Diversity makes this world a more interesting place to live in. Think about it: if everyone just stayed in our hometowns and never ventured out of the familiar, Grand Rapids (or any city for that matter) wouldn’t be what it is today. You wouldn’t even recognize it! Connecting with people all over the world and bringing some of that culture back to our homelands is why we’ve evolved as a species and why we continue to advance for the better. Without sharing our world with others and learning from people of different backgrounds, there would be no tourists and immigrants, no non-American restaurants to go to, no celebrations like Cinco de Mayo or St. Patty’s Day… everything would be homogeneous!
In preparation for the inaugural Grand Rapids Asian Festival on June 10, 2017, we’ve set out to interview some of the members of the Asian community living in West Michigan. By getting to know an individual’s story, not only will we be celebrating that diversity, but maybe we’ll realize that we’re not so different after all.
Sin Chun, owner of Sin Republic, a salon located downtown on Monroe Avenue, moved to Grand Rapids 27 years ago when he was just 10 years old. We sat down with him to learn about his experience growing up as an immigrant and why he calls Grand Rapids home to this day.
Me: Why did your family decide to leave Korea and move to Grand Rapids?
Sin: My dad is actually a GI baby. His real father passed away during the war, where he met my grandma, got her pregnant and had my dad. So he always had the opportunity to come to the US. My dad always wanted us to have a better environment for us to grow up. As I kid, I literally got into fights all the time because I was mixed. I’m not full Korean even if I look like I am. My dad is distinctively half Korean. Back then, there was a prejudice against mixed race people. Korea is a proud country, so back then they didn’t accept half Koreans. Now it’s cool if you’re mixed, but when I was growing up, it wasn’t.
Me: What made you stay for 27 years?
Sin: The cool thing about Grand Rapids is that it’s a pretty big city, but it’s also not. I like the people. They’re kind. The nice thing about it here is that when something is needed, people come together to work together on charity and stuff. It’s a growing city with a lot of opportunities here… And I love the culture.
Me: What are your favorite things to do around the city?
Sin: Hang out with my friends. Go out. I like it because wherever we go, people recognize their regulars and they treat us really well so we feel welcome.
Me: Was it hard adjusting as an immigrant?
Sin: Just when I was growing up. Not so much now. When I first got in a school bus here when I was 10, this kid called me “Chinese chihuahua head.” I have no idea what that means until today, but he did the slanty eye gestures. So I punched him, because that’s how I grew up in Korea. Obviously I got kicked out of the school bus and sent to anger management! It was a culture shock for me. I didn’t even really speak English at the time! In Korea, it’s the culture I was raised in. I was like, “now I can’t punch people anymore?”
Me: What made you open Sin Republic?
Sin: When I was raised in Korea, I didn’t feel like I belonged there because I was mixed. Then I came to the US, and I felt like I didn’t belong here either growing up. I was teased because I was mixed in Korea and I was teased because I was Asian in Grand Rapids. Instead of being angry about who I am since I can’t do anything about it, I realized there’s more people like me. It’s not just me. So I decided to create Sin Republic and named it “Republic,” so I could create my own country with its own culture, with our own way of doing things, where anybody is welcome. I always say, “as long as you got hair, I don’t care what color you are!”
Me: Have you always been into hair?
Sin: I got my license in 2002. Then I did hair for about a year and then took 3 years off to do some soul-searching. I knew I wanted to work with hair, but I didn’t know who I was yet. I lived off 300 dollars a week, eating food from dollar menus and like Little Caesar’s pizza. I was working at liquor stores and restaurants, just to see if I could survive with those limitations. When I was ready to start my hair career, I literally had no clients and about 300 dollars in my pocket. That was 10 years ago and I opened up Sin Republic about 4 years ago without getting a loan from a bank–just out of my own pocket. So from 300 dollars 10 years ago, to opening up my own hair salon!
Me: Tell me about some of your clients! Do you feel that cutting hair is a way that you bond with people who live here?
Sin: My longest client was 3-years-old when I started cutting his hair at the salon I was trained at. Now he’s driving and a junior in high school! I got to see him grow up, got to know his family.
Me: Since this coming Asian Festival is GR’s first one, what does that mean to you personally as someone from the Asian community living here?
