Happy New Year everyone. Sae-hae bok mani baduseyo. Today was the Korean New Year, a time for Korean families to get together and remember traditions long ago otherwise extinguished by the rapid industrialisation of their nation in the last fifty years. And here in Aberdeen, it was also the time for this city’s Korean community to gather together in a small church hall, and perhaps wonder what twist of fate led them to live in this small grey outpost in the north-east of Scotland.
Today, for me, was a mixture of fun and intensity. Having yesterday been invited to a Korean gathering, I spent the morning wondering exactly what this would entail. My primary concern was that it was hosted in a church – this wouldn’t happen to be a group of evangelical Christians not unknown in Korea? Oh no! Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Christians are lovely people – some of my best friends are Christian! – but, like a homosexual orgy, I don’t really want to delve too deeply into this other world. The last time I neared a church, the skies turned black and dark thunder threatened, so I moved swiftly onwards to the pub. Fortunately, this use of a church hall – more of a community centre really – was secular, and divine punishment was not meted out.
I was nervous though, for good reason I think. If any of my readers have been to a function alone, where they don’t or barely know anyone there, you may well understand that this is rather intimidating; so just imagine the scenario with everyone speaking Korean. I arrived unscathed in the hall to a sea of yellow, with a mere three other whiteys, all of whom were with their Korean wives (i.e. one man to one wife: this isn’t Utah). Fortunately, my friend "Kim" introduced me to a few people, who were inordinately impressed with my childlike command of Korean, and everything went smoothly after that. In fact, having a basic command of Korean saved my day. For I was elevated immediately from the position of rogue foreigner to talking monkey, and who doesn’t love a talking monkey? I made pleasantries with various people before being sat, where I spent a fair amount of time in (English) conversation with an American-Korean and his German-Korean wife, plus an Aberdonian and his Korean wife.
The place was resoundingly friendly. The tone was informal and light-hearted, focussing on being social, and seemingly one of the few times Koreans in this city can get together and be thoroughly Korean. A meeting place. At the beginning, in family units or singly, everyone stood up into the middle of the hall and publicly introduced themselves. I thought I might be excused from this endeavour, but no, my time came. Even in English, public speaking terrifies me, so in Korean I was no more comfortable, though I quickly discovered that even just saying “Hello. My name is Nev. I lived in Korea for two years but returned to Scotland last year. Thank-you,” was enough to generate awe in this small church hall, so I might plan all future speeches to be in foreign languages.
It was intense though. Although everyone was very friendly, I was there alone and so with no back-up to fall back on, and my only pretext for being there was that I’d eaten at Chef Jang’s stall yesterday and could speak Korean like an 8-year-old. But in some ways my foreignness helped me, as some went out of their way to be friendly, and Koreans are gratifyingly appreciative of any attempts to speak their language.
Importantly, I’ve been plunged into the Korean community, or at least dipped my toe into it. There were between 30 and 40 Koreans there, likely representing the bulk of the Korean population of Aberdeen. I’ve been put onto the Korean mailing list, and so will be informed of all upcoming Korean events, the next being a barbecue apparently, though I’m not sure when. A couple of people took my contact details. And best of all, there were a few tidy birds. Fresh meat waiting to be soiled! All very exciting.
But it’s only uphill from here, I realise. Today I was the talking monkey, and as I say, everyone loves a talking monkey. But only as a novelty act. You don’t want the same talking monkey at every wedding, funeral and barmitzvah, oh no. But a talking, dancing monkey! Now there’s a thing...