Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sah Kyehjole: Fall

Seasons in Korea are quite distinct from any I have thus experienced stateside. The general climate of the region has often been described by foreigners as having a "switch." No sooner is one season in full swing when, as if by push-button magic, another is rolling its way in. Along with its quickly changing weather patterns, the country also promotes fast-forward life seasons; just as one settles into managing a new schedule, apartment, or friendship, news comes to upset the transient equilibrium so freshly created. With my one-year anniversary still fresh on my mind, I decided to celebrate my time here thus far with a look at the best each season in Korea has to offer.


Autumn: Kah-uhl 가을 2009

At the end of October last year, two weeks after my arrival, my then-director took me out for a nature walk around Woraksan National Park to view its famed fall foliage.

My director also liked to take me to outings on Sunday afternoons following church. On this day, he brought me to visit Jungnam Tap, the pagoda marking the spot believed to be the exact center of the Korean penninsula.

Here I am on a blistery November day, in thin hose and knee-length skirt without a proper coat, at the windiest place in Chungju, the Chungju Dam.

These were my co-workers at Learning Well (from L to R): my boss, Josh, and my two American teacher-friends, Andy and Brandon. They truly were a blessing!

Autumn: Kah-uhl 가을 2010

Apple Tree has many activity days for the kids, usually cooking "classes" designed for them to learn to follow directions in English. Here I am explaining how to make sweet peanut sauce, then sampling the kids' enthusiastic work. Some days, it really pays to be a teacher.

This is Rachel (left) and Betty (right), two of the smartest kids at the hagwon. Rachel has since moved on to learning opportunities better suited for her skill in English.

Dressing up in hanbok for fall's climactic celebration, Chuseok, students at the hagwon ushered in Korea's fall season with joy and thanksgiving for past traditions. Here I am with Annie in Korea's finery.

Here in Korea, they put turkey behind bars instead of on their plates. I found this rather hefty fella as we toured the grounds of an arboretum on a recent field trip.

This is K2: (L to R) Christine, Irene, Rachel, Julia, and Elena. I took over teaching them after Jack left in July. They are the smartest kids in our kindergarten and they've become so endearing to me.

This is Grace Teacher--one of my colleagues and my supervisor but especially a dear, sweet friend.

After the arboretum, our students had a chance to make funny, playful hats out of the colorful leaves we had collected. I sure couldn't have found leaves that purty in Texas!

I truly am thankful for all of the many blessings in my life this past year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mr. Smooth

The week before our hagwon let out for its Chuseok holiday, I learned that a fellow co-worker would not be returning after the first of October. Along with this change, I heard rumors that a mystery person would be stepping in, not to take his place, but to act as the "vice director" of the school. I wondered why we had any business hiring anyone if we couldn't keep the staff we already had. As it was quite out of my hands, however, my job was simply to anticipate his arrival on the 27th of September and welcome him warmly.

On Friday the 17th, a full ten days before scheduled, the new vice director joined us for our hanbok-clad festivities as a way to sample his new working environment. He and the director looked the most well-dressed of all of us that day, when we weren't in our special-occasion gowns. By the looks of his gelled locks, I knew he had to have spent more time sculpting his hair than I did showering and brushing my tresses, combined. Even my best attire still seemed a cut below his collared suits and ties. I could tell his being there would raise appearance standards, at least for myself, significantly. But appearance wouldn't be the only thing he would challenge.

Later that day, the staff and students were gathered in the foyer to commemorate Chuseok by making seongpyeong, a traditional Korean rice dough desert--and I was chosen to lead them in English. In order to make the treat, I timidly relayed, you pinch off a bit of dough, mash it with your thumbs into a circle, and fold sugar-coated sesame seeds into it like a mini-calzone. I awkwardly explained the steps of our activity and clumsily folded my "masterpiece" into something akin to a tiny open clamshell. It was just after this that teachers stepped in to show small groups of students how it really should be done. The vice director quipped that he used to make this all the time as a kid and expertly reached down to help the PK kids in front of him.

As soon as the bowls of filling were emptied and all the dough had been pinched, it was time to sample the students' handiwork. I found myself stuffed with the sweet snack within minutes, as students from all around me held out bits of dough in their tiny hands for me to enjoy. During this small feast, the vice director sauntered over to my edge of the rug, his large hand outstretched: In it nestled a perfectly-shaped fold of white seongpyeong. As I am not one to pass up free food, I took his offering and delightfully masticated its sweet crunchiness; yet, I remained suspicious. "All right, Mr. Smooth," I thought. "What are you up to?"

