When Endorphins Speak

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve been struggling with my weight. Previously, I’d been working for a wholesale company, and tended to burn off most of my calories each day, even when I stress-ate. But with teaching, even with all the standing and walking, it still wasn’t the same. I went through serious emotional stress my first year, which usually causes me to lose my appetite. I did. I lost ten pounds: my first year teacher weight. I then hovered back and forth another five pounds once things settled down. And at some point in the last year, I’ve packed on ten pounds again. I watched what I ate. I drank more water. It would all work, but only temporarily. More than anything, I’m concerned about my long-term health. When your father has a heart attack at fifty, and your mother passes away from one at sixty, that knowledge tends to weigh on you.

This summer, I finally succumbed to acceptance. I came to accept that in order to see change, I had to make some changes. I decided to wait until I moved to Korea to get into the swing of working out. Moving was incredibly stressful, and I wanted nothing to do with balancing that with working out and trying to count calories and macros. Experience has taught me that when I try to do everything at once, I fail miserably. I drop all the spinning plates. So I waited.

Currently, there’s a beautiful city park that is less than one block from my place. How I lucked out with this, I have no clue. But I love it. The track is wide and shaded most of the way, and the weather has finally cooled down enough to be bearable. I did begin running when it was hot, but it was so insufferable I made no real progress with anything other than dehydration.

This week I made myself a goal to run three times this week. Tuesday, my first run this week, was beautiful. I’m using an app that does intervals between walking and running, which is ideal for making the adjustment from noK to 5K. And Tuesday was the first day where I actually ran all of the running intervals, and while they were still challenging, they weren’t awful. I regretted the granola bar I ate before hand, but no near-death experiences. My runner’s high even started to kick in closer to the end of the run, too, making a cool down annoying more than favorable.

But tonight. Oh, tonight. Tonight was a beast. Humidity is back in the air, and it’s warmer than it was on Tuesday. But that wasn’t everything. For some reason, my body, my legs were just…not feeling it. They were lazy and curious and wondering why I was forcing them to work so quickly, and wanted me to pay for my insistence of physical health. You want me to do what? No, they said. I’m not about that life tonight. Try me again on Monday, when the week is new and fresh and I’ve had enough rest to carry out your Type A tendencies. My body was not having this run.

A week and a half ago, I burst into tears at work. Fortunately, I wasn’t teaching at the time. Unfortunately, it was on a day that I really couldn’t afford to break down and cry. I’m no stranger to crying at work for various reasons, and despite cultural workplace norms, I’ve given up caring if I cry at work. I don’t care if someone thinks it makes me look weak. Stress is a beast on the highly sensitive types, and if someone is insensitive enough to not understand that, they probably should take a crash course in human decency.

My first year as a teacher, I used to crawl under my desk and cry my eyes out. The pressure to get everything done and to be everything to every student every single day of the week is soul crushing. Spinning plates again. Everything all at once. They make such a terrible noise when they come crashing down.

My second year, I cried less, but I still had my moments. My third year, I cried three really good cries at the beginning of the school year in the comfort of my classroom, and then another closer toward the end. As the years have gone on, it’s been less tears with work, but with the new school, the new system, the new colleagues, the new country, it was only a matter of time. Spinning. Plates.

But the beautiful thing about years past is that when I break down crying at work, I have my own classroom to escape to, and desk to crawl under, safe from the prying eyes and shame I would feel or throw upon myself. This year, however, I share an office with approximately 25 other people, most of whom are Korean. My desk is about as wide as a sleeping bag, and I definitely cannot fit under it, even when I pull my knees in. At least not comfortably. But this was no time to care for appearances. I was stressed and drowning in work. Appearances be damned. This of course is very unKorean. Korea is all about appearances, and one of my Korean co-workers tried to get me to escape to the bathroom while I was crying because she didn’t want one of the owners to see me in tears. No, I told her. They need to know the pressure their foreign teachers are under. She looked at me curiously, and somewhat enviously. In that instant I knew: she somehow hated me and admired me all at the same time. She hated that I might make her and the other Koreans look like unsupportive jerks to the foreign teachers (which they totally aren’t) but also admired me for my honesty and gumption.

