Saturday, March 20, 2010

Flower-Jealousy Weather

Author Simon Winchester coins the phrase "flower-jealousy weather" in his book Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles. In 1985, he spent two months walking the length of the penninsula from Jeju-do to Seoul's DMZ. Upon arrival in mid-March of that year, the country was experiencing icey blasts of wind gusts from somewhere in northern China. Just the week before, however, it had been warm enough for flowers to start blooming. The attendant seeing to Simon's passport commented that China was jealous of the beauty that Korea's spring would soon bring to the country and used its winter winds to shake the trees free of their blossoms; China was "flower-jealous." Two and a half decades later, the winter of 2010 is experiencing the same sore feelings.

My birthday, February 24th, dawned beautiful and warm, enough for me to be almost hot as I walked from E-mart to catch the bus in my knee-high lined boots, short-sleeve blouse, and light coat. I met Andy walking out of our apartment wearing his characteristic red-and-black-checkered hunter's coat with matching (sort of) red beanie. As I said hello, he pulled the beanie violently from his head in reaction to the temperature change, discovering he no longer needed the protection his hat afforded. The day itself proved to be bright and cheery, ushering in sunshine and a new sense of hope in our dark, often-too-cold office. It was a welcome relief from the grip of cold that Chunjgu had felt since early November and a tantalizingly close reminder of the coming spring.

Three weeks later, however, with the coming of March and two snows a week apart from each other, spring has yet to arrive in what Andy dubbed "the frozen tundra" of Korea. The whole country, it seems, waits with eager anticipation for the next season's brightness, as winter has quite outstayed its welcome. I mentioned in a recent email to Brandon that it was expected to snow again the night I wrote him. "Come, spring!" I wrote. "You have to get here soon!" "Spring is a trickster," he replied, "giving us a taste of its warm, wonderful days before pulling the Springtime rug out from under us and letting us fall into Winter's diabolical, snowy trap." Snow has now lost whatever romantic charms it once held for me and I commented on a FB post that I just wanted it to "go awa-hay." I admit it's still beautiful, but it's quite time for winter's toy to go back to God's heavenly storehouses and grace us with its presence again next year.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Photographs and Memories

"Photographs and memories,
Christmas cards you sent to me--
all that I have are these
to remember you..."
--Jim Croce, circa 1973

At 7:45pm Monday, March first, we were making our way to the ticket counter to secure rides back to Chungju. Andy, Brandon, and I had just finished browsing the foreign-language section of the basement bookstore in the Central City bus terminal in Seoul, after a walk around Itaewon and a tasty, filling dinner of vegetarian burritos, chicken asada, and spicy chorrizo and eggs at authentic Taco Amigo. They had spent all day with me, carrying my luggage (and Frankie!) from the Gyeong-in apartment building to my new home in "Modern House," Hwaseong-si, and enduring our miriad hilarious modes of transportation. After settling Frankie into his apartment, we had decided to spend the rest of the day in Seoul. The close of our adventure together that night was the first time I wouldn't be going back to the 'Ju with them.

They were hoping not to have to wait an hour to start back to Chungju. "I'll hang out with y'all until you have to go," I said. "What time does your bus leave?"

Andy looked at me, glanced down at his ticket, and reservedly admitted, "In ten minutes." I stood with them for a moment or two as I let reality flood my senses.

"Let's not make this harder than it has to be," he said a moment later as he opened his arms for me to fill them. I tightly hugged them both and reassured them I'd see them within the next two weeks. My breath caught in my throat as the moment swept quickly by. If I couldn't ride with them back to the Ju, I wanted to stay there for the full ten more minutes I had with them! But on Andy's perceptive advice, my feet reluctantly carried me to the subway terminal and I walked onto the first train headed to Hwasong. Standing in the crowded, too-bright subway, alligator tears rolled down my cheeks like our train coursing down its track, and the African standing beside me awkwardly tried to comfort me. He listened sympathetically as I quietly sniffed my woes.

I finally admitted to them both this last week how much they've come to mean to me. Tuesday night, I said on the phone, "Andy, you and Brandon have been my best friends in Korea." I've never been this close to guys who aren't my brothers, yet I feel like they are just like brothers to me. I confessed to Andy one afternoon in the office that I was kind of glad "there were two of you" because if I worked with only one guy, spending as much time with him as I have with Andy and Brandon might lead to other kinds of attachments. He nodded, paused, and agreed with me.

"I think of you as my older sister," he said. "You can think of me as your younger brother."

