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Language is no barrier for Korean star Kim's fans

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 5:14 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2011

He said he was surprised and humbled to have a fan club in Hawaii.

He said he was grateful for their kindness. Said he hoped to visit one day soon.

In truth, it didn't really matter what Korean film star Kim Rae-wan said to his Hawaii fan club president, Pat Matsumoto, on the phone that afternoon.

He had her at "Yobo-seyo" — hello.

"I thought it was a joke at first," says Matsumoto, 59. "But he has this low, deep voice that I'd recognize anywhere. So as soon as he said, ‘Yoboseyo,' I knew it was him.

"I just screamed," she says. "We all screamed."

Matsumoto knows she sounds like one of those wacky, K-drama-obsessed "ajumas" her kids chide her about becoming. But what of it?

"My kids think their mother is crazy," she says, laughing. "But I'm not stalking him!"

Indeed, it's not just Kim's good looks and deep voice that endeared him to Matsumoto.

Matsumoto's mother was born in Seoul. Her father was born in Hawaii to a Korean plantation worker and his picture bride. Growing up, Matsumoto embraced her parents' belief in hard work, filial piety and community service, values that have only grown more dear to her with marriage, motherhood and a nearly four-decade career with the East-West Center, where she works as an executive assistant to the president.

Three years ago, as part of an effort to better understand her Korean heritage, Matsumoto and her husband started taking Korean language lessons at Christ United Methodist church. Two years ago they started watching Korean serial dramas on TV.

"For me the dramas really hit home," Matsumoto says. "They're so clean and respectful. That's what our parents taught us growing up. It's nice to watch, and it's something we can all relate to."

Matsumoto quickly became enamored of Kim, whose characters are always the epitome of kindness and humility. So taken was she with the actor that she started a local fan club in his honor. In two years the club's ranks have swelled from 18 to more than 130.

In March the club held a 30th-birthday party for Kim, who was wrapping up two years of compulsory service in the Korean army.

About 30 members showed up at the Yogur Story restaurant for the luncheon. Unbeknownst to Matsumoto, her Korean language teacher was working a telephone network of friends and acquaintances and relatives trying to get the actor on the phone.

The teacher served as unofficial interpreter while Kim addressed the club, then she turned the phone back over to Matsumoto.

"I managed to say my name in Korean," Matsumoto says. "Then my mind went blank so I said, ‘Saranghaeyo!'" — I love you.

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