Saturday, July 31, 2010


*originially published on my poetry blog, Seedlings*
written July 30-31, 2010

Boots stomp the packed earth,
masticating leaves and twigs
beneath their treads.
Two sets walk the trail:
one smaller,
the texture of her soles
still rough with newness;
the other
worn by pounds
of vegetation he's consumed.

Both pair reach the steps,
the larger lunging forward
to swallow two each stride,
the smaller left
to drink her fill alone.

She finds him,
boots chomping
into sturdy bark like
an alligator's hold.
They attach themselves to
steady ground again,
ever-hungry for terrain.
Her boots protest,
satisfied with their bounty.

She stops,
to him mere pause in dining.
His stride opens
like another mouth to feed.
Boots dig in
to taste the softness of the trail.

Boots waver,
softly nibbling the dust
in circles.
They turn
marks that mar the turf
and steal away
like deer gracefully gliding
past the hunter's blind.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

One Last Hurrah

*Saturday, July 10, 2010*

"Emily got her visa this week!" my friend Holly emailed me excitedly at the beginning of July. She was referring to a friend of ours from church, Emily Park, who had been waiting to hear word about when she could leave Korea for the States. She had recently gotten engaged to a young man from California who was currently working in Del Rio, Texas, and was hoping to marry him by the fall. "She will be leaving the last week of July, this month," Holly continued. "Are you still up for going [with us] next Saturday? One last horrah!"

The three of us, Emily, Holly, and me, had grown close during Korea's warmer months. I met them both around the middle of March when I first moved up to Suwon and first started coming to SIBC on a regular basis. We had hit it off right from the start, but it wasn't until May that we began to really get to know each other. On impulse one Sunday afternoon in Itaewon, after discussing it briefly with Holly who was walking beside me, Emily invited me to on a trip to Busan that the two of them were planning for the end of May. The trip itself became the centerpiece of our friendship over the summer and the two of them began inviting me to other events and activities outside church. We enjoyed Saturday outings to the outskirts of Seoul together, times where we took in the view, shared food we had never tried before, and encouraged each other in the LORD.

The plan for that next Saturday was to hit up some islands off the coast of Incheon, a busy metropolis on the Yellow Sea just west of Seoul, after browsing Korea's war museum near the center of town. I packed a sheet for lounging around on the beach and donned my polka-dotted swimsuit for the occasion. As I rode the subway into Seoul that afternoon, however, I learned that plans had changed. It was predicted to rain due to a typhoon [hurricane] hovering over one of Korea's seas, and Emily was worried about weather conditions on the island. The girls still wanted to see the museum, but instead of the island they thought we could hit up one of Seoul's many coffee shops afterwards. Though I was a little disappointed about not going to Incheon, the day turned out to be as crazy, upbeat, and fun as the girls I spent it with!

From L to R: Emily, Dawna, and Holly. Dawna also goes to SIBC and I have had the pleasure of getting to know her over the last several months as well. She went to the same college that Holly did, Bethel College in Minnesota, and knows many of the same people as she. Dawna was a nice, pleasantly spontaneous addition to our trio that day.

We enjoyed an array of foods on the grounds of the museum prior to entering the exhibit. Emily brought steamed mandu and chopped veggies and Holly brought bagels and little single-slices of cream cheese. My sheet made the meal all the more picnic-y.

Dawna, Holly, and I were slightly unprepared for what was meant by the "Korean War Museum." There were literally floors of displays for every war Korea has fought, beginning with ancient battles between the three original peninsular kingdoms. We spent so much time walking through Korea's distant past that we had little energy for what was of greater interest, displays of the modern Korean War from 1951-1953.

Instead of a coffee shop after the museum, we decided to check out Heongdae, a trendy shopping district near City Hall. We browsed an outdoor market near the area, where Seoul's upcoming artists were peddling their wares. It had the feel of San Antonio's First Friday, with interesting handicrafts and even caracture-drawings.

As a prelude to our meal, on the streets of Heongdae we decided to try the world's tallest ice cream cone, for about 1200 won each. It was good, as long as you raced to finish it and didn't let it melt!

We originally journeyed to the shopping district for some tasty Mexican food from Dos Tacos, but when the wait proved two hours decided to try a girl-y pasta place instead. The food was nice, the atmosphere pink, and the company priceless.

As we walked back from the restaurant, Dawna spied a purse she seriously contemplated purchasing. In the end, she decided against it and put it back. Smart move, Dawna. Smart move.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ringing Taco's Bell

Ever since the two-story banner was posted on a sidestreet in Itaewon sometime before March, I have known about it's arrival. The sign was a billboard, covering the un-rennovated building like a towel covers a wet swimmer after a dip in the pool. I would notice the bulletin from time to time as I walked Itaewon's main strip after church. With collected calm, I watched its opening day approach, quietly indifferent to the change it would invetibly bring. Laura, however, made the event legendary.

"Taco Bell's coming to Itaewon," she announced proudly one day in Chungju. "It'll be opening in June."

I didn't understand her enthusiasm. I hadn't eaten there since I discovered Taco Cabana, a staple of the Texan diet and an authentic Tex-Mex chain that mashed its flour tortillas flat right in front of you. That, I knew, was real Mexican. "Taco Bell's not Mexican food," I replied, nonplussed.

It was a reminder of home in Longview, Washington, she explained--almost as important to her as hearing Rihanna's "Umbrella" every time she docked at a new port during her Semester at Sea. The song, played in almost every country she'd visited, filled her with reassuring familiarity when she heard it; eating at Taco Bell would surely do the same. It's just like me finding a little taste of Texas so far north of the border. Living in Korea just wouldn't complete without a visit to the famed franchise or a meal in its distinguished dining hall.