In the past, tears at work would cause me to throw in the towel. Call in a sub or scrap the lesson plan to something less intensive. But subs aren’t really an option here, and the lesson plans are too easy as it is. The administrative work is stupidly complicated and obnoxious, which is what invoked the tears to begin with, a form of professional culture shock that I’m still grappling with. But the week of tears got better after that. It was somehow more manageable. Two of my colleagues offered to help and support me in my adjustment. And this week has been better, also. There have been moments of difficulty, and more than anything, I know I just miss home and how things are at home. But I also know enough to know that how life is at home isn’t the only “right way” to live life.

After several minutes of tears, I dried my eyes, somehow managed to pick myself up, and wait for it…carried on. I have no idea who this lady is, this lady who keeps going. Jenny Leigh from three years ago would not recognize this woman today. Shoot, I didn’t even crawl under my desk to hide. I just cried in broad daylight, for the whole damned office to see. There’s something about moving around the world that makes previously perceived embarrassments a thing of the past.

Tonight while I was struggling to run, I thought about that day when I cried and then picked myself up and kept going, and I realized my running wasn’t too dissimilar. I wanted to quit. I wanted to throw in the towel and say, screw it. We’re all gonna die one day anyway. But for some reason, I remembered sobbing in the office last week, and how when I was done, I patted my face dry and got back to work, culture shock be damned. I reflected on the last week, and how I’ve handled it, and huffed and puffed and swore under my breath about the stitch in my side and before I knew it, a favorite song on my running playlist came on. My feet caught time, and my stride lengthened and fell into place, and before I knew it, my run wasn’t [as much of] a struggle anymore.

I can’t help but think this is exactly how dealing with culture shock is.

I can’t help but think, this is exactly how dealing with life is.

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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.

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.

I have arrived.

At DFW International, I bought a jar of Jardine’s peach salsa, and the lady wrapped it in bubble wrap for me. I was just beside myself with joy. Somehow, my 5 a.m. brain forgot that I’d have to go through security at SFO again, and because it exceeded the 3.4 ounce rule, I’d have to forfeit my precious salsa. I made quite a sight, I’m sure, trying to talk the TSA agent into allowing me to keep it.

“But I’m moving to Korea from Texas,” I explained reasonably and with as much empathy as I could try to evoke.

She looked at me, and nodded, and for a split second, I saw her pain for me. This was a jar of peach salsa, afterall. I thought I had her then.

“And I bought it at DFW International. Here’s the receipt.” I handed it to her.

“It’s completely safe and sealed,” I reasoned.

She contemplated the receipt and the jar, and then her heart broke. I could see it on her face.

“I’m sorry ma’am. But I can’t let this through.”

And then my heart broke. I chuckled and said, “Enjoy my salsa.”

She laughed and said, “I wish I could. Have a good flight.”

When I sat down on the plane, I pulled out two cards, from two different friends, and proceeded to read them, as one had specified not to read them until I’d gotten on the plane. There is a time to plant, and a time to uproot. I only wish I could uproot all the other plants in the Texas garden and bring them with this little cactus.

Whoever wrote the old hymn “The Water is Wide” was probably an American missionary flying over the Pacific to the Asian continent. I mean, I know that song refers to the river Jordan, but I’m pretty sure they were inspired by crossing the Pacific, which is significantly wider than the Atlantic. I know this; I taught this very fact last year to my students, but it’s one of those things that you don’t know until you know.

Watch a movie, eat, take a dramaine and sleep, climb over fellow passengers, repeat, ad nauseum.

When I got through customs, and went to claim my bags, I ripped the handle off one bag. Somehow, I found an empty luggage cart and hoisted all my bags on the cart and pushed my way through the crowds. I must have made quite the sight, bleary eyed with my orange turtle shell backpack, squatting to lift all my giant suitcases. I found my driver via the old poster board system. We both excitedly greeted each other, but he knew no English, so we mimed our way through the logistics of leaving the airport. I have never been so thankful for our unit in pantomime in middle school theatre arts class. As he loaded my luggage, he was clearly exhausted, and looked me up and down and then pointed at me and then flexed his muscles. “Strong American!” I laughed and then replied, “No. Strong Texan.”

