There for each other

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There for each other

Are there any boundaries when it comes to friendship? Not for these people.
Regardless of their different backgrounds and ages, these pairs have developed strong relationships. Particularly in a foreign country where a visitor may feel like he’s standing alone on an island, friends can make a huge difference. They warm your heart and help forge fond memories.
All it took for one of these people to win the other’s heart was an amicable approach. Here are four foreigners, and the Korean friends who have greatly affected their lives here in Seoul.


A surprise dish tightens a bond

One Saturday afternoon in February 2001, I, Al Rajwani, president of Procter & Gamble Korea, was relaxing at home when the phone rang. It was Maing Il-young, president of United Technologies Corporation’s Korea branch office.
Mr. Maing asked if he could come over. Since both of us were the members of the American Chamber of Commerce and good friends, I approved his visit.
At 6 p.m. Mr. Maing arrived with a gift. In his hand was a pot of kimchi jjigae (kimchi soup), which he had personally prepared. It was sort of a surprise party.
I was overwhelmed by Mr. Maing’s friendliness, especially since my Korean guest had carried the kimchi jjigae all the way from his apartment in Buam-dong in Jongno to my apartment in Hannam-dong. To have a friend who looks after me attentively, in a foreign country that I am not so accustomed to, made me feel a bit closer to Korea.
That kimchi jjigae, which I had shared with my friends over a couple of glasses of soju, remains until today the best kimchi jjigae I ever had.
I still cook kimchi jjigae at least three times a week.
It is safe to say that our friendship has grown thanks to kimchi jjigae.
When I first came to Korea in June of 2000 I was unfamiliar with their culture. Mr. Maing, who is also vice chairman of Amcham, described Koreans’ love of kimchi as “very special.” He said, “Mr. Maing, wherever we eat kimchi, we feel like we’re at home and feel a sense of stability and comfort. A dinner table without kimchi is not Korean.”
Mr. Maing also told me that kimchi was full of vitamins. Based on this suggestion I came up with the idea to hold an event each year where foreign diplomats and businessmen could make their own kimchi and donate it to social service facilities such as orphanages.
Mr. Miang also took me to traditional Korean restaurants in Insa-dong, saying that it would help narrow the cultural gap. I, in return, have treated Mr. Maing to cuisine at Indian restaurants.
My great grandfather migrated from India to Tanzania but my family moved to Canada when I was in my late teens. After graduating college I went on to work for an American company. Compared to all the countries I have been to in my life, I have a special love for Korea ― especially because I have a friend like Mr. Maing.


History lessons and soccer games

When I, Geroen Lamers, first came to Seoul as the Korea representative of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, I met an elderly gentlemen who taught me many things about Korea. That gentlemen is none other than Kwon Yeong-bok, a former honorary adviser to the agency.
I cannot forget the first time we met. When I saw Mr. Kwon, who was very polite and well mannered and showed thoughtful consideration for those around him, I thought, ‘here was a man I can work with for a long time.’
It may be odd that though I am only 35 years old, I would address Mr. Kwon, who is 79, as a friend. But I believe friendship is more about how comfortable and friendly one feels with a person.
Mr. Kwon has worked for the agency as an adviser at the Seoul office since 1987. Until he retired last year, Mr. Kwon would often advise me on Korea’s economic and business climate.
After working 15 years as vice chairman of the Korean office for Philips, Mr. Kwon is an expert in business exchange between Korean and Dutch companies.
The World Cup festival held in Seoul last year left behind memories that I will hold dear forever. We cheered together every time the Korean team, led by the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, advanced to the next level.
Mr. Kwon has also given me a glimpse of some terrifying moments in Korean history.
Born in 1925 in North Chungcheong province, Mr. Kwon received a military draft order from the Japanese government the day Korea was liberated by its oppressor. Mr. Kwon’s draft order came much later then those of his friends. Mr. Kwon said that his friends were dragged to other countries to fight Japanese opponents and most of them didn’t return home or came back as a corpse. Had he received the order, he would likely have been another victim. For that reason, Mr. Kwon felt guilty for surviving and said he would live his life the best he could.
After surviving the Korean War, Mr. Kwon was assigned to the Korean Army and was in charge of translations.
Mr. Kwon said he remembers when his troops marched near Pyeongyang and saw all the human corpses lying around. Mr. Kwon said it was a moment that he prefers not to remember.
Whenever I listen to Mr. Kwon’s stories, I get another glimpse of Korean history ― and the pain this country has had to endure.


