Lessons from the Produce Section

Most students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.

Monsoon season began the day after I arrived at Jeongok, a small town where the rushed lifestyle found in most Korean cities was in abundance. My grandmother, who owned a grocery store in the town, asked me to take over during a particularly rainy morning. Mrs. Baek, a long-time customer, was the first to arrive at the store, and she had difficulties stuffing her umbrella into her handbag. I opened the door for her and invited her in with a welcoming gesture. Expecting her to give a warm smile and return the greeting, I was instead met with a confused face as she cautiously slid past. Every customer I opened the doors for maintained the same uneasy gratefulness as Mrs. Baek that day, as if meaning to ask, “You’re doing this for me? Why?”

People I knew back home appreciated extra efforts to show friendliness, unlike the suspicion or indifference these customers had shown. But I began to learn later on that what I had done was appreciated, albeit unheard-of in Korean society. My efforts at extending a hand of kindness helped me recognize a key value of my own, and helped me—at least within the store—begin to break a tradition of social silence.

Taking a walk around the main street after that morning, I discovered that this rushed lifestyle did not leave much room for pleasantries. Greetings were restricted to cursory glances. Businessmen bumped shoulders without apologizing. A woman’s umbrella slipped out of her hand and onto the street; while passersby walked around it, no one offered to pick it up. Cold behavior, but Koreans understood that they all had places to be, things to do, and, as a consequence, too little time to care for others’ needs. However, it was not appropriate for Jeongok. A small town needed residents that cared for one another and could trust each other to go the distance to benefit others’ wellbeing, to see each other as part of one family. If this behavior was to begin here, it would begin with customers showing goodwill and compassion at the little grocery store in the center of town. Going beyond opening a door after that day, I began to carry groceries for the elderly who found their bags too heavy to carry all the way back home in the monsoon rains. Mothers left their children in my care while going around the store buying vegetables. While evenings were unbearably hot and sticky, I offered to stay after hours for customers who could only shop at night. By the end of my stay in Jeongok, I began to see exactly what I had hoped for, the store filled with conversation between fellow residents, a sharp contrast to the silence that dominated the store days earlier. Afternoon heat waves were quenched with cold drinks, all free in part by customers chipping in to buy out the daily stock. In a surprising turn of events, Mrs. Baek began to greet me at the doors, saying “Have you eaten?” with a warm smile. My efforts had finally brought out the hospitality characteristic of the small-town attitude so desperately needed here.

My actions in that little grocery store showed me that putting in extra effort was not just a nice thought. It was an indication of my commitment towards self-excellence and improvement, that if there was any potential for a better situation to arise, I would force myself to make it happen. Today, I am willing to spend extra minutes studying the details of a topic for a project, to review a concept with friends a third time when the first two did not suffice, or to take time out of my day to do something special with family, regardless of how mundane the occasion may be. It does not matter to me whether the task is something I like, or how vital it may be to accomplish it; all I could ever ask is that the effort creates a positive change for me and those who are central to my life.

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