Then, he expressed concern for my romantic possibilities here. On our way to Bucheon, he was stopped at a red light and turned around and made a motion of an hourglass, then pointed and gave me a thumbs up. Yes. My driver, who was probably 40-something totally checked me out and gave me the approval. I hadn’t showered in 36 hours, had squat-lifted my luggage at two airports, survived two security checkpoints, a yoga room, and a 12 hour flight. I was disgusting, but apparently, to this guy, some beauty came through. Men are very bizarre creatures. Then, he motioned circularly at my face and said, “Fair skin!” and gave me the thumbs up and a smile and then said, “You do good here.” I laughed and thanked him. I didn’t know how to tell him I’m not here for that, and that I’m not certain how Korean men might take to a strong Texas redheaded woman. It was a nice sentiment, and not one I’ve been a stranger to in the recent weeks.

As a friend of mine put it: “Not this trip. You still need to find yourself.” I replied something like I already feel like I’d found myself. “No, not yet. You still need to relax and lighten up. You’ll stop caring as much about the things that have bothered you in the past.” I know he’s seen me at my worst in so many ways, and perhaps he’s right.

As another friend of mine said, “Don’t be offended by us wishing this [a husband] for you. In the end, you’d be happy and married. Is that such a bad thing?” But, coyly, I know, one does not have to be married to be happy. “Sure,” I replied, “That would be lovely, to be happily married and in love, with a family. But that’s not why I’m going. I’m going for adventure.” I absolutely would prefer to be going on this adventure with the man I love, but one who is ready hasn’t come along, and I’m tired of waiting.

I’ve gotten tired of waiting for life to happen to me, so I’m taking this chance. Already I feel lighter. I think it was that lost jar of salsa.

 

Two and a half years ago, after enduring without exaggeration the worst week of my life, my small group leader and friend (and new roommate!) would pray with me when I found it impossible to even know what to pray, or seemed to have forgotten how to pray. She would say, “Heavenly Father in Jesus name…you have given us not a spirit of fear, but one of power, and love, and of sound mind.” I could not fathom walking in a spirit without fear, and nor could I imagine walking in a spirit of love and sound mind, but I prayed with her anyway, sobbing, giving myself up. Months later when my mother died, we’d pray the same prayer again, and then again when my grandmother died, and again when my Dad got sick. As the months passed, I found myself praying that prayer alone, without anyone’s help, and my faith in God to answer my prayer grew with each passing tragedy.

Yesterday morning I woke up to a text message from a friend who is moving with her husband down to Houston for an internship for her work as an occupational therapist. They’ll be back to Fort Worth in a year, when she’s finished, but it’s still a big step for them. They love our city, and our church, where they met and fell in love. She told me once she’d taped up the last box, and took a good look around at her house, and their sweet little home, she burst into tears and could not contain it. She ugly cried so hard, she said she was pretty sure she’d scared her husband. And then she said, “And then I thought of you, moving around the world by yourself, and not even certain when you’ll return, and realized man you’re brave. You’re one tough gal.” I responded with something clever, like that Texas women are tough, and that I see the same toughness in her too (because I do) and that it’s alright to cry because those who cry often are the ones who’ve held it together the longest. (And ain’t that the truth?) And that her husband should see her ugly cry because that’s what intimacy is all about. But I didn’t say what I should have.

The past month or so has been a month of goodbyes. I’ve been all over the state to see family and make memories with them; I held a moving sale; I sold my furniture, even my beloved 100 year old vanity and DIY coffee table. I boxed up the precious things and gave them to relatives to hold for me, and tossed the rest, or donated it to the missions at church. I have been so blessed along the way this month in my preparation. From my mentor showing up with her entire family to help me pack, to my dear friend who has allowed me to stay with her for the past two weeks, to the friends who have showed up at goodbye dinners and happy hours and have laughed and lived with me, I have been blessed.

