‘Go back to your country, China’: South Korean-born Dami Im's first day in Australia

From being told to "go back to China", South Korean-born Dami Im has gone on to represent Australia proudly on the international stage. Here she recalls her first days in our country and how music helped her to adjust.

From schoolyard taunts to social media racial abuse, South Korean-born singer and musician Dami Im has overcome the hardships of migration with music.

She arrived in Australia almost two decades ago as a shy young girl who never imagined she would become an international singing sensation. 

Now she hopes to inspire other migrants.

“Other people go through really tough racism," she said. "For me, I’ve been pretty lucky most of the time.

“I’ve only noticed discrimination after being on television and being known. On social media people have said some unfair comments, things like, ‘Go back to your country, China’. I’m not Chinese.

First Day Dami Im
Dami Im (left) arrived in Australia in 1998 with her brother and mother.
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“It affects me a little while when I read that, but then I realise there are tonnes of other people who aren’t like that and that’s how I got to be where I am today, because there are so many other people who would support me rather than discriminate.

“When I came here as the little Korean girl, I never expected myself to arrive where I am today and live out my dreams. It’s going so much better than I ever hoped for.”

As a nine-year-old, she arrived in Logan, south of Brisbane, with her mother and brother in 1998. Her father stayed behind in South Korea to earn money to support his family.

Australia was an alien landscape and culture in many ways.

“First time I landed in Brisbane was in January and it was very, very hot," Im said. "All I saw was trees and land and not so many people and not many cars.

“My best memory was an outdoor pool to swim in every day. We would never have had that in Korea.”

First Day Dami Im
“When you’re a kid you don’t want to stand out and be different to other kids, but it was hard because I didn’t know the language" - Dami Im
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With no English, going to school was a shock.

“When you’re a kid you don’t want to stand out and be different to other kids, but it was hard because I didn’t know the language,” she said.

“In the classroom where all these strange looking faces, speaking a language which I didn’t understand. Yeah, I had a whole lot adjusting to do as a kid.

“They were mean some times, not intentionally, they just thought, ‘she doesn’t speak the language, so what’s wrong with her?’ Some kids made fun of me, others tried to help me. It was all very confusing.”

Her name, Dami Im - pronounced as "dah-me im" - did and is something she still struggles with.

“I want people to know (how to say) my real name,” she said.

“First time I went to school, even the teachers, they pronounced my name as "Dayme", "Demi", "Tammy", and still to this day it’s pronounced wrong.”

Australia's Dami Im celebrates during the semi-final of the 2016 contest
Australia's Dami Im celebrates during the semi-final of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.
AP

Living with her uncle in Logan, the family maintained Korean customs.

She remembers her mother cooking Korean food while they watched rented Korean comedy and drama videos. On Sundays they would go to the local Korean church and socialise with the community.

Her English suffered until the Spice Girls came to the rescue.

“All the kids were listening to Spice Girls. I was very curious and, trying to fit in, I told mum we needed to buy the Spice Girls album. That was the first record we bought,” Im said.

“I learnt all the words and in one of my essays I had to write for English I wrote, ‘I wanna go to school, and I’m gonna blah blah blah...’, the kind of language the Spice Girls used in their songs and that helped me.

“But the teacher, she wasn’t so pleased.”

First Day Dami Im
Dami Im (right) found solace in music as she adjusted to life in Australia.
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Music was Im’s rock in the confusion of her new life in Australia. She had learnt piano in South Korea from the age of five.

“One day I had the opportunity to play at (school) assembly, and that’s when the kids saw that I could play, and play better than all the older kids at school, and that’s when they went, ‘wow she’s good at something’,” she said.

“Music was very important and helped me adjust and find my identity in Australia. It's really helped me through.

“For me, the challenge wasn’t about other people, it was for me. because I always felt so different growing up as a Korean person in Australia, trying to overcoming that feeling.”

Im graduated from the University of Queensland's Conservatorium of Music in 2009 with first class honours in music performance.

After a short stint singing gospel music in Korean, she auditioned for X-Factor in 2013, which she went on to win and scored a recording deal with Sony Music. Her first release, 'Hero' went to number one on the charts.

Last year she represented Australia at Eurovision - the biggest gig of her life, before an audience of 200 million - and was voted runner-up with 'Sound Of Silence'.

“I’m pretty proud that I got to represent Australia on an international stage, at Eurovision," she said. "That’s something I’ll always be very proud of, being an Australian.

“Being an Asian and also being an Australian, and being in the spotlight as a musician, it’s also given a lot of Australians with different skin colours affirmation, telling people it’s okay to not be a certain colour and be Australian.

“I have a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds come and thank me for being Asian and doing what I do and being in the mainstream media.”