When he officially started working with us, the attention I noticed from the first day didn't seem to go away. He didn't act the role of a boss towards me, so far as I could tell. I felt, instead, more a sense of being his peer than his subordinate, as he would hi-five me in the hallway and drop the respectful title of "Teacher" after my name. I knew we were very close in age and season of life, which might have accounted for the lax. It wasn't until a week after he started that I was surprised to find out he was married, information that threw his conduct into further mystery.

The two of us were accidentally alone in the teachers' office one day as I gathered supplies for my next class. The bell had already rung (five minutes early, to my credit) and I was the last staff member heading to her students. "Teacher Jennifer," he said as my heart pounded. I could already hear his grueling questions about why I was late.

"Why are you so beautiful?"

Pardon me? D-did I just hear what I thought I heard? Should words like that have been coming from my boss? "I don't know why," I quipped nervously. "Ask Jesus."

"Jesus?" he offered skeptically. "I don't know His phone number."

"Don't worry," I said with conviction as I left the room. "He doesn't need one."

Nerve-racking enough as the conversation was, that wasn't the end of them. Two Fridays ago, I spent most of my time at school suffering from sneezing fits and an itchy nasal cavity, apparently due to whatever smoggy gunk had been floating through the air that day. Thankfully, however, I had the weekend to recover. As I walked into the teacher's room feeling better-rested and with clearer sinuses the following Monday, my vice director had his regrets. "You were sick last Friday," he told me. "I'm sorry I forgot to kiss you before you left to make you feel better." Rather annoyed than simply appalled at his verbal antics, I replied that I was "okay" without it.

Later in the week, our school was scheduled to go on an outing to an arboretum to learn about autumn; the director and vice director were slotted to come with us. In truth, I was disappointed that he had to come along, as I was none too ready to spend copious amounts of time outside with him on a beautiful sunny day. If the vice director came near me, my inclination was not to speak unless spoken to; it's not my habit to make friendly conversation with married men.

I found myself serendipitously walking beside him as we trailed behind a small group of students heading back to the school bus that afternoon. One of the other teachers called out that the boys and girls needed to be holding hands as they walked. "Come on," the vice director said to me, shifting his load to the other hand and grabbing mine. "It's just like when we were kids."

No, it's not just like we were kids because I didn't know you when we were kids! I thought to myself as I wriggled my hand free. "No," I said firmly, elongating my stride several paces ahead of him. Rather than be a source of encouragement, I wanted to make my boundaries absolutely clear.

The dynamic of our working relationship has changed significantly since the day at the arboretum. I no longer sense any sort of interest wafting from him, other than merely filial or school-related. Instead, what I do feel is eagerness to be a team player. Our vice director has had to take on new responsibilities as of late, and he needs all the professional support he can get. It may take all of us to get our school back up to par with the rest of them and it wouldn't hurt to extend the hand of friendship along the way.

He caught me mentally focused as I crossed the foyer to get some water earlier this week. "Don't think too hard about me," he called.

"Don't worry," I called back as I kept walking. "I won't."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hana Yeon (하나 연)

view of Suwon-si at sunset,
as seen from the wall of Hwaseong Fortress

Anyanghaseyo! Happy Anniversary! A year ago today, on October 18, 2009, I stepped foot onto Korean soil for the first time, exhausted from the 13-hour trans-Pacific flight and the two-day journey to get here, yet in expectant anticipation of what the LORD would do in this brand-new place. I've seen God do amazing things in my life this past year--from providing for my needs at the hands of strangers, to convicting me about sin, to molding me into more of His image. I've come to a modest appreciation of a culture surrounding me that is vastly different from my own and feel as if I've "Koreanized" myself to a certain degree. I've also been privileged to meet amazing people throughout my stay, among them my dear former co-workers, Andy and Brandon, and a sweet new set of girlfriends.

