By Korea.net Honorary Reporter Bardise Muhammad
Photos = Madiha
The language barrier is one of the things that people who’re interested in Korea face when trying to get to know more about Korea and its society. Not only that, some people even refrain from visiting another foreign country for fear that they would not be able to survive one day there without knowing the language. Arab families planning to visit Korea often face such a problem. They can’t speak Korean, and people in Korea can’t speak Arabic.
That’s what encouraged two young Koreans to establish their own company, Yalla Korea. Yalla is a Korean travel agency that was founded by Im SangOk and Park Sangwon in 2016 when they realized that there weren’t any travel agencies in Korea that could help people who could only speak Arabic. They wanted to help Arab tourists travel to and enjoy their stay in Korea, while introducing different aspects of Korea to them through unique and different activities.
Today, Korea.net sat down with one of the founders, Im SangOk, who tries to spread all things Korean among Arab tourists in very simple and effective ways, and also through her hard work.
|Im SangOk in the United Arab Emirates holds a sign that says, ‘I Love Sharjah.’|
– Could you please tell us about yourself?
Hello, my name is Im Sang Ok. I go by the Arabic name Madiha. First, I would like to say that I’m honored to be interviewed by you. I’m from Korea and I majored in Arabic language at Myongji University. I also studied Arabic for one year in Kuwait through a cultural exchange program. Now I work at Yalla Korea, a travel agency.
|Yalla Korea’s logo represents the old and the new Korea. It shows an old palace that can still be seen today, plus the N-Seoul Tower, one of the capital region’s most iconic symbols.|
– Is there a certain reason that led you to study Arabic?
Before studying Arabic at university, I didn’t know anything about it. Whenever I thought about Arabic or Arab countries, only deserts, ships and oil came to mind. As time went by, however, while studying Arabic my love for Arabic greatly increased.
I think the Arabic language is a language that has a special spirit. When I hear Arab people talking or when I read Arabic poems or novels, I feel like I can understand the meanings straight from my heart and not in my brain. I also like talking and joking with my Arab friends. That’s why I like studying Arabic: in order to be in touch with Arabs and understand their real lives.
– Would you tell us more about Yalla Korea?
Yalla Korea is a travel agency for Arabic speaking tourists in Korea. We provide tourism- and travel-related services. For example, we provide pick-up services, translation and interpreting services, and tour programs. We plan tours for individuals or families, and we also plan tours for groups.
For now, Yalla Korea is only two people, me and Park Sangwon, the general manager, who goes by the Arabic name Khalid.
I lived in Kuwait for one year, and Park lived in the United Arab Emirates and in Oman. After we came back to Korea, our Arab friends needed a travel agency that provided Arabic speaking tour guides and who was familiar with the services that Arab tourists need, like language and food. At that time, there was no travel agency that provided that kind of service, especially Arabic speaking tour guides. They were non-existent. So Park and I decided to start the Yalla Korea travel agency in 2016.
|Im SangOk, or ‘Madiha,’ and Park Sangwon, ‘Khalid,’ visit the Seoul Mosque with a Arab customer.|
– Are many Arabs starting to visit Korea?
Yes. Fortunately, many Arabs are choosing Korea for their holiday destinations. When I ask them what made them interested in Korea, they say Korean TV shows and soap operas, Korean pop music, the polite image that the Korean people have, and simply the abstract nature of Korea.
Until now, not too many Arabs knew about the real beauty of Korea and its heritage. That’s why my main personal goal is to learn everything about Korean history and heritage and learn about the beautiful tourist places in Korea, and to study Arabic really hard. That way, I can introduce Korea in a proper and special way to our Arab customers.
– What places do Arab tourists usually prefer?
Arab tourists like nature, shopping and active activities. So the most popular tour program includes Nami Island and Jeju Island.
|Im SangOk, or ‘Madiha,’ visits Nami Island with some Arab customers.|
On Jeju Island, you can enjoy nature and try new activities, like riding a four-wheeled bicycle and riding in a really fast boat.
We also have special programs that aren’t provided by any other travel agency, like Korean handicrafts, cooking Korean food using halal ingredients, and learning about the national martial art taekwondo. Many Arab tourists like these programs.
– Have you visited any Arab country before?
