My dream job: Three days as Kang Gary’s interpreter

By Jae Park
I was just in my third week in Singapore and I had barely gotten my bearings around this bustling city-state between classes and doing my PhD coursework when my professor, Dr Cho Nam-Joon, dropped an unusual assignment onto my lap – be a translator for the Korean stars Kang Gary and Jung In.

The two celebrities were coming to Singapore to perform at NTU Fest. A man of few words, all Dr Cho said was: It will be fun.

I agreed instantly. After all, I’d been a fan of both Gary and Jung In ever since the release of Rush, their first musical collaboration.

I am an American-born Korean, growing up in a traditional Korean-speaking family in Michigan. I spent four of my teenage years in Korea, so you could say I have had equal opportunities to speak both English and Korean.

The first time I met Gary was the day he arrived in Singapore, two days before NTU’s inaugural public charity extravaganza. I was feeling anxious. Once Gary and Jung In cleared customs, I walked over, nerves tingling, and introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Jae and I’ll be your translator for the next three days.”

Gary thanked me politely, without a hint of the huffiness you might expect from a celebrity. Coming at the tail end of his busy week of appearances and performances, as well as filming Running Man, Korea’s hit variety show, he told me the trip to Singapore would be a vacation of sorts for him and Jung In.

Flight fatigue aside, our Korean guests were craving for chili crab, so we headed to Jumbo Seafood at Clarke Quay. It was Jung In’s first time in Singapore and it was love at first bite for her.

Throughout dinner, Gary was in a jovial mood despite being tired, even obliging my request for a photo. At first I felt like I was the party crasher – but then I looked around the table. Everyone was smiling and joking, and no one treated him in a deferential manner like I had expected.

Accompanying Gary and Jung In around Singapore, I felt like I, too, was getting that tour of Singapore I had yet to do – in style.

A late dinner at one of the best Korean restaurants in Singapore after NTU Fest
At Jumbo Seafood, we entered the restaurant via a secret back door and were given a private room. At Ku Dé Ta atop Marina Bay Sands, we were given the best spots from which to take in the night view and this on a Friday when it was busiest.

Jung In and I tried and pledged allegiance to the famous Balestier Road bak kut teh. We visited Tanjong Pagar for some Korean soju and had the whole place to ourselves at another Korean restaurant because its boss couldn’t be happier to have us there. Burly bodyguards cleared the way for us wherever we went, meaning we didn’t have to be stuck in queues.

On the day of NTU Fest, Gary asked me if there were any Singaporean phrases he could say on stage.

I wasn’t the right person to ask seeing I’m also a newcomer to Singapore, but thanks to the bak kut teh supper the night before, the Singlish word shiok was stuck in my head.

“See-ock?” he first tried.

“No, it’s shee-yoke. You have to say it fast,” I said.

“Shee-ock? Sheeock,” he finally managed. Not exactly, but close enough. It’ll do.

He gave me a friendly pat on the back. Later on, he used the word to overwhelming cheers and laughter from his fans, because they were tickled by his awkward mispronunciation and that he’d actually tried to say it.

That’s me, in glasses, next to Gary and his crew
Through the 45 hours I spent with him, I’ve learnt some things about Gary.

On Running Man, he is somewhat goofy and full of laughs. As a rapper, he is a rebel oozing with attitude. In reality, he is a mix of both. Even in his capacity as a star, he shows genuine concern for his minders and acknowledges the people who work for him, and he is ever ready with a funny quip to break the ice.

But Gary has his quiet moments too. Backstage, I found him silently rehearsing his songs, singing along to music from his mobile phone. It was clear he needed his space, so everyone let him have it.

As he readied himself to go on stage, I thought I saw a glimmer of anxiety. But all that vanished the moment the spotlights fell on him. He delivered song after song with the confidence of a superstar and filled the entire Padang with his irresistible presence. No wonder many in the 8,000-strong crowd were singing along to his prompting and screaming declarations of love.
As I watched from behind the curtains, I marvelled at the adoring fans and the joy evident on their faces. Even with a life that so many dream of, Gary, through his songs – like Drunken Night Tune – once said he regretted letting the fear of failure hold him back when he was younger.

He told me one night: “Do everything you can while you’re young, and if an opportunity comes, grab it.”

After three days, returning to ordinary life as a PhD student in NTU needed some getting used to, but I’m glad I took the opportunity when it came, for NTU Fest is one event I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Jae Park is a PhD student at NTU’s School of Materials Science & Engineering pursuing research in anti-viral drug delivery.