Sunday, October 9, 2011


An array of books--read, reread, unread--stand erect between the metal bookends that were never sold in the garage sale. Larger books rest wearily against a wooden slat two perches below their peers. The tall shelf that some in the tiny library occupy again speaks of its age through chips in its whitewash, yet another relic from the fundraiser. The air around the structure smells faintly of must and cat urine.

Diagonal to the scene, a pair of bunk beds guard the entrance, compelling evidence of the room's previous tenants. Their sleepers have long since grown into men and left discarded childhood debris behind. Crinkly plastic covers one bed's tucked-in sheets in order to ward off the room's malady, its clammy four-legged visitors. A purple blanket drapes the lower bunk, two-year-old wrinkles disfiguring the color's elegance. This is proof of a different kind: A new inhabitant.

In the middle of the room yawn two crushed boxes, the words oocheguk taekbae printed in bold letters at the bottom--"post office delivery." They, too, smell of time's unceasing march. The corner of one box is split wide open, revealing the shiny silvery edge of a Bible's crisp pages. The other's contents are nearly spoiled by a cat's indiscriminate choice of litter box. For almost five months, the two receptacles have been waiting for this very day: to finally be unpacked.

After half a year of crying out to God, I have a place. It's just like waiting to grow up when you're kids, sharing rooms until one of you is old enough to venture out. I shared one with my twin until we were about three, and then he did the same with his brother for ten more years. The only difference now is this room isn't really mine.

It all started 20 years ago, Mom and Dad with their small children in tow scouting out a space to call home that was larger than their eight-foot-wide trailer. After rejecting an overgrown plot of land and deciding that a five-acre ranch would be "too rich for our blood," we were introduced to a modest three-bedroom house near the corner of Ackerman and Binz-Engleman Road. With its columned porch, hardwood floors, and pier-and-beam foundation, we knew it was our little country cottage in the city.

A Mrs. Cathy Pricer greeted us at the second front door when we came to view the home; the first front door had long since been reserved as another entrance to the master bedroom. After having been added onto twice, the house now resembled an "L" shape, tipped to its right side. Proudly, Mrs. Pricer guided us through the elongated living room towards the large kitchen to our right. She clipped the corner expertly and headed to the dwarfed hallway further onward, with its two doors on either side.

The last two doors from the hall, our guide informed us, would be the children's rooms. Just glancing at the portal to the right, I quickly headed towards the one on the left. A boy occupied it, his dark posters glaring at me from the wood-paneled walls. I didn't care; I was enthralled. It was just my size, I knew--about half of the other room. Small, yes, but quaint. This room would be mine.

Over the course of these last two decades, the room to the right has changed hands several times: It was first the boys' room, then just Chris', then just Jason's when he forcefully kicked his brother out. It was no one's room the year Jason was off in China; then, hard on his luck, it was Chris' when he moved back from the Midwest. My room, on the contrary, has always been mine--that is, until moving out of it three years ago.

Growing up, Dad was always eyeing the room on the left for its peaceful solitude and quietness. One of the two back rooms would be his office, he had informed us. It just remained to be seen which one of the siblings would leave first. As the boys' door would prove to be constantly turning, mine seemed the perfect candidate the week that I packed my things. Within months, the purple paint job I had earnestly awaited almost ten years was all but nonexistent as Dad's warm yellow hue gently glided over it. No matter if I wished it so, from then on I knew my room would never again be mine.

The September before I moved to Korea, the boys' room was no one's again, as Chris headed off to the road to become a truck driver. Then it became Dad and Mom's spare room, with a place for gift-wrapping and extra storage--until, hard on his luck, Jason came back six months ago. Informed of this change in situation, it was my desire to move back to Texas with a job and apartment lined up and ready to go. Nothing within me wanted to ask Dad to give up his office, or fight for my right to be in the middle of my brothers' revolving door.

Such was not the plan, however. After nearly five months of searching and countless hours of borrowing cars and fetching rides on the bus, I have yet to find a stable, well-paying place of employment--what I like to call, a "grown-up job." Though I can praise God for the part time work I have been able to find, it's not enough to make end's meet. And certainly not enough to earn that apartment I was looking forward to.

Jason's situation has recently become such that he no longer needs use of the room at Dad's house, and the two of us have come to an agreement of sorts: if I pack up his stuff, I can have his room. Good friends of mine tell me this should only last about six months, long enough for me to save the money needed to get back on my feet. Despite their good intentions, I can't help but feel as though I'm back in high school, just waiting for the chance to venture out.

So here I am again, sharing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Professional Couch-Surfing

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone born of the Spirit." --John 3:8

I wouldn't call myself homeless, per se. Every night I sleep happily underneath strong, protective roofing built by someone else many years ago. I stay on my father's couch, or my grandmother's bed. On a fold-out futon in a friend's living room, or in another friend's guest room. Sometimes I stay in someone's teenage daughter's upstairs loft. I guess you could say what I really am is room-less.

"I'm sort of a professional couch-surfer," I told my friend Mario via online chat a couple of weeks ago.

"Hey, do you mean on, or the non-internet, real-life version?"

"The non-internet, real-life version."

"It kind of works like this," I went on. "I live with my grandmother... only until I don't. If I have to go into town, I catch the bus early that morning and stay all day, sometimes not coming back until the following day."

Mario was incredulous. "Do you just not want to be at your grandmother's house? Do you dislike it there?"

"No, no," I reassured my friend. "I am involved in Toastmasters [International] in town and cannot get there if I don't take the bus early in the morning. It's supposed to work where I'm only in town Tuesday and Wednesday and am with my grandmother the rest of the time. But if there's a special occasion like Labor Day, I don't mind going out to celebrate it."

Before leaving Korea, I had the chance to experience couch-surfing for the first time--and I felt God move through it in a whole new way. Just after finding out that I had two weeks left at my job, and subsequently in my apartment, I debated about whether I should pay to stay in the apartment for one extra week. I knew the hagwon was closing at the end of May and as I prayed through my dilemma, I felt the Spirit say, "Move out May 31."

Plans were already formulating for me to join Holly Schoephoerster in Southeast Asia sometime in June, but if I left at the end of May, that meant there would be a critical time gap between vacating my apartment and traveling. Where was I to go until then? From out of the woodwork, God started bringing girlfriend after girlfriend who offered me not just support for what I was going through, but places for me to stay.

December, who worked close to my school in Dongtan, was the first to step up. Though it was only twice the size of my Korean apartment (i.e., less than 500 total square feet), she said I could crash at her place anytime I needed. She even offered to hold part of my luggage while I was away in Thailand.

My Korean friend Young Sook, who lived less than a mile from December, wanted me to bring my stuff over to her place simply because she had one whole extra room (including a bed) more than my American friend. "Your luggage-y, big and December apartment small," she said matter-of-factly. At one point, she too offered her apartment as somewhere for me to be.

"Jenny-pah," she said as she gazed intently at me, "stay. In Korea, you stay."

"I can't stay," I told her. At that moment, visions of my family and their need for comfort raced through my head. I knew couldn't.

At the same time, my Korean co-worker Grace Teacher also offered her place. "I would love you to come stay with me," she told me over the phone. "With my mom."

I was astounded by all of the people who wanted to come to my rescue and I knew that they offered themselves through the prompting of God. I never felt so loved or cared for than during those moments. In the end, more because of convenience than anything else, I chose to room with December.

But I wasn't the only one who started a couch-surfing career at that time: So did Frankie. Though my friends wanted me to stay with them, they weren't too eager to also entertain my cat. December was highly allergic, Young Sook deathly afraid, and Grace didn't think her mother would very much approve. So what was Frankie to do without me?

"I'm taking your cat," a new friend of mine, Kealy, asserted the first day I met her. We were out at Hangang Park celebrating Holly's last Sunday in Seoul with swan paddle boat races on the Han; I had just told her about my need to vacate my apartment building in less than two weeks. Though I had had one other offer to take Frankie already, it was still unconfirmed because the girl needed to check with her school first. "I'm taking her cat," Kealy repeated, telling everyone within earshot.

And so it was settled. Just as my mobile life had begun.

"It's fun, but it's not a good way to settle down," I confessed to Mario that day online.

