One day in Incheon my Korean–Australian colleague and her daughter took me out to a buffet lunch. The buffet was in a wedding hall open to the public. Its dining room was crowded with a big, noisy group of old people sitting in well-dressed clumps around the tables, and standing in knots around the soup and dumplings.
As we sat eating in the only corner left, an old man detached himself and sidled up to us like a bird that wants bread, but is afraid to take it from your hand. He was as well dressed as any of his party in a dark suit and black cap, though he stooped a bit, as if his leg had been injured. He greeted my colleague politely in English.
“I heard you speaking English,’ he said. “I like speaking English when I can.”
His English wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly as good as my students’, and I was surprised to hear an old person speak it so well.
My colleague, who looked a bit annoyed at being interrupted, introduced him to her daughter, who at thirteen is as pretty and bright as any thirteen-year-old has the right to be.
The old man made a big fuss of her and gave her 10,000 won, which she pocketed immediately and went back to playing on her phone.
My colleague then introduced me. When I told him I was from New Zealand, his face lit up.
“New Zealand!” he said. “Kiwi, eh?”
I smiled and nodded, surprised. I hadn’t expected him to even recognise the name of the country, let alone come out with a Kiwi idiom.
“I had lots of Kiwi mates,’ he said. “Soldiers. We fought together in the war; you know the Korean War? Great people. The Kiwis were my friends. We were fighting together. They were good soldiers. Those were difficult times.”
He was shaking my hand happily.
“I want to thank you,” he said, “For sending the soldiers to help us.”
Well. What can you say to that? This old stranger was thanking me for the deeds of the United Nation (UN), the New Zealand government, and some anonymous Kiwi blokes half a century ago. I had to say something: he wouldn’t let my hand go.
“You’re welcome. I’m glad they came,” I replied, floored. He was happy with that and said goodbye: his wife was telling him to hurry up.
I don’t know anything much about the Korean War, the historical policies of the UN, or the handful of New Zealand soldiers who fought here, but I was humbled by the old soldier’s faulty logic that made me a representative of my country and its history, that made me a good sort because some men who came from the same country long ago had been good sorts.
In this day and age, when countries are constantly arguing about whether or not to ‘intervene’ across one another’s borders, or about the ‘aid’ and ‘invasions’ of the past, it was grounding to learn that this one soldier remembered with gratitude the world’s involvement, and took the trouble to express his gratitude to a stranger half a century on.
* Professor Jean Rumball holds a Ph.D in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic from the University of Cambridge in England. Rumball came to Korea in January.