Yesterday, while eating an early dinner in Seoul, I experienced something uncommon in this “connected” world. In between Jongro and Insadong, I decided to eat at one of my favorite noodle places. After I ordered and received my receipt, I sat myself down at one of the nearest stools. My meal came rather quickly, and I served myself some kimchi. A nice bowl of meat, vegetables, and rice with a side of kimchi and broth, a delightfully humble meal. Soon after, a couple sat down next to me. They ordered there food, discovered the foot rest beneath their feet, and began the same meal preparation script: napkins, chopsticks, spoons, and a side of kimchi. Before I knew it, a simple “Enjoy your meal” turned into a delightful conversation about life over food.
The man began to ask me questions such as: Where are you from and Why did you come to Korea? He wished to discover more information about who I was, and so in return, I asked him the same questions. This conversational dance continued throughout the meal. We discovered small things that many people do not learn about those sitting next to them. Something I have experienced a few times in Korea.
I learned his name, a similar pronunciation to mine, and a bit of his background. He had been to the USA twice: once for his sister’s graduation from SUNY and the other was in a small town of Missouri to study abroad. He enjoyed his time there, and he even had the opportunity to go to Alaska, to see the sled dogs and auroras. I also learned he and his girlfriend had never been to Busan. Yet, I have been three times. I had explored more of Korea then they had ever seen. He wished for me to continue to have wonderful experiences in Korea. As I told him this year is my last year in Korea, he asked where would I go? Yet, I could not answer him with anything but I don’t know.
As we continued our conversation, intermittent bites of kimchi and our main meals, I noticed I was not agitated nor annoyed. In most circumstances, I dread the self introduction conversations; the ones where I meet many people, say the same information like a broken record, and conversations stay at surface level. However, today was different. The moods conveyed in each question, in each part of speech, were not due to a forced social script, yet one of true inquisitive desire. I learned so much of a stranger, that many people do not learn of the person that sits adjacent to them. We go on our days alone, yet not alone. Surrounded by others each day, of unknown histories and unknown stories. We know of their existence, but we do not know their life. Instead of discovering their stories, we rather ignore and disregard them. On the bus. In the subway. Chances for conversations with someone new, and different, are chances thrown away each and every day. If only people could reach out a simple hello, a simple friendly remark, even wishing someone to enjoy their meal, those expressions truly can make a friendlier world.
Throughout my two years in Korea, I can recall about 6-7 encounters where someone began a conversation, and we shared a bit of our life stories. They are truly charitable memories. Memories of kindness, thoughtfulness, and belief in the good in the world. Whether the intentions were good, or to practice English, I believe more of these people are needed in the world today. It’s hard to crack open a conversation in a country where the dominant language is not English. So most sit and wait, for the moment when a kind stranger opens up, and their words play a different kind of melody: serendipitous conversations of life.
In the end, a shake of the hand, an exchange of names, and a happy new year departure were the parting expressions of the moment. Yet, the memories that linger are not negative, rather a combination of content and gratitude. For if not a simple exchange of words, we would have eaten in silence; so close, yet so far apart. A dinner of loneliness turned into a spontaneous, friendly encounter.
Stay humble. Work hard. Be kind.