Joel in South Korea
Our parishioner, Joel McKee, is teaching in a university setting in South Korea. He is writing a monthly article for the parish newsletter. His articles appear below.
A Sojourner Abroad
Part I – ‘An expatriate experience’
The first impression was not good. I was to give directions to a building that at first glance looked abandoned. The unpainted concrete walls brought to mind the dark and dirty sections of Dickens’ London. As I climbed the filthy gray stairs to the fifth floor, the idea of being a teacher seemed a lot more daunting than I had supposed in the creative and fun three-week training session in Southern California. As I opened the classroom door and said “Good Afternoon” to my 40 new students, the only responses were blank stares. It was going to be a long year.
This was twenty-one years ago, in the city of Harbin in northeast China. I had responded to a recruitment poster that asked for English majors to live and work in China. English majors were a nearly forgotten minority, when it came to job offers, in my college that specialized in engineering and nursing. So this poster was a welcome change from the usual silence.
ELIC is a Christian organization that sends Christian teachers to China. We were not presented as missionaries. Our tasks were to teach our students as well as we could and generally live an upright and godly life among our colleagues and students. Of course since opportunities for mischief were virtually absent, this was not difficult. We were instructed not to proselytize, but only to live and, on occasion, explain our faith .
After I had been in Harbin for only thirteen days, a veteran teacher invited me to the Three Self Church, the only Protestant church permitted by the government, for their semi-annual communion service. The service was crowded and everyone sat on stools. An older woman next to me smiled and nodded as the cup and the bread were passed. The impression was of a shared faith that crossed culture, language, and distance. The sobbing and wailing made me think that these Christians had invested a lot more of themselves in their faith than I had.
On that first day of classes, I realized that these young people were very different from my idea of university students. Although they were in their late teens and early twenties, they seemed much younger. Despite their timidity, I felt that my work was significant and rewarding. They seemed to need my help, and I was happy to give it.
In that first year abroad, I met people from many places. Since there were so few English speakers, we learned to tolerate differences and rediscover the joy of ordinary conversations.
It was a long year, but a good year. A year of learning, of joy. A year worthy of repetition. So when I went home the following summer, it was clear that I would again travel abroad, that I would be a teacher and would find myself more at home among people from other countries than the people I grew up with. The year changed me; I think for the better.
Part II – ‘Still in China’
The “parade” stopped traffic and we sat in our vans watching several large flatbed trucks, each with two soldiers with rifles and one man, his hands tied, standing against the back gate of the truck. Around his neck in large red characters was his offence, written for all to see. I didn’t understand the writing, but it did pass through my mind that it was very similar to INRI.
The crowded streets were in Qiqihar “chee chee har” in the northeast province of China. We were having an American thanksgiving, with most of the English speaking teachers from the three northeastern provinces. I was sharing a (micro) van, and its driver, with an elderly couple from Christchurch in New Zealand. I was stunned and at a loss as to my response to the parade of convicts. As we traveled, according to the original plan, to the North East China Crane Reserve to look at the red-crowned cranes there, this couple, the Bakers, by word and example helped me get through the realization that this was a different country.
Later, back at the hotel in the cold afternoon, beside the tall windows with the lacey bamboo-patterned curtains, we had tea, a healing brew. The healing came also in the words and kindness of these good people. The Bakers were two of many people I met that year who, whether by intent or accident, helped me see the value in people for themselves instead of looking at their ethnic or national background.
Over the course of that long dark winter, more lessons were learned. Probably one of the significant ones was learning to enjoy what I had. The best example is in the guest house where I lived with three other teachers, two from Japan, on from Canada. Some nights there was only very hot water, no cold; other nights tea-colored water, lukewarm water, only two liters of hot water, and the list could go on. Of course there was cold water most of the time, and the rooms were well-heated, so it was more of an inconvenience than a problem. We made a game of it: running down the hallway and banging on each other’s doors to bring the glad tidings of the possibility of a bath.
I talked to some of my students at the time and they spoke of their weekly permission to visit the university bathhouse. They had only occasional cold water down the freezing hallway from their crowded dorm rooms. They had actual ewers and basins in their dorms. I began to see my home country, as it is, a place of privileged luxury when compared to the real world.