My heart is full of the unfathomable, rich, abundant blessings of God tonight. I stand amazed at His love, for I am learning in this season that He truly delights in giving good gifts to His sons and daughters. For me, Korea has been a very good gift! The psalmist says in Scripture that the works of the LORD are uncountable; were I to recount each of His blessings, they would fill the entire space of my blog, with abundant excess. Instead of recalling each by name, I've collected a collage of images and memories from this past year to act as a testimony of all that the LORD has thus so richly brought me through. As I stand fully seven and a half months into my contract, with a future of uncertainties ahead, they serve as a grand reminder of what the Father has already accomplished.
* * * * *

In April, I was able to go home for my brother's wedding and the trip was more than what I could have imagined. Being with my family, and witnessing a new family being born, brought with it such unspeakable blessing.

Here, Holly is smiling with our dinner. As she, my friend Emily, and I adventured together in Busan over a national holiday in May, we decided to hit up the world-famous fish market. Guaranteed, there is no fresher seafood known to man!

This is Emily: We met for dinner in Itaewon at an authentic Korean restaurant during her last week in Korea. Though Korean, she grew up in China, lived in the Philippines for a year, moved to Korea for a year and a half, and in July moved to Texas to marry her long-distance sweetheart, Jon. God has been so faithful in her life and she has been such a bubbly blessing!
This is a group of girls I had the privilege of getting acquainted with in Seoul over the summer. The woman next to me, Krystal, is on her way around the world on a year-long missions trip to serve the hungry and the needy. I am truly blessed to call her my friend.

Just before the hagwon let out for summer vacation, we threw a barbeque to say goodbye to two of our teachers who would not be returning to school, Jack and Lena. The brewing vat was the baracho beans I brought back with me from Texas--to give our cook-out a little southern twang. They were such a hit and everyone wanted the recipe; I didn't have the heart to tell them I had cooked the beans from a dry mix only available in South Texas!

Say hello to Amanda. For my week-long summer vacation, the two of us ventured into Myeongdong, a traditional Korean marketplace in Seoul, for some shopping and sightseeing. Technically the two of met online via Facebook, but she has proved to be a very stable friend and I am thankful for the life-lessons she's taught me.

Though his surly expression belies it, this is my sweet boy, Frankie. He might get into catish mischief, but he keeps me company at night and has been a comforting blessing through his affection and sweetness. Like I tell him nightly, I truly am thankful for such a blessing!

This is Brandon and myself during one of our last excursions to Seoul. We found this cute tea "museum" off the beaten path a little in Insadong, more a tea house and shop than actual museum. He was someone I'm glad I got a chance to know.

This was the lovely woman Brandon and I had the privilege of Seoul-ing with that day, Krista. She is as adventurous, or dare I say more so, than I am and she loves to write. We've had a few misadventures of our own and it's interesting to hear her perspective on things.

My friend Becky and I decided on a whim to head up to Namsan Tower, renamed Seoul Tower by now, one sunny Sunday afternoon. It was relaxing and restful as we huffed and puffed up so many stairs. But the view the fellowship were worth it all!

As I wrote on Facebook, I went to "another Jason's wedding" this year: He's a Canadian friend of mine from Chungju who has been in Korea for five years now. He had been with his wife for three years before the wedding--and I am so happy that he married her!

Over the Chuseok holiday this fall, my friend Elizabeth and I got stuck in one of the subway stations because of a flood above-ground. It had rained throughout the month of September, making the ground a saturated spounge, and this particular day it had not stopped raining all day. Within an hour, however, Seoul's excellent drainage system cleared the water and we were all free to go.

A guest at church for our missions conference was selling saris to support her and her husband's mission work in India; knowing it was for a good cause, I bought one. The very next day I wore it to school and looked so different than normal that I was called "India girl" by the other foriegn teacher at work.

One day during my Chuseok holiday, I decided to venture on my own to the famed Fortress in Suwon. While crossing the street, I ran across these wonderful ladies (L to R: Rebecca, me, and Karen; not pictured, Adrian) who invited me to walk with them. It was a lovely outing which turned into amazing picture-taking!

The very next day after the hike, I met them in Seoul at the largest palace in Korea. If my brother Jason (who lived in China for a year) could visit the Forbidden City, at least I could do my best to see the best of Korea. And it was fabu-lous!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Better than the Sunrise

“Every good gift and every perfect gift comes is from above, and comes down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” James 1:17

My twin brother, Jason, got married earlier this year in April. I only have one other brother, Chris, and no sisters; I seem to be running out of siblings. I had known of Jason’s wedding months before I landed in Korea; before I even accepted an offer to come, I made sure my new employer would be okay with me traveling back to Texas for his ceremony. However, such was not the case the second time around.

