Expatriates Knit Community Ties

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Expatriates Knit Community Ties

Beverly Wolf, 47, from Arizona, United States found herself facing a group of Korean sixth grade students at the Sinchon Elementary School in the southern resort island of Cheju.

Shy at first, the students slowly and quietly uttered the few English words they knew.

"Autobaiii," said the children, citing the Korean word for motorcycle when Mrs. Wolf pointed to a picture.

"Motorcycle," she corrected.

Slowly, as the class continued, the students leaned visibly forward to hear her questions and instructions.

"I could feel the difference midway through class, with the students attuning toward me. It was a rewarding experience," Mrs. Wolf said.

At other classes being taught by the four other volunteers with Hello Friends who flew down to Sinchon Elementary School, the American teachers and Korean students were going through a similar process. In each case, the initial awkwardness was overcome as mutual understanding gradually took place.

Hello Friends, a project of the American Women's club, began in 1997. It dispatches volunteers to rural areas and smaller cities of Korea for a two-hour English teaching session every week. It is a short span of time, but the exposure the kids get to English language and adapting to foreigners is vital to the future of a healthy relationship between Koreans and the rest of the world.

The American Women's Club of Korea is a charity group promoting friendship among American women based in Korea. Like others in the American expatriate community, AWC members are in Seoul with their families for a variety of reasons, including business and military service. Volunteering has been a part of the organization since its inception in 1963 and Hello Friends is their pet project. The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea foots the travel expenses.

American culture pervades Korean society; Korean students strive to learn English with an ardor and American way of doing business is lauded. The 1997 financial crisis, which led the government to lift a number of regulations in order to make Korea a more attractive place to invest, led to greater numbers of Americans residing here. This, in turn, has created a need for a more open and friendly relationship between the local population and American expatriates.

Currently, the American expatriate community consists of 37,000-strong military personnel and about 80,000 other people who are made up of businessmen, diplomats, students and young graduates who are coming here in rising numbers to teach English at private institutions. It is not surprising then, that there is no real center or coherence within the group.

The varied nature of the group triggers a panoply of different responses from Korean society; from the anti-American slogans shouted by college students in front of U.S. Army Base and embassy buildings to amicable friendships between volunteers and host Koreans and the friendship developed between the youth of the two countries.

Activity-centered committees have become the safe vehicle through which expatriates to can explore into host society. "If you want to examine the American community, look through the various committee activities of the different groups," Park Seung-hee, a member of the AWC said.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea is a group founded in 1953, which represents American business interests here. Its tradition and long history brings with it extended roles and depth of engagement with the host country. It has 32 committees, including committees for North Korea, Venture Companies and Professional Women.

Each of these is an active forum for the expatriates based in Seoul. They are also watched keenly by the Korean government and people.

For example, the Professional Women's Committee offers the opportunity for young professional women to meet with their mentors in various industries, once a month. For working Korean women, who are welcome to join, the event is a novelty.

The Chamber's well-respected perch in Korean society has also enabled enterprises with wider social outreach such as the Partners for the Future Foundation. This is a special job fair project launched last year by the body. Some 2,200 Amcham members participated in the event, which took place from Nov. 4 through 5, 2000 in Seoul and led to the creation of 3,000 jobs. The organization says that it will be hosting a second Job Fair this August.

Despite the increasing interaction between the local community and American residents, the inability to speak Korean and different cultural customs seem to have led expatriates to live in loose groups around Seongbuk-dong, Itaewon-dong, Dongbinggo-dong, Bangbae-dong and Hannam-dong. Shopping centers and real estate agents in these areas provide the services these expatriates need.

There are several English-language schools in the nation, including Seoul Foreign School, which is located in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul and Seoul International School, in Seongnam, Kyonggi province. The two institutes offer an American-style educational curriculum from primary through high school.

< Organizations of the American Expatriate Community >

American Embassy in Seoul : Tel. 02-397-4114

American Women's Club (AWC) : Tel. 02-552-7121

American Chamber of Commerce in Korea (AMCHAM) : Tel. 02-564-2040

Seoul Foreign School : Tel. 02-330-3100

Seoul International School : Tel. 02-2233-4551

by Kim Ji-soo

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