Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jim-jil Balm

After leaving Thomas on the dance floor the night of my friend Isabel's birthday in December, Rebekah and I headed for the frigid temperatures on the streets of Itaewon-dong, eventually to rest our eyes and relax our bodies in the smooth luxuries of the nearest jim-jil-bang: Korea's purported paradise get-away, the public bath house. We ascended the three flights of stairs to the entrance of "Itaewon Land," intimately secluded just a block further from the main strip of the district's expensive establishments, and stepped indoors.

Once securely inside, Rebekah and I paid our 8,000 won, stored our shoes in tiny footlockers resembling campus mailboxes at TLU, and collected our pajamas for the night--a matching set of over-sized pink lounge-wear resembing a fraying pair of my mother's old shorts. Attendants then handed us two grey handtowels each, and neon yellow, curly rubber keychains with numbers on them to coordinate with our first-floor shoe slots and lockers upstairs. The numbers were shaped like keys and a magnetized circle of metal formed the blunt end that fit into the keyhole. "If you need anything," Rebekah tutored as we walked up the stairs carrying our bags and newly-rented luxury goods, "swipe your key and you can pay for it downstairs." Just like an old Western bar tab.

We ascended the stairs to the left of the check-in desk, only to descend a different case of them from the upstairs common area to the downstairs women-only showers. It was there that the two of us found our lockers and changed into our less-than-becoming sleepwear. As I had nothing else to don for church in the morning, I carefully folded or hung my clothing to keep it somewhat presentable.

After shedding our winter attire and collecting spare necessities like cell phones, which we might find useful as alarm clocks, we took a tour of the jim-jil-bang's other floors: the second, with its round-the-clock restaurant and loud communal room, suitable for families and late-night watchers of T.V.; the third, populated with expensive private baths; and the top floor, equipped with an all-night PC bang and a large room with shelf-like bunks for individuals. As none of the others had accomodations suitable for our quiet, single-women needs, the last floor was our stop for the night. Rebekah found me an unoccupied sleeping mat and a rectangular pillow, rare items indeed for a busy Saturday night, and we firmly installed ourselves on two of the top shelves.

It was like stepping into a memory of Alamo City's World Shakers youth camps or remembering Jubilee Ranch's three-tiered bunk beds, this fourth-floor salon: Sleeping spaces were built-in to each wall, with a large space in the middle for gathering. The room itself must have been thirty beds long and three bunks tall, with bed-space only as high as the second bunk. Each bed consisted of a box-shaped space with room enough to toss and turn, but not to stand up effectively. Inside that space was a miniature ondol floor, the traditional method Koreans use to heat their houses, only this one was a granite slab that, if turned on, stayed warm in the winter or cool in the summer.

Though my companion contested otherwise, I didn't need the added heat of the ondol, because throughout the night--despite the lack of such creature comforts as a warm blanket or soft pillow--I was hot. She had warned me to take my scarf as added warmth while I slept because "it gets cold up there," but I hardly needed the thing. It must have been 95 degrees just like the attic in my childhood home, I thought as I lay there fitfully for several minutes. Though Rebekah had fallen asleep right away, I couldn't. I finally roused myself to trudge downstairs to my locker and my five-hundred page book on world language history; perhaps reading a section of that might ease the heat and allow a few hours of sleep to come.

In the morning, just shy of six hours' sleep, the fun began: visiting the public bath. Rebekah had scooted off her perch minutes before me, so we blissfully missed each other in the communal shower room. She had already warned me about how the system worked, though--fully undress at your locker, place your postage-stamp towel anywhere strategic, and waddle with your bath necessities the hundred yards to the door of the cave-like room.

As I gingerly stepped foot into the dark-grey, cavernous public bath house, naked but for my pile of meager belongings clutched to my front side, an ajuma stooped with age crossed directly in front of me. I kept my eyes focused on the bright yellow elastic keychain she wore on her right ankle, lest my gaze float to a place other than her eyes. "Is this your first time?" she chirped in perfect English.

"Yes," I said hesitantly.

"You need these--" She stopped in front of neatly piled bath-house supplies and picked out a set for me: one small bowl, one larger one, and one stepping stool used for crouching on. She then proceeded to walk me to one of two partitions toward the back of the room, where older women stooped at a wall-full of mirrors and knee-high sinks to scrub each other clean.

Intimidated by the wet, sultry scene in front of me, I squeaked to myself, "Can't I just take a shower?" Quickly I found myself a vacant nook next to the stone wall separating the partitions and piled my bathing supplies atop its glassless window ledge.

The eye-level mirror I stood in front of was plastered with a colorful, water-resistant sign in hangul, an alphabet system I have by now managed to sound out, yet still find difficult to comprehend if not displaying a recognizably English word or cognate. If the sign read, "This is how you make the hot water HOT," I was unable to decipher it--and therefore stood for an agonizing ten minutes in a stream of ice-cold droplets.

In the mirror past the sign, I could see myself reflected from shoulderblade to head, but mercifully nothing else. I stared at my still-made-up face, trying not to notice another woman also populating the reflection. It was the first time I remember consciously not looking at myself as I bathed: Having to do something so private in front of strangers was bad enough; better not reinforce the fact that while I accomplished it, I was clothes-less.

As I stood there self-consciously in my corner, I saw another ajuma near me, this time stopping to use the shower next to mine; it was from her that I learned what my twin bowls were for. From the corner of my eye as I took care of my own business, I watched her stop her shower to fill a bowl with water. She then used that same bowl and a wash cloth to scrub some other part of her body, perhaps her hair. Her actions were strangely reminiscent of the scenes I had witnessed in Chungju of older women soaking produce in large vats of water. "Koreans wash themselves like they wash vegetables," I couldn't help but noting.

It was during my execution of the whole process, from locker to public bath, that I realized the front desk never bothered to give us robes. I spied Rebekah as my stitchless body left the shower room, herself fully clothed and sitting on the last step leading to the lockers, obliviously absorbed in a book. I was never so thankful that no one I knew looked up just then to say hello.

