April 16, 1982
My Mom recalled “it was early March as we circled Kimpo Airport and prepared to land. Looking down on the bleak grey landscape we could see sandbag emplacements and barbed wire fences surrounding the airport below. We were warned not to take photos. Disembarking, weary and worn, we were met by our Canadian field directors, and a contingent of pastors and leaders from the seminary and churches we were meant to serve. You did not remember this but there were bows all around. The house had been kindly prepared and decorated for our arrival; balloons hung on the door and the heating was on. Mixed packages of what we decided were dried soup were in the larder and milk and eggs were in the fridge. We brought some dried soy milk with us for you, like bringing coals to Newcastle. You quickly swarmed the house with your siblings, opening and closing the rice paper doors, running up and down the stairs to the basement and lying on the soft yos and quilts on your bedroom floor. As I remember, the pastors had lovingly contributed a few toys, as well. For many of them even cheaply made toys would have been a luxury. Even coming out of winter and with the ondol floors the house was cold. We bundled up as well as we could and tried to adjust to the jet lag.”
If you tried to find the most antithetical place to Oklahoma, South Korea would have been near the top of the list. Almost everything about South Korea was different from what we were accustomed to: the culture, language, food, weather, history, hair color, you name it. But there was at least one haven of normality. Across the street from our house was Seoul Foreign School (SFS), where my brother and sister attended Elementary school. SFS was an international school, where missionaries, emissaries and privileged residents enrolled their children for a Western style education. Classes were taught in English and the curriculum was designed to allow children to return to their home countries (primarily in the United States or Great Britain) without any major difficulty. The close proximity of the school to our house was a huge answer to prayer for my parents. One of the largest worries they had becoming missionaries in the first place was having to send us kids off to boarding school. With Seoul Foreign School, God had found a way for our family not only to be at home with Mom and Dad, but just walk across the road.
While Seoul Foreign School provided a place of cultural familiarly for my brother and sister, Mom and Dad began their lessons in Korean culture immersion at a different school nearby – Yonsei University. Together, they began studying Korean language and culture full time during the weekdays while spending time with Korean pastors and churches on the weekends. And that left me. While everyone else was off at school, I was left at home and cared for by my new Korean nanny named Esuk. Even though I spent many of my formative years with her, I sadly don’t remember much about her. I remember her telling me to stop doing things over and over as any parent of a young boy does. I remember her looking out the window while hand washing dishes and wearing her green apron. I remember her doing load after load of hand washed laundry using a traditional washing board. And I remember her sitting down to watch the afternoon Korean soap operas that would run for several hours each, sometimes crying during a particularly gripping episode. In my ample amounts of free time and with little supervision, I entertained myself by playing outside with the four fundamental elements of boyhood: rocks, dirt, sticks and water.
The house we rented in Korea was a rather spacious house with both Korean and Western features. It came to be known in the family simply as “the first house,” as in later years we kept track of which house we were talking about by the number of times we had moved in the country. The house was constructed out of wood frames coated in a white plaster. On the inside rice paper walls separated living and sleeping areas and ondol floors provided heat. The upper floor contained a living room set apart from the hall by sliding rice paper doors, a kitchen, three bedrooms and a bathroom complete with a Western style toilet. Directly across from the enclosed living room was a stair leading down to the study which was also a sort of a weather center; mold during the rainy season would climb up the sides, reach a high point and gradually descend. On the southwest side of the house were several rhododendron and Oriental flowering spice bushes that would bloom beautifully each spring. That was also the place where my brother imparted one of my greatest childhood fears – dragonflies. Each August the dragonflies would drift lazily in the garden close to the house. According to my brother dragonflies were all that were left of the real dragons and that they could spit fire and had razor sharp teeth if disturbed. Given the lightening quickness and darting capabilities of dragonflies, I became worried whenever I saw one and lamented at my inability to effectively run away from them. It was only years later that I discovered my Brother’s falsehood and quickly got over my fear of them. To this day, I don’t resent his actions; much. The northeast side of the house had a retaining wall made of large, black, stacked stones intermittently covered in moss. One of my favorite activities was peeling away the layers moss or dislodging a rock to see which creatures scurried underneath. On the south side of our house was steep, curved driveway that linked our house with the rented house above and exited onto the main street. Across the entrance of the driveway was a large chain link fence meant to keep the property secure, but it served a different and more useful purpose for me. Our first Christmas my doting uncle had airmailed me a plastic push car, meant to be straddled and propelled with leg power. It didn’t take long to discover that it was much easier, much faster and much more fun to go downhill instead of scooting it around. So the curved downhill driveway became my racetrack of choice. I would start at the top by pushing my legs to gain speed before the drop off and then lift my legs up to accelerate down the hill. There were just two problems with this grand idea: the curve of the driveway and the street at the end. To deal with the curve, I would lean to one side and crank the steering wheel as far as it would go to drift the car down to the bottom. As for the street, my preferred method of stopping was to simply slam into the gate at full speed rather than trying slow down first. There were only a few times that I discovered too late that the gate wasn’t closed and had to stop using any means necessary to avoid going out into the road. Occasionally I would run back up the hill with a bleeding road rash from falling off. I was regularly reminded about being safe and careful, but boy it was fun, and in the end, it was worth it to put up with a few accidents.
