Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fresh Mountain Air

In a recent Facebook post, my co-worker, Brandon, expressed thoughts similar to mine when he said that he was looking forward to being able to stretch his legs a little. Korea's dragging winter has gotten to the best of us in Chungju, I fear. The weather of late has been abnormally warm for this particular season, however, with the mercury hovering at a balmy 45 in the sunny daytime. This last week brought with the warmth a hint of spring's soothing embrace, inspiring an extended outdoor stay and a hike to the top of nearby Namsan with Brandon.

As we began our outdoor trek, I felt every step the novice hiker that I am alongside Brandon's "pretty intense" outdoorsman skills. My thighs whined their protest only strides into the climb as we walked briskly along the stone-laid incline to the foot of the mountain. I mentioned in passing that the path leading to Namsan's base was steep in itself and he countered that the path to the top was all the more difficult. I watched him keep four to five paces in front of me even before the hike officially began. His long legs and agility only lengthened the distance between us as we climbed the mountainside. I tried in vain to carry on intelligent conversation with him, but before we reached the start of the trail I huffed that if at any time I didn't respond, "I'm only trying to breathe." This would be anything but a polite nature stroll. He paused in his walk long enough for me to reach him, but as soon as I did was bounding upward again. Thankfully, Namsan is a highly trafficked trail, complete with rest stops and steps at the end, for those of us Weak In Mountain Procedures.

Along the trail I breathlessly confessed to Brandon that I was an old woman and all he could reply as he lunged upward, nearly ten feet from me, was, "Well, I'm right behind you." Not only was my body crying out to me from a lack of excercise, I unwisely ate two pieces of Korean pizza less than an hour before we embarked and my stomach was cartwheeling its complaint. When I reached the bottom of the stairs and the last leg of the trail, I didn't want my slowness to be a hinderance. "If you want to go at a more challenging pace," I suggested without finishing the thought. "Well, see you at the top?" he asked. When I finally limped my way up the stairs, we sat together gazing at the picturesque expanse of Korea's visible mountain range. Even as I felt like I was holding him back, he kept reassuring me that it wasn't a problem for him. Still, when he said he was going hiking again this weekend, I didn't offer to go. I wanted him to challenge himself in ways that being with me would not really afford.

Traveling back down was much more enjoyable for me than hiking up. We were able to keep pace with each other and I was even able to finish my sentences during our discussion. Continuing a Korean tradition, we placed small rocks in the pillars erected by former hikers as a way to finish our journey. Seeing the piles of pebbles reminded me of the altars, the Ebenezer stones, built in the Old Testament as remembrances of God's faithfulness: Joshua, for example, commanded the twelve tribes of Israel to gather apparently-hefty stones from the River Jordan to create a memorial of their crossing, just as the LORD had instructed him (4:1-7). I added mine as one more reminder of His guidance.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Where's Frankie?

For almost a week, my life has experienced the exciting thrill of something new. Last Saturday, January 16, saw the arrival of a new roommate to my apartment, one whose unpredictable actions sometimes keep me up at night but whose affections are a welcomed pleasantry to come home to. I find myself thinking about him often at work, wondering how his day has been so far. When I return home, I am sometimes still in disbelief. He can't really be in my life, right? It was touch and go at the beginning: He hid under the bed for almost two days, long enough for my friend to be slightly concerned for his health. But now whenever I walk in the door, he's either there to greet me or excited to see me wherever I find him. He seems to have warmed up to me quite nicely, crooning sweetly for me to give him attention. His name is Frankie. I find him in odd places while I'm here in the apartment--and heavan only knows what he does when I'm not! My hope is that he'll be nothing but a positive addition to my stay here in Chungju.
Here is a Where's Waldo-like photo essay of my new friend:

Here he is hiding under the bed with the dust bunnies!

He found a nook to hide in to be by me while I'm cooking.

He did his best to look as cute as he could here. Who can say no to a face like that?!

Can you find him in this one? I promise he's there!

We were having an affectionate moment after a stressful day--a welcomed release!

He decided to explore every nook and cranny of the food pantry.

When I'm not looking, he steals a seat on my dresser, rearranging the order of my pretties for me.