I knew Chris had been dating a girl from Israel before I left, but it wasn’t until the first of the new year that he purposed. They tentatively set a date for August, which would have been two months before the earliest I would have been able to go back. “Jennifer Lowery thinks she needs to plan another trip to Texas before her contract ends in October,” I wrote on Facebook sometime at the end of January. I wondered why it was that life-changing events like this had to happen when I was stuck six thousand miles from home.

August came and went, with a surprise 28th birthday celebration for Chris but no wedding. As they hadn’t completely nailed down a date, I suggested they try for September 25, the Saturday after Korea’s Chuseok holiday and the only conceivable time I would have been able to make the wedding. “I really want you in my wedding,” Chris’ fiancé, Roni, would tell each time I chatted with her. I knew how important my being there was for the two of them and I wanted to do everything to make it happen.

“We were unable to book the 25th,” Roni wrote me on Facebook. “Instead, we got the 2nd, the Saturday after that. Is that okay?” I told her I’d try to come, but was almost certain that I wouldn’t be able to, due mostly to the week-long holiday from the previous week. They sent me an invitation anyway which I received two weeks ago, just prior to the break.

I felt so strongly that I just needed to be at the wedding—it was a weekend, after all, and I’d only be sitting in my one-room apartment as they were marrying each other. Of course I could make it! I started dreaming: I could ask for five days off or so, with the weekend sandwiched in there so as not to disturb the school schedule too much. I’d leave Friday morning and, thanks to the International Dateline, arrive in San Antonio nine hours later to spend the night with my parents before the big day. I told my dad about my “plan” via text message and he replied, “That’s an awful long way to come for just a short ceremony.”

“Lord,” I prayed the night I received the invitation. “You know my heart. You know I really want to be there.” It was a Thursday night; the next day, Friday, would likely be the only time to talk with my director about the matter before the following week’s vacation. “I’m going to ask Director Michelle tomorrow for time off from school. If I forget, I’ll know You don’t want me there.”

The next morning, however, I didn’t forget. I pulled out the invitation I had brought with me, gazed at it fondly, and even showed it to two of my co-workers. I had brought it with me to help build my case with my director. “See, this is proof,” I would say. “He is getting married. You have to let me go. You did it once.” I knew that one teacher would be out for most of the week following Chuseok because of a trip to New York she had been planning since July. In my mind, I thought about suggesting that I wait to leave for Texas only until I knew she was back: She would arrive back at school Thursday so that I could then leave the following day. The more I thought of it, though, the less courage I felt. Slowly, I began to see how unwise and brash my thoughts of leaving really were.

If I were the director of my school, having just come back from holiday with a teacher still out, I surely would have said no to such a selfish request. Not only that, but it was as if the LORD had audibly said to me, “You know, Jennifer, you could go. You have the money for a ticket. Nothing is stopping you. But what about what else I have planned for you?” By the end of that Friday, without having talked with my director, I had quietly resigned myself not to go.

Having settled the question of where I would be for the ceremony, I thought of something else: What if I could see it via video calling on Skpye? Last weekend in Seoul, I had bought a webcam and mike just for the occasion. I entertained thoughts of going to bed early and waking up at five that Sunday morning, as it would be three p.m. their time, just so I could watch the wedding and feel like I was there. I sent a message to Roni, Chris, and my dad asking if it were possible; Dad sent a text last night telling me it sadly wouldn’t be. It was disappointing to know that I would miss the wedding, but I was confident that I was still in the will of God. “Wake me up with the dawn, Lord,” I prayed that night before bed.

Towards the end of a quizzical dream, I heard the charm go off on my phone indicating the receipt of a text message. It wasn’t yet daybreak. I was almost awake; perhaps I should answer the message. But who would text at six o’clock on a Sunday morning? And then I remembered: only someone who doesn’t know it’s the middle of the night in South Korea because it isn’t so early for him. My family! “We are at Paesanos on the Riverwalk after the ceremony,” Dad wrote. “People in boats go by and cheer and clap.” The father of the groom had taken time out of the wedding’s festivities to contact me.

I quickly wrote him back. “Awesome, Dad. How was the ceremony?” I waited for a moment for his reply and then got to thinking: As Chris’ father, he would surely be a prominent figure throughout the evening, with little time to answer texts. Why not just call?

