunities – Lee supports herself with freelance art gigs, radio work and tutoring – living in Korea has given Lee a new perspective on her ancestral homeland. She says she loves the food and the affordable health care. But perhaps the best part of living in Gwangju is finally feeling connected to a community, one filled with a good number of expats: “I honestly don’t know how long I would have lasted here without them.”
For more “Dear Korea,” go to dearkoreacomic.com.
–STORY BY JULIE CARLSON
This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.