Yet in some respects, a robe would have been all but useless to the eastern methods playing themselves out downstairs. What I discovered throughout the unsettling morning was a strange lack of modesty among the Koreans. If they didn't notice me naked, they didn't notice themselves either. I could only liken the visit to the recurring dream that plagues everyone from time to time: You stand in the middle of your office or school, not a stitch of clothes on, and everyone else goes about their buisness as if all is as usual. And the only one who embibes something different is you.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Beaten for My Faults

"But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps..." --I Peter 2:20-21

I was sitting at my desk in the Teacher's room resting up for my next segment of classes on Monday, December 20, when Teacher Grace approached me with her lesson plan for January.

"Teacher Jenny-fur," she said in her Korean-accented English. "Here is the new monthly plan [for TR8] and could you give them this?" She handed me a revised plan for this month, three copies of a unit test I was to give my students that Thursday--a test I had only that moment found out about--and the new plan.

I sat there stunned, staring at the altered schedule for this month. It was such a little thing, having them test on Thursday instead of waiting another two weeks or more. Could I not alter the lesson plan for the week, one I hadn't yet had chance to think about anyway?

Absently I glanced at the new plan: "The Printer," it read. But we had already finished the story--I was sure of it. "We've already finished 'The Printer'," I said defensively, as if I had taken a blow to my face.

"I looked at Steve's PBO [workbook] and he hasn't finished the pages," Grace offered softly, almost hurt by my complaint.

“We might not have had a chance to finish the workbook pages, but I know we finished the story.” I grabbed the Treasure book assigned for the class, flipping to the selection in question, and kept going. "We've already done here and here," I said as I tilted the book to show her the author's biography and page of review questions. Clearly, then, they shouldn't have needed to reread it.

I began noticing other things in the lesson plan that I found too unbearable to deal with, among them the fact that she hadn't put down which page numbers to cover--as if I cared so much about page numbers! Normally, the fact would have been a relief, as I would have felt more freedom to teach to mastery rather than to coverage. But this day, it was more fuel for the flame.

Scrutinizing her plan like an ajuma staring at a waegukin, I saw that she had scheduled one theme (roughly one-quarter of a unit) for every two weeks. As there are several other books the students must work through, reading selections from the theme would then be relegated to every Monday and Wednesday; if one included a day for testing, that cut one Wednesday out of every two.

I began flipping furiously through each unit, appalled at the length of one in particular. "You're asking me to do cover thirty pages in three days?" I told her in sheer disbelief.

"There is one theme for every two weeks. You have to give them a test on the theme. We've already talked about it," she countered authoritatively.

Indeed we had. A couple of weeks ago, on the heels of a class of students failing their unit test, my idea was to have them tested more than just once a month. The tests we had been giving them were essentially benchmarks, designed to judge mastery of a set of thinking skills that we as a hagwon may or may not cover in a single month. Since the curriculum also included weekly quizzes on each theme, geared more toward assessing comprehension of the story rather than mastered skills, my suggestion was to use the quizzes to prepare for the benchmarks. So why was it that I suddenly disagreed with that thought so bitterly?

Slowly the realization swept over me that I had been put in my place. “I’ll figure it out, Grace,” I cowed meekly as I turned back to my desk.

First Peter says that Jesus was beaten and despised when He went to the Cross, yet He “did not revile in return” (2:23). “[W]hen He suffered,” Peter continues, “He did not threaten, but committed Himself to [God] who judges righteously.” The writer exhorts earlier in the chapter that that’s our model of meekness, of righteous character.

As a tangible way to express that idea, Peter wonders about his readers: “For what credit is it to you if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently?” Wait a minute—beaten?! This is the twenty-first century—if anyone so much as a lays a hand on someone in a manner perceived even remotely malignant, one could sue for losses or be hauled off the plane. And yet, what does Scripture say?

I wasn’t beaten that day; the only thing that happened was that I was asked to do something that I didn’t want to do. And I couldn’t even take that patiently—couldn’t even live up to the standard that’s not even a credit to my godliness. I wasn’t bruised or threatened in any way and yet I was there, fists up, ready to retaliate in self-defense.

I’m reminded of the Scripture in Isaiah as I write this: “ ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts. Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD” (55:8). No matter how hard I try, I cannot attain to those thoughts, those “ways.” I cannot attain the godliness I seek—it’s impossible! And yet, Romans promises that Jesus came to Earth and took our place “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren,” (8:29). I can’t ever attain to His likeness, and yet Jesus desires to be among us.

Ever more I’m convicted that the more He desires to be with us, the more He really desires for us to be like Him. He came to so season His Church with His obedient submission that we taste like Him if circumstances squeeze our juices out. Sadly, Monday was a day that, when squeezed, I tasted more like myself.

A Ticket to Ri-Hi-Hide

As early as the beginning of September, I have wanted to go to a little-visited country in the Horn of Africa called Ethiopia. I had just found out that some friends would be moving there shortly and I hoped that, as a somewhat experienced expatriate by now, I could encourage them in their transition. "I don't know if this is from the LORD or not," I wrote in an email, "but can I come visit you?"

The two of them--my friend and her husband--had been on my heart ever since I first learned of their trans-Altantic venture. I had met the couple two years before through an organization that we were all three a part of in my hometown. Because we were close in age and season of life, those of us in the group became close friends. As they had already bid farewell to the members of the organization back home, I felt so sure that I was in a unique position to come alongside them in tangible moral support: I was already out of the country and had already been dealing with many of the situations foreigners tend to face away from home.

If I could just get to them! I thought. I felt so sure I’d get to go for Chuseok, but by the time I checked out ticket prices, only two weeks before the proposed flight dates, they were already far too rich for my meager teacher’s salary. Perhaps I’d be able to afford a ticket for my next week-long holiday, Christmas. It was her favorite holiday, I knew, one that she loved spending with family. If she was necessarily away on Christmas, maybe having me there would make home seem less a little less far away.