“Hey, Dad,” I recorded on his voicemail. “I just wanted to call and wish Roni and Chris a happy marriage. I wish with all my heart I was there. I love you guys so much and I miss you. I’ll see you—” My message ended abruptly; I had wanted to say “soon,” but didn’t quite know if that would be the case. “Bye.”

As I hung up the phone, another message awaited. “Just missed your call,” it read from Dad. “Call back.”

“Hello,” he quickly answered. I could hear the muffled noise of a small crowd in the background. He passed the phone onto someone else who sounded a lot like himself.

“Hello? Hello? How are you?” he asked. It was my brother, Chris.

“No, I want to know how you are! How was the wedding?”

The phone changed hands again and I heard Roni’s voice. “Hey Jennifer,” she said somewhat slowly, the “i” a heavy “ee” just like a Mediterranean accent. “How’s it going?”

“It goes well,” I replied, then paused a moment. “Congratulations,” I told her wholeheartedly, elongating my word slightly. At that moment, all other words escaped me.

We talked about the ceremony, wedding photos, and other such girly things. “I have some pictures that I will send to my parents [in Israel] so they can see what it was look like,” she told me. “I can send to you, too.” I asked about how the wedding went and she said that it was wonderful. “I cried and laughed a lot. I couldn’t hear what the preacher said sometimes. ‘What did he say?’ I asked. Some words I never heard of before!”

“Note to self,” I said tongue-in-cheek. “Study English before I get married.”

The phone switched hands again and I found myself talking with Chris once more. I told him the same thing: “Congratulations.” It seemed inadequate and yet the sum total of all that was in my heart for him. What more was there to say?

“Thanks. I’ve been getting that a lot lately. No, seriously. Fifty percent of the passers by tell us that.” I knew he would take such well wishes from strangers to heart.

“I wish with all my heart I could be there. I just want you to know I am so proud of you. Roni is such a gift.”

“I know,” he said with conviction. I could tell it was a heartfelt statement. “Most of the people that were not in support of my marriage are now in support of it.”

We talked about the weather in South Korea some, and then he said he had to go. “We’ve just gotten our entrees,” he intimated, a little disappointed. “I would like to talk with you more. Can you call back later?” I told him I’d try, but that I needed time to get ready for church that morning. I asked what time would be good to try to call, then said my goodbyes. “Miss you,” I heard him say. It was all I could do to choke back the tears surfacing to my eyes. “Bye.”

As I sat on my bed savoring the call and my brother’s voice, I knew it was from the LORD. “This was better than being woken up by the dawn,” I prayed. “Bless them exceedingly, Lord. Thank You so much.”

Scripture says in James that good things come from the hand of our God; I know this is true for both Roni and Christy, Jason’s wife. “Come back home soon,” Chris requested during our conversation. “Roni keeps saying she needs her best friend back.” I can’t wait to go back home and share in the joy of my brothers’ good and perfect gifts.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lessons with Young Sook

Like Labor Day for those in the U.S., fall usually starts just after Chuseok in Korea. The very next week after the holiday this year, as if on cue from the fashion experts, temperatures began to drop in accordance with the new season. Natives and foreigners alike donned sweaters, light jackets, and scarves for the first time since May to battle autumn’s crisp chill. In search of a thicker jacket to keep me warmer than the one I had brought from Texas, Thursday night, September 30, I decided to visit a local thrift shop near Byeongjeom Station to browse their secondhand selection.

As I entered the store, a young-looking woman wearing dressy jeans and shiny gray heels stood in front of the only full-length mirror in the small establishment. Her face was shaped almost like a heart, wide at the forehead and cheekbones and very narrow at the chin. Her eyes were slanted slightly, but bigger than the average Asian’s, with a crease on the upper eyelid much like a Caucasian’s. Her kinky black hair curled wildly at its ends near her shoulders and her skin looked smooth except at the corners of her eyes.

Spying their tell-tell brown and black sleeves, I ventured towards the leather jackets on the far wall of the store, crossing paths with the woman at the mirror to get to them. I first examined the thickness of each jacket, and then noted which of the thicker ones I liked best. Not seeing a fitting room and unsure if it were proper Korean etiquette to wear merchandise before purchase, I aimlessly fingered my finds, biding my time. The woman stepped closer to my direction for a moment, apparently interested in the same stock, and I took the opportunity to slip to another part of the small store so as not to disturb her.

