North Korea continues to flex its supposed-nuclear muscle and threaten its neighbor to the south. Whenever I read about such political or social unrest, I ponder the reasons. But when I have traveled to the destination where trouble brews – my heart aches.
In 1978, I traveled to South Korea as an ambassador with Friendship Force. Started by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, Friendship Force seeks to promote understanding among various cultures around the world through exchange programs of ordinary people.
I was 23 years old and applied with a group from the town where I lived at the time. Ambassadors are chosen to represent a variety of ages and professions. As the youngest person and the only person who worked in a Catholic Church as an educator, I was selected. We paid our fee ($250) for the adventure before we knew where we were going. This sequence encourages people to participate with goodwill in mind, not dream vacation destination plans.
Once accepted we met a delegation from Korea at a hotel in Olympia where our destination was announced and we learned a bit about the culture. A few months later we boarded a plane and landed in Seoul. A young woman greeted me, she would be my host for 5 of the 10 days. She was lovely and curious about me and worked as an artist (metallurgist) creating jewelry. She lived with her grandmother and – quite unusual – was divorced. Her husband was granted unquestioned custody of their son. We spent our days working to communicate and traveling around the city. I bathed at a community bath house, walked through a university campus and rode a bus with a zillion people packed on board. I loved it. My hosts laughed when I took a bite of kim chi and my eyes watered with endless tears… I spent the remaining five days with Maryknoll sisters who lived and worked out in the country. They had a clinic. We walked through the heat one day, following a tiny little girl across the rice fields; she took us to her grandmother’s home (a small hut). The grandmother suffered from debilitating arthritis and was unable to get off the floor. The sisters were angels of care and compassion and the only Caucasian people in the community. So when I arrived, I was a huge novelty. I played soccer with the kids in the dirt road and they wanted to caress my forearm – so taken with its light color. I learned some phrases and they giggled endlessly. (I later learned that I was using the formal expression, reserved only for adults, not children.) I hold tender memories from the kindness of these people.
And so, today, my heart aches and I wonder about Young Ja and her now-adult son and the Maryknoll Sisters who continue to care for the ill of that small community – a land described as “The Land of the Morning Calm.” I pray it is so.
(S-R archives photo)