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I was attending a reception at the South African Embassy in honour of the great work of a centre in Durban which reaches out to some of the poorest and most marginalised people in that city and named after a bishop of Irish heritage, Denis Hurley. I got chatting to a woman called Karen and ended up telling her about two particular encounters I’d had in Korea, one due to me being a foreigner, the other despite me being a foreigner.

When living in Seoul for a year I taught English in different locations and near one of those places there was a man who had a little stall on the pavement in a busy square by the underground station. He was always rather poorly dressed and looked as if he could do with a good wash but he never failed to spot me in the crowd: not too difficult, perhaps, at a time when there were hardly any foreigners outside of the tourist areas. Having spotted me, he would call out to me in a booming voice. He was the kind of person that most of the passers-by probably gave a wide berth to but in a city where I knew few people beyond Yim Soon’s family and friends and those I was teaching, I was glad of any company and would happily stop and spend a bit of time with him. We developed quite a bond over the months that I was going to or coming from my class and then one day he was not his usual boisterous self but told me anxiously about ‘manura’ being ill. I had no idea who or what manura was but tried to listen as attentively as I could before disappearing down the steps to the subway. I should explain at this point that Korean has several words for ‘wife’ and I prided myself on knowing what I thought were all five of them, also the situations in which to use them, rising as they do in order of formality right up to ‘wife of company president’. Interestingly, there is just one word for husband!

I found out later from Yim Soon that manura is yet another word for wife but not very often used and usually only by someone from a fairly low social class. I felt humbled and privileged that this man on the street had chosen to confide in me and, as I explained to Karen at the reception, had I not been a foreigner and therefore a bit on the margins myself, I might never have given him a second glance; or he me!

The second encounter took place in another part of the city where I taught. I was on my way to a class one day when a young man asked me, in Korean, where the underground station was. This was not a usually occurrence. Most people would assume that any foreigner was a) American, and b) couldn’t speak a word of Korean. Indeed, I thought for a split second, ‘Why is he asking me; can’t he see I’m a foreigner?’ I happened to know that there were two underground stations nearby and asked which one he wanted to go to. He told me, I gave him directions, and he went on his way without batting an eyelid. He was a man with a learning disability, and I was so happy that he had not made any assumptions or judgements about me but had just treated me like anyone else, and that I had been given the opportunity to help someone in a very practical way. I almost skipped away from that encounter.

How easy it is for us to judge people, to assign them to certain categories, to not afford people their rightful dignity. And how wonderful it is when we have the chance to take our place as valued members of society, with the recognition that all of us have something to contribute to the common good.

The day after the Embassy reception I was in London again and had some time before my train home so decided to sit in the sun near one of the new water features at Kings Cross and watch the world go by. There appeared a man with a can of beer in one hand and wheeling an enormous amp with the other. Just like that street seller in Seoul, he spotted me and began to address me in a loud voice. He was talking about his new amp and asked me to name a song. I thought for a moment and said, “Once in a very blue moon by Mary Black.” He looked at his phone. “Cost me £14.99, this app,” he muttered, “it had better work!” Work it did because there came through the amp the lovely, dulcet tones of Mary Black. Problem was, he then turned the volume right up so that the whole of London must have then been able to hear the lovely, dulcet tones of Mary Black! “That’s better,” he said. At least I think that’s what he said, over the boom from the amp. Just at that moment there appeared a second man who was looking for money for a drink. Amp man produced from his pocket a can of Fosters and gave it to him, and I was so touched by that act of kindness. Shortly after that a couple of other, slightly eccentric looking, characters came over and were giving requests for songs and one of them gave him a cigarette. Amidst the bustle of Kings Cross he was a little magnet bringing people together and putting a smile on faces.

It was time to go for the train. I shook the hand of this man, whose name he told me was Adam, and I went on my way, to the booming sound of Phil Collins (Easy Lover)!

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who was a member of L’Arche in Toronto, used to tell us to ‘stay close to the poor,’ and I imagine that Denis Hurley might have said something similar. Knowing something of Nouwen’s personal story, I don’t think he meant this in any kind of patronising way. Rather I think it came, at least partly, from an awareness of his own places of poverty and of feeling marginalised. It’s true of all of us in one way or another, and what profound things can occur in those places…


Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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