Korean speech contest draws foreigners

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Korean speech contest draws foreigners

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Those honored at the 18th World Korean Language Speech Contest for Foreigners gather after the award ceremony on Thursday at Kyung Hee University in central Seoul. By Park Sang-moon

Uyanga Ulziikhutag was an aspiring ballerina in Mongolia when she first came across Korean food at a local restaurant. The steamy bowl of kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, wasn’t necessarily on her strict meal plan, but the long and “suffocating” list was the last thing that popped into her head after that first sip.

And so years of dietary restraint went down the drain.

“My passion for Korean food was actually one of the most significant reasons why I booked a plane ticket to Seoul,” said Ulziikhutag, who now studies economics at Korea University in Seongbuk District, northern Seoul.

“The food was so good that I used to drag my friends to Korean restaurants after every stage performance.”

The decision to start a new life in Korea meant she had to stop her pursuit of ballet, but even with the 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) she gained in just two months upon arrival here it was all worth it, she said.

Ulziikhutag, who told her story in fluent Korean, was one of 16 contestants from 13 countries who shared their experiences at the 18th World Korean Language Speech Contest for Foreigners on Thursday at Kyung Hee University (KHU) in central Seoul.

One by one, they discussed culture shocks and told anecdotes about how men here volunteer to cook for women, stores systemize their customer services and restaurants provide speedy delivery throughout the entire day. Some hundreds of non-Koreans in the crowd roared with laughter and howled cheers for their fellow countrymen on stage.

Nine contestants out of the 16 finalists received awards, with the highest honor given to Ulziikhutag. She received prize money worth 1.2 million won ($1,103). The second prize was given to Vafoeva Zuhro, a female Uzbek affiliated with the Cheonansi Multicultural Family Support Center in Cheonan, South Chungcheong. Jane Wanjiru Mbagara, a Kenyan woman studying social welfare at the Catholic University of Daegu, went home with the third prize. Both received 1 million won in prize money.

One of the most startling aspects of Korean culture when I first arrived here after marrying a Korean man, Zuhro said on the podium, was that stores call you after your purchase and ask about customer satisfaction and offer generous guidelines for after-sales services.

“To be honest, I found it a bit awkward and even had doubts about their intentions. I thought to myself, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ or ‘Did I drop my belongings?’ or ‘Are these people trying to convince me to buy more of their stuff?’”

She added that it didn’t take her long to resolve those misunderstandings.

Mbagara expressed her distinctive affection for Dokdo, the disputed set of islets that Korea administers but Japan claims.

“It was a small, rocky island,” said Mbagara, recalling her recent visit. “But watching seagulls flying around and feeling the gentle breeze against my skin, I felt like it was all some kind of a scene from a movie.”

Hosted by KHU’s Institute of International Education, this year’s competition attracted 1,241 foreign applicants from 39 countries.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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