I just saw an older gentleman walking down a street here in Korea, and it struck me as a strange, if not awkward, scene. If you have ever been to Korea, then you know that every street is packed full of signs and advertisements hanging on every building higher than four stories, which happens to be all of them. It’s like walking down New York’s Time Square all day, every day, on almost every street. It’s so bright, that upon leaving the country you look up and suddenly remember that stars really do exist. Korea doesn’t have the excess of space that Americans enjoy and take for granted, so many things are like America, just divided by about 1,000 and placed in a neat little mountainous country. Needless to say, the older gentleman aforementioned didn’t really seem to fit.
What caught my eye with the old man really wasn’t how out of place he was, but how out of place he felt. One could tell just by looking at him that he didn’t feel the least bit comfortable in this modern setting. He was walking with a cane, and the uneven pavement didn’t suit that at all. He was wearing glasses, and his eyes were desperately straining to decipher one object from the next in this concrete jungle filled with dangers and obstacles at every turn. His jacket was woefully inadequate for the Korean winter, and his derby hat seemed to cover everything on his head except for his ears. His shoes were worn thin and struggled to find footing after having stepped into a hundred pools of oil and antifreeze. Every sound hurt his ear like fingernails on a chalkboard. An ambulance roared by, and I didn’t think he would make it through as he searched for the source of the terrifying, high-pitched sound. He was definitely in a hostile environment—a place of unfamiliarity and obscurity that he was unable to cope with at this age in life.
I wondered about his story. Where had this man been? What untold history has he seen in his long years in this world? A more important question yet, what does he think of the world and what it has become? I tried to piece together the tale of his life.
He was in his late 70s or 80s, so he would have lived through the Korean War only 50 years earlier. Was he a soldier, or a farmer that was forced to flee his land in order to find safety for his family? Of the millions of Koreans that perished in that war, he must have known at least a few, if not many. Maybe he was a North Korean refugee who crawled through mud and over land mines to escape to the freedom of the South. What atrocities had he witnessed at the hands of North Korean soldiers to drive him here?
He didn’t seem to mind the cold and the wind in spite of his poor protection from the elements. He has probably faced many harsh winters before and this one is no exception. After all, he most likely has somewhere to go, whether it be a family owned house or a government provided shelter. They didn’t have these in the decades following the war. He has seen changes that would boggle the mind of 20-somethings like me.
He has seen his city of Incheon go from a small fishing village on the Yellow Sea, to a bustling metropolis that houses 3 million people as well as one of the world’s best international airports. The standard of living has increased during his life from mere dollars to one of the highest in Asia. All of this he has lived through—a living legend of the world that was—and yet he walks around with scarcely a spare thought given to him. The best he receives is a fleeting glance and maybe a quarter thrown his way every now and again.
So how is this relevant to us? I can hardly think of anything more relevant. The knowledge and wisdom this man holds quadruples my own, and yet I meander over to my coffee shop to sip coffee and ponder the world on my computer. I see life through a computer screen; he has seen it unfold before his eyes.
So what should we do? We should visit, call or simply be with our grandparents at least once a week. Don’t roll your eyes when an older man in the church begins to talk about “how it used to be.” Endure the odd smell of your grandmother’s house in order to write down a few recipes here and there. Soak in the knowledge that they have to offer, and just maybe we’ll become better people.
As I watched the gentleman walk away, a strange but refreshing sense of calm seemed to sweep over me. I realized that this man may not quite understand what the world has become, but he has lived through what the world once was—a cold, dark place that was infinitely more dangerous than the one in which he now lives, no matter what the doomsdayer may say. This gives me hope and reassurance that the future may not be everything that the media says it is.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call my grandmother.