By late December, snow had become dirty ice, and everything was gray. I would go out in the evenings and skate on the ice track. The clear stars showed there was nothing between me and heaven. Though I was far from the marriages, job searches, and parties of friends and classmates from college, the one who loves me most was very present and would not leave me. The promise from Psalms gave me great comfort in my loneliness: “ If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.”
Part III: 'A Difficult Journey'
In 1988 I was teaching at Qinghai (ching hi) teachers’ University in Xining (she-ning), which is over 7,000 feet high, very dry, and about 1,000 miles from Mount Everest. Life was rather Spartan at best, but the students worked hard (I taught my only university level class on Shakespeare there) and I had one rather friendly colleague whose grandmother was Chinese but the rest of his grandparents were British, I think. During the Proletarian Cultural Great Revolution (the purpose of which was to destroy culture, arts, old things and whoever didn’t approve of Chairman Mao) in the mid 1960s , his family left China, but he was left to struggle alone and was finally sent out to the distant reaches of Qinghai mostly because he had foreign blood.
At the lunar New Year holiday in late January, I attended the mid-year conference in Hong Kong, which is a very modern city. Afterwards, I decided to try to find a college friend’s grandmother’s grave in the south of China in the town of Deqing on the West river, as well as take a trip to Chengdu to climb one of the four most sacred Buddhist mountains in China, Emai-san. Of course, being the rugged individual, I decided I should travel alone. I got on a boat in Guangzhou (Canton) where I rented a bunk that was two feet wide and seven feet long: not quite like chord wood, but a well-packed boat.
I clearly misunderstood where the boat was going, and it turned out that I passed the grave and the town in the very small hours of the morning, and when we disembarked at dawn, I was pushed toward an old bus to Guilin, that used a hand-made road. But Guilin was no problem; it’s just the next step on my journey. After checking into the guesthouse, dorm style, I went to the airport booking office and saw that there was a plane scheduled for Chengdu in two days. Didn’t think I needed to ask.
I neglected to say that this was winter in southern China, while not actually cold it’s very wet, raining in buckets, and never warmer than 60º. So I was cold and miserable. The dorm room was mixed—a lot of Japanese young people—but the shower rooms were not. Hot water was to be available between 6 and 8 but it’s more like 6 to 6:15. The problem was that only two of the ten showers actually worked. The rest were only cold or only hot or just a thin trickle. Not a good thing when 10 naked young men are all trying to get clean and warm.
After two days of pleasant climbing of the mountains in Guilin that look like giant stumps, I went to get my airplane ticket. Meiyo! It doesn’t exist, or I don’t want to sell to you, or that schedule is just for show. Meiyo! No mountain, maybe home. I got a ticket to Xian—the place of the terracotta warriors—and flew in an ancient Tupolov and paid a taxi too much for a trip to the very nearby “hotel.” This time I was sharing a room with a young man from Hong Kong and one from Germany, neither knew about dressing for winter so stayed all the time in the stuffy little room and just complained.
I got a train ticket home to Xining for seat 116. When I got to the car, the highest number was 108. So I spent 24 hours sitting on my luggage in a car with close to 200 people in it. I thought I had it bad until I found one of my students who had been riding since Shanghai, more than 50 hours.
It was a long journey, but when I got home, I got a hot shower, made a pot of tea, put on my tape of Karian conducting Beethoven’s sixth symphony and sat down to enjoy the gift of music, a fine pot of tea, and the joy of being home.
Part IV: "A return to Asia"
One of the reasons I returned to China the third year, after three years in the US, was to decide if I wanted to make a career of teaching there. Toward the middle of that year, however, I found within myself the familiar rising tide of discontent and intolerance with the constant stares and the mothers, grandmothers, and even school children nudging their children or each other to say, “Look, there’s a foreigner.” It was time to move on.
I decided that the quality of my teaching needed to be raised as well as my attitude.
So in the following fall, I started work on a graduate degree at West Virginia University. It was a good two years. I taught and studied with students from a variety of language and cultural backgrounds. Moreover, the energetic students from Columbia were a rather wonderful addition to my classroom. It was great fun to put the reserved, nearly taciturn Japanese college boys with Columbian women as conversation partners. The boys, who normally would speak in one or two syllables, had to speak in English merely out of self-defense.
