I can still vividly remember the first time I entered a church near the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. Being the only noticeable Asian, I felt like the congregation was all looking at me. The service at this Lutheran church, which I was attending for the first time, was quite unfamiliar, especially the numerous steps involved in standing up from the bench. It left me a little bit bewildered. I looked at the church programme with the order of service written on it, but it was difficult to understand, and it took some time to figure out which part was in progress. Despite this confusion, I was able to gradually find peace of mind within the church’s unique atmosphere, which included the cross hanging in front of the chapel and the sunlight streaming in through the skylight in the ceiling.
After the service, a couple approached me. They greeted me warmly and mentioned that it was their first time at the Lutheran church as well, and they were still learning. They were Mr. Dale Clemmons and his wife Kate. I introduced myself as a Korean journalist participating in the Humphrey Fellowship Program, where mid-career professionals spend 10 months in the United States. When I told the couple, I would be heading to Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona, at the end of July, they were surprised to hear this. Dale and Kate were living in Lawrence but also had plans to move to Arizona in the coming fall. Kate invited me to their home for dinner, and of course, my answer was “Yes.”
A few days later, I had the opportunity to visit Dale and Kate’s home. They kindly came to pick me up from my dormitory. Their house was just a 10-minute drive away. Their home was a beautiful townhouse with a communal swimming pool, sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight of early summer. Dale had served in the U.S. Coast Guard and was about to retire. They had two adult children, both living independently in their own homes. Through many photos hanging on the walls in the house, I could see their family. We made our own sandwiches for dinner with bread, bacon, salad, and more. Dessert was a refreshing white wine. They shared stories about their experience in Arizona, mentioning that summers could be extremely hot but overall, it was a wonderful place. They particularly emphasized that Arizona was like a paradise for many retirees in the United States. Dale and Kate also showed their anticipation to meet my wife and 8-year-oldson, who were planning to come to Arizona in August. That evening, we had a delightful time exchanging various stories. Afterward, I continued to meet them every Sunday at church and had two more meals together outside of church. On the day I was leaving for Arizona, they generously offered advice and wished me a safe journey. We promised to meet again in Arizona.
Last month, I was able to hear the news I had been eagerly waiting for from them. “Good evening. Kate and I arrived in Arizona safely. How are you doing?” It was a text message from Dale. We immediately made plans to meet again at his home here. This time, the gathering had grown, as my family had also been invited. Their place was a retirement park in Mesa. Dale and Kate warmly welcomed us. It was smaller in scale than their house in Lawrence, Kansas, but it had everything, including a living room, kitchen, bedroom, dining room, and more. Dinner began when Dale served up carefully cooked hamburger patties. That evening’s dinner concluded with a splendid trifle dessert made by Kate. When the strawberries and blueberries adorning the white cream of the trifle reminded Dale of the American flag, he said, “Very patriotic.” I remarked, “It’s the same for Koreans too.” This is because the South Korean flag also has a white background with a mixture of red and blue in a circle. When I showed Dale the South Korean flag, he said, “It looks similar to the Pepsi logo.” We all burst into laughter.
Kate told us they arrived in Arizona after several days, driving their wine-colored Toyota RAV4 through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. When I asked how Lawrence was, they answered that Massachusetts Street buzzed with rumors that the famous singer Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs football player Travis Kelce, who were seeing each other, had appeared in Lawrence together. After dinner, they would show us the life of “snowbirds” and gave us a tour of facilities in the park. Dale said he had made friends here from various states in the U.S. as well as friends who had come even from Canada. They planned to stay here until next April and then return to Lawrence.
The kindness that Dale and Kate showed me might be somewhat unfamiliar to Koreans. Typically, Koreans do not extend invitations to their homes to someone whom they’ve just met. They might be a bit shy, or it could take them more time to become friendly with strangers compared to Americans. Their genuine friendship made me reconsider my perception of the United States. Through them, I could clearly see the neighborly love and inclusivity that flow within American culture. Despite the cultural differences between us, I found one strong factor that binds us together. We have visited the Korean War Memorial space. I explained that, thanks to American friends like them who fought alongside us, we were able to rebuild our country, and many Koreans are grateful for that. They showed a deep interest in Korea and asked me many questions about it. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and I could make Dale and Kate dear friends here, thanks to the enduring 70-year friendship between two countries.