Sunnan, the KAPS founder, and I had started having lunch my first year in Korea. She wanted an opportunity to practice her English, which she had learned with her daughter from a tutor who visited her house. Her daughter had practiced her English before moving to the UK to continue her career in animation. This was something Sunnan was extremely proud of, a daughter who lived abroad, lived her own life and spoke English.
Sunnan’s English was very good. Sometimes we would get stuck on words and the phone might come out for a translation, but generally we could work it out together. My Korean was never more than embarrassing. Each year I started off with good intentions. Lessons from my co-workers, classes with the Education board. I bought books and practiced with friends but it never lasted long before I got frustrated and gave up.
I developed what I called Survival Korean, most of which was in the Daegu dialect so when I visited Seoul I would get some very strange looks. My Korean got me through school lessons, around the city, it kept me fed and was a crutch through the odd questions in the park about dogs, but was sadly far from useful in a conversation.
Sunnan, Luna and I usually went to the local Bibimbap restaurant. In the winter Sunnan and I would have Dolsot Bibimbap. This is white rice in a bowl, on top laid out very carefully are segments of side dishes, usually spinach, root vegetables and topped with an egg. With Dolsot the bowl is a hot pot and comes sizzling, you mix it straight away and the egg mixes with the vegetables and rice into a tasty meal. In summer it comes in a cold metal dish and the egg is fried, but it is still a great meal.
For myself I always had it without kimchi and Sunnan would always use my gochu sauce. Unfortunately I gave Sunnan a bit of a false impression of foreigners, not a fan of spicy food I always avoided anything with chilli paste and Sunnan assumed this was a foreigner thing. I didn’t realise this until we went out to lunch with the KAPS volunteer team, almost entirely made up of foreigners who love their spicy food! She was quite shocked and delighted to watch them all tuck in to kimchi and gochu packed meals.
My lunches with Sunnan were a favourite time of the week for me. She was such a great story teller, but also she was a unique window for me into Korean culture and she is quite a special person, in that her perspective on things isn’t always the same as many other Korean people.
Luna had her own bag and although sometimes she got nosey and bored, for the most part she would curl up and go to sleep. I’m sure the restaurant owners weren’t particularly happy to have her in there, but Sunnan was a good customer and well known in the area so whenever they brought it up she would wave her hand and in we would go.
Sunnan would tell me stories from her childhood, and of her plans for KAPS, but she would also tell me about family troubles, challenges with the staff and problems with the members of the public who interacted with her through KAPS.
Sunnan’s daily life was an unusual one: a Korean woman, with her own charity, a passion for animal welfare, and the tenacity and determination to stand up to people who had very different beliefs to her. What I learned was that when a stranger entered into a conversation with Sunnan, they often came out with quite a different way of looking at the world to when the conversation began.
She didn’t worry about embarrassing people or making them lose face, she didn’t worry about telling them they were wrong, or whether as a woman she had a right to tell a man how to behave, all very real problems to every other Korean woman I met. She was certain in her perspective, and in the need for growth of perspective in the Korean psyche, and she didn’t mind being the one to drag people kicking and screaming into the future.
This attitude, of course, gave her many enemies, many people who were angry at her and it was rare for days to go by without an angry phone call. But even these people would come around. I watched her diplomacy and courage and I tried to learn and take heed of her advice. I have no doubt that without Sunnan’s stories and watching her change people’s hearts and minds, I would not be able to do what I do now.