After the two years of graduate work, it was time to get a proper job. So after the usual thirteen hour trans-Pacific flight, I was met by a smiling English man in Seoul. He was to be my supervisor for the next two years at the small language institute in the heart of the educational district of Seoul. Within a three mile radius were four of the best universities in Korea.
There was an interesting mix of people in the teacher’s room. I remember one older man from New Zealand who was fascinated by the idea of a gerund, which he preferred to pronounce ‘jeRUND’. There was a lot of heavy lifting. Although no one worked more than eight hours a day, classes began at 6:30 in the morning and finished at 10 at night. Most of my students were businessmen who came before going to work, university students who came in the evenings after classes, or even a few housewives in the afternoons.
It was accelerated experience at least. I was often put to shame by my students who regularly slept only five hours a night and continued in this sleep-deprived state. They are hard-working people, whose first loyalty was to their family and the second to the culture. After the milieu of an international department at an American university, it did seem a naïve little country. Of course I didn’t understand. Even now, after spending 10 years in Korea, I doubt I really understand. I’ll finish with two examples to help convey the Korean mindset.
About ten years ago, I was invited to climb a mountain in Seoul with a colleague, a practicing Catholic, and our students. On the top of the mountain, as is often the case, there was a Buddhist temple. Around the temple there were tiny cairns. But they were strange in that each one was topped by a series of stones balanced one atop the other. I asked my friend, the Catholic man, the purpose of these strange stone stacks. His response was, “We Koreans use these to pray to the Buddha.”
When I ask my students about their hobbies, their favorite colors, their dreams, the majority of the answers begin with, “Koreans. . .” There seems to be a great focus on the culture and very little on the individual. Of course this is changing somewhat, but when the language itself enforces the power of the oldest male members of society, changes tends to be glacial in speed.Part V: "A Home away from Home"'
One thing that was important about living in China was the fact that the churches there, on some level, were under the control of the atheistic government. But more significantly the language spoken was not one that I knew. I would sometimes go with a colleague or a student. With translation, rocky at best, I had some idea about what was being said. Also among other foreign teachers, in China, we would sometime have “church” in someone’s living room. But as it usually had the format of a party, with people sitting on the floor or found chairs, maybe with a cup of tea at hand, and then going directly into making and having lunch, it didn’t much feel like church.
I don’t remember how I found the English mission of the Anglican cathedral in Seoul back in the late winter of 1995, but I did and I’ve stayed there since despite a half year in Vermont in 1998 and nine months in New York in 2006. But I do remember a quiet little crypt chapel, perhaps half the size of the parish hall in Montour Falls. It was made of stone, and with the dim light and the groined arches, it did seem like I had landed somewhere in the Middle Ages. The organ in those days was one in which the organist had to pump pedals to get air past the reeds.
When I attended the first time, the celebrant was a man from Uganda, who overflowed with charisma, I think his name was George Tiblisi, but I’ve forgotten by now. It may seem strange to forget a priest’s name after only 12 years, but the church was constantly changing. There is easily a 25% change in the congregation every year. With people from the diplomatic community, business folk, young foreign English teachers, as well as some Koreans who came to listen to English, it was a rather interesting mix.
One of the first people I met there was a high school student from Papua New Guinea, who was the daughter of the ambassador. She wanted me to find information about Korean shamanism for a paper she was writing in school. That was long before Wikipedia, or much else on the Internet in terms of resources. But I went to work and asked people and found what I could and brought it to her the next week. It was as if she had asked her older brother to help her out with a problem.
That same first year, in the muggy Seoul summer, where trees were very few, a tall man from the United States invited me to his air conditioned house, where he had a piano and a family of four. We sat all afternoon around the piano, singing and enjoying the escape from the humidity outside.
I could tell more of the first birthday parties of the children of fellow parishioners from Nigeria, or day hikes among mountains with people from New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, Peru, the Philippines and the United States, of Christmas parties, or summer picnics in the lawn (the only one in Seoul) of the British Embassy, but this will give you enough of an impression.
