This week I embarked on my biggest Korean challenge yet. A few months ago, the Danish embassy reached out to me with a request. They told me that a delegation of Danish politicians from the employment committee together with the minister of employment would visit South Korea for one week in early March, and that they needed someone to act as Danish-Korean interpreter. Was I up for the job? H… yes!!! I knew it would be challenging and difficult, but of all fields this was employment. Being a labor market economist the fit couldn’t be better. Of course it required tremendous preperation, but I felt confident that I could do the job well. After all, I knew the terminology. So, I happily accepted and started preparing, reading all kinds of articles and pieces about labor market developments in Korea and Denmark.
The night before Monday, I hardly slept. I had spent the entire weekend studying all the materials and speeches, the embassy had forwarded to me in advance, and everything was churning around in my head. In the morning I headed to the hotel where the delegation was staying and greeted everyone in the lobby. Then we, together with the Danish ambassador to Korea, were off to our first meeting at the Korean Economic Research Institute. Having completed my first translation task, the ambassador approached me and told me that he was very pleased with the job I’d done and that he thought I was very professional. Gaining confidence from the feedback, I was ready for assignment no. 2. A working luncheon with spokespersons for one of Korea’s biggest trade unions. This proved more challenging, as the Koreans spoke with a strong dialect, but it was still successful.
After the lunch meeting, we were off to the National Assembly to meet with the Korean employment committee. We were welcomed into a beautiful traditional Korean style house, which served as meeting room. There were name cards by each seat and microphones in front of each chair. I sat between the Danish minister and the chairman of the committee, and my name card said “Interpreter”. Whoa! I suddenly felt like a fish out of water and wondered how I would go through 90 minutes of political discussion in Korean. But time went by so fast, and I managed to translate all questions and answers.
Then I had 40 minutes to go home and clear my head before a banquet at the ambassador’s residence in the evening. This was less challenging, as I only had to act as interpreter during the three official speeches. After that I was free to circulate among the guests – and, get something to eat. If you ever wondered how much an interpreter eats during a working lunch I can tell you it’s very little. I’ve spent this weekend working hard to regain the 2-3 pounds I most definitely lost over the past couple of days.
Then, on Tuesday morning, we met at Yongsan station to go to Ulsan, where we had to visit Hyundai Motors’ headquarters. It took several hours to get there, during which I had time to get to know each of the politicians better. I was happily surprised when I found out that everybody seemed to be getting along very well despite belonging to different parties.
In Ulsan we were greeted by an impressive welcoming committee and bows, handshakes, and gifts were exchanged before we were given the grand tour of the whole factory complex. Really amazing! After the visit at Hyundai, where we also got to see their own loading dock where they shipped their cars overseas, we headed to Haeundae in Busan, where the Danish minister hosted a dinner for representatives from Danish companies in Korea.
The next morning we went to the island Geoje, located 90 minutes southwest of Busan. There we visited the Daewoo shipyard, which also produces container vessels for Danish shipping conglomerate Maersk. On our way back to Seoul, we stopped in Gumi to visit an innovation center specializing in robot technology and industrial automization.
When I was finally home in Seoul late Wednesday evening, I was so tired from all the impressions. Not being used to the interpreter role, I can tell you this much: There’s no “spacing out” or losing yourself in day dreams, while doing that particular kind of work.
Thursday was my last day with the delegation. Meetings with another trade union, the Korean Employers’ Federation, and the Korean minister of employment were on the agenda before my job was completed. The official program ended at 3pm, and the delegation then headed to Gyeongbokgung palace for some sightseeing. I volunteered to go with them and show them around, since we couldn’t get a guide with such short notice. They seemed very happy with my offer and asked me a million questions about the palace, Seoul, and Korea while we were touring the palace grounds.
This also gave me a chance to say a proper goodbye in a more relaxed atmosphere before leaving the group. When we were back on the bus after touring the palace I said my final goodbyes and wished them all a pleasant journey home. They then started applauding me, and several of them came and gave me a hug. Finally the chairman handed me a present and regretted that they couldn’t take me with them back to Denmark.
Having succesfully completed this task, I feel so happy for having been given such an amazing opportunity. I realize that I’m very priviledged, and I’m thankful everyday for all the wonderful experiences my stay in Korea continues to hand me.
As of Friday, I’m back in school here at Sogang. I’ve now started level 6, and I’m also back to teaching economics to the new freshmen students. Now, I should get some homework done before tomorrow, but first I’ll just share a Korean R&B song with you. The song is called Yangwha Bridge, which is just a location in Seoul, but the chorus is 행복하자, 우리 행복하자, 아프지 말고 행복하자. (let’s be happy, let’s be happy, let’s not be hurting, let’s just be happy). Happy Sunday to all of you!