My Korean friend Young Sook, who happened to be a travel agent, came over to my house at the beginning of November for dinner. As she sat on my floor enjoying peppery two-bean chili, I told her about the possibility of going to Ethiopia. It was the first time I had voiced my potential plans to anyone besides the friends I would visit, and the first time I actually felt that the trip could happen. Hope filled the night as we sat chatting endlessly about the opportunity. “Ethiopia,” she said in amazement. “Your ticketing, I want.”

Like a good travel agent, that night she advised me when it would be a good time to book such a flight: thirty to forty days out would be best, she noted. Armed with the dates we had chosen for the trip--Sunday, December 26 through Saturday, the first--she worked steadily each week of November to find me a good deal. By Thanksgiving, we would surely need a ticket reserved, if not already bought. Three weeks after the initial friendly consultation, amid piles of the spicy legs and wings of Thanksgiving fried chicken at her house, Young Sook informed me that she had finally reserved an itinerary for me. Perfect. All that was left now was to purchase it.

Because my reservations would only be held for one week, Young Sook asked me to pay for the flight by the second of December. I marked it on my cell phone’s calendar: “Confirm and pay for ticket by this date,” read the memo attached to the following Thursday. One step closer.

Thursday night grew ever closer, and with its approach, a growing sense of dread filled my heart. From its conception, I had been debating the wisdom of such a weighty decision as spending $1500 on something so frivolous as a plane ticket. Here I was on the eve of purchase with no more sense of peace than when I had started praying about the trip in September.

My hesitation to follow through was two-fold: The ticket Young Sook had found would cost $1800, almost double what I had found by myself weeks ago while searching quickly for a deal online. Already nervous about spending much of my savings on the trip, I didn't know how prepared I was to fork over all of it just on a ride to get me there. The other problem was that the night my friend had found the tickets, I had more than enough to cover the price in my account back home; one week later, however, due to pesky little things called student loans, I would be short $200. Whatever other reason for not following through, I knew that purchasing tickets that day would be financially impossible.

That Saturday, December 4, I decided to visit my friend Josh's Bible study in Seoul. He was scheduled to leave country the following week for a permanent change of duty stations, but would be at the Bible study one last time--so I thought I would come for moral support. It proved to be a powerful afternoon, with many opportunities for the LORD to speak His truth to the hearts that were gathered: We listened to a DVD message about sin being more than just a mistake and to both Josh and another Jennifer giving their testimonies.

We also had an opportunity to ask for prayer. While sharing my thoughts about my hagwon and whether to stay in South Korea for a few more months, I considered telling them about my pending trip to Ethiopia. In the end, however, I decided that details of the visit need not be shared.

After finishing our time of prayer, Jenn, the girl who had just told us her story, leaned over to where I sat on the floor, with what she felt was a message from the LORD. "He's asking you to make a decision," she conveyed, "but it’s only because He loves you." I muled her words over in my brain for a few moments as the reality of it sank in. My interpretation: Decide not to go to Ethiopia. Because He loves you.

The more I thought of it, the more I was sure the decision would necessarily be a negative one--a fact I conveyed to my friend in Ethiopia when I chatted with her online about the trip.

"But that's not what she said!" she interrupted, referring to Jenn's message. "Even if it's not to go to Ethiopia, it's not negative. God's plan for you is always the best."

Though I knew she was right, I was still disappointed. "I really want to come," I told her.

“I want you to come, too,” my friend replied. “But if you’re fighting God about it, you would be miserable.”

In the middle of the following week, I wrote in my prayer journal that I felt God had been steadily preparing me for what I was then facing. My paycheck for the month had been two days late by this time and I would still be waiting for it another two days. "If I encounter some emergency between now and the time I get paid," I wrote, "I have money back home to cover it. But if I had bought my plane ticket to Ethiopia last week, I wouldn't have. I never felt released to do so--and now I know why."

That week, I didn't see Young Sook until Friday, the day I was finally paid. "You still think Ethiopia," she told me as we walked toward the bus stop together. "I think not." What I didn't tell her that night was that I was beginning to feel the same thing.

One of my initial worries about paying for the flight had to do with needing enough money left over for transportation and shopping. As I sat crunching numbers in my tiny apartment, I figured I could still make the trip if I bought minimal groceries in December, saved all of my "fun money" for the month until I landed in Africa, and if I was specific in what kind of Christmas present my family could get me.

"Instead of sending me a package this year," I asked them via email, "why not contribute to my trip to Ethiopia?" I was worried for a week as no one had responded to my request, but then I started getting confirmation from them one-by-one. Perhaps the trip was still on!

Wednesday night, December 15, I made one final online search for tickets to Ethiopia leaving from Seoul December 26. As it was a week and a half from the date of departure, I was sure that quotes would be hiked and not affordable. But there it was on my computer screen, the exact price from a month before: China Southern Air, multiple stops, $900. With fees and et cetera, the total cost would come to a little over $1300 USD--much less than Young Sook's estimate, with wiggle room and cash to spare. The trip was finally starting to materialize.

Quickly, I sent her a text message: "I found a ticket I can afford," I wrote.

The next morning, she sent me something back. "Wow trips," she wrote in broken English. "OK!! See you."

That night we sat at her computer to pay for my ticket. I showed her the price that I had found and she instantly got to work. It was like witnessing language fluency, watching Young Sook swiftly punch things like “26DECICNCAN*CZ” into a database system that reminded me of a blue-backed version of DOS. Through various airport acronyms and one-letter commands, within minutes she had put together the exact itinerary for the same price I had found the previous day. I was amazed.

When she had first seen the website I had used, she couldn't believe that the ticket could be 400,000 won less than what she had initially put together for me. Dismayed, she tried to suggest that the site must have offered a fifty percent discount. But finding the price there, amid trusted abbreviations staring back at her, she could not deny the website's accuracy. An affordable price secure in my mind, I told my friend that I had planned to use my American account to purchase the ticket, and we agreed to fax over my information the very next morning.

The morning of December 17, our school's secretary sent over to Young Sook's office the documents necessary for securing my safe passage to Ethiopia. Hours later, the fax still had not gone through. By the time it finally worked, Young Sook sent a desperate message with her account number and bank's name in Korean: "Jennifer," it read, "only cash... ticketing!!"

