Seoul, 1988: Olympic Gold for Yunoh
ONE of my fellow journalists was right. "If you asked me for just one word to describe the young people of Korea," he volunteered, "I'd say they're not mischievous, but playful."Skip to next paragraph
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I was soon convinced. Throughout the Olympic Games in Seoul we watched young people at work and at play. They were always smiling, courteous, and full of fun.
None more so than the National Servicemen, disguised as bellhops, who guarded our apartment in the Press Village. They wore sneakers, gray slacks, white knit shirts, and baseball caps.
The only exception was the supervisor of our building - a small, bespectacled, young soldier named Yunoh Chung (to use the Western form on which he insisted), whose rank entitled him to wear the special Olympic uniform of green blazer and tie, and whose erudition had entitled him to wear a red badge announcing proudly, "I speak English."
And speak it he did - with unselfconscious pedantry and the neatest American shading. What was remarkable was that he had never traveled out of Korea. He had learned his English at school and at college, by reading the King James version of the Bible, and through songs sung by his favorite Western singer, John Denver.
"What I like about John Denver," he explained, "is his cleanness of voice and verse. His appreciation of nature ... his songs about breezes and skies ... his ambition to fly higher than anyone else. I've really been helped by that.
"And I appreciate the longing for home and family in his songs. I feel that specially now when I've been away at university and on military service."
One night I asked Yunoh about the important influences in his life, and he didn't hesitate for a moment.
"Jesus Christ comes first in my life, especially that beautiful passage about love in First Corinthians. Also, the Confucian precepts about faithfulness and friendliness toward everyone.
"The happiest moments in my life are when I go to church with my family.
"I was born of goodly parents," he continued. "Their exemplary life is the best advice I've ever been given. But to enjoy this, one needs respect for one's parents.
"And I've learned a lot from the books of the late Pearl Buck. I love her characters who never give up, never lose hope. Perseverance and endurance ... those are qualities I've really learned to admire."
I worked all day, and Yunoh worked all night, our paths crossing only in the early hours of the morning.
As a result, I didn't see him in daylight until the morning we left Seoul, and it was a close thing!
When we checked out, he was away at breakfast. I had kept one picture on my last roll of film for a shot of the two of us outside the building where we had spent so many nights deep in conversation.
The countdown to departure went all too quickly. Still no Yunoh. In desperation I invited one of his colleagues to stand in for him in the farewell picture. Click. Yunoh's last chance had gone.
Outside in the gray morning streets, the press bus sputtered impatiently. I dragged my heels. Told them to wait a few minutes. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving the country without a last word with Yunoh. One last gentle handshake. Some promise of another meeting ... letters ... photographs.