The old school tie binds you to Korean friends you haven't met

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The old school tie binds you to Korean friends you haven't met

Everyone knows that Koreans are great alumni. People who have never met before are instant friends if it turns out that both attended the same school. Alumni will do favors, put in a word, give a hand up -- in a word, discriminate. Alumni favoritism is sometimes cited as a discredit that Korea must give up, along with regional favoritism, to become an open, merit-based society.

Meanwhile, even a foreigner can take advantage of alumni networks. A Korean friend knew that my wife and I were planning a weekend getaway in a mountain national park. Next thing I knew, it had been arranged for us to get a hotel discount. My friend didn't know the hotel manager, but he knew that the manager had attended his high school. He called another high school friend who called the manager and -- courtesy of the alumni network -- we got a special rate.

It took me a little longer to figure out that I, too, have an alumni support group in Korea. Probably most foreigners do. Koreans by the thousands go to the United States to study. Chances are, some of them went to your school. Now they are back in Korea, eager to take you into the old school network.

A Korean colleague at the newspaper attended Washington University in St. Louis. He says that the college's alumni activities in Korea regularly bring out 100 or so people. I wonder if Washington has another alumni chapter that big even in St. Louis.

My wife went to a women's college in the United States. Sure enough, there's an alumni chapter in Seoul. It's nothing like Washington's -- just 8 or 10 women who lunch together regularly. They invited my wife to join them. She's pretty conspicuous among the group. Everyone else is Korean and 25 or 30 years younger. But they have a good time -- not, generally, talking about old times on campus. That would get boring. They talk about jobs, families, travel, Korean-American relations. It has been a good way for my wife to learn more about Korea.

How do you get in touch with a fellow alum? Your college almost certainly has a Web site, through which you can locate alumni in Korea. Phone one up at random. In the unlikely event that he is not active in alumni affairs, he probably can give you the name of another alum who is.

I finally got around to making the call, and I could hardly get my new friend to let me off the phone. I'm signed up for the annual dinner next month.

"We may have more out this year than usual," my hyeongnim (elder brother) predicted. "It's been a good year for us. One of our team was named president" of a prestigious Korean university.

I swelled with pride. Score another for dear old Alma Mater.

"At Home Abroad . . . in Korea" is a monthly feature. We invite readers to share their experiences or suggest topics for articles. Please respond to estyle@joongang.
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