The best ambassador

Last night, my first night of socialising at the hostel, I had a conversation with a cute 23 year old South Korean girl who wore rectagular glasses with rounded corners and had gorgeously liso hair. She´d been living in the UK for 6 months, now in London after having spent some time in Cambridge. In the course of the conversation I learnt about the following stories from her:

– She has a North Korean friend who escaped the country by swimming across the sea to China and then travelling through Cambodia and around other parts of South East Asia. He finally managed to arrive in South Korea 2 years later, which apparently speaks of how lucky he was because many successful escapees take 5 years to reach the south. She said that in general the view of North Koreans in South Korea is that they are kind, lovely people; but they still have an extremely hard time adjusting. For example during the break time at school a teacher might give a North Korean kid a ball and tell them to go play, and the kid will just stand there holding the ball. Because they can´t play without being told exactly how they should play. Daily life is a struggle because it is difficult to truly grasp the idea of working to earn money and buy things. So they put in a lot of effort to try and fit in and to cover up their alienness.

– When she was in India she visited one of the homes of Mother Theresa´s order. She met a woman staying there, a woman who had been from an affluent family and who had married an affluent man, but who didn´t bear him a son for their first child. He consequently sent her to work as a prostitute and she fell dangerously ill. A worker at Mother Theresa´s home took her in and helped her get better, but by this stage her mind was mostly gone. Every time she saw a man after that she would scream and scream and wouldn´t stop until he was out of sight.  

– She´d also been to Syria, which she described as very beautiful, and great for its dearth of tourists and for its cheapness. The people are very kind there, she could wander into a shop and end up sitting and drinking tea with them for hours. She said that if there was one place in the world that she would without a doubt return to it would be Syria. She did concede that Arab men ¨really like the girls¨ and that she felt quite uncomfortable with how macho and seedy they were.

– A lot of men in South Korea have committed suicide because their wives and children live in another country, such as NZ or Canada, to learn English, and they no longer feel that they have any identity besides breadwinner. Well, even breadwinner stops making sense to them because they can´t see the effects of having provided bread. I was very surprised to here this but she said that it is considered a very real problem to South Korea, and that the advice these days is actually to not send your kids off to learn English in another country.

– South Korea gets a lot of foreign workers from places such as Bangladesh and India. But they have a near impossible time gaining Korean citizenship. And if they do marry a Korean woman and have kids, their kids are not allowed to attend normal schools there. Some private schools have apparently started to open themselves up to these Kosian (Korean + Asian) children but by and large the doors are shut.

Why am I noting all this? To remind myself… She was fantastic. One of the sweetest and most intelligent (but in such an unassuming, humble way!) creatures I have ever known. It was her unexpected worldliness and boundless open-mindedness; along with how she was able to admit that even with all the travelling and learning that she´s done, that she is still from a conservative korean family and can´t say ¨I love you¨to her parents, even though this is something she wishes so much that she could do.

Other things we touched on were how Korea is a monoculture society, how South Koreans aren´t aware that the rest of world thinks it must be a dangerous place given its neighbour, and about how she is conflicted between her love for her country and her relatives, and her need for more freedoms and opportunities to learn about others.

There was some more, but I´ll stop there. Maybe I´m lucky that she leaves tonight, otherwise I might fall in love with her way too quickly.

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