... and even sneaks a peak at unmentionables!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Treatise on Snow

I never thought that snow could look like mud until I experienced my first authentic winter here in Korea. The only images of snow in my head were pictures from the 1985 blizzard in San Antonio: fields covered in a soft blanket, my family bundled comfortably up to their noses, and fluffy sheets of white coating everything. I had this romantic, feel-good sentiment towards the stuff; nobody ever takes pictures of when it melts.

The only thing I knew about dealing with snow growing up was it was cold enough that winter for the snow to stay on the ground for three days. Korea has already beaten that record this winter by a long shot. It snowed heavily here in Chungju on Monday, January 4. Five days later, today, January 9, the snow is still around. I’m expecting this batch to stay on the ground until, oh, mid-March, when the mercury might finally reach high enough to allow the frozen rainfall to seep into the ground and continue its usefulness. As of right now, it’s just chilling with the populace.

It’s taken a bit of a different form since it fell on Monday, however. In this last week, it’s looked a lot like humid salt, mud, and even rocks. Even in the wettest climates, rainwater eventually evaporates and the mud dries up. It may leave a rut, but it’s not still slush. None of that is true for snow, if it’s cold enough: It piles onto itself, collecting whatever dirty flotsam is left in or tracked onto the street, leaving a wave of muck that won’t minimize. I saw a man today shoveling what looked like two-inch sheets of white shale, only to discover it was very sad, forgotten street snow.

No-longer-fresh snow gets its abuses from mankind, I think. Instead of playing with it as a novelty or toy, we brush it aside, leave our handprints in it, or pile it into heaps and dirty mounds. I wonder how much abuse the little snowfall from 1985 received before it finally fled the scene. Did it mask its own identity, mimicking the mire and sludge found in ditches? Or did it serenely slip away in the night, its dignity intact, leaving the public to wonder at its silent disappearance? Perhaps it didn’t stick around long enough to feel man’s misuse yet again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

At the Cross

Wednesday afternoon, January 6, I prepared to lead my five-year-old all-boy beginning phonics class. There were only two students at the start, Shean, an ultra-eager knowledge sponge, and Scott, a bright boy who seems bored at times. I started class in my usual way, singing the "ABC's" while the students pointed or drew lines to each letter in their books. In the middle of the song, the third boy and the last of my students, Andrew, entered the room.
When he arrived, I thought, "Oh great, here comes trouble." Listless and bored, Andrew would oscillate between causing trouble in class, being unengaged, and flat-out refusing my activities. I was beginning to enjoy my time just with the other two and had hoped for a bit of respite when I noticed Andrew missing.

I got none of it that day. Korean words were exchanged among the boys as Andrew sat down, words unfamiliar to me; I thought it a simple greeting until Andrew steeled his face and lifted his fist to his ear, silent and defiant. Though he didn't open his book at all and left his bag in the far corner of the room, I kept on with the song, then started my A-B-C flashcards. As I attempted to continue my review and ignore him, without warning Andrew pulled his fist back and whacked Shean in the high cheek close to his eye.

"Andrew!" I shouted. I pulled at his arm, trying to persuade him to follow me, and bent close to his face. "No! That is not acceptable!" I opened the door and called for Josh, the resident Korean disciplinarian, to assist me. He came and took both boys out of the room. Minutes later they both returned, a confident, peaceful look on Shean's face and tears of sorrow and shame staining Andrew's.

Bravely, I tried to return to my shattered routine. "Come over here, boys," I chirped cheerily. "Let's put our [alphabet] caterpillar board togeteher." Though Scott and Shean were eager to come, Andrew sulked in his chair at the table. I looked directly at him as we began, crooning softly, "Come join us, Andrew." Though I don't know how many English words he followed, the message was clearly understood. He shook his head. "Aneyo," his actions told me. No. Why would a boy freshly caught in sin and aware of his own filth be at all willing to join those faces so recently washed and scrubbed free of dirt?

Andrew continued to sit at the table and watch the activity from a distance, until Scott and Shean had trouble finding the letter G. I could tell he was interested in the game: once, he walked towards us only to sit back down again. He finally came, grabbed the letter triumphantly, and put it on the caterpillar--promptly returning to his seat. While playing the game with the boys, a church chorus echoed through my mind. "I know a place," it says, "where accused and condemned find mercy and grace." Continuing to offer inclusion, knowing the boy's detestable actions full well, is one way to hand out mercy and grace. As he gradually began to feel more comfortable with himself again, Andrew approached us to help finish the alphabet. I couldn't help but think that he had found a bit of mercy and grace during class.

