We’d been wanting to go to Gyeongju, a city considered the “cultural center” of Korea, since our arrival 9 months ago. So we squeezed it in at the end of April (with some help from a student, whose uncle runs a hotel there.) It is cherry blossom season, you see; a time when hotel rooms are hard to come by. Thank you, Derek, ’cause I have checked another thing off my “To Do” list!
Of course, there were some really cool things to see and do in Gyeonju: an ancient temple (I’d been going through withdrawal since Thailand, apparently), a handicraft center, and an amusement park. But typical me, I found other things far more enriching than the expected touristy gimmicks.
Like this guy — whose name is Byong Jik Yu. He predicted that Natalie would grow to be beautiful, that Luke would grow to be famous and that Garrett, through oration, would grow to be very influential.
You can be certain that I liked him right away.
We were walking off a big buffet dinner along Bomun Lake, upon which our hotel sat, when he stopped us, rather hesitantly, around 8:30pm. He was on his way home from work. He wanted to practice his language skills.
Through very broken and completely mispronounced English (on his part) and through freakish hand gesturing (on our part) we learned a lot. If I teach my children nothing else about this year-long adventure I would want them to remember this: language is not the only means of communication. Do not be afraid to try.
The pathway along the lake is his favorite way to go home, he said, because many foreigners take that route. Each day, he asks an English speaker to ask him a question. He has memorized every question he’s ever been asked, as he writes them down and practices at home. He struggles with deciphering words when hearing them, but does better with the written word. He keeps a notebook in his backpack, hoping someone will say yes. Almost every day, someone does.
He thinks each day this happens he is very lucky.
Mr. Yu has never left his native country, but has decided it is very important to learn the English language. Why? we asked. Because people are people was his cryptic answer. He teaches himself English, primarily through conversation and simple language books he has bought. Because in Korea, it is very important to be with the rest of the world. English is the answer to this, he explained.
When he was five, his mother died giving birth to his brother. His father remarried, but he did not care for his step-mother, or she did not care for him, and he remained “gloomy and lonely”, until, soon after, he discovered that Catholicism was a comfort, that Christianity made him feel better. He practices still.
He graduated from University in 1979. His meager wages, working at a hotel, have never allowed him to buy a car. He bikes everywhere he needs to go. He says because of the difficult economy, he makes less now than he did five years ago. (Here, he pantomimed that Americans have so much money they carry it around on their backs. Somehow this did not offend us. He wasn’t judging, just saying.)
He feels Korea has progressed too far, too fast. He is proud, but afraid of the little traditions that are falling by the wayside; like the younger person walking behind the elder, showing respect.
It makes him sad when farmers are forced off their land to make way for highrise apartment buildings, especially when no one lives in them. He thinks children play too many video games and don’t get outside nearly enough. That nature is very important for all people, but especially children.
Guy’s question to Mr. Yu, which he painstakingly wrote in his notebook, was “is this a natural lake or is it man-made?”
Which really got him going.
Mr. Yu believes that everyone on earth is one. We on earth are brothers and are all the same … the tall, the wealthy… (which I found to be a very funny coupling of ideas), all the same. We need to take care of each other and we need to take care of nature. Things are not good in this realm. We are in trouble. The earth, the water, all in big trouble.
He is right, of course. He told us how scared he is that the changes on the earth are irrevocable. No, he did not use the word irrevocable. He said un-fix-it. Which is the same thing.
He told us about money, and about how it ruins people. That there is enough for everyone, if we would only take what we need, and not everything we want.
He had a lot more to say. I know this because he kept stopping us as we tried to respectfully and smoothly end the conversation when Natalie started dozing off. Wait, he said after we had said goodnight for the third time. Wait. Be good. Take care.
He thinks he is lucky to meet people who will ask him a question so he can practice his English. I think the fortune was all ours. We exchanged email addresses, so Mr. Yu, if you are reading this, you too. Take good care.