Sin: I always felt that something was needed for Asian people, and people in general, so people can realize that this city is for anybody and everybody! We have Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, but never an Asian Festival, so I knew someone would eventually create something like this and I’m very glad they did. Now the Asian community can come together and meet other Asians. The funny thing about the Asian community in Grand Rapids is that we’re all very scattered everywhere. Certain communities are in certain areas and they all stick together. It’ll be nice to get together and get to know everybody and go from there.
Me: Is there anything in particular that made GR feel like home to you?
Sin: The most important thing is friends and family. Several years ago, I had a job offer in San Francisco. I turned it down. It could be cool to do celebrities’ hair in a bigger city, but that’s not what I got into hair for.
Me: Is there something you would like to share with GR natives about Asian culture?
Sin: Once I was working at a sushi restaurant, I brought chopsticks to an older lady customer. She looked at me and said, “Could you bring me something more civilized, like a fork?” She didn’t mean it in a bad way. She just didn’t know better. I didn’t want to just laugh it off. I wanted to teach her something, so I brought her a fork and said, “Now that you’re civilized, you can use this and go stab something that’s already dead before eating it. We Asians like to honor the fact that the food used to be alive by gently picking it up with chopsticks…”
Me: I’ve never thought of chopsticks that way!
Sin: I made that up. *laughs* But chopsticks are more humane, when you think about it!
Me: Are there any stereotypes about Asians that you would like to correct about our community, or about you in particular?
Sin: I don’t eat dogs! I love dogs. It’s a pet, not something to eat. I think that’s what most people think Asians do is eat weird things. Another one is when people ask: “Are you from North Korea or South Korea?” First of all, if I was from North Korea, I’d probably still be stuck there.
Sin was a national champion of Kung Fu in ’97. He also specializes in Wing Chun, a form of Kung Fu that Bruce Lee was also a student of. It’s designed to let you take someone twice your size down with half the energy and effort. Because of this skill, Sin has to register his hands as weapons every 10 years!
Me: What will people find you doing at the GR Asian Festival?
Sin: If the city allows me to cut hair at the festival, you’ll see the crazy way I sculpt hair. People call me “Edward Scissorhands!” It kinda does remind me of how I cut hair and move my hands. I do sort of become one with my scissors.
Me: Tell me about your sense of style. It’s very eccentric and you definitely stand out in a crowd… but in a good way! You look kind of like a Final Fantasy character.
Sin: I had red hair for 7 years and now I colored it silver. When I was growing up, I already liked accessories and all that. I’m actually more mild now! I was never shy with what I was comfortable in. I looked different, I dressed different. I know who I am. I feel sorry for people who look at me weird and say, “why is he dressed like way?” Then I just think, “Sorry you look like a Lego character like everybody else!”
Me: What would you like to see more of in GR in terms of Asian culture?
Sin: More Korean restaurants please! I want GR people to understand what Korean food is. I think they’ll fall in love with it if they get exposed to it more.
Me: You met your wife Stephanie here in GR, right? Tell me about that, if you don’t mind!
Sin: Sure! I first met Stephanie years ago when she a student in Calvin College. She was my client at the old salon I worked in. I cut her hair, but I didn’t see her that way at the time. I was professional about it. Then years passed, she was all graduated and grown up. On my last day at the old salon, she was my last client before I opened Sin Republic. I invited her to a Halloween party at the JW Marriott because I was hosting it at the time. She felt bad because she had another party to go to, but she told me she wanted to check out my new salon sometime. So she swung by one day while I was getting it ready to open. We hung out and we talked and talked. Since I put all my funds at the time into Sin Republic, I only had 20 dollars left in my bank account! But we were having such a great conversation and we were getting hungry… and I wanted to keep talking to her, so I asked her to go with me to Buffalo Wild Wings downtown. I knew I was gonna go over budget, but I ordered 34 dollars worth of wings and fries anyway… trying to be a gentleman. Then I found out she doesn’t eat meat! So all she had were the fries. And I was 14 dollars negative on my account–which is fine! She was worth it.
Stay tuned to meet more Asians of Grand Rapids!
In the meantime:
Like us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/grasianfestival/
Follow us on Instagram: @grasianfestival
We hope to see you at Rosa Parks Circle on June 10!