by KM Scott
I was first approached by a woman in the AK Plaza shopping center in Seohyeon. She’d asked me, in broken English, if I’d like to take a survey. Not in any rush and just leisurely enjoying my day, I agreed. The questions were so simplistic in nature that they caught me off guard – in fact, they had nothing to do with retail, which is what I would have expected in such a place. Though memory fails as to the exact wording, the questions were basically about what I, as a foreigner, would like to see done differently in South Korea, such as what kind of shops or food would I like to see more of, and what kind of humor would I like to share with Koreans.
I really didn’t get it at first. The lady then showed me a pamphlet in English telling me about the group she was working for, Mannam Volunteer Association. At first glance, it looked like some kind of international goodwill organization, the kind of outfit that displayed pictures of groups of multicultural folks of all walks holding hands and smiling into the camera.
What little hair my advancing age had let remain on my head stood on end. I’d seen this type of thing before, and had once or twice been the unfortunate victim of it: some ruthlessly cheerful group of zealous wingnuts under the authority of some rightfully ridiculed religious institution trying to fatten their ranks with a silly, syrupy message about universal love or some other garbage. That, or an attempt to pull me into some kind of pyramid scheme involving selling out my friends and loved ones. This was precisely the sort of crass manipulation I expected to find at this … whatever it was I was going to.
I’m glad to say my expectations were not met.
Having spent way too many Sunday afternoons cooped up in my apartment, I decided to take a risk and see what this Mannam was all about. Some of the stuff they had advertised, such as massages, food, stand-up comedian performances, and haircuts, actually sounded quite nice, and a bargain at a 10,000 won (roughly $10 US) entry fee.
The event I actually attended turned out to be free. I was taken to a public meeting area by car after taking the subway just a few stops from my home. I was immediately greeted by many smiling Mannam representatives. Walking into the event, I saw no religious tracts, no symbols, no hucksters trying to get me to buy anything. What I did see were activities, and I participated in every one of them: face painting, archery (with sucker arrows), acupuncture (in the fingers!), even a free body massage. There was a wonderful layout of food, and I hit the spaghetti bowl at least three times. In the middle of the four-hour event, there was a great talent show, featuring a number of performers, from middle school kids doing a truly impressive acrobatic dance, to a virtuoso violin player tickling the strings to a rousing background track. There were even dance lessons as to how to do the “Gangnam Style” dance, based on the internationally omnipresent K-pop hit of the same name.
The gathering was truly multicultural. People from all over the world attended, from Bangladesh to Kyrgyzstan, and even the mysterious and inscrutable land of Ohio.
As fun as all this was, the most endearing element of all was the friendliness of the Mannam folks. The stated goal of Mannam is to be an organization that promotes world peace. While the cynic in me may blanch at that, I could not help but feel touched by the smiles, kindness, and apparent desire to help visitors have a good time. Towards the end of the event, I was guided from one activity table to the next by a tirelessly genial woman whose sweet nature seemed in no way forced or condescending. Everybody was like that.
Big, public get-togethers with strangers promoting goodwill is not the sort of thing I normally do (small conclaves with furtive, bitter individuals spurting bile at humanity is more my speed), but the affable nature and genuine pleasantness I found at this even was too much for me to ignore. Part of the reason I wrote this article is to try and help others in SK who may not really get what Mannam is to understand what waits in store for them. When I first heard about the group, I’d asked friends and co-teachers if they’d ever heard of it. None had. So I went, I experienced, and I came back alive, as well as happy. I’m writing to say that I had a great time with Mannam. If you’re looking for something to do on a Sunday, you could do far worse than head out to one of their shindigs. Check ’em out on the Internet at http://www.mannamintl.org/.
Note: After publishing this article, I had received a number of responses insisting that Mannam International has connections to a religious organization whose practices could be considered disagreeable to others. While I still enjoyed my experience at the event I attended, and do not wish to unfairly label the attendees or workers there, in the interest of fairness and to foster informative discourse, most of those responses have been posted below. None of the contents of this article are meant to reflect the opinions of Mae, our editor-in-chief.