Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Korea 2011 - Subways and Produce

A couple days ago I took a trip to Suwon Station, one of the many train stations in Korea. The place is a small city within the city. Ten stories of shops and malls straddle the tracks, and beneath the tracks is a sprawling underground city full of shops and places to go. I had just ordered an ice cream cone from Baskin Robbins…some kind of green tea yogurt that was extremely tasty. I'm walking through the miles of telecom shops towards the bus exit and on the steps going up to the street I see a series of people selling produce. These aren't carts or stands…these are people sitting on the ground with bags of various roots and peppers just trying to sell what they can. Most of the time I don't pay attention too much. The gentlemen heckle you a bit, and I do see people buy food from them so I don't feel too bad. Today, however, I couldn't avoid them. It wasn't the hecklers that got me but the older lady at the end of the line that decided to rip my heart out. 

I don't think I could ever forget that face. Unlike most of the women in Korea, her face was dirty and her skin was raw. Her hair was pushed back with bobby pins, but you could tell that she had been working in the fields that morning by the curls and frizzled strands sticking out of her bun. She wasn't old, but that youthful glow was taken from her a long time ago. She was staring off in the distance, as if she had been on the verge of tears for the past couple hours. While the other hecklers were selling their peppers and spices, her produce was still freshly piled up on the blanket.

I walked right by her, looking long enough to see her face. I would later go up the stairs and throw the wrapper from my ice cream cone away. The slogan "We Deliver Happiness" would sit on top of a trash pile. 

That bus ride home was excruciatingly long. All I could think about was that woman and why she looked so sad. Did she pick those peppers herself? Why was she selling them on the ground in a subway station? Did she have kids to feed at home? And why was she about to cry?

My heart cried out for her, but I knew my opportunity to bring her even the smallest gesture of kindness had passed. It didn't have to be much: just buy a handful of peppers, smile, and go on your way. Why did I feel that it was my duty to help her out? Hundreds of other people were walking right by her also…any one of them could have stopped. Why did I care so much? Why do I still care?

I don't know what it is about seeing another human being sad, but I cannot stand it. I remember the first time I was vindictive towards another person and wanted to see them emotionally hurt. I was 7 years old, and myself and all the other neighborhood kids didn't like these two boys. Their names were Andy and Jason, and they were brothers that lived a couple houses down. It wasn't for any reason in particular that we loathed Andy and Jason either…we always found a way to exclude them or take advantage of them. I remember one time they were fighting with each other and all the other kids were laughing and cheering as they threw punches. I was part of that group because, when you're 7 years old, you need to feel like you belong. To defend Andy and Jason would lead to me being grouped with them and facing the ridicule and torment that they faced. I wasn't ready to take a stand, so I made jokes. 

A couple months ago my sister and I talked about Andy and Jason. She told me how bad she felt for doing that. I did too. We wondered where they were now, and if they still remember the torture we helped put them through. Maybe they hated us now. I really couldn't blame them. I wish that I could speak to them again and let them know that I changed....or at least I tried.

That mentality, though, is something that many people don't grow out of. People spread rumors. People backstab and judge. People get jealous. Why do we want to inflict harm on an individual? Why do we want to be the cause of someone's sadness?

The question that was killing me was why I turned a blind eye to it all. I did it with Andy and Jason when I was 7 years old. I did it to a woman on the streets when I was 22. Am I really that good of a person? Have I changed? Am I any better than the person or thing that makes her so sad?

The only real solace I can take in this situation is that I felt something. I didn't do anything about it, but I know that my conscience is still there. It still remembers the times when I was bullied, or the times when I felt bad for causing pain. It still reminds me of times that I did stand up for somebody, and the friendships that I made because of it. My moral compass is that much straighter because of it.

Traveling has really forced me to take a new approach to what the words 'charity' and 'kindness' mean. It isn't giving money or giving things, it's as simple as sharing a moment with an individual in need. There are so many things wrong in this world. People are crying out…dying even. Kids are starving and yet people are obsessing over trivial matters like term papers and raising money for art projects or their own personal luxuries. At the same time, I know that there's always hope for humanity. People do care. People do love out there. And there are people who try to make everyone in their life a little bit happier. In the grand scheme of things, that's probably the greatest thing you can do for another human being: make them just a little bit happier. 

Thing is, you can't turn a blind eye when you have the opportunity to help. Don't walk by like nothing is wrong. Stop and smile. Connect. Love someone else for the beautiful person that he or she is. Count your blessings, because I guarantee you that you have many. You are alive after all, and the greatest gift life has to give you is a new day. We're all more similar than you think. Love…that's all that it ever comes down to. Can't ask more for that.

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