(Yonhap Feature) What's up? Welcoming arms for foreigners
By Jack Ackerman
SEOUL, Nov. 16 (Yonhap) -- Amid the hustle of Itaewon, Seoul's best-known international neighborhood, it would have been easy to overlook Lee Hye-jin. In between the fast-paced crowds and vendors hawking their goods, the slightly-built 27-year-old could have practically disappeared. But Lee was determined to be noticed and had a simple but powerful message to deliver: foreigners living in Korea should be welcomed, not ostracized.
Impersonal methods like signs or flyers would not suffice in such a crowded environment. So there Lee stood in August with a smile on her face, offering free hugs.
At first glance, some might find Lee's strategy unusual or childish, but make no mistake. Lee is a passionate organizer who, as a former missionary, has experience in what it takes to connect with people and spread a message.
In January 2010, she formed a Facebook group called "What's Up Korea" to spread the word that the country can be a welcoming place for the ever-growing number of foreigners who make it their home. At last count, the group had more than 900 members. An alluring marketing video based on the Itaewon hugs campaign was up on the site within days, drawing positive feedback from existing members and ready to attract new ones. Offline, the group has also held several in-person events in addition to the hugs campaign.
So what could motivate this born-and-bred Korean to spend at least an hour every day -- and often more on weekends -- devoted to encouraging positive interactions between Koreans and foreigners?
Photo from Free Hugs event held in August
On one level, the answer seems simple. Lee, who lives in southern Seoul and works as an English teacher, said she heard serious complaints from her foreign co-workers and said she realized that the relatively homogeneous nature of Korean society could lead some foreigners to feel like outsiders.
"They told me that they loved Korea but didn't feel like they were getting along with Koreans or getting to know the real Korea... that their friends were not like real friends," she said.
Therefore, a group to help foreigners feel more connected would be beneficial, she decided. But, as a Korean citizen, Lee also said she is familiar with the educational and financial demands placed on young people here and saw a clear opportunity for her students, who are frequently bogged down with schoolwork and job hunting.
"I just want to inspire young people in Korea to try and do something new and not just get a job," she said. "I don't want them to say 'I want to study English to get a job' but 'I want to study English so I can travel the whole world.'"
From such aspirations, What's Up Korea was born. Since last year, the group has held events ranging from friendly scavenger hunts to shopping excursions in Hongdae and an exploration of the historical Bukchon hanok village -- all primarily aimed at creating "real relationships" between participants.
As a novice missionary, Lee said she learned the importance of informal interaction in building trust between people. The structure of What's Up Korea events seems to mirror this lesson, and some members said that their most meaningful experiences come from simply chatting with people they would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet.
"It's not done in just a location where you're sitting in a coffee house. You're just kind of talking along the way and enjoying each other's company," said Mai Smith, 33, a What's Up Korea member originally from San Francisco, California. "One of my friends, he likes to talk about different church events that he goes to. We'll talk about politics. We'll talk about the States. A lot of times it's like questions and answers... It just gives a totally different perspective from their view."
There is some desire within the group to move beyond casual conversations to more substantive issues. The groups official description refers to the potentially stigmatizing effect that Korea's relatively homogeneous racial and cultural makeup could have on foreigners, and Lee said she fears some foreigners might mistake uncomfortable interactions they have with Koreans for racism.
Yang Won-mo, a 23-year-old participant from Suwon, said he hoped to broach politically-related topics and issues like prejudice. "When I go to Itaewon … or any other subway station or walking on the street, I see many kind of people very easily. I think we'd better know each other," he said matter-of-factly.
But the members' high hopes do face some logistical obstacles, some of which are the bread and butter of the cultural divide that What's Up Korea hopes to bridge. The language barrier is a top concern among a number of those who have participated in the group's events.
"I think the biggest problem is that we really don't understand the culture because we never get anything straight," said Kent Stearman, 48, a participant from the United States. "We always have to have it filtered through English, so we really don't know what's really happening."
Though Lee has stressed that What's Up Korea is not simply a language exchange program, she does incorporate some Korean lessons into the activities she plans for members. She also said that an offer of Korean lessons did help to spark more interest in her group from expats.
Social networking, which has been a critical tool in Lee's outreach, has been a blessing as well as a curse. On her Facebook page, Lee is able to advertise her events to the members with the click of a mouse. She also shares cultural information about Korea with her Facebook followers every day. But attendance at events is much lower than the number of people on the online roster, with each drawing roughly 15 people, according to Lee. Drawing a consistent crowd is also a challenge, though the group does have a handful of clearly devoted members.
Lee has no illusions about the challenges What's Up Korea faces in increasing its reach. Yet the organizer, who counts among her idols American media mogul Oprah Winfrey and travel writer Han Bi-ya, remains hopeful about what she could accomplish in the future.
"I cannot change the whole world, but a small act can influence people," she said. "A Facebook group can be a bridge."