But it’s more than that, you know. Everywhere I turn, I have a friend who has a friend in South Korea and wants to get us in touch, and most of them follow through. The director for my recruiting company emailed me and everyone else who signed the same time I did to introduce us all to each other, and I connected with most of them via social media, and I am beside myself with excitement to meet them and develop friendships with them.

And the biggest kicker of all, the one that reinforces to me that God wants me in South Korea, is that I have some friends who are missionary kids, and their folks are still in Asia.  We have connected, and they have messaged me and have loved on me from afar, and I know they are praying for me. In short, I know without a doubt in my mind that I am not alone, not physically, spiritually, or emotionally. The breadth of God’s family has me floored. There are people I do not yet even know who are praying for me as I type this, in addition to those who do know me and love me.

As I have walked the last few years years, I’ve faced some of the harshest lies of the enemy.

Unlovable. Despised. Rejected. Abandoned. Those were dark days.

“Because you deserve it,” the enemy said.

But the love of Christ has said otherwise. The love of Christ has said, “No, will take on the hatred, rejection, and abandonment for her. She is my sister and she is precious. She is the daughter of a King, and she will not be lied to.” And the thing is, Christ says the same thing for all of us, and when we accept this love, this irresistible grace, we become family.

I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God…You split the sea so I can walk right through it. You drown my fears in perfect love. You rescued me so I can stand and say I am a child of God.

The thing about the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt is how sweet it was eventually to be set free. True, they screwed up later in every single way, but damn, watching the waters roll in across the Egyptian soldiers must have been the most jaw-dropping freedom. That’s what dodging marital bullets is like. That’s what walking away from the lies of the enemy is like.

To my OT friend, what I should have said is, when you experience grace and love like walking across the seafloor of the Red Sea, and really start to see and believe the freedom placed before you, it makes you do things you never thought were possible. Like move around the world and be all right because you have a family everywhere you go when you’re a child of God. He promises never to leave you nor forsake you.

It makes you tough. It makes you brave.

Learning How to Lighten the Load

Yesterday was my last day as a teacher in the Texas public schools for an indefinite time. It’s true, my contract in Korea is for a year, but experience has taught me I have a habit of making plans to return back to places, and it never pans out. I always planned to return to Austin, and now can’t imagine moving back to my beloved hometown. When I moved to Fort Worth more than six years ago, it was supposed to be for six months, and then I’d return to Huntsville. Huntsville has now become a pit-stop on the way to Houston or Galveston. How does the Robert Frost poem go? Oh, I kept the first for another day!/ Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back. I would like to come back, but I don’t know what plans God has in store for me. And I’m willing to accept I may never come back to Texas to teach. I’m also willing to accept I’ll be back next year.

This has been the theme of this season. I don’t yet know the plans God has for me, but I know He has them. I stumbled through my goodbyes at work yesterday, trying to stay composed. It’s not that I’m unsure if I’m making the right decision to go, but I’ve lived a lot of life in Arlington the past six years, first in wholesale land and then the last three years at a junior high. And when you spend most of your waking hours in one place for years, it tends to work its way into your heart and sets up camp.

This was my first big-girl job. You know, the one that jumps you into a different tax bracket and changes your lifestyle. The kind that requires and appreciates that I use spell check on all my emails. The kind that doesn’t pay me overtime because of the expectations that come with the word “salary.” Suddenly I went from living paycheck to paycheck to actually having a savings account. And if God had told me when I started that I’d be leaving now to move to South Korea, I would have laughed, and then cried, and demanded to know how exactly He planned to prepare me for all that. The shock I would have had from what He would have said.

Very distinctly, I recall the first time I heard Him preparing me for this move. My colleague and I had just had a fight, most of which I know had nothing to do with me, but I received the worst of his anger. It left me sobbing on the floor, under my desk, yelling at God, “Why did you have me move to this position?! Have I made a mistake? I don’t know how I’m going to survive this year like this!” And all God had to say to me was, No child, with Me, there are no mistakes. Do you trust me? And thus began the personal turmoil and spiritual seed-planting and peace that brought about this move.

A lot of life has been lived at that school for me, and I’m so grateful for it all.

This is what I learned in my years teaching at a junior high in Arlington, Texas:

Plan on disappointments, both professionally and personally.