At the end of February, just weeks after I found I lost my job, Laura informed me that her hagwon was giving her a three-week notice. "We should start a club," she texted. "Mary and Tristan [two others from Chungju who had also lost their jobs] can join." She had until the 15th of March to finish her contract, when originally it was supposed to end in the middle of July. Taco Bell wasn't due to open for at least another three months. This meant one thing--no eating in its hallowed halls. There was one nugget of hope, however: She was scheduling a trip back to Korea mid-summer with her family, as her parents had purchased tickets to visit her just three days before Laura was informed of the tragic news. Perhaps that would give the food chain time to finish rennovations.

Ever-mindful of the approaching day, I watched the busy corner of Itaewon for the anticipated unveiling. Laura's predicted month came with still no sign of life under the "Coming Soon" sheild. When Laura returned mid-June, the grand opening had slipped from the end of the month to the first weekend of July, the next-to-last day Laura would have in Korea. By the end of her trip, however, the date had slunk further down the calendar, to July 11. One week too late.

"I would have still had another two weeks!" she lamented as we glimpsed the impassable curtain, regret slipping from her voice like hot sauce from the corner of her mouth. It was then I decided something had to be done.

On the afternoon of July 11, a Sunday, I was out with some friends in Itaewon after church when I remembered the auspicious occasion. I walked with an acquaintance of mine to the street corner across from the Hamilton Shopping Center and gazed across traffic. On the other side of the street, the white billboard had been taken down, replaced by gleaming windows two stories high and couples enjoying the view from small cozy tables. I briefly thought about stepping inside, but the line (mostly populated with foreigners) stretched from inside the doors past Cold Stone Creamery half a block away. Maybe another time.

It's been more than two weeks since the branch first opened its doors to Seoul's bustling public. Though the frenzy over Taco Bell may not have fully diminished on the weekends, my friend and I figured that a weekday like today might be at least a tamer time to venture in and taste its menu. When we arrived, the line protruded only to the edge of the restaurant's windows, mere meters. My companion suggested we'd have to wait at least 20 minutes just to order, but we had ordered and were seated in under that. We enjoyed our mock-Mexican dishes, a quesadilla and a mild taco salad, with a side of chips and sweet tostsadas--all for about 14,000 won ($12.00 USD). 80's-style English music pouring from the speakers like warm nacho cheese. The dinner tasted mostly like the Taco Bells in Texas that I remembered, though with more fresh vegetables and a curious kiwi salad dressing on the side. The steak salad was well-satisfying and I knew I couldn't pass up a good meal.

Laura Wells, this Bell's for you!

Another Misadventure

Friday, July 23 was the last day for two of our teachers at Apple Tree. As he had finished his contract, Jack was scheduled to leave country Sunday morning. A former student of his had given him a bouquet of roses as a parting gift. "I can't take them with me," he asserted as he looked at me. "Would you like some flowers?"

Another co-worker of mine, Grace, and I were on our way to movie night at her church in Seoul after work that day. I asked if I could stop to pick up a vase and then drop my flowers off at my apartment before heading out. She looked at my profusion of belongings--a sweater I had grabbed because of the coolness of the morning's downpour; my usual large blue travel bag; Jack's bouquet of flowers; and now remnants of the staff party we had had the night before--and said simply, "It's okay. We just be late." I found a short, pretty vase at a store close by and within a few minutes of arriving at home had the flowers soaking in the vase in about five inches of water, with their purple ribbon tied around the middle. I set them between my computer and printer, feeling that it was a secure enough location. Grace commented that visitors would see the lovely flowers nicely where they were--and off we went.

Five hours later, around midnight, I stepped into the apartment again after the engaging night with Grace. Glancing toward my computer, I noticed the flowers had tumbled out of their enclosure and were fanned out in the open space on my dresser. Then I noticed the water: only an inch left in the vase. I gasped. "Frankie!" I bellowed as my cat sat serenely on my washer, enjoying the soft night breeze. I grabbed him and spanked his thigh as hard as I could, twice. "This," I shook him, "is not happening!"

I stomped around the house as I endeavored to clean the mess and salvage what was left of my computer. I had no idea how long the vase had been left lying there or how much water had actually seeped into anything. Most of the water I found had traveled under my computer and sloughed off onto the floor, pooling quietly underneath my armchair. Some of it, however, was left on top of the dresser. Droplets of water leaked out of my computer as I left it to dry on a towel. It wouldn't turn on either time I tried. I slammed the casing down and glared at the cat: "I'm mad at you!" I decided it was a good time for a walk and a little visit to the PC bang.

I felt this nagging peace from the LORD flood my heart, even in my anger. The whole time I saw myself reacting to Frankie's mishap like a good pet owner should, instead of taking stock of my own feelings. Slamming computers and stomping feet was only natural, right? I somehow knew that my actions were wrong and that everything would work out, despite the obvious. As I pretended to huff towards the PC room, I came across a very large crowd of foreigners clustered around two plastic tables in front of GS 25 (a Korean convenience store), around one a man whom I instantly recognized.

"Jennifer?" Jack asked authoritatively. I remember him saying that there'd be a farewell party for him in Byeongjeom that night. Somehow I thought I'd miss it. "Pull up a chair and sit down," he instructed.

As I glanced around at faces, there were few in the crowd I had met or knew personally. Among them was a Scotch named Steven and a woman I had seen with him, Harriet. "This is the first time we've actually seen each other outside Byeongjeom Station, isn't it?" she asked me in her crisp British accent. She had been sitting a good ten feet from the spot I chose to sit in and, when I arrived, decided to get a bit closer. "I actually have a question for you," she said as she took the seat in front of me. "It's probably not the right time to ask this, as I'm drinking and smoking. [But c]an I go to church with you sometime? Possibly this Sunday?"

