Living in a foreign country can be tiring. You are constantly surrounded by foreign culture, language, food, people, and customs. Some new behaviors come naturally, while others take longer to learn. Though there are many differences in American and Korean life, there are a few things that I have found to be universal: food, laughter, and kindness.
I want to share two short experiences I’ve had so far that have really made me smile and feel good about my decision to move to Korea.
My first experience happened while waiting for the bus to arrive after school in the middle of no where (and when I say no where, I mean a 3 hour bus ride from the “big” city of Jeonju, to the tiny village of Dong Sang in the mountains on the edge of a lake). While waiting for the bus, a group of aujjima (old Korean women) who were sitting across the street from me beckoned me over to them with their polite “come here” wave. Knowing my bus wouldn’t arrive for another 15 minutes, and not wanting to appear rude, I went to where they were sitting and joined them. They offered me a fresh chestnut from their shared afternoon snack and I proceeded to remove the shell to the best of my ability, which is unfortunately very low. Seeing my struggle, one of the women used a knife and peeled a chestnut for me. All the while, the rest of the women in the circle bombarded me with questions in Korean. I have close to no idea what they were asking me, even with their attempts at hand gestures to get their point across. So, I used what Korean I could and told them I was an English teacher that lived in Jeonju. They smiled at me warmly at my attempt to communicate with them. As the bus approached, they all got up and helped me flag down the bus driver so that he didn’t leave without me. In Korea, aujjimas are known as a force to be reckoned with, but their hospitality and kindness to me made me feel welcome, even as an outsider. Something as simple as sharing their afternoon snack with me bridged a gap between us when our language failed us.
My second experience happened in Jeonju. Buses in the city tend to get very full and cramped, so if you have the opportunity to get a seat, it is a big deal. On this occasion, I had with me my backpack on my back, full to the brim with books, my computer, a few changes of clothes and necessities for the weekend. I had everything prepared for a weekend away. Needless to say, my backpack was full and heavy. Luckily, I got on the bus when it was moderately empty and I was able to get a seat. As the bus started to fill up, more people crammed in and the seats were limited.
It would be good to mention that Koreans, as a whole, are generally very respectful to their elders, especially on the buses. It is customary that a seat on the bus should be given to someone older than you. Unfortunately, many other young Koreans in Jeonju tend to ignore this unspoken rule on buses and stay seated even when an old man or woman is hanging on the rails around sharp turns, all the while the young Korean is texting or playing a game on their phone. Personally, I choose to represent myself and the foreign community as best I can by following Korean customs whenever possible.
So, as the bus started to get busy, I got up from my seat and allowed an older man to sit down. At first, he insisted that I keep my seat because of my heavy bag, but I thought giving him my seat was the right thing to do. After a 15 minute bus ride, I was able to get another seat as the bus emptied a bit more. Just a few stops before my exit, the older man that I gave my seat to got up, and started to look around the bus for what I now know was me. He finally located me in the back of the bus, came up to me and said sweetly in English, “Thank you for your kindness” and got off the bus to wherever he was going.
It may have been a simple gesture to say thank you, but it was something that touched my heart. In an ever changing nation like Korea, common pleasantries and customs of the past are moving to the wayside. Korea’s growing, busy, globalized lifestyle, sometimes called “bali bali” lifestyle, is much different than traditional Korean culture. Sure, there are some cultural and social norms that are constant, but the little things that make Korea unique seem to be less important to the younger generation than they are to the older generation. It seems that we can see that trend away from more traditional, respectful culture in many countries, not just Korea.
I think these two experiences have left an impression on me and my short time in Korea. Sure, it is easy to live the “bali bali” lifestyle, always being on your cell phone, not taking care to help others, or chat with someone you’ve just met, but I think there is something precious about taking time to go the extra mile and be truly kind to people. You never know how your small kindnesses will affect someone else, and I think it feels good to not always take the short cuts in life.