In the frantic-paced life of Seoul, the church, despite its constant change gave me an idea of the nature of the body of Christ. A lot of people from different places, even an occasional street person, came together to be a part of a family, a family with the usual of range of characters and squabbles. But we are people all brought together by a common language, a common faith and a common Father. A home.
Part VI: "A Test-Driven Life"
A few years ago, in the spring when all the cherry trees were in bloom, I decided to ride out into the countryside and find some blossoms to take pictures of. About a mile from the university I saw a quiet, maybe private, road with cherry trees on either side. There was an open gate, so going on the assumption that it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission, I rode my bike up the hill under the cherry trees. I put my bike down and started banging away with my camera. I was fully engrossed in my work when I heard someone say to me that I shouldn’t be there. I turned to say that I was only taking photographs when the young man, maybe ten years my junior, appended his remarks with an invitation to a cup of coffee in the farm office.
He used the English name of David and we talked about a few things, of the farm he ran for a big company to provide beef to a chain of department stores (almost all department stores in Korea have a basement grocery section) of his two sons and his hope of doing a second degree – a M.S. in Animal Husbandry—and my experiences and travels. You need to understand that he works with machinery to grow fodder for the 50 cows, two bulls, their offspring and maybe 50 deer who are used mostly for their velvet for traditional medical purposes and supervises three laborers who assist in the running of the farm. I went my way, with a new friend and some new understanding of farming in Korea. For example one common fodder is baled green barley in which the animals eat both the straw and the immature grain together instead of hay.
A few weeks later I was on the home-bound train after church in Seoul which was 50 miles away, but the only place where I could attend an English language Anglican church. I was dozing off in my seat and glanced up to see someone looking at me. After the fog cleared, I realized it was David also returning from Seoul. When I asked him what he had been doing there, he told me that he had gone to take a TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication). When I asked why, he said that it was to get a pay raise, to move to a higher level, but with no change in duty. Needless to say I was rather surprised. It was then that I remembered how much life is defined by tests here.
High School for Korean young people is not a time to do a bit of study and spent most of the time with sports or clubs or cars or friends. It’s a time to study. And when that is done there is more study, followed by additional study. There is whole industry of study institutes, private tutors, and study groups. A lot of high schools serve dinner, and although there are no classes in the evening, attendance in taken until 10 p.m. and a teacher is on hand to keep the noses in the books or answer questions. There is also a proverb that states that the difference between success and failure is the difference of four (success) and five (failure) hours of sleep a night.
The reason is that a person’s life pivots on his or her performance on a huge national test in the senior year of high school. The text takes more than six hours and covers all disciplines, involving hundreds of five-choice multiple choice questions, and thousands of bits of randomly chosen minutiae. If the student gets a high score, he can attend the best universities, and then the alumni of the university will open doors for him in the better companies related to the best universities. But you have to take that grueling test first. The number of suicides after the test results are announced is rather high; it seems that everything rises or falls on that one score. There are other tests for entering companies or government. somewhat influenced by Confucius is alive and The influence of the ancient Chinese system of tests for every transition in life, well in Korea.
Part VII: "Late Nights''
I talked last month about the fact that a lot of children spend only a few hours a night sleeping in high school in Korea, to make sure that they get into the right university. An important result of this is that these students never have a full night’s sleep as we would describe it in the US.
My experience with drinking in university was rather limited mostly because of the types of universities I attended and also because of the way I was raised: I understood that drinking was about as bad as lying. I learned my lessons the winter in Harbin, where I was teaching in a cold, dark, coal-burning city. My friends from university were far away, having fun lives, while I was basically in Siberia. More than one night I tried to add a bit of warmth to my evening by having a beer. But it completely destroyed my drive and made letter writing or grading papers virtually impossible. I learned a healthy respect for alcohol.
So it was with some surprise when I arrived in Korea in 1995 that a friendly student asked me, in class, how many bottles of soju (a cheap thin Korean vodka) I could drink. As I also had businessmen in the same class, it seemed even more strange that they wanted me to honestly answer the question. I must say that I have only once drunk a whole bottle of soju, despite the fact that a bottle is only about a pint and is about the same as drinking a whole bottle of wine, though without any of the health benefits.