I was floored. Really? Come on!

Harriet had me hooked from that moment and I forgot all about Frankie, broken computers, and PC bangs. I sat there for an hour listening to her take on Christianity as a whole and her apparent place in it. "I can't call myself a Christian because what defines one is a personal relationship with Jesus and I don't have that. But I feel incredibly drawn to it," she admitted. She talked of loving one another being a central theme in her life and that she wanted to use her life to express God's agape love. She had a surprising amount of knowledge about Christianity in general. I nodded vigorously in understanding as I listened. Lord, I prayed, she's so close! Could she be the reason my computer died?

"Even if I don't come to church with you, I would still like to be your friend," she asserted during our conversation. "Would that be all right?" Again, I was floored. What kind of opportunities was the LORD opening for me that night? I told her I would really like that. "I'd like to have dinner with you," she continued, "maybe sometime this week." We ended the night with her giving me her number and we both promise to check back with each other about the weekend.

She also handed me something else that night. "Are you really cold?" she asked as she watched me hugging my shoulders. "You can wear my scarf because I'm hot." As I tried to object, she took it off and placed the mantel around me. Later when I tried to give it back, she refused. "If you take my second favorite scarf," she said playfully, "then we have to meet up again."

I still have that scarf; it hangs in my kitchen as a reminder of our words together that night and a promise to reconnect. We weren't able to meet for church last week, but I'm hopeful that it can be soon. Yes, indeedy, Harriet, we will have to meet up. Yes, indeed.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


As a group of us walked from SIBC to the hills surrounding Itaewon last Sunday afternoon, I began to share with my church friends about my hagwon's recent struggles. One of our foreign teachers, Jack, was scheduled to leave this week, I said, and as of that moment had not been given a plane ticket home. He was sure he wouldn't be leaving with his government-mandated severance pay, either. He said even I might not get severance when I leave. It was all because of financial difficulty, I knew. I was furious as I recounted the evidence from the last month: the replacement of two of our staff members with one person, the confession that fellow co-workers weren't getting paid in full, and now the knowledge that they had treated Jack unfairly. Reaching a lull in my story, I blurted, "I feel like Andy!"

The day I found out I was leaving Learning Well hit Andy pretty hard. "I don't show emotion very well,"he confessed in the office moments after my revelation. "But this really effects me." Andy and Brandon were both shocked at the news that the school had arbitrarily picked me to go; they would have rather our boss openly discuss the issue with the three of us and mutually choose a suitable candidate. They thought it unfair for me to be the one to blindly leave. Andy was already unsettled by other things he felt were breaches of contract, but the issue with me proved to be "the kicker," as it were: That was the night he made up his mind to return home. The sense of justice in him couldn't stomach the way I was being treated. At that moment in Itaewon last Sunday, I felt the same about Teacher Jack.

"Are you looking for another job?" my friend Sonja asked. "My hagwon is hiring and they want someone by the end of August." Until that moment, I hadn't thought about leaving.

Sonja went on in her descriptions. Maple Bear, she said, was a Canadian-based franchise oriented around Western educational standards. The program was kindergarten-only, where one teacher was with her students all day, allowing for reassuring consistencies in discipline and scheduling. This meant that teachers like me would no longer have to divide their time between younger and older students, or their energies between morning and afternoon classes. It was a hands-on school, not based primarily on a textbook. Children learned a new language "naturally," Sonja affirmed, through play. They had a solid curriculum set up--for which people had been fired for not using--with a plethora of games, multimedia suggestions, and TPR activities built-in.

"Do you put your own lesson plan together?" I asked her.

"We have twenty hours of teaching time a week, roughly," she replied. "And the rest is usually prep. You don't have to spend all that time at school. I usually do my lesson planning at Starbucks."

The freedom to plan your own lessons? I thought. A curriculum with agreed-upon standards? Activities and extra-curricular suggestions that actually fit the target lesson? This was already starting to sound better. "You have a knack for selling your school," I told Sonja over our Middle-Eastern meal.

"If you want, I can give you contact information and where you can send your resume. If they've already done this to other co-workers, you know they'll do it to you. If you already know you're not going to get your severance, why stay? A contract is only good if two people hold it as valid. If they don't hold to it, why should you?" Touche. I left the restaurant that afternoon with a name and email address in my pocket and a decision to make.

Some Christian friends of mine echoed Sonja's comments, telling me to take the chance. "I mean, it's not great to jump ship every couple of months when things get hard," Amanda told me this week via Facebook Chat, "but when you're looking at a serious situation that looks like it could end very badly for you, and you have another great offer on your door, you have to consider it's God's giving you a way out. [...I]t might not be. But it might not be wrong to take it, either. You know?" She and her husband had been through their share of hagwons and sketchy situations: Just in the 10 months that they've been here, they've changing schools three times out of sheer necessity. I knew they could speak from their experience. As we talked, she shared her husband's thoughts. "Jacob is behind me shouting, 'Jump at it!'"

There was much to weigh as I considered both sides. To broaden my perspective a little, I shot an email to Andy when I got home that night explaining matters and asking his thoughts. If he had been through this before, surely he might have a nugget of wisdom I could glean. I also knew I needed to be more well-informed about current situations at my school. While waiting for Andy's reply, I decided it was only fair to consult Jack.

"Jack, can I talk to you about something later?" I asked as I spied him at the water cooler.

"Yeah, sure. What's going on?"

I had wanted him to tell me more about the financial side of Apple Tree, so that I could weigh the risks and potential gains of leaving--but we didn't quite get that far. "I was offered a job this week at another hagwon," I told him.

"Are you sure you want to leave this place for another hagwon?" he asked. "It's a hagwon. You've invest four and a half, five months here. If you leave, you'll have to do it all over again." I nodded and we both walked off to class.

As I pondered the situation from its various angels, the LORD was working in my circumstances. I started to see the return on my investments into ILS/Apple Tree this week. I shared a story with a new church friend as we traveled to dinner Tuesday night: A struggling student in one of my older classes began to show comprehension that day. The class assignment was to draw and then write what happened first, next, then, and last in Aesop's "Tourtise and the Hare." My struggling student started drawing almost immediately, without complaint or hesitancy--and when I asked him about it, he accurately described his pictures to me. I showed the drawings to his Korean teacher, Vicky, and she was as impressed as I was. "It's because of you," Vicky said.

There were other exciting events this week, as well: My pre-K and kinder students have started a program to teach them how to read and my kinders are super-excited and ready for it. I can't wait to teach them! I was able to counsel two boys in my EX 1 class about their behavior--one who felt devasted that he flunked a spelling test and the other who was too proud that he had aced it. "Come here, Alex," I told the second boy. "I'm gonna teach you a new word. It's called 'humble.' It means that you don't get excited when you win. Don't say, 'Oh, look at me! I won, I won! I passed! Yay!"

I began to notice what impact I really had and how much I've already acclamated to life here at Apple Tree. By the time Friday rolled around, I had this settled peace from God that I am where I should be. My interactions with the teachers this week further affirmed my place in the school. I never had a second chance to discuss the issue further with Jack, but I began to consider his firm advice. Did I really want to start over?

Thursday afternoon, Andy's email arrived. "What would switching to another hagwon do for you?" he asked. "If you're moderately happy in the situation you're in, I would stay remain at the school." He went on about my having to adjust to something all over again, were I to move, and mentioned the thought that these sort of problems would follow me even to the new place. I wouldn't really gain anything by leaving. "If you're happy, stay happy," he cautioned.

I smiled as I read through Andy's words of advice, thankful for his perspective; his message resonated with my heart as I pondered it. By this time, I was sure he was right. "You might laugh at this," I warned him in my reply, "but God used your email to confirm that this is exactly where I need to be." Briefly, I told him how I had arrived at this conclusion. I mentioned how Jack had "echoed" the same advice as Andy--"that a hagwon is a hagwon is a hagwon" and that there'd be no real advantage to me in such an identical situation. It was settled, then: I would stay. "I'll text my friend," I wrote Andy, "and tell her thanks but no thanks."

Another weagukin friend of mine offered a bit of direction this week as well. She suggested I go into the journalism/newspaper business. "Education is a wooly mammoth," she said, "and unless you're at it for years and years, you're just plucking one hair." I told her that was one of my frustrations about teaching, especially in Korea--ineffectiveness. When I confessed to being an English major and to having a desire to write, she went on with some career advice. "Have a goal that you want to stay in Korea for four years. Start looking for other opportunties in Korea because for people like us they are out there. Definitely stay at your hagwon until February [when your contract is up]," she asserted. "But if you're sure you want to be a writer, start applying for copy editing jobs. [Collect a portfolio and s]how them that you've done your homework."

I pondered her suggestions. It's an appealing vocation, certainly geared more towards my field of study than teaching. And Koreans, especially those businessmen who run an English newspaper, are always looking for bright young men and women with a passion for writing and language. There would certainly be no lack of work. It's a good way to gain more international experience, my friend reminded me. It wouldn't be a hagwon, it would keep me in Korea if I so desired, and it might get my foot in the door for better writing jobs. It's definitely worth considering. I haven't thought of what the next step should be after my contract ends in February, but guaranteed the LORD will be there when it comes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Frankie's Misadventures

This morning as I listen to the steady pitter-patter of Korean rainfall, I sit with my cat and computer in my lap. Sadly, there is not room for both--but I haven't the heart to put him down, drowsy and comfortable as he is. Frankie crawled up there just minutes after I sat down, his usual habit. He had been huddling uncomfortably with the electronic cords in the small space between my dresser and my armchair, presumably to get away from the light and cold my apartment then afforded, and must have found it too unpleasant a place for a nap. Over the last six months, he has proved to be a constant companion, if sometimes a little moody or restless. He's also quite resilient, having survived two moves, a trip to the States for which he was left behind, and a few excursions to the Great Outdoors.

"Jennifer Lowery tried to take Frankie for a walk this morning," I posted on Facebook in the middle of May, referring to the first time I tried to take him outside. "Fifteen minutes and a few dozen scratches later, we uneventfully arrived back at my apartment because he couldn't handle all the noise and sights of people, moving cars, buildings, and storefronts. Apparently, the concrete jungle is no place for a cat, either." At the suggestion of one of his previous owners, I had decided that taking Frankie for a walk would ease his restlessness. A friend in Chungju walked her cat just like you would walk a dog, so thought I, too, would give the idea a try. I bought him a leash and collar set as a way of apology for keeping him cooped up inside for so many months. I knew that just letting him outside would be disastrous, since I didn't know if he'd ever come back home. "For the record," I commented to my friends that day, "he was on a leash."

The day I chose to experiment was a Saturday morning, a time I thought would be peaceful. I had stumbled upon a beautiful sports park about a ten-minute walk from the apartment and was certain that Frankie would enjoy frolicking there. Unfortunately, it was a place we never quite made it to. I confessed on Facebook to not "ever put[ting] him down because I wanted him to calm down a bit first, a thing that sadly never happened. We didn't even get halfway to our park of choice before the decision to take him back home [was made]. If he spooked with just [the] one or two cars [that he saw], I knew he wouldn't have been able to handle crossing the busy street that lay between us and the park." In hindsight, it's a good thing we didn't get very far because, guaranteed, there would have been many more people at the park where those on the street had come from. If anything is certain about Korea, it's a place where you'll never be alone, especially in the Great Outdoors.

