Can Foreigners Make Difference?

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Can Foreigners Make Difference?

Dec 07, 2004

Seoul City held its fifth town meeting for foreigners last Friday. The annual event is supposed one of those sessions where high-level city officials sit down with foreigners to hear their concerns and make changes on quality of life issues.

But the meeting, which at heart is a well-intentioned affair, is based on two somewhat off-base premises. One is that foreigners know something that Koreans don't about how to live best. The other is that the city will actually be able to do something about the complaints foreigners bring up and that this will somehow make Seoul more bearable for those already here and more inviting to foreign investors.

I didn't attend previous meetings but I can say that what surely began in 2000 as a bold initiative by the city may now simply be going through the motions. Aside from trivial matters, such as the fact that proceedings started late and the room was too small, nothing about the meeting was engaging.

Mayor Lee Myung-bak, who was to lend weight and his own personal flare to the meeting, was conspicuously absent and in his stead was one of the vice mayors, Won Sei-hoon. Aside from a few brief opening remarks, Won's only contribution was to answer a question that no one else seemed to know: the radio frequency for the Traffic Broadcast System (95.1), which now provides English traffic reports every hour.

Worse, there was a clear dichotomy in the room between elite expatriates and normal folk. Only four of the many ambassadors slated to show up arrived, but they all were given privileged seating in the front row at the table and were joined by business leaders and long-time foreign residents active in the community.

The ordinary residents were relegated to the back rows, not exactly an atmosphere conducive to encouraging people to voice their opinions. And indeed, after the initial presentations during the first session, it was the people at the table who spoke out. When the chair of the meeting dutifully asked if there were any more questions before the break, no one came forward.

Perhaps they were lulled to sleep by the presentations, which were of questionable value and took up too much of the meeting's precious time. The first two, on transportation planning and waste disposal, were exceedingly dull.

Transportation planning is hardly compelling stuff and the audience was subject to much more detail than it really needed about mode splits and trunk lines. Likely in anticipation of a barrage of complaints that never came, much of the content was a defense of the rationale behind the recent changes in the system. There were some suggestions for more English information about the new buses but planners already knew that.

Then questions were asked and suggestions made solely by VIPs who rarely use public transit, a fact I confirmed at the break when I spoke with the four ambassadors. But the biggest problem was that the comments mainly revolved around foreigners' desire that Koreans learn how to drive, with scattered appeals for people to respect traffic lights and allow ambulances to move unimpeded. Nothing new there _ and what can the city do about it anyways?

The presentation on the city's waste disposal system was almost comical. After outlining the environmental rationale behind the city's ``pay as you throw'' method (believe it or not, it's to reduce waste), the presenter gave a detailed explanation about garbage bag sizes and types and where to buy them. Is the garbage system that difficult to understand or is it just that some people choose not to learn because it's different?

The nature of the town hall meeting can best be summed up in the obscure suggestion that Korean companies issue their invoices in English as well as Korean. The ambassador from Sudan fumed at length that he had made such a request for bilingual statements in 2002 and he couldn't understand why Koreans were delaying this crucial measure.

One Korean participant, when asked for an opinion about the new bus system, responded that foreigners were out of place talking about the problems raised in the meetings: ``These are Korean issues and it's not good that foreigners complain about them,'' a worker at a local relocation agency Joyce Oh said. She asked me not to be offended.

It seemed like an obviously pointless endeavor to rehash bad driving complaints and I could certainly understand why a Korean observing the meeting would be peeved at all the criticism her country was receiving.

I spoke to Yoo Mi-ok from the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners and she disagreed, saying it's important to give foreigners the opportunity to complain. She also mentioned that although many of the problems cannot be solved by the city directly, officials can bring matters to the relevant people in the central government for resolution.

Ms. Yoo acknowledged this is the first year to divide people and that, in previous years, there was more time for discussion and a much friendlier atmosphere.

Her optimism and recognition of the meeting's problems was encouraging. The Help Center is a fantastic service provided by the city and it will only get better with more feedback. One can only hope that next year's hall meeting will be better promoted, better attended and much more productive.


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