Yes. I studied Arabic in Kuwait for one year, and during the winter break I visited Egypt. I also visit the UAE every year to participate in the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai.
I like to visit Arab countries because I get to meet some Arabs who were tourists in Korea and who have travelled in Korea with Yalla Korea. Also, I get to eat Arab food, even though it makes me gain weight. It’s so delicious.
|Im SangOk, or ‘Madiha,’ and Park Sangwon, ‘Khalid,’ take part in the Arab Travel Market during their annual visit to Dubai.|
– What’s the most difficult situation that you’ve faced while dealing with Arab clients?
Actually, I haven’t faced any problems, because Arab and Korean societies are similar to a big extent when it comes to lifestyle. For example, the way we treat our families and our ways of thinking in general, are all the same.
Even the food! I personally love Arab food, even though I gained 10 kg during my one-year stay in Kuwait.
– What’s one your favorite moments with your Arab friends?
For me, the best is to visit my Arab friends’ homes. Their mothers always prepare Arab food for me and teach me how Arab families live with each other. Sometimes we do henna drawings and play Uno. I really do wish to relive those days.
– Do Arab tourists face any problems in Korea?
The only problem they face is food and language. Practicing Muslims can only eat halal food and halal meat. The number of halal restaurants is increasing in Korea, but it’s still not enough, since the number of Arab tourists who visit Korea is also rapidly increasing.
Also, most Koreans can’t speak any English. Many Arab tourists have a difficult time speaking and understanding English, as well.
In order to solve this problem, we at Yalla Korea prepare tours that include a visit to halal restaurants or to regular Korean restaurants. They can eat there without worrying, since we order food for them that contains mostly vegetables without any non-halal meat. Or we can order vegetarian dishes for them.
Also, we have tour guides who speak both Korean and Arabic. They interpret for them. All of our tour guides majored in Arabic, and most of them have experience in Arab countries, so they can easily communicate and understand the Arab tourists.
So the problems are manageable, to some extent.
|Im SangOk, or ‘Madiha,’ translates what an Arab tourist wants to say when visiting a restaurant to make their trip more comfortable and easy.|
– What’s your favorite thing about Arab society?
I like the Arab family. The number of children Arab people have is around five or six children, or sometimes they even have more children. The age difference between the eldest and youngest child is big. I saw that the older siblings take care of the younger siblings, just like parents do.
Also, they have huge respect for their parents. This part is similar to Korean society. In addition to that, Arab tourists often travel with their families. This is really beautiful. When I see that, I feel like I want to travel with my parents, too.
– Are there many Koreans who are interested in studying Arabic?
Yes, especially these days. The number of Koreans who are interested in learning Arabic is increasing. In Korea, there are five universities where you can study and major in Arabic, including Myongji University and the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Also, there are private institutions that teach Arabic.
– When visiting Korea, do Arab tourists prefer eating Arab or Korean food?
It depends on the person, but most of them usually want to try Korean food. However, they’re often afraid that the food isn’t halal, so we at Yalla Korea take them to halal restaurants in Korea or to vegetarian restaurants, and they do like Korean food very much.
– What’s their favorite Korean food?
Arab tourists like fried beef very much. Korea-style fried beef, or bulgogi, is thin strips of meat with soy sauce. They also like the Korean candy called Dragon’s Beard Candy (꿀타래), which can be found in the Insadong touristy neighborhood.
Not only that, Yalla Korea also helps Arabs to learn Korean through its YouTube channel.
|Yalla Korea teaches an Arab student Korean on its YouTube channel.|
As well as publishing a series of videos showing the most popular places in Korea, such as the neighborhoods of Itaewon, Gangnam and Myeong-dong in Seoul, and, of course, Jeju Island, they also talk about Korean street food. Click here to see the video.
It’s noteworthy that all the videos are in Arabic, which is a huge step in introducing Korean society to Arabs who still don’t know much about Korea, or those who are interested in Korea but still cannot understand the information provided online and offline in Korean.
Through their efforts to introduce Korean heritage in Arabic, a language that’s considered to be very hard to learn, we can only be sure that the way the Korean people love their country and heritage will be the biggest reason why non-Koreans fall in love with Korea.
Please click here to check out their official website, YouTube channel and Instagram profile.