Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Abrams' Tradition

Tonight, as I sit in my Korean apartment, I remember a tradition that my dear friends, the Abrams, started for me years ago: to thank the LORD for what He brought in the last year and to proclaim what you're asking Him for or what you are hopeful for in the coming one. Each year since I've known them, I've gathered at their house with a group of believers to ask the LORD's blessing in this way, toasting each person's thanksgiving and prayer when they finish. As I watch 2010 approaching, nearly 15 hours ahead of my friends, I want to continue the tradition.

I am ever so thankful for my Jesus this year and His continued work on my life. In one year, He has given direction, hope, and provision. He has established me here in a foreign land and has kept His hand on me from the moment the plane landed--there is nothing He has not already foreseen! He took me out of a situation I wasn't sure how to end, with grace and blessings besides. He grew me up this year. I thought I was an adult, and though I've felt like one since I was 12, I've begun to react like one. Things don't seem to bother me as much as they used to.

In 2010, I am hopeful for a year full of God's grace, His rich mercy, and His direction. I am hopeful that He will continue to show me His purpose for my life and that He would bring Himself all the more glory with me. I am asking the LORD for more time. Scripture tells us to be sober-minded and to redeem the time, "for the days are evil." Some may ask where the time goes--well, He's already given it to us! It has been enough time. My prayer, though, is that He would not return too soon, because there are so many more things still left to do. I am asking the LORD for provisions this year, in addition to those He has already provided. I am also asking for a continued sense of direction. I'm here until October, I know, but what then?

I feel ready for something tonight--ready to move on, maybe. Ready to be home? A little. Ready for a new adventure? Always. I feel ready for Him to move, to be honest. And if that means for Him to move me, then the LORD be praised! It is a new year--and a new decade! Come celebrate the LORD with me, you who have been set free! Glorify Him in this new time!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Travel Korea Day 4 and 5: Expectations

I grew up with my father admonishing his children to “lower your expectations.” He said that most people’s disappointments come from those that are unrealized. The lower the expectation, then, the less disappointed one can be. When I trained with XTI, my mentors constantly affirmed that assertion—admonishing me not to lower expectations but to have none at all. “Live in expectancy,” they said. Expectancy for them is living in a way that listens to God’s Spirit and lets Him control events that happen rather than you; expectancy is the willingness to be surprised. Each of these assertions is important in our faith journey: One protects from hurt while the other allows Jesus to be our rightful life-guide.

I feel as though in this Christmas journey across Korea, I couldn’t help but have some expectation for every place that I would visit: Gwangju, Busan, Jeonju. In my mind, I thought Busan would be an “easy” place to explore—on the map, it looked so simple. I pictured Jeonju to be a small town, with its “hanok village” located in the middle of nowhere on the dark outskirts. Just as the imagined picture I created for myself of Korean life didn’t fit with my actual life situation in Chungju, so my imaginings about them didn’t fit with the places I would visit, either. Facing the realities of these places rather than my wispy dreams wasn’t negative. I’m not sure you could call it “lowered expectations” or “expectancy,” but I went on the journey with the hope of adventure, armed with expectations though I was. It proved to be somewhat disappointing but also surprising in other ways.

As I planned for my trip to Busan, my tourist map proved to be slightly misleading. I knew the city had a subway system, but as I’m from a place with no such animal, that was a poor judge of size. I don’t know how big a city need be to necessitate subway transportation! The map itself looked simple: one or two intersecting freeways compared to San Antonio’s hub of five. Easy to get around, right? I picked out some interesting sights to see, a little off the subway route but according to the map within reasonable walking distance; I could get to them all in no time. It was only later that I realized that the Lotte Department Store that I thought was in the central part of town—a place around which I thought I could find a room—wasn’t the only one in Busan. There must have been at least three others, acting as mini-hubs in their respective sides of town.

Simple map or no, this was no simple city. The day after arrival, I learned from a fellow ex-pat that Busan is apparently quite “neighborhood-minded.” Here I was trying to traverse great distances in the city in one day when the locals themselves were content to merely stay put! No wonder the night of arrival was frustrating! I was disappointed that I ran out of time to see all the places I marked on my map, but was dreamily unrealistic about the time needed to travel to them. The task was necessarily daunting in a city of five million. “Reasonable” proved to be something quite different in Busan.