But my point is that I had heard of the after-work drinking culture (to climb the corporate ladder) of Japan, but had thought it was unique. A lot of the drinking is with colleagues and is a sort of group bonding. The people you work with become almost closer than family, and one of the ways to make that relationship stronger is by drinking together, it is thought.
For a year and a half I had a morning class at a factory. I had to get up quite early and be on my bicycle at 6:20 in the morning for the 30-minute ride to the class.
One of the students in the class, Mr. Sung, would arrive at the class at 6:50, study English with me for an hour and a half, and then go to breakfast at the company cafeteria. Of course he would work all day in the accounting department and often leave work well after having his dinner also at the company cafeteria. He is married and has two young sons. His wife might get up with him in the mornings and stay up to see him when he comes home, but he is easily away from home every weekday from six to ten, often on Saturdays as well. I talked to him about his sons and he said that he enjoys spending Sundays with them. He plays with his boys on Sunday so his wife can do a bit of lesson planning or grading at the school where she teaches. This is not an unusual family.
Most people are running most of the time and don’t get enough sleep. Students expect to sleep only half the night. I have met a few people who live more leisurely lives, but they are quite few.
Next month, I’ll have a lighter subject. I’ll talk about food.
Part VIII: Eating in Korea
When I arrived first in Korea in January 1995, I had heard of kimchi but no other Korean food, so I had no idea what to expect in terms of food. It was quite a shock indeed to have my first meal in Korea. Of course there was Kimchi, a pungent vinegary pickled cabbage with hot pepper and garlic. Then there was a dish of some dark strong-flavored leaves with red pepper on it, a whole fish that was roasted with a paste of red pepper, a soup with tofu and red pepper, and finally one dish, plain boiled rice that had no red pepper in it. Both my new roommate and I went to bed hungry that night.
As is often the case, the first experience was the worst. After that first baptism by fire, my students or colleagues introduced me to the great and varied diet of Korean food. There is a lot of red pepper, but it is possible to get through a meal without it. One dish I rather like is called hway doe bop. It is mixture of a number of fresh and interesting vegetables, somewhat like a salad, but with white rice on it, and a few cubes of fresh (raw) tuna on top.
Generally there is a light soup, sometimes with red pepper, a bowl of rice, three or four side dishes, each about a quarter cup of a strongly flavored vegetable such as sesame leaves, bean sprouts with green onion, black beans in soy sauce, paper-thin seaweed, steamed spinach and kimchi. Then there is a small main dish which may be a whole five-inch fish-- Try de-boning a fish with thin metal chopsticks and a big flat spoon!-- a bit of thinly sliced pork with a hot-pepper gravy, or some chopped squid, which is in too many dishes for my taste. This meal is called baak ban, or a normal home meal. It’s the standard meal served three times a day. There is some variation with the side dishes or the type of soup, but it’s like a sonnet. You know the form and the general content, but there is a lot of room for variety.
The Korean diet mostly follows the directions of the food pyramid. Meat is usually only used as small part of the whole meal. There are many vegetables on the plate, but the part that fills the stomach is a thin soup and at least a cup of cooked rice. A whole meal with seven side dishes, a broiled fish and enough food to fill two stomachs has less than half the calories of a ‘Big Mac.’ It’s a healthy diet.
The ‘golden arches’ have established a firm outpost of empire, but they are regularly undersold by domestic chains such as Kimbop Heaven which sells a roll of rice, seaweed, and vegetables, (and a thin stick of Spam) an adequate lunch, for about a dollar.
For ten years I’ve heard a lot of complaints that “children like pizza more than kimchi” and other such stuff, but when the national identity is very much wrapped up in the national food, it may be a bit of fear mongering.
There are still a lot of things in the Korean cuisine that I’ll not try or not try again, such as the blood and bean noodle sausage or the silkworm pupae.