I called her back moments later, as I should have been preparing to feed my students lunch. "Jeny-pah," she said soothingly. "We are ticketing cash only. Lunchtime, you go. Call you. Happy lunch."

Through a volley of text messages and phone calls that afternoon between classes, with Grace acting as translator, I was able to extrapolate the story: Apparently one of the airlines that Korean travel agencies work with—which just so happened to be the airline I was trying to fly with, China Southern Air--did not accept foreign credit or debit cards. Either I could head to Seoul that instant and physically swipe my card at Young Sook's office, or I could withdraw the money from a global ATM and deposit it into her account. As I had already spent my forty-minute break period for the day and still faced a completely booked afternoon without liberty to fly off to Seoul, the only possibility for me was to visit the local bank.

The prospect of transferring money into someone's account was already nerve-racking, but knowing that I needed first to convert it to cash, which could be lost or stolen, upped the ante. Nervously, I fit my foreign card into the mouth of the ATM and pressed the "English" button, asking to withdraw 1,000,000 won (about $800) from my American account. Denied twice, I finally just asked for 500,000, which the machine spit out in fifty bright green 10,000-won bills. There I stood with a two-inch wad of cash, my entire student loan payment for the month in my hands. This being just under a third of what I needed, I tried withdrawing 500,000 more only to be denied again. Struck with the realization that my limit for ATM withdrawals on the account was $500, I sulked back upstairs to class.

"I couldn't take out the money," I tried telling Young Sook as I stood at the elevator. "I can't buy the ticket today."

"Jeny-pah," she replied. "Call you back."

"No, I have class," I tried to say--but she hung up and cheerily called me right back, just as promised. Again I tried explaining that I wasn't able to transfer the money and needed to go to class. When she still didn't seem to understand, I told her I would just have to call her back during my break.

On the phone with her forty minutes later, she reminded me that airport ticketing agencies would close at five and that I should transfer the money right away. I tried explaining the situation, but as I had gotten nowhere by the start of my next class, I handed the phone to back to Grace. Moments later, as I began instructing my near-fluent seven-year-olds, Grace knocked on my door, her basket of teaching supplies in hand. It was just a few minutes till four p.m.
"Jenny-fur," she said nervously, "ah, you have to go to the bank and transfer money to the account. Go to KB bank. You have to be back by four-thirty. You have to go now! They close at four." Quickly I explained the lesson to her, grabbed my jacket, and raced downstairs, trying to beat time.

I first approached KEB, a branch just a block away on the corner of our winding street, only to see their "365 Bank" open but the staircase leading to the lobby on the second floor barred by a heavy metal gate. "No," I shouted to the blinking automatic tellers. It was then that I remembered I needed to find KB instead, and walked back outside to search the business district's towering edifice. Spotting the bank mere yards away, I ducked inside and tried the second floor.

The elevator opened and I stepped into an empty hallway with a gated entrance to my right, moments too late. Just as I turned to go back downstairs, a door to the side of the gate swung open enough for two figures to emerge, the shiny wooden flooring from the lobby beckoning me from the other side.

One of the figures I noted to be a young employee of KB bank, and I asked him desperately if I could come in. "Mo-ney trans-puh," I offered feebly, to which he reluctantly agreed. He led me through the deserted lobby to a woman's desk and began filling out requisite paperwork for the exchange. I held up my card to show them the money wasn't coming from a Korean bank. "Can I use this?" I asked. At the sight of the card, he offered to escort me downstairs and to another global ATM for me to withdraw the necessary cash.

"I can't," I said as we waited for the gate to lift enough to duck through the opening. "I can't take out any more money. I will show you." I stood with the two employees for several minutes as I tried in vain to take out more cash, being denied each time.

Back upstairs, members of the bank staff asked to call my travel agency and as I waited for them to get in touch with Young Sook, I had another idea. "Can I borrow your computer?" I asked the young man. If cash wouldn't do it, an online transfer might work. I glanced at my cell phone: 4:27. I might have just enough time.

The young man showed me to a computer that could have been as ancient as my ten-year-old desktop I had left back home. While waiting for it to boot up, staff members motioned me to the phone. "Jenny-pah," Young Sook said sympathetically. "Air-fort close five p.m. Today not ticketing. Today my home you go." I nodded and put the phone back in its cradle.

That night at Young Sook's house, I tried booking the flight online--only to be told by the website that my bank in the States had denied such a hefty purchase. Young Sook nodded understandingly. "China Southern Airlines," she said, "cash only." We agreed for me to call my bank, ask for permission to withdraw more money, and meet again the following day.

At 10:15 that Saturday morning, eight days exactly to the day of my flight, I showed up at her doorstep, ready to hand over the rest of the ticket price and be on my way. After all, my bank had assured me the night before that the limit on my account would be temporarily raised enough to cover the cost. Young Sook and I approached another global ATM to discover the same problem still existed--only now I had in my hands not one student loan payment, but two.
"It's okay," she said to me. "You give me one million and I pay the rest. You give me money Monday. Okay?" I agreed and walked her to KB to deposit the cash. Later, as the bus to Byeongjeom Station pulled up to its nearest stop, she assured me that she would have the tickets before one that afternoon.

In front of the ATM at the top of the steps of the station, she called back. "Jenny-fur, oops," she said by way of apology. "My account not money. Your one million, but not money." Apparently, then, we would have to purchase the journey one leg at a time. "Which ticket you want? Incheon to Gwangxou (China) ticketing, okay?"

As I sat semi-comfortably on the subway, my phone rang again, this time with worse news. "You on your way to Seoul?" she asked, hoping I wasn't. "Jenny-pah, yesterday Ethiopia flight one seat, you remember? Today not. No seat."

My heart sank further as I continued to listen. It was hard to hear her over the roar of the train, but the message was clear--exactly what I knew the LORD had been prompting for weeks.
"Tomorrow we are meeting ticketing okay?"

"No," I said authoritatively. "No. I can't go."

