Look where you least expect

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It was a miserably hot, humid evening in Munich last summer, and I sat alone in a large, touristy Italian restaurant, eating dry, overpriced linguini. It’s the third week in my solo trip around Germany, and eating alone, something I detested in America, has become natural.

Sitting at the edge of a giant table, my sole focus was to eat that linguini and get out. Until my ears piqued at a question. It was in Korean, my home language that felt so foreign now.

“Are you Korean?” asked an elderly Asian man two seats away. Linguini in mouth, I nodded.

“Do you speak Korean?” he followed up in Korean.

I looked at him blankly. He looked travel-worn like I did. It was clear he wanted to meet new people, talk to fellow travelers.

But I wasn’t into that. I was never a smooth talker with strangers. All I wanted to do was to eat my linguini and head back to my hostel. For three weeks away from family and friends, I learned to enjoy the accompaniment of silence.

“No,” I lied, in English. What was I, an American teenager, going to talk about with a stranger as old as my grandfather, anyway?

People say one of the greatest lessons from traveling come from getting to know themselves better by leaving their comfort zones. It forces people to socialize with the natives and to understand their culture.

I went to Europe for the same lesson in a different approach. I was going to find myself through self-reflection and self-immersion. I had some fundamental questions I needed answers for, and no person was going to answer them for me.

Before the trip, I was a science major who was weeded out by the competition, a Haas reject who applied out of desperation and an amateur sportswriter who had no ambitions in journalism. Every night, I cowered to sleep as the boogeyman whispered in my ear, “What the hell are you doing with your life?” The fear of the future overwhelmed and consumed me.

So what the hell was I doing with my life? I exhaled this question as I wandered around the four corners of Germany. I would wake up at 6 a.m., wander all day and come back at 11 p.m. with no answer.

I was mulling the same question as I sat alone in that Italian restaurant in Munich with my linguini. But the old man persisted to talk. With his broken English, he introduced himself and asked questions.

In return, I awarded him with lies and half-hearted answers. When asked of my background, I fabricated it with drab details to cut the conversation short.

My sandcastle of lies eventually was crumbled by his sincerity and openness. He outlined his whole life to me, a stranger. He said he owned a small store and saved up for this trip with his wife, who stayed behind in Korea due to her arthritis, for over 20 years.

The septuagenarian traversed Eastern Europe alone for two weeks. Despite our conversation composed of broken English and body language, he couldn’t hold the excitement as he talked about listening to his first ever opera in Budapest.

He was living the dream he had waited for his entire life.

I just listened and smiled as he rambled on. Then, he said something that struck me very hard, as if he read my deepest fears.

“You are 19. I am 70,” the old man said with a childish smile. “I wait very, very long for travel. You very, very young. Be happy. Be very strong.”

The Boogeyman crawled back to its cave. And those words have stayed with me, haunted me for the last eight months.

The million-dollar question of “What the hell are you doing with your life?” still exists within me, but it doesn’t consume me. The old man’s words have soothed me, letting me know things will be all right in the end. With strength and happiness, it won’t be as bad as I feared.

I sometimes regret lying to him. Why was I so insecure? Should I have admitted my lies in the midst of the conversation and conversed in full Korean, as I could have? Perhaps then I could have extracted more of his words of wisdom and got to know him better, as a fellow traveler and friend.

By the time we left the restaurant, the humid air finally condensed to rain. I escorted the old man to his hostel nearby. The one he was staying at had the loudest, pumping dubstep music from the bar. I asked him how he deals with the noise.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I like being with young people. Young people make me feel young.” I gave him a courteous bow and stood still until he disappeared from my sight.

Inside of me, waves of emotions crashed into an immovable wall. But in the end, the only feeling left was satisfaction.

For a few hours, I lent the old man an ear and attention. In return, he gave me a conversation I will never forget.