Many-a-story, and a few wild goose chases, begin in earnest with a moment of clarity breaking through the chaos. So if in the beginning there is chaos, sometimes clarity happens. This story about what happened to a moment of clarity when I was twenty-three, when I took the chance to teach for two years in a mission school in Daejeon City, about 100 miles southeast of Seoul, Korea.

There, I learned History and English with 7-12 graders, math and science with third graders, coached girls’ volleyball, and was the school’s Athletic Director. There were about 100 students from grades one through twelve. The school is special to me; while there I changed my major from history to religion, and I met both of the women whom I would later marry (not simultaneous marriages!).

In those pre-internet days, I dutifully communicated weekly to my family in Raleigh by aerogramme, and they in turn. Two weeks in transit for these letters was considered fast. Phone calls, at $12.00 a minute in 1979 dollars, meant no trans-oceanic chit-chat. We were a family of writers, who considered the phone call a short cut, even a dishonorable communications medium. 

One of my more exciting times came the first Fall there. I had driven the men’s basketball team to an overnight sports trip at the American Forces school on Yongsan base in Seoul. Late that Friday night, the base went crazy. Sirens, whistles, lock-down. The president of the country, PARK, Chung-Hee, had been assassinated about three miles away. Speculations centered about how involved North Korea was, or if it would take advantage of the situation. 

Half-way through my two years in Daejeon, I urged my mom and dad to consider a two week visit to Korea during my summer vacation. So in June of 1980 I took a bus up to Seoul’s Kimpo Airport to meet my parents. I quickly discovered that my mom, who a couple of years earlier had made her first overseas trip to London, and got a bad case of culture shock there, was now doing her best to appear that she enjoyed this most strange land of new sounds, smells, and sights. But she had little resilience for Korea’s olfactory challenges, sanitary conditions, and food. This was going to be a marathon trip for her, for us, in this faraway place.

After a few days of sight-seeing in Seoul, it was time to go to Daejeon. From our lodgings in Seoul, we hailed a taxi, loaded our luggage, and headed over to the inter-city bus terminal. Once there, I unloaded our bags on the sidewalk, bought tickets for the next bus to Daejeon, and we arrived home late in afternoon.

“Where is my bag?” my mom called out that night as we prepared for bed. 


“My bag! The one with my toiletries, nightgown, and my good dress-up dress. Souvenirs. It’s not here!”

“O crap,” I thought. “Where could it be?”

We did the back-tracking. Together we surmised: The bag in question made it into the taxi in Seoul. My dad remembered it sitting on the sidewalk outside the bus terminal in Seoul, but that was our last memory of it. We came to the slow, and slowly horrifying conclusion, that I had left my mom’s bag on the chaotic sidewalk at the Seoul intercity bus terminal. It could’ve been anywhere.

Sleep came hard that night. However, there comes these moments of clarity in a young person’s life where he believes that he can do anything. The next morning over breakfast, fully in touch with my Superpowers, I announced: “We can get your bag back. I can find it.” I mostly thought that I probably could. 

We packed lunches and hailed a taxi to the local bus terminal, and caught a two hour bus to Seoul. Mom was not happy. The residual kimchi smell coming through the pores of the folks on the bus overwhelmed her optimism. She looked at me with despair. I gulped. “We will get your bag back!” I said, trying to assure her, and myself.

Once in Seoul, we waded through the pandemonium of the bus terminal, and arrived at the exact spot where we had exited that taxi the day before. A few yards away was a taxi monitor, who helped keep the taxi traffic moving. I approached him, and in very broken Korean, I asked if he was there yesterday. 

“네 - yes.”

(Here’s a likely word-for-word translation of the Korean I spoke to him): Does understand you that how yesterday lonely baggage there was there? Here?

To our great surprise, his eyes lit up, and he looked across the street. And he spoke to me in Korean. The best I could tell after that was that a woman he knew by sight had come by and taken the bag, and walked with it across the street into a construction zone. He thought her house was beyond that zone.

I thanked him. Now we had marching orders, and headed across the street. 

At this time Korea was a developing nation, having recently discarded the “Third World country” moniker. It was a place where the foreigner’s face was ever the novelty, and living conditions were kinda modest. We passed through the construction zone, to find a small nest of houses. Dogs barked at us, children stopped flying their kites. Our American faces were now an official curiosity. Had I taken my parents on a wild goose chase of embarrassment? What would my mom say if I failed? What could I say in Korean that would identify the reason why these pale foreigners were invading their space?

I approach an elderly gentleman, and said in my most polite words, “Looking for American bag. (미국의 가방을 찾고)”. He puts down his cigarette in wide-eyed wonder, and calls a friend over. “미국의 가방을 찾고,” I repeat to his friend. 

To our wonder his eyes showed recognition, and he points to the last house a few yards away. “가자.  Let’s go!”  So my unbelieving mom, my astonished dad, and this hopeful son walked over to the house. 

We let this man do our talking. He knocked on the door, and called out a name. No answer. He did it again. The door opened a little. And then a little more. A middle aged woman, sitting on the floor, opened the door, and there beside her was my mom’s bag, completely empty, all its contents strewn about on the floor: thoroughly opened, rifled, and examined. 

The man asks the woman about the bag, and I sense that he’s on our side, for the two get into an argument. I pick up that she’s of the mind that finders are keepers and losers are weepers. They go back and forth for a spell.

Finally, I pull out my wallet and asked, “돈이 얼마나요? How much money will it take?” 

The woman was an expert player of Olympic International Hardball. “오  만원 Sixty-five dollars,” and crossed her arms. The Korean man and the Americans scoffed. But after a marathon of haggling, during which the woman ever-justified that she owns the bag now, she relented and took my $35.00. We stuffed everything into the bag, bow and thank with as much courtesy as possible, and took off with the bag. 

We thanked the taxi monitor, who gave us a thumbs-up for our improbable success, boarded a bus and got home in Daejeon before nightfall. What a day!

We surrounded Mom as she opened up her lost, and found, bag. She took her possessions out one-by-one. Everything was fingered, every package opened, every souvenir examined. Every toiletry opened and squeezed or applied. Most distressing, every piece of her clothing had been worn. Each piece, from underwear to dress, was stretched, torn, or ripped. For the woman was larger than my 5’ 2” 100 pound mom. Mom felt violated. It was a worthless bag. In tears, she closed it, pushed it away, never to open it again. The prodigal bag is still lost in Korea. We have other, better memories from these two weeks. But she threw that bag and its memory away. However, I saved a fan, to remember this most-improbable story. 

How does confidence begin? Was my moment of clarity a moment to cherish, or to forget? And finally what would not have happened had we not gone in search of this lost bag in the huge city of Seoul? 

Marc Mullinax lives in Asheville, NC and teaches the academic study of religion at a nearby university.



WHAT WILL YOU DO? - Gareth Higgins

WHAT WILL YOU DO? - Gareth Higgins