Inspiration from a lousy visitor (The Korea Times, December 31, 2013) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Inspiration from a lousy visitor

During a one-week visit to South Korea last month, best-selling author Nick Adams was as comfortable as a man on a mountain hike wearing six-inch heels for the first time.

After picking through Korean food the first few days, he weakly held up the white flag, humbly asking if I could take him to an American restaurant for ribs and steak. I imagine he smiled his entire flight back to Australia.

Korea was a nightmare for Nick, but he left pleasant memories for many who encountered him. He’s the kind of guy you don’t forget easily. He tends to have an impact.

In addition to speeches in Seoul and at Handong University Law School in Pohang, he also visited the Mulmangcho School (for adolescent North Korean refugees) and the children’s cancer ward at Severance Hospital.

Nick is an upbeat guy, optimistic 24/7, a force of nature, but he was on the verge of tears at Severance when he visited the room of a 16-month-old baby ― the same age Nick was when his family learned their sick baby had a severe form of cancer.

My colleague Jungah Ji and I joined Nick in personal visits to every room in the children’s cancer ward. Jolly and charismatic “Mr. Nick” handed out gifts and candy from Australia he had stuffed into his suitcase (he saved some goodies for the kids at the Mulmangcho School, in another memorable visit).

The hospital visit was a moving occasion, more emotional than I had anticipated. The kids and their families were delighted that a man from Australia had come to see them.

For a few minutes, I was angry at people who toss away their lives by committing suicide. In contrast, those kids painfully cling to life, with parents hoping against the worst.

Ah, and those disgusting dictators, politicians and intellectuals who act like the rest of us are pieces on a chessboard. The angry rant in my head was interrupted when Nick asked if I could take some photos.

I humbly snapped a few photos, then put the camera down. I usually take photos with reckless abandon, snapping them before people start posing, snap more while they are posing, and a few more even after. One day, a friend counted. “You took 34 photos! Two would have been enough!”

I’m the fastest photographer in Korea. But at the hospital with Nick and Jungah, I stopped taking photos. As a cancer survivor, Nick has the credibility to take photos with the kids.
I felt like a trespasser.

I didn’t relax until some of the parents asked to take photos with us. Then one young girl, bald, about 11 years old, asked through a staffer if she could take a photo with him. She struggled to stand, but had a huge smile on her face as we took photos.

More came to us, on crutches, in wheelchairs, others limping weakly, asking to take photos. Would they care that Nick doesn’t like kimchi?

I told Nick that a one-time event wasn’t enough. In messages I told friends to badger me, complain at me, publicly mock me, tell me that I’m just a talker if I failed to come up with a concrete idea within 24 hours.

No sweat. I know Edward M. Robinson, project director at Helping Others Prosper Through English (HOPE). Last August, he invited me to join the organization as an international adviser.

In a world of talkers, Eddie is a doer. He’s in perpetual motion, impatiently directing people, a do-it-all leader who will be quick to nudge you aside if don’t handle your task fast enough. He immediately agreed to hold the party, mentioning that a friend’s wife had succumbed to cancer ― the night before.

Less than 24 hours after the initial visit, I was back at the hospital, with Eddie, discussing with Pastor Kim how to have an appropriate party. That’s because Eddie’s action-packed events wear down even the most crazed kids. No cost for the hospital, we stressed, because HOPE raises money through its supporters (or anyone else we can shake down).

As promised, we held the party on Dec. 15. The 25 children and their parents loved the face-painting, games, balloons and gifts, as we entertained rather than engaged them.
The volunteers we recruited were tender with the kids. Pierrot Magic, a deaf and mute magician, entertained us all, using me in one of his gags, much to the delight of everyone, especially me.

In a quiet moment, I took a photo with Jungah and the pastor, to send to Nick. The pastor thanked us profusely, then invited us all to lunch at the hospital cafeteria: Korean food.

Nick would have been looking around for an American burger joint, so it was probably better that he wasn’t there for that part, although I know he would have loved the party. After all, he was the one who inspired it.

The writer is the director for international relations at Freedom Factory Co. Ltd. in Seoul and a fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu