Policy of Optimism

Typing away in a café in Sokcho, and I keep hearing people mention "that foreigner" over there, thinking I can't understand. The twist isn't that I can. The twist is that most of the time, when I turn my head to see who said it, all I find is someone tapping away on their phone or fumbling for change. The gossiping patron exists only in my head.

I took a long walk through the city today. Near a busy crosswalk, I had a troubling encounter with a taxi driver who was taking his smoke break. As I passed, the taxi driver tsked at me, turned to his buddies, and started cursing and moaning about how foreigners traipse around this country like it's theirs. This time, I knew I wasn't imagining his words. I saw a few bystanders shoot him a glare. I just walked on. Or maybe I traipsed on.

A Buddhist monk who spoke to our cohort yesterday told us that good and bad fortune always arrive hand in hand. A few miles past the taxi drivers, I asked a huddle of Jehovah's Witnesses in a lakeside park if the water in the fountain was drinkable. I had a lovely conversation with one of their members: he praised my Korean, asked me how I studied the language, and wished me safe travels. I filled up my water bottle.

Later on, I encountered a middle-aged man studying something beside the pathway.

"What's there?" I asked.

"Ants," he said. "A whole line of them, from here to all the way back there."

"Amazing." I followed his finger and found the anthill, some 40 meters away, connected by an unbroken stream of workers. I wonder how many years it'd been since I last followed a trail of ants to search out their hill.

Every day presents us with opportunities to become flustered and discouraged. But I don't want to waste my energy rehashing every failure, lest I miss the moments of kindness and human connection sprinkled in among the brash voices. Call it anything but naivety. It's a survival tactic, a policy of optimism.

As for the inhospitable: shake the dust.