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Smarter than a two-year-old (13 years later)

I have a reflection in today's Korea Times.

Smarter than a two-year old
By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

I was reading and listening to music in a coffee shop when a Korean toddler approached me, unconcerned that I was deep in thought.

He had been crying loudly a few minutes before ― the snot still running down his nose was evidence. Smiling brightly, awkwardly holding a smoothie, he was adamant that I take a drink. I outsmarted him and held the cup for him to take a drink, much to his delight.

I learned that little trick from a previous incident when I lived in South Korea, in the late 1990s. As I was sitting in the bank, a little girl holding a bag of potato chips was staring at me. Thinking about the expats who then complained about ``run by hello-ings” of children, I smiled. The smile wasn't meant for the little girl, but she broke into a huge smile and waved at me, frantically, as if she were a mile away.

A minute later, she hesitatingly wandered over in my direction. Our eyes met, and I smiled again, that time on purpose. She then walked directly to me and held out two potato chips.

It was my turn to be hesitant. I imagined she might have dropped all of the potato chips in the sandbox earlier, scooping them up before her mother noticed. Or that she had a runny nose and had been dipping into the bag as she wiped it. I took the two potato chips and thanked her. She then walked back to her mother, beaming.

To eat or not to eat, that was the question. She was watching me, so I couldn't toss them. I would have given them to anyone jealous she gave them to me.

I ate the potato chips.

Slowly. First, the large one, then the one that was broken in half. I could see her smiling. She then started handing out potato chips to everyone in the bank. At that time, I wrote that I had learned three things. One, if you ever want to poison everyone, then have a small child hand out poison-dipped potato chips. The police would arrive on the scene with her as the only survivor.

Second, young Koreans may be as spoiled as older Koreans claim. The older Koreans ate the potato chips without hesitation. I could imagine the lecture: ``When I was a kid, we ate dirt! And we were happy to have dirt! Your uncle and I used to fight over who would eat the biggest pieces of dirt! Of course we would have eaten potato chips from a little girl in a bank. But we didn’t have banks, either!”

One young woman asked the girl why she was handing out potato chips. Her friend took the potato chips, then fed them to the girl. Ah! A clever tactic I had not thought of back then! The little girl was happy to eat them.

Or, third, the difference may have been between parents and childless people. The Koreans with that ajumma/ajeossi-look ate the potato chips while younger Koreans who probably weren’t married did not. Adults who have spent years learning table manners seem to completely forget them after they have kids.

I told this story to a co-worker, who she said her husband would suck the snot out of her son’s nose whenever he had a cold, to prove his love. I did issue a challenge: Yeah, okay, but has he ever tried that at the other end when the kid was having a stomachache?

Casey Lartigue Jr. is director of international relations at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul. He can be reached at

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