After that fitful episode, I didn't take him out again for several weeks. One night around 9p.m., however, dressed in a short-sleeve sweater and sandals, I had the urge to try again. "Want to go ou'side?" I cooed to Frankie as I lifted his leash off its hook and clasped his collar around him. "I wan' go ou'side--you wan' go ou'side?" I scooped him up and off we ventured. I should have gotten the hint when he tensed up as I opened the apartment door, one with an electronic locking mechanism that whirs curiously as you unlock it. Timidly, I tiptoed down the stairs with him, Frankie still a contracted ball of muscle in my arms.

This time, he lasted just until the front door, another electronic piece with unfamiliar noises ebbing from it. He was already uncomfortable with the strange noises pulsating through the closed doors and walls of other apartments. He had already watched the hall light just outside my door turn off as we descended the first flight of stairs, witnessing what was no doubt a mystery to him. The corridor, which served as the front foyer of the building, had been dark until we reached the bottom step, which triggered an unseen light sensor and set off more of Frankie's suspicions. Perched uneasily on my shoulder as the automatic door opened politely for us to step through to the outside, the motion triggered more fears in him and Frankie dug into my flesh, scrambled down my back, and ran as fast as he could to get away from it.

He couldn't escape, as he was still tethered to my arm with the leash. I scrambled to reach him and pull him back into my arms. Each time I tried, he struggled to free himself and hissed at me loudly, baring his sharp cat fangs. He pulled so hard, I thought I would choke him. I was finally able to grab him and carry him back to the apartment. We reached it breathless and panting, our hearts pounding and our bodies exhausted, safely home. My left shoulder throbbed as I examined what Frankie's sharp claw had left behind. I vowed to myself that, scared of the outdoors as he was, I wouldn't try again.

Sometime after that, Frankie started a curious habit: Late in the evening he would sit alternately at the door or near his leash and meow loud enough for it to become annoying. At first I ignored it, not quite understanding the nature of his pleas. Slowly I began to figure it out. "You really don't want to go outside," I cautioned him one night. "You think you do, but you really don't." As a way to prove it to him, on two occasions I hooked up with the leash, set him down on the floor (having learned my lesson!), and slowly cracked open the door. He instantly tensed up and each time, he pulled hard on the leash and backed up past my sliding glass entryway door, about two feet. He still meowed at the door, though--so one night I donned a long sleeve sweater and strong-armed him outside. He squirmed in my arms for the five minutes we were outside, but at least he didn't claw me this time.

The most recent blunder to add to Frankie's growing collection came last Tuesday, the 13th. "I tried taking him for a walk tonight," I wrote to Brandon that night, "which almost ended in disaster." The rest of the email recounts the feel of the attempt:
I held him tightly as we walked out the apartment door (that has a new-fangled electronic lock that makes all kinds of noise), down the stairs, and through yet another noisy electronic door. He made it about two blocks: We crossed two lightly-trafficked streets (one which had all its traffic go by at once just so Frankie could get an authentic feel for city-life) and headed towards a park-like patch of grass. "Look," I cooed at him, "there's some green." We turned the corner towards the patch and suddenly he started squirming nervously to be let down. To our left were mysterious-looking Korean men chit-chatting on a nearby bench. I suspect he saw them and his fears instantly arose. I tried putting him down (holding onto his leash), but that only served to aggravate him more. He was so upset that he ran so fast I almost couldn't catch him--and he was tethered to the end of the leash! When I finally reached him, he hissed violently at me. For a moment, I thought I would lose him and feared that I would somehow let go of the leash and he'd be gone. Just about the time I was able to grab him, it started sprinkling. As I clutched him even tighter and walked home, I noticed more and more people on the street. We finally made it safely back and he calmed down, but each time I try to take him out, it's a bit of a misadventure.

Brandon agreed that the excursion was definitely a misstep. Given our many uncomfortable outings, South Korea doesn't seem a good place for a cat; at least, not South Korean suburbia. "I wonder if Frankie would do better in a wilderness area with less people?" Brandon pondered. I replied that the cat might do much better in a place like West Texas--or even San Antonio, provided he had enough frolicking space. In my email back to Brandon, I affirmed that whenever I leave Korea for good, Frankie would be coming with me.

For a while now, I've been considering keeping him. After all we've been through, the least I could do is not to leave him in a place so hostile to felines. I've even considered taking him on other international assignments I may take in the future. He may yet prove to be quite a savvy traveler, if a highly sedated one.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dream Come True

Meet Pippy Longstocking, my childhood heroine. She was the Strongest Girl in the World, a redhead with freckles who rode a horse instead of a bike to school. She lived alone in a large house by the beach because her father was off to sea and each night, she would gaze out at the ocean to wait for him. She always knew he'd come back for her, one day.

In sixth grade I must have checked out her book and read and reread it four times. I even watched a movie of her when it came on T.V. I was a lot like her, I felt: Though I wasn't strong, I was a redhead with freckles who liked to wear pigtails (albeit ones that never stood up on end). How much more similar could you get? Because I loved her so, I dressed up like her once in eighth grade for an alternative to Halloween party at my school called Fun-O-Mania. I didn't realize then that her hair didn't naturally stay in the updo fashion she so lovably coined--I thought all you needed was a little "muscle" to make the braids super-tight. Unlike Pippy's, my hair stayed limp the whole night and I was at a loss to figure out why.