"Getting tired of the couches?" he asked.

"I've been doing it so long it's kind of the new norm I guess. I just want to take control of my own something."

"That's a real shift from having your own everything in Korea, eh?"

A sobering thought, Mario. In my need for control, I have to stop and ask one question: If the LORD provided for me then, in the midst of a foreign people speaking a foreign tongue in a foreign land, why must I doubt that He can provide for me now?

I've certainly seen a lot of Texas towns while under someone else's roof: Somerset, Kirby, Converse, Schertz, Temple, Killeen. I've visited or reconnected with no less than five local congregations. I've also had a chance to spend copious amounts of time with dear friends and family in this new season. Being room-less isn't all bad.

Confessions of a Used Car Salesman

*Originally performed live August 30, 2011 in Universal City, Texas*

The Toastmasters Area Contest was held earlier today on the north side of San Antonio. In honor of the Christian speech club that I have recently joined, and such an auspicious occasion, here is a look at the original speech I entered this year. Sadly, it was not eligible to go on to larger, more prestigious contests--no thanks to my forgetfulness or its length.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you "Confessions of a Used Car Salesman." Laugh at your own risk. Please note, any and all flirtation recorded in the preceding may or may not actually have been true.


HHHHow many of you ever want your daughter to grow up and declare, “Oh, dad, I really want to be a professional hustler!” Standing before you, ladies and gentlemen, is a woman who—on her honor—almost became one.

Like a lot of people in this country, I’ve been out of work for two months now. Last week, my uncle called up to tell me about a job fair the following morning. He had heard about it all on the news. He said the news anchor suggested candidates “dress for success”—which meant smoothing out your best dress suit, straightening your wild locks, and sharpening your Stilettos. The next day, there I was in my dad’s immaculate Mustang convertible headed out to take someone for a ride.

After registering my name and email address with the vultures in the foyer, I was handed a 37-page pamphlet and ushered in to the coliseum. Just like Daniel in the Lions’ Den. The leaflet was crammed with too many useful bits of information to be helpful, so I stuck to reading the map. My first booth, a trade school.

“I wouldn’t work in this industry,” the young man confessed as I stood there with my arms full of resumes. “It’s really more of a business.”

Oh really? I’ll trade you professional job-seeking, and throw in broke, for a chalkboard. “Do you have any room for English teachers?”

“We don’t teach English, no.”

I was beginning to wonder if they used it in the classroom at all. “Can I give you my resume anyway?”

“Sure.” He looked down at the first location on the page. “You worked in Korea?”

“Yes, I did.”

“How was it?” he asked eagerly. “I’ve been thinking about doing that myself.”

“It’s worth it. You should totally go.” There I was, putting myself out of a job—in another country no less!

I scoured booth after booth looking for a warm body to pawn off my 8-and-a-half-by-eleven “I Love Me” stationery. And each time it was the same response: “Oh, we’re not taking resumes. Apply online.” The only reason that first guy took it was to get my number.

Moving along, I quietly passed a power company. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I was told as I skirted the booth, “we don’t have openings for secretaries or office work.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. Shouldn’t there be an equal opportunity here? Or is this industry just rigged? Success for them must have meant a well-proven track record of grit under the fingernails.

Before I rounded the bend in the event hall, I came across an opportunity to be a corrections officer for the GEO group. Translation: professional jailor. I could teach a class on how to win friends and influence prison wardens.

Finally, I had reached an oasis amid the throng, a booth nicely decorated and peopled about with gleaming upper management. They still wouldn’t take my resume, but at least I was qualified for the job. The position? Professional complaint consultant at a local call center. I would be up all night with the screams of protest ringing in my ears. I could have made a career out of this growing up for all the times my twin brother rained on my parade… Wait, maybe I could still cash in! …

Further down the line of headhunters was posted a sign for a mattress company. Expert salesmen needed, it read. Conscientious need not apply. Now, I wasn’t one to swindle anyone out of a good night’s sleep, but what I saw next to the booth was my golden opportunity.

Just opposite the mattress guys stood a flashy display that caught my eye—either that or it was the skinny guy next to it making googley eyes at me. “Drive Time” read the bold, green letters across the top of his nametag. At least as a used car salesman I’d look the part.

I only hesitated a moment before offering my hand. “Jennifer.”

“Ryan,” he said as he slipped his fingers over mine. It was official—we were now engaged… in conversation.

As any betrothed couple does, we chatted about the most important things—the weather, Korea, my job history. But, alas, we had come down to business. “Well, Jennifer, if you can communicate like you’re doing now, you can sell a car.”

What?! That’s almost like saying, “If you have a pulse and breathe air, you’re hired.”

“But I can’t sell a thing!” I sputtered at him like a beat-up station wagon.

“Let me take your resume and have you talk to my supervisor.” I knew it—he just wanted me for the Stilettos!

I was ushered past other potential tricksters right up to the man himself. “Dominic,” he stuck out his hand. “So what has my colleague told you about Drive Time?”

“That you’re… looking to expand your network,” I told him sheepishly.

“Good. We’ll set something up this week.”

There I stood, writhing like shark bait. I, too, would be asked to lay down my chalk to become… a used car salesman.

The next day as I sat relaxing peacefully at a friend’s house, the dreaded phone call rang three different times. These guys are nothing if not persistent—that, or someone on the other end is desperate.

They must have decided on a different approach because I soon began receiving made-to-order email spam. “I called the number on your resume and left a message,” read one of the notes, “but I thought an email might be ignored just as well.”

After three days of email tag, my inattentiveness had worn them out. They must have seen through the façade of hair and makeup—and the Stilettos—to where my real interests lie: in waiting out pesky used car salesmen. “I’m sorry, Ms. Lowery,” the note read sweetly, “but we’re looking for someone who… will answer our emails.”

I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a professional swindler! “After many attempts to contact me and subsequent follow-ups,” I wrote to my dad, “the good folks at Drive Time have asserted that they… just can’t keep up with my laziness.”

So I didn't become a car salesman. Maybe it's because I didn't live up to my potential--but really, who wants to be involved in legalized what collar crime? Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen, that your pocketbooks are safe with me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

P. O. A.

“And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, My people, lest you share in her sins and lest you receive her plagues.’ ” Rev. 18:4

“I have a question for you,” he suggested nonchalantly as we steadily hiked up the rocky pathway towards the summit of Woraksan. “What do Christians think about dating non-Christians?”

My heart pounded below my blouse. “I”—gasp—“would”—gasp—“love”—gasp—“to answer that question, Ben,” I told him as my chest rose and fell like a tidal wave. “When I’m not heaving!”

“Okay,” he shrugged as I dutifully trudged on beside him.

It was a beautifully brisk afternoon that May in Korea. After winter had grasped the peninsula in its frigid grip for the previous six months, it felt good to get out into the fresh air and stretch our legs. Ten or so yards below us, our friend Dan was trailing behind without fighting to keep up. I was only so close because of the company.

As Ben and I approached a clearing mere meters from the top of the mountain, I quickly began to realize I wouldn’t be good for the final push up the trail. Not having been on a vigorous hike since our last walk four months prior, I was a worn-out rag doll. I also discovered that 70 degrees was a temperature still too cold for my asthmatic lungs to be sucking in so rapidly. When Dan arrived, I advised the still-energetic Ben that he should probably go ahead without us.

“Be back in forty-five,” Ben breathed as his boot struck the dirt. While we waited for his swift return, Dan and I settled in on the concrete ledge in the middle of the clearing, and thoughts quickly turned to our absent friend.

Dan, a professed believer in Christ, had been watching Ben’s and my interaction the last three months, privy to confessions on both sides of the aspiring relationship. He knew that Ben and I had walked through serious heartache together when a friend of ours had jumped ship early in March. He also knew that we had become each other’s best friends since that time. “The feelings are there,” he affirmed. “All you gotta do is light the match.”

He knew what the Scripture said about not being yoked together with an unbeliever (ref. II Cor. 6:14), and, aware of Ben’s lack of faith in Christ, began persuading me to look elsewhere for romance. In addition to his spiritual reasons, Dan also gave other sound advice as to why Ben wouldn’t be the best choice. “He’s leaving in three months—” he began.

