When faced with very frightening situations like watching Simba’s father die in Lion King or getting a vaccination, my favorite three-year old told me that she was very brave. Bravery, like believing in Santa, often fades with time. The brave me, who squared my shoulders and marched into a dark room all by myself has lost the gumption I had in childhood. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter, but when I failed to defend the ideals and compassion of my country, it left me ashamed.
My service as New York’s Educational envoy to the Republic of Korea was the single most course changing event of my life. I was sent to the furthest place I had ever been, didn’t speak Korean and had to represent all of the USA. I was undaunted. After all, I was polite, showered and brushed my teeth daily (sometimes more often) and was pretty resilient—even when using a public ladies’ room where standing over a drain was required.
Recently, a friend who was born in Korea, but has lived in the US most of his life, returned to Seoul and noticed that Koreans don’t hold doors open for the people behind them when entering buildings. He considered this a lack of manners. I didn’t see it the same way. When I visited the king’s palace, I saw a sentry (with an historically correct but obviously fake beard and moustache) at the opened gate. Next to him, the space was rimmed at the bottom with a ledge, preventing a hoard on horseback from entering. Holding the door open for strangers in Korea, with its history of constant invasions, probably led to suspicions about those unseen, behind their backs.
I found Koreans extraordinarily welcoming. I was smiled at in trains, asked if I needed help on the street and offered free Hodogwaja (walnut cookies) from ancient street vendors. This was not because I was a buxom twenty-something. I was fifty-three when the ROK invited me and yet people loved trying out their English on the pale green-eyed lady even if it took up their time. On a day when I needed a bank, I found a branch with rows of angry men and women seated on mats, wearing head bandanas and shaking their fists to a drumbeat. This was fewer than 2 years after 9/11 and I was convinced I would be mauled by this angry cabal for being an American. I scurried away in search of another bank. (I learned later, the group was only bank employees on a lunchtime wage dispute sit-in.)
Looking lost goes beyond language and soon a handsome young man asked me in faltering English if I needed help. I tightened my grip on my handbag. (I may have been in Seoul but my radar was pure NYC.) I told him I was looking for a bank, preferably without angry demonstrators out front. I meekly followed him for two streets, always ready to bolt if he turned down an alley. We stopped in front of a local bank where he entered with me. At this point, I thought he wanted a fee—maybe 10% of my withdrawal. But, no. He seated himself in the row of chairs waiting for my transaction to end, then accompanied me to the place we met. We talked of America and Korea as we walked. Throughout the time, I wished I had something to give him for his generosity. He surprised me by thanking me for the chance to use his English skills. We parted with a handshake. He was the most valuable asset South Korea had to represent the soul of its people, but I’m sure he didn’t know it.
When I had an opportunity to represent mine, I blew it. The Educational Council of Korea had filled my days and nights with glorious events from a morning at the DMZ to a night watching NANTA. One trip to a local school was followed by a luncheon at a near-by restaurant. An American English teacher from the school accompanied us and sat next to me at lunch. His complaints began as soon my legs stretched out (American-style) under the table. He didn’t like Korean mores, traditions or scruples. He told me, “My wife,” (I still pity her if she hasn’t left him yet) “learned to do what I say, if she wants me to support her kid.” Listening to his diatribe, I came to the conclusion that he probably couldn’t keep a teaching position in the US. His disgust with his own life made him an angry curmudgeon that I unfortunately had to be polite to for the next two hours. I stayed silent with only occasional nods in hopes that my quietus would inspire him to lower his voice. It didn’t. When our waitress placed covered bowls of rice at our places, he lifted the lid and gruffly reproached her in English, “Get it right, stupid. I said no Goddamn beans.”
My parents loved America because all of us, from those who pick up our trash to hedge fund analysts, have the same inalienable rights. They raised me with American ideals. I should have rushed to my feet, stood in front of the waitress and given that Ugly-American a well-deserved piece of my mind. Instead, I lowered my head till my chin rested on the collar of my shirt. Like a crime victim, I locked out what was happening, while praying for the barrage to end.
I am still ashamed. The Korean waitress will always think of my country as uncultured, unrefined and boorish because, unlike my favorite three-year old, when faced with an opportunity to stand up for what was right, I was not brave.