Sing Thy Grace

My favorite holiday has always been Thanksgiving. It’s like Christmas without the obligatory presents. And its strictly dedicated to eating. As I got older, I came to appreciate more the idea of giving thanks for the blessings in life, making the holiday all the more sweet. Growing up in a large family, with endless cousins and aunts and uncles, Thanksgiving was usually a big affair. And, there was usually a kids’ table.

I always hated this.

As an only child and an introvert, I preferred the company of adults, especially if they were of the quieter variety. In a sea of loud talking relatives, a quiet adult for a child to be near can be a life-raft. The kids’ table was the antithesis of a life-raft. It was drowning. And no one would save me, except an empty plate.

But sometimes, I’d luck out, and one of the adults would join us kids, immediately upgrading the coolness and sanity of the kids’ table.

 

Come to the Table

The last communion I took in Texas was in June. My church has always (or at least as long as I’ve been there) taken communion the first Sunday of the month. I missed July’s communion because I was visiting family in Austin. We had our own communion. Homemade barbecued ribs were involved, which I think is Biblical enough for some circumstances. As one of the sacraments, communion is usually my favorite Sunday, even if the sermons are shorter because of this. And for years, I’ve secretly wished we could have it every Sunday. But with a church as big as ours, I understand it’s a slight logistical issue. Every Sunday I take communion, there’s a renewal in my heart that’s more meaningful than just prayer or worship alone. But on communion Sundays, we pray, we worship, and we are invited to the table. All of us sinners are invited to feast with our Lord. Actually, if we want to get technical, he came to feast with us. He came to the kids’ table.

Yes, all sinners.

Professing, believing sinners. Hookers. Tax-collectors. Alcoholics. Drug addicts. Do-gooders. Busy-bees. The sick. The lame. The American teachers. We’re all invited to come to the table.

Come to the Classroom

My first week as a new teacher proved to be considerably stressful, for none of the reasons going back to work after a summer off usually is. For one thing, my management are Koreans, and all speak with a very thick Korean accent. Accents never bother me; I love them because it’s a sign of the beauty of our differences as people. But when I need to learn information quickly and am repeatedly asking for my superiors to repeat themselves or to clarify their tenses, it can be exhausting. And as I’ve learned for them, embarrassing. However, in order to ensure I understand them, I must repeatedly clarify.

There are some cultural issues as well. I’m usually the sort who needs to verbalize directions back to someone to double check myself, but this is not the norm in Korea. It’s also not the norm for the English teachers to handle discipline. Or speak with the parents directly. Direct questions don’t happen; a simple yes or no doesn’t exist. It’s always grey with an explanation that dances around the yes or the no. Because if someone said yes to a question and then later realized they should have said no, they have to go back on their word, and lose all respectful character and face. I understand the desire to not lie. It’s never been in my nature to lie. Just ask any boss who’s watched me indirectly throw myself under the bus just so the truth is told. I’d rather be in trouble than lie. But I wish the Koreans would know the power of an apology, and how much respect it can garner from someone below them. In Western culture, we value leaders when they are humble and can admit when they’re wrong. In Eastern culture, they value leaders because they’re great, and cannot do any wrong. Here, humility is for the employee only, not the employer as well.

As a teacher who is used to wonderful administration who has understood my need to introvert out or be allowed to get creative with her lesson plans, it’s been wonderful. I’ve been given permission to lead the way in my classroom, and their humility in stepping back and allowing me the freedom to develop my craft as a teacher has been life-giving. I never felt more alive or capable as a teacher than my last year at Carter. And it was through that, I witnessed how to be with my students, how to develop relationships with them. It wasn’t always perfect, and it rarely is with 140 students, but I built upon it a little more each year.

Valuing the relationships with the students has become so instinctual that it’s still my main focus, especially with my Kindy students. There’s a lot of talk about respect and ways to show that. Already, I’m seeing some changes in the students’ behavior toward one another as well as toward me. I know I’m doing good things in my classroom. But I’m being met with heavy criticism by the Korean staff, in the most round about of ways. For everything I get right, I get five other things wrong. I am but a humble English teacher; I cannot change the culture of an entire nation, and have no aims to do so. I know all of these feelings have to do with the culture and the fact that while I may understand in my head, I do not in my heart, and changing my actions is not automatic yet. Changing my actions is still foreign and still opposite of what my heart and instincts say to do.

