In a kibbutz shelter, a Korean impressesNational stereotypes are often built on experience as well as myth. My first impression of Korea was through a Korean I met abroad.
A few years ago I was staying at a kibbutz in northern Israel. There were about 30 volunteers of different nationalities living there. Jeff was the only Korean among us, and the only volunteer whose English wasn’t perfect.
That he came alone, and to a place where everyone would be speaking in a foreign tongue, seemed very brave to the rest of us.
The way he acted on a day-to-day basis, however, was what really set him apart. He used to cook up big pots of stew for everyone, fix broken Walkmen and organize punch parties. He would also practice his taekwondo moves every morning before breakfast, kicking apples off trees at impossible heights.
None of us had ever been to Korea, and our knowledge of the country was nonexistent. Jeff, however, was the best advertisement the Korea National Tourism Organization could ever hope for.
Because of its location just a few miles south of the Lebanese border, our kibbutz frequently came under attack from rocket fire launched from southern Lebanon into Israel by fighters with Hezbolla.
When attacks occurred, we were all hurried into a bomb shelter where the national traits of the volunteers would become apparent. The Jewish-American girls would huddle in the corner, nervously listening to Israeli radio and trying to get through to their parents on their cell phones. The South Africans would strut around shirtless, declaring that they had seen much worse in Johannesburg. The Irish and British (myself included) would drink cheap vodka in the corner and smoke.
Jeff, on the other hand, was the only one making sure everyone else was all right. He would get extra blankets, change the channels and sit down beside anyone who was alone.
After a while, he asked everyone to gather around. He took a big Korean flag out of his backpack and asked everyone to sign it. We all did so; soon someone else pulled out an Israeli flag, so we all signed that, too. Soon everyone was signing everyone’s diaries, T-shirts and whatever else came to hand. Jeff just sat there smiling. He had turned a disparate group of people into one big family.
After living in Korea, I realize what made the group ethic so important to Jeff. Every time I see the Korean flag, I can’t help but think of that long night in the bomb shelter and of the man who brought us together.
by Conor Purcell