Vagabonding in South Korea


Just the other day a homeless man entered a restaurant  I was eating at.

I was in Suwon, a city just outside of Seoul, where the sightings of vagabonds are few and far between.

In a country of burgeoning wealth, the man’s entrance had been a surprise. Homelessness  here is usually visible in a collection of common places – outside Seoul’s central train station or bowed down next to collection trays  at subway entrances. Entering this small, presumably family-run restaurant and asking for help was a surprise.

To put his plight into a wider context, a recent New York Times article pulled up some sobering statistics:

The relative poverty rate among senior citizens in South Korea is 49.3 percent, the highest of the industrialized countries. Public pensions tend to be small. And the suicide rate for senior citizens, surely an indicator of economic strain, is the highest among the industrialized countries, at about 80 for every 100,000 people.’

I’ve read somewhere that you’re more likely to give money to a rich man than a poor one, as his could lead you to repaid in another form. Was that why I had turned the cheek other cheek – because he had no value to me?

I don’t know. Perhaps. It’s easy to ignore a stranger. Especially when they don’t speak your language. 

Turning my head back to my friend, I continued the meal and conversation without a second glance.

After five minutes I’d not heard the clattering of the bell signaling his exit. Curiously, I glanced backwards and saw that a group of elderly patrons had passed him a glass of beer.

It was an unexpectedly friendly gesture – far more so than tossing some coins his way.


Time passed, and a second glance revealed he’d been invited to join them at the table.

A Korean barbecue table has a built-in grill that is designed for sharing. The man, now sat down and chatting away was being offered some of the mouth-watering sizzling meat  on display.

He must have been tempting to stay and have his fill, but after a couple more minutes the gentleman was on his feet again, respectfully thanking his hosts, bowing and saw himself out.

He had made sure not to outstay his welcome, and never once was he approached by the owners to leave.


Why was it that these customers not only engaged with him, not only helped him out, but sat him down as a guest?

The two couples  the man had joined were in their 50s or 60s – perhaps that’s the spirit of a bygone era? One could say it’s in the national character to pull together and help each other in times of hardship – after all, it’s what South Koreans did to raise the country’s economy from the dead – albeit under the stiff iron fist of tough presidents and military dictatorship. Was this an example of “Jeong” (정), the Korean term for the permeation of tender feelings between individuals through unconditional acts of sharing?

Or perhaps it was simply a random act of kindness, regardless of what country we were in. Maybe they were just genuinely empathic individuals who saw a person in need of not only some food in his belly, but a few minutes indoors and a little companionship.

The answer was blowing in that cold January wind.

As the man walked  out under the flickering neon lights of Suwon that evening, however, he must have felt that little bit more warmth for experiencing such dignity. That brief moment of acceptance surely must have given him hope.

After all, if his country’s past resilience has given him any food for thought, it’s that being down and out doesn’t necessarily mean being out for the count.


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