Scot Returns Home With Insights Gained From Volunteering in Seoul

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Scot Returns Home With Insights Gained From Volunteering in Seoul

Nov 04, 2005

After four-and-a-half years in Seoul, Scottish expat Elizabeth McClune is returning to Britain with a host of rich memories, many of them from her volunteer work at the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners.

The brown-eyed mother of three grown children was a fixture at the center for more than two years as she dealt with problems as varied as cleaning a masterpiece painting to helping young English teachers with their contract problems.

"We were able to help the woman with the painting through the Seoul Museum of Art _ and she was just delighted," she said. "But mostly we help by referring. We don't have the legal answers to teachers' contract problems, but we can tell them where to get help. We don't offer martial arts courses or other course, or have the answers to immigration questions, but we know where people can get them," she said.

Often missed by both expatriates and tourists, the help center offers a whole line of services and advice in daily living, from simple things like where to catch a bus to how to invest in a business in Seoul. Launched by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and operated by Seoul Business Agency, the center is located in the east wing of the City Hall and is open from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ( Tel: 02-731-6800).

But the volunteer activities of McClune weren't limited to the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners. She also gave free English classes in the public school system with the Hello Friends program, volunteered in an orphanage and at the St. Andrew's Society, the British Society, the Seoul International Women's Society, as well as worked on a traffic information radio station.

"My life has been rich in experiences here," said the 58-year-old whose husband Colin, an executive with the Shell Group, will soon retire. She tasted monastic life through the Temple Stay program, organized by the Buddhist Chogye Order, traveled the country, enjoyed dozens of concerts and attended many balls.

"Life can be a ball here," she laughed. "In fact, you can go from ball to ball _ the British ball, the American ball, the Australian ball _ and on and on." She said her husband's volunteer position as chair of the British Chamber of Commerce drew her into a lot of extra-curricular activities.

One of those activities is the annual visit of British veterans of the Korean War (1950-53). "It's very emotional," she said. "The veterans are old men now, and it is touching to see them remember and talk about their friends who died and the battles they fought. We visit a memorial near the demilitarized zone, lay a wreath and have a memorial service."

She said she is leaving South Korea with a profound respect for its vigor and energy. "Even in the four-and-a-half years I've been here, there have been big changes," she said. "It's more cosmopolitan and much easier for foreigners now. More English is spoken and many signs and directions are in English."

She says the resurrection of the Chonggyechon Stream, buried under concrete for half a century, along with improvements in the Seoul Plaza and other green areas, have enhanced the look of the city center and made it much more attractive to residents and visitors alike.

McClune has also been impressed at how safe and crime-free Seoul is compared to many European cities, how polite and helpful Koreans are and especially their respect for the elderly. "It's great to see people give up their seats in buses to the elderly, and I've never felt frightened in this city. It's wonderfully safe."

She said she only had to open a map in a subway station and people will come up and offer to help. "Once, someone even escorted me to the bus stop to make sure I got there," she said.

McClune enjoys "norae-bang," or singing rooms, and said she and her husband spent some wonderful evenings in Seoul that have added to the memories she will take with her home to Britain.


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