Jeonju I thought would be different than Busan, a country town, of sorts, absent of hurried busy-ness. We were in the city for fifteen minutes before the bus arrived at the terminal, when it had taken less than five to arrive at Busan’s. As we drove through en route to the station, the city lights felt reminiscent of NYC’s Times Square. I instantly observed how extensive Jeonju must really be. From the terminal, I expected to ride in the taxi thirty minutes or more to get to the hanok village outside of town, my destination for the night. Little did I realize that this place was in the middle of the bustle! It was like falling asleep at the Alamo: You step back in time as you enter through the gigantic wooden doors, but modernity still surrounds you.

The hanok “village,” what I thought to be a single traditional facility housed inside a thick concrete wall and complete with a courtyard, much like a San Antonio mission, actually showed itself to be an entire set of such facilities, encompassing an area one to two miles square. I decided to explore this radius a little, but I had learned from my experiences in Busan: If I couldn’t find whatever it was in the same neighborhood I was in, it had to be left for another trip. Inside this perimeter lay dozens of traditional guest “wons” (rooms) alongside exhibition centers, relics from Korea’s royal dynasties, and (so I presume) poor local housing. These, in turn, stood nose-to-nose with modern upscale restaurants an chic shops; in that respect, it was not unlike the Riverwalk. I didn’t know I would be sleeping in the ritzy side of town!

Because of the hanok’s gentrification and a layout akin to the King William District in San Antonio, the atmosphere of this place was sort of “lassie-faire,” to each his own. What I found profoundly odd was a lack of people to whom to direct questions; instead, at varying points of interest stood information kiosks. I thought I was here primarily for the experience—to paint calligraphy, to shape ceramic clay, to assemble ingredients for bibimpap. I did none of those. Even at the Traditional Culture Center, I found a significant lack of tour guides or hands-on classes. If I had made reservations for a tour or a class, I might have experienced more traditional culture, instead of just passively observe it. I feel as though this will be an experience I will understand only after the fact. Still, I was able to explore this small neighborhood, run into ex-pats from Canada, and engage in a lengthy conversation with a Korean woman in the traditional tearoom of the Jeonju Traditional Culture Center.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reflections on Christmas

The day after Christmas for me, which was by that time merely a winding down of festivities on Christmas Day in the States, my friend Carrie and I were chatting online about love. I asked her what Jesus meant by the love He wanted to give us. She mentioned we as Christians can only love through His strength. Human love, she said, is always conditional, whether we believe it or realize it. "What you said about conditions makes me think of Christmas through the world's eyes," I replied. "It's only fun because you get stuff. I was a bit disappointed that I didn't have anything to open on Christmas morning, but stripped of presents, Christmas becomes something more than just material gain."

For believers, we must constantly check where our love is coming from. In some ways, I feel like the love felt on Christmas morning is conditional. I didn't get much for Christmas this year, just a small bag of goodies and five tubes of toothpaste. Am I mad that my Christmas was, through the world's eyes at least, a "bust"? To be honest, that's hard to say--or perhaps harder to admit. It was disappointing Christmas Eve, to be sure, when I went downstairs to check for any packages and my landlord shook his head. It was disappointing, too, not to have anything to open Christmas Morning. Having Christmas in another country strips away presents, lights, and anything else that's familiar about the holiday. What, then, does it become? Though I am still trying to process it, for me it was another day of rest and worship.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Travel Korea Day 4: UN Memorial Cemetery Korea

My grandfather, Grandpa Bill, had been keenly interested in my coming to Korea almost as soon as he found out. “I wish I were going with you,” he said during my last visit. “I’d like to go back to South Korea.” More than fifty years ago this decade, he was stationed here as part of America’s assistance in the Korean War. To honor his time here as well as to gain historical perspective, I wanted to visit a Korean War battlefield or monument. When I found out about the UN Cemetery in Busan, I knew where it needed to be.

This memorial feels like a graceful cross between Boston Commons, the Vietnam Memorial in DC, and the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Of necessity not all the men and women who died fighting are buried here, but it is a good-faith effort to acknowledge each of the 29 nations who came to Korea’s defense. It is boarded on one side by a sculpture park, which is populated by 29 works of art to symbolize each allied country. The layout itself is very park-like, with sloping sidewalks and sculpted shade trees, but there are obvious signs warning in English, Chinese, and Korean not to exercise or run but to be silent and respectful. Visitors can experience two separate sections: the actual cemetery (with flags and other country-specific monuments) and something called the Wall of Remembrance, a granite structure symbolizing the war and subsequent peace, with the names of every soldier who died chisled in the wall. “We engrave your names on our hearts with love,” it says. “We inscribe your names in our land with appreciation. In Eternal Remembrance of the Fallen UN Forces in [the] Korean War.”
This was a waterway made in honor of a fallen soldier named Daunt,
at 17 the youngest to die in the war.
This is an aboriginal tatoo, symbolizing the aid brought by Australia and New Zealand. The larger third dark swirl represents the UN coming alongside these two in the fight. The marks on the sides represent 45 men from the two nations who died.
The changing of the guard at the main entrance.
Flags of each country who came to South Korea's aid.
These are the statistics of those who died. At nearly 40,000, the US gave the most men. Her section of the Wall of Remembrance takes up almost three-quarters of the structure.