Come to Jesus

Hard and painful doesn’t begin to describe this. I feel like a mess. I’ve nearly angry-cried several times, I want to lash out and tell someone off, all of my usual tools of defense. But I know from past experiences, no one wins when I lash out, and I’m rarely heard when I cry. At best I’m pitied, at worst I’m brushed off or told how wrong I am. In short, right now I’m at my worst. And there’s nothing worse than being at your worst.

To top it off, my closest friends and loved ones, the ones who know me and support me the most, are 14 hours behind me. When I’m leaving work, they’re getting up, and are probably in no state to talk about Korean culture shock. My colleagues are somewhat supportive, but we’re all still getting to know one another. It’s been a fairly lonely two weeks. For what feels like the bazillionth time, if it weren’t for my relationship with Christ, I’d be lost.

Come to Itaewon

There have been a lot of new foods in the last four weeks. Fried pork, rice with everything, mystery soups at school, lotus plant, grass, Korean miso soup, fish cake, fish shaped ice cream cones, milk ice, red bean paste for dessert, the most wonderful peach smoothies, Korean BBQ, and, in a very wonderful part of Seoul, Mexican food. Eating out is relatively cheap here, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have colleagues who are foodies.

After my first week at a church, which left me very disheartened, my new Korean friend, Maria (that’s her English name) took me to a church in Itaewon, a very international neighborhood in Seoul. It’s about an hour and a half’s trek by subway, but I’ve found it gives me time to think and prepare my heart for church. It’s a church plant, which means the church is new and is currently meeting in a boardroom at a hotel in the neighborhood. It’s a very small and very simple gathering of people, but the church is good and solid.

Come to Sing Thy Grace

Through being at this church, the Lord is answering myriad of prayers. There are mostly English speakers. There are internationals. There is a wide array of ages. There are people who hunger to know God better. There are people who deeply care about God’s people and want to know them. Years ago, I prayed to be a part of a church plant; because He’s not without a sense of humor, God put me in a mega church that year. But here I am now, seeing that prayer answered. Also, there is communion. Every Sunday.

After the service, we then hold a luncheon, which serves as a different form of bread breaking, but still a valuable one. But spiritually, no matter how much we children of God struggle to get life right, we’re still welcome. Every single one of us. The musicians. The busy pastors and their wives. The students. The military men and women. The American teachers.

I fail, week after week, to get life in Korea right, but I’m still invited to come to eat at the table.

It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s true.

I guess the least I can do is say grace.

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Finding People

My first week here was exactly what I expected it to be. Time has taught me that moving requires people to be gentle with themselves. You cannot expect a place to feel like home in less than a week. How can you? You can’t even find the cereal aisle. So I’ve been easy on myself. I’ve had days where I fed myself and managed to get to the E-Mart, Korea’s version of Wal-Mart, find a few things to eat and furnish the new place with, pay, manage to carry it all home, not break the eggs, and that’s winning. And then you have days where you master the bus system or subway system (with transfers! In a foreign language!) and feel like a total badass. And then you have days like Sunday this past week.

Sunday was the first day where I woke up and for the first time really thought to myself, “What the fuck have I just done?” And I feel like the intensity of the feeling came out of nowhere, but I saw the emotion creeping in. Essentially, I can’t go anywhere without being stared at by someone. I walk by men in the street and while I see that they see me, their eyes dart away when they meet mine. Then, after I pass, I slowly feel them turn back to stare. Children don’t hide it as much, and the women seem to get it. They know what it’s like being stared at, and so they make an effort not to. Korean ladies, if you’re reading this, and have ever made the conscious effort not to stare at a foreign woman, thank you. You rock.

I can’t go anywhere without being stared at, and then to add to it, my day-to-day life is now different. It revolves around a bus schedule, or subway system. If not that, then finding places, such as the post office, and other random information such as my zip code, which isn’t that simple in Korea, apparently. And to top it off, my school is on vacation until August 8th, and most of my colleagues are out of town, traveling. So there’s been a lot of time by myself.

 

You gotta find your people.

 

Until Saturday. Saturday, I met up with some other expats. A lovely Irish couple, in Hongdae, where we walked around a bit in search of an authentic Korean restaurant that never surfaced, and settled for a western restaurant, which had burgers. It was a breath of fresh air to meet with like-minded individuals who quit their jobs to up and move around the world and hear of their adventures. It was satisfying to be with someone who let me into their lives and their hearts, and allowed me to hear their stories. They’re real, and they allowed me to be real as well.

