For Seoul’s French, a bit of homeKorea may not be a melting pot like the United States, but there are indeed foreigners here ― an estimated 290,000 are registered as foreign residents. Some came here for business, diplomatic or educational purposes; others are here by chance, for travel or by matrimony. In any case, expatriates make homes here, temporarily or not, and tend to form communities in certain neighborhoods in Seoul. Most of these neigborhoods where expats of a particular nationality reside are centered around a school.
In a new series, the JoongAng Daily will be exploring these foreign “towns” in Seoul ― French, German, and Chinese, among others ― to get glimpses into their lives and discover interesting slices of the city.
For our first feature in this series, we look at southern Seoul’s “French Village,” the Seoraemaeul neighborhood in the Seocho district. The French community has burgeoned here, centered on Lycee Francais de Seoul, the only French school in Korea.
There’s nothing terribly French about the surroundings of Seoraero, the main road through Seoraemaeul, the primary residential area for French expatriates in Seoul. There are no thick, vine-covered brick buildings with railings, no cafes with open terraces and no lingua franca spoken by the pedestrians. At a glance, one can see that this is no Parisian quarter, despite being called the “Montmartre of Seoul” by Koreans who live in the area.
But walk a distance up the hill and one notices that the sidewalk is painted in red, white and blue, the colors of the French flag, and that there are conspicuous signs en francais. There is the boulangerie, Paris Croissant, with a French baker; a French wine and cheese delicatessen, Ten to Ten; a wine store, Tour de Vin, and a bar called La Seine, among a few others.
“More than 70 percent of our customers are French people living in the vicinity,” says Cho Ja-yeon, an employee at Ten to Ten. “They all speak some English, and they are so cordial to us all the time.” In front of Paris Croissant, a notice in French gives information about a “Pique Nique” organized by the Association Francais de Coree.
Marie Carmen Lee, a mother of two boys and a former language instructor at a local university, has lived in Seoraemaeul for four years. Married to a Korean she met in France, she speaks better Korean than English.
“I prefer living in Gwacheon, where we used to live. It is so noisy here in Seorae, with construction going on everywhere.” She smiles and adds, “But I love the fact that there are so many wonderful bakeries here.”
In 1999, the Seocho district office dubbed this neighborhood the “French Village” because of the growing number of French nationals living here. The district office even operates a Korea-France Information Center on the fifth floor.
A bus stop sign identifies stops in English, Korean and French (they include “Marche d’Isou” and “Metro Chongshindae”). The Easy Mart, a convenience store, carries French magazines such as Officiel, Marie France and Onze Mondial. On the door, a sign reading “ouvrir” (“open”) announces that this is indeed a French establishment.
About 500 French nationals, more than a third of the total number in Seoul, are said to live in Seoraemaeul (the other French residents are generally scattered in Gangnam, Itaewon and Hannam-dong).
The bulk of these expats work in the corporate world ― some for the Carrefour discount retail chain, others for Renault Samsung. Many are employed in the KTX (Korea Train Express) project, working on Korea’s high-speed rail system. In fact, the number of French residents in Seoraemaeul has increased considerably since 1994, when a deal was struck between Korea and France’s high-speed rail authority to develop the KTX project.
Social gatherings in Seoramaeul are organized from time to time by the Association Francais de Coree, an expat community group. Every July, a National Day celebration is held at the French ambassador’s residence.
For French residents with children, one of the neighborhood’s main attractions is Lycee Francais de Seoul, which is the only French school in Korea.
“The standards of education at the school are quite high,” says Lee Hyeon-ae, a school administrator. “Kids can get flunked, and students have to work hard to gain decent grades. That’s why many foreigners prefer to send their kids to our school.”
Guillaume Perissinotto, Stefano Pignatelli and Anne-Sophie Oberreiner are 16-year-olds in their second year of high school. They agree that because there are only about 50 students in the high school, they are very close.
“It’s better that we are few in number, because the teachers are more attentive than they are in Parisian schools,” Guillaume says.
Stefano, who is Italian, does not find it hard to be a “third culture kid” (an Italian living in Korea and attending a French school). “The average people speak three languages, and most can get by with English, so there’s no confusion.”
One thing the three cannot seem to understand is why their Korean contemporaries have to study until 11 p.m. “It’s so inefficient,” says Anne-Sophie.
Around 4 p.m., mothers gather in front of the entrance of Lycee Francais to pick up their kids after school. Scores of children, from elementary to high school, start pouring out of the modern concrete building to greet their mothers, who chat merrily amongst themselves. A few students from the nearby Bangbae middle school cut through the crowd, standing out in the European throng. “Bonjour,” “ca va bien,” “pourquoi vous n’avez pas...” can be heard all around.
Lycee Francais was founded in 1974 in Hannam-dong. It moved to Seoraemaeul in 1985, when the late chairman of Hanjin Group, Cho Joong-hoon, bequeathed his house to the French Embassy so that a larger French school could be built in the Seocho district. It sits in the midst of a sea of villa residences in the area. The school bought surrounding land, with an eye toward expansion, after Korea and France reached the agreement on the KTX project in 1994.
Currently, 370 students are enrolled at Lycee Francais; 75 percent are French nationals, and the rest are other foreigners and Koreans. To attend the school, a Korean student must have lived abroad for more than five years, and all students must be fluent in French. Half the faculty is from France, sent by the French Ministry of Education, and the other half is local.
“Our curriculum is 100-percent identical to that of the public schools in France so that any student of ours can go back to France and have no problem adjusting,” says Guillaume Cario, Lycee Francais’ headmaster.
The four-story school does not have fields where students can play sports (though there is a small basketball court on the roof of the main building), so the students have to use public parks near the Han River or use other schools’ facilities.
“Discussions concerning the possibility of relocating have been going on for some time, but because real estate prices are expensive in Korea, we are waiting for an opportune time,” says Mr. Cario.
Class size ranges from 16 to 29. The student body encompasses children from kindergarten to high school. The high school was established just three years ago.
“Because our school is compact, we have a very tight, family atmosphere. The students appreciate the closeness with the teachers. We are a really close-knit family,” Mr. Cario says.
“It’s weird having three-year-old kids from kindergarten attend the same school as people in high school,” acknowledges Guillaume Perissinotto.
“Everyone knows everybody,” he says. “But we got used to it.”
by Choi Jie-ho