Vive la France... in Korea

French citizens came to Seoul in large numbers four decades ago. Now as French investment in Korea grows - recently surging to become the fourth largest investor behind the United States, Japan and Germany - so does the French community. Opportunities for cultural exchanges between Koreans and French also grow.

There are now more than 1500 French citizens in Seoul, enough to form a flourishing French village. Called Sorae, and located in Seocho-gu on Seoul's south side, a visitor can easily get here by taking the no. 2 community bus from outside the Gangnam Express bus terminal.

Once seen, it is obviously home to a burgeoning French community: There are several hundred yards of pavement colored in the broad red, white and blue stripes of the French flag. Groups of French people walk the street. Shops owned by Koreans, including a bakery and three wine shops, sell French products. One street is even named after Paris's famous artists' precinct, Montmartre. You can find signs that are in French, on the estate agent's windows, and a road sign warns motorists of a school, "Ecole."

The French school, of course, is a focus of the French community: Expatriate parents naturally look first for a good school, which originates from the same desire for education as their Korean hosts.

This school is a beautiful, new, five story landmark. It isn't blatantly French (though instruction is in French and the curriculum is French), but looks symbolically Korean. The black strips on the Korean flag are worked on a huge scale into the school's five-story facade. Standing as a reciprocal acknowledgement of the Korean host community, it reflects Seocho-gu's acknowledgment of the French presence in the red, white and blue pavement.

The school's facade also features a large glass screen, to encourage French students to look out onto the Korean community that surrounds them. The school's French architect. D. P. Jalicon, acknowledges this. He has said, "the screen symbolizes an exchange with the neighborhood. The life of a foreign community can only be conceived in terms of exchanges with the host country, its population and its traditions." The message is reinforced in the school principal's office, again with a screen featuring the strips from the Korean flag. The school's principal, Mr. Guillame Cario, readily acknowledges the success of the policy of cultural exchange. He says the school enjoys "peaceful cohabitation between French and Korean Communities." The school, he says, accepts the condition of Korean Educational authorities to enroll a number of Korean students. It is an international school - which has grown rapidly to overcapacity.

The culturally open attitude is reflected by the students, who say they enjoy living in Seoul because Koreans treat them so kindly.

The French school is not the only place for opportunities for cultural exchange. There is an official French - Korean information center hosted by the Seocho-gu local government office. Hyeonae Lee, the president of the center and secretary at the French school says, "A lot of work over many years has gone into producing the proud school that stands in the village."

And another Korean woman, Mrs. Kim, is president of another cultural exchange organization: The Circle of French-Koreans. It has 150 members - 15 Koreans - and it organizes bridge nights, walking tours around Seoul and coffee breaks to help newly arrived French people adapt to Korean culture. Mrs. Kim says that their group is "Really interesting. Very close. Very intimate." However, since adapting to a new culture takes time and patience, the circle also provides a useful service.

What drives the need for mutually beneficial cultural exchange is the reason the French come to Korea - business. The French Chamber of Commerce helps French business men adapt to Korea. Mrs. Celine Rouillet, its new director, recently came to Korea after her husband who accepted a company position here. Mrs. Rouillet says that more than 170 French firms operate in Korea, representing every sector of business, including banking, shipping, insurance, banking, plastics and in the building of the new high speed train from Busan to Seoul. She says that French companies bring more to Korea than just luxury goods and high culture, but also expertise in a number of fields. "Any business man working here has to adapt to the Korean culture. It is unavoidable. In French companies, the boss is a French guy. The workers are Korean. If the boss behaves like a French man, then he can't get anywhere. This is true in the human resources field. They have to adapt," she says.

By Paul Langkamp 19 novembre 2001 (Source: Korea Times

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