On my way home that night, I ended up messaging one of my dearest friends, who had just given birth to her second child, another girl. I had so hoped Dottie would come before I left, but that girl was quite comfortable and decided to stick around in utero. While I’m so grateful for the modern technology of Facebook messenger, FaceTime, KakaoTalk and WhatsApp, it doesn’t take away from the fact that I won’t get to hold little Dottie until she’s not so little anymore. I remember going to see Rosie, her first little one, when she was about three weeks old, and it changed me. I think it was then that I realized for the first time that my friends and I are no longer young women, but are real, full grown, and fully capable of being adults. Not playing, but being real. And it had been that way for some time.

Before I left, I broke down in big, wet, blubbering tears while in a therapy session (I never cry like this in therapy) over the fact that some of the people I know and love the most are going to continue to live life while I’m away and that I’m going to miss it all. I won’t be there for births, engagements, weddings, graduations, etc. Sure, social media is a gift in this way, but I won’t really be there, and damnit, I love these people. I want to be there for them and with them as they go through life’s events, like they’ve done for me over the years.

So when I woke up Sunday and thought, “What the fuck did I just do?” I did what any normal person would do. I called home. I talked with about three different people, and sobbed to two of them, and they all said what I knew I needed: Get thee to a church home. So I up got ready, googled the location and directions of the first church on my list, and set off.

 

I’ve never been the sort of woman who is easily deterred.

 

I should clarify that the reason why I chose this church to try over all the others is that it advertised on their website that they have an English ministry (with their own English service!) and it’s in my city. They’re also Baptist, and I read their vision and mission statement and it all seemed pretty mainline and normal Protestant Evangelical.

I should also clarify that it’s humid and hot right now in South Korea. Like Houston. Gross. So I walked, rode the bus, walked some more, and when I arrived, a sweet older Korean gentleman tells me (in very broken English) that the English ministry had closed and was no longer in operation. Frustrated, I pulled out my phone, and showed him the website (update your website, folks) as if to say, but your church says it exists, so it must be so. No, it closed a year ago. I still didn’t believe him. He didn’t speak very good English; maybe he didn’t understand me. Maybe he doesn’t know! I don’t know about all the ministries that go on in my church at home. I started wandering around the building. When I came down from an elevator, feeling defeated and ready to go home, a Korean woman (whom I’ve since befriended) was waiting for me. She had been sent to wait for the crazy redheaded American lady who just didn’t believe they didn’t have an English service.

“I’m so sorry, but we don’t have a service in English anymore.”

Cue tears. No shame, just tears.

She listened to me, offered me water and tissues, and then said,

“I know exactly how you feel. I used to live in Boston.”

I then stopped, sniffled and managed, “Oh yeah? What took you to Boston?”

“I was studying piano there.”

“I’m a musician too. I studied voice.”

And like that, a friendship was formed.

She knew of an American missionary who would be visiting later and if I wanted, I could wait and I could speak to her to find churches in Seoul that hold English services. I agreed, she bought me coffee, and sat and chatted with me until the American arrived.

When the American missionary arrived, I learned that she is working to plant a college ministry in association with a Pentacostal Church at a Korean university in the Seoul area. I don’t know much of the Pentacostal church, but I know when in a foreign country, you can’t always be picky or quick to turn away those God might place in your path. I accepted.

After the service, I met her intern, who turned out to be from Belgium, and we went with two other Koreans to a restaurant nearby.

After some time, the American asked me what my church background is. I shared a Reader’s Digest version of my spiritual life story, which entailed specifying a reformed background, predestination, but also free-will and my story of baptism. I didn’t hesitate in this at all, as our church is fairly mainline Protestant Evangelical; we’re fairly normal, in the most respectable of ways. However, this incited quite a conversation with her intern, who plainly said, at the dinner table,

“The reformationists are heretics.” Please note the present tense. That escalated quickly.

 

Them’s are fightin’ words.

 

I had never heard of such a thing before, and while I deflected the conversation in that moment, he managed to get my contact information and proceeded to send me articles about the heresy of the Reformation. Nevermind that the Pentacostal movement probably never would have come to existence had the Reformation never happened. This guy, however, brought a knife to a gunfight. It’s not worth it to go into the details of what the articles specifically said, but they were littered with red herrings, straw man arguments, and circular reasoning. They contradicted scripture (even though they reference scripture, it’s taken out of context with little to no regard of the author, audience or time period), and also failed my age-old theology measuring stick question of “Does this make God bigger, or does it make God smaller?” Every single argument in these articles made God smaller, and made the writer or mankind bigger, an outcome that I, like many Christians, reject. It was clear the authors never fully read any theology, or ever wrote a proper persuasive essay. And of course, along with all this, there were all the usual marks of the enemy’s influence: a current vulnerable state, feelings of frustration, anxiety, and isolation, and inciting questions of God’s time-tested truth.

