Simon and Martina Stawski are just your normal adorable couple who moved to Korea to teach English, and somewhere along the way became YouTube celebrities through their channel-turned-company “Eat Your Kimchi.” Oh wait — there is nothing average about that, is there?
Frustrated with the North American teaching system and passionate about traveling the world, Simon and Martina packed up their bags in May 2008 and haven’t looked back since. From the first day they arrived in South Korea, the couple began making YouTube videos to show their families what life was like in South Korea and reassure their mothers that North Korea was not going to cover the country in a “sea of fire” as they had threatened.
After five years on YouTube, “Eat Your Kimchi” has grown to have over 300 thousand subscribers and shifted from being just a hobby to being the couple’s full-time job. The goal of each of their videos is to capture a realistic picture of life in South Korea and answer questions about the culture, music and food of the country from a foreigner’s point of view. With limited services available for YouTube creators in South Korea, Simon and Martina turned “Eat Your Kimchi” into a company rather that just a channel and recently purchased their first studio in Seoul this past December. With the “Eat Your Kimchi” company they will continue filming their own programs — “Music Mondays,” “Food Adventures Program For Awesome People (FAPFAP),” “Wonderful Adeventure Now Korea (WANKS)” and “TL;DR” — and are working to encourage other South Korean creators to join the YouTube space. I caught up with Simon and Martina, despite our 17-hour time difference, from their new studio and talked with them about how they made YouTube their life, the one subject they won’t talk about on camera and how “Eat Your Kimchi” is just the beginning.
Why did you guys start “Eat Your Kimchi,” and how did it become your full-time jobs?
Martina Stawski: Essentially we were high school teachers in Canada and we decided to come to Korea to teach high school, and the very first day that we arrived we started our blog right away. We did photos originally and videos as well, and we would focus on like huge amounts of text, and then we realized that our family wasn’t even reading our ginormous blog posts.
Simon Stawski: They’d only watch our videos.
Martina: So we started to focus a little bit more on videos because we realized that that seemed to interest our family, and then slowly we started to get subscribers and we didn’t even think of this being a job at all, like we were just doing it for fun.
Simon: It was just a hobby that we were pursuing.
Martina: And we did it for about two years while we were teaching, and after two years we started to get a significant increase in traffic, and then Simon thought — I want to say “Simon said,” but everytime I say that, I’m like, “Simon said, ‘Jump on one foot!’” — Simon decided to take the jump to try and better the website.
Simon: So I quit for a year while Martina kept on teaching, and she was pretty much the sugar mama while I tried to increase our traffic. And after a year it got to the point where she could quit her job as well, and it just keeps on getting better every year. Now we have a studio and we have some staff with us, so things are working out quite nicely!
Was it a pretty nerve-wracking moment when you both decided to quit and put your time and energy into this site?
Simon: Well for me it was very nerve-wracking the first year when I quit because there was no stability. We were making two bucks a month at that time, and I knew maybe things could get better, so for me I was very nervous, but when Martina was finally able to quit, we were like, “We are sure that we can do this.” It was just difficult before because she was teaching and doing the website videos at the same time.
Martina: I slept one hour a night [laughs].
Did you know for a while that you wanted to come to Korea and teach English?
Martina: Oh we are kind of split on that one because I grew up with a Korean Japanese best friend since I was like 3, so she really got me into Asian culture since I was a little kid. So I always knew I would end up in Asia no matter what. My whole family has been prepping for the day when I’d leave them, but for Simon, he just wanted to travel but he didn’t necessarily think of Asia until we were in university, and he worked in a Korean tutoring center for just Korean students.
Simon: And my Korean students there were absolute angels, like they were so nice and so kind, so I thought, as a teacher, why not go to a country full of Korean students? It only makes logical sense.
Martina: But we didn’t expect to be here for so long. We thought maybe a year and then Japan and then a year and somewhere else but we have never been able to leave [laughs].
What was something that really threw you guys off guard when you first came to Korea?
