It has been some time since I have traveled abroad. But I haven’t lost the hunger or the desire to continue meeting people that are nothing like me.

That’s how I found myself accepting a package of instant noodles in front of forty-five applauding Koreans for showing up to their golf tournament.

I pulled up late; most everyone was already there.

In an early afternoon sun and a stiff breeze, nearly forty Korean golfers practiced their swings, stretched, or chatted amongst themselves about strokes and swings and golf balls. Decked out in pants and polo shirts, their golf shoes shiny and unmarked, as though they had just bought or buffed them, they stopped their action and watched me walk up. Their golf bags stood guarding the clubhouse like rows of soldiers, bristling with shiny golf clubs that seemed to warn away all amateurs. They were prepared, if nothing else.

I ambled through the clubs into the clubhouse. I like golfing, but they had no reason to worry about me winning the tournament. I came to enjoy an afternoon of golfing, something I don’t get to do very often, and support a friend who had organized it. I was a little surprised to see so many Koreans, all speaking their native tongue. I didn’t know so many lived in the area. At the signup table ten confused Korean men watched me and wondered if I knew what I was doing. Maybe I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to let it show. Soon enough I was signed up and wearing my name tag, one of the only ones written in Roman letters. It reminded me of my days in Japanese elementary school and the colorful name tags my students made as they were learning their letters.

The tournament started with a picture in front of the green, the eighteenth fairway cascading into the distance behind us. We took one picture, then another, and then a couple more as a few stragglers came out of the clubhouse and scampered toward us when they saw us lined up for a picture. Everyone took it in good grace; they preferred a complete picture to the slight annoyance of standing still for ten posed pictures. Stereotypical, but most Asian people have realized the worth of “capturing the moment” in still form, its ability to unlock memories and smiles years down the road, and they are unashamed about doing it as often as they can, of what can appear at times as the most trivial of things.

It was strange listening to the directions and rules of the golf tournament in Korean. I know Japanese and at times I thought I recognized a word or two, but still the meaning was lost. I tried to watch for hand signals or facial expressions, but that was a moot point; there were none. When it was over, I just laughed and told my friend Nick he was responsible for the rules, though his Korean is no better than mine.

It was a beautiful day for golf…except for the wind. On the hole for “the longest drive,” I had to hit right into the wind and had the misfortune of getting under it a bit. My ball sailed straight, but much too high, nearly as high as some stadium lights and it barely rolled a foot upon landing on the fairway. Much of the day went that way. I missed some puts, found some woods and the ponds on the only holes that had them. I brought twenty golf balls and went home with five. Too bad I didn’t have any kids with me to do a little “treasure hunting.”

At one point I stopped and watched the young man in the threesome behind us. As they were missing one player and the tournament was Captain and Crew (play the best ball), one of them had an extra shot every time. On this particular hole, they had driven the ball a hundred yards from the hole and were well placed on the fairway. Each of them hit their shots, good shots all of them, and this fellow stepped up to hit the extra shot. The others watched quietly. He swung too hard, hoping to hit it perfectly. The ball squirted a few feet away. All three of them burst out laughing and the young man who hit the ball nearly fell on the ground he was laughing so hard. I have experienced the same good natured enjoyment with the baseball and basketball teams I played for in Japan. Where we in America play to win, they play to fellowship and be part of something.

I remember an instance on the diamond in Japan. We were losing a close game. Every at bat counted. Our cleanup hitter swung for the fences and dinkered a grounder to the pitcher. He jogged out of the box, certain that he was out, but the pitcher misplayed the ball. Our hitter took off as fast as he could for first base and just missed beating the throw. However, he knew he should have been running hard from the moment of contact and as such his headlong sprint was a little out of control. He stumbled awkwardly over the base, tripped, and in the effort of trying to right himself staggered even more and then landed with a belly flop in the dust just beyond the base. The whole bench was roaring and as he came back, he made fun of himself and asked everyone very loudly if they had seen his acrobatics. I was surprised that they weren’t at least a little frustrated with the guy. Yet, that hilarious moment and enjoying it with their friend seemed much higher on their list than getting a runner on base, than perhaps winning a game that afternoon. And now, years later, I can’t fault them for it. I don’t remember the score of the game, but I do remember his tumble, his crazy grin and his wide eyes.

It’s good to have dinner waiting for you at the end of a good day, especially when it is something that you can smell cooking a few holes before the clubhouse. The anticipation and satisfaction of that anticipation are small joys. We had barbecue chicken and corn, salad and salt potatoes and more than a little fellowship. If everyone could have, they would have pulled their chairs up to one small table or sat on each others laps. If we had happened into the clubhouse right then, we would have thought it was a family reunion. A few of the men came over and chatted with us, asked us how we did, and told us of their exploits on the course. The women served us cake and made us feel welcome. I don’t wonder that if we in America stress the individual so much that sometimes we miss out joviality and satisfaction of being part of a group.

The evening was topped off with the award ceremony. Like many contests of the sort, everyone goes home with something, even if it is only a small pack of noodles. A pack of noodles, or a golf club, or a bag of rice and something more: a bond of shared experience.

It has a way of making everyone feel like a winner.

© Seth Crossman