“Never was anything great achieved without danger.” -Nicolo Machiavelli
It was early summer 2008. I was a fairly recent University of Notre Dame graduate traveling Asia playing pro golf. Having gained limited status on the Asian Tour and full status on Korean Tour to start my pro golf career, I was the tall, blond guy slinging his clubs around any city or town in Asia that had a golf tournament. The golf market was starting to boom in many Asian countries, and I was hungry to experience all I could. My travel mantra was “say yes”. I would frequently write blog posts of the golf and travel experiences, documenting what I was discovering. This is one such post.
It’s a new week on the Korean Tour; a fresh slate. It doesn’t matter whether I finished 35th, 1st or missed the cut at the last tournament, a new week carries great potential. A rebirth of sorts, no longer a slave to results of past rounds. I am the creator of my destiny.
As the last tournament finished, I found myself without a method of transport from the small Korean tournament town back to Seoul. I asked around, and eventually met up with Mr. Lee, a “boxing promoter” and golf aficionado. He offered to drive me to the nearest town with a bus station. From there, I could find a bus back to Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. To his credit, Mr. Lee spoke some practical yet broken English, while my knowledge of the Korean language extends to greetings and giving thanks. Communicating was a slow but steady process, often involving an emphasis on animated body language.
My Taiwanese friend, Lien Lu Sen, a strong player on the Asian Tour, tagged along. The previous week, Lu Sen’s stellar play led him to a final round pairing with Major champion Retief Goosen, and South Korean golf rockstar, KJ Choi. Mr. Lee had introduced himself then, after watching Lu Sen stumble his way through 18 grueling holes filled with missed putts and hollow feelings.
As we exchanged pleasantries and arrived at the bus stop, Mr. Lee generously offered to drive us the rest of the way in his sleek black, Hyundai luxury model. En route, we stopped to meet his brother for dinner. We walked into the unusually large Korean barbeque restaurant as practically the only customers and were greeted by the owner, Mr. Lee’s brother.
We sat over sizzling, smokey meats spattering on the table burner, turning and flipping the morsels vigilantly with tongs. Mr. Lee’s short sleeve button-up shirt, tightly fastened to the top button, offered a conversational thread. I had inquired about their family ties and caught a glimpse of tattoo underneath the short sleeve of the shirt. Both men showed me the beginning of a dragon tattoo that extended around their entire upper torso and took a month to complete. Mr. Lee said all his “family” had the dragon tattoo.
I inquired further. “Mom and Dad have tattoo?”
He pointed to the sky and responded, “Mom and Dad.”
“Oh, not alive?” I continued.
“Um,” he nodded. “No sister, no brother. Solo.” He pointed to the man next to him. “He my brother. Many, Many brother in Korea. Many, Many brother in Japan.”
I paused for a moment to ponder the comment, starting to get the picture.
“In Japan, call Yakuza,” he said.
“Korean mob?” I asked. Mr. Lee lit up.
“Mafia! Italy! You know? Al Pacino? You know?” He asked.
“Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando….well, not really. Yeah, I know. You Godfather?” I joked.
“Korean Mafia. Many, many Dragon brother. Many, many family. Many, many nightclub.”
In my mind pops an image of Mr. Lee in Vito Corleone’s office chair. My mobs are hybridizing.
“Gun? You shoot people?” I ask naively.
“No gun. Big, eh…cut. Big, eh…” Mr. Lee’s brother came to the rescue with “Knife.”
The visuals in my head changing from pasta dinners to West Side Story. Now I know why my limited exposure to Korean gang movies involve finale knife battles.
So here I am in the company of the Korean mob. I looked at my Taiwanese friend Lu Sen, his eyes wide. He flashed me an uneasy smile. Lu Sen is probably thinking about his wife and kids back home and how taking a crowded bus now seems like a great idea. Meanwhile, I’m quite amused by the entire ordeal. If you just found yourself at the table with a bunch of golf loving Korean mobsters, how many questions would you have? We ate a great dinner, toasted some soju and Hite beer, which helps with translations, and Mr. Lee dropped us off at the airport unscathed. No cuts, full bellies. Quite pleasant.
A few days later, Lu Sen and I were trying to figure out how to make the three and a half hour journey from Seoul to a small mountain town very close to the North Korean border. We phoned Mr. Lee for some advice.
“You want go to Korea Tour Tournament?” He asked.
“Yes, very far. How to go?” I asked as basically as possible.
“No problem. I come airport. Together, go.” He said.
We accept and 30 minutes later, Mr. Lee shows up in his sleek black Hyundai and takes us three hours northwest, up to the North Korean border. The landscape is lush, mountainous and beautiful. It reminds me of driving through Chattanooga or in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In a country where getting a tee time as a foreigner is impossible and expensive, Mr. Lee has arranged a tee time for us tomorrow at no cost. Well, no monetary cost at least.
Why the interest in a couple foreigner pro golfers? Why go to such great lengths of hospitality for strangers? Asia is a very hospitable place for foreign golfers. I’ve discovered many people quick to offer help where I hadn’t expected it. The painstaking hours spent gouging golf balls out of the dirt with the intent of one day, beautifully and effortlessly, sending a ball soaring toward a tiny flag in the distance, do not go unnoticed. Both men and women playing professional golf here are revered and valued as some of the most skilled entertainers.
As I’m writing this account, a guy sat down next to me; 18 or 19 years old, of middle eastern descent and asked me to help him with a computer problem. I’m messing with his wireless networks and making conversation, asking him what he is doing in the middle-of-nowhere-Korea. He tells me he came to Korea to train with a great Taekwondo master for the Olympics, which he qualified for. I said, “great man, congratulations. Where are you from?”
I paused. “You are competing for Afghanistan?”
“Yes. And you? You are from where?” He asked.
A few different ways to approach the question crossed my mind as the citizen of a country currently fighting a war on terror in his homeland. I settled on trying to bridge a potential gap. I reached across the table with my response, or the world as it were. “A beautiful place close to Boston called New Hampshire.”
We spent a while talking about our goals and our homes. I never did fix his computer. I barely knew where to begin. Fixing the computer was simply a conversation starter, never a goal.
We see people every day. People we love and care about, people we’re acquainted with and people we’ve never met. We sometimes see these people without really seeing them. We most often are all too eager to talk about ourselves without a genuine interest in others’ experience. Hopefully, more often than not, we interact with a person to gain a greater understanding of them. On this day, my new friend from Kabul and I truly saw one another.
Here I am, a few minutes south of the North Korean border, Korean mobster as my guide, and befriending an Olympian from Kabul. Fantastic.