How we met will be an episode that I will tell to my friends for the rest of our lives. And also the story about your grandfather had me thinking about how we’ve forgotten all the sacrifice for democracy in Korea. I hope our thanks can reach your grandfather in heaven. —SangSu
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When I climbed in the car of a stranger in South Korea, I wasn’t thinking about anything except escaping an unexpected snowstorm that made the already icy winds even more unbearable.
With two days of my Olympic assignment left, I felt fortunate to score a warm ride to the Main Press Center, after a mile walk started to feel like a Bear Grylls survival challenge.
The couple had been skiing, and they asked me where I needed to go. I didn’t want to inconvenience them, so I asked them to drop me at one of the two media centers in the Alpensia resort town.
I’d planned to walk to a nearby pizza restaurant, order take out, and then climb on a bus that would carry me to a speedskating event at the Gangneung Oval.
They agreed to drop me, and then as we talked, we realized we were both headed to the Dominoes. After some laughter, they asked if I wanted to have lunch with them. I scrapped my original plan, we exchanged names and then we gathered around the only open table.
After we took a picture because we’re all tourists, SangSu and JungMi Oh generously bought my lunch, even though I felt I should buy the pizza after they saved me from the storm. We began talking about the Olympics.
I talked about what I was there to cover — any Utah or Utah-connected athletes — and they told me about some of the events they’d been to.
It turns out, they weren’t very excited about the Games until they arrived, and then they decided to stay at their condo in Alpensia for part of the Olympics, and they bought tickets to anything they could.
From the ‘Small World’ file, they told me about inviting the family of a U.S. ski jumper to dinner, and I’d covered the event where they met the family, who accepted their gracious offer for a home-cooked meal.
They wanted to know what I thought of the events, and of course, what I thought of their country.
I offered rave reviews of the events, the accommodations and the food. SangSu and JungMi travel a lot, and they said they find Westerners to be much more outgoing and friendly. It begins, they said, with their smiles.
We are apparently quick to grin and say hello.
They noticed that near the end of the Games, the visitors weren’t smiling as much. They wondered if the reserved nature of South Koreans was sending a less-than-welcoming message, so they decided to smile as much as possible at people like me.
In fact, they laughed because I was the only one who’d taken them up on their offer of a ride, so they wondered if it was a cultural issue. After some laughter of my own, I explained that I was just more desperate to escape the relentless winds than some of my colleagues and countrymen.
I offered them some praise for the fact that South Korea offered foreign journalists the chance to take some cultural and historical tours for free. I only managed one trip with my hectic schedule, and it was to the DMZ Museum.
I told them I found it very moving because my grandfather spent two years in Korea as a young soldier in the U.S. Army. As soon as I said it, I wondered if I should have.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about how Koreans might feel about U.S. soldiers and their role in the Korean War until I decided to go see the DMZ. It was then that I wondered how they might feel about the U.S., Great Britain and Russia for dividing the country in half. And how did they feel about those soldiers?
Their response was so unexpected and so moving, I found myself struggling to conceal my emotions.
They thanked me.
SangSu said they forget sometimes about the young soldiers from far away places who fought for their right to live in a free society. Later, he sent me an email reiterating their gratitude.
“How we met will be an episode that I will tell to my friends for the rest of our lives,” he wrote. “And also the story about your grandfather had me thinking about how we’ve forgotten all the sacrifice for democracy in Korea. I hope our thanks can reach your grandfather in heaven.”
Every quiet moment I had after that, I thought about this conversation, their sentiment, and the realization we both had that our appreciation for those sacrifices made on our behalf might be superficial.
I cannot ask my grandfather how he felt about the people in Korea, nor can I ask him if anyone ever thanked him in a way that moved him to his core. I can’t ask him if that even matters.
So I asked my dad.
He served in Vietnam as a young Marine when I was just an infant. He doesn’t think about it, and he said he has no desire to go back to see what the country looks like now and how the people might feel about the soldiers who fought there.
“My exposure to the country was to very rural, very poor people,” my dad said. “My impression was that they just wanted to be left alone.”
He did tell me about going to the Hiroshima Peace Park in his uniform on his way home from Vietnam. He recalled the hulking shell of a building, rebar exposed, that still stood as part of the memorial.
“And I remember all the school kids there in their uniforms, all dressed alike,” he said. “They all wanted an autograph.”
It was a place, he said, that demanded solemnity.
I know what he means.
I felt a sort of sadness when I visited the DMZ and its museum. I’ve visited memorials around the world, from Normandy’s beaches to Pearl Harbor, and there is a sadness that stays with you long after you leave.
But it’s the living that takes place afterward that had never captured my attention.
Until I sat across from SangSu and JungMi and I could see the gratitude in their faces, hear it in their words. Every email from them since contains that gratitude and affection, and to be honest, I do not feel worthy of it.
I wish I could deliver their thanks to my grandfather, but time robbed me of that. I decided to write about this experience to deliver their thanks to every Korean veteran who might read these words.
What you did mattered in more ways than maintaining geopolitical power structures. Your sacrifices do not go unappreciated.
Each war is its own unique and complicated set of circumstances, but the young men and women who fulfill their duty to their country simply by answering the call. They cannot, as I have, worry about how someone might feel about the orders issued to them by their government.
But I do hope and pray, with all of my being, that someday they feel this kind of gratitude for their service.
Whether it is explicit gratitude like I received, or something more like what a friend felt while serving in Iraq. He was deployed with the Idaho National Guard, and one of his duties was to guard what they called Third Country Nationals.
“Iraqis would come on base and work, and my job was to guard them,” said Jason Comstock. “I’d literally load my gun, and walk around with them and guard them while they worked. I was working with one group, and they were painting a monument that had been built. They were taking a break, and they offered me a cigarette.”
He told them he didn’t smoke, and then the man told him what it was like to vote for the first time in his life.
“He told me how grateful he was to finally have that opportunity,” Comstock said. “That experience, for me, said this is worth my time, it’s worth the sacrifice that I’m making and that my family is making.”
And while I did not earn this gratitude myself, I will be forever grateful that they felt compelled to express it to me. And someday, I will deliver it to the man who earned it in whatever great adventure comes after this wonderful life.