Travel Korea Day 3: “Placelessness”

In my undergraduate Cultural Geography class, we studied a theory called “Placelessness.” This pattern of thought essentially states that, due to increased globalization, there is no more completely unique place left on the Earth: What you have here is what’s found over there. Instead of having different places, you end up with areas that, in an effort to offer a little bit of “everything,” actually peddle to their guests nothing of real cultural value, like some sort of geographical Wal-Mart. These become for the traveler “placeless” places, effectively leaving him with a sense of cultural deja-vu.

Part of the impetus for this theory of placlessness is a rise in companies vying for a spot in the global economy. For this reason, you find Costco in Seoul, Dunkin’ Donuts in the Incheon Airport, and Converse vendors in Chungju. I found a Burger King and TGI Friday’s in Gwangju, but I also found shops that didn’t participate in the global economy, and therefore seemed immune to the assembly-line approach to tourism and mass-produced experiences. Seong Yup’s nail salon, Lonesome, is one such shop. It operated out of a deep sense of honesty and hospitality. Its highly individualized service appealed to the whole person, offering tea while you enjoy the manicure. The proprietor of the store even attended to me personally! Though one could find shops in Gwangju that are also in other areas, it wasn’t a placeless place. The service I found was unique for one reason alone: the people serving. There is no other shop like Seong Yup’s in all of Korea because there is no other Seong Yup. To say that he was friendly understates his warm, welcoming personality. He attended to my needs as a close friend might.

I took this cross-country journey in an effort to disprove this theory. What could I experience in the places that I visited that would be found nowhere else? Gwen complained to me Saturday night [Dec. 19] as we toured downtown that she thought Gwangju was a bit boring. It was just a big city with no real attractions—in effect, a placeless place. However, I sent her a text message today [Dec. 21] that said, “I experienced something here that I couldn’t find in Chungju.” Indeed, I could not have found it even 6,000 miles away.

Travel Korea Day 2: Gwen’s Hospitality

As I talked with Gwen to plan my stay in Gwangju, she mentioned that I could stay in her apartment. What I didn’t realize in the planning stages was what that meant. The night I arrived, she and her boyfriend walked me back to her apartment after playing pool. Once there, they explained how different things worked, handed me the spare key, and showed me how to lock the door. I thought all of this was unusual until the wished me to “take a rest”—and then it clicked: They were leaving me by myself! I was profoundly affected by this and filled with so many questions: Where would she stay and why wouldn’t she stay with me?

Having had a chance to mule over the incident, I feel as though hospitality like this speaks volumes to Americans. For one thing, we love control. We think of hospitality as largely an allowance: This much I will permit you to do or to enter, but the rest is mine and off limits. Though I’m still a bit unsure of the Korean modus operandi at large, Gwen’s seems to be one of service and trust. She trusted me enough to open her house to me and allowed me access to virtually everything there, serving me by her actions and wishing me to make myself at home. To give up control of her things for an almost-stranger is for the American something unheard of! Again, I was like a traveler in Old Testament Israel, a foreigner welcomed in the midst of the people.

We Americans might at first take offense to our host not staying with us; we feel somehow wounded and sense a sharp lack of acceptance, sure that such conduct can only be inhospitable. Gwen opening her home to me, however, makes me think of hospitality differently. She wasn’t trying to offend, but instead trying to provide for my physical needs through providing me privacy. Americans value privacy, but in general I feel they (myself included) don’t think of it as a way to be hospitable or gracious. Koreans, I feel, take many human needs into consideration and go out of their way to provide for them, including this need. By letting me stay at her house by myself, Gwen gave me a sense of privacy that I might, in other circumstances, not have had. She was able to spend time with her sister while her guest was able to unwind a little from her travels.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Travel Korea Day 2: The Young Singles Group

The last Sunday before Christmas, December 21, brought one of the most thought-provoking experiences in my travel through Korea thus far. I had a chance to visit a Korean church by myself that morning, since Gwen was unable to meet with me due to a previous engagement. I felt like I was going for me, without time constraints or the pressure of another's schedule. This time, instead of critically examining anything familiar I found, I sought it out; however, I didn't find much. I could make out a couple of recognizable hymns, like "Hark! The Harold Angels Sing," and the name of a Biblical book, Isaiah. But as I was alone, I could make out none of the sermon, though I sensed it (presumably through my spirit) to be powerful. If I knew the language better, I might have been better equipped to judge and test the message. I feel mildly uncomfortable accepting it blindly without first pondering and considering it. Despite my doctrinal unwillingness, this church felt different from any I've yet been to in Korea.

