Global Village Centers are unique municipal offices catering to foreigners in Seoul and uncommon in cities abroad. There are five of these centers in the capital, including the Yeonnam Global Village Center, the first such center, which opened in January last year in a neighborhood that is home to 4,500 Chinese residents.
The other centers are also in neighborhoods with large foreign populations: Yeoksam-dong, Hannam-Itaewon, Ichon-dong and Seorae Village near Banpo. The Global Village Centers serve as sources of helpful information and tips for foreigners, offering them help in areas ranging from paying utility bills to finding restaurants and convenience stores.
The main clients of the Global Village Center in Yeoksam-dong are English teachers. The head of the center is Christina Confalonieri, an Italian woman who has become something of a celebrity in Korea through her regular appearances on KBS' "Global Talk Show: Talk with Beauties." Confalonieri came to Korea with her Korean husband, whom she met while he was studying singing in Italy. She beat four other competitors to become the head of the Yeoksam-dong Global Village Center last year and has vowed to make the center "overflow with love."
During the Chuseok holidays, Confalonieri and 20 other volunteers made songpyeon or half-moon-shaped rice cakes and hand-delivered them to senior citizens living alone. Her four-hour workday is too short for her to do her job, which can include rushing over to the bank to help out a foreigner who has problems wiring money back home.
In July last year, former English teacher Yukiko Ishihara was appointed as head of the Global Village Center in Ichon-dong, which is home to many Japanese. Due to a high-level of interest in learning Korean among Japanese residents, free Korean language classes are very popular at the Ichon-dong center. They are offered for beginners, intermediate and advanced speakers. In June this year, 400 Japanese of the neighborhood held a festival that connected them with Korean families, with events featuring traditional dance and folk games.
There are 14 neighborhoods in Seoul that have large populations of foreigners, including the French community in Seorae Village and a German neighborhood near a school for Germans in Hannam-dong.
Each Global Village Center receives more than 70 civil petitions a day, the most common ones involve citations for traffic violations. Foreigners have no idea what kinds of traffic tickets they receive since they are written only in Korean. The most common questions asked by foreigners with children are said to be which Korean schools offer special classes for immigrants or foreign residents.
Danwon Police Station, which covers a precinct of Ansan, Gyeonggi Province with a large population of workers from Southeast Asia, has appointed a naturalized Korean woman from the Philippines to its staff. And a Chinese woman serves as the head of a village in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang Province. Foreigners are passionate about holding public positions in Korea. Most of the heads of Global Village Centers, including Confalonieri, say they want to continue serving that role.
The heads of Global Village Centers are only level 6 public servants who receive just W1.7 million (US$1=W1,174) a month. The pay is too low for someone to consider as a full-time job. What is needed are steps to improve the compensation they get for the job, so that they may feel a stronger sense of involvement. In this age of multiculturalism, we need to create more opportunities for foreigners to help other foreigners in Korea.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dong-seop