By Ariana Kim
The elevator doors opened to a perfectly timed chime, and staring back at me, seated atop a stack of book-filled crates next to a kind-looking gentleman, was a perfect Jindo puppy. I did a double-take in disbelief—he was the spitting image of the puppy I grew up with, an ocean and half a continent away back in St. Paul: sweet black eyes, velvety pointed ears, sandy-colored fur and a curved tail. During our short ride together, I only had a chance to catch the pup’s name—Joon—and the floor on which they lived. Feeling bold and that I definitely needed to see that pooch again, I tacked a little note near the 17th floor elevator buttons that read, in Korean, something like this:
Dear Mr. Jindo-puppy-owner-sir: Good morning, my name is Ariana, and we met briefly in the elevator yesterday evening. When I was young, my family and I had a puppy just like Joon back in the States. If you ever need help walking or training him, please let me know—I would love to help.
A message popped up on my phone the very next day, and Mr. Ahn welcomed me into his life as a new friend to Joonie. One day after a long walk, Mr. Ahn said to me, “You know, I do some very special volunteer work with Joon every Thursday—would you like to join us sometime?” We met the next morning and drove to Namsan Mountain, one of the awesome little peaks right inside Seoul proper. There, I met a group of the most joyful, friendly, hilarious and kind people I had ever encountered, all of them blind.
I was quickly trained in how to attach a rope to the back of my hiking pack for my partner to hold, and to describe aloud the terrain (“It’s quite steep here, let’s go slowly” or “There’s a large boulder on your left, let’s be careful”). I was sent over to an insatiably warm, kind and pint-sized woman, Mrs. Lee (lovingly nicknamed Neutee-Nahmoo, the name for a small Asian Zelkova tree), and we became fast friends. With Joon leading the way, four pairs of us headed out on the trail with sack lunches and hiking sticks in tow, and there began a weekly ritual. Each week, rain or shine, snow or heat wave, we would meet to clock several miles of mountain hiking—half of us unable to see the physical world.
One Thursday in November, I needed to bring my violin along on the hike as I was heading directly from the mountain to the train station to catch a KTX down to Busan where my next concerts were happening. Subbing out my hiking pack for my violin case—adequately set up with backpack straps and a pouch for my water bottle—I set out as usual, with Mr. Ahn announcing to the group “Professor Ariana is hiking with her violin today!” Without missing a beat, Neutee-Nahmoo and several of the other hikers asked if I would play something.
Feeling a bit sheepish but also inspired, I proposed a little lunch-stop concert. They all seemed thrilled, so as we arrived at our usual summit break, I put my case on the stone wall adjacent to the picnic tables and started to play. Little by little, other hikers began to gather—it became something of a mountaintop “recital.” I pulled out some solo Bach, some American bluegrass tunes, and a collection of Korean folk songs to which they all sang along. Joon sat sweetly next to Neutee-Nahmoo while Mr. Ahn took photos to capture the moment. It didn’t matter the number of senses each person possessed, we were all connected through the magic of music.
After the impromptu concert, Neutee-Nahmoo, Mr. Ahn and the others thanked me for having given them such a gift. But I could only think about the gifts I had received from them—each one happenstance: the gift of meeting sweet Joonie in the elevator, that led to the gift of Mr. Ahn introducing me to Neutee-Nahmoo and the volunteer hiking group, that led to the gift of being able to share my craft with all of them on that November Thursday.
Ariana Kim is a Grammy-nominated violinist and tenured professor at Cornell University whose work has taken her around the globe as a solo artist and chamber musician, from Carnegie’s Weill Hall to the Musikverein. A Twin Cities native, she began her musical studies in pre-school with her parents, and returns regularly for hometown performances—amidst cooking escapades and rock climbing adventures.