How could it be that a little five-year-old boy could already feel the weight of the world's judgement so heavy on his thin shoulders? In my judgement of him, I accused Andrew of something that hadn't even happened yet; in his reaction to Josh's discipline, the boy showed his feelings of condemnation and self-remorse. That day I began to understand the message of the Cross more clearly: It is on those like Andrew that I must bestow the greatest compassion and acceptance, the one who knows the weight of his own sin. He doesn't need me to condemn him; his actions have done that work already! I can't shun the one so singled out, so rejected through his guilt and shame. The two of us meet at a common place, the foot of the Cross, and both must find healing there. Christ's forgiveness is as availible to him as it is to me. Even the wrongs of a five-year-old boy can be "nailed there with [Jesus], there on the Cross."

"I know a place,
a wonderful place
where accused and condemned
find mercy and grace,
where the wrongs we have done
and the wrongs done to us
were nailed there with Him
there on the Cross!
At the Cross
(at the Cross)
He died for our sins.
At the Cross
(at the Cross)
He gave us life again."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


In my conversation with her tonight, I found her to be genuine. She may not be seeking Christ, but she understands the kind of comisserate, compassionate love that He sought from His followers--in ways that I have yet to fully know! Her idea of life is that, rather than being about who people are or what they're doing, the point of life is to have a compassionate willingness to see other people's point of view. She talked about letting people be happy, no matter what they find their happiness in. She shared the story about her sister: They had been so close growing up and then her sister became a Christian and wouldn't talk with her for years. She just wanted her sister to love her as a sister, not because she shared the same beliefs; she hoped that her sister would see her as truly happy.
When He came to Earth, Jesus was outspoken against the Religious of His day; I find myself to be the Religious of mine. He took them to task because in their piety they failed to see humanity and wouldn't stoop low enough to love. The woman caught in adultery He released from shame when He said, "Then neither do I condemn you." He taught us to be fishers of men, to love through the spirit of the law and not the letter. This doesn't mean that I agree with them; it just means that I don't condemn them. It means to allow the Spirit of Christ to bring them to the place of mercy. Scripture says there is no partiality with Him--mercy is theirs for the asking. I feel like the Prodigal Son's brother or the men in one of Jesus' parables whom the farmer hires at the beginning of the day: proud of my own standing but bitterly angry at the now-right standing of others.
When she first met me, this woman felt judged by me--in the same manner that her sister had judged her. I could do nothing to deny that because I knew it to be true! The Apostle Paul said it right: to be all things to all men. I am not all things to all men because I lack the willingness to put aside my spiritual pride and my longing to be right long enough to see them as they are and to give them the credibility of being human. In my stiff piety, I look down my nose at those who don't observe the same rules as I do. I'm disconnected from them in a way that this woman is not. She makes me think of the worship chorus "At the Cross" differently. I always thought the song somehow only had to do with the religious elite, but now I see that it speaks of people being persecuted by the religious elite! "Accused and condemned"--accused by me! My friend Brenda's comment to me in a recent email was, in essence, what makes me think I'm any different?
If my piety, my desire to be separate from the lost, keeps me from understanding them or developing relationships that can withstand the weight of truth, then what is it good for? I still can't do it! I still can't love like He does--my love is conditional! My love does not cover a multitude of sins because it doesn't want to soil itself. My love points out the wrongs of others and highlights them, focusing on the distinctions. I only love those who love me. My love is withouth the compassion that this woman seeks! I want so much to love like Jesus does, but I don't. He has compassion on us because He knows what it's like to be human; this woman understands that because she knows what it's like, too. But Religion? It denies its own humanity.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Snow Day!

As I was washing my face this morning to prepare for work, I heard a knock on my door. I answered it, my face still white with soap, to find Andy smiling down at me. "I'm about to make your day," he said excitedly. "Lauren [our administrator] just called me and because of the snow the bus can't pick us up, so there's no school today."