Sometimes, your favorite student skips out on a project, and you have to give them a failing grade. And it really does hurt you more than it hurts them; it’s not a line. Sometimes, your team insists on using a terrible lesson plan that you knew was terrible. Sometimes, you use a terrible lesson plan, and you have to go back and re-teach. This is perhaps the most disappointing. Sometimes, you cannot do all the side projects that make a school better that you wish you could, and so you disappoint your colleagues or administration. This is the world we live in. It’s fallen, imperfect, and broken, and it’s disappointing.

The hardest part, though, about a high-energy and high-stress jobs like teaching is that your personal life doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t consider the fact that you don’t have time for your life to fall apart. I’ve gone through numbing breakups, losses, moved several times. My mother died the last week of school my first year, and then her mother died the week before school started, two months later. God did not ask me if that would be convenient; He was just sticking to His plan. I moved three times in the middle of school years, and only one of those moves was planned. Husbands have passed away at my school, babies have been born early, creating mini substitute crises. We teachers all have real-life, beat-you-down hard shit we deal with in the middle of our work. But the thing about teachers is we got each other’s backs. Sub plans are made, conference periods are given up to cover. And yet, I know if I were in any other profession, the same life-is-what-happens-when-you’re-busy-making-plans stuff would happen, regardless. If I were a lawyer, I’d take work home (and would probably still face the same work/life balance crisis). If I were a doctor, I’d cover for sick colleagues. If I were a nurse, there would be nights where we’d be short. This is adulting.

Draw some boundaries.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have fallen asleep at 7:05 on a Friday night. While with a boyfriend for the evening. With a redbox rental. That I’d picked out. That we’d started fifteen minutes before. I know. I’m completely shocked no one has snatched me up yet! Kidding aside, I knew I needed to get better about my work/life balance my first year when one boyfriend said to me while we bantered over which movie to rent, “It doesn’t matter anyway. You’ll be out in half an hour.” We left with The Hobbit. At least I didn’t have to watch it.

But more than that, working at a Title I public school will drain you in ways you never imagined. I’ve lied awake at night, worried about the kid I had to call CPS for, praying they’re safe. I’ve borne the brunt of kids’ pent-up anger, which I know has nothing to do with me, but the absentee parents who are working, trying to make a better life for their child. Or worse, parents who are absentee because they don’t know what it means to love selflessly. As an empathetic woman, it’s very hard to absorb all those emotions all day, everyday, and still have the energy to plan, grade, analyze data, implement strategies and procedures, determine the best educational plan for special needs students, differentiate for our regular and G/T kids, and fix the moody copier, all in 7.5 hours. If you don’t leave your worries at school, and sometimes, your work, you will burn out.

Lighten up.

I used to carry this weight regarding the seriousness of my work. And indeed, educating the future of our country and world is incredibly important. But ultimately, we need to put that anxiety down. We cannot make children choose to have a better future. We cannot make them give their best on their state-mandated exams. We can try, we can give all the positive behavior interventions we know, but in the same way a doctor can prescribe medicine, he or she cannot force the patient to take it to make them better. So do what you can, take it seriously, give what you’ve got, and then go home. I used to worry so much that what I “got” just isn’t enough to make a difference. Because if it was, then why weren’t all of my students making radical life changes, going from doing drugs to giving hugs, from failing classes to acing them?

The truth is, we have a romanticized expectation of teachers. We expect teachers to be able to change students’ hearts and minds – and by God’s grace, often times we do! – like how Jesus changed the hearts and minds of his followers. We’re expected sometimes to be educational missionaries. We (both society and ourselves) expect to turn every Saul into a Paul. And certainly, over the history of Christianity, there have been more Saul to Paul conversions, so we shouldn’t give up. But those conversions were never all at once, but rather have happened over the course of the last two millennia, in hundreds of different countries, under thousands of different rulers, in different languages. And absolutely none of them happened because of what one person did or did not do. It was all driven by God’s divine plan, the Holy Spirit, and His children who were willing to be used as instruments of peace. So if you’re a Christian teacher, lighten your load. Pray, teach, love, plan and grade, and then go home. It’s that simple.

His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.