"No," I told him, "not even my younger brother." As there is no youngest child in my family, Andy can just be like my twin, a comparrison I consider a much higher honor than merely being a younger brother.

My friend Laura admitted last night on a bus to Seoul that I had a different relationship with my co-workers than she was able to have with her own. "I did," I agreed. "I had it good." The first night I was with them, I walked between Andy and Brandon as we strolled through downtown and I commented, "It feels like I have instant friends." Andy quickly came back with, "Well, I don't know about that..." Despite his feigned reservations, what developed was, indeed, two of the sweetest friendships I've yet known. I remember Brandon's comment to me one night as we stood talking by our apartment building's elevator--that he and Andy had tried to show me the finer points of Korean culture and cuisine. It kind of felt like a joint effort between the two of them these last four months to include me in their lives and in their activities. They paid respectful attention to me in ways I'd never experienced and geniunely listened whenever I felt I had something to say. They also invited me along to most of the things they were doing, whatever they thought I'd be interested in.

They really enjoyed being active and athletic; Andy liked football and "going for a run" and Brandon liked hiking and trail running. I only hiked with Brandon once (and felt like I was holding him back the WHOLE time) and only ran with the two of them for about 2 or 3 hundred yards. But sometimes they'd go play a sports game of some kind and I'd tag along, only to show my pathetic, poor sportsmanship. Once, they stopped off at Chungju's downtown batting cages for a round or two and let me try to hit a few balls, an event which ended in a batting average of zero and throughly embarrassing myself in front of them. My lack of athleticism never seemed to matter to them, however. When I played soccer with them, at first I was incredulous when they choose me for their team. It felt so shocking, in a way, to actually be picked. But apparently they didn't care that I was a girl who couldn't really play the game!

I remember engaging in a comical game of badminton with them beneath the dim lights of Chungju's stadium grounds one night after work: We could only play one-on-one and, as there were three of us, one of us had to sit out every round. I was playing Brandon one round and Andy, instead of saying he wanted to play winner, confidently proclaimed he'd be playing Brandon "after you beat Jennifer."

Many weeknights (when we weren't playing sports or just hanging out in our respective apartments), Andy and I would go out to dinner by ourselves. He single-handedly indoctrinated me into the country's restaurant culture, warning me to stay away from foods like sandwiches and pointing out which places had picture- or English-menus. Most of the time, he was the one picking the place and suggesting what he thought I would like to eat--that's how I found my favorite Korean soup to date (bulgoggi soup served at Yung Oo-dong)! When I first arrived, I was quite impressed with his limited command of the Korean language as he placed our orders. I told him I was thankful for him ordering for me and he admitted that he wasn't going to do that for the next 8 or so months--so I eventually got the hang of it.

I greatly appreciated Andy's company at dinner. He became my son gup sal and dukgalbi partner, the two Korean dishes we ate most frequently together. As Brandon is a vegetarian and both of these have meat in them (or are essentially all meat), he normally wasn't very interested in either of these meals. But just he as predicted, about once a month Andy and I would "get the craving" and go share a pot of spicy dukgalbi together. Although I probably shouldn't make this resolution just yet, I feel like the dish will remain one that I only eat with him. I had son gup sal for the first time without Andy Friday night (March 12) and it felt a little like betrayal. "I can't eat son gup sal," I moaned to myself as I walked into the restaurant with some new foreign friends. "Andy's not here." I ate it, though, if rather reluctantly.

Even though I was bummed some weekends because we had no plans together and there would be two days before I'd see them again, every now and then we would do things on Saturday nights. Brandon and I would often head over to our friend Matt's apartment for a night full of off-the-wall board games and good, clean fun. Andy joined us occasionally, but he prefered not to make too many plans on the weekends. One night, we met Matt at a small coffee shop called Little Prince and Andy mentioned that he'd be along directly. As Brandon and I headed out, he worried that Andy wouldn't be able to find the place, tucked away as it is among dusty apple orchards. He was so worried that when Andy called Matt for directions, Brandon volunteered to go get him. That night we played a fun game of relaxed strategy in which the object is to build as many cities and claim as many fields as one could before running out of pieces. It was hilariously funny and I and my partner Ana won by about 7 points.

