Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Meeting the Mayor of Seoul: Courtesy of TNM Media

A good way to get in the firing line of serendipity is to seek out groups of people with whom one enjoyably chills. For me, those groups have been Toastmasters (a public speaking club) and Nanoomi, a conglomeration of independent yet mutually supportive bloggers. Nanoomi's parent is TNM Media, a company based in Seoul with an online media focus.

Last Friday some of our members were invited to have a Q&A session with the mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon.

While on my wonderful way to meet the merry mayor, I soon realised that my meagre understanding of Korean politics left a little to be desired. 
Waves of insecurity ensued. Would I fit in with the politically-knowledgeable? Was I under-dressed? Was I indeed meeting the Seoul Mayor, or perhaps going to an equine farm to meet the Sole Mare?

Not to be swayed, I clutched my hastily translated question and decided I would employ that sage advice, to take things as they come and see what happens.

The very fact that we, as bloggers, were invited to have a chat with him was notable in itself. The mayors of Korea's largest city are very big fish, not least for their propensity to later win presidential elections.

Being a 'blogger' is a fairly broad description, and although some bloggers are thoughtful opinion leaders, you also have guys like me who just sit around and post photos of Big Baengy. So even before arrival, I was grateful for the opportunity to take part.

Arriving late for a meeting with the mayor will surely earn you a negative score on the Awesome scale. And while definitely not a habit of mine, I managed to rack up some overtime on the scenic journey to City Hall. In our unwritten rulebook, that is very unbecoming of a Nanoomite.

The meeting had already started when I arrived and Cynthia, our fearless leader, was waiting just inside the door, whereupon she signified her discontent with a tiny look of silent Doom. It was then time for me to go into damage control mode, and after calming the slight panic in my neurons with a mental clap, I sat on a chair and focused solely on maintaining an attentive facial expression.

My first impressions are only correct about 50% of the time, but my first impression of Park Won Soon was that he seemed nice. My Korean vocabulary is on par with that of a kindergarten kid, but my accompanying grammar skills are more around the monkey level. So although I couldn't understand a lot of what the good mayor was saying, his body language did speak well and it wasn't long before elements of charisma began to emanate. He listened patiently, took notes when necessary and answered thoughtfully.

We, the people, were soon allowed a free for all, better known in Starcraft circles as an FFA. Or, to be more precise a Q&A FFA.

Thus I had a dilemma. Do I raise my shaky hand and read my translated Korean question to the mayor, and risk the possibility of looking like a complete imbecile in the wrong classroom? 
In vain hope that fortune may indeed favour the bold, my answer, was yes.

My question, which I read in Korean, was as follows:
"It can be difficult for potential mothers to choose between starting a family or keeping a stable job. Does the mayor have any plans to make it easier for new mothers to re-enter the workforce?"

"아직도 기혼 여성들이 아이를 가지는 것과 직장에 계속 다니는 것 중 둘 중 하나를 선택하는 것에 큰 어려움을 느끼고 있습니다 (일부 대기업이나 공무원이 아닌 경우) 시장님은 이러한 여성들이 다시 직장에 복귀할 수 있도록 하는 어떤 정책이 있나요?"

My pronunciation was off, clarity poor and delivery odd, but after some initial confusion about whether it was 'new mothers' or 'divorcees' that I was referring to, my question was answered a little something like this:

"보육의 사회적 부담이 중요하다고 생각한다. 출산율 높이기 위해서 많은 지자체가 돈을 주는데 돈을 준다고 아이를 낳겠습니까? ‘서울시 보육정책이 엉터리인 이유가 애를 키워보지 않은 4~50 남자들이 정책을 만들어서 그런 아니냐라는 칼럼을 적이 있다. 그래서 정말 여성들의 입장에서 닿는 보육 정책을 펴야 한다고 생각한다. 집에서 가까운 곳에 보육 시설을 확장하는 가장 좋은 방법이다보육은 개인의 문제가 아니라 사회가 책임져야 한다고 생각하고 중요한 정책으로 계속 해나가겠다."

For those who are interested, the video is here (1:14:30.)

Luckily, Cynthia provided translation, saving me the effort of pretending I understood everything. Basically the mayor's opinion is that child-raising is the collective responsibility of society as a whole.

I thought he gave a good answer.

Widhi also asked a question, as did QiRanger Steve via a newly met connoisseur of the Korean language, Andy from Kojects. In the photo above, our ever-pleasant Cynthia is whispering translations to QiRanger Steve, like a voice in the king's ear.

Either that or she was talking about her fabulous new haircut.