Moments later, I spied her with one of the darker brown jackets I had just examined, considering herself in the mirror; I decided to help her decide. “Chooahyo,” I said, then repeated the meaning in English. “Good.”

She looked directly at me and replied flawlessly in a sultry alto, “Thank you very much.”

This woman speaks English! I almost shouted out loud. “Can--can we try on clothes?” I asked a bit hesitantly, gesturing with my hands.

“Yes, of course,” she nodded, turning back to the mirror.

I walked back over to the back wall and began searching for my earlier picks, my back to the woman for a moment. “I see you,” she said; I turned around. The phrase brought to mind moments when I would play hide-and-seek games with my two-year-old Sunday school classes. She sounded endearingly child-like, but I was unsure what she meant by it. I thought for a moment about Koreans’ broken usage and misunderstanding of synonyms. “I see you,” she said again and smiled. That was it! I thought. She wanted me to be the fashion model—she wanted to watch me try the jackets on!

I selected a beige button-up jacket for inspection, which came six or so inches past my hips. She indicated the mirror and this time I stood in front of it. “Nice,” she smiled broadly.

However, I wasn't too impressed with the length. “Is it too long?” I asked slowly.

“Is it too long,” she repeated flatly, without the rising intonation of a question. Clearly, the structure of English inquiries was a bit lost on her—that, or she was trying to use the phrasing of a question as a statement, what you could easily get away with in Korean. She scrunched her brow and looked at me quizzically. “I’m sorry,” she said, this time raising her intonation.

I tried again. I pointed to the brown jacket she was trying on. “Short,” I said as I stopped my hand at the height of her hip. “Long,” I said, pulling a hand down my leg. “Is it”—I held my hands in a shrug—“too long?” It felt a little like another English lesson.

“No,” she said. “Jooahyo.” Good.

Chooahyo?” I asked. I thought I hadn’t heard her right. I knew the words for good and for cold sounded very similar in Korean: What I thought was good sounded like “choo” to my ears; the other, cold, like “cho.”

Joo,” she corrected. She took my hands and in the air spelled out “J-u” in Korean letters.

“Ju!” I exclaimed. I could now see the difference—I had been confusing the “j” sound for “ch.” It was jooahyo, not chooahyo! All this time I had been making something up in Korean!

I wondered about this woman’s age as I interacted with her that night; she seemed older just by the way she carried herself. And yet, she also looked modern and trendy, something a younger woman would surely be as well. I had heard her talking with someone moments before on the phone. “Issoyo,” she had said. They have it here. I assumed that she had been talking with a member of her family and I reasoned that she must be there shopping for her children.

“Do you have children?” I asked.

“My no!” she exclaimed, shocked that I would ask. Did she look like she had children? “Single.” She held up her fingers, counting on them. “Thirty…” she tried. “Thirty-eight.” She could have put the words “I’m only” in front of the number.

“I’m sorry,” I said, almost ashamed at my comment. I should have know better than to ask a question full of such assumptions in a culture whose men don’t fully mature until their late thirties, which leaves capable young women like her looking for husbands even into their forties. “Me, too,” I said, indicating my singleness. “I am… twenty-seven.” Though that answer was almost a year off my real age, Koreans add one year to account for gestation; in their eyes, I am that age already.

Despite what would seem to a Westerner like a large age gap, this woman seemed at peace knowing we were both in similar life stages. Perhaps we were at similar maturity levels as well. “My name is Young Sook,” she said, offering a first step towards friendship. “What is your name?”

“My name is Jennifer,” I said, accenting the “i” as if it were an “ee,” like a Korean would.

“Ah, Je-ny-pah,” she repeated. “Beautiful name.” She paused for a moment and then asked tentatively, “Where… where you job?”

I replied that I worked at a school in Dongtan and her face lit up. “My live Dongtan,” she said enthusiastically and pulled out her phone. “Phone number?” I repeated it to her and she pressed send. “My phone,” she said, knowing her number would appear on my screen.

It seemed as if she wanted to keep in touch. “Do you like tea?” I asked.

“My love tea!” she exclaimed. “Tomorrow? When you job off?” I told her I got out at 6. “At six you job end, you call.” Clearly, then, it was a date.

