Sunday, December 19, 2010

Expats sound off at meeting hosted by Seoul city

An expat asks a question at the Seoul Town Meeting hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul Global Center yesterday at the conference room of Seosomun Annex of City Hall. Provided by Seoul Metropolitan Government

The Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul Global Center hosted their annual Seoul Town Meeting yesterday, and the atmosphere of the two-hour meeting was vibrant and energetic, with expatriates actively tossing out complaints and questions and making suggestions about the city government’s policies for expats.

The meeting, which marked its 11th year, was attended by 156 expats from 40 countries, and senior Seoul Metropolitan Government officials were on hand to answer expatriates’ questions on this year’s two discussion topics: “Multiculturalism and its Implementation in Seoul” and “Seoul’s Air Quality.”

“Everyone living under Seoul’s sky is equal,” Mayor Oh Se-hoon said in opening speech. “Now with a goal of becoming a top-five city in the world, I ask for your active participation and keen interest in Seoul’s efforts to become a truly global city.”

Though last year’s meeting raised the ire of expatriates, who complained to Korea JoongAng Daily that the city government focused too much of the event on promoting Seoul’s ongoing projects and leaving too little time for a question-and-answer session, this year’s town meeting was on schedule. Presenters for the two sessions were asked to make brief presentations to leave some 40 minutes for expatriates’ questions.

The city also ran on-site counseling booths in seven foreign languages after the meeting to accommodate more questions.

Alan Timblick, head of the Seoul Global Center, said recommendations suggested by expats at last year’s meeting were already implemented or were in the process of being implemented.

“One particular example was booking online,” Timblick said. “Cinema tickets and places to go to were difficult because the alien registration number was not compatible with the citizen identification number. We’ve now arranged a reservation system for foreigners to book tickets if you sign up with itourSeoul.”

Tatiana Primakova, a freelance Russian interpreter, who made a presentation on multiculturalism in fluent Korean in the first session stressed that “multiculturalism is cultural exchange.”

“Integration is better than assimilation when it comes to multiculturalism,” Primakova said.

Primakova, who studied at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Korean Education, said she “intentionally” gave her presentation in Korean, not English.

“I gave my presentation in Korean because I wanted to remind Koreans that foreigners are interested in learning about Korea’s language and culture,” Primakova said. “I want more Koreans to be open to foreigners and try to learn a second language other than English and respect other cultures.

I’m glad that there’s direct discussion channels between expats and Seoul city government.”

One of the most heated topics during the question session was the smoking ban on public places in connection to the second session theme, “Seoul’s Air Quality.” The meeting room burst into laughter when an expat asked questions about smoking ban on public places in Seoul.

“I would like to challenge anyone here if we have ever seen any police men stopping anyone smoking in public places,” an expat said. “I’m sure that never happened. I would like to know what we can do. A system should be in place in order to make this wonderful law exist.”

A cheerful applaud was heard when an official at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency answered, “If there’s too much discomfort created by this offense, which leads to direct damages, we do ask that you report the matter to police. We conduct follow-up measures to solve the problems. If you give us a report, we will be there within five minutes.”

Kim Il-soo, a Seoul Metropolitan Government official, advised expats to “dial 120 and press 9,” referring to Dasan Call Center’s English service, which caters to expatriates’ urgent questions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Lee Irina, a Koryoin, or ethnic Korean migrant from Uzbekistan, said the overall organization of the town meeting was smooth and helpful.

“I sat in the very back side of the conference room and I sometimes couldn’t keep track of the meeting because I couldn’t hear the speakers’ voices clearly,” Lee said. “I was overall satisfied with the meeting but I wish they would install more speakers.”

Mirriam Simasiku, a Zambian expat who teaches English, said she wishes one meeting could be held on a weekday and another on a weekend to accommodate working people.

“We actually had discussed hosting the meeting on Sunday at the suggestions of some expats, but we found many expatriates go to church and want to spend family time with their kids,” said Oh Seung-hwan, director of Seoul Metropolitan Government’s foreign residents assistance division. “That’s why we found a middle ground to have the meeting on Friday. We will discuss this issue with expats again.”

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