Twenty-six years ago (1985), I showed up in Seoul as a naive Korean-American student looking to find my roots. The problem was that I had very little Korean language skills and even less cultural perspective.
At the time, a 6′ 4″ bald white man befriended me and took me under his wing. No one stuck out more than he did in a sea of short, black-haired Koreans back then. The country was just starting to become an economic “tiger” and the government was not yet even a democracy.
However, as a former US military intelligence personnel, Rick spoke fluent Korean and had immersed himself completely into the local culture. My “hyung” (big brother) taught me to be Korean again. He would forced me to eat Korean delicacies that I initially resisted. He would teach me how to drink in the traditional Korean custom and how to honor my elders.
We were quite the pair back then, when people would just gawk at him and ask me about my “giant” friend. He would always then answer for me, which at times would send people running away from us.
When I returned to the states, he too returned and trained to be an officer at Fort Lewis, a military base south of Seattle. Since he had no family there, I had the honor of pinning his officer pin on him during his ceremony.
Later, when I was getting married, he was the MC at our reception, delighting our families with his Korean jokes.
Today, we’re getting together again as I’m visiting Seoul on vacation. His heart always tugged him back to here, where he’s now married with two beautiful daughters. Last time we got together, it was the day before my flight back home. The facts are still a bit fuzzy but I almost missed that flight when I finally found my way home the next afternoon. This time, my wife has insisted that I meet him days prior to my return flight.
In life, a friend like Rick is rare. Who would have thought a farm boy from Iowa and a Korean-American boy from Seattle would affect each other’s lives in so many unlikely ways? I’m so thankful for having him as a friend.
Now, I got to come up with a strategy to pay for our night out as we will be fighting for each bill — just as he had taught me to do a long time ago.