Martina: We actually were not culture shocked. I know a lot of people experience that, but we prepped a lot before we came here with reading. We were just really excited about being in a new place. I think the only thing that might have been kind of overwhelming was the amount of people and the verticalness of Korea. When you arrive here, you think that you can find your apartment easily, but there is so many buildings that are towering like 50 stories high, and every level is taken up. Like the sixth floor could be a coffee shop, seventh floor could be karaoke and the eighth floor could be a food place. You’re just overwhelmed by the lights and the brightness, and you can’t find your way back home it seems.
Simon: The population density here is so huge. Even in a small city where we were it’s still much more crowded than downtown Toronto. We’re just overwhelmed at how busy things are, so whenever we go back to North America we experience kind of a reverse culture shock like, where did all the humans go?
Martina: It’s really funny when you hear people complain, like when you’re waiting at a stoplight and everyone’s like, “Oh, it’s so busy today. There is so much traffic,” and I’m like, “Are you kidding me? There is no one on the road!”
Are there some things that you do miss about Canada?
Martina: Oh, there is tons of stuff. Holidays are always the worst.
Simon: I really miss the greenery of Canada. The first thing I always say as soon as I get off the airplane when we are back in Toronto is “The air is just so fresh!” Here there aren’t a lot of trees in our area.
Martina: Something really funny is we used to live by this ginormous park, and they had little tiny ropes around the grass and in Korean it said you were not allowed to sit on the grass. So the foreigners, even though we could read Korean, we’d just pretend that we couldn’t read it and we’d go sit on the grass.
Simon: We played the foreigner card like, “Oh I don’t understand!”
Martina: We’d sit on the grass and have a picnic, and as soon as one person got on the grass, then all the Korean people would join in and play soccer and play frisbees and have their dogs off the leash. Then the security guards would come on their little scooters and whistles and be like, “Get off the goddamn grass!” Then we’d be like [screams], and we’d all flee of the grass.
Simon: There isn’t a lot of grass around here, so they try to keep it as pristine as possible.
Martina: Which is ridiculous! Grass is to be sat upon!
What is a typical day for you two?
Martina: Our day is very odd.
Simon: We don’t really live a typical life according to what foreigners do here because most foreigners work as teachers or work in jobs somewhere else, so they do their 9 to 5 and then they can go out and make friends, while we are workaholics you could say.
Martina: We usually wake up around 12 or 1 because we have been up the night before really late. We’re trying to work on the North American time schedule since our audience is usually awake at a different time. So we get up pretty late and we usually make breakfast. Breakfast is the toughest part of living in Korea because they don’t really have the North American-style greasy diners and pastries and that kind of stuff, so you really have to get used to Korean food for breakfast.
Simon: Or you just make your own food.
Martina: Yeah, but you don’t even have many options; you can’t buy sausages at the store or stuff like that. I can make my own sausages now, by the way! It took four years to learn! So we have breakfast, we walk our dog, and then we usually pack up everybody into their little crates and we take both our cat and our dog into the studio. We hop in a taxi and head over the bridge which is over the big Han River — I love that view it has; the whole city like glistening on the river — and then we head into Hongdae which is an artsy university town. Then we head up to our studio on the fourth floor, which is where we are right now, and we just make some coffee and map out our schedule for the day. We usually film at least two videos a day.
Simon: We try to.
Martina: We try to, and once we finish filming we edit something, so we’re constantly filming and editing and then going home at like 3 or 4 a.m. in a taxi.
Simon: So our weekdays are usually spent entirely in the office. Our weekends are when we try to go out more often.
Martina: Try [laughs].
What do you think makes these videos so appealing to your audience?
Martina: We don’t really understand why anyone is interested in our videos! Honestly, it’s not like one of those things where we are like, “Well, we’re trained in film” or “We’re talented in this,” or “We’re good dancers” — we don’t have any of those qualities. We learned editing along the way. Our degree is totally useless now, and essentially everything that we did it’s just that we — I wanted to say, “wing it,” but what’s the past tense of that? We wung it?
Simon: We wanged it!
Martina: So we still don’t really understand why people are interested. The only thing that we can come up with is that there just aren’t a lot of people putting out video consistently. People will put up videos about their time in Korea or Japan and it will be on their point and shoot camera without a lot of thought, so they are talking a lot or swinging the camera around wildly, so you get nauseous. But then people don’t keep up with it so I think that it’s you can come to our site and we’re always up to date and keeping up with our videos.
Simon: Well, it’s a blessing and a curse. People are interested in our videos in Korea because barely anybody makes videos. Like you don’t have to necessarily live your entire life where you’ve been born; you can have a totally different experience and we’re trying to show people that that is doable. I really envy the YouTube USA community because people can collaborate, they can bounce ideas off each other, they can gripe to each other, while we here in Korea, there is really no one else doing YouTube videos here with us. Nobody is really a professional YouTuber here, so it’s definitely difficult for us to be able to speak to people and have people understand what we’re doing. We kind of wish that we could be part of the YouTube USA sphere of it.
You guys have a lot of vlogs that allow your audience insight into your personal life — is that ever difficult? Are there any boundaries of things you’re not comfortable sharing?
Martina: I’m trying to think. Well, we don’t talk about babies, and that’s it. We get harassed all the time about having babies, and I’m like, “Who do you think is going to raise this baby? I’ll raise it, not you, so stop forcing me!”
Simon: It’s pretty much our parents who are like, “Hey, how is that baby coming along?”
Martina: Our entire internet fanbase is like, “When are you having babies?”
Simon: Well no, we don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I can’t imagine anything that we don’t feel like sharing. Right now we are a lot more in the public eye of the Korean media. We do get on some TV shows here in Korea and in major newspapers, so when we are more exposed to Korean media we are more cautious with how we phrase things about Korea, because if we say things the wrong way, then some hyper nationalist people might get very offended about it. So for example on Thursday we did our video of Martina dressing up in a traditional Korean outfit.
Martina: It was a princess cafe where you rent the outfit and wear them.
Simon: You get a coffee and can dress up in whatever you want, a wedding dress or traditional Korean dress, and people were extremely offended that Martina was playing around in such a sacred Korean dress; these are the kinds of things we have to be careful about how we say and what we say.
Martina: Have you heard of the phrase “netizens?” It’s a term — I guess it’s from Korea — internet citizens. The Korean netizens are very vocal, and they are not vocal outside of the internet, but on the internet, hiding behind their cowardice.
Simon: They’re strong keyboard warriors.
Martina: Netizens can be very critical even to the Korean public, like Korean K-pop stars or the Korean actors and actresses. People have committed suicide over netizens harassing them.
Simon: We almost just quit and left because of how nasty netizens are. Like we’ve grown a lot thicker skin now, but it’s something that’s very difficult to get used to. So I think that’s the only thing that we’re concerned with. If we say something the wrong way or we do something incorrectly in public we don’t want the netizens to blow something out of proportion, you know?
In the U.S., the lines defining traditional media and social media are beginning to blur. Is there still a divide in Korea between these two or is it turning into a fluid space?
Martina: Oh no, there is a huge divide!
Simon: It’s a big divide. A lot of Korea doesn’t understand internet or social media yet. I’m pretty sure that even in Korea there are no YouTube servers yet, while YouTube has servers pretty much everywhere else around the world.
Martina: We have to use a server from Japan.
Simon: And even whenever we do like interviews with Korean newspapers or TV shows, they are like, “So what’s your job?” And we’re like, “Well, we make YouTube videos.” And they are like, “Well okay, but what’s your job? How do you make money? How do you live?” So a lot of people don’t understand how powerful a platform YouTube is.
Martina: I would like to interrupt and say that the youth of Korea, I think they are on board. We’ve met a lot of people who are friends of ours who work for powerful traditional media companies, and they understand the importance of using social media correctly, using Facebook correctly, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. You can’t just spam; you have to actually have something to say to create a personality. But the people higher up, the older people, they don’t get that.
Simon: The older people in command, they still aren’t with the times, and unfortunately it’s very hierarchal in a lot of companies, and if the person at the top doesn’t agree, then screw everyone below — they have to go with that the boss says.
You guys came onto YouTube in 2008? What have you guys learned along the way?
Martina: So much. I just shook my Yoda stick, but you couldn’t see it.
Simon: Number one, don’t feed the trolls. Ever.
Martina: Don’t feed the trolls!
Simon: Number two is pursue YouTube videos and make videos because you’re passionate about doing it; don’t do it just because you want to be rich and famous. We know so many people that are crippled and won’t even start their YouTube videos because “I don’t have the right equipment” and “I don’t have this” and “I don’t have that.”