“I’ve thought about that, too,” I cut him off.

“Jennifer! The match has been lit!”

I looked down at my feet as his admonition hit its mark. Even then, I knew something had to be done about whatever it was pumping so loudly in my chest. I quietly took up the rear as we descended the mountain, conviction weighing down my limbs more heavily than my fatigue.

It wasn’t until the three of us waited for the bus back to Chungju that night that I realized the totality of Ben’s numbness to Christianity. He’s clueless, I thought as Dan and I tried to share the gospel with him. Nothing we said seemed to penetrate his blank stare.

“It’s okay to have feelings for him,” Dan later told me at Starbucks. “It’s just not okay to act on them. You need a P. O. A.—a plan of action.” He sat back a moment and then looked pointedly at me. “You can’t come to Chungju.”

Since I had moved into my new place the previous March, I had been to see Ben several times. Once, he came up to help me move my things into the new apartment. Another time, we had met in Seoul for a Costco run. Just prior to the hiking trip, I had come to see him for a national holiday and found myself stuck two hours away from home—overnight. Even if I weren’t in Chungju, I knew the struck match could still light a fire.

Facebook had become the sole means of communication for Ben and me—a quick email here, a short post on his wall there. We had even begun to chat together if the two of us were ever online at the same time. If I were to limit what I “Facebooked” him, perhaps I could put out the blaze before it started. No more random posts on his wall, I resolved; and if I emailed him, I couldn’t say anything that I wouldn’t want others to read. “Jennifer Lowery,” read my status update a week later—“has her POA.”


Fast-forward a year and three months to August ’11, a year since Ben left the ROK and nearly four months since I’ve been back myself: I hardly think about him anymore. With Ben no longer in my physical world, my POA is all but a non-entity. I wrote him, though, just to see what he was up to.

“I’m back in Korea,” he answered jovially, “with a job that I’m blessed to have. I’m here in Jeju [Korea’s prized tropical island paradise] and have been back for two weeks now.”

While in Korea, I hadn’t given Jeju a serious thought—but now, it looked so appealing. With my new passport in hand, all I would need to get there was to get my federal background check back from the FBI. Maybe my next job would be on a sub-tropical island only a short flight from Seoul. Then again, maybe there would be another tsunami.

Recently I noticed another of my friends from the ROK online at the same time as I, so I messaged him. “Maddock!” I had met him the September before, just days before he left the peninsula for Argentina. As I chatted with him, I typed in Spanish to help his language acquisition in his newly adopted country.

Estoy tan impresionada con tu espanol, mi amigo,” I wrote him. I’m very impressed with your Spanish.

Y tu tambien,” he volleyed back. And you as well. Despues de once meses, necesito saber ALGO! After eleven months, I need to know SOMETHING!

We must have talked in our respective second language for a half an hour or more. I secretly relished the idea that I could turn off my English for so long—and that he was so impressed with my abilities. “Anyway, Maddock, it was great to catch up and chat in Spanish,” I told my friend at the end of our talk.

“Most definitely,” he replied. “Glad to talk to you… Wish I’d met you earlier when we were both in Korea.”


In an online Bible study that some friends of mine and I do together, we’ve been studying the prophecies and parables in Revelation. So far, we’ve made it to Revelation 18, the fall of a harlot named Babylon. “All nations have drunk the wine of the wrath of her fornication,” reads verse 3 (NKJV). Another version calls it the “maddening wine of her adulteries.”

In an effort to allow us to understand these things spiritually, our discipler had us understand them physically first. “What do prostitutes do?” she asked us. “Simply put, they receive seed from many different sources.”

Earlier she had argued that this “seed” represents words. We know from the parable of the sower, for example, that the “good seed” sent out into the field is the Word of God (ref. Luke 8:11). This harlot, Babylon, didn’t receive the good seed—and in fact, has mingled it with the seed—words—she has received from others. The “maddening wine of her adulteries,” suggests my teacher, is her mixed words.

Last week, I began thinking about this harlot in terms of my own fallenness, emotionally if not physically or spiritually. When have I received seed from many different sources? Whom have I prostrated myself in front of? Harlots make themselves beautiful and attractive to their lovers—so when have I played the harlot?

My POA really need not have anything to do with Ben anymore. And it has nothing to do with Facebook, either. Rather, it’s about the heart of my own prostitution. I prostrate myself if I make myself attractive to different men through my words—and if I accept their words about me.

My plan of action doesn’t simply mean not writing something I don’t want others to read; rather, it means refraining from saying something that makes me feel good or attractive to multiple men. If it nets me intentional masculine attention, whatever seemingly innocuous action it might be is wrong.

“I saw what you wrote on Ben’s wall,” Dan told me that day I was with him in Starbucks. “And I thought to myself—what is this girl thinking?! [With your post] you’re saying, ‘Oh, I’m thinking about you. I care about you.’ That’s gonna drive him crazy!”

Men love innocence—they’re drawn to it. And I can’t be so innocent as to think my innocence can do no harm.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Labor Day

Mary-Ellen helming the turn-of-the-century steam locomotive
located just outside Temple's railway station.

A couple of weeks ago, a dear, sweet friend from college, Mary-Ellen Tolliver, had asked me if I would come up to see her sometime in Killeen, Texas, a three-and-a-half hour ride from my hometown. Her original plan was for me to come up during the week, spend time with her after school, and then the both of us head back toward Seguin and San Antonio for the weekend. As it worked out better that I could come up to see her for Labor Day weekend, off I went.

Having not yet found gainful employment, nor subsequently a reliable means of transportation, there I was the Saturday morning before Labor Day in line for the 7AM train. I had thought about a bus ride, but the train sounded so much more exotic and adventurous. During the weekend, Mary-Ellen affirmed that, indeed, it was most appropriate for me to have made use of this particular mode of passage on such an auspicious occasion: the anniversary of the railway workers' strike that provoked the inception of Labor Day itself.

In May of 1894, in what would come to be known as the Pullman Strike, railway workers across the nation boycotted the service of Pullman rail cars. In sum, the strike cost the rail industry at least $80,000 in damages--which is more than $8 million by today's standards. The incident was bad enough to call in US Marshals to control the mobs and prevent further defacing of public property. Legislation quickly passed through Congress as a way to pacify the angry workers, and thus Labor Day was born.

The Saturday of my trip, I woke up at 5:15, left my house on foot by 5:49, and caught the 6:03 bus into downtown, just so I would be at the Amtrak station the advised thirty minutes before my scheduled departure time. As I approached the depot, all things stood at the ready. Workers puttered in golf carts around a train parked on the tracks to my left, to check for what I thought were last-minute adjustments. The further I followed the train, however, I realized that the growing crowd in front of the little station belied my calm assessment of the matter.

"The 7AM train to Chicago is still going to leave on time?" I heard the guy in front of me ask the solitary clerk behind the checked-baggage desk. Skirting eye contact, the clerk reassured all within earshot that indeed it would. At 6:40, the still train sitting outside was supposed to have left one hour and ten minutes prior to the inquiry. Apparently whatever grim circumstance rendering the present locomotive motionless wouldn't have anything to do with my own train.

Or so I thought.

After purchasing my reserved ticket, I crowded outside the small station with the other anxious passengers to await our promised ride. Without a timepiece I couldn't tell just how long we stood together with our eyes fixed on the immovable locomotive. Just as the predawn light began to baptize the gathered vigil, a second train pulled onto the pair of tracks closest to the crowd and the masses climbed aboard.

No sooner had we settled in for the ride when the wheels started turning--backwards. We must have headed in the opposite direction ten minutes or more! I was beginning to think that the quickest way to head north was south, until we began inching back the way we came. As we passed San Antonio's east-side graffiti so slow that we could read it, we asked the steward why the hold-up.

"Our trains run on Union Pacific railroad," he said. "It's because of all the freight trains in front of us." Hmm. A forty-year-old rail line that doesn't even own its own tracks? Isn't that like being thirty-five and still living at your parents' house?

This curtsy to his big brother UP cost Amtrak an initial hour and a half off the starting block, as well as untold hours of other delays throughout the trip. Regardless of the setbacks, however, I was thankful for the opportunity to ride a passenger train in the US for the first time. "Thank You for allowing me this trip," I wrote to the LORD in my prayer journal that morning. "I know You didn't have to, but You knew it was something I would like."

