Out of Africa, four stars visit a Korean islandGEOJE ISLAND, South Gyeongsang
What happens when Ghana in western Africa meets Geoje Island at the remote, southern end of the Korean Peninsula?
It’s an amazing chemistry of big, happy laughs at a million decibels, endless autograph sessions and plenty of chocolates. Follow the recent trip of Edwin Okoe Tagoe, 59, the first secretary at the Ghanaian Embassy, who went down to the island last Tuesday with his wife, Edith, 55, and two sons, Bernard, 22, and Egbert, 18.
Day 1, Seoul Station at 7:30 a.m.
Mr. Tagoe, with the winning smile you would expect in a diplomat, seems not very sure about what his journey will bring. The four family members from the land of cacao, savanna and rainforest have never set foot on Geoje Island. David Alvord, an English teacher on the island who will be the guide for the Tagoe family, describes the island as “Korea’s Hawaii.”
Geoje islanders indeed take pride in the picturesque scenery of their home, with verdant mountains rising over the cobalt-blue ocean. The more than 180,000 residents on the remote island appreciate their pastoral lifestyles, doing just fine without subways and Starbucks. Drivers on Geoje have to be cautious for the many animals that tend to wander across the concrete roads. According to the Geoje government, about 50 percent of the residents work in the shipbuilding industry, the island’s specialty, with the rest of the people involved in tourism and farming.
Mr. Alvord, originally from Idaho, made his first trip to Korea in 1966 as a Peace Corps volunteer. He tells the Tagoes, “You’ll find out how different people in Geoje will be from those in Seoul.”
To discover the difference, however, requires a long journey down the length of the peninsula. Everyone gathers at Seoul Station at 7:30 a.m. to catch a five-hour train ride to Busan. No one seems very sad about leaving Seoul, where the Tagoes say they have some not-so-pleasant memories. “When I try to take a seat on Seoul’s subways,” says Egbert, a curious 18-year-old with a healthy physique, “my fellow Korean passengers spring to their feet to avoid sitting next to me. I guess they consider this skin color filthy or something.”
Yet Egbert does not want to leave Korea. He plans to attend Handong Global University (an English-language school) as a computer science major, starting in September. The rest of the family returns in September to Ghana and retirement for Mr. Tagoe, leaving the youngest adventurer behind.
The diplomat also has good things to say about Korea: “What I really admire about Korea is its infrastructure, like the highways.” Bernard, with his sharp, smart eagle eyes, records with his video camera scenes passing by his train window. Highways included, of course.
Around 1 p.m., after grabbing a quick lunch of noodles and dumplings at a rather rundown snack bar at the port, the Tagoe family takes a ferry boat named Seweolttara (Korean for “as time goes by”). One crew member checks the tickets and says, “It’s going to be just a little rough today, so take good care of yourselves.”
He was too understated. For the Tagoe family ― especially for Mrs. Tagoe, who was making her first ferry ride ― it’s more than just a little rough. After rainy weather the night before, the sea waves are like undulating mountains. In the cabin, a few Korean passengers are sound asleep, perfectly suited to the rocking waves. The captain plays a Hollywood B-movie, appropriately about people on a deserted island, suffering a hurricane.
Just about when Mrs. Tagoe is ready to call it quits, right in the middle of the South Sea, the As Time Goes By arrives safely in Geoje Island.
Still dizzy from the roller-coaster ride on the ocean, the Tagoe family heads to their first destination, the city library, where a group of the island’s English teachers, their eyes sparkling, await the special guests. With little time to recover from their seasickness, the family changes into traditional Ghanaian attire, then marches to the classroom.
The moment they step into the room, more than 30 teachers cry out “Welcome!” and “Whoa!” ― just as their students would. Then Mr. Tagoe, in his Ghanaian ethnic attire, starts his lecture about Ghana, with a little help from a world map on the blackboard. Park Sung-wook, a school commissioner in charge of English, says, “This is a whole new experience to widen our viewpoints. All the foreigners that we’ve seen were only the British or the Americans, but having these Ghanaians here feels so good.”
After the lecture on Ghana’s history and products, a question-and-answer session, completely in English, follows, with a few me-me-me hands springing up. Rew Chul-hyung, who teaches at Jangpyeong Elementary School, can name-drop enough Ghanaian places, like the Volta River, to draw envy from his fellow teachers. Park Soon-ok, a teacher at Ilwoon Elementary School, on the other hand, stands up and introduces herself as a former chocolate-lover. Ms. Park then asks about tourist attractions in Ghana.
The real fun begins when Mr. Alvord, who came up with the idea of bringing the Ghanaians to meet the teachers, divides the class into small groups.
Ms. Park, a lovable, outgoing and confident woman in her late 30s, takes her group by storm, asking such questions as: “Can I touch you?” She pokes a finger at Egbert’s well-built left arm. Then she moves forward, saying, “Can I touch your hair?” Egbert, with an I-guess-it-wouldn’t-hurt look, assents. Then Ms. Park cries, “You’re mine. I like young guys.” She takes out her gold wedding ring, only to face resistance from the younger teachers. “She’s married. We’re single,” the women say. Ms. Park sometimes mixes Korean words in her English sentences, but she has no problem making herself understood. For Egbert, this is quite different from Seoul’s subway passengers ― the teachers just cannot not wait to get closer. Ms. Park, nicknamed “Motor Mouth” by Mr. Alvord, wraps up the conversation by saying, “Dream a little dream of me tonight, my friend.”
