Mayumi Nakayama ‘90
(The Internationalist Fall/Winter 2020 Vol. 65)
During the global COVID-19 stay-at-home order at the beginning of 2020, how many of you signed up for online streaming services and binge-watched hours and hours of movies and TV shows like Tiger King and Game of Thrones? Some of you might even have seen Korean dramas like Crash Landing on You and Itaewon Class, which were two of the top must-watch Asian series during the lockdown. I for one devoured Korean TV on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Little did I know at the time that Nishimachi alumna Eva Sachiko Popiel ’96 was currently living in Korea and working as a TV personality—living the very life I was seeing on TV.
Looking through Sachiko’s Instagram (@evapopiel), I realized that not only she was living in Korea, but that she was famous. I was ecstatic and decided to reach out to Sachiko through her older sister, my Nishimachi classmate Akiko, to see if I she would consider doing an interview with me for the next issue of The Internationalist. I hadn’t seen Sachiko in some thirty years, but Akiko put us in touch, and we were able to reconnect on Zoom. I had to find out what it was really like to live, and be a TV celebrity, in Korea.
Sachiko didn’t set out in life thinking about becoming a television personality, but, as often happens, one thing leads another, and when, as a language student in Seoul, an opportunity to appear on a one-time TV show came her way, and then another, she seized it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Eva Sachiko Popiel was born in Tokyo to a British father and a Japanese mother. She spent nine years at Nishimachi, starting out as one of the twenty-six students in Mr. Worster’s kindergarten class, and staying until she completed eighth grade. Sachiko (she used her Japanese name while growing up in Japan), or “Sacchan,” as she was known by many, cherishes the memories she has of her Nishimachi years—of the ski trips and of Kazuno. Kazuno was an oasis of “peace and quiet.” She loved sitting all alone out in the middle of an open field up there, away from her classmates, drawing or doing a writing assignment. Living then in bustling, brightly lit Tokyo, she treasured the opportunity to sit back and just absorb.
“I was so sad and ashamed that I had to leave Nishimachi after eighth grade!” Sachiko tells me. She said it was a “thing” among the kids to stay until you graduated from Nishimachi in ninth grade. That last year is such a special year. Students study and work in close proximity, cementing friendships and creating enduring memories. The graduation ceremony in June tops it all off. But Sachiko’s father was retiring the year before she was to enter ninth grade, and he wanted to return to London. Akiko was already there for her university studies, so it was a natural thing for the rest of the family to move to London.
In London, she liked her new school, the all-girls’ Marymount International School, but she missed Nishimachi. She echoed what so many Nishimachi alumni tell us when they move on. It wasn’t that Nishimachi was the only school she had ever known, but that she deeply felt the loss of the close-knit community and intimacy of the small-school setting that made her feel she was not just a student, but part of a large family.
Off to College!
Sachiko attended Durham University, where she majored in Chinese and management studies. China was growing rapidly, and companies across the world were investing in it. She loved to travel, learn new languages, and get to know other cultures, but didn’t realize at the time how difficult and consuming an undertaking studying Chinese was to be. After all, she told herself, she knew Japanese and had mastered kanji. She got the basic conversation down, but there were just too many kanji she didn’t know that remained to be learned.
Sachiko spent her second university year at Renmin University in Beijing. This was at the beginning of the new millennium, and she found her life as a student in Beijing challenging. She learned a lot, however, and looks back on her time there as a positive and enjoyable experience. Along the way, she did have to deal with a few inconveniences, though. The hot water in her dormitory ran for only one hour in the morning and one in the evening. The residents in her building all took showers at the same time, either in the morning or in the evening, which rapidly drained the supply. Then there was the elevator, which did not operate after midnight. Coming home late after an evening with friends, she discovered this the hard way when she had to clamber up multiple flights of stairs in high heels.
Change in Plans
She met quite a number of Korean exchange students while in Beijing, and, unbeknownst to Sachiko, this would quite soon alter the trajectory of her life. For the moment, however, this group of friends added a little light and laughter to her time in Beijing and provided a welcome respite from the pressure she felt from her Chinese-language studies.
Her friends introduced her to Korean culture, food, language, K-pop music, and K-drama. She liked Korean culture so much she wanted to know more and decided to start by learning Hangul (the Korean alphabet) on her own; it was so much easier to read than Chinese and, amazingly, “took me only a day. Just like the alphabet, you learn the individual letters and put them together to read the word. You may not understand the meaning, but you can pronounce it.”
Sachiko’s interest in Korea ballooned to the point where she enrolled in beginning Korean-language classes after she returned to Durham. She wanted to continue her studies following graduation, but her mother suggested that she “get a job.”