To my adventurous spirit, it was a chance of a lifetime--an experience I was determined to taste to the fullest. I leaned back in my extra-roomy captain's chair on row 205 and noted the soft light of dawn filtering through the window shades, determined to enjoy the ride. It was only after the sun came up full and strong that I discovered the observation deck one car in front, with its shade-less, floor-to-ceiling window panes that allowed for optimally viewing the gently passing countryside. It was here that I spent nearly half of the remainder of my trip.

A surprise awaited me in this new rail car. "Here in our Observation Deck," announced a woman over the intercom, "we have a special guided tour, part of the Trails and Rails program put on by our partners, Texas Parks and Wildlife. They will be sharing stories and details about the scenery around you through to Fort Worth."

Unfinished book in hand, I suddenly lost interest in the printed page and strained my ears toward the commentator's stories. She regaled us with moments of epic heroism by the Alamo freedom fighters, educated us about unique tidbits of old San Marcos structures, and reminded us about the beauty of the natural parks surrounding us. Her oral history of Texas was all very interesting, almost like listening to Homer or another ancient harold. I was only sorry that I couldn't listen to the park ranger all the way up to Fort Worth.

There was another thing I strained to hear on the trip: the announcement that the dining car was open for business. Instructed not to pass through or even to approach the car unless it was time, I had patiently awaited the lunch hour throughout the morning. As the come-and-get-it call rang out, I grabbed my wallet from my window seat and headed forward.

In front of me inside the dining car was a woman about my age; behind me, a mother and her daughter. Anticipating that the already-cramped space would soon fill up, the server asked the woman and myself, unknown to each other, to sit together. Moments later, the mother-and-daughter team were asked to sit adjacent to us.

The server approached them as they took their seats in the booth opposite ours. "When I asked you to sit across from them," he instructed sternly, "I wanted you to sit across the table." Slightly embarrassed, the two women scooted over a few yards to face us. It's not every day you get to eat lunch with strangers.

By this time nearly 12:15, more than forty-five minutes past the time we were originally scheduled to arrive at my destination city. Noting how quickly the car was filling up with guests, and how slowly our strained waiter was at getting back to us, I was fairly certain my opportunity to try an on-board meal was pulling out of the station without me.

Just as I was deciding between a club sandwich and soup, the announcement came to confirm my thoughts. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," the conductor called. "We will be arriving to Temple within five minutes." This time, the train would be on time.

I quickly left my new friends at the table and made my way back towards row 205 and the rest of my things. As the locomotive rolled to a complete stop, I jumped off and landed in the rail yard in front of expectant new passengers. I approached the immense turn-of-the-century station to look for any sign that would inform my friend of my late arrival.

"Jennifer!" I heard to my right as Mary-Ellen bounded toward me. Apologizing for the unexpected delays, I quickly loaded my bags in her trunk and off we went in search of adventure.

The following Monday, Labor Day, the two of us headed back to the depot to await the train that would ferry me home, scheduled to arrive at 4:45. As I approached the old-timey counter to pay for my new reservation, events from the weekend slowly began to repeat themselves.

"It looks like the train won't be pulling in until 6 or 6:30," the clerk relayed sadly. "I was hoping I could go home on time tonight."

"Does this happen often?"

The clerk smiled wryly. "It happens more often, yes. It was on-time Friday." A one-in-four chance of matching the posted schedule. It was like guaranteeing your professor you'd miss a quarter of his lectures: a one-way ticket to a failing grade.

While we sat there, the ETA of the Texas Eagle grew to a whopping three and a half hours past its timetable. It was slowly looking like I wasn't going to be able to catch it for my return trip after all. "That's why people don't take the train!" I heard my dad say as I informed him of the news. At least Mary-Ellen had offered her place for me to stay until she could drive me back home.

Browsing through the bargains of Borders' closing doors, I came across a book that might help me make sense of my recent misadventure. It was called Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. The author, James McCommons, spent a year of his life on Amtrak time, riding the rail from Los Angeles all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. And his research question has a strong implication for where not just Amtrak, but the greatest nation on Earth, is really headed.

"Why has the world's greatest railroad nation turned its back on the form of transportation that made modern life and mobility possible?" he asks. And what can be done to renew its strength?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Settling Down

The day was a warm Sunday in the middle of July. The location, Bill Black's adult Sunday school class at my grandmother's church, Somerset First Baptist. I gulped as I read the title of the lesson for the day: "Settle Down." It had been just over a month since I had come back to Texas from Korea, and this was a subject I had not yet mastered.

We had been talking about Jeremiah for some time in the Sunday school class, and now we had reached one of my favorite passages from the book, chapter 29. It was a letter to the captives of the Children of Israel from the Great I AM. The prophet had been trying to tell the Israelites that what they had been told about their captivity was a lie. Other prophets in Israel had told the people they would only be in Babylon two years, but Jeremiah was adamant that captivity would surely be 70.

"Jeremiah represents either a terrorist or a terrorist-sympathizer," our teacher commented. "These people rejected anything that he said because they thought they knew God and that He dwelt with them."

The Children of Israel truly thought they were in God's will as they prepared to live only briefly in a land not their own; yet God had a different plan for them. "Build houses [in Babylon] and dwell in them," He wrote through Jeremiah. "[P]lant gardens and eat their fruit... [B]e increase there and not diminished (29:5-6)." The LORD surely did assent to restore them to the Promised Land, but they first needed to settle into life as foreigners.

In the Israelites' obedience lay God's purpose: Only after going through captivity would they come to know God in a personal and fulfilling way. "For I know the thoughts I think toward you," reads verse 11, "thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and pray to Me and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer 29:12-13). The captivity was designed not to alienate them from God, but to draw their hearts ever closer to Him.

"Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you," the LORD continues (Jer. 29:8). "Nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed... [for] I have not sent them, says the LORD." The Children of Israel had believed a false report about how long they would be in captivity, and now they needed to trust God in His timing to bring them out of it.

As I sat pondering my own unwillingness to trust God, the morning's commentary seemed to pinpoint my secret thoughts: "What unrealistic dreams have you been holding on to?" the margin screamed.

I gulped again. For the last month, I had done just as the Children of Israel had been instructed not to: I had believed the "dreams which you cause to be dreamed." I had listened to the desire to be overseas and because of this had become so disenchanted with living in the States that I refused to buy things like a cell phone, a car, and even an apartment. The conviction stung worse than a mesquite switch to the back of the thighs.

The Israelites' journey was beginning to mirror my own. "Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive," the LORD declared to His people, just as I knew He was speaking to me at that moment. Perhaps being back home would be longer than I had originally thought. My responsibility would now need be to build and not tear down, and pray for the success of the city I am in, "for in its peace, you will have peace" (Jer 29:7).

"In the middle of the summer, I heard an amazing Bible study about settling down," I chatted to a friend a couple of weeks ago via Skype. "I haven't forgotten it."

"What did [the study] define 'settling down' as?" she asked.

"Learning to live in the place God has for you now, even if it's not the place of promise," I wrote. As I typed my response, I knew that confessing it, just as sure as walking it out, would be a leap of faith.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Praying for my Enemies

“Ah, Jenny-pah,” I heard as the recognizable outline of my hagwon’s director came toward me. His long-sleeve Oxford shirt opened wide its arms as his gait stretched to fill the distance between us, each an obvious gesture of relief.

It was nearly 11:30 PM on my last night in Korea and I had been waiting for almost an hour. I rested on the black granite sill of Ramada Hotel’s business sign, the end of Maya Angelou’s childhood saga in my hand. Minutes before, along with a few other stragglers clinging to the coffee shop patio next door, I had been asked to find another place to loiter—so there I was in the cool night air, lingering. And I still had to pack.

“There’s been a misunderstanding between us,” my director assured nervously, his smile full of wavering resolve. “I thought you called to my wife and she told you.”

“No, I gave away my phone today,” I replied. “My friend has it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

By now my director’s hip rested on the same sill, half a meter from mine. From this perch he flopped, haphazardly but confidently, chirping the news. “I went to the tax office today,” he informed me brightly. “You will get your money within one week. Seven business days—so maybe next Tuesday.”

