[FOUNTAIN]Trying to find the way, East meets West

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[FOUNTAIN]Trying to find the way, East meets West

Jim Pringle, a well-known British foreign correspondent for the Reuters wire service, was among the first Western journalists to report on China when the country began to open up in the 1970s.
One of the stories Mr. Pringle told friends concerned a clandestine excursion he made into the countryside one day. Because he spoke Chinese, it was easier for him to get around and evade minders. He and a colleague simply hopped on a local bus and headed for their destination. The name eludes me, but let’s call it Yunchi.
After a couple of hours on the road, the driver turned to Mr. Pringle and told him the next stop was the closest point to his destination.
He and his friend were dropped at country crossroads with no signposts. They had no idea in which direction to head.
After a few minutes, two elderly gentlemen came walking up the road. Mr. Pringle approached them and in Chinese asked: “Can you please tell us the way to Yunchi?”
The old men simply stared at him. He tried again, “Sirs, we wish to go to Yunchi. Can you tell me the way?”
Again there was no response. Mr. Pringle knew that his language skills were adequate to the simple request, and with a little exasperation, he asked the men very slowly and precisely: “Sirs, in which direction is Yunchi?”
Without so much as a word, the men began walking off down the road, leaving Mr. Pringle and his companion dumbfounded.
When the old men were a few meters away though, one turned to the other and said, “You know I think that white devil was asking me the way to Yunchi.”
The other day I was walking to my bus near Namdaemun gate. Though it was a quiet Sunday, there were several Korean pedestrians coming and going. Suddenly, two middle-aged women stopped me and asked something in Korean.
After nine months in the country, my language skills remain unfortunately rudimentary. Still, I thought I understood that they were asking where Seoul Station was. I repeated “Seoul yok?” They nodded eagerly, and I motioned them in the right direction.
Many acquaintances here tell me Koreans are shy around foreigners. Rarely, for instance, does a Korean ever invite even a close foreign friend to his or her home for a drink, much less dinner. For a Korean to approach a foreigner on the street and ask for local directions seems to me to be wildly improbable.
Although I am baffled why two Korean women might think I could help them, I was delighted I could.
Given Mr. Pringle’s experience and my odd encounter, the cultural divide between East and West could be closing a bit.

by Charles D. Sherman

The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
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