Lies. What he said he supported, it was all a pack of lies.

 

I hardly think I’m in a place to consider or call someone a heretic. I’m no theologian, but simply a humble servant. I merely dabble in reading what greater and more learned men and women have to say with regards to God, but I feel confident in saying he was, in fact, a false teacher. I eventually got him to stop harassing me, but not without a fight. I definitely don’t think all evangelicals fall into this category, for indeed, I’ve met many wonderful believers who are evangelical who are not jerks or false teachers. But if time has taught me anything it’s that when you step out in faith and obedience in the Lord, the enemy ties to unfurl you and God’s plans, and he will do whatever he can to do so. However, as a friend reminded me, the devil hates to be found out, and he usually goes off skulking. I’m sure I’ve not seen the last of him here, but these plans are not mine, but belong to the one who created me for them. That’s the truth. And my God is so much bigger than lies.

 

But one good thing came of this crazy day of reckoning. The Korean woman who has lived in Boston, she is now my friend. My first Korean friend here in Korea, who took me to lunch today and wandered through cosmetic counters with me, interpreting skincare lines, and drinking coffee, and just being women together, living life. Already, the anxiety from Sunday has been completely worth it.

Food in Korea

After a little more than a week of buying food or scrounging for some staples I recognize despite all the labels being in Korean, I made a grocery store run and bought food that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with, how to prepare, or looked similar to foods I’d find at home. I figure, cook the foods and see if I like them, much like I do with recipes at home. All my recipes end up doctored and tweaked anyway, and by the time I’ve really made them good, they hardly look anything like the original. I find it’s best this way.

This past week, my grocery bag (because I forgot my 100 won piece coin to get my basket…) was heavy, but consisted of the following items: American style sliced cheese, canned café lattes, mango yogurt, greens, blueberries, nutella, spaghetti noodles, spaghetti sauce, weird looking zucchini, fish cakes, sweet jam/custard filled pancakes called “hotteok”, brown eggs, mozzerella cheese, frozen wontons, soju, grape tonic water, and a can of grapefruit sparkling wine.

Tonight for supper, I prepared one group of wontons in olive oil, and another in sesame oil. Then, I wilted the mystery greens in the leftover oil. I snacked on one square of American cheese, and tore and melted the other on half of the greens. I poured myself a bit of soju, and then decided it tastes like rubbing alcohol. I mixed it with the grape tonic, and that was much better. And for dessert, I heated up one hotteok cake, with a dollop of nutella on it.

This is what I’ve discovered:

  • Most desserts are better with Nutella smeared on top.
  • Soju is terrible, even with grape tonic water.
  • Grape tonic water, however, is the grown-up version of grape Kool-aid, and for about a tenth the calories. Don’t judge me.
  • Hotteok is delicious, and I don’t know why we don’t do this. It’s also about 1,000,000 calories. Or 450.
  • Greens are greens everywhere. They’re good wilted with good flavoring, and are great with cheese, but they’ll be better with bacon fat every damn day of the week.
  • Wontons are better pan fried in sesame oil.

 

Among the list of foods Korea gets right:

  • Corn pizza. Oh. Shit. Damn.
  • Steak and mushroom risotto.
  • Mango Yogurt
  • Canned lattes.
  • Coffee in general
  • Milk bubble teas.
  • Sparkling grapefruit wine, even if it’s clearly Korea’s version of a wine cooler. It’s amazing.
  • Fried pork chop, which can totally replace chicken fried steak.
  • Cold noodle soup
  • Earl grey ice cream
  • Frying an egg and putting it on top of most rice dishes.
  • Soups
  • It might even be better than American coleslaw.

 

The fish cake kind of weirds me out, and I don’t know what to have it with, but I’m starting to realize one of the best parts about being a grown up is that if I don’t like a food, I don’t have to keep eating it. I have no idea why I had to move overseas to realize if I don’t like a food, I don’t have to eat it, but I did. Hey, George Dubya had to become president before he got to put his foot down about broccoli, and while I don’t commend him for much, I do commend him for that. (Also, he’s not Donald Trump.) So in short, saurkraut and I will stay broken up. But cold noodle soup and I are so on.