This from the man who quoted the fifteenth of June as my payday, only to have to back out of that promise days past due. This was the same man who stole from my check to pay his debts, and the man who thought it more convenient to lie to the government than be up-front about his business. The injustice of his actions was piling up in front of him. Having nursed a nagging sense of uneasy nausea all weekend, my stomach was still churning at his words.

“Don’t worry about the others,” he was saying now, referencing my co-workers. “You will get paid. You worked the best out of all of them.”

He already hadn’t paid an entire year’s worth of pension money, nor was he prepared to give me the foreigner’s severance package stipulated by Korean law. One poor fiscal choice after another had led to this—a closed school and teachers left to find work across the Pacific. But not only did the school have to suffer; now so did his family. What suddenly made his word his bond now?

Nothing in my heart wanted to ask a just and jealous God to bless the work of a man who would be so irresponsible. I bit my tongue as I said what came next. “Before we go, Mr. Chung, can I pray for you?”

He laughed off the question self-consciously, then consented. “You Christian? Cath-oh-lick? My wife,” he nodded proudly. “She Christian.” He gave me his hand as I bowed my head respectfully.

“Lord Jesus, we lift up Mr. Chung and his family,” I began. “We know that they are going through difficult circumstances—” Circumstances they brought on themselves, I wanted to scream— “but we ask that you would strengthen them. If they have to walk through these consequences, then give them endurance.”

As I prayed, I thought of those that had been caught in sin in the presence of Jesus: Instead of pounding them with religion, He kept showing mercy. I remembered His words to the adulterous woman. “Lord, Your Word says that You told people to go and sin no more.”

I didn’t want forgiveness—I wanted justice. I wanted him to deeply understand his crimes. You have an obligation to be righteous, I wanted to tell him. I wanted to bully him into doing right.

“And, Lord,” my mouth framed, nearly against my own will, “I ask that Mr. Chung would sin no more.”

I felt a little dubious as I finished, somewhat dishonest with my own intentions. My heart betrayed my own thoughts, even as my words had relayed the opposite. I certainly wasn’t worthy of any thanks offered to me.

As I crept up to December’s apartment one last time to finish preparations for the morning, I again cried out to God—this time, for myself. “Lord, I need Your heart for these,” I confessed. “Not my own.” I still harbored feelings of condemnation towards him, but what I needed most was a sense of the Lord’s divine mercy holding back the tide of just deserts.

Only the One without spot or blemish would be so worthy as to cast stones of judgment. If Mr. Chung had been culpable in anything, I was non the less. And yet He says to the guilty, “Then neither do I condemn you. So go, and sin no more.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The air quietly breathes its freshness into the room as I sit as a guest of my friend December's on a newly-made Moroccan rug. Ruthie, the small house dog, grunts and growls at me from her high place atop the bed where her owner is resting. December's phone tells me it's finally morning: June 21, 2011, by its end the longest Tuesday I'll have ever had. Homecoming Day.

In less than six hours I will be boarding a plane bound for Texas with my one-way ticket in hand, unsure of when the next flight will ferry me back to Asia. Yet, my suitcases remain glued to the floor as if they were impenetrable rock. In less than two years this part of the world, largely unknown to vast populations of the US, has burrowed itself deep in the ressesses of my heart in ways that I never expected, and I quite hesitate to say goodbye.

Here are a select few of those ways:

*I chanced to meet a woman at a thrift store who, despite obvious language barriers, became one of the dearest and closest friends of mine and accepted me with such deep, unconditional love.

*I've been encouraged and strengthened by the ex-pat Christian community through the ministries of Seoul International Baptist Church and its members.

*Through three schools located in two countries, I had the privelege of reaching out and ministering to four major ethnic groups within Asia: Russian, Indian, Thai, and Korean.

*I tried my hand--er, lips--at speaking in four previously foreign languages and successfully carried a tune in two of them.

*I witnessed North Korea's picturesque mountainy landscape and was able to meet a young man who has actually vacationed in that closed country.

*I have been able to earnestly beseech the heart of Father God for the hearts, souls, and lives of dear, dear friends that I have come to greatly cherish halfway around the world.

*I was unexpectedly able to join a girlfriend on her trip to Thailand and might have found the next step of the journey.

About two or three years ago--summer of 2009, if memory serves--I had a dream about two pictures posted on Facebook. One was a picture of dried fish and the other was a shot of bottles of beverages in a grocer's chest refrigerator. In the dream, a close friend of mine commented that there was "a better selection in the Asian markets here."

I was just commenting about her comment when I shot up in bed and marveled loudly, "I just had a dream that I was in Asia!" Within months of that statement, I was.

"I can't believe you're leaving," my friend Josh commented offhand this afternoon as I helped him edit his paper one last time. "We've talked about it and you have good reasons, but I still can't believe it."

Neither can I, Josh. Neither can I.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Terrorist Tourism: Underlined

*May 29, 2011*

After Freedom Bridge, the DMZ tour group headed to another famous marker within the Demilitarized Zone: Tunnel Number Three. This tunnel, no bigger than a crawlspace directly underneath the Line of Demarcation, was found in the early 1970s through a North Korean defector. Later, larger tunnels were also found for a total of four currently known to be in existence. In each of them, coal dust was liberally smeared on the walls to disguise them as abandoned coal mines, though none such mines previously had existed in this part of Korea.

These tunnels were allegedly hewn by the North Korean military to provide access to the south for foot soldiers, giving a thousand men the ability to reach Seoul within an hour. The North staunchly denies any involvement and instead suggests foul play by the South, but the chisel strikes to dig out the rock indicate that the tunnel’s workers must have been facing southward.

Our bus pulled up to another parking lot like the one from our previous stop, only it was a quarter the size and minus misplaced carnival rides. Round, dark buildings intimately surrounded the car park on three sides, nearly hemming in visitors. A thick forest stood at attention to the left of the scene.

In front of the cars was perched a tall “DMZ” monogram, nearly innocuous in its friendly pastels. To the right of the initials rested a sculpture of the world divided in half, with a circle of chiseled humanity holding up each side. The building just in front of the bus housed an indoor educational theater and a small museum. To the right of that lay a platform for carting older guests mine-car style into the tunnel.

A signed gleamed in the mid-morning sun, prompting us forward. “DMZ Pavilion,” an arrow pointed to the left. The rest of the message sat mute in hanguel letters, with no other English accompanying it to unlock its tongue. The tour group, armed with its limited information, shuffled inside.

In the Pavilion, designed like an amply accomodating home theater with tiered captain's chairs and a wall-sized panoramic screen, we listened to a voiced-over seven-minute explanation of the existence of the DMZ. The narrator listed the end of World War II and the subsequent Korean War as the primary cause of Korea's tense buffer zone.

Announcer-like, we heard the man proclaim at the end that even through the tragedy of war, the land was still teeming with natural life. Supported by a grand trumpet, his deep voice rang out, “The DMZ is alive!” Moments later, the floor-to-ceiling screen in front of us parted like the Red Sea and we walked through it to a museum adjacent the theater.

Fascinated, I tried reading every snippet of facts the displays had to offer: Here was documentation about the defector who triggered the search for one tunnel--here, how they suspected the second. Lost in the dusty details of the past, I failed to note when my large, largely white tour group had exited the room and left me alone with a swarm of Chinese tourists.

“I'll be in the tunnel if you have any questions,” the tour guide had said. From everything I had read in the museum, I was expecting little more than a hole in the ground, much like the shaft used to discover caves at Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas. What I met with, however, was a whole lot of concrete.

Across the from the DMZ Pavilion crouched what loked like a quiet amphatheater juxtaposed next to empty railroad track which led into a pitch-black cavern. “Don't go up there,” I remember my tour guide chiding. “We have legs. We can walk.” Yet I still didn't know what it was I was walking to.

If hindsight is twenty-twenty, it doesn't help you until you actually look back--which, that day, was the one direction I never tried. Instead, I followed the path from the rail line along the other side of the parking lot towards the bathrooms and a little park next to a large building. Spying a pathway, I walked further into the greenery and around the structure.