The session ends after about two hours and Ms. Park invites the special guests to a nearby pork cutlet restaurant. After eating, she takes her guests to one of Geoje’s beaches. Ms. Park, actually happily married, has her children join the crowd at the beach. They are as overjoyed by the Africans as Ms. Park herself, crying out “Nice to meet you!” to Mrs. Tagoe, who responds with a warm, radiant smile.
On the beach at dusk, Ms. Park’s children find a perfect snack for the night ― Ghana Chocolate, a favorite in Korea for decades. Mr. Tagoe moves around the group saying, “Thank you very much” to everyone in sight. The family night out has been something memorable, but after the long day on the ferry and train, the family is fatigued. They move to Aikwangwon, an institute for the mentally disabled, to stay the night.
Day 2, breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
The Tagoe family rises early to have an American-style breakfast with the institute’s founder, Kim Im-soon. After having a look around the place, they head to Jungang Elementary School for a rendezvous with the sixth-grade students. The moment they step into the school, they hear a thunder of excitement coming from the children ― “Wow,” “Look,” “Holy cow” and “Whoa” are said over and over. Some children are too shy to come close to the senior Mr. Tagoe and his big smile, but others say “Hi” or even run away after touching Egbert’s bare arm. Mr. Alvord, who teaches at the school, says, “The kids are already so excited, pointing at the whereabouts of Ghana on the world map.”
They soon start a lecture in the school’s auditorium, beginning with a speech by the school’s principal. “Here are very special guests from Ghana,” he says, “where the secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, is from.” The students have quieted down. But then Won Sook-min, an English teacher, dons her nice scarlet hanbok, a Korean traditional dress, and takes the role of interpreter. “You guys know for sure about Ghana Chocolate?” she prompts. The more than 100 students in the auditorium all cry out, “Yeah, that’s my favorite!”
Mr. Tagoe moves onto the stage and gives his usual lecture. The students take notes and chit-chat with each other, debating who is the most handsome member of the family. Just before the hundreds of vigorous teenagers began fidgeting, the lecture ends. It’s time for another question-and-answer session, and the children raise their hands eagerly, asking about Ghanaian traditions, languages, food, education and more.
The students are especially amazed to learn that Ghanaian students their age don’t have to take many exams. Some students cry out, “I want to go to Ghana!” Then Mr. Tagoe takes the microphone and says that students in Ghana do have one big test at the end of the year, to see whether they pass. That quells the murmurings.
The big surprise for the Tagoe family comes after the session, when the students swarm the stage, asking for autographs and shaking hands. Each is surrounded by gangs of children, and the Tagoe family seems to be the happiest since they landed on the island. The students boast about the autographs they get as if the Tagoe family were rock stars. Gwak Seon-rye, after getting one autograph, says with flushed cheeks and breaking into a smile, “It’s my first time to see a person from Ghana. I’m just so excited and happy!” Seon-rye’s friend, Lee Hyeon-gyeong, is trying hard to get autographs from all four Tagoes, which requires some serious elbowing.
The autograph session goes on for a good 20 minutes, until both the stars and their fans get tired. Walking out of the auditorium, the family is still shaking hands and posing for photos.
After safely taking refuge in an empty classroom, Mr. and Mrs. Tagoe express surprise at the enthusiastic reception. Egbert says that he is tired and that his arm aches from all the autographs and handshaking. It’s not easy to be stars, after all, and the Tagoe family still has Gohyeon Middle School ahead of it.
The commotion begins again, when the middle-schoolers catch sight of the African family. Shouts of “Hi!” “Glad to meet you!” and “Welcome,” rain down from classroom windows. It is not only the students who are amazed. Jeong Su-jeong, the school’s English teacher, says, “This is my first time seeing this many foreigners in my life. I’m happy as well as a little bit embarrassed.”
The middle-school students, on the other hand, consider themselves to be too grown-up to ask for autographs. Instead they crane and stretch to see the special guests, peeking into the teacher’s room and murmuring, “They look like Michael Jordan.”
In the classroom, the Tagoe family gives another round of lectures, except for Egbert, who is so tired that he falls asleep. When Egbert wakes up from his nap, it is time for lunch at the school cafeteria ― fried eggs, fermented and spiced squid, rice and kimchi.
Three Tagoes go to different classrooms to talk some more, but Egbert sneaks off to check out a Korean War site dedicated to prisoners of war. Even there, however, there are many people who want to talk to him. Egbert encounters a group of war veterans headed to the camp site to commemorate the beginning of the Korean War 53 years ago. The war veteran and his wife start talking in English the moment they see Egbert. “You are so cute,” says the wife of a veteran, as if a grandmother handling a baby.
About 3 p.m., it’s time for the journey back to Seoul. It’s a long way back, but they all look happy and fulfilled. The Tagoe family are four rock stars, more or less, returning home after an island tour that couldn’t have gone better. It takes more than six hours to get to the bus terminal in Seoul, but the journey doesn’t bother Mr. Tagoe too much.
From the trip, the Geoje children learned that there’s more than chocolate in Ghana. And the Tagoe family formed some friendships. They promised to visit Geoje once more before going back to Ghana.
by Chun Su-jin