A shared passion for Latino world

After four years in Korea, I, Rogelio Granguillhome, Mexico’s ambassador to Korea, feel half-Korean. My wife and my children are also satisfied with their lives in Korea. My son, who is now 14 years old, is addicted to taekwondo. As for me, I really hold a special place in my heart for Busan, which I have visited more than 10 times. Maybe it’s because my hometown in Mexico is the port city of Veracruz, on the east coast. Whenever I visit Busan I feel as if I’m back at home. But such happiness would not exist if it weren’t for my Korean friends, who share heartwarming friendship with me.
When I think of my Korean friends, my thoughts always turn to Ko Hye-sun, a professor of Spanish language at Dankook University. I first met Ms. Ko in December of 1999 when I attended a seminar on Latin America as seen through literature.
Ms. Ko turned out to be a former student of my professor at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. She also studied in Colombia, where she met her Peruvian husband, who teaches Spanish at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Ms. Ko’s affection for Latin America has impressed me.
As a diplomat, I am exposed to unpleasant incidents now and then.
In September 2001 the Mexican Estudiantina choir was to perform in Seoul but at the last moment the hotel that was going to hold the event canceled.
The Mexican embassy here, which coordinated the event, called Mexico to inform them of the cancelation. However the choir had already left for Seoul before the call went through. I called up Ms. Ko and asked for her help. By the next day, Ms. Ko had arranged for the performances to take place at different hospitals and universities.
But the problem didn’t stop there. When the choir landed in Los Angeles for a short stopover, the 9/11 terrorism occurred and all flights were canceled. The choir had to fly back to Mexico.
Ms. Ko’s help was a futile effort. When I think how Ms. Ko’s heart would have shrunk, it still hurts me. But it was through that incident that our relationship grew stronger.
Once in a while our families will meet either at our apartment or at Ms. Ko’s. I believe our two families’ exchanges have great symbolic significance. Although Korea and Mexico are bound to one another by trade, they lag behind in cultural and art exchanges. In that sense Ms. Ko is an excellent civilian diplomat who has earnestly tried to improve relations between our two countries.


Sticking together as gunfire erupts

In July of 1997 in Cambodia, I, Frederic Boulin, had an unforgettable experience. At that time top leaders of that country were engaged in a power struggle, igniting a four-day conflict. I was in charge of the food and beverage department at the InterContinental Hotel in Phnom Penh, the capital.
I had only been stationed in Cambodia a year earlier, and it was the first time ever that I witnessed a war of any kind.
When the civil war broke out, most of the hotel’s 250 Cambodian employees didn’t turn up for work. On the contrary, foreigners flocked to the hotel. With only 19 foreigners on our staff, we had to attend to the needs of over 200 customers.
No one at the hotel dared to step outside because of the gunfire and tanks moving through.
The situation was really bad. There were gunfights only 50 meters (164 feet) from the hotel. Although the power struggle ended later on, the hotel’s financial situation did not improve.
Since the international airport was bombed during the conflict, it wasn’t easy for foreigners to visit Cambodia. And those who were in Cambodia, who were feeling nervous, were rushing to leave.
This hotel, which had prided itself on an average occupancy rate of 70 percent, saw the figure drop to 10 percent and struggled with a heavy deficit.
Throughout the ordeal, Jung hee-dae, a Korean friend, stood by me.
At the time, Mr. Jung worked under my orders. But after the war, when we had to think about cutting costs and letting go some employees, Mr. Jung didn’t feel like a staff member but a companion for life.
It was then that I learned the Korean card game, hwatu. Mr. Jung and other foreign friends would play hwatu on the hotel balcony. Instead of money we would use matches as chips.
At first I was a poor player but I soon mastered the game and later started to win bets against Mr. Jung.
With that money we would head downtown to try out various cuisine, including one Korean restaurant run by a North Korean.
In 1997, when Mr. Jung went back to Seoul, we would exchange e-mail or talk on the phone. But when I was assigned to Seoul in 2001 my heart pounded with excitement.
Over the past 17 years I have lived in 11 different countries but not once have I felt lonely. Maybe it’s because there are friends like Mr. Jung.

by Ha Jae-sik
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