[Sarah, the leader of the group]

What surprised me when I first sat down was the amount of young people I found there, specifically twenty-something men. Down the pew from me sat a young man whom I later learned to be "De Hong." Across from me and towards the front was another young man wo seemed to be quite passionate as he sang. These two both proved to be part of the church's young singles group. After the service, most of that group flocked to my side to either ask my name and nationality or to invite me to lunch, an offer I gladly accepted. For the meal, the young people sat in a back room not much bigger than (or around the same size as) the college group's first room at Alamo City (if you're familiar). The room held close to twenty people, all of whom were around my age. As I joined them, I couldn't help but feel at home; I missed being around such a group. There seems to be a considerable lack of young people my age in Chungju churches.

Curiosity about me, this unexpected foreign oddity among them, sparked like a California wildfire. The young woman who acted as my translator, Hannah, told me they wanted to know all about me but because of the language barrier didn't know how to ask. I asked what they wanted to know. "Do you have boyfriend?" De Hong immediately fired off. The whole group laughed at his antics. "No," I quietly replied. I told them briefly about meeting Gwen and teaching in Chungju, then later they asked how long I had been a Christian.

I felt quite the center of attention for them, especially when one of the young men [Myong Sup, the one to the far right] called out, "Jenny-fer, we bless you." They started singing their worship song, apparently about Jacob's blessing to his sons, to me. As they began their praise to the LORD, they started singing over me. Their hands lifted not to heaven but in my direction, palms up and outstretched in a posture of receiving a blessing or a gift. As she sang, a young woman named Sarah called to me, "This is for you!" The whole scene was quite awkward for me because I felt like I took their focus off of Christ. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before--I'd been prayed over, but not sung over, too! At one point, I wanted to cry--they had made such a fuss over me, blessing me through Jacob's ancient blessing and proclaining over me that "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." While they continued in their songs, I began to think of the experience as just another expression for God to use to encourage me.

[Sarah with her sister, Hannah]

As I sat there, I wondered what my purpose for coming to Korea really was and if could be what I thought at first: to encourage the church here, much as Paul did on his missionary journeys to Asia Minor. Later in the Bible study, we were asked to share how we can keep ourselves holy before God, and through interpretation I was able to say that personal conviction is not a hill to die on. There's freedom in Christ; the way to keep holy is to recognize the works of the enemy and to avoid those, but not to be hung on conviction. Hannah confessed to me that my words were "a very sacred message for all people" and "very moving." I was quite touched by her statement--could my words hold such power and meaning? Through the Spirit, yes. I felt the Spirit move through that church in a way that I haven't yet felt in other parts of Korea.
[one of my translators, Ji Yea, and me]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Travel Korea Day 1: The Polar Express

The morning of Saturday, December 19th saw the start of my week-long winter break. That day, I survived waking up late, witnessing a fierce Korean argument outside Jochiwon Station, and almost missing my train to Gwangju. The LORD proved faithful even in this and five hours after catching my first train, I arrived safely in my friend Gwen's hometown.

Because I woke up at 8:15 that morning and needed to board my train before 8:40, I was in a rush to throw on clothes and hail the nearest taxi. I arrived at the station in Chungju just long enough to notice a trickle of people headed to the platform, to follow them, and (within literal seconds) to board the first train that stopped. It was at the right time and seemed to be headed in the right direction, so I assumed it must be my train. It proved to be the right one when it stopped at the Jochiwon terminal. Once there, the train to Gwangju literally started taking off without me. The attendant had to radio the conductor to ask him to wait and had to ask me (in Korean) to wait for the train to stop moving before I got on! I boarded on car three when I needed car two, but at least I made it on the train. It was my chief worry as I rode from Chungju: I don't know Korean! This could be the wrong way!

