Moments in Korea


I got the biggest nod of approval there’s ever been yesterday.

First, you have to understand that Koreans haven’t adjusted to having foreigners in their country yet. Older Korean guys in particular lose their mind if I just say “hello” in Korean or if I show that I can actually use chopsticks.

I’ve lived here for three years, by the way.

Here’s what happened. I was late for work, so I ran out to the taxi stand. There’s never enough taxis in the morning, so I had to wait in line behind a young guy and a painfully old couple. Or I thought the old couple was in line. They were standing a bit off from where the line usually is and they weren’t watching the road.

The young guy caught a taxi and the old couple didn’t budge, so I scooted ahead. I tried to remember how to ask in Korean if they were waiting in line. I figured out how to throw a sentence together just as I caught a taxi for myself.

“Taxi gada shipayo?” I asked. After I said this, a Korean man in his early 40s was staring at me as he walked by on the sidewalk. I didn’t pay attention to him. You get used to people looking at you over here.

“Ne (yes).” They said, and waddled into the taxi I had stopped.

After they got into the taxi, I looked up and the early 40s man was still staring at me even though he was way past me now. I finally met his eyes. It felt like he was waiting for me to look at him. He clearly wanted to make sure I saw him as he gave the sternest nod of approval a man has ever given. He made the same face the president makes when he awards a Medal of Honor.



I’m on the subway in Seoul, going back home after tutoring a student. It’s the middle of the day and there’s no seats available, so I read my book standing up. It took months to perfect this skill on the subway, and I proudly flaunt it any chance I get.

I stand in front of a man sleeping on the corner seat. He’s out cold. I’m happy he’s sleeping because otherwise it looks like I’m staring at the seated person in front of me when I read.

Three stops later, a mother gets on my train. She has two little kids orbiting her, a boy and a girl.  She’s carrying a third on her back. The kids are loud and excited. I suddenly realize that you almost never see kids on the subway here. I have no idea if that’s true back home as well. I’m from Los Angeles.

The mother tries to tries to shush her children, but it’s impossible to keep them completely calm. That’s something universal. Kids are just kids in every culture.

Inevitably, the mother tires out before the kids do. She gets them down to an embarrassing but acceptable noise level and concedes defeat. The passengers in the subway don’t complain. They saw she put up a good fight. We’re all in this together now.

The mother looks up at the subway map while holding onto the louder of the two kids–the boy, of course.  I’m looking down at my book, but out of the corner of my eye I see the little girl walk up to the sleeping man in front of me. She’s just inches from his face. As if in slow motion, I see her begin to reach her hand up to touch his face. My book is down now and I’m locked into this. It’s so rare that you get to see something unexpected happen in Korea. I could simply shush her away from the man, but I have absolutely no idea what’s about to happen when she wakes him up and I’m ecstatic.

Her hand reaches his face and startles him awake. As soon as he’s arrived back in the waking life, he realizes the little girl woke him up and smiles at her. He, a stranger, then reaches out his hand and touches the girls face as he says something to her. A male stranger on a subway reached out and touched someone else’s child, and no one thought twice about it.

“This is some culture,” I think, as I watch with eyes wide open. “This is an interaction I would never see in the US.”

He says something to her I don’t understand, then stands up and offers his seat to the mother and children.

He’s now standing next to me and I keep watching him. He’s looking around, still dazed and confused. Koreans are incredibly strong at the game of “I didn’t see nothing,” so the only eyes he meets are mine. Without saying anything, we share a brief chuckle over the incident, then I get back to reading my book.


2 thoughts on “Moments in Korea

  • Michael —

    Jan VK here … I just read your Moments in Korea post shared by your mom, then read this ( which was next in my queue. There were strong resonances between what you wrote and what David Smith has written/says, especially in the area of “loving the stranger” by learning his/her language. I thought you’d enjoy his chat with this Australian reporter.


    • Hi! Good to hear from you and thanks for the comment.

      There definitely is some resonance there. Like he said, learning someone’s language is much more than simply learning to communicate with them. Can I get by with English here? Yes. But there’s such a deep emotional and cultural connection to language. By learning the language, I’m not just learning to communicate better, I’m proving by dedication that I respect their culture.

      The funny part is, the interview also resonated with some of my previous posts. He started talking about colonial missionaries and I’ve written some posts on the relations between early American Christians and Native Americans. Like he said, it was a very complex relationship, not at all a black and white thing. There were missionaries that the natives respected and who were a great help, but also so many more than were destructive to their way of life. A sad, but important and fascinating part of our history.

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