"There's been a change of plan," I wrote in my next email to my friend in Ethiopia, relaying the myriad complications of failing to purchase my ticket.

"Sweet Jennifer," she wrote back, "I think God's REALLY trying to tell you he has other plans for you next week. I love you, and I wish I could get to see you, but we need to walk in obedience more than anything."

All I could say in reply were four simple words: "I. think. you're. right."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Simmering Salsa

For my latina friend Isabel's birthday, she invited a group of her closest friends in Korea to go out salsa dancing with her this past Saturday night. She had planned to be at Caliente, a Latin dance hall on the main street in Itaewon-dong, by eleven that night and dance until the party petered out. As the subway system stopped running by twelve, I figured that eleven-thirty would be my limit for the evening. That would give me just enough time to catch the last train back home to Suwon.

Some of us arrived with the birthday girl around ten-thirty, but the rest of her party trickled in for the next hour. As we waited for them, we sat around two dim tables in the back, sipping our one free drink of the evening, my beverage of choice a smooth juego de pina on the rocks. I glanced at my watch as more of Isabel's friends walked in, observing the minute-hand quickly slipping by with growing dread. I was holding out like the last man standing on the battlefield before retreating. Only one dance, I told myself. I still have to learn how to salsa tonight. By eleven-thirty, no one except Isabel had gotten up from our tables, and she only to greet her arriving guests; we still hadn't danced.

It was about this time that a tall white guy wearing jeans, black tennis shoes, and a heavy t-shirt walked in to say hello to the birthday girl. This was Isabel's friend from Korean class, Thomas, a graduate student here in Korea studying to become an electrical engineer and preparing to work with Samsung. I noticed my things selfishly blocking an entire chair and shuffled them to the floor so he could take my seat.

As we chatted amiably after requisite introductions, he mentioned being from "South Texas [or] northern Mexico" and my interest rose dramatically. "Where in Texas?" I prodded excitedly.

"Corpus Christi." Three hours away from my hometown. Sweet. "I went to school in Austin."

Even closer, I smiled to myself. "UT," I said matter-of-factly, indicating his university of choice.

"Where did you go?" he almost yelled, due to the increasing volume of the room.

"Texas Lutheran. In Seguin."

"I don't know Texas Lutheran, but I've heard of Seguin."

Fair enough. I began quizzing him on all the obscure places around the southern portion of the Lone Star State that only a local would know. "Have you heard of New Bransfels?" I started. "What about San Marcos? Pflugerville? Georgetown? Lampassass? Marble Falls? Uvalde? The Hill Country? Boerne? Junction? Fredicksberg?"

He had either heard of or knew them all. It was like coming home--so many names and locations that I had carried with me for a year, that no one around me knew about but me. The equivalent in Korea is meeting someone in Seoul who used to live in Chungju, the boon-docks according to Koreans, a place only people from the country ever dare go. If you ever meet someone who has lived there, you instantly feel like kin.

"Okay this one you won't know," I said, trying to stump him. "Burnet?"

He almost scoffed at me. "Pfft," he nodded. "It's right by Austin."

I had only heard of Burnet through a dear friend of mine I met my last year of college, though it's at most an hour and a half from San Antonio. So he was from Texas.

It was eleven-forty-five the next time I consulted my watch. I'd have had just enough time if I had extricated myself that very instant. I knew that would have been wisest; yet there I was, without any intention or real desire to leave. Mentally, I took stock of the belongings I had carried from Suwon: Twenty thousand won cash--check. Camera--check. Passport--check. ID--check. Thick book about the origins of ancient world languages, in case of boredom on subway--check. Extra clothes or toiletries in the event I am stranded in Seoul--uh, negative. I was quickly running out of time for plan A and plan B didn't seem very forthcoming.

"I was thinking of going to the jimjil-bang tonight," my friend Rebecca said moments after my silent inventory. "There's a nice one in Itaewon with private rooms to sleep in." Ah, yes. Korea's famous public bath houses. After nearly fourteen months in the country, I had yet to rake up the courage to try one. "You get used to it," Rebecca assured me. "They give you towels and pajamas and you can buy soap and shampoo there. The subway's closing soon and I thought it's better than trying to catch a cab home." It soon became painfully obvious that if I had wanted to ride the subway, I should have hit the road long before then. The later it got, the more tantalizing Rebecca's idea sounded. Maybe Plan B was starting to form after all.

Soon after our jimjil-bang discussion, one of our group volunteered to teach us to salsa and we all followed each other through the crowded, smoky room to the dance floor. Lea, an energetic twenty-something who spent a year studying abroad in Brazil, showed us the basic steps: Start with your feet together, then step your left foot out and bring it back back. Step your right foot back, then bring it forward to meet your left.

"Until you try anything new," she cautioned, "you always want to come back to one spot." Left foot forward, left foot center. Right foot back, right foot center. Got it.

"Then you go side to side, or you can do what every Cuban does--" she said as she rhythmically swung her left foot out and to the back of her and then brought it back in, repeating with the right. Man, she looked pretty good! I tried her basic steps, but confused myself at first with which foot went back and which forward. That is, until I started counting to four.

The group of novice dancers out on the floor circled around each other, self-consciously wanting to practice its new-found skills. The newbies would regroup again after each few set of songs, shuffling our feet from side-to-side in imitation of any real dance steps. Two Korean girls from Isabel's party always joined up with us, Isabel's co-worker named Stella and Stella's cute Korean friend. The friend looked the epitome of Korean fashion in her wide-brimmed black sweater, cutesy petite headband, and bobbed black tresses. Each time we found ourselves without partners, the two of us decided to dance with each other, wiggling around the dance floor like two toddlers learning to walk. Her giddy giggles and placating smiles made it all the less important that we weren't trying to perfect our Latin style.
As the six of us beginners started to pair off, Thomas and I found ourselves dancing with each other. Neither of us knew if the current song playing were indeed salsa, but we tried our hand--er, feet--at it anyway. As a way to judge his adroitness at rhythm, I had asked him while we were still in the circle if he played any instruments. Three of them, he told me: saxophone, piano, and violin. Clearly, he beat my claim of knowing only one. Rhythm, then, should not have been a problem.

