Korean welcome humbles Valley visitors

Tina McCollum of North Bend displays her image on the Gangjin Times. McCollum, who hosted a Korean exchange student in January, was pictured once in the newspaper saying goodbye to the students, and again when they reunited in Korea last month. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Tina McCollum of North Bend displays her image on the Gangjin Times. McCollum, who hosted a Korean exchange student in January, was pictured once in the newspaper saying goodbye to the students, and again when they reunited in Korea last month.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

From the banners hung at the city hall and high school, to the children waving from school windows, to the farmer who saved a photo for his descendants, the Korean community of Gangjin humbled six Snoqualmie Valley residents who visited the prospective sister city in April through its unabashed welcome.

Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson led a group of residents, including Tina McCollum, Doug and Kristin Walsh, Andrea McCabe and Bob Pajer, in spending the week of April 13 in Gangjin, a city of about 43,000 people in the southern part of South Korea, and touring other parts of the county.

Larson was there to talk on ways that cities can grow and maintain their quality of life, and the Walshes, McCollum, Pajer and McCabe reconnected with Korean exchange students that they hosted in January.

The five were amazed by their hosts, given gifts, welcomed into homes and greeted with big banners.

“The thing that was the most impressive was the warmth and generosity of the Korean people. That will be one of the highlights of my life. I’ll never forget it,” Larson said.

“The people were so incredibly friendly and generous,” McCabe said. “They were so grateful for the opportunity that we provided to the students. But that was such an opportunity for us to learn about a different culture.”

Back in January, McCabe’s family hosted Hui-Yu Lee, 15, on his first trip outside Korea.

“They were so brave,” McCabe said. “The students were such wonderful young people. They were so incredibly bright, inquisitive, eager to learn and very polite.”

Korean culture places a big emphasis on education.

“The Koreans came out of World War II with nothing,” McCabe said. “The country had been completely devastated. They saw that the way ahead was to give everything they could to their children. There was a big focus on providing a better life for the next generation.”

In Korea, McCabe met Hui-Yee’s parents, and visited their home. They tried healthy Korean fare: lots of vegetables, and plenty of spice.

The group toured the local high school, where they were greeted with a banner in their honor.

“When we were leaving, they were waving out the windows for us. It was just delightful,” McCabe said.

Most of the Koreans they met dressed formally. At lunch, their hosts often wore suits.

While visiting a farm family that shows Korean tourists how traditional foods, such as rice cakes, are made, Larson was humbled by the reaction of the farmer, who dressed in a suit to mark the occasion.

“He was very honored that we were coming to his home,” Larson said. “Not many westerners come to the southern part of Korea.”

During the visit, the farmer got a photo taken with Larson. The man was so honored by the visit by an American mayor, he said would pass the photo down to his children and grandchildren.

Larson bore home gifts including Korean pottery, a ceremonial declaration and a gold crown, a replica of a version worn by an ancient Korean king. The gifts will eventually be put on display in the new Snoqualmie City Hall.

“I’m representing my city,” Larson said. “The respect that they showed for me is essentially for the city of Snoqualmie, and their level of interest in some connection here. It was a real gift.”

McCollum reunited with her exchange student, 15-year-old Ha Eun Kim.

Back in January, McCollum’s hug with the departing Kim had been photographed and wound up making the front page of the local paper, the Gangjin Times.

When McCollum visited Gangjin, she was shown the issue, and a new photo was taken. Once again, McCollum’s face was back in the newspaper, only this time, the headline referenced her laughter instead of the tears.

“It’s a beautiful picture,” McCabe said of the first photo. “It emphasized how we felt about them.”

The language barrier was difficult at first, but the travelers overcame it quickly. McCollum was able to meet Ha Eun’s family, and has since invited her mother to visit for her 40th birthday.

“She’s thinking about it,” McCollum said.

“Now I feel like I have this huge extended family in Korea.”

McCollum was touched by the hospitality, warmth and feeling of appreciation, that came from their Korea hosts “knowing that we want to give, too. It’s just this balance between us. It’s almost an unspoken word.”

“We’re strangers, but everyone embraced everyone else.”

Already designated a “Friendship City, Gangjin is on track to become Snoqualmie’s sister city, probably sometime next year.

If Gangjin becomes Snoqualmie’s sister city, “I think we would benefit greatly from it,” McCabe said. “The Koreans are very interested in fostering additional cultural and business exchanges.”

The Valley could gain from Korean tours to venuse such as Snoqualmie Falls, the local brewery and railroad museum and the Snoqualmie Casino.

In a sense, Snoqualmie’s travelers were helping get the word out about the Valley.

“This gives us an opportunity to publicize this incredible place that we live in.”

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