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Selfless students guide way with Seoul tours

Korean college kids aim to show same kindness they recieved abroad


Local knowledge is priceless when visiting a new city, but obtaining it can quickly become costly for tourists forking out newly changed currency on expensive tour guides.

Foreigners in Korea can avoid this pitfall and opt for an experience that money can’t buy with free city tours provided by a group of selfless student guides.

These 18-26 year-olds can be seen loitering around the Seoul’s famous landmarks on any given weekend, waiting to pick up their waygookin wards and show them their city.

The young Korean members of Meteor Youth Volunteering Club give up their precious weekends to lead groups of around 10 tourists on one of several seven-hour tour courses.

The tailor-made courses are designed to suit all sorts of tourist’s tastes.

Meteor’s shopping tour takes in an ice gallery as well as shopping malls around Myeong-dong and Dongdaemun market, while the Tradition & History tour visits Seodaemun Prison History Hall, Gyeongbokgung, Gwanghwamun Square, Bukchon and Insadong. The Eco & Nightlife tour starts in nature to showcase Seoul Forest, N Seoul Tower and the Cheonggyecheon before picking up pace to immerse visitors in the neon and noraebangs of Hongdae.

But why are busy students giving up their precious Saturdays and Sundays to traipse round the same landmarks they have seen hundreds of times before? 
A tourist practices Korean calligraphy during a Meteor culture tour.
A tourist practices Korean calligraphy during a Meteor culture tour.
Visitors visit the Leeum Gallery on a Meteor tour.
Visitors visit the Leeum Gallery on a Meteor tour.

Why give?

“Well, I’m a type that is the first person to go up to people and talk,” explains Choi Ji-eun, a business student at Sungsil University.

“If I see someone who looks like they need directions, I will definitely go up to them and try to help.

“I spent a year living in Dublin and I have traveled in Europe many times. I get lost really easily so I had to ask for help from a lot of people! Whenever I had trouble, people were really kind. One man even went to his house and copied a map for me from Google maps so I would know where to go. I thought I wanted to do something like that for foreigners who come to Korea,” she told the Korea Herald.

Her fellow volunteer, Jun Ji-hye, who studies French at Suwon’s Ajou University, said she appreciates the cultural insight that being a tour guide to foreigners brings.

“I remember the first time I met a man from Egypt. He was a Muslim and actually, in Korean society a lot of people have big discrimination against Muslim people, but I discovered he was a very kind and great person.

“I was so surprised that I didn’t know about this other culture, especially when my dream at that time was to be a diplomat. I decided I had to learn more and share everything with people from other cultures.”

For almost a year, the pair have been leading tours around Seoul every second weekend, as part of Meteor’s 55-strong tour guide team.

“We have people from all over the world ― Asian people more than American. At the moment Korean singers are really popular in Asia so they have a lot of interest from countries like Japan and China,” said Choi.

“All of our members are interested in foreign culture and foreign language so we can provide tours in Chinese, Japanese and French as well as Korean and English.”

While Choi recommended Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square area for its fusion of historic palaces and modern architecture, Jun said Meteor tours also revealed the fun side of Seoul.

“I would like to recommend the night life in Seoul. It goes on until 4 a.m. There are a lot of great things to do such as karaoke, spas and clubs,” she said.

But providing tours isn’t always easy, especially when visitors booking free tours fail to turn up on the day.

“We have to wait one hour or so even in rain or in hot sun, because there is a possibility that they are lost.” Choi said. “If they turn up late then we can understand and go on with the tour, but if they don’t show up we are really disappointed.”

Even with such knocks, the girls are keen to help as many visitors to Korea as they can.

“Sometimes I am too busy to do this but I am sure that I can make time to help people.” Jun said. “With this kind of activity I can have a lot of fun, make friends and still help people. I am really excited to share my experiences with them.”

Teen teachers

High school students ― often even more busy than university students here ― also volunteer for Meteor. This junior team teaches younger Korean students English at child-care centers in and around Seoul. The group focuses on kids in disadvantaged areas that might not otherwise be able to afford English tuition outside of school.

“The high school students have a lot of work to do with their studies, but they still make time for other kids,” Choi said “One high school student reported to Meteor that he was very concerned about the children’s future. He wanted to be a friend and an older brother to these kids, not just some random volunteer.”

Meteor recruits

The 55-volunteer organization started in 2007 ― sponsored by Seoul Youth Center for Cultural Exchanges ― and also helps with other activities such as mucking-out at animal shelters and interpreting at multi-lingual events.

Meteor is recruiting new volunteers able to work at least twice a month from June. The group is looking for more Korean student volunteers as well as native-English speakers to become “Meteor Friends.” The foreign recruits will help with language teaching programs for the first time. People of other nationalities are also welcome to visit places like children’s homes and youth centers to tell children about different cultures.

People wishing to book a tour with a Meteor guide should contact them a couple of weeks before the desired tour date, saying which course they would prefer to take.

Go to www.meteoryouth.org for more information.

By Kirsty Taylor (kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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