Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Christmas Eve 2006. We ate out at Lotteria - chicken, fries and milkshake - nothing fancy. I ate one piece of chicken - but got the other boxed to eat later. We talked for a long time about wealth and poverty in Korea and the extent to which the UK and Korea were meritocracies - or not - and the extent of opportunity in Korean society.

At the bins we started disposing of our cups and cartons, when a child - maybe about 14 - ran up to us. "Are you throwing that chicken away?" - "Yes" - "Can I have it then?" - "Yes" replied my stunned partner. Oblivious to the lightning exchange, I was shocked to see a hand dart towards the mostly eaten chicken breast before snatching it away from the jaws of the bin. I blurted out two rounds of "what the hell was that?" before a final "Oh my God" as I turned to see the child - now outside the door - scraping hungrily at the remains of my chicken with his mouth. I may have seen some poverty in Korea but what had just happened was a league above that and I was overwhelmed by a surreal sense of horror.

Aware that the boy had two companions my partner worried that they may present some danger to us and we hurried out of the door -
I admit I am also coloured by my experiences living in a British inner-city area where you always watched your back at night for attacks, dares and scams of various kinds which were never far away. Even so, I wanted to give them the other piece of chicken we'd boxed as we passed by him and my partner offered it to him - apparently to his surprise. She explained afterwards her worry that he might have felt offended by the offer but then he'd just taken my remains from the mouth of the bin so I doubted he would have had such scruples.

The whole incident lasted no more than fifteen seconds.

I don't know what their story was but while we did the right thing in a small sense I know we should have taken them back in to Lotteria, sat them down, and bought them a meal. I truly wish that was the Christmas Eve story I could tell but it isn't because I failed to rise above the shock and prejudices and as such failed in my responsibility to do the right thing. After recovering from the shock of what I saw my regret at my minimal action increased with every step.

Have we become so cynical that we fail to help those who seem to need help? What would other Koreans have done? Would I have reacted better if I'd been able to speak the language and been able to understand and communicate with the children? Did we really want to know their story or is our guilt ultimately destined to be less the less we know? Just how many homeless children might there be in this country - because it certainly seemed like they must be? Not for the first time of late, my head is full of questions which I have no answers for.

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