After the question session had ended, the mayor extended his hospitality and let us see his office. Bloggers like taking photos, and there we were, shamelessly snapping macro shots of his coffee cup, his favourite ballpoint pens and his functional food tablets (Propolis, to be exact). That was until one of his aides mentioned that the FFA had ended, and we were now documenting his personal space. 

Sheepishly, the barrage of shutter clicks diminished to a dull roar, with the bloggers then shooting from more respectable distances.

Apparently a few of our fellow Seoulites have created a new genre of art called ParkWonSoonism. It consists of various manipulations of the mayor's appearance, and he has a few examples on his office walls.

Now I'm not sure what the correct procedure is when receiving pictures of yourself. I guess displaying pictures of yourself in your own office is a little funny. But then again, hiding pictures of yourself is even stranger.

It's one of those rare catch-22 situations in the world of mayors.

Displayed on his wall are Post-Its, from the citizens of Seoul. Some of them are suggestions, others expressions of support. Mayor Park is quite proud of this display, and I have no doubt that he's read them all. If I were to write one, it would go like this "시장님, 궁금합니다.... 혹시오세훈처럼아리수 (수돗물)를 좋아하십니까?"

It's a question related to my interest in Arisu.

Then it was time for a photo session. In the photo above, there are various Nanoomi folk and a TNM guy thrown in for good measure.

This particular photo is going straight to the pool room. The coolest thing about meeting the Mayor of Seoul is then being able to tell others that you have met the Mayor of Seoul. I have found that indirectly mentioning it is usually more fun.

"Yeah I missed that episode of 선덕여왕 last Friday... what was I doing... oh yeah, I was just hanging out with my new friend, the MAYOR OF SEOUL!!"

Upon arriving home with a buzz, my next dilemma was what to do when one is in possession of a mandarin from the Mayor of Seoul's fruitbowl.

I decided to hand it over to one of our household's most discerning of fruit critics, whose favourite fruit just happens to be mandarin.

Here Baengy Baengy! Oh look Baengy, it's a mandarin... your favourite! 

It's 박원순시장님의 귤!*

*(Mayor Park's mandarin)

Baengy observed the fine details of the fruit, laying it out on her table, before deliberating on whether she should take a liberal or conservative approach to its consumption.

In the end, it was center-left and another victory for the moderates among us. The fruit of the mayor, it seemed, was delicious.

Overall it was a great evening with the mayor. I found him to be a friendly and sincere person, and someone seemingly capable of what must be a very complicated job.

Thanks go out to City Hall, TNM Media and Nanoomi, for inviting this young blogger out for an eye-opening experience.

Photo credits: TNM Media (mostly!)


Kevin Kim said...


My closest brushes with fame (the ones I remember, anyway) never involved anything this up-close and personal. I saw the writer Garrison Keillor at an airport baggage claim once. I had fighter pilot Chuck Yeager autograph a copy of his book once. I saw astronaut buzz Aldrin from behind during a book-signing once (at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum-- same place I met Yeager). I crossed paths with satirist Art Buchwald back in my undergrad days as he was walking across Georgetown University's campus. Oh, yeah-- my dubious accomplishment: I had a styrofoam cup signed by deconstructionist thinker Jacques Derrida in 1999, and we had the chance to speak in French with each other for a few moments.

But in no case did I ever have a sit-down with a person of prominence, followed by a mad photo-snapping session. Veddy nice, veddy nice.

Lee Farrand said...

Wow, Buzz and Chuck... heroes of the space age. You know Guus Hiddink, the soccer coach? Well, one of my buddies once got to hug him on TV. So prior to this, my biggest claim to fame was that 'I was friends with a guy who once hugged Guus Hiddink.'

Hayati Art said...

Korea is just one of the most amazing country !!!
I lived there 1 year but I want to come back to start my working life there ; )

If you would like my French/lebanese vision of art (after visiting Sinsa-dong) :

Danu Artha Putra M said...

korea is the best!, ,i love korean

Czjai Reyes-Ocampo said...

I'm a new follower of your blog. Your articles are very informative and interesting! Looking forward to more great posts from you!

htduhoc2012 said...

The next year i will go study abroad at Korea! Nice too all there...
Du hoc Anh

Anonymous said...

Ah, that was good experience for you. Someday when you are perhaps a politician, maybe a Mayor yourself or a member of the National Assembly, or maybe teaching a political science course at the university, you will look back at this meeting with your mayor, when your own students are preparing to visit the Mayor, and feel the need to put them at ease. Should you feel the need to give them a piece of fruit or some other small token, offer a suggestion what they might do with with it. Congratulations on this article.

Blair Gubernath said...

Just discovered your blog. Your baby is adorable. Im now catching up on your older posts

Blair Gubernath said...

Love the blog. I just discovered it. Your baby is absolutely adorable!