On a sunny Saturday in Seoul, there is a group of people from diverse background walking around Bukchon Maul, a place near Insadong where many traditional Korean houses can still be observed. Overseas friends visiting Korea got excited about spending their day exploring an exotic part of the city and chatting with local friends. This group is called SeoulMate, a college student volunteer organization that has been giving free guided tours to foreigners around Seoul since July 2009.
A free tour is scheduled every Saturdays, but if there is a request for tours on other days, depending on the members’ schedule, special tours can be made. The organization also holds events like barbeque parties and autumn sports tournaments. For each tour, the group accepts a maximum of 10 participants, with about six members of the group acting as tour guides. The seven different touring courses were designed by SeoulMate, after a year of consideration and practice.
“Beyond a simple tour guide, we intend to introduce the real Seoul to newcomers, communicate with them, and ultimately become authentic friends; introducing them to the real Korean culture,” said Wang Sae-rom (Sejong University, 4), the president of SeoulMate.
Wang and her team desires that SeoulMate will fill an important position in Korea that empowers the Korean tourism industry. Wang, who spent her youth in Thailand, realizes the huge impact that the tourist industry has on a nation’s economy. Knowing this, Wang always dreamed of Korea becoming one of the best tourist sites in the world, in which she can play a major role.
During the past eight months, a number of participants who have been able to broaden their scope of understanding of Korea, thanks to SeoulMate. Sakaguchi Mami, who joined the free tour last September, traveled with SeoulMate to a center for comfort women. Sakaguchi, who came from Japan, but who had not previously heard about the comfort women that existed during the Japanese colonization period of 1910 to 1945, was shocked to see what was caused by her ancestors in the past.
“After coming back home, I could deeply think about the sad history, which I did not know before. And then, I could come up with my mind that I will keep this and tell other people in Japan,” said Sakaguchi on SeoulMate’s website message board.
Han Se-young (English, 4) was one of the first three members when SeoulMate started. Han’s most memorable experience with SeoulMate was when an American participant bought mageolli, Korean rice beer.
“After tasting it, he said it tasted like the home-style beer that his mom made back in America. When I heard him saying this, I felt like when he returns back to his home, he would remember Korea as his second hometown,” said Han.
Anyone who is interested in the free tours can participate through making a reservation on their Web site (www.seoul-mate.com). Each participant is responsible for paying for all entrance fees for historic places and meals.
“We hope to help you enjoy living and traveling in Seoul and give you more chances to experience real Korean culture. When you meet Seoul, find SeoulMate. We will always be with you,” said the SeoulMate members on their website.
The volunteer opportunity is open for all university students. The SeoulMate will begin recuiting from upcoming September and the selected members are expected to work in an average period of a year.
Caption: Foreign partipants and the SeoulMate members enjoy a knee-wrestling match during their free tour.