I nervously checked my phone promptly at six the next day; I didn’t want her to think I was late or had stood her up. “Where are you?” she asked me when I called, accenting the “you.” Her inflection sounded as if we had been on the phone for several seconds already and were playing a bit of conversation volleyball: “Where are you? No, no, where are you? You go first—No, you!”

I didn’t know how to indicate where I was in simple terms. I was standing next to the fire station on the street corner across from the cell phone store. Could an ESL learner understand all that? “I am at Metapolis,” I said, referring to the tallest apartment buildings in Dongtan, what loomed in front of me on the opposite side of the intersection. She vowed to be there in ten minutes.

It didn’t occur to me until after I had hung up the phone to make sure I let the woman know I was behind instead of in front of the buildings, as the structure was at least as large as a city block. Ten minutes turned into fifteen, then twenty, as I stood on the corner in my high heels, jeans, and light fleece jacket; slowly the minute hand on my watch crept to 6:30. The sun was setting and with nightfall came even cooler autumn air that began to pierce my three thin layers. I almost wished I had brought the leather jacket she had picked out for me the night before. I jammed my fists into my jacket pockets to keep them warm.

Through a series of brief phone calls, the two of us finally coordinated our respective locations and it seemed I would not have to wait much longer. Now across the street in front of Tom and Tom’s Coffee, a Korean coffee shop much like Starbucks, I eyed a woman in a pink jogging suit with a kinky shoulder-length cut headed my way. She smiled as she saw me, gave me a quick embrace, and, in true Korean fashion, reached for my hand like a close friend might. “No stay here,” she suggested. That was fine by me; I had wanted to show her the popular Seattle coffee shop, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, anyway.

“You eat dinner?” she asked as we walked to the shop. When I told her no, she replied, “Me too,” and suggested we have some bread with our tea. I thought over how much cash I had on me and decided I had about eighteen thousand won, enough for tea and bread. Though I wasn’t too hungry, a muffin or other pastry with my tea sounded like a good idea.

I was in good spirits and quite looking forward to what I hoped would be a relaxing visit with my new Korean friend--I was even excited about the prospect of practicing what little of the language I knew. “Yogi-so,” I happily pointed out as we arrived on the steps of The Coffee Bean. Here we are.

At the register, Young Suk ordered for us in Korean. She asked me if I wanted cheesecake and I modestly said yes, pointing to the berry one. She ordered a bagel for herself and we both decided on Pomegranate Blueberry green tea. As is Korean custom, she didn’t let me spend my won but put the bill on her own card. Koreans, it seems, never entertain thoughts of going Dutch.

We chose a comfortable table by the window and sat across from each other in gray armchairs. I wondered how awkward the night might be as I left to find some sugar. What had I gotten myself into at the thrift store—a lengthy conversation with a complete stranger who wanted to pay for tea? How could we communicate if neither of us knew much of the other’s language?

“How long you stay in Korea?” Young Sook asked upon my return. When I shrugged an unsure reply, she smiled and tapped her temple. “My think three years.” She nodded and tapped her temple again emphatically. “My think.”

She started to form a statement about the “Korean lang-gajee,” but I stopped her. “You think I should stay in Korea so that I can learn the Korean language?” To this, she nodded broadly. Well, here I was—trying.

Our first language lesson of the evening was how to communicate the distance from The Coffee Bean to our respective homes. She asked what the phrasing would be in English to tell how long it would take to get to her place and I offered, “It takes fifteen to twenty minutes to walk home from here”—a sentence we practiced in both languages. As she repeated the phrase in Korean, I caught the word “yogi,” which means “here.” I started to transliterate its sounds onto the napkin we were using as a chalkboard, but she stopped me.

I had written the letters as they sounded to my untrained ears, ㅇ ㅛ ㄱ ㅣ ( y-oh-g-i). “You’re cute,” she said as she took the pen from me. “This children write.” Deftly, she wrote the word again, this time with the correct vowel, ㅇ ㅕ ㄱ ㅣ --여기. As there are twenty-one vowels in the Korean alphabet, I was bound to get a couple wrong eventually.

As the conversation lengthened, she asked the name of my hagwon and whether there were any other foreigners teaching there. “There is one, James. He’s from England.” I thought a moment. “Yong-guk saram.”

She repeated the phrase in Korean and her eyes lit up. She thumbed a word into her cell phone dictionary, then turned the screen to me. “Are you…?” she asked; the entry read “intimates.”

