By G Venkatesh
This was long ago. In the summer of 2013. Destiny brought me to South Korea for a week-long conference, the International Society of Industrial Ecology conference. I reached Ulsan, a city south of Seoul. Not having time to convert my USD to South Korean Won, before stepping onto the bus which would take me to the conference venue, and assuming that I could pay for my ticket on the bus, using my credit card, I proferred the latter to the bus driver. He shook his head. I then pulled out some USD notes and looked at him, hoping that I could pay the required amount of money in USD equivalents. He shook his head again. I said, “Okay, sorry,” and was about to turn and alight, when he turned his head and said something in Korean to the passengers on the bus. A young schoolgirl ran down the aisle towards me and said in fluent English, “You do not have to alight. I will but your ticket.”
I looked at the driver, and he smiled and nodded and beckoned me to take a seat. I looked at the girl, thanked her and asked, “Can I repay you in dollars?”
She smiled sweetly and said, “You are our guest. It is our duty to make sure that your stay in South Korea is comfortable. You do not have to repay me. You enjoy your stay here.”
I was lost in thought for the remainder of my journey, not having experienced anything similar to that before.
The next day, I was guided to a restaurant about 200 metres from the conference venue, where I could eat some good-quality Bibimbap (Korean rice+vegetable dish). Being a non-experimental eater (one from whom gourmands would most certainly wish to stay away), I visited the same place for the very same meal at the very same time every evening for the next four days. Every time the elderly Korean lady who manned the counter, saw me walking in, she would intuitively know what I would be eating, and shout out ‘Bibimbap’ to the cook inside. On the 4th day, she asked me, in her broken English, ‘You here tomorrow also?’
I said, ‘No. I am going to Seoul tomorrow and then I fly to Mumbai.’
‘Oh, so last day dinner here. Then, you no pay today. Today free Bibimbap for you.’
‘But I would like to pay. I cannot eat without paying for it.’
‘No, no, free. I say free! You liked Ulsan?’
‘Okay, thank you so much. I liked the city a lot.’
I noted down the postal address of the restaurant and would send a postcard from Trondheim (Norway) – where I worked at that time in my career.
The next day, I had to take a train from Ulsan to Incheon. Time was at a premium when I reached the station. For some strange reason, my credit card ‘malfunctioned’. I had run out of Won and had foolishly forgotten to equip myself with some, as I assumed that the credit card would surely work at the ticket-vending machine at the station. I was a bit tense and started sweating profusely. I turned back and asked the young Korean boy who was next in the queue if the machine would accept USD or if there was some place nearby where I could quickly trade in my USD for some Won. He smiled, and said, “Do not bother. Where are you headed?”
When I said, Incheon, he stepped up and purchased my ticket for me. I read the price askance, did a quick mental conversion to USD and requested him to let me repay him in that currency. He smiled again and said, ‘‘You are our guest. It is our duty to make sure that your stay in South Korea is comfortable. You do not have to repay me. Hope you enjoyed your stay here and will visit our country again.” So saying, he hastened towards the escalator on the right of the ticketing machine.
The very same words I had heard on the first day on the bus from the young girl. Perhaps this boy was her brother. Do-gooder siblings. Or perhaps they just represented the South Koreans – hospitable and helpful, doing God’s bidding on earth, smilingly and gallantly, without expecting anything in return…
G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia.
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