It had been snowing, presumably, since before I awoke at 10 that morning; by 12:30, it was still going. After Andy's announcement I took a quick look around outside, without my winter coat but still chilled in three layers, and guessed that there must have been four inches of snow on the ground already. It was amazing--more snow in one place than I'd seen in my whole life! Andy's friend Mike, who is visiting from Oregon for a couple of weeks, said the same thing. Even Jay, our Korean friend from Chungju, commented that the city's never seen this much. As I watched cars crawl down usually-busy streets, I felt almost like I was back in San Antonio: If it even ices over, that entire city shuts down. This was beginning to look like a relaxing free day, full of updating pictures, blogging, and watching the snow fall.

As I later sat in the PC bang uploading pictures to Facebook, Andy called to invite me for some football. He said that he, Brandon, his friend Mike, and Jay were going and I was welcomed to join them. I told him I wasn't quite dressed for it, as in anticipation of work I had decided to wear my nice wool skirt and insulated high-heeled boots; but it sounded like fun. Though I don't really like football, I told him I could at least throw some snowballs at him. When he called back as they were leaving, I decided that, dressed for the occasion or not, it was a worth-while excursion, and headed out to join them.

The snow was deep as I arrived--I sank nearly to my knees just crossing the field to them! It had stopped for an hour or so in the afternoon, long enough for me to finish my chores and walk downtown. But it started up again as I left the PC bang and made my way to the elementary school field where the guys were. It continued to snow the longer we stayed, not quite blizzard-fast, but not like simple flurries. Mike commented that it felt like he was getting hit with mini-snowballs just standing there. As we left, we estimated that it had snowed somewhere between five and six inches that day.

We played around for about an hour, throwing snowballs and the football back and forth. I didn't catch the ball but once, choosing instead to play with God's naturual toy. I asked Andy to take a picture of me making a snow angel and shouted triumphantly each time my snowball hit its mark. Jay snow-plowed us all, rapidly throwing handfulls of powder knee-high and upward, as we tried in vain to ward off his frantic attacks. It felt like someone was stopping hard on his skis right into my face. "I love snow!" he exclaimed passionately.

In the middle of our frolic, three Koreans crossed the field. I'm unsure what they were up to, but as we passed the football around, one shouted, "Pass me!" We threw the ball a few times, then the suggestion was made to form a game. If everyone played, my high-heeled, skirted self included, we'd have four against four. Jay joined his compatriates and it became the Koreans against the Americans. The Americans led the game, with 14 to 7 when we called it quits. I ran around a bit with them, enough to lose my camera briefly in the snow, and tried once to catch the ball or tackle whoever had it. Though I didn't play very well, I marveled that my first real football game was played in the snow in South Korea, instead of dry, flat Texas. I was the only girl that afternoon, but I didn't mind. I felt like one of the guys, oddly included like I was growing up with my brothers.

Seoul for the Weekend, Part 1

·2 January 2010·

Brandon and I had the chance to spend the day together last Saturday, January 2, as we headed to Seoul to visit Korea's National Museum. We spent about two hours wandering the museum, looking at artifacts ranging from cursive calligraphy and Vietnamese pottery to an inside pagoda. I really enjoyed going with him because I was able to pick his brain a little as we enjoyed the exhibits together. We talked about many things, including our own thoughts and beliefs. We discussed what Jesus meant by His words, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." He thought the statement could have meant "life" in the context of Christianity, but I wanted him to consider a broader thought: What if Jesus meant life to the full in general, not just in a strictly religious context? We also talked about pleasure, idol worship, and what the Buddah statue is all about.

After our stimulating conversation, we paid our 10,000 won and hit the other side of the museum to browse through the traveling exhibit on loan from Peru about the ancient Inca civilization. It proved to be less enjoyable than the other exhibits, if not entirely a mistake. Instead of perusing the artifacts casually and deliberately, we were shoved from corner to corner and carried along by the masses, excluded from even a good look at the relics due to the sheer number of the throng gathered. In the other exhibits, photography was aloud (at least presumably) as long as it was not flash. The moment I whipped out my camera here, however, I was immediately approached by an attendant. Good pictures are so conspicuous! As my conscience was then seared and sensative to the issue, I put my camera away for the duration of our stay. Brandon and I laughed together as, around the elbows and heads of Korean spectators, he snapped picture after picture of the relics. He trumped me in the coolest contraband shot of the day with those antics, a rather good photo of Francisco Pizzaro's conquering sword.