Early this week at my school in Korea, I discovered that our activity for the month would be Crazy Hat Day--and, sad to say, I was fresh out of crazy hats. "But if you don't have a hat," one of the co-teachers affirmed, "you can wear crazy hair." Crazy hair? I thought. Now that I could pull off. But not without a little change in persona for the day. The 'do would be meaningless if I came as myself. But Pippy could be bold enough to wear it gracefully and with pride. This time, I would do it right.

"Do you know where I could find wire?" I asked James Tuesday as we were riding back home from work.

"I have some in my home," he said. He then proceeded to describe what one might use to plug in various electronics. "It's this thick or something like that," he said as he fingered the mesh pocket of the seat in front of me, a string the thickness of a small rope.

"I don't need a cord; I need wire. And I need something thinner than that." As I hadn't told anyone about my costume decision, I didn't want to ruin the surprise by letting him in on why I needed it.

The plan was to walk to Home Plus near Byeongjeom Station that night, an "everything store" much like Super-Target or HEB Plus, to shop for my outfit. I imagined finding a coil of copper at the store to match my hair and was only slightly disappointed when I discovered all I could find was stainless-steel grey. Like a blonde (gasp!), I almost wanted to say aloud, "Well, you have any other colors? Like, y' know, brown?"

I had forgotten the very nature of wire and what copper varieties are generally used for. When I came to my senses after my momentary relapse, I wasn't interested in becoming an even better conductor of electricity: Stainless steel it

In addition to wire, I was in need of some long stockings more colorful than the usual kind-- and was not in the mood to buy some for cheap at the station, only to discover once home that they wouldn't go past my calf. While browsing Home Plus' selection, I found three kinds that might suffice: a demure pair of off-white knee-lengths; bright orange hose; and a pair of black no-toe tights with pink and white horizontal pinstripes. I surmised that Pippy would in turn wear all of them, and perhaps on one occasion wear them all at once. As neither my budget nor my dresser had room for extras, however, I needed to decide on one. For a good while I had my mind set on the off-white pair because I knew I'd wear them again. But Pippy isn't demure, so I nixed those. I then thought of the orange pair, since I knew Pippy's style to be that loud. In the end, I chose the pinstripes because they most mimicked her red-and-white-striped knee-highs from the good ol' days.

During snack on Crazy Hat Day, I told my students, "Teacher Jennifer isn't here today; she went on vacation. She sent me in her place. I'm Teacher Pippy Longstocking." It was doubtful that they knew who she was, but I was still eager to play the part. I had wondered who would get the joke as I carried out my transformation earlier that morning. I knew my American co-teacher, Jack, would and he was the first one I asked upon arrival. Tongue-in-cheek, he replied that I looked like "Popeye the Sailor Man." When I guffawed at his comment, he dutifully corrected himself. What came as a huge surprise was that anyone else would recognize me.

A redhead among such a black-haired populace already sticks out, but one with horizontal locks is hard to miss. As I entered school, people instantly noticed my change in hairstyle; however, they also caught my shift in identity as well. No less than four Korean teachers called me "Pippy" that morning even before I had a chance to introduce myself. Three of them asked for my picture, which nowadays is akin to asking for an autograph. They quickly confessed that they had seen the television series when it had aired so many decades ago. It appears that The Strongest Girl in the World made her shining silver screen debut in the Land of the Morning Calm, too. I realized that day how much of a cultural leveler Longstocking had really become.

The stockings I chose proved to be the magic touch that brought the outfit to life. I have begun a tentative friendship with our hagwon's cook, Teacher Jane. Though she knows as much English as I know Korean (which is a handful of unrelated words), we seem to carry a mutual respect for one another. Because of this connection, however limited or fragile, I thought she would appreciate seeing my handiwork up close. From others' reactions, it was likely she would understand even through the language barrier.

"Teacher Jane," I told her as she stood at the sink, her back to me. "Today we had Crazy Hair Day." Her eyes lit up and her lips broke into a broad grin when she spied my twisted tresses. She sputtered off something grand which I interpreted to mean joyous recognition. "Pippy," she said excitedly, calling my hair cute. Motioning down her legs with her hands, she told me in Korean (at least, as far as I surmise) that to complete the image all I needed was long stockings. I motioned back, this time in English, that indeed I had them, indicating my horizontal pinstripes. She grinned broadly again and clasped her hands. "Pippy," she finished.

I had no idea I would be so well
known as a personified children's character. As I ventured to dinner that night in a small town a short subway ride south, still in costume, I was recognized by no less than three Korean strangers. The group of us that went were passing a string of small shops en route to our restaurant of choice while a proprietress of one of the shops stood on its threshold. Someone commented offhandedly behind me, "Hey, did you hear her? She just called you Pippy." In fact I hadn't heard. But given the response from earlier, it wasn't that surprising. I relayed to the party what I had discovered that day about Pippy's now-world-renowned fame. "They can't pronounce the Longstocking," I said to my friends, "but they recognize Pippy."

Later that night, we strayed from the path back to the train station long enough to peruse the foreign food market for some American comforts. As I stood inside the tiny store, the owner gestured to my outfit and sputtered something that I thought was Korean. "She's trying to say Longstocking," another of the group chimed. I pointed to my stockings and she grinned. "Pippy," the woman said. "Yebbun, beautiful." I had never heard Pippy described as that before--it felt kind of nice to bask for a moment in the glory of someone else's fame.

Half of the group split off from the other while I payed for my things, as they were in a hurry to get back. Only my friends Tim and Jessica stayed with me as we trudged back to the station through windy, dark alleyways: They were the only ones to witness what happened next. As I noticed a car behind us, I moved out of the main portion of the street so it could pass. The vehicle, a taxi, slowed as it pulled up next to me. The driver's window was already down and he stuck his head out and tilted it towards me. "Pippy?" he smiled.

