The German Village on the Han

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The German Village on the Han

"For us, everybody knows each other. It's like a village within a village," said a thirty-something German man at the German Fest held at the German School in Hannam-dong last Saturday. Germans from all walks of life, including businesspeople, professors, diplomats, housewives, teachers and children, packed the playground to enjoy beer, sausages and other German culinary delights, and to watch the schoolchildren perform. The school's annual spring festival was especially extravagant this year, for it was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the German School, held in conjunction with the German Club and the German Evangelical and Catholic churches.

Centered in Hannam-dong and Itaewon, where both the churches and the German Chamber of Commerce are situated, the German community in Korea has a relatively short history. Germans in numbers began to arrive in Korea only after the 1988 Olympic Games. But their community is tight-knit, dynamic and expanding. "We are very close, like a family, because there are so few Germans here," said Siera Brigitte, a member of the German Club. According to estimates by Tim Philippi, director of the German Chamber of Commerce, "about 12,000 Germans, mostly businessmen and their families, reside in Korea and about 200 German companies are represented in Korea." Most Germans stay in Korea for two or three years; some have settled with their Korean spouses, making Korea their home.

The community's most binding glue is the German Club, which functions as the doorway to the German community in Seoul. "I didn't know there was a German community in Korea until I learned about this club," said Rita Spreu, sales director of C&G Worldwide. "This is where we find out and share information about life in Korea - such as where to look for certain German foods."

Although the club's daytime events are mostly attended by middle-aged women, some 117 families are members. "The club not only holds monthly coffee mornings to welcome newcomers, but we also host many activities, including family outings, spring balls and sight-seeing tours," said Renate Nick-Pflugbeil, club president. The annual beer-based Oktoberfest is another cherished event.

The community's activities are not all German-centered. Having themselves undergone division and reunification in their recent history, Germans tend to take a special interest in Korean affairs. Club lectures keep members informed . One topic was the Korean "comfort women." There is much interaction between Germans and the significant number of Koreans who have studied or are interested in studying in German-speaking countries. The club holds joint concerts with Korean musicians who have studied in German-speaking countries. The German-Korean Association and the Goethe Institute are additional venues of interaction.

The German School, established in 1976 by a few German families, is accredited by the German Ministry of Education. It emphasizes providing children with an educational curriculum similar to that taught in Germany but it, too, holds Korean traditional cultural events every year. This year, Korean artists visited for two days to teach students the arts of the mask dance, traditional Korean ceramics, kite-making and color paper folding.

Though their congregations are small, the German-Speaking Evangelical Church, with a regular attendance of about 50, and the German Catholic Church, with 60 regular parishioners, hold symbolic value for the community. "To be able to pray in your mother tongue means a lot - you are able to express your sentiment, your whole being," explained Regine Choi, a Roman Catholic who has lived in Korea for more than 16 years. Some parents, she says, come to church together with their children partly so that their kids can experience prayer in German.

While providing a spiritual focus for Germans in Korea, the churches also actively reach out to the Korean community. Current social projects include working with tuberculosis patients, people with multiple handicaps and migrant workers in Korea. The proceeds from the German festival this year will be used for charitable purposes in Korea.

Another point of contact is the German Chamber of Commerce. It provides information and consultation for both German and Korean companies wishing to find business partners, and also hosts social excursions.

The activities of the German community, however, are not confined to these formal institutions. The young, mostly professionals, have their share of fun in informal gatherings at Gecko, a bar in Itaewon, for a drink every Wednesday. A mostly male group called Skat also gathers twice a year to play a card game.

Golf lovers have their own niche. Established in 1991, the German Golf Club has about 30 members, mostly businessmen, who meet "to have fun, improve [their] golf game, and also to communicate among expatriates," according to Joachim Koch, who is in charge of newcomers. The club holds a monthly tournament, and annual play-offs with the German Club and the British Chamber of Commerce.

All these ongoing activities, gatherings and services serve to build this "a village within a village" and to give the German community structure. Still, coming to a new, faraway country always presents certain difficulties. Most often cited was the language barrier and missing little things from home. "It is difficult to make friends with Koreans because of the language barrier," said a diplomat's wife, who found Koreans, though shy at first, "very nice and helpful in general."

"We can now find almost anything we need in hotels and shops," said Juanita Wagner, who has lived in Korea for about 10 years. "We have a German butcher at the Hannam Market who can prepare sausages for us," explained Ms. Nick-Pflugbeil. She added, "But what I miss the most is the sound of church bells that is so familiar to me in Germany."

contact information

German Club 02-790-8076

German School 02792-0988

German-speaking Evangelical Church 02-777-7027/016-726-7027

German Catholic Church 02-792-7372/813-8371

German Golf Club 02-568-8511

German Chamber of Commerce 02-3780-4600

Korean-German Association 0331-260-9690

Goethe Institute 02-754-9831

by Kwon Chee-min

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