Kindness of strangers leaves an impressionThe relative friendliness of the people of different nations is not something that can be easily evaluated. How, for instance, does one factor in variables like shyness, informality or deference to elders, which may be more prevalent in one culture than another? Such things are, naturally, very subjective, and cross-cultural comparisons are not really meaningful.
Nevertheless, the overt friendliness of Koreans was one of the first things that struck me when my wife and I arrived here. Only a real curmudgeon could not be impressed by the offers of help from complete strangers. Even when the language barrier prevented meaningful communication, the good intent and warmth of feeling always lifted our spirits and made us feel welcome.
Our encounters with children are more of a mixed bag. At first the constant cries of “Hello!” on every corner were endearing; but being followed down the street by a bunch of children peppering us with questions grew tiring.
Yet most encounters have been positive. The sacrifices Koreans are willing to make often verge on the incredible. I recall a woman who made several phone calls on our behalf when we could not find our way, and then even hailed a taxi and accompanied us in order to ensure that we did not get lost again. Then, when we arrived at our destination, she disappeared with only a brief goodbye before we could think of a suitable way to thank her. This kind of anonymous kindness is rare, but is certainly far more common in Korea than in most other places we have been.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been given small gifts of food by complete strangers, especially when hiking. I suppose it is a Korean custom to share what one has. Such a gesture is appreciated, and is not to be found in other parts of Asia we have visited.
Communication remains the chief problem in interactions with Koreans. “Where are you from?” is a natural question, but it is disconcerting to have it thrust at you suddenly (and repeatedly) without even a simple greeting. And the man who walked up to me, pushed his face into mine, and announced “Korea number one!” did not leave me with a favorable impression of this country.
Despite such bumps in the road, the general friendliness of the people here has never ceased to amaze us. As my wife often remarks, where else in the world would we, as strangers, have been treated with such remarkable generosity and welcomed with such warmth?
by Jeremy Garlick