I have had the good fortune during my life to have visited a fair number of foreign countries. The first time I left the continental United States was in 1968 when while in the army I was sent to Korea. I was only 19 when I arrived and to say I experienced a culture shock is something of an understatement.
It was early December 1968 when I flew from Seattle to Seoul Korea. Immediately upon disembarking from the airplane there was a decidedly different scent in the air from any I had known before. I cannot tell you exactly what it was, or even how to describe it, except to say it was different. It was not a bad scent but it was the first of a long line of experiences.
The two most obvious things, to everyone, is that it is a different language and a different culture. The Korean people in 1969 were still recovering from a war that had ended 16 years before. Korea at the time was a country of a very small upper class, a slightly larger middle class, and a huge poor class. The poverty these people experienced was, and probably is, unknown in the west. It was not unusual for a poor family to say that they had at one time or another had to eat rat to survive. It was an accepted way of life. Fish and cabbage were the mainstays of daily life and you could hardly go a block without smelling one or the other in the air. The cabbage was fermented into what is known as kimchi.
What I found extremely endearing about the Korean people was their generosity. On a number of occasions I was invited to supper at the house of one of the poor people. Invariably they put out a spread that there was no doubt in my mind was more than they could afford. But that is just how they were.
The next time I came into contact with a group of Koreans was when I was at the army’s air defense artillery school at Ft. Bliss. I was chief of maintenance there and oversaw the equipment the students practiced on. One time a class off mixed foreign students came in. Between them, the Korean students worked the hardest and were the most studious. I had seen some of that while I was in Korea but it really came out at Ft. Bliss.
In 1971 I was stationed in Italy. I decided that summer that I should take the opportunity to visit Lebanon. I got that idea from the Danny Thomas Show. He was Lebanese and also spoke highly of the cedars of Lebanon and its beauty, so I decided to find out for myself. When I arrived in Beirut I had no idea of what to expect. I stayed in one of the best hotels in Beirut at truly bargain prices. My stay in Beirut included a trip to Damascus Syria. I was not supposed to go to any country that the U.S. did not maintain an embassy and such was the situation in Syria. But the desire to go to the ancient city of Damascus won out.
While in Damascus, as part of a tour from Beirut, we were guided by a fellow who was a Muslim and gave us lots of insights into his religion. We visit the central mosque which was a former Christian cathedral that had been converted. He told us that the majority of Christian holy places in the middle east had the same status in the Moslem world. He took us to a gold cage that was in left front portion of the mosque. He said this was the place that they believed the head of John the Baptist lay. I had witnessed many Syrian soldiers going to the cage, kneel and pray. I was very struck by this.
My experience in both Lebanon and Syria was that the people of these countries are friendly and did not really care that we were westerners. They were all very courteous and friendly. They always made me feel comfortable and welcome.
My last experience with a very foreign culture was with Pacific Islanders of the Marshall Islands, the Marshallese. Again, these people were always friendly and welcoming. Their culture could not be more different from ours but as long as I did not make that an issue, they did not either.
I have also experience the cultures of Poland and Greece, among other countries. While these cultures are decidedly western, they certain do not mimic American culture, nor should they. Invariably I found the people of the countryside not so very different in their ideas and desires from anyone in America. They want to be happy and to enjoy their family. They are mostly disinterested in politics and even religion. They know we are different but they really do not care about that. For the most part, they treated me better than I could have guessed.
It is always a mistake to categorize a nation’s people as a reflection of its leadership. The truth is, that is seldom the case. Most of the worlds’ governments are vastly different from the people they represent. At the time of my visit to Syria, the Syrian government was decidedly not friendly towards the U.S. and yet the people did not reflect that at all. I think it fine to hate the leadership of any country, but it is wrong to lump the people of the country with its leadership.