I tried my best not to look at his feet or mine as he led me around the well-worn floor, instead shifting my gaze to other couples, reflections in the mirror, or the precise dance steps that surrounded us. Anything to keep me distracted from the fact that a man was actually holding my hand. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-for, I recited quickly to myself as I counted out the song's beats, trying to allow myself to be led. There was easily a foot of space between us both. Relax, Jennifer. It's just a dance.

Every so often, we'd miss a step, dislocating our movements from the rhythm of the song. Self-consciously, I stole glances down at our feet, making sure we were doing this right. One-two-three-four. "I still can't figure it out either," Thomas confided as we plodded on.

"Just count to four!" I shouted above the music.

He seemed to get it after that, even attempting turns every few measures to add a little sabor to our steps. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. Turn-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. Occasionally, he let go of my hand and turned himself, then quickly found my hand again, just like a boot-clod Texan might while dancing the two-step. Salsa with Thomas was beginning to feel natural, even rhythmic. At least until the music stopped.

Thomas and I yet again stood opposite each other at the start of another bar of music. He looked at me quickly, nodded then shrugged. "Yeah," he said straight-faced. "I'm getting bored of you, too."
I laughed off his comment coyly as we positioned our feet for another go. At the end of the music as he tried to dip me, my back stiffened unromantically in an awkward upright arch. I was taken aback--it was a move, I confessed, I had never tried. Neither had he, he assured me. Perhaps dancing with Thomas was far less fluid than my mesmerized mind had originally thought.

By this time I had forgotten to even consult my watch, so engrossed in the dancing as I was. Whatever the time, I knew it was late and getting even later. Rebecca stood next to me as we circled up to innocently practice our steps once more. I had already agreed to join her at the jimjil-bang whenever the party called it a night. "Unless you wanted to stay out later and continue dancing," she leaned over to me just then, "I'm fine with going in about half an hour."

I mumbled something to her about not really caring to stay out much later than that and glanced at my watch again: a quarter to two, what my dad would deem stupid o'clock in the morning. "We could leave at two, if you want." To this she nodded agreeably and the issue settled itself. This time, I would leave on time.

"Are you guys getting ready to leave?" Thomas asked, the next partner to the right of me in the circle. "Well, it was nice to meet you. Hopefully we'll run into each other again."

"It was nice to meet you, too," I said as I squeezed myself toward the door and my collection of belongings. I quietly left him to wile away the rest of the morning hours on the dance floor.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I think I just found my earthly hero. His name is Greg Mortenson, a man born a year before my father who lives in Bozeman, Montana, with his family and a story I just can't shake. When he was thirty-five and I was still in grade school, in 1993, he tried summiting Pakistan's K2, a peak in the Himalaya second in height only to its renowned neighbor in Nepal, Mt. Everest, yet much more difficult to traverse. An avid climber and trained nurse, he had been asked to be the expedition medic for the trip. His only reason for not completing his summit bid was that he and another teammate risked their own welfare to carry one of their injured expedition members down the mountain.

The state of total exhaustion that the rescue left him in became fodder for the next leg of Mortenson's life journey. As he mistakenly stumbled into the remote Pakistani village of Korphe, the country's last human outpost before unyielding peaks swallowed hospitable landscape, he was taken in by its leader and given the rest he so badly needed. "[That] evening, he went to bed by a yak dung fire a mountaineer who'd lost his way," relays his biographer David Oliver Relin, in the book he co-authored with Mortenson called Three Cups of Tea. "[The next] morning," Relin continues, "by the time he'd shared a pot of butter tea with his hosts and laced up his boots, he'd become a humanitarian who'd found a meaningful path to follow for the rest of his life" (2).

A meaningful path to follow for the rest of his life. Among the many nearly-unbelievable details from Mortenson's biography, this statement to me is the most gripping and amazing. It resonates so intensely with me because deep inside, this is what I want most. The young mountaineer was at a crossroads in his life as he descended the Himalaya's Baltoro glacier back towards humanity. I can identify with the youthful longing for adventure he must have felt at that moment and the uncertainty of what his next step should be. He needed a calling, something far greater than himself that he could devote himself to with reckless abandon, just as he had devoted himself to climbing. And so do I.

Nothing meaningful is ever easily accomplished, however. Mortenson's task proved to be physically, socially, and spiritually demanding, one which required painful endurance and rigid self-discipline to fulfill. Having witnessed children's classes being held without a proper schoolhouse nor a teacher, Mortenson purposed within himself to provide a school for the Korphe village through whatever means it would take. Three years and several nearly-impassable roadblocks later, he returned to carry out his word. That one promise birthed in him a passion not only for the region, but for education for the poorest of the poor, that launched his advocacy for Pakistan.

Mortenson's purpose in Pakistan is to build unbiased schools, especially for impoverished girls, in the country's most needy areas. "It is my vision," he writes in his acknowledgements, "that we will dedicate the next decade to achieving universal literacy and education for all children" (333). Along with providing education, he also seeks to relieve humanitarian needs for displaced internal refugees. One such refugee, left homeless after the 1999 Kargil Conflict between Pakistan and India, petitioned Mortenson as they crouched together underneath a blue tarp that shaded the hot sand and served as a makeshift shelter outside Skardu, the regional capital of Baltistan. "We need food, medicine, and education for our children," the refugee pleaded. "This is our home now. I'm ashamed to ask for so much, but no one else has come" (220).

No one else has come. It's a jarring accusation for those of us sitting in our comfortably coiffed homes half a world away. No one else was so willing to risk his comfort in order to reach out a hand of healing? No one else cares enough to stoop in the sand and listen? It reminds me of Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan: One man, caught by thieves on a fairly busy road and left for dead, was stepped over and around by all of the elite religious leaders of his day because he was considered unclean and unworthy; to touch him in any way would prove uncomfortable. Yet a Samaritan stopped his journeys and knelt down in the dust, soiling his own clothes to care for this strange man, because he had compassion. Scripture says he "showed mercy" to the wounded man and Jesus Himself asks us to "go and do likewise" (Lk 10:27). Mortenson, it seems, has taken Jesus up on His offer.

