The other day, out of the blue, I get a phone call from one of my Korean friends, Sae-woong, who wanted to let me know that he was going into the military.
It had been a few years since Sae-woong and I last saw or talked to each other. I thought that it was very nice that he took time out ― just hours before he was to leave for the military ― to call me.
I’ve known Sae-woong and his family for about as long as I have lived in Korea. What’s been most interesting about our friendship as well as the friendship I have enjoyed immensely with his family over the years is that I was once Sae-woong’s and his older brother’s English tutor.
It was back in 1995 when I was approached by a former colleague of mine who asked me if I would be interested in some private tutoring. She taught Japanese at the same language institute I taught at and wanted some private lessons for her son as well as some of his classmates. I was doing it more out of favor for her and sure the money I would get was nice, but what I hadn’t bargained for was the endearing and enduring friendship that would soon develop.
At first I was teaching Sae-woong, his older brother and three other students. Later, it was just Sae-woong and his brother, and finally just Sae-woong. Our friendship, as well as the friendship that would soon develop with his family slowly grew out of all those private lessons we had two or three times a week. I might have been Sae-woong and his brother’s tutor, but I was becoming much more to them and their family.
Soon, his parents were having me stay for dinner or in some cases preparing special meals for me whenever I came over. After I had once remarked to Sae-woong that I really liked his mom’s curry rice, his mom started to make this dish at least once a week for us.
His mother went to great lengths to always make me feel at home whether it was cooking something that I liked or preparing some traditional Korean dishes that I hadn’t tried before.
To be sure, the friendship I had with Sae-woong and his family also provided me with a window on Korean culture. Even though I had been in Korea for nearly five years, I didn’t have too many chances to visit my other Korean acquaintance’s homes and experience Korean culture on a more personal and intimate level.
However, it was quite different with Sae-woong’s family who had opened their home and their hearts to me.
His parents, who were merchants with a small shop in Dongdaemun Market, showed me a different Korea than the one many foreigners might experience when they come here. I got to see in many ways the backbone of the Korean miracle ― those individuals who still put in 10-12 hours days six and sometimes seven days a week ― not to mention the success of that miracle.
Sae-woong’s parents endured various hardships (like the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis) but still could afford a nice home and family to show for all their efforts.
Likewise, much of what I learned about Korean culture was possible through the interactions I had with Sae-woong and his family from such traditions like kimjang (the annual kimchi-making activity) to holiday traditions during Chuseok and Seollal.
Birthdays and other anniversaries were not missed and when Christmas rolled around, they all tried to make me feel a little more at home in Korea and chase away some of the blues.
When Sae-woong and his brother got older and most of our English lessons were replaced with other private lessons; however, the friendship I had with their family continued to grow. Instead of coming over for an English lesson, now I just came over for a visit. Other times I was invited out for dinner or accompanied the family on day outings around Korea.
Over the years Sae-woong and his family were always willing to help me out when I had some difficulties in Korea whether it was helping me get my first cell phone or taking me shopping.
They definitely made life a little more bearable for myself and later my wife when she joined me in Korea. And when my wife passed away in 2001, Sae-woong and his family were there for me immediately to help me cope with the loss.
I get asked a lot of questions from students and acquaintances about my experiences living in Korea all these years ― everything from the kind of Korean food I like to some of my favorite travel destinations. Some questions might even seem a little strange like “do you have any Korean friends?” (as though foreigners are not expected to have Korean friends for some odd reason), but in my case, the question is very near and dear to me when I think about my friend Sae-woong and his family.
I have to confess that in the 17 years I have lived and worked in Korea, I have been quite lucky in how well I have gotten by here. However, I believe a lot of my “luck” was in part thanks to my very good friend Sae-woong and his family.
If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I could have endured some of the hardships and homesickness that I have felt at times.
When Sae-woong called me the other day, we ended up talking for nearly thirty minutes. It was nice that he had taken time out of his busy day with his family to remember to call me. And when it came time to say good-bye and good luck, Sae-woong promised to call me the next time he was home.
I am looking forward to that call and seeing my very good friend again.