While I was in Denmark over the summer, I received an unexpected invitation from Mr. Hong Young Pyo, a Korean member of parliament and chairman of the Korean labor committee. I first met him when I acted as interpreter for a Danish delegation of politicians in March. This time, he invited me to come and visit him at the parliament to discuss the future of the Korean labor market, and how Korea might learn from the Danish labor market model. Being a labor economist by profession and with several ideas for ways to improve the Korean work environment, I gladly accepted the invitation. This was then later specified to be an invitation to lunch on Tuesday, September 26th. A week before the luncheon, I was in frequent contact with his sweet secretary. Where to show up: the National Assembly Hall in Yeouido, back entrance. Remember passport and Korean ID for identification + invitation for access to the premises. Note: Mr. Hong is chairing a debate and may be late.
I left my apartment a few minutes past 11 to hail a cab. The lunch appointment was at 12, and even though I live right on the other side of the river from Yeouido, I didn’t want to take any risk in the often congested Seoul traffic. I told the driver to go to the National Assembly’s back entrance and held up my invitation as proof. If I thought this was a big deal, the middle-aged man behind the wheel could not care less. It also seemed like way less of a big deal, when I exited the cab and took my place in line behind 30 5th-graders through the security checkpoint at the entrance. Well arrived and with a visitor’s badge in exchange for my ID card as collateral, I called the secretary as per our prior agreement to let her know that I was now successfully intra muros. She came quickly and showed me to the 6th floor where I was to wait in the chairman’s office. She offered me a cup of tea, and while I was waiting I admired the beautiful view of the iconic Yanghwa bridge spanning the Han river. She then asked if I was interested in following the debate chaired by my lunch date. When I looked confused she turned on the TV in the office and explained that all the debates were being broadcast live. I sat down and began to follow the debate while sipping the Korean citrus tea. On screen, I noticed Mr. Hong leave his seat and a few minutes later he barged into the office greeting me warmly and welcoming me to the National Assembly. I thanked him for his kind invitation in my most polite Korean, but barely finished my sentence before I found myself being dragged into another room. It was only when I looked around that I realized he had brought me into the debate hall, where the debate on environment protection, which I had been watching live seconds earlier was unfolding. He gestured to me to take an empty seat and went back to his seat as debate chair as if this was a perfectly regular occurrence. I noticed the eyes of around 80 Korean politicians carefully examine me and didn’t really know what to do. So, I just smiled and sat straight with my hands in my lap, while the debate continued for another 20 minutes. It was extremely interesting to be part of this, although I did feel like a fish out of water. When Mr. Hong announced that the debate was over, he explained his reasons for dragging a foreign woman into the debate hall. He introduced me and my profession and explained why he had invited me. One of the elder male politicians looked at me suspiciously and then asked the chairman if I understood what had been said at the debate. Without hesitation, Mr. Hong said into his microphone “She speaks our language fluently and has understood every word spoken here today.” A slight exaggeration, but I appreciated his confidence in me. This comment prompted a lot of “oooh” and “aaaah” from the crowd, and several came to shake my hand and welcome me to the parliament.
Mr. Hong then escorted me to a fine Italian restaurant with a magnificent view of the river on the parliament grounds, and there we sat for about an hour and a half, eating delicious pasta, sipping wine and obviously discussing the topic at hand. He spoke passionately about my home country and said that Denmark continued to be a source of inspiration for Korea. He told about being young under the former General Park in the 70’s and how he participated in the fight for democracy during the 80’s. It was all so incredibly interesting and I felt quite at ease in his company. He then told me that he would like me to visit often so that he could pick my brain about labor market policies and that he thought it a great asset to know a Dane, who was also an economist. He then extended an invitation to come back in November to give a formal seminar on the Danish labor market. He said that I could give the seminar in English if I just provided notes in Korean and also agreed to take questions and engage in discussions in Korean. I instantly agreed, and secretly I vowed to myself that I would challenge myself to give the seminar entirely in Korean. I just haven’t told Mr. Hong yet.
What do you guys think? English or Korean? Feel free to let me know in the comments.