I was on a crowed bus in Seoul, heading home after a long day of running errands and completing chores in the city. My small day-pack weighed heavy on my shoulder, but I was on my way home to enjoy a good diner and conversation with my mother.
Suddenly, I felt the abrupt tug on my day pack, away from its safe perch on my shoulder. Someone was trying to take my bag with all my belongings of the day’s work crammed inside. Quickly, I lurched away from the pulling hands. Sure enough, a slight woman was tugging at my bag, trying to dislodge it from my shoulder.
“What nerve of this person who tried to steal my bag, on a crowded bus yet!” I thought. I couldn’t believe it.
This brought back memories of my rides on the F train, commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan during the rush hours. Thousands of people were crammed into the trains, each competing for some open space to lodge one’s body for the duration of the ride. I would endure this each day for the torturous ninety minute ride to and from Lexington Avenue. I’ve lost many items on such crowded subway and bus rides to thieves and carelessness. I’ve learned to be careful and calculating, especially in crowded situations of the mass transportation systems.
Just then, I saw thieves at work across the isle victimizing an elderly man. A woman a few seats away preyed on a young man with a box. All lost their bags, books and boxes to those who simply took them. Not one word was exchanged between the thieves and the victims.
I flushed as I realized that the purported “thieves” were actually seated passengers offering to carry the packages of those that had to stand. Free from having to hold on to their baggage, the standees were now able to grab on to he handles and railings in order to steady themselves for the rough ride.
Amazed, I turned toward the old woman seated in front of me who had tugged on my nag. I saw a person neither disturbed at me for abruptly refusing her innocent aid, nor someone who silently mocked me for not knowing the customs of riding on a bus. I saw her stare off into the distance deep in thought she was beautiful. I felt ill. Before I could utter a word of apology, she scurried off the bus with a steam of riders at the bus stop.
I took an empty seat and carefully placed my bag between my legs underneath the seat. Soon, the bus filled with travelers who carried all sorts of baggage. I took a look around the bus at the same intriguing events unfolding before my eyes. It looked as though items were piling up on the laps and arms of those that sat, as the bus rocked back onto the highway. I decided to join in.
Carefully, I nudged the bag that a man in front of me was carrying. The man was engaged in a serious conversation with his companion, and without breaking off the conversation, he just placed the bag onto my lap, turning his freed hand to grab the handle above his head. He hardly looked my way as he got rid of the heavy load and returned to his friend in one quick motion. Upon reaching his destination, he simply reached down to grab what was his and disappeared through the door. Not one thankful word or glance came between us during the entire time. I was speechless. I felt great.
As I contemplate my assimilative process in the United States with my wonderful memories and experiences, I often wonder what I missed of Korean culture. How many more tugs on my bag had I missed by learning to be American? Are there things to learn from the countless African American and Latino youths I work with in the inner city cultures of America? What can we learn from each other?
Korean culture, of course, does not have a monopoly on being kind to strangers, and there are many problems. I believe Korean Americans however, can help improve America by teaching a few simple ways that in the long run may help conquer some complicated problems.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.