The wisest answer

When I first arrived in Korea there was so much to learn: how to hold chopsticks and how to slurp soup, where to find peanut butter and chocolate in East Gate market and how long to bargain for them to save proper business ''face.''

Mostly, I longed to learn how not to stick out in a crowd. But no matter how faithfully I practiced my pronunciation, or how hard I tried to wish away my freckles and red hair, I sounded and looked different. Even the four-year-olds at the bus stop knew I wasn't a local. ''Miguk! Miguk!'' (''American! American!'') they screamed with delight. And when the six-year-olds joined in, it was usually ''Monkey! Monkey!''

The pointing and staring, when it came from curious children, was understandable. It was the questioning I got from adults that was such a challenge: Why had I left my hometown to come to Korea? Did I like Korean food? Why was I a single woman? Did I like Korean men? Did I want to marry? Did I want a ''love marriage''?

I was beginning to wonder if the questions would ever end when I found a Korean friend, a woman with wisdom more vast than the high, clear skies of Korea's fabled autumns.

Mrs. Lee had grown up during the Japanese occupation of Korea, at a time when Korean language, customs, and even family names were banned. But throughout her school years, even when she was sent to a university to study medicine, her parents had kept alive a precious legacy. At night, in a small, blacked-out room at the back of their house, her father had taught her Korean history and calligraphy, and her mother had taught her the Bible.

Since Mrs. Lee was one of my English conversation students, we often used her Bible as a textbook. Printed on one page in Korean and on the facing page in English, it helped us through some tough translations, from mustard seeds to fiery furnaces. In some books, our English lessons were harder than others - she had written so many notes in the margins over the years that it was hard to decipher the printed word. Paul's letters to the struggling young Christian churches in Corinth and Galatia were especially well marked.

We'd finished our lesson and were on our way to market one afternoon when a high school student on the bus spotted me and made his way through the bundles in the aisle to strike up a conversation. I responded politely for two or three questions, but was beginning to turn surly when Mrs. Lee stepped into the conversation.

''Why do you ask her so many questions?'' she began. ''Why do you think she's different from us? Don't you know all God's children are the same?''

It was the answer to all my questions, too.

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