During my recent visits to South Korea, what struck me more than their prosperity was the ingrained culture in every Korean I met. It was conspicuous as a strong trait as if it were a chip on every Korean's shoulder. I was completely bowled over.
Koreans converse only in their language for they prefer it to English unmindful of the flow of tourists. Yet the Korean hospitality ensures that those who do not understand their language do not feel at unease. I can vouch for it. I didn't face hurdles while on the move though casual incidents like making a grocery salesgirl understand that what I was looking for was a vegetarian bread was an amusing test of patience.
People on the street, the staff behind the bank counters or a salesperson in a mall all seem to be pledge-bound to be courteous, to help, to spread goodwill. At a metro station when a commuter, a middle-aged man, noticed me holding the subway time-table to figure out a particular train, he quickly reached out to me, “May I help you”?
“What makes Korea so strong as a nation despite language barriers?” I was tempted to query my long time friend, a businessman and an avowed spiritualist. “Yes, you are right. We have language constraints. But we continue to stick to our age-old culture which has survived for 5000 years despite the best efforts of our neighbours to engineer hostilities on us to stamp out our values.” His voice boomed with conviction.
He sounded enthusiastic, “See, we respect our cultural heritage, our tradition and the values imbibed from our ancestors who had all the wisdom. We didn't allow our culture to be polluted. Today, our values reverberate in our hearts.” Confidence was visible in his voice.
My Korean associate had lined up quite a few entrepreneurs for interaction with me. All of them extended me extreme courtesy. But one stood out. He was the Chairman of a 500 million dollar steel scrap exporting unit, about 150 km from the capital city of Seoul. Formal discussions over, he invited me to his chamber for an informal chat. “Which tea you would like to have, Mr Rajen,” he asked me humbly. “First I will give you Korean tea,” he proffered, got up to walk to his office table and switched on the electric cattle to boil water. He then took out cups, placed a tea bag in each of them, poured boiling water. Later, he took out a tray, placed the cups and walked up to us holding the tray. I was taken aback by the humbleness of a person who heads an empire. I wondered within: “so very clear why Koreans are the richest with the biggest per capita income in the world.” Over tea, I could not resist asking him, “Sir, what is your vision for moving to the next level”? He answered in a soft measured voice, “USD 2000 million turn over by next year.” I was speechless. His confidence permeated the ambience. There wasn't a hint of arrogance. It was a humble claim by a humble soul on a humble mission.
As we were driving back, my escorting associate told me that Koreans were extremely proud of their culture yet humble to the core, adding: “Our pride automatically transforms into extreme nationalism.” I sat back musing at the magnificence.
Only a week back, Korea had witnessed a great political upheaval when their President was impeached. And it was no less than a surprise that I found nobody discussing that. I immediately thought of India when an election even in a state becomes a subject of a bitter discussion on the streets, in the offices, in the colleges and among everyone and anyone with the media spearheading meaningless, noisy, inconclusive debates wasting thousands of man hours day after day till results heighten the din.
Do we have lessons to learn? Or do we accept ourselves as we are? I think let India, a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural country, march on as it has evolved. Aren't we God fearing; God swearing debaters of everything, everywhere? The fact that Korea and India earned freedom almost same time must give us a food for thought.