We’d met Keira on an online woman’s group and decided after a whirlwind morning in the city to take a bus to Suwon to meet her in person for the first time. Suwon, while still a city, is much older and has that…..THIS is what I thought of when I would picture Korea vibe. The town and its people are mostly older; not the slick fast pace of Seoul. Keira came to the country on her own a few years back and is now a wife to Chanho and a mother to little Ellam. Life is a challenge for them here. Money is hard to come by, jobs that pay the bills are difficult to find close enough to home to make it worth it. Their apartment is small, storage is at a premium and Keira has become adept at finding ways to find solutions.
We put Ellam in his stroller, his little egg cookies in a package to stave off dinner time for a chance to get out and show us around. I find it hard to keep up with my friend and the girl, my eyes hungry to wrap this place around me and have it forever in my mind. It’s hard to walk and look and imagine and keep my balance. My eyes gravitate to the people I see, for there are the stories, the pattern in the fabric. I hear a scraping sound ahead of us and look to see a bent elderly woman making it across the street with her walker one. small. tiny. scrape. at. a. time. Our eyes meet as I come right up to her, to walk past her, her mask hiding the rest of her face. We will never know each other but for that small moment we saw each other at the intersection of Kentucky and Suwon and a lump formed in my throat from the profoundness of it all. Just past her, a weathered little man is making his way up a steep hill, his cane keeping him upright. What have they seen in this life? I long to have a go between sit with us and ask.
We strolled by businesses in spots I wouldn’t have thought anything much could fit, some of them crude and rough looking to my western eyes…..but this is their livelihood, their place in the world. There are men getting haircuts, women picking out fruit, children playing in a small park. Just like us.
We started back to Keira’s apartment as the sun began to set. Little Ellam was hungry and we needed to catch the bus back to Gangnam. The girl stood in the archway of an old fortress once providing safety for this town. I snapped her picture and look at my camera. It felt like a validation. We were here. We saw you. We will remember you.
Tuesday I met Sujin. My friend, Sarah, a transplant from Wisconsin to Misa, wanted to show me her town, the english school she and her husband own and her dear friend. She graciously met me at our subway stop and accompanied me to her area. As we walked up from underground, the blue sunny sky almost sang. We stopped for coffee and started for the park. I could see Sujin from a distance as she waved at us. I loved her immediately.
I asked if I could give her a hug, the American greeting I am so used to. We stared into each others’ eyes….both of us amazed at the miracle of sitting together. I told her my story, she told me hers. Sujin has a husband and two children and a God that she loves. She met Sarah at church. In Korea, older and younger people are not usually “friends”. There is distance there. Sarah, 20 + years younger than Sujin, surprised her by asking to go for coffee together. That was four years ago. And on this day, I was welcomed into that circle.
Sarah , Sujin and I walked across the park to Compassion English School, named after Compassion International, an organization that Sarah’s husband has a particular heart for. They sponsor 50 children with a portion of the proceeds they earn from their school. The pictures of the sponsored children form a heart on the wall of the classrooms. One day they hope to sponsor another 50 more.
Two of her students arrive to class early and they tumble in like little puppies. Sarah has them greet me in their best english. “Hello! Nice to meet you!” My heart melts into my shoes. They pull out a game and sit on the floor. On the walls around them Sarah has placed some of the students’ work and I stand in front of it and love them without even knowing them.
It’s time to head back on the subway and Sarah worries that I will be ok to make it to the station and home alone. Sujin quietly says to Sarah, “I’ll go with her all the way.” She is as bad at directions as I am and yet she is willing. She has never been to my station and hasn’t ridden the subway in quite awhile. We grab hold of each other and giggle our way to the station through all the transfers and stops. We snap a picture victorious and send it back to the girl and Sarah to let them know we made it! “I am so honored to meet you!” we both say at almost the same time. I ask if she will be alright going back. “Yes! Remember, I can ask for directions if I get lost. Remember, I’m Korean!” Ah, yes you are, indeed. I’d forgotten. “We are now friends forever.”