by Charles Kosan
In December 1998, I was traveling alone in South Korea. I was roughing it with my small backpack, wearing old shirts, staying in cheap hotels and using public transportation. I started in Seoul and traveled clockwise across the mysteriously beautiful country. Everywhere was quiet and cold.
On New Year’s Eve, I left Pusan, a large seaport, for a small town two hours away by bus. Traveling worries me when the conditions are not very good. Bad weather, curvy roads, uncomfortable seats, and food smells can all trigger motion sickness. I was looking out the window when a man carrying grilled dried cuttlefish wrapped in paper sat next to me. I couldn’t stop him from enjoying his snack, so I looked intently out the window and wished the trip would not last too long — and that I would not get sick on the way.
He said something in Korean and offered his snack to me; I politely refused. When he realized I was a foreigner, he started to speak in English. He was a dentist, just starting his practice in Pusan. Life was difficult for him because of the Asian economy at the time. His wife and small daughter lived with her parents, in the small town where our bus was headed. During the conversation I looked out the window most of the time, and explained the reason. Whether he understood or not, he said nothing.
As we approached our destination, he invited me to meet his family. I was reluctant. I didn’t know him and it was New Year’s Eve, a time normally reserved for close friends and family. But he insisted, so I accepted with the promise that he would help me find an inexpensive hotel afterward.
His wife picked us up at the bus station and drove us to their apartment, where I met her family and their daughter. They served warm rice and dinner. I enjoyed the kimchee (hot pickled cabbage) but was afraid to try the other foods. Afterward we talked, and his wife gave me a small gift. Then they found me a small hotel close to the bus station, from which I would leave the next day. He also gave me his name card in case I needed to contact him. We parted, and I enjoyed the rest of my travel in the peninsula before returning to where I lived.
Clearly, this man could imagine nothing to gain from helping me. I was dressed in worn and inexpensive clothing and came from another culture with a foreign language. In short, I had nothing to offer back in return. But he took the courage and time to be friendly, to give me a warm welcome in that special time of the year.
I learned an important lesson: that friendship, kindness, and humanity abound in this world and bridge cultural, linguistic and other seemingly insurmountable differences. I also learned that someone who has nothing to gain can still have something to give.