The reason I can't shake Mortenson's story is because it stirs me to respond. Whether this man is a believer in Jesus or not, his actions are biblically sound. To His servants who cared for the needy and most forgotten, Jesus asserts in Matthew 25: "Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, My brothers, you did it to Me" (25:40). What Jesus applauds, Morteson is doing. What stops me from doing the same? "I am challenged this day to live my life worthy of the call of Christ," I posted to my Skype account just after finishing the book. Indeed, it arouses me in very meaningful ways--ways that may just find me crouched in a hot, dusty corner of Earth pouring out a cup of cold water to a man who "can offer [me] nothing... not even tea" (Mortenson 220).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sah Kyehjole: Winter

Winters in Korea look a lot like they do in Virginia, Maryland, or (as I'm told by friends who are from there) Minnesota and even Idaho--not, however, like they do as far south as Texas. Winters where I come from tend to look a lot more like any normal locale's fall season: a bit nippy, sometimes down-right chilly, and on freak occasions actually below thirty-two degrees. My grandparents, who have been farmers all of their seventy-plus years, think it's a good winter if we get "one good freeze."

As a consequence of Texas' unpredictable climate, I was non too prepared for the bare temperatures I felt as I huddled near the warmish space heater in our closet-like office last year. This, I was to learn, was my first real taste of winter's icy fist, which for the next five months locked the peninsula in what Andy liked to call a "frozen tundra." The first snowfall of the season fell in the middle of the night around November 5, uncharacteristically too soon according to many Koreans, with the last falling sometime mid-April. I returned to Korea from my visit to Texas near the beginning of May to find temperatures had only warmed up to a barely-tolerable, layer-peircing five degrees Celcius (40 degrees F). To my dismay, I still needed a long thick sweater on the first of June.

Being that our hagwon was without consistent heating, equipped with the smallest of space heaters that did little to melt the ice-condensation on the floor or erase the visible puffs of breath from our mouths, I was loathe to move from my chair to the classroom for most of 2009's winter season. Each day as I prepared to leave my apartment, its thermostat always set to 30 degrees Celcius (85 F), I layered stockings over stockings and turtlenecks over longsleeve tees to combat the conditions I knew I would find at school. I was never without one of two knit sweaters and always wore a thin jacket underneath my mother's bulky winter coat whenever I stepped out of doors.

Yet for all my layers, my preparations still seemed inadequate to ward off the grip of Korea's icy winter chill. As a way for me to cope mentally with the incessant cold, the running joke in the office with Andy and Brandon was that they should wake me up in three months. My blunders, however, were never far from scrutiny--and this was apparently no exception. Brandon commented one day upon reflection, "You know, you keep saying March. But what if it's still cold [then]?"

But it just had to warm up by March, I was sure--so sure that as I packed my bags the last weekend of February in preparation for my move to Suwon, I stuffed my mom's big blue ski jacket inside a small box and left it at Andy's house, to be picked up at my earliest convenience. Confessing what was inside the box to Andy while en route to my new home, he offered, "Well you know that was a stupid idea." He proved himself right when temperature dipped low again for one "last cold snap" that week, while I huddled without a proper jacket to wait for the bus.

It was a long, bitter winter for the inhabitants (and transient residents) of Korea's pennisula for 2009-2010, with record-deep snowfall at the beginning of January in Seoul and as far south as Chungju. Yet for all its harsh reality, the season still proved itself to be filled with surprises and adventure. My dad once told me that "there's nothing for you in this season." When I offered that to my friend Anna, she observed that perhaps that means I should just look more closely for ways to enjoy it. Though I think Dad is still right on some level, I'm beginning to appreciate the changes, rhythms, and seasons of the life that the LORD brings. Even bitter ones turn beautiful if you let them.


Winter: Kyah-ul 겨울 2009

I had the chance to experience my first real snow last December in a posh eatery on the outskirts of Chungju, on the other side of the Chungju Dam.

For last winter vacation, I was able to take a modest trip around Korea. Here I am en route south to Gwangju to visit an acquaintance on a train that felt, save for hot-hot-hot-hot choc'late, like the Polar Express.

This is Gwen, the woman who saved my luggage. She lives in Gwangju and offered me a place to stay when I came to visit.

This is a group of Korean believers who welcomed me to their church, the foreign new-comer, with open arms. The woman to my left was my translater, the sister of the girl to the right in the foreground. I felt so loved there--and felt the Spirit move so freely--that for a moment I seriously contemplated making the three+ hour commute every weekend just to be a part of their fellowship.

Welcome to Busan: where big city meets Korean small-town country. This eatery in the express bus terminal looked so warm and inviting--and so much like an American diner--that I stopped and ordered a roll of kimpap while pouring over my tourist map to figure out my itinerary for the day.

When I first got to Busan, I found this bloom and remember being amazed that such life could blossom in wintertime. I marveled at its ability to thrive in such harsh conditions.

One night's stay in Busan cost me 60,000 won (about $48), but it was well worth the splurge as I had a plush bed to sleep in, a nice street view, and an actual SHOWER to stand in that didn't leave my bathroom floor and everything left on it sopping wet.

My whole reason for visiting Busan was to pay my respects to the UN Memorial Cemetary to honor my grandfather, who had served in the American Armed Forces and was stationed here in Korea during the Korean War. The row of flags represents the 28 nations who came to South Korea's aid for those three years of open conflict.

This is the traditional house I stayed in during my visit to Jeonju. The place was cozy and the staff was hospitable, with tea brought to my door and traditional breakfast served hot and fresh in the morning.

During my stay in Jeonju, I visited their cathedral and had a chance to sip a cup of fresh dechu tea with a wonderfully sweet woman from their cultural museum. She sat by me, chatting with me and teaching me snippits of Korean as I savored her sweet creation. Among the many Korean teas availible, dechu remains my favorite.