I sat back, almost appalled. “No!” I corrected passionately. Clearly, the word held a milder connotation for my Korean counterpart than it did for my American fellows back home.

She went back to her phone intently. “Then you must be—” She showed me again; this time it read “lonely.” I nodded knowingly as we sat in silence for a moment. “Me, too,” she said.

“He has a fiancé,” I told her. As she looked at me puzzled, I quickly typed it in. “Igo,” I said. “He has this.” She nodded in understanding.

We chatted long into the night this way, switching clumsily from Korean to English out of mutual concern for the other's understanding. Our cell phones were never far from our reach during our conversation, in case we were ever at a loss for words! Soon, however, it was time for the night's introductions to draw to a close and, as we prepared to leave, my companion grew thoughtful. "Jenny-pah, Young Sook, intimates? [Friends?] That's okay?"

I nodded. "Kinchanayho," I confirmed. That's okay.

That night she asked if we could meet again, this time the following Thursday instead of Friday--and on that Thursday asked me to come back the next week. It's become sort of a regular date, these Thursday night meetings. Each week at the close of our conversation, Young Sook customarily asks if I can come again and each week I enthusiastically agree and mentally clear the day of any pressing matters that might wait until later.

I was nervous as I waited outside her apartment building the first time she invited me over, but I soon realized I had no valid reason to be: If this budding friendship was from the hand of the LORD, its good fruit of blessing would show through; and if not, I would soon see its true colors. So far, it's been the former. Through our informal meetings we each have a chance to speak into the other's lives, "as iron sharpen[ing] iron," despite any communication hindrance. Two weeks ago, she took the liberty to speak into mine.

"Your..." She hesitated as I glanced at the clock: 9:25, five minutes past our agreed-upon time of departure. We were sitting on the floor of her apartment after a tasty ramyen-noodle and cheesy corn dinner, studying and chit-chatting as normal. Earlier that evening she had expressed concern that I be out of her apartment at a more decent hour than I had been at times past. "You go home?" she asked.

"Kinchanahyo. It's okay. You said 'your'?"

"Your..." she thought a moment. "You Korea one year, Mexico, one or two years, Korea come back one or two years. Why?"

"I know Spanish and I want to use it," I offered quickly. My friend apparently needed more to go on than that; as we contemplated my future, she asked about my goal, where I see myself ending up.

"I don't know," I said contemplatively. "I [eventually] want to be a missionary. I don't know what I'll do next. I don't think I'll stay in Korea. My job is not good." I told her of my school's recent struggle to pay its foreign teachers on time. Payment was late for September and this month, I still had not been paid in full ten days after payday.

Young Sook pulled herself erect in righteous anger as she heard my report. "You talking to school?" she asked gently. She reminded me that it was no one else's place but my own to step up and say something. "Young Sook"--she pointed to herself and counted off on her hands--"Jenny-pah parents, puh-rends talking to school--no! You working."

I thought about the absurdity of my family flying all the way over just to talk to my school about the issue. No one else could do this for me because no one else worked there; no one else was in my stead. She paused to pantomime someone conducting English classes, as I soaked up her meaning. I whispered what she was trying to say in English as a point of piercing clarification. It was as as if the LORD were speaking through her. Yes, Lord, I humbly prayed.

She reminded me that it wasn't going to be an easy thing to approach them, but that it was my right and that I was just in so doing. "Teacher," she said in English, playing my role. "I'm hungry. You [referencing the school] are going through--" She whipped out her cell phone and quickly tapped something in hangul as she acted out the scene; I read "hardship." "But I am this, too," she continued, indicating the freshly-found word. "I need my money. Chuseyo." Please.

The conversation continued until it was time to leave, but my friend would not let me forget my duties. "Jenny-pah," she reminded me as we exited her apartment door, gentle but firm. Her words were weighty as I took them in, nodding my consent. "Tomorrow. Talk to school."

I remembered her direction the following Monday as I sat down at my desk, just after a meeting with the director. Swiftly, I sent her the results of the conversation. "Good morning, Young Sook," I texted. "I talked with my school today."

Within minutes she replied. "Good afternoon, Jennifer. That's good [what] you say. How [was] that?"

And then in a separate text a moment later, she sent something a little unexpected. All it said was, "Fighting spirit!" Now, tha's th' ticket, lassie!