I have lived in South Korea for a total of nearly 20 years. In that span of time I have seen many changes occur here; both physically and culturally. I have experienced the best of Korea’s long and rich culture and occasionally the dark side of a supposedly homogeneous society; one that at times shuns foreigners. But my overarching impression of the people is one of generosity.
I recall living in Pyeongtaek in 1987. This was an era before the transformations of the country associated with the Olympics. At that time, Korea was certainly industrious and growing, but it was also a nation that teetered on the edge of developing and developed status. Each week we would travel deep into the countryside to visit an elderly woman; she lived alone in a small shack made of mud and thatch. Perhaps you cannot fathom that a mere 35 years ago such meager accommodations still existed, but such was her plight. At the time, I was living on a limited budget, but always tried to bring her a small bag of rice or other essentials. Yet, what astounded me, was that despite her destitute circumstances, she always provided me with delicious strawberries or other delightful fruit snacks. I have no doubt this was a great burden to her, but I could not refuse her gift. I am grateful to this day for the lesson she taught me about humble generosity.
In the late 1990s, I returned to Korea to conduct research for my Ph.D. dissertation. I was just one small speck in the burgeoning city of Seoul, and yet one man recognized me in moment of need, and I am grateful to this day. I lived in an area of the city that was serviced by relatively little public transportation, so I often rode the same bus, each day greeting the same driver. Near the end of my research period, I went to Gwanghwamun to purchase books and supplies I would need to continue my studies in the US. Ready to return home, my arms were laden with my heavy purchases when it began to rain. Down the road, I saw the bus I needed, but was still some distance from the stop; to my chagrin, the bus departed without me. The driver had already crossed three lanes of traffic to turn left when he spotted me, clumsily struggling with my wet bags; he immediately cut back across the traffic to pick me up. I attribute his kindness to an unspoken, but mutual appreciation for one another: every day I entered his bus I said hello, and every day I exited, I thanked him for his service. And so it was, in my moment of need, he generously repaid my sincere gratitude.
Living in Seoul today is much the same; making personal connections with people in my neighborhood always leads to pleasant encounters. Each week I purchase fruits and vegetables from a pop-up farmer’s market in the parking lot of my apartment complex. I do not speak at length, but always try to be pleasant and kind to the proprietors. One week I opted to purchase a parcel of oranges. To my surprise, the merchant indicated that I did not want those particular fruits, but rather in a box under the counter he had a special stash for his best customers; apparently, I had earned elite status!
These are three of a myriad of stories I could share; but they embody a fundamental trait of Koreans I have experienced throughout my extended stay. By verbalizing my appreciation to individuals, I have been rewarded with an abundance of generosity; and I am grateful for that.