A couple of months ago, back around April, I went on a 13 hour flight with my parents, from Los Angeles to South Korea. I suppose you could call it a last minute trip, of sorts, taken simply to visit my grandpa for the first time in five years. This would also go to say that we had no considerably massive plans other than spending time with family during our two week long stay at Korea. To be frank, it never even occurred to me that I would have the experience of volunteering at a soup kitchen for the elderly during the vacation. I had been putting all my hope in picturing quality time with my grandpa, visits to malls after endless malls, amazing food from street vendors and touring the different cities. I regret to say that the visiting of a soup kitchen to spend part of my day volunteering wasn’t quite on my mind..
My grandpa’s girlfriend informed my parents and I that she spent about four times a week volunteering at this soup kitchen. She went into vague detail about how she helped cook and serve meals to elders, going on to express her role in spreading love and care to the people that need it. Upon hearing this, my dad and I decided that it would be a good idea to visit the soup kitchen and volunteer, ourselves. Despite the fact that I was a bit awkward about the situation at first since, after all, we were only visitors from California, I quickly began to grow slowly accustomed to the idea of volunteering at a place I never set foot in before. A different country. A different city. A different society with different customs. In all honesty, that scared me. All my interactions with fellow Koreans from Los Angeles, California and volunteer experiences were sure to be entirely different than that of interactions with Koreans who lived a different life with different customs. I suppose that at that specific moment in time, I simply believed that tradition could only be held to such an extent.
On the last day of our trip to Korea, my dad and I left in the morning with my grandpa’s girlfriend to head to the volunteer center. I brought my camera, GoPro and other gear just in case there were opportunities to capture a couple of quick pictures. It turned out that I was right to bring along my gear because in the three hours that I volunteered, I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I was informed that the center was a soup kitchen for the elders of South Korea, who were mostly low-income and could only eat one or two meals a day. Along with the low-income elders, some who came to the kitchen were those who were all alone and had next to nobody to care for them. Some examples would be the ones whose children were far away, possibly being in the United States or had disrupted ties with family or even had no family at all. Other elders would be the ones who were unable to cook a meal for themselves, those who simply sought peer companionship and more.
At first, I was fixated on determining what sort of soup kitchen this was. Whether it was for the low-income or the sad and lonely, or simply a socialite area. Then, it hit me as subtly as it possibly could. This was a center of unity. A place where elders who had simply seen it all, from experiencing the Korean War firsthand to fleeing to South Korea from the North all the way to simply having lived the rocky roads of life. The soup kitchen was not a place solely set upon feeding those who couldn’t find a meal. It was a symbol of connection and hope where all varieties of troubles disappeared long enough for elders to gather and find comfort and strength in the people that were eating a meal right next to them.
As soon as I understood this simple yet monumental fact, my heart opened up and I had the greatest time. I served all these elder Koreans that ultimately just wanted to feel a bit less alone in their point of journeying through life.
When my family and I entered the premises to help out, we were automatically given small tasks here and there to help prepare and serve the meal. The meal of the day was a popular Korean dish of noodles mixed with a black bean sauce served with pickled radishes. Despite how unappetizing that may sound to those who have never tasted the dish nor experienced much of Korean culture, it was actually an extremely popular and tasty dish. The staff of volunteers were all adults ranging from young to middle who had various jobs from making the noodles with dough, boiling the noodles, cutting kimchi, washing dishes, getting plates ready and much more. Some staff outside were even popping a Korean form of popcorn and serving to some of the early elders.
Around noon, all the elders started to pour into the soup kitchen center. They gathered around as if it was clockwork and sat outside in no particular order. Each and every elder had a smile on their faces and conversed happily with the volunteer staff. After the meal was prepared, the serving began and every single elder was pleased with their meal. Some decided to have seconds and others had, even, thirds. They all smiled, laughed and socialized with one another. I’d approximate that there were about 30-35 elders and not a single one left without a smile on their face.
That smile was so genuine and amazing to me because it opened up my eyes. Here I was, living in America with a family that loves me and cares for me, focused on all that I cannot have, when there were people elsewhere, such as these elders who made the most of what they had been dealt. I was able to force my perspective on volunteer work as a way to better the community, not through simply the act, but the emotions that the act brings out in people. Volunteer work is supposed to bring out feelings of unity. That despite your political stance, your sins and glories, your religious views; despite anything that may be a border between yourself and the next person, we are all united through fighting the good fight.
These elders allowed me to see things from a light that I never saw before. However, even besides this small fact, it was highly important to me that South Korea was able to be unified in a small yet viable way. These elders sought this soup kitchen for not only a single meal, but for the feeling of being united. This soup kitchen was a place of unity where in the moment, it didn’t matter what went on in someone’s life. The kitchen created a moment where people forgot about the hardships and disunity between North and South Korea or even the SK government. They focused on one another and flourished in all conditions as a result.