It was a harrowing beginning, to be sure, but I soon settled into the journey. As I rode peacefully across nearly half of the Korean peninsula, I had a chance to watch the countryside roll by my window, beautifully adorned by a fresh blanket of fluffy, white snow. I felt like I was on the Polar Express; all I needed for the image to be complete was "hot, hot, hot, hot choc'late." Snow continued to fill the air with its graceful swirling flakes even as the train pulled into the Jochiwon terminal. Feeling a little too cooped up inside and filled with giddy, child-like excitement, I ventured out to play with nature's winter toy before boarding my next train. I left my footprints in the courtyard's untouched fluff and took a plethera of pictures; I walked around the town's square just to walk in the snow. The dirty, mushy street snow that I trudged reminded me of well-trafficed snow patches at the Durango Mountain ski Resort in Colorado. Snow seems to make even mundane things beautiful and new. This has indeed been my first white Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Travel Korea Day 1: Fun in Gwangju

After arriving in Gwangju at 2pm on Saturday, my Korean friend Gwen and I had plans to spend the rest of the day together in order for her to show me around her hometown. I took a taxi to her neighborhood and she met me at the corner where the driver dropped me off. She then took me to her apartment to store my things, where her boyfriend, Ryan (whom I had met before, the night I arrived in Korea), met us minutes later. Together we drove to Lotte Department Store to have lunch, a fancy-shmanz multi-story shopping mall complete with jewelry dealers, makeup and perfume counters, and an elegant, upscale restaurant. It was the ritz, like The Galleria in Houston or The Shops at La Cantera in San Antonio, the finest shopping experience money could buy. We walked around in the store a bit after the meal, but I just couldn't swallow all the ostentation; it was much too over-the-top for me. We then headed outside to the car and to taste a little of Gwangju's downtown scene.

The meal with Gwen and Ryan was amazing! One floor of the department store was dedicated solely to food and housed its restaurant, a buffet-style fine dining facitily called [ ] Alaska. They served pasta, seafood, mandu, salad, sushi, and even steak! Most of what I ate this afternoon was delicious, although the mandu was a little disappointing. I tried a Chinese version of mandu that tasted suspiciously like something I might find at the bottom of a dishwasher after a load of dishes. The steak was quite good: It was different than any other steak I've had (and certainly not the kind served in Texas) because it was sweet and I found that so satisfying somehow. The mashed potatoes were also wonderful, served with cream in a tiny square bowl (for those of us watching our figure). The restaurant, food, and company were all so elegant. It felt so good to treat myself to something really nice.

After dinner, the three of us drove downtown to meet friends of Gwen's who own and opperate little shops. One of the shops was an accessory store where I met a cute little puppy dog named Ti who aparently fell in love with me and followed me all over the store. There, I found some Korean earrings to add to my growing collection. It was my first experience trying on earrings before I bought them, as well as my first time having someone else put my earrings on for me! Koreans go out of their way to be gracious and hospitable, I tell you. I thought about buying a hair clip, too, but it was a bit expensive so I put it back. The proprietor of the store felt bad about the expense and gave me the earings free of charge. I didn't want to just walk out of there without giving her something, though. "You can buy this," Gwen suggested, indicating the clip. As a way to say thank you for her generosity, I purchased the clip for 32,000 won.

Our next stop was an upscale nail salon managed by Gwen's friend, Yum Seong Yup, to have my nails done. I think this was my first ever professional manicure. Looking at the result, they did an outstanding job! They worked with my natural nails to shape them, squaring them off smatly, and prep them for polish. We looked at several different colors of polish, from charcoal grey to sea-foam green, finally settling on a shimmering lavendar glitter. I watched Seong Yup paint my nails with such artistic care and detail. I thought I was meticulous at painting nails, but he turns this into a serious art form. He later offered to take my picture with his Polaroid and took one with us as a souvenier for me. He said he'd remember me if I came back to visit.

Gwen, Ryan, and I toured downtown a bit more after that, walked to a special artistry road that's lit up year-round like the light festival in Japan, and finished off the night with a few rounds of pool at a dong ku jong (I think). This "bang" is a small pool-hall-like room with no more than four tables; it reminded me of the places I'd frequent during college, but I like this one better because it was so close and intimate. We took turns playing each other and I taught them Cut-throat, a pool game where the object is to leave the balls on the table instead of "pocketing" them. Gwen seems to be at a similar level to me, while Ryan looks every bit as much the pool sharp. He beat me all three times we played Nine Ball, once merely through pocketing the nine ball on the break. After playing pool, we decided to call it a night. I had a great time getting to know the two of them today. I feel as though the LORD has led me here this weekend, if for nothing else than to build relationships. I am ever grateful for Gwen's hospitality and allowing me an entrance into her life.