Martina: And people even told me, “I have concerns about people criticizing me and leaving bad comments,” and I’m like, “You haven’t even put a single video up! People won’t even know you exist!” You should just start it because you’re passionate, and then along the way perhaps people will find you and perhaps you’ll become popular, but that’s not why you should go into it.
Simon: I feel like a lot of people are approaching YouTube from the wrong perspective, while we still do this because we love making videos. If we have more time in the day we’d probably just make more videos because we’re just so full of creative energy and ideas, and this is just what we’re passionate about.
Martina: The third thing I would say that’s really important, and this is one of our main points that we always take about, is you really have to appreciate your audience. You can’t take them for granted. People get to the point where they feel like, “Well, I don’t need my audience. I’m just going to put up my stuff.” But that’s not the case; your audience is what makes you and holds you and supports you. They’re like your loving mothers.
Simon: And it’s one of the things that we take highly into consideration whenever we create any content: what does audience want? So for our Music Monday they vote for the videos that are going to be reviewed and for our question answer session they pick the question. We do live chats with them, so we always want to incorporate them as much as possible because there are thousands of other YouTube channels and millions of other TV shows, and for some reason they are watching us and we want to thank them as much as we possibly can.
What advice would you have for creators interested in starting their own company?
Simon: We’re so new to this company thing; we only opened up our studio on December 31st, so we are still trying to get our furniture in and like patch up the flooding that was in our floor.
Martina: Being passionate. I think it is really the key because if you go into a company that you think is going to make money but you have no passion for, when you have good days it’s fine, but when you have tough days that’s when you’re willing to give up. For us, we’re passionate about it, our videos are our babies, we put a lot of love into them, so when the computer crashes and deletes the whole project and you want to chuck it through a window and murder someone on the street, you remind yourself that you worked really hard to make that video and that your audience is going to love it. If you don’t have that love for a company, like if you’re starting a business because you think that you can make money and something goes wrong, it’s going to be hard to push yourself when that kind of thing happens.
Moving forward, what are your future plans?
Martina: I think at this point now we’re looking to solidify “Eat Your Kimchi” in Korea, and we’re hoping to be able to travel to different countries and do the same thing. We want to be able to introduce countries from an honest perspective and not from the government’s “Come to this country because we have ‘blank’!” We want to show people what nitty gritty normal life is in different countries.
Simon: It’s like for example whenever we look at the tourism industry here in Korea; they always say something like, “Come to Korea and visit the palaces and climb a mountain!” and it’s so very stuffy and traditional, and it doesn’t show the fun, vital energy that is in the country.
Martina: Okay, they never mention how much drinking goes on in Korea! Never! Do you even know how drunk everyone is all the time?
Simon: Yeah! Jesus!
Martina: People are always …
Simon: I’m drunk right now!
Martina: Drunk on life! No, we’re not drunk yet, but I mean people just really — when they work, they work so hard, but when they party, they drink. And it’s never mentioned about going to a little tent covered in plastic, grilling fresh meat while the people beside you try to speak English and Korean to you while they drink Soju and share it with you and you all laugh together. There is this entire atmosphere missing about Korea, and we want to be able to bring that to Korea and show that off. And we would also like to do that for other countries as well, but for now we have to just focus on this company and getting more staff members.
Is there any country that you guys would be most excited to go to after this?
Simon: We’ve had our eyes on Japan for a very long time. We actually bought the domain name “Eat Your Sushi” a long time ago, and it’s actually sitting there waiting. Last time we were in Japan — we were there last month — we spoke to a lot of interesting executives at the time, and there is an interest in having us do what we’re doing in Korea in Japan. And it would be a dream for us.
Martina: But the key is that we don’t want it to be like “Okay, bye, ‘Eat Your Kimchi’!” We want it to be like “Eat Your Kimchi” and “Eat Your Sushi,” and we’d be able to spend time in both countries and have staff workers that can be apart of our videos while we’re gone.
Simon: That’s something that is so scary for us. I know that people are very attached to us and our animals, but when we start introducing other people, how do we know that other people aren’t going to freak out about a different family dynamic?
Martina: It’s tough. We accidentally branded ourselves without realizing it.
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