I have seen and heard from them both since the night in Seoul: I placed Andy on a bus bound for the Incheon Airport (and effectively for destinations out of Korea) the following Thursday morning, repeating the scene played out at the Central City terminal. He had decided to leave Korea and I was bound and determined not to let him go without saying goodbye! I realized just how tall he was as, on tip-toe, I hugged him one last time and asked the LORD's blessing on his life. I asked him not to make me cry and he said, "Well, I won't see your tears." Just before I turned back to wait for my own bus to Suwon, he chided his last advice, "Get to work on time!" I never had a chance to tell him that I missed being on time by 20 minutes that day.

The following Saturday, I had the opportunity to have breakfast with Brandon as I prepared to pack and haul the rest of my things to Hwaseong. Andy had advised me to get out what I had left in the apartment as soon as I could, as the school would likely toss it all and the apartment manager was in dire need of the key. Brandon and I spent the day repeating the antics of the previous Monday, minus Andy and the cat, and went to Taco Amigo again as part of Brandon's agreement to help me move my things. I saw him again last Saturday (March 13), this time to help someone else move up to Seoul. He said he couldn't go all the way there, but he'd help out as much as he could in Chungju. That day proved to be beautiful, with a shared coconut-banana smoothie, a pleasant (almost warm!) walk to our friend's apartment, and another visit to the batting cages. It ended at Matt's house again, playing another engaging yet complicated good-guy-versus-villan board game.

I feel in some ways that all I have left of Andy's, Brandon's and my time together are photographs and memories. But the LORD has been showing me that, even though it was only three and half months, it was enough. "You only get just one time around," a Christian band called 33 Miles sings. "You only get one shot at this--one chance to find out the one thing that you don't wanna miss." If that was it, that was it! That was my one shot, my one chance! Did I take every opportunity that I had with them to share the love of Christ? Did I take every opportunity to just be their friends and enjoy their company?

I feel all the more sure that I didn't cruise through my days with them having missed what the LORD wanted me to see. I know He has taught and will continue to teach me through their smiling faces and sweet memories. My friend Heidi told me a few weeks ago that she feels as though "God gave me Korea." Though I feel the same, I want to add something to that: In my heart of hearts, I feel as though God gave me Andy and Brandon. They were guardian angels who didn't even know they were on assignment from Heaven, sent to teach, refine, build up and protect one who will profoundly be affected by having had them in her life for a such a sweet, short time.

Andy and Brandon, I am ever thankful to you both for allowing me to tag along on your Korean adventure. Happy Trails!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On the Move

The Friday I left Learning Well, February 26, 2010, I was out with my ex-pat friends in Chungju to celebrate my recent birthday. It was also, in part, a gathering to wish me farewell as I embarked on yet another journey in Korea. My friend Ana had graciously picked my co-workers, Andy and Brandon, and I up at our hagwon and, after a night of mild shabu-shabu and raucous songs at the nurae-bang, we were heading back to her car.

The three of us were anticipating a glorious break from school on Monday in celebration of Korea's Independence Day, one that would be full of sleeping in, relaxation, and, at least for me, relocating to my new place of residence. As we neared our ride, Andy quipped, "We have a three day weekend. We don't have to work on Monday!"

"Who says you don't have to work on Monday?" I asked, incredulous. "You're helping me move."

"You're paying me to go to Suwon!" he shot back in playful banter. "As long as I get to take Frankie. I want Frankie duty."

At this, Brandon joined the conversation. "I want the heaviest thing you have."

"Aside from myself," I replied cheekily, "I have two fifty-five-pound bags that you can carry."

Earlier that week, I had asked Andy and Brandon in an email if they'd help me move. I was sure I'd have enough stuff to fill all three of our pairs of arms: two pieces of filled-to-capacity luggage, two heavy carry-ons, two canvas grocery bags full of miscellaneous household needs, and one breatheable cloth tote just big enough for my roommate Frankie to fit inside. Though what I brought to Korea was managable enough for one person, I had since added to it with three packages from home, several shopping trips around town for suitable winter attire, a new pet, and innumarable trips to E-Mart for whatever domestic necessity that I couldn't live without. My stuff would no longer fit neatly, albiet still cramped, into just my suitcases anymore.

When Monday, March 1 finally dawned, I was never more grateful for their help or their company. I had tried to show my deep appreciation for their assistance by purchasing a heavy loaf of specialty bread from a no-name Korean bakery the night before we set out. But upon digging into it for breakfast I found it to be filled with a curious, sticky, unsavory rice cake concoction that I could not stomach; I ended up leaving it in a trash bag just outside my apartment door, as I wouldn't let the guys even look at it. Token of thanks or no, we met at my apartment at 10 a.m. sharp to gather my things and board the first bus to Suwon.

