Last week someone posed a question to me about the many Asian tourists who visit Solvang each week. What do these visitors from thousands of miles away make of our little village, this person wondered? What impressions of America do they take away from their brief visit?
The question stuck with me.
I realized I’d passed so many tourists as they meandered down Copenhagen or Mission or Alisal and wished I could have a conversation with one of them. My real curiosity was whether these overseas visitors felt they were seeing a real American small town, a real Danish town, or some hybrid of these. But lack of a common language stood between having such a conversation with these visitors.
Then, last Sunday, I hit upon an idea of how I might chat with people. I went to the parking lot behind the post office in Solvang, the lot where many tour buses are often parked.
On this Sunday, there were three buses. They each had their company name and some phrases written in an Asian script. And, even in to my untutored eye, I could see that the languages were different.
One bus was shuttered closed. But on the second bus, I found the driver. His name was German and he told me that almost all of his passengers that day came from South Korea. He said he didn’t speak Korean, but he knew enough and kindly read the script on the side of his bus. It said, “Sam Ho”, which translated means “Three Tigers”.
German said the next bus, also shuttered, had Chinese script on it. Those visitors all came from Sichuan, China. He’d also driven for their company.
German said he brings many Korean visitors to Solvang during their seven to 10 days touring the West. Sometimes Korean-American families come along with their overseas relatives for the ride. The largest Korean population, outside of Korea, is found in Los Angeles. German says there are at least six major tour companies in Los Angeles’ Korea town.
I asked him my question: what did his passengers think about Solvang? He said he had no idea. He’d driven them this past week from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Yosemite to Bryce Canyon to Monument Valley to San Francisco. Now they were heading back to Los Angeles. He thought they seemed happy with this whirlwind trip to America’s West, but he suggested I go inside the Viking Restaurant, where his passengers were having lunch. The tour guide was there. Maybe he would translate.
Inside the restaurant, there were long tables filled with Asian people eating lunch. Then I saw a lone gentleman drinking a beer at the bar. I’d guessed right; he was the guide. He seemed not to understand my question, or wouldn’t speculate what his group thought. However, he pointed to a couple sitting at a small table for two, drinking wine. They were in his tour group, but I found they spoke English with more fluidity than their leader.
These were worldly people. The wife, Heesun Byung, said they’d lived in Germany, England, Russia and France. They thought people on their trip enjoyed Solvang because it fits their idea of what a European village looks like— small and charming — and they don’t have to go all the way to Europe. The husband, Kim, said he thinks the ladies like it better than the men. Why? I asked. He said it is because they like to “eye shop”. (I think he meant “window shop”.)
On the way back to the bus, I asked a family of four, mom, dad and their two kids, if they spoke English. The parents shook their heads but the kids cheerfully answered that they did. When I asked the kids what they liked about Solvang, the little boy said, “the souvenirs” and the girl, holding a large ice cream cone, said, “the food”.
But the clearest answer came from another man boarding the bus. He seemed to understand my question and said, “taking pictures.” He gestured to the windmills and Danish style buildings. I bet he’d earlier snapped a picture of the large red clog in front of Solvang Shoe Store.
Perhaps that’s the best we get from leaving home. We endure long plane trips and security lines to get a picture, perhaps in our mind’s eye, perhaps on our cell phones, of something different. It may not be a deep portrait, but this little snapshot still opens us to a world bigger than our own.