Korea on Her Mind
Sachiko landed a position in Tokyo with L’Oréal Japan in the international education department of its subsidiary Shu Uemura, a well-known Japanese cosmetic brand, and this took her back to Asia.
Although she was able to reconnect with a number of classmates from Nishimachi and enjoyed living in Tokyo, something was missing. She started flying to Korea on long weekends to see friends, enjoy the food, and sightsee. With every visit, she became all the more enamored—and determined to become proficient in the language. But she realized there was only one way to do that and that was to move to Seoul.
She screwed up her courage and went to her boss to explain. When she said she wanted three months off, six tops, to take a short language course in Korea, her boss, much to her surprise, laughed and said, “Popi-chan [her nickname at work], quit this job and go! I know you’re never coming back to Japan!” What to do? Should she quit? What if she wanted to return? Would she have to find a new job all over again? Her boss put her fears at rest, assuring her she would have a job at Shu Uemura if she wanted it. The boss wasn’t alone in sensing Sachiko’s move would be permanent. It was clear to others as well. Sachiko was the only who didn’t know.
Super Junior’s Full House
She packed a small suitcase and off she went to Korea, planning to take a one semester (three-month) language course at Kyung-Hee University. One semester turned to two, and she ended up staying for three semesters, for almost a year in total. One day one of the teachers beckoned her. “There’s a TV program looking for foreigners. We think you should audition.” Sachiko agreed to give it a try and was taken to a classroom set up with a camera, where she had to state her name and age, and make a few random comments. That was it.
To her surprise, the broadcasting company called her in for a second interview. She had no idea what she was getting into but got the job, along with a girl named Anya from Russia, for a TV program called Super Junior’s Full House, with a then brand-new Korean boy band, Super Junior, where they played games and talked about Korea. This marked Sachiko’s first TV appearance in Korea. Although the show aired for only a few months in 2006, core Super Junior fans remember Sachiko to this day and ask for photos and autographs if they run into her on the street.
That show whetted her appetite for more television work, but she didn’t know how to go about it. By coincidence, a former colleague from Shu Uemura Korea happened to mention a one-off TV talk show which was looking for girls of different nationalities to discuss the similarities and differences between wherever they came from and Korea. Sachiko auditioned with KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) and got the job.
When it rains, it pours. She hadn’t even left the building when someone approached her and asked if she would be interested in auditioning for another program. They were looking for an English speaker to host an English-language quiz show. As luck would have it, Sachiko, went in for one job, and came out with two.
A Big Step Forward
It turns out that that one-time Global Talk Show(미녀들의 수다), as it was called, was a huge success on Korean TV. The names of the girls who appeared were among the “top three most searched” categories in Korea. The public, it seems, was extremely interested in what this group of girls had to say.
About two months later, Sachiko was called back to the Global Talk Show, only this time, they were planning a program that would air weekly. It was so popular it ran for four years, and Sachiko was there for all of them. She attributes its success to the fact that this was one of the first programs to have a number of foreigners who spoke good Korean. Foreigners speaking fluent Korean in Seoul are fairly common, but, outside of Seoul, it’s a whole different story. Koreans who had no occasion to interact with Korean-speaking foreigners were stunned. Suddenly, right there on their TV screens, they saw all these girls from around the world speaking Korean, all of them interested in Korea.
In Japan, as early as the eighties, there were quite a few gaitaré (“gaijin talent,” or foreign entertainers), but in Korea, this was a whole new concept. As a result, Sachiko’s career moved forward at a very fast pace. She was a panelist on the Global Talk Show and an English teacher on Star Golden Bell (스타 골든벨). Suddenly a celebrity, she would be stopped in the middle of Seoul. Everyone knew who she was. She started getting advertisement contracts and doing TV commercials, her auditioning days now a thing of the past. “My photo was on the side of buses and taxis, and that was fun to see!”
Actress? No, Traveling Entertainer!
“I see you were in a movie and a TV drama series at one point,” I say. She laughs, “I was in the movie for like five seconds!”
“Then how about the TV series, Likable or Not? (미우나 고우나)” She gives me a bitter smile and tells me it was “painful.” She did not like acting, and, frankly, wasn’t very good at it either. “I’m not the acting type. My sister, Akko-chan, is, but never me.”
I’m curious. “But if you liked acting, wouldn’t it be easy for you to get an acting job?” Sachiko shakes her head no. Although she speaks Korean and understands most of what is said, her accent is not native. Because of her Eurasian features, she would always have to play non-Koreans. In Likable or Not she was cast as a woman from Uzbekistan.
Despite her disappointment at not becoming an actress, she had other things on her plate. Her love of travel and sports came to her aid here.
She hosted a travel show that first aired in 2010 in which she would go to a location abroad and live there, like a local, for about three weeks. The first episode took her to Bali, where during the course of her stay, she attended a local wedding and a funeral. She loved the travel and the focus on culture and subsequently visited Singapore and Denmark.