I’d like to describe a rather good meal in Korea. The waitress arrives with small salads of onions, celery, vinegar and salt and a half pound of raw pork. Then the fire man comes and puts a container of live coals into the hole in the middle of your table, where you grill your bits of fatty pork. While you’re grilling with tongs and heavy scissors, the waitress brings an endless stream of side dishes, including sliced garlic and lots of palm-sized leaves, some leaf lettuce, some like raw mustard greens and lots of others.
When the meat is cooked, you put a leaf in one hand and put a teaspoon of rice on it. Then you add a small bit of steamed fiddleheads, kinchee, or soybean paste. Then you take a square inch of the meat, dredged in sesame oil, and top it with a slice of raw garlic with red pepper paste. You fold the whole thing into a neat package about the size of your mouth and push it in. You chew contentedly for a few minutes and repeat while keeping a conversation going until you can hold no more. It’s called Sam gyup sal and when you have to pay, the cashier has relieved you of only seven dollars. It’s a good meal, and a good reason to stay in Korea, at least it will be after Lent.
Part IX: Easter in Korea
The first Easter I had in Korea was in 1995. It was after leaving Trinity Church in Morgantown West Virginia, where we had an all-night Holy Saturday vigil in which, after the service was finished, people, who has signed up, would spend an hour praying at the communion rail. It was a large and lively congregation with maybe half of the parishioners university students. And of course Easter Morning with banners, a wonderful organ, (trumpet and pipe, loud clashing cymbals) crowded pews, and the heady scent of lilies.
So you may imagine that it was a bit of a climb-down to be part of a small expatiate congregation of maybe 30 in the little stone crypt chapel in the bowels of the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul crowded with heavy pillars, with sparrows at the window seeming to make more noise that our little foot-pumped reed organ. Then the long walk to the cold “Bishop’s lodge” for coffee hour with instant coffee and cold crackers or something as uninspiring.
Then a young woman from Canada, who had been in Korea too long, invited me to see the modern art museum. Since I had been three months in a dirty concrete and asphalt city, I jumped at the chance to get away. I was rather impressed by the building and more with the grounds with pools and fountains and great swathes of grass, and the multitude of cherry trees in blossom. Things were looking up.
My companion’s conversation was very much a theme and its variation: her dislike our host country. The stupid building, the crowded subway trains, the quack grass, the tacky cherry trees, the strange hair styles and so on ad nauseum. But I was new and tried to bring out the better qualities of the rather fine museum and the nice green space, but she would have none of it. She was planning a miserable day and I was to be her audience. Needless to say, when we went back to the city, I found some excuse to spent time alone beside the river.
It was strange that my feelings of being left out in the cold were very quickly destroyed with a bit of culture and green, but there are some who prefer to be unhappy. It reminded me of a number of people I’ve met, in a few counties whose primary purpose seems to find fault of all they see. Those that need to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. I’ve been tempted to go that way once or twice, but that way is madness.
That early Easter was probably the darkest. If a journey on foot past hundreds of cherry trees in riotous bloom can be dark. It is in all countries a day of wonder and rejoicing. The coming of Easter reminds me of the promise to Noah: "While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, And cold and heat, And summer and winter, And day and night, Shall not cease."
I could bring up a few of my favorite poems of spring, but it’s enough to just say that the great gush of hope that breaks forth each spring is a wonderful and awe-inspiring gift indeed.
Part X: A night in the Park
Just an hour ago I returned from my night walk in the park. In Korea, a country full of mountains, the parks are small mountains and the flat lands are reserved for rice fields or high-rise apartment blocks. But I want to talk about some of my experiences in parks at night in my sojourn in Asia.
My first apartment in Harbin, in the northeast of China, more than twenty years ago, had little of interest. Even the television only has one program on Business English, on Sunday and another on Saturday with Basic French. There was also a lot of news of progress in farm, factory, and government. Needless to say I found this only slightly more interesting than studying the wallpaper, so I went outside. Harbin in 1985 had only a few mature trees, but a lot of them were in the zoo, a thirty-minute walk from the university. The animals were well hidden in their buildings so I often spent my evenings in the company of the older, darker trees, and there was some comfort there, among these ancient wise ones.
