Driver experienced Britain in his homelandIn his 31 years as the official driver for the British Council in Seoul, Song Jae-Shil has seen firsthand how globalization has changed Koreans’ minds about the outside world.
“In the early days, the main users of the cultural center were college professors or scholars,” he said. “Today, however, users are mostly students and businessmen who are going to Britain for language studies or just a simple trip.
“The number of visitors here exceeds 70,000 annually, compared to 1,000 in the center’s early days,” he said. I feel it really is the period of globalization.”
Mr. Song began working for Britain’s cultural agency in Korea in 1973, the year the center was established. In August, at age 60, he will retire.
When he first joined, he worked out of an office he rented on one corner of the British Embassy. Nowadays, he’s based in the Seoul Shinmunro building, where he moved at the beginning of January.
“When people like Queen Elizabeth or Prime Minister John Major visited Korea, I couldn’t escort them; the formalities were carried out by the government,” Mr. Song said. “However, I did guide famous scholars and artists. I especially remember people like the worldwide authority on primates Jane Goodall and the ballerina Margot Fonteyn.”
The veteran drivers considers receiving the Member of British Empire medal as his most worthwhile experience. He explained that this medal is the same one awarded to the Beatles and such Koreans as the late president of the Dong-A Ilbo, Kim Sang-man. He added that the medal secures him an invitation to the queen’s birthday party every year at the British Embassy.
Mr. Song said he stays in touch with Tom White, the Council’s now-retired first director, through long-distance phone calls.
Although he can distinguish an American from a Briton and says “jolly good” rather than “very good,” he has never been to Britain.
Once he said to the director of the cultural center, “I’ve been working for a long time; you ought to send me to Britain.”
The director, he recalled, told him laughingly, “Don’t you know too much about Britain and speak English too well to have to go to that country?”
Mr. Song works for the British government at a yearly salary of 30 million won ($25,740). It’s not much, considering the number of years he’s put in, but Mr. Song says he’s satisfied.
“It’s not easy to have a job until the age of 60 considering the prevailing state of society, where people are forced into early retirement,” he said.
“Plus, the work is only five days a week, gives 20 days of consecutive leave, and has strict office hours. The salary is not bad at all, given such good conditions.”
Mr. Song hails from Daecheon in South Chungcheong province. With his wife, Tae Pyeong-soon, who is 57, he has two daughters and a son.
After finishing high school in Seoul, he immediately joined the navy. After leaving the navy, he worked as a laborer in a fruit orchard for five years.
He obtained a driver’s license in 1969 and started driving a taxi. That led to the position with the British Council. The English conversation skills he acquired while talking to American soldiers during his years in the Korean Navy helped him get the job, he said.
Mr. Song said he will spend his life after retirement in Gangwon province, going back to what he did so long ago: taking care of fruit trees that grow in a small plot of land he owns.
by Kim Sae-joon