Her biggest thrill came when she was sent to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London as a reporter for SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System). She loves sports, and this was a dream come true. She spent a month in London, reporting on the events of the day and interviewing athletes from around the world, as well as all the Korean athletes, broadcasting every evening live from one of London’s iconic, bright red, double-decker buses turned studio. With her official Olympic staff pass, she was able to get in to see any sports competition she desired. “I would have paid to be at that Olympics! Especially because it was held in the UK, where I have a passport. But instead, I got paid to do it! What’s not to like?”
Double Duty as Mom and Television Host
In between her TV appearances, Sachiko found love and settled down with her boyfriend, now husband, Kyung-Gu Lee, whom she met on the snowboarding slopes in 2008, the friend of a friend. The following summer, she decided to learn to water ski, and Kyung-Gu, who was a water-skiing instructor in the summer, was her teacher. They got married in 2010, and welcomed Luca, their first son, in 2013, followed by Noah, their second son, in 2016.
Sachiko, like most Korean mothers, stayed at home during the boys’ younger years and took care of them while her husband worked. “I was happy to be able to spend time with them while they were young, but it was a struggle for me, because I love working and appearing on TV.” After their marriage, the couple moved to the suburbs of Seoul. Sachiko thought her friends would visit on weekends and holidays, but instead she found herself isolated and felt trapped without any interaction with people from outside her immediate family.
That continued for some time, as she was unable to find the right balance between motherhood, housework, and work, until last year, when she and her husband came up with a happy medium. Sachiko would work during the week while her husband took care of the kids, and on the weekends, their roles reversed.
A Modern Korean Family
Sachiko is learning to cook Korean food and says she isn’t good at it but does make her own doenjang jjigae (the Korean version of miso soup), kimchi jjigae (kimchi soup), jjimdak chicken (Korean braised chicken with a soy sauce base), and a lot of bulgogi (Korean grilled beef). Her husband is the real chef in the family (“It was one of the many reasons I married him!”). He also helps with housework.
The family has a passion for the outdoors and enjoys camping. Having only a sister and no brothers while growing up, Sachiko had to learn how to play with sons very quickly. They run around, of course, and play sports, like football, soccer, and ice hockey, but also spend time with their mother baking cookies and bread.
While on the topic of cooking and food, there was something I had to know: “Do you go to your mother-in-law’s house to make kimchi as they do in the Korean dramas?” She chuckles and says, “Kyung-Gu’s mother will let me know that on such and such a day they’ll be doing this year’s gimjang [the female members of the family get together for a day and make kimchi], and sometimes I go and sometimes I don’t. It’s usually in October or November. Last year my family was featured on a reality TV show, and all four of us were filmed going to Kyung-Gu’s parents’ house. It’s usually for women only, but since my husband was there, he helped make kimchi too.”
That surprised me. My Korean TV programs made it quite clear men were not involved in making kimchi. It was always the mothers and daughters or daughters-in-law. Sachiko says, “That’s generally true. Korean society is very conservative, and even after all this time I can still be taken aback by certain customs.” Not surprisingly, since he’s such a good chef, Kyung-Gu’s foray into kimchi making was successful.
One Day, Like Oprah
In the little free time she has, Sachiko finds time to work out and volunteer. She used to be extremely active in Zumba, pole dancing, and working out with a personal trainer but has since stopped going to classes since the COVID-19 pandemic to keep her family safe. She goes to the gym to work with her personal trainer and does workouts at home and posts them on her Instagram account. Her over 13,000 followers are interested in her workouts, diet, and healthy lifestyle. Just recently, she placed second for the Fitness Model Category at the Fitness Star Competition.
Sachiko has been the public ambassador for an organ donation awareness campaign in Korea for the last ten years. Koreans do not have a positive attitude about organ donation in general so she gets involved in events that try to shift public opinion. Oprah Winfrey is a role model for that. “I used to watch a lot of TV when I first arrived in Korea,” she says, “and the Oprah shows really cheered me up and made me want to be like her. Someone who motivates others with upbeat and positive messages.”
Until We Meet Again
Our interview went well over the time allotted, and we ended up talking for ninety minutes. I am grateful to Sachiko for sharing her story and insights with the Nishimachi community. Until it is safe to travel once again and see the world, we are fortunate to have television and the internet to turn to for entertainment, information, and a broadening of minds. And to see old friends. If you want to see Sachiko, and happen to be in Korea, she is now appearing on a weekly show that started up about five months ago, My Love to You (내 사랑 투유), where the guests are singers who talk about their music and their personal lives. It airs Tuesday mornings at 10:30 on TV Chosun. I highly recommend it!