Sunday, November 21, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sah Kyehjole: Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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


Winter: Kyah-ul 겨울 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Traditional Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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