One Dollar Gum

A few weeks ago I was outside of Seoul in a popular beach town for a weekend with friends. We were sitting in a quaint Korean yakiniku restaurant eating amazingly fresh meat when an old hunched over Korean man came up from behind us. Holding a small pack of gum in one hand and some coins in another he looked at me and said “money”. This was probably the third time I encountered a situation like this within the past few months. These men basically walk up to people and sell small packs of gum for a dollar. In this kind of situation, I’ve noticed that the Koreans I’m with either ignore them or say, “현금이 없어요 (I have no cash)”. In the same way, I used that phrase and responded “현금이 없어요," hoping he would move on to the next table. To my surprise, my friend sitting across the table addressed the old man as “아버님 (Dad)” and asked how much the gum was while pulling out his wallet. As my friend gave the man a dollar and accepted the pack of gum, I watched in embarrassment as the old man bowed and left the restaurant.

“What happened to me?” I asked myself. Back in Hawaii, I would shake my head at people who would ignore the less fortunate. When I came across homeless people I’d offer to buy them a meal. I’ve bought meals, medicine and footwear for people who I knew needed it more than me. Yet there I was, numb to the needs of the less fortunate, unwilling to give a dollar to an old man who was prepared to give me some gum in return.

Just last night, I was with some friends celebrating a birthday. As we are talking, another old man walked into the loud restaurant filled with college students. He went from table to table with his hands outstretched- gum in one, a few dollar bills in the other. He made his way from the front of the restaurant all the way to the back where we were sitting. When he came to our table, I knew this was my second chance to do what I should have done the first time. I addressed him as “아버님 (Dad),” and I asked him for one pack as I pulled out my wallet. A voice from the other side of the room yelled, “good guy!” as I was handing the old man a dollar and accepting the gum. When I looked up, I noticed another Korean friend at my table grabbing for his wallet. He bought one too.

That moment was very gratifying for me. Not because I was recognized for my compassionate deed, but because I got a second chance to do what I should have done the first time.

It’s easy to look like everyone else and do what everyone else does. Especially while abroad, I think being introspective and periodically evaluating oneself is important. Taking time to consider how I’ve changed since arriving has been a huge eye opener. No matter where I am in the world, I realize that compassion looks the same. Having a heart for others, especially the less fortunate, is something that I hope I never lose.