In anticipation of the move, I had woken up at 7:30 and to finish my last-minute preparations. By 10:05 that morning, the last thing on my list was to persuade Frankie to enter his mobile habitat, his home for the trip's duration. I had been persuading him since 9:40 with no such luck. I had prayed all morning and the night before for him to be peaceful and accepting of this new "place," but every push towards the canvas ended in feline agitation. Brandon's knock at the door and first attempts to move my luggage only served to increase Frankie's uneasiness and suspicion. The two of us man-handled him inside the tote and placed a towel over it in an effort to calm him down.

When Andy arrived, he glanced at the white blob and astutely asked, "Why is the box on floor moving?" At this, I turned my head to see a small spherical shape about the size of Frankie's wiggle itself out from under the towel. Instantly, I grabbed him and set to work resecuring him in his carrier. It took a concerted effort from all three of us to finally wrestle him inside the breatheable bag: Brandon holdhing him in with his strong hands, Andy and I zipping up the sides, and Andy tieing the pulls together with breadties. The start to the morning was anything but dull.

I wasn't sure how I'd move all of my belongings without a reliable source of transportation, as my last move before Korea had taken five or more loads in my car to complete. My director had offered his car for my use for that express purpose, but I didn't take him up on the invitation. Andy mentioned that if he'd been offered a ride, he'd have taken it. "If David had been here [however]," Andy said on the elevator ride, "I wouldn't have come." "I know," I said. It's the cheif reason I declined David's offer. I didn't want anyone else on our little adventure. In preparing for the day, I felt this sense that it needed to be "our day," just Andy, Brandon, and myself journeying together, perhaps for the last time. It would be up to just us to figure out how to accomplish such a feat as moving to another city through public transportation alone.

It was drizzling lightly as we stepped out of our building that morning and we were grateful to the first taxi that pulled up beside our Brady bunch: Brandon lugging my two pink suitcases, me with my two carry-ons and cloth grocery bag, and Andy loaded down with Frankie's tote and a cardboard box big enough to fit a small child. I was stupidly proud of myself as we rode to the bus terminal, commenting that "the sum total of all my possessions" could fit into one taxi. I was thankful to be traveling so relatively light as Brandon and Andy spent the day "manning up," hauling my overstuffed luggage up each flight of stairs at every subway stop. Thankfully the subway line we took was largely above-ground, but it was not without its fair share of steps. Loooking back, it was ludicrous of me to count on subway transportation as the sole means of relocating, but we arrived safely and it proved to be an enjoyable day.

As Andy records on his Facebook status for the day, "[we] rode in 11 different vehicles, 4 different types of transit" to make the trip: "Taxi -- Bus -- Taxi -- Subway -- Taxi -- Subway -- Train -- Taxi -- Subway -- Bus -- Taxi." The route chosen involved a 2-hour ride to Suwon, a five minute taxi to the station, then a 15-minute subway ride to Hwaseong. On the bus ride, we serindipitously met a mutual friend named Laura who was on her way to a job interview a few subway stops away from Suwon. I was thankful for her company as I sat by her on the trip. Andy sat across the aisle from us with Frankie for a seatmate and Brandon contentedly sat alone one row in front of us. We visited and laughed about all things related to our teaching experiences in Korea. It was good to have another female to relate to as we enjoyed the drive.

Every time I heard anything suspicious coming from Andy's side of the bus, I glanced over to see if Frankie was okay. I needn't have worried, though, because true to his word, Andy was on Frankie duty that day, gently placing a reassuring hand on the bag whenever the cat got too rowdy. Laura commented once as she looked over at him that "Andy will be a good dad. He's doing this in his sleep."

"He's not sleeping," I said as I glanced over at him again, noticing his black Ipod perched in his lap and the telltell cord of his earbuds drifting from his ears.

"Well, he's in a relaxed state," she countered. I had to agree about her observation: There was something tender about watching a man care for such a helpless animal like Frankie.

We finally made it to Hwaseong about 1:30 and upon arrival, let the cat out of his bag to allow him to explore the apartment a bit and adjust himself. After just a moment's relaxation in front of a fuzzy Korean TV, we headed to Itaewon for a late lunch of authentic Mexican food as payment, of sorts, for the trip and the help. I am ever grateful for both Andy's and Brandon's hand in getting me resettled. I was glad they both volunteered their free Monday and I told Andy as much as we waited to board the subway. "I'm glad I came, too," he admitted. "I would have just been sitting at home. [And] I knew I would have been a [jerk] if I didn't."