Dal Cheon's Christmas service: Here youths are gathering at the front to read letters written to their parents to thank them for the support and encouragement they had provided throughout the years. Though I couldn't understand much of what was said, the scene itself was very touching.

"Stocking stuffers" given as a Christmas present from Dal Cheon.

Christmas Dinner! After our Christmas Day service at my adopted Korean church in Chungju, Dal Cheon Kam-ri Gyo Hwi (달 천 감리교회), my then-director took me out for ja-ja-meon, a "Koreanized Chinese" noodle dish traditionally prepared by hand (notice the scissors in my director's hands used to cut the noodles; surprisingly, they are quite effective). I had a chance to watch the man in the back make a batch of fresh noodles by wrapping the stringy dough quickly by his wrists like a jump rope and stretching it repeatedly. It was an art quite fascinating to watch.

One of my friend Anna's and my favorite pastimes last winter was skiing; during the season, we went twice. It took me a bit to remember how my feet worked clamped to boards almost as long as I am tall, but once it came back to me I really started to enjoy myself. No, Brenda, I did NOT yell at anyone on top of the mountain. But on the steepest slopeI had yet encountered, I took off my skis, pointed my feet downward, and had the slide of my life!
January 16, 2011 will mark a year to the day that I brought my Frankie-boy to come live with me. He has been such a precious blessing!

The day I got Frankie, Dal Cheon took their youth on an outing to go sledding--and took me with them. As I had yet to experience the joy of tumbling down a frozen slope in style, I gave it a try and had a BLAST!

The boys surprised me with a Paris Baugette chocolate cake in the form of a miniature, edible piano for my birthday. There was so much of it left that I divvied it up into cups and passed its pieces out to all my classes throughout the day. I laughed at having to use chopsticks to eat my treat--until I later realized that it's just the norm in Korea to eat cake without a fork.

Lauren, one of the sweetest office staff members there is to work with in South Korea.

Coming on the 24th of February and just after San Antonio's only real cold snap, my birthday always marks the end of winter for me; this year it marked the end of more than just that. Less than a week later, I said goodbye to Chungju and packed my bags to head north for the coming spring and yet a new life season. But not before being serenaded by the musical talents of Mr. Andy Afternoon Levin: My birthday treat was an evening of tasty shabu-shabu followed up with mouth-watering solos, duets, and a group debut of "Happy Birthday" at the local nuraebang.

Boys and Girls of the Ju, here's to you!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Traditional Concert

The day after my hike in Chungju with Krista, we met up with more of my friends from the Ju for a relaxing drive into the countryside, freshly-made Indian food from Seoul, and a quiet concert in the foothills surrounding the sprawling city. The concert was put on by a friend of Matt's who operates a school out of a traditional house and hosts the event every year to raise money for his students. He also sells homemade preserves, sauces, and gently used items as part of the event to supplement the income from the concert.

To my surprise, dozens of people were present that day to sample the musical and culinary cuisine, including foreigners I didn't recognize. I tried pointing them out to Krista, but ended up with egg on my face.

"Hey look," I nodded to a couple with lighter hair and skin than the surrounding Koreans, not four feet from where they sat. "Here are some waegukins we don't know." It was an assumption dangerous to make in such a tight-knit community like Chungju.

"I know those waegukins," Krista commented with conviction.

I gulped self-consciously as, at that moment, the couple nodded their greeting to my friend. "Hey Krista," they waved.

"Hey," she called back and volleyed conversation back and forth for a few moments.


As the crowd waited for the food to be ready, different stations throughout the compound were set up for amusement. In one booth, girls were making beaded cell phone charms and in another, traditional Nepalese games were being played. Krista and I tried our hands at playing one of the games with Moon Hae, my Canadian friend Jason's wife, and a group of her friends. The object of our chosen game was to get all three of your team's coins from one end of a string of shells to the other. I could see this as being a successful pastime for hotter, dryer climates like those in the Middle East: It looked like something nomadic tribesmen might enjoy, portable as it was without needing the use of a gameboard.

The game was played by first rolling dice in a small wooden cup, and the outcome of the roll told you how many shells to move. You then grabbed your alloted handful, scooted them over, and nestled your coin safely amid the other shells, to repeat your success the next round. It was none too easy, however, because your oponents could, in persuit of the same goal, usurp your coin and place it back at the start of the shells. Competition was so intense that when Jason came to tell us lunch had been served, we couldn't leave until the game was finished and the winning team declared.

After a meal of fresh nan and spicy Indian curry, we sat down in the courtyard of one of the traditional houses on the compound to enjoy the musical delights of my friend Anna and another talented instrumentalist. Anna first played soothing Hindi music for us on her sarangi, a classical stringed instrument from India that sits on your lap and is played much like a dulcimer. She then taught us to sing a song in Hindi using cards in English and Korean displaying each vocal note. The final performer for the night was a multi-talented, multi-intrumental musician who wooed the gathered crowd with exotic notes sounds from far away places, whiskingus away to Africa on the notes of his whimsical song.

All in all, it was a fun time with my friends from Chungju whom I rarely get to see these days. The cuisine was spicy yet satisfying, the music entertaining, and the company enjoyable--a truly beautiful afternoon.


Snippets of a traditional house: Its walls and windows are made of durable hanji, the traditional paper product that Korea is famous for.

My friend Krista beading a cell phone charm: Since my phone has no hook on which to hang such beauty, the one I made has become a camera charm instead.

Traditional Nepalese games before dinner: I played the one pictured last.

Mmmm, fresh nan, the bread of the Middle East: Here, the baker loosely fits the thin dough over a hard round disk resembling a spounge and slaps the dough onto the inside walls of the stone oven, what looks like an electric kiln. The bread comes out looking very much like a thick tortilla and tastes like a pita.

Here, ladies wash the dinner dishes Korean-style, squatting outside near a spigot and a large vat of dirty plates and cups.

This is my beautiful friend Anna and her Korean beau. She showcased her musical talents on a sarangi at the concert later that day.

This was the final act of the afternoon, a rather gregarious Korean who entertained us with his many strange instruments.