We had decided to view the special exhibit because we were at the museum already and may never get a chance to see a display like that again. Throughout the show, the most instriguing thing for me was Brandon's and my distance from the exhibit itself. I marveled at the different culturo-linguistic layers embedded into the arrangement: first the Inca's cultural heritage and language, then Spanish Peru, then the culture of the host country, Korea, and finally the culture of the waeguk, the foreigner. That's thrice removed! If I were to view a presentation like this at home in America, it would only be once removed, imported as it would be from only one culture. If I were experiencing Incan culture or history in its native land, it wouldn't be at all removed from me because for one, the Incan heritage has largely been absorbed by the Peruvians, and Spanish is my second language. The experience of this ancient way of life had to travel across four cultures just to make its way to me. It makes the experience all the harder to understand, however, as it necessarily needs translation from Spanish to Korean to English, and sometimes it doesn't make the full leap.

After the first exhibit walk-through, Brandon and I took a break for lunch, a "snack" he told me, at the museum's cafeteria. I thought it would be something small, a la carte, perhaps, and simple. We still had plans to find a good vegetarian restaurant in Insadong. I watched him wolf down rice and curry sauce, the same thing that I ate, without the courage to tell him that I was full enough after that. I couldn't believe he was still up for more! By the time we wandered into the vegetarian place a couple of hours later, my food had settled enough for me to attempt another "meal," but I wasn't too hungry. Blissfully it was a buffet, so I could pick at my food--but I had to eat something! I couldn't just be a party pooper. What's the fun in trying a new restaurant by yourself? I felt like Andy on his recent trip to Thailand: He said he and his friend ate a good meal at one restaurant only to find another several blocks away and a half an hour later to eat at again. I had two lunches that day.

Shopping for me at Insadong was kind of a bust. Touted as an all-in-one locale for tourists' shopping pleasures, I thought I might find more authentic Korean cultural relics there than in Chungju. I didn't know quite what I was looking for, but was prepared to consider purchase once I found it, even if the price were high. What I found instead was a crowd of teaming spenders, loud Korean cooks that operated out of butcher-like shops, and stores too small to explore. Brandon and I stumbled upon something that looked and smelled promising, but we found out through our broken Korean that it was a restaurant serving temple food. As we had just eaten, it wasn't very appetizing. Had I known where to look, and what specifically I was looking for, it might have been a better experience. I tried walking into two cramped calligraphy stores cluttered with brushes and all manner of paper sheaves, but neither sold any calligraphy sets familiar to my Western eyes. I left Insadong having spent 21,000 won on black tea that tastes suspiciously like disguised green tea whenever I brew it.

For Brandon, his shopping experience seemed to be equally as frustrating. We tried to find a famed second-hand store that he was interested in and asked one of the girls at the Insadong information booth where it was. She gave us a map, highlighting our route, and told us it would be a ten-minute walk. The hand-drawn map indicated that we would have to cross to the other side of the street, cross a connecting street after that, and then round the corner of the next block; in sum, it was no more than three blocks away. The two of us reached the third block feeling as if that was too short of a walk; there had been no connecting street to cross. Assuming this was the connecting street, we kept going and felt confident we'd find our destination soon. We passed a palace on our excursion and thought the shop would be just past its walled perimeter.

Twenty minutes later, we still couldn't find the shop. We finally reached the corner of the palace wall's perimeter, much more than three blocks from the information booth and far enough away to no longer be considered inside Insadong. "If [the wall] comes this far down the street, I bet you it goes down that way just as far," I said to Brandon, pointing to the adjoining street. It was then that we examined our surroundings for familiar landmarks from the map, finding none. As it was approaching five o'clock, we headed back the way we came, hoping our inadequate outline of the area would lead us home. We finally figured out which street we were supposed to turn onto--oddly enough, the one just before the palace--but discovered it only to find the shop closed.

Despite the difficulties, I felt it was a beautiful day. Upon finding the shop closed, we decided to go back to Insadong's main street and sit down for a nice cup of tea. I was quite disappointed for Brandon, but it was still an enjoyable outing and a nice walk. After tea Brandon and I parted company, as he wanted to finish shopping and I had plans to spend the night with a friend from Seoul.