Inside the park, I discovered a stretch of fence not ten yards long, directly in the middle of the grass. It stood to one side of a small concrete ditch which bisected the peaceful scene. A tiny red triangle with letters in both languages fiercely guarded its chain links.

“Oh, it's a mine!” I exclaimed breathlessly as I got close enough to read the letters. To its right, a companion fence with the same little red triangle screamed its warming as it ran out into the dense vegetation. It was definitely time to find that tunnel!

I stumbled into the back entrance to what at first appeared to be a gift shop. Shifting my gaze the right I noticed the beginning of a ramp spiralling downward and a shelf full of yellow hardhats. This looked easier than being lowered into a shaft at Natural Bridge; grabbing a hardhat, I ventured inside.

“It's going to take ten minutes to get down there,” December warned as she came back up, her words tinged with wise realism. As I checked my watch again, I knew she was right. I had spent too much time babysitting mines and empty railway shafts to have any more to devote to Tunnel Number three. Plus, I didn't know how I would heave myself 100 or more meters back up the ramp. Reluctantly, I returned my barely-warm hardhat to itself and headed back outside.

Just before we boarded the bus again, I glanced back at the world split in half. Pleasantly, Korean after Korean stood on both of its sides bracing for a picture, their hands on whichever half they chose. I couldn't help but notice that their presence mimicked the bronze statues which continue to people the sculpture long after the last flesh-and-blood tourist has gone home. They really were holding up the world, I thought, pushing it together with each caress of its smooth surface.

My New Favorite Song

I stared at the lines and squiggly curls in front of me that shone brightly on the wall, their message unwilling to be unlocked. My brain was hard pressed to wrap around the idea that the strange markings represented actual words, let alone the sounds that gave them voice. Below them lay a recognizable alphabet that I could at least identify, if not fully understand.

We had been trading languages all night as a part of Peace Fellowship's worship service that Friday night in Thailand, swapping a song in English for one like this, in indecipherable Thai. Shrugging away an absent English translation, I took a deep breath. I sang, instantly hooked on a catchy tune that was sometimes staccato-fast, and at times more slowly melodic. It mattered less that I could understand what I was singing and more that I knew I was singing whatever it was about and to Jesus. And that I was surrounded by people who were doing nothing but the same.

"It's a simple song," my Thai friend Pi-Rung commented the night I left. It just tells the congregation to come and worship its King.

Hallelujah, praise His Name.

Present a new song.

All the kings unto the LORD

singing hallelujah.

Padre Nuestro

"I have something for you," he said slowly. "But it's in Spanish. It's from Matthew chapter six verse nine."

The thought of the gift itself already caught me off guard, but knowing that it was in such a completely foreign language--in Thailand--surprised me all the more. Amid the rustle of student activity, he slipped off a wide silver band and handed it to me. I fingered the engraving while it was still warm and then, quietly in the middle of class, I began to read.

"Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo," I started, "santificado sea Tu nombre." Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.

From beside me, he declared simply, "Amen." Perhaps his class would have to wait.

"Venga a nosotoros Tu reino," I continued. "Hagase Tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo. Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada dia. Perdona nuestros ofendas como tambien nosotros perdamos a los que nos ofenden. No nos dejes caer en la tentación, y liberarnos del mal. Amen."

Thy kingdom come, it reads in English. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

He looked at me when I had finished. "Jesus didn't teach His disciples how to heal the sick or do miracles or feed five thousand people," he explained. "He taught them how to pray."

So now he was teaching me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thai Peace

Sawatnika! That's Thai for hello. I'm currently sitting at an Internet cafe in downtown Bangkok--and it's been a wonderful trip so far. I've seen God provide for my every need and go above and beyond what I envisioned. It says so in Scripture that He provides that way and it is so moving to see it lived out.

I have come to hot, sticky Thailand to check out a ministry opportunity with a friend and help out with it as much as I can. It's an English school called Santisuk that's run just like a church: They teach Scripture and Bible stories using English as the medium. The workers there have taken me in and given me and my friend a place to stay. Holly and I have just been blown away by their acceptance of us, no questions asked.

I have been nothing but encouraged since landing. The woman who picked me up at 2 in the morning Tuesday night prayed that my delayed flight would not be canceled and, two hours after it was scheduled to land, we taxied to the arrival gate. The next day, I waited among other Christian Thai in the still night air for a powerful Hillsong United concert that almost never was. The very next day, I was able to pray over a host of little children gathered quietly at my feet and tell them the story of Samuel annointing King David, symbolically annointing them for the work God has chosen.

I know this trip is from the LORD and I am so richly blessed to be here. I have a new friend named Kong who says I should come back and volunteer. He says that the country has a lot to offer and that, if I were interested, I might be able to come and teach at an international school here as well.

"Thailand," he whispers to me as we walk along the road or sit in his classroom. "Thailand."

Terrorist Tourism: Freedom

*May 29, 2011*

The busload of foreigners pulled up into the vast empty parking lot, a six-foot marker reading “Imjingak” in white Roman script looming in front of it at the entrance. Less than a hundred yards to the right of the sign hung a traditional Korean victory bell in a large white gazebo, which was meant for wishing good health and harmony. Far off the lot to the left stood a small sleepy carnival, all but deserted so early on a Sunday morning.

The tour guide at the front of the bus held a portable mic in his hands. “I don’t know what the theme park’s about,” he was saying to his guests. “It’s supposed to be a memorial.” Through the crowd’s nervous laughter, he relayed the time for the tour group to be back on the bus. They’d have fifty minutes to explore the grounds—just be back by 9:30 sharp.

We had thus arrived at the first stop on our tour of the DMZ: Freedom Bridge, where North and South Korea had exchanged prisoners throughout the Korean War. In disuse due to the frail, half-century stalemate, it had been appropriated by the southern government as a place of remembrance and a monument of peace. “Are you ready for a bridge adventure?” my seatmate asked.

The first thing I stumbled upon as I mounted the two flights of stairs astride the victory bell pavilion was a large display case full of rocks. There were dozens and dozens of them “collected from 86 battlefields in 64 different countries,”—silent witness to the violent atrocities man had committed against his fellow man. “It is my sincere wish that the bringing together of these stones… will be a stepping stone for the reunification of the Korean people,” the message said, “and mark the beginning of a century of peace and harmony for all mankind.”

Just beyond the rock display and over a lip of concrete lay a pleasant row of trees with a posted warning not to photograph what lay beyond. The bare ground beneath the sign spoke a silent testament to the many feet that had belayed the order. In the distance one could see a long white bridge across the Imjingak River towards the left, severed from further connection only by a thin border of chain-linked fence.

North Korea.

I ventured to the left of the scene towards the white bridge in the distance. Another fence blocked off this part of the exhibit as well, this time covered in mourners’ ribbons. “Although I am not part of the generation who has lost,” read a fresh white ribbon in English, “I feel the enormous pain of those after coming here. I wish for unification of not just the countries but of families, friends, and lovers. 2011 SUMMER Julia Joo.” I couldn’t help but agree with her, this anonymous Julia: I hadn’t lived through the war, either, yet I felt Korea’s wound still throbbing.

On the opposite side of the ribbons stood a closed ticket counter. According to the signs it was purported to be part of a certain Gyeongui railway system, apparently a company no longer servicing rides. I couldn’t understand the juxtaposition of an empty railroad booth together with memorial ribbons—that is, until I saw the train.

Ten yards in front of the booth, an ancient locomotive rested on stunted rail line as though it were in a coffin. Above it, a wooden bridge crossed the scene respectfully like those walking along the backside of headstones. Rust covered the corpse like an orange-red burial shroud. Bullet holes riddled its sides like a scream choked at the throat just before death. Mitzubishi’s broken triangle tattooed its still flank, a testament to its once glorious youth.

North Koreans had gunned down the engine on its last run, the plaque read. And now it stood as a somber reminder of the North’s still-threatening potential for violence. A casualty of an antique war.

On the opposite side of the railway ticket booth from the memorial ribbons stood the famed Freedom Bridge, built in 2000 according to its dedication plaque for “breaking the fifty-year barrier.” It straddled a serene park fifty yards below, and pointed towards yet another string of fence. Above the jagged barbed wire curling anxiously over the top of the scene at the bridge’s end flew three flags: two for Korea and one a calming baby blue. Covered in ribbons like flower bouquets on a casket, the fence blocked off the place of exchange for the two warring brothers.