Turning right out of the the gate, the road curved steeply downhill and lead to a busy intersection. The transition from hillside to city was met by the smells of diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke; smells that seemed to permeate everything in the city. To the left of the drive at the bottom of the hill was a small amusement park that at one point had trampolines and bumper cars, of which I would consistently ask to play at and only occasionally would be allowed to. More often we were treated to frozen “Jaws Bars” made with sweet red bean paste or chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks called “Pepero.” Across the street from the amusement center was a market selling almost anything you could need. Along the outside of the market were enthusiastic vendors selling fresh and not so fresh fish, shrimp and seafood in open air stalls. Other vendors sold handkerchiefs, socks and other necessities. The markets of South Korea were lively places, bustling with bodies, shouting vendors and bartering. If I had to explain the experience to my children, I would ask them to picture going into a grocery store that had a food court, Bed Bath and Beyond, Joann’s Fabric store, an aquarium and a pet store all in one. All of the items for sale were laid out on tables and then the tables were shuffled like a deck of cards so that no item was next to an item similar to it. The aisles were just wide enough for two smaller people to walk past each other, or in other words, a space where larger people needed to turn sideways when passing. Behind each table was a person loudly touting the merits of their wares. When you finally found what you wanted to buy and the person you wanted to buy it from the bartering would begin. The list price is just a starting point, with discounts based on volume, being a regular customer or first time buyer. It did not take long for us to become “sukis” or regular customers of our favorite vendors with all the perks that came with it. The grocery carts were not large and neither were the refrigerators, so people bought only what they needed and could easily carry. There were also no large parking lots, so most people would shop at the market and walk or ride the bus home. I can remember leaving the local market and trying to help carry the heavy bags of produce and rice up the steep hill to our house. I was able to make it about a third of the way home before abandoning my efforts.
Few of the local people spoke English during those years, and it was up to the traveler to find his or her own way around town, order food from an undecipherable menu and respect centuries of cultural mores. The result of these complications was a land untraveled by all but the most adventurous of foreigners or ex-pat military personnel. For our family, this meant that we were oddities, with all of its perks and pitfalls. In a land where virtually everyone had the same skin color, eye color, hair color and height, seeing a tall person with pale white skin, golden brown hair and blue eyes was an attraction in and of itself. It was considered faux pas for a Korean to approach a foreigner without a good cause, so people would normally watch, stare, gather and observe our peculiar presence. Children, without consideration for the Western value of personal space would walk up to me and hold my hand, staring intently as if expecting it to change. They would feel my whitish blonde hair and stroke their fingers though the thin, fine strands. Without speaking their language, it was difficult to communicate or figure out what they were doing. When we would go to a store to buy something, people would observe the products that we had selected and could be seen shortly after buying exactly what we did, just because we were foreigners. It is a strange concept to suddenly be minor celebrities just because of your different appearance. On the upside, almost everyone was willing to go far out of their way to help you with any problem that you would encounter and offered us greater hospitality than if we had been Korean. The downside was exactly the same – you knew that you were being treated differently and watched all the time. We carried the burden of being unofficial ambassadors of America. It was impossible to blend in; impossible to be normal.
Truth is, Korean kids were just so orderly and well behaved. It was as if they all had a predisposition for sitting quietly, listening to directions and obeying their parents. My lineage was not predisposed to sit quietly; quite the contrary. I had descended from a consistent line of trailblazers – some of the first pilgrims to sail across the Atlantic, some of the first Western explorers like Jedediah Smith, some of the first to cross the Oregon Trail and now, among a few westerners choosing to live in Korea. I was constantly aware of an internal battle between doing what I wanted to do and being a public disgrace to my parents versus doing the right thing and honoring them. It was a real struggle – and one that I felt like I failed in far too often. But there was a weird behavioral dichotomy I faced in Korea. While I constantly felt like my disobedience was in the limelight, at the same time I seemed to be given more lenience than would a normal child. Observing an impending toddler meltdown, old men with tobacco-stained teeth would seat me on their laps on the bus instead of having to stand and women would pass down crackers or candy stored in their purses to pacify me. Their generosity was profound, even though Mom had to strangely trust and accept the benevolence of theses strangers’ actions. It seemed as if everyone recognized my struggles and worked together to help me through them.
The first year of living in South Korea was spent simply trying to figure out this land of opposites. Even the simplest tasks of how to get around, what to buy at the store, how to read or speak the language and rules for interacting with others needed to be learned. To this day, Mom asks me questions about how I processed my experiences growing up and how I coped with the ever changing circumstances of our life overseas. For me, the answer was simple. At my young age, I was only starting to develop my understanding of the world around me and was more focused on developing my basic cognitive and social skills than trying to rationalize the world around me. Knowing we do x in x circumstance was good enough; I didn’t need to know the why. I didn’t try to rationalize how my experiences were different than anyone else. Life was what it was and there was little I could do to change anything about it. Reflecting on my first year I can’t help but think of the serenity prayer…. “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
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