Traveling to a foreign country always leaves one with a plethora of questions. Will the locals be able to understand us? How will we find our way? Will the locals be hospitable and accommodating? Or probably the biggest question is, how will the locals view or treat us? These things were at the back of my mind when our plane finally landed on South Korea’s Incheon International Airport. This happens to be my first international trip as well, hence, the tripled anxiety.
On the train to Seoul from Incheon, I can barely look at the faces of the locals because I was afraid to see judgment. For the first time in my life, I am a stranger in a foreign land. At the onset, language was our biggest stumbling block. Most of the time, we had to use signs and our hands in communicating with the locals. It was a struggle to say the least. But the longer we stayed, I began to feel the warmth and hospitality of Koreans.
When we found ourselves in dire straits, some locals extended unrequited help. As we were leaving Gyeongju, our hostel’s owner personally conveyed us to the bus station using his car. There was also this Korean guy who assisted me when I got stuck at the subway turnstile. Although he was rushing to catch the train, he turned back to assist me. These acts of kindness I have experienced in South Korea showed me that Koreans are hospitable and accommodating, just like us.
But there was one particular Korean lady whose act of kindness really struck my heart’s proverbial strings. This happened during our temple stay at Seoul’s famed Jingwansa, a temple located near the Bukhansan National Park.
On our way to the temple, my friends and I got lost. Finding our way through Seoul was really challenging as we can barely read nor understand Hangeul characters. Thankfully, the temple staff still welcomed us warmly even in spite of our late arraival. After changing to unpretentious temple garb, we had an orientation where we met our fellow participants. Thankfully, they were foreigners as well, one is German and the other is Australian. Just like us, they wanted the temple’s tranquility.
The orientation hall was warm but outside, it was cold. This autumn breeze first warmly greeted us when we arrived on the Land of the Morning Calm. This coldness brought shivers down our spine and wherever we go, it was there to greet us. We have anticipated this and loaded our luggage with as many jackets as we could bring in order to counter the cold.
That’s why I was practically hitting myself when I forgot to bring a sweatshirt for our temple stay. To give you a picture, the lower garment of the temple garb is fine. However, the upper garment is a sleeveless vest. My friends brought long-sleeved shirts, providing them a protection against the cold breeze. Because of my oversight, I only had a regular tee under my vest. Oops, I guess I just have to endure the late afternoon cold.
After our orientation, all participants were to tour the temple compound. During our tour, we met a group of temple stay participants comprised of Korean ahjummas, or “aunts”. I have surmised that these elderly ladies were enjoying the perks of their retirement. Come to think of it, I have noticed that most elderly Koreans are quite active in joining different activities. There are even some who are bold enough to do physically demanding activities like mountain climbing.
When we met our fellow participants, I was already feeling the harshness of the autumn cold. I was trying my best not to show my discomfiture. I could go and get my jacket but I didn’t want to interrupt the program. I was hoping that the tour would be quick. However, my discomfort didn’t escape the eye of one of the Korean ahjummas. With concern etched on her face, she held my bare hands and pointed it to our coordinator. Due to the language barrier, our coordinator translated on her behalf – the ahjumma was asking me to go wear my jacket. I then excused myself to get my jacket. Thanks heaven someone noticed my struggle because I was literally freezing.
When I rejoined the group, the very same ahjumma greeted me back with a smile painted on her face. To show my gratitude, I smiled back at her and bowed low because words seem to have escaped me. During our temple tour, I can’t help but notice how she keeps looking after me and my group. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable though, rather, I felt tender motherly love emanating from her. Even during our dinner, I can still feel her looking after me. My friend can’t help but remark how I have found a Korean mother, which made me smile because that is exactly how I felt even though no actual words crossed between us.
Then I found myself gazing into her creased face. I just can’t help but wonder. What does this ahjumma hold? What is her story? What makes her tick? There was a warmth in her that drew me in. There was something in her that made me want to dig deeper. Unfortunately, the language barrier is too much to overcome. Moreover, I am quite shy towards people I barely know of. I am afraid I might offend her with my unwelcome probing.
But it wasn’t only her who showed us kindness. After our dinner, we are supposed to wash our own dishes individually. However, the Korean ahjumma’s companions took our plates and did the washing. We wanted to protest but they kept saying it’s fine. They were just like mother hens looking after their five chicks, and I can’t help but smile at their kindness. We felt a little ashamed because we could have done our dishes ourselves but we were appreciative of their kindness nonetheless.
Months after our Korean trip, this memory still brings me nostalgia. The Korean ahjumma reminded me of the thing that holds our world together – kindness. It is a very profound thought but something that rarely goes spoken. An elderly man conveying his former tenants, a guy rushing to catch his train but turns back to help a clueless stranger, or an elderly woman who looks after younger visitors – these are just simple acts, barely visible to the naked eye. However, to a stranger in a foreign land, these small acts of kindness mean a lot. In a world marred by cruelties and division, there are still people whose heart of gold shines through.