I think the park I remember most in China was in Qindao. It was also on a hill, like in Korea, with jagged rocks that were easy to climb. One day in the park, I met an old man and he addressed me, so I asked about the book he was reading. He told me it was older than he, and that at least ninety percent of his family library was destroyed by the Red Guards in the “Cultural Revolution.” But other times this park, though without trees, was a good place to go at the end of the day and watch the lights on the water of the bay and listen to the sounds of the city, and then walk through the dark, lonely streets to my small room.
My first park in Korea was the one behind Sogang University, a Jesuit school. It was crowded with locust trees that perfumed the air in spring and with magpies announcing their boundaries and availability at full cry. But it was a small place of quiet green peace in a city crowded with concrete, bricks, cars and asphalt and hundreds of voices raised in the praises of commerce. I spent a number of evenings there saying the evening office or just resting from the frenzy of the day, among the darkening trees.
Another park was the one I had for seven years. Often in my twilit walk to the top of this small mountain behind my university, I was reminded of my week-long journey by foot on the Bigelow range in the wilds of Maine in the summer after high school. There were chestnuts and a variety of birds as well as the drenching summer rains to give the impression that I was miles from cities, grade books, and recalcitrant students.
The park I now use is in the middle of a city of millions. Sometimes the play of the street lights on wet trees reminds me of autumn walks in Pittsburgh in what now seems someone else’s life. Sometimes I get a whiff of the sea, a mile distant to the west, and sometimes the glow of the fading evening light on the distant water. But tonight under the shelter of the trees beginning to break out in leaf, on the packed dirt path, covered with last week’s discarded cherry blossoms, and the air redolent with lilac, I am reminded of another garden long ago and an invitation to walk together in the cool of the day.
Part XI: Constant Change
One year ago, our small English language mission in the crypt chapel on the Seoul Anglican cathedral seemed to have an average age below 20. There was Rebecca and Miquel from Ireland and Spain, respectively, who had four children under five years old, two of whom were a handsome pair of month-old twins, Darach and Ronan. Then there was the British and American couple who had about six kids, but it was hard to count them with the stone pillars to hide behind, and they were always moving. We usually had about 50 communicants—I’m chalice bearer one or two Sundays a month—and a Sunday school, for children under 12, of nearly 20. Of course this does not include the babes in arms, many newly baptized from our large Nigerian section.
Assignments, postings, or whatever you call a short-term tenure is in constant rotation, so one family may be here with their embassy, shipping company, international bank or cram school for one year or two or maybe three, but it does seem that everyone who comes, leaves. Sometimes it seems they all go at once. Upon our return to Korea after our month-long sojourn in the US, (Thank you very much for your kindness and hospitality) we arrived to a church of a few more than twenty souls. Of course it was in the height of the summer rains, and vacation time for the academicians among us. But it was quite a shock. Where did everybody go? Well, John Brookshire with his family has gone to Shanghai, the Dotys to France, or Canada, or maybe the UK. Darach and Ronan have gone home to Ireland with their family and James and his new wife and newer daughter have gone to Peoria. We’re all scattered to the four winds!
It brought to mind the words from Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat: “The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a Word of it.” So we sat down and sighed for lost friends. Then we got up and checked how they are doing by e-mail, and looked at how Darach and Ronan are growing in the rich soil of Waterford, on their mother’s facebook page and all was good again.
But word had been left about our church in the places where expatriates gather, and people came and the spaces for coffee hour are filling up, and the spaces in the Sunday school (they leave just before the sequence hymn) are crowding up again. There are again close to fifty communicants and the little ad hoc choir is singing during communion and the time left after the anthem.
The big news of the season is the annual Seoul diocesan gathering on the football (soccer) pitch at the Anglican University last Sunday, October 12th. All Anglican churches were closed for the day and it was a sort of fair. Of course there was a proper service with the bishop preaching under a white tent and the people sitting on the concrete bleachers, and then nearly 25 communion stations all around the grounds. It may be the first time I had communion outside. There must have been five or six thousand people there. I had the service booklet, but my reading ability isn’t worth talking about, nor my listening, but I think the gospel reading was from John 15.
The sweet clear autumn days of October creates an ache in my soul for the cool bright mornings, the cold velvet nights, and the sweet sharp taste of the apples of home.