My foreign friends liked the get-up as much as the Koreans. A young woman I share the bus with, Tina, told me that morning to make sure I bent the braids upward before I walked in to class to show my students; she was sure I'd be a hit. Having accidentally run into more foreigners as I walked home, I sat down and shared why I was so adorned. One of them, a guy named Corey whom I ran into at Home Plus the night before, was proud to see that I had "pulled it off." I told them "as long as you don't mind Pippy Longstocking, I'll go with you." At the restaurant, I sat across from Tim, the organizer of the foray into Songtan. With sincerity in his voice, he confessed, "It's a good look for you." I couldn't disagree.

Today, my director echoed Tim's sentiments. She stopped me for a moment as I was leaving school this evening and wished me a good weekend. The she declared that she was "very impressed with [my] hairstyle" on Wednesday. Given all the positive reactions that I received throughout my stint as Pippy Longstocking, it's a 'do that I will certainly have to do again.

the staff of Apple Tree Dongtan:
(from left) James, Pippy (me), Anita, Michelle, Vicky, and Grace
not pictured: Jack

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jin Yong Chun

As I was grabbing for a handle on the mostly crowded subway car to Oido tonight, en route back home to Byeongjeom from the Samgakji station in Seoul, I noticed a thin, slightly taller Asian man in a somewhat-wrinkled heavy Oxford shirt standing next to me. His face was more round than most Koreans I've met and his ears stuck out like a little boy's. His cropped dark hair was beginning to grey at the edges and his eyes creased at the corners like crow's feet each time he moved his mouth. I noticed his lips trotting laboriously up and down as he tried to formulate a word. Each time it refused to come out, he offered me a shy smile and I smiled back. He stood almost a meter from me at first, but inched ever more toward me as the train started to move.

He watched me situate my bag and pull out The Opposite of Fate, by Amy Tan. Shamelessly, he peered over my shoulder as I held the book in my hand. Aware of his interest, I turned it unopened toward him as a silent offer of kindness and wondered if he could read the cover. As I opened it to the bookmarked page, I tried to casually hold it out far enough for him to catch a glimpse of its English contents. We stood this way for several minutes, me peeking at him from time to time as interest to communicate glimmered in his eyes. I tried getting back to my book and ignoring his desire for conversation. He finally broke the awkward stalemate with a faltering voice. "Hi. Where--where you from?"

"Where am I from? I am from America," I said slowly, careful to enunciate every syllable. "From Texas."

"I am from Chinese," he offered in return. So that explained the rounded face. "Ar-artist," he faltered again, painting in the air with his hands. "Computer. Building design."

"You like artists?" I asked, unsure of his meaning. I thought he garbled the name of a famous Asian artist of whom I was unfamiliar.

He nodded his head toward the book in my hand. I thought that meant he was trying to read it. "Can you read?" I asked, holding it further out.

He nodded his head regally. "Jin, Jin Yong-chun," he said and tried to air-scribe his name in hangul. The white noise of the screeching subway car and its occupants covered up his words. The only thing I recognized from his pantomime was the "n" shape at the end. "Kim?" I suggested, at a loss for the rest of his name. I volunteered mine. "Jen-i-fer," I articulated.

"Chinese name," he said. I was sure I'd never remember it right. Only later when he handed me a small black-and-white slip of paper that served as a business card did I catch his whole name. The name itself was curious: It was printed in hangul, with its romanized counterpart only appearing as part of his email address. The hangul read "Kim," but the email address confirmed his self-introduced family name as "Jin." If the name was Chinese, I wondered why he transliterated it K-i-m instead.

"How long have you been in Korea?" I asked as he stared blankly at me, unresponsive. I quickly realized there was no way to hand-gesture my way to the meaning of the phrase.

He then started volunteering more information about his life. "English, Chinese, Japan," he counted on his fingers.

"Do you know Korean?" I asked. Again, no response.

"One," he started. "One and half year."

"You have been in Korea one and a half years? I have been here for eight months," I offered, purposely accenting the ths on the end.

"Thirty," he thought for a moment. "Thirty-eight." Twelve years older. A surprising age, given his childlike mannerisms up to this point.

"I am twenty-six," I volleyed back.

"You," he said, pondering me for a moment as if he hadn't understood my last comment. "You forty." He subtly reconsidered. "You thirty-five," he asserted. It was as if he wanted me as his peer. Okay, I thought. I can be thirty-five if you want.

As we bantered back and forth, I remembered Amy Tan's statements about her Chinese immigrant mother's unpolished English skills. Tan noted that, while growing up, others treated her mother differently because of her poor English. In turn, Tan herself began to limit her own thoughts toward her mother. "I believed that her English," she wrote in The Opposite of Fate, "reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly, her thoughts were imperfect" (274). I tried not to impose those same imperfections on Jin Yong Chun. It wasn't that he couldn't think, I reasoned; he just couldn't think well in English.

Even with this word to the wise in mind, I began to notice a certain air of, shall we say, immaturity about this man as our time together progressed. Throughout our exchange, he had been unnaturally trusting, innocent, and shyly timid, but genuinely interested in communication with me. Just like a child. At first I chalked it up to an idea that my friend Emily had shared the night before: that Korean men (and perhaps this applies to other Asian nationality groups) are coddled and taken care of by their parents for so long that even at 26, 27, and 28 they still lack a sense of adult maturity or independence. Because of this, young men in this country don't usually "grow up" until well into their thirties. As I continued to ponder this thought, it occurred to me that surely by thirty-eight, the age that my new companion confessed to being, a man would have grown out of any such mama's boy complex. Surely.

While we continued to stand and chit-chat, a seat opened in front of us and, in impeccable English, he offered it to me: "Sit down please." Moments later, the seat next to me became free and he took it as well. Now properly seated, we continued our chat.