Far below in the memorial park ran a pathway along the sides of two ponds, one a deep green covered in rich vegetation and the other crystal-blue and ever-churning with a short geyser in its midst. To the left of the geyser rose a pale thin sculpture of two bent sheaves of granite loosely tied together with a dark gray granite cord. “We are the one,” its sign admitted painfully. Tears misted my eyes like a shroud of mourning as I drank in the symbolism. Yes, you are, I noted inside my head. The other just doesn’t seem to see it that way.

I looked around for my seatmate after quietly leaving the memorial, only to find him waiting to board the bus with the last stragglers just as the minute hand struck thirty. “Just in time,” he winked at me, “with the first souvenirs of the day.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


The last Sunday in May, December and I rounded the corner behind the thirty or so other waegukin-dul jockeying for position. We had signed up with William Cho and the Adventure Korea meet-up group for an all-day excursion to the DMZ. In front of us stood a long charter bus commissioned to ferry the large ensemble across Korea’s hotly contested terrain to its destination of choice, mere inches from the North Korean border.

Hoping to sit together, my friend and I soon realized that with all the people going there would likely be no dual seats left when we boarded the bus. Wonder of wonders, however, just four rows back from the driver sat a pair of seats yawning at each other across the aisle. December took the one to the left of her—which meant that I was left with the right.

The man filling the window space next to the empty seat could have easily been more than twice my size. I noticed his beefy thigh spilling over into the emptiness—and still he seemed cramped. To say that he was stocky would have quite underestimated his stature. “Excuse me,” I asked the stranger. I didn’t want to be rude and request him to move his leg. “Can I sit here?”

He looked up from the device plugged into his ears and visibly softened when he saw me. His eyes twinkled with unspoken excitement. “Yes, of course,” he agreed all too pleasantly, squeezing over half a centimeter.

There was no place for his leg to go and clearly no more room for my own. Reluctantly, I set my purple backpack down between the seats and slid in next to him, thigh-to-thigh. Pulling out my book, I opened Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and tried to settle into the uncomfortably close hour-long bus ride.

Just across the Hangang heading northward out of Seoul, my seatmate interrupted me; it would be an intrusion to last the rest of the trip. “I’ve met her,” he said, nodding to the book. “Maya Angelou. She’s incredible. I read that book when I was in high school.”

“Did you like it?”

He shook his head.

“It’s more of a girlish book,” I nodded. “It talks about her being eight.” I had just finished the heart-wrenching piece of the story where she and her older brother are transported back to Stamps, Alabama, after a man’s choice had forced her to grow beyond her years. It was clearly dealing with feminine issues over masculine, I could see—so I sympathized with why he hadn’t been interested.

“I’m Calhoun, by the way,” he offered.

“Jennifer. Nice to meet you.” After we shook hands, he put away his music device and I put away my book, an unspoken bond of friendship now quietly linking us together. And once any relationship gets started, without dire consequence it’s impossible to simply walk away.

It wasn’t too long after initial introductions that my sitting companion started in on a particular subject that he never left off for the remainder of the trip. He began slowly, almost sympathetic at first, like a caged animal whimpering for help. But I soon discovered that he waited only to see if I would take his bait.

“Girls have it much easier than guys here in Korea,” he started to say. I tried asking for his reasons for such a quick assumption. He said that if they didn’t want a relationship or just wanted to party, then they were free to do just that. I hadn’t yet told him I wasn’t like most girls.

“Girls in Korea don’t want a relationship,” he affirmed pessimistically. “Most of them are only gonna be here for a year. Guys are left with turning to Korean girls.”

As Korean girls were notoriously skinny, I asked him what he thought of their general body shape—in hindsight, a particularly bad move. “I don’t want an anorexic stick,” he confessed. “You—” he looked me up and down, noticing the plump curve of my calf muscle. “Your size is perfect.” It was my first of many inklings—and outright blatant statements—of Casanova’s true thoughts about me.

As we debussed for our first stop of the day, Imjingak and the Freedom Bridge, we had to turn in our passports to the tour guides for verification and inspection. In line to do so, my companion mentioned behind me that he wasn’t very proud of his picture—but I assured him that mine was worse. Taken nine years and nearly thirty pounds ago, it stood in stark contrast to the much slimmer woman in possession of it now. As soon as we boarded again and were handed back our ID, I surrendered my right to be in the ROK for the second time that day just to show him.

It wasn’t my best move. He studied the information page a moment and then looked at me. “All I can say is,” he smiled slyly, “now hot…” His gaze trickled back to the open document in his hands and his face leaned toward me. “Then hot.”

With everyone now on the bus, the engine revved itself in preparation for another long drive, this time one hour and a half away to a string of restaurants along the Line of Demarcation. It was during this particular stretch that my companion’s topic abruptly intensified. Glancing out the window absently, his thoughts returned to the problem men faced. “That’s why they worry about the gender imbalance in China,” he was saying. “If women can’t fill guys’ needs, there are problems.”

I looked away from him a moment then smiled demurely. “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” I admitted softly.

He would have spit out water through his nose in his astonishment had he been drinking any. “Don’t tell me you’re—”

I cut him off with my unbroken gaze. “Squeaky clean.”

“Really?” he asked, still incredulous. “You know, I think three things about that.”

Okay, Casanova, batter up.

“I consider that a challenge.” His first swing.

“I think you’re really missing out on something.” Strike two.

And a little under his breath he hastily chopped at the third: “And I can’t wait to show you.” Strike three. Yyyyyou’rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre out! If he had really wanted to get to first base, the man was surely going about it the wrong way.

Since when had my choice to save myself been an open invitation for him to take that gift from me? It was like having your greedy cousin over Christmas Morning, shaking the presents: What was left whole underneath the tree would surely be in pieces after his touch.

For my benefit, after my intimate confession my seatmate proceeded to build an argument for why promiscuity was not only the best choice for me at this point, but actually would lead to a more fulfilling marriage. “Society frowns on going after all these other guys,” he warned. “But there’s nothing wrong with being… with the one you love.” He then went on to suggest that my “experience” outside of marriage would do nothing but keep my husband satisfied because then I would understand our own compatibility.

Along with this argument, he voiced a staunch critique of the church for preaching a “suppressive free will” doctrine not actually found in the Bible. The Good Book, he said, talks about the freedom of choice—and because of this, I should be free from what others tell me I should do.

Again my steady gaze met his. “Is it all right if this is what I’ve chosen to do?” I asked him sternly. Is it okay if I actually agree with the will of God for my life?

“No, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he whimpered defensively. He just didn’t want me walking into marriage with any disadvantage, he said. If somehow my spouse and I weren’t compatible, finding out at the altar would then be too late.

“You’ll never guess what I was talking about on the ride over here,” I told December as soon as we had disembarked and started for the nearest empty restaurant. I then recounted the last hour’s sultry details as we dined on bulgoggi surrounded by a crowd of chairs and the stares of DMZ locals.

“Jennifer!” she chided in mock rebuke. “I was over there having intelligent conversation—what were you doing?” As I began filling her in on more of the story, however, her face fell. “Jenn, do you want me to switch seats? I can ask Hatish—”

I stopped her, equally as uncomfortable with the message that would send as I was with the topic of discussion. I couldn’t just dislodge myself from the web of human connection so recently spun. My hope was to wait out the day and see if he made any more passes.

The two of us chatted amiably for the rest of dinner until it was time to head back to the bus—and to our respective seats a chasm apart. “I’m sorry you got stuck with the creep,” December told me in sympathy. “I actually like my seat partner. He’s so nice.”

Sometime after lunch I raked up the courage to tell my seatmate how I really felt. “I’m not the right girl,” I confessed.

Playfully, sensually, he threw me a knowing look. “You might be,” he raised his eyebrows.

But I was adamant, unwilling for him to entertain even the slightest thought. “No, I’m not the right girl,” I repeated—this time with mild success. He made no more remarks about trying to make me his woman.

