Strangers of Seoul

Of all the lessons I expected to learn while traveling as a woman, “trusting strangers” was never one of them.

Twenty years’ worth of stranger danger training has left me with a deep-seated fear of ending up like Liam Neeson’s daughter from Taken. Yet, after ten days in South Korea, the best advice I have yet to receive is to give strangers the benefit of the doubt — and I really have no grounds on which to disagree.

This is not to say I’ve lowered my guard completely; I still tend to be the more cautious member of any group in potentially dangerous situations. This has been more of a reflective realization than anything else.

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Unrelated photo of North Korea as seen from the DMZ on Sept. 26

I’ve always avoided embracing American individualism out of general distaste for taking pride in one’s self-interest. I’m really starting to realize the unavoidable Americanness of my own worldview and tendency to prioritize self-protection.

The other day, some friends and I were on the search for food in Gangnam, apparently looking as lost and confused as always, when an older man crossed the street to see if we wanted help. We asked if he knew of any good restaurants nearby; he turned and gestured for us to follow. When he started to lead us off the main road and down a side street, I became a little hesitant. Just as I was developing a game plan as to how we could politely back away from the situation, we approached a little restaurant. The stranger led us in, sat us down at a table, informed the waitress of our lack of Korean skills, and even helped us order. We were about to invite him to eat with us when he waved goodbye with an “anyang aseo!” and left with no further comment, speeding off to resume his day.

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Seoraksan National Park, Sept. 29.

Maybe this one little anecdotal encounter isn’t enough to shift the entire paradigm of individualism for me, but these ten days in South Korea were filled with variations of this compassion and helpfulness.

I acknowledge that I’ve made some generalizations while trying to make sense of concepts like national identity and cultural norms, but it is undeniably noteworthy that I have never once questioned my tendency to elude interactions with strangers until leaving the United States.

People have the capacity to look out for each other, and that’s pretty cool. As a species, I think we should try to exercise this ability more often.

Now some photos of the lovely Korea:

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Working with the landscape in Seoraksan National Park, Sept. 29.
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Taken while sunbathing in Sokcho, Sept. 30.

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