It was here that he handed me his "card" and here that he clarified his profession. I discovered that he works with computers in Osan designing interiors for buildings (though I'm not sure what kind of buildings). He considers himself an artist, the same one that he had mentioned earlier, though I'm not sure if his profession is what makes him an artist. Here, too, he asked for a means of communicating with me. "I don't give out my number," I apologized. I told him the same was true of my email address. When I wrote my first name down for him on one of his cards, I refused to give him my last as a precautionary measure.

Again attention turned toward my book. I pointed to the woman on the front and we read her name together: "A-my Tan." He tasted her surname in his mouth for a moment, then reformed it. "She's Chinese," I offered and his face lit up. I then flipped through the book to show him different pictures of Tan's life.

"Here she is my age," I told him, pointing to a professional portrait.

He pointed to the mustached and bearded man with shaggy, receding hair, her husband, seated next to her. "Old," he said.

"No," I countered. "They are the same age."

I took him to other photos, pointing out her mother in them. "Mother," he tasted. I then asked about his family and he told me he had a father, mother, and one brother in the mountains of China. I revealed that I had two brothers and his countenance rose instantly--he was so surprised that he was incredulous. "Two brothers," he smiled with awe and envy.

Again, he remembered his three languages. "English, Chinese, Japan," he counted on his hands again.

"Can you read Chinese?" I interrupted him and he nodded.

"Only English and Japan I speak." So he doesn't read English. "I want to have English book," continued, "so that I can read it." I toyed with the idea of giving him the book in my hand, what he had been eying the whole train ride. Though he could connect to the Chinese references inside it, evidence from our earlier conversation led to the judgement that he wouldn't have been able to understand the book's complex language. It might have done nothing but frustrate him.

"This is my stop," I tried to say. "I have to go."

He looked back at the Korean marquee and nodded. "Mine too. I take bus to home. Twenty... twenty-four I think." So he would be catching a bus at Geumjeong and not transferring subway lines, I reasoned. It would give me some alone time on the train ride to my place and a chance to get back to my book. We exited Line 4 together and stood for a moment at the bottom of the steps leading out of the station. I waved at him to say goodbye.

He shook his head and indicating he was transferring, too. "But aren't you taking the bus?" I asked.

"Osan," he said. "I take bus at Osan."

Oh great, I thought. Now there surely wouldn't be respite. My only hope was that the approaching subway for Line 1 would be destined for Byeongjeom or Seodongtan. As he was going several stops farther down than that, he would be forced to wait for the next available train. I secretly groaned inside when the PA system announced the destination was Cheonan, the last stop on Line 1 and a perfect fit for any persons going to both Byeongjeom and Osan. In concert, the two of us stepped onto the train.

Just after transferring to Line 1, Jin Yong Chun took initiative and consulted the subway map mounted above the car's exit door, counting the stops we each had to go. "Five," he said as he reached where I was standing, indicating my number. I thought that was odd because I knew that there were seven stops from the transfer at Geumjeong to my arrival at Byeongjeom. And then I remembered: I had told him I lived "in Suwon" as a precaution and he took it as fact. I debated whether I should now reveal my true location.

I remembered my father's advice about dealing with the mentally handicapped: "We should be nice to them." I wanted to do that for Yong Chun. I looked at his face, trying to memorize every detail. I imagined it was something Jesus would have done. I wanted to remember it--a face that Jesus loves and longs to comfort and make new.

"You my best friend," he said suddenly as we stood looking at each other in the subway car.

I smiled at him kindly. "Yes" was all I could say. Then I began to feel concerned. What does it say about someone if his best friend is a stranger that he meets on a subway? "Do you have friends?" I asked gently.

He counted three digits on his hands, then put one finger down. "Ja-Japan," he said with a timid smile.

"They live in Japan?" I asked. "Do you have any Chinese friends?"

He smiled broadly at this. "Chinese," he nodded, this time with three fingers up. I wanted to ask if he had any Korean friends. "You my best friend," he said again. It reminded me too much of the moment my mentally-handicapped mother leaned into my face with her forehead touching mine and her forearms resting on my shoulders. Peering intently over her glasses and into my eyes, she whispered the same. "You're my best friend."

By this time, my stop--Suwon station, at least--was quickly approaching. Yong Chun had been asking about food for some time now on the trip and he deftly asked again. "Eat?" he asked. "Drink? If have time, I pay." I was cautious. Besides needing to guard my own heart, I knew how exhausted I was from my time in Seoul. I had been away from Frankie (the cat) all weekend as well and needed to get back to him. I told Yong Chun as much as the train pulled into the stop.

His face fell as he prepared to say goodbye. He mumbled something unintelligible and then in Korean managed a feeble, "Anyangikaseyo." I felt I couldn't play with his childlike emotions and stay on the train when he had made such an effort at closure. I quickly got off the train so that he wouldn't think I had lied about my destination. He waved at me as I walked toward the platform's exit and I waved back. His loneliness struck me as I watched the train pull away. I pondered whether I should have stayed and taken him up on his offer.

Though Scripture doesn't expressly state "thou shalt talk to thy neighbor on the subway line," it does state that I have an obligation to "live at peace with all men," "do good to all," and "be all things to all [people]." I felt I fulfilled that tonight. Outsiders will know us by our love, the Scripture says. What else but love would venture to step me out of my comfort zone so that I show the kind of interest in a man's life that Jesus shows? I can't shake the feeling that what I did with Yong Chun tonight was really done to Jesus. I know that the LORD looks down with a heart of compassion on him and I have the privilege to do the same. "Assuredly I say to you," Jesus says in Matthew 25, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me."