The rest of the trip was largely uneventful. That is, until the part I dreaded most: nearly the end. As he readied his things to take his leave of the bus at the first stop on our way back into Seoul, he again offered me his hand. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Jennifer,” he pronounced as sweet as a gentleman, rather in contrast to what came next.

His words slid like slick oil from his mouth. “You made the trip very enjoyable. I’m sure your dad would agree—” There he was again, leaning his head so far down and uncomfortably too close as he finished his sentence— “beautiful women make everything better.” As he said it, I couldn’t help but feeling like his personal eye candy. No wonder an already-cramped big man like him wouldn’t mind giving up the precious space beside him to a slender girl like me.

“Is it okay if I find you on Facebook?” he asked—this generation’s version of adding me to his Little Black Book. I told him it was, if only to squirm out of saying no. But the more I thought about it, the more I had serious doubts about accepting his request.

Monday morning as I sat in my quiet apartment, I was reading through the book of Jude. In it, the apostle warns of “certain men… who turn the grace of God into lewdness” (1:4). These, the writer asserts, follow their hearts’ desires by “mouth[ing] great swelling words [and] flattering people to gain advantage” (1:16). Hmm. Casanova to a T. “Sever yourselves from such a man,” Isaiah admonishes (2:22). “For of what account is he?” Though not expressly stated, surely that type of finality would include even frivolous connections like Facebook.

For about a day after receiving it, I let his request simmer along with the other new requests in the virtual pocket that the most popular social network had created for that purpose. Then Tuesday morning, just as quietly as the offer was made, I reached up my omnipotent cursor to the second button on the right—the gray one instead of its pleasant companion dressed in Facebook blue—and swiftly clicked “Ignore.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Fullness of Time

The light in the room filters in from the bright florescent bulbs in the kitchen, blocked faintly by the opaque wooden entry door. A small pile of unwanted clothing sits quietly in the shredded armchair across from the bed, the feline claws which usually snag into its fleshy leather now more than twelve hours gone. Astride its weary companion, a makeshift dresser stands slightly askew but ready, attentive to the contents of its still-full drawers.

On the armchair's other side rests a stunted fridge, empty but for expired, frozen noodles and cold onion husks. To mirror this emptiness, the only kitchen cabinet in the unit fills itself with one shiny metal kettle, three pans, and a sprouting bag of potatoes. Above, where the dishes are kept, rest two lonely plates and one spoon, fork, and knife each. Just enough for one last meal: breakfast.

Tomorrow's moving day.

As I sit here in the quiet dimness, the air still without Frankie's shrill bellows, it's hard to take in what I know the morrow surely brings. The abortion of a school year, just three months into its gestation. Fractured trust from parents and staff alike. A cancellation of a contract so newly signed. Oh what shattering news comes swiftly in a fortnight!

Two Mondays ago, the sixteenth, I was still oblivious to the financial storm clouds looming over my tiny hagwon. My plan then, as I had so recently informed my Texas family, was to see them in three months after working through my final summer in Korea. I had known I was coming home; I just thought it would be a little further away than now.

Two days later, the message trickled down from management that the worst had hit: Barely afloat for the last several months as students oozed through our cracks and into other hagwons, Apple Tree could no longer afford to keep from drowning in its overhead costs. Its captain would let it sink on the 31. And my apartment would go down with it.

The news didn't hit me as tragically as it had some. If my manager had called me into her office to tell me lunch was ready, I'd have felt the same. What has replaced the sense of devastation is instead this feeling of expectancy.

Just the night before I had explained to a close friend about my apprehensiveness of the hagwon's current progress and its plans to revamp the curriculum. And as soon as I told her the news, the friend quietly replied, "Wow! ...God does indeed have plans for you to come home early." And I have to agree that she's right. True, losing one's job, one's place to live, and one's alien registration within two weeks is an unstable position at best. But no matter what others might say, I can see the hand of God even through the uncertainty.

I see Him opening doors for me to participate in a missions trip to Thailand that I wouldn't have ever tried to plan on my own. I see Him strategically placing me in a country town with a woman who unknowingly desires the blessings of the LORD, to witness of His great love and His gospel. And I see Him giving me opportunity to pray over and speak life into those He brings across my path. I saw the LORD guiding me even as I came to Korea, and I marvel at His hand over me now.

The thing that amazes me the most at the close of my time here is the willingness of those whom God has deliberately put in my path to go out of their way to provide for me: Already I've had three close friends in Dongtan volunteer their homes for the next three weeks, one of them visibly concerned about where I would store my luggage. Yet another woman has suggested I stay the weekend with her in Hongcheon. Still a third couple suggested I could crash at their place for a day or two if I needed to head down to Chungju. As I hear the offers spoken, I cannot help but know that these are urgings from the Holy Spirit and I cannot help but feel the LORD's great love for me throughout them.

It is the fullness of His time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sketty on the Barbie

"We need to make dinners," I cooed to Frankie as I finished folding my laundry tonight. I walked over to where my cell phone lay to check the time: twelve minutes till eight, one hour past supper. "How about we make some dinners?"

I poked my head into the refrigerator and remembered the three small chicken breasts I had bought from Home Plus the day before. "We could have Chicken Parmesan," I suggested to my cat, "and I wouldn't even have to thaw the chicken!" Gingerly, I placed an onion--what was left of my fresh vegetables--onto the meat's plastic trough and carried the two toward the kitchen.

Just moments before, I had pulled out my package of long spaghetti noodles, along with my packet of Hunts mushroom spaghetti sauce, and had placed them on the lip of my range top, which served as my only counter space. Arriving with the chicken, I set the meat in its pan and took out my cutting board, chopping the onion in smallish squares. I then spiced the meat with a generous helping of pepper, garlic powder, and some all purpose seasoning.

"Wanna come over for dinner?" I asked Holly over Skype while the meat and onions sizzled.

"Haha," she laughed. "Right now? What's for dinner?"

By this time I had torn open the aluminum sac of sauce and had poured its reddish, viscous liquid over the onions, waiting for it to heat through so that I could transfer the herbed chicken to the saucepan to finish cooking. It was too smooth a texture for tomato sauce, I reasoned--and much too thick. It also looked darker than traditional tomato-based sauces. I dabbed a finger onto the still-wet sac and brought it to my lips.

I had already known from previous experience that Korean-brand spaghetti sauces were notoriously sweet. However, American syndicates should have been different. "Why is it sweet?" I wondered aloud.

"Chicken Parmesan," I typed back to my friend on Skype-- "without the Parmesan, and 'American' spaghetti sauce that's too sweet."

"Yum! That sounds great!" Holly offered. I returned to the kitchen to transfer the meat into the other pan.

With the chicken cooking in the saucepan, I now had room on my two-burner stove for the next step: the noodles. As I watched them cook, I kept the sauce going to ensure no pinkness remained in the chicken. Steam steadily rose from the mixture as, second by second, the sauce began to cook down and its water vapor drifted away.

Trying to cover the overpowering sweet taste of the Hunts sauce, I added pepper, cilantro, garlic, and rosemary to the pan--the makings of a fine mesquite barbecue flavor. Now that the onions had started to caramelize and the concoction to thicken, my dinner was slowly beginning to morph into sauce of a different kind.

"My spaghetti sauce looks a little too much like Texas bbq if you ask me," I wrote to Holly dismally.

"Haha--interesting," she replied. "I didn't know spaghetti could look like barbecue!"

"Well it's not supposed to!"

A little disheartened, I turned back to my dinner to finish preparations and--saucy spaghetti, peppery chicken, and cold garlic-y spinach in hand--deliberately sat down to enjoy it. My heart sank even further when I noticed that, by the light of my studio room, the sauce was even browner than in the kitchen.

One spoonful of pasta confirmed all of my dire predictions: Instantly, my taste buds were assaulted with sweet spice, soft onions, and spaghetti noodles. Together. It was a flavor-texture clash I just could not handle.

"Totally sounds like something I would do!" a friend commented the instant I posted my reaction to Facebook. "So... did you like it?"

The story came spilling out after that, the sweetness, the spice, the chicken-marinade. "I'd say it turned out to be decent barbecue," I told her. "Were it not for the fact that I was going for Chicken Parmesan."