Seoul, South Korea 1982

One of the most difficult things for a Westerner moving to Korea was learning the language.  Most of the world’s major languages use a Cyrillic alphabet (or variant), but Korean uses a semanto-phonetic compound. Each hangul stroke or letter describes a syllable or one sound. The strokes or letters are grouped into blocks to form words. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom as writing. Commissioned by King Sejong and completed in 1443, this orthography made reading and writing Korean possible for the illiterate masses—previously one would have had to learn Chinese and many of its characters to be literate. The difficulty of Korean is compounded by vocabulary and endings that reflect differences in age, status, rank, profession, and relationship between two speakers as well as four levels of speech ranging from polite formal to intimate. Mom and Dad were also taught the rudiments of a fifth level of speech, reserved for God and the king—a form they used especially in prayer.  

1911 first Korean Bible

Before my parents left for Korea, they were given tests to see if they were linguistically capable of learning Korean.  While between the two of them they had already studied German, Russian and Chinese, Korean was going to be their greatest challenge.  The language institute in Toronto, drawing from studies made by the Foreign Service Institute, ranked Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean as “exceptionally difficult” languages for Westerners to learn. Since the Korean language was so difficult, Mom and Dad tried to get a head start on their Korean language skills while they were still in Oklahoma. They bought books and language lesson tapes from Yale University and proceeded to study, Dad listening to the tapes after he came home from the church and Mom while she ironed the clothes.  After a considerable investment in time and energy, they decided to try out their new language skills on some Korean friends, with less than admirable results.  Shocked, their friends told them that they were using words and phrases more commonly used in North Korea than in the South. It seems that over the thirty-odd year interval since the Korean war, many essential terms and phrases between the two Koreas had changed.  There were subtle and not so subtle differences in pronunciation, emphasis, vocabulary and loan words that were regional not only between the Seoul and Pyongyang dialects but also political—the North borrowing loan words from Russia and the South borrowing from English. Mom and Dad were flabbergasted. Since they were warned about the sensitivity of what they had learned, they stopped using the language tapes and began their language learning all over again when they arrived in South Korea.  The discovery was unfortunate, but at least they were not arrested as spies after arriving in South Korea!

Each day was a new opportunity for learning–and for testing the patience of their friends. Forays into stores were always interesting, both for Mom and Dad and for us. Just getting school supplies was an adventure. Down the steep hill from Seoul Foreign School and just along the road was a small stationary store. Several times a week when we needed school supplies or a stamp, off we would head to the store. The people there were exceptionally kind to us. One-day Mom and Dad went in search of glue. They knew enough about the language to know that most Korean consonants can be distinguished in three ways–unaspirated (without a puff of air), aspirated (with a puff of air) and tensed (stressed). So when they tried to tell the store owners what they were looking for they said 불 ‘pul.’ The owners looked confused and shook their heads so they tried again. This time they said 뿔‘pul’ . The owners smiled shyly and, looking at one another, shook their heads again. After several minutes of gestures, alternate pronunciations and embarrassment, the owners suddenly laughed and said 풀‘pul’, emphatically, pulling out a tube of glue. There was laughter and smiles and handshakes all around. Mom and dad had asked for ‘fire’ or a ‘flame’ the first time and a ‘horn’ the second time. Only when they heard the owners use the aspirated sound did the meaning become clear. And then we got a tube of glue. Mom especially had difficulty with the characters since she bought the food. The problem was, she couldn’t read the labels. After a month or so in country Mom began to have massive headaches. About the same time, our adjumoni or helper Esuk had been watching my Mom cook in the kitchen. She finally asked her why she was using so much MSG.  “MSG?” My mother responded curiously.  Esuk walked over to the package and pointed out that the small bags of white crystals that sat next to the salt in the store were actually MSG.  A short time later, after replacing the MSG with salt in our household, Mom’s headaches went away, fortunately before we all became ill.

Korea 10237

As they developed their language skills Mom and Dad faced another problem—the challenge of still being foreigners. Even when they had modest gains in the language, many taxi drivers were reticent to stop for a foreigner for fear of not being able to communicate. Since we did not have a car for the first two years, this often meant that we had a lot of time squatting and waiting on streets while Dad tried to track one down. Sometimes language encounters were embarrassing. While Mom and Dad did most of their shopping at the open markets in South Gate (Namdaemun) or East Gate (Dongdaemun) they would occasionally go downtown to the large department stores for a treat. One time, Mom found a counter with some lovely photo albums and asked the young salesgirl how much it was in Korean. Since the item did not have a price tag, the salesgirl approached her supervisor with the question. Looking at my Mom, she replied to the cashier, “She’s foreign. Do what you want,” as in charge what you want. Embarrassed, the young woman looked down and froze. My mother replied in Korean, “It’s okay, I’m not interested anymore” and walked away. But this was an oddity. Most people were more than fair, if not outright generous.  Most of the time, when my parents opened their mouths and started speaking Korean, the replies were with the sheer excitement that they could communicate!

While my parents were constantly immersed in the Korean language, us kids were not.  At Seoul Foreign School, the teachers taught their classes in English, we spoke English around the dinner table at home, and all of our childhood friends spoke English as well.  Being children, we were always accompanied by an adult who normally spoke at least some Korean, so we could simply use them as translators when leaving our Westernized bubble.  These factors, combined with the lack of drive to learn Korean or tools to do so, meant that we never learned the language well.

Between my siblings and I, I probably learned the language the best.  This was because while my siblings were at school, I was attended to by Esuk, our Korean helper. While she knew a great deal of English, she would mainly speak to me in Korean.  Over the four years of language immersion with her, I was able to understand a good deal of spoken Korean, especially nouns and verbs, and was starting to become adept at speaking it as well.  That is, until I stopped.  One day, after Mom and Dad returned home from Yonsei University, Esuk told them that I wasn’t speaking Korean anymore.  Concerned, as any good parent would be, they found me playing in my bedroom and asked me several time in Korean “Why aren’t you speaking in Korean?”  They had to repeat it several times. My response was simple and direct.  I replied, “Mine don’t talk that.”  Mom was confused at my response, so I walked over to the mirror, put my fingers at the lateral fringes of my eyes and pulled them back, resulting in the appearance of Asian eyes and said again, “Mine don’t talk that.” Apparently, my three-year-old self had made the connection that Western people, people who looked like me, spoke English, while people who did not look like me but more like Esuk did not. My missionary kid friends spoke English. My preschool friends and teacher spoke English. My brother and sister spoke English. So in a defining moment of self, I decided not to speak any more Korean. I am sure that my parents and Korean friends tried to dissuade me from my imprudent choice, but as I am realizing more and more as I recount my childhood, I was bull headed and determined to do my own thing. If the older me had the chance to go back and change one thing about my years in Korea, this would be it. Several years after leaving Korea, despite having a previously large vocabulary, I had reduced my understanding of the language to the following few phrases:

Hello – annyeonghaseyo – 안녕하세요
Thank You – kamsahamnida – 감사합니다
Don’t touch that – manjijima – 만지지 마
I ate very well –jalmokasumnida – 잘 먹었습니다
You’re so cute – yeppuda/yeppoyo – 예뻐요

In the years to come, the fact that my parents spoke Korean while we did not led to them having the special power of a parental secret language.  While we were driving down the highway, at the dinner table, and after asking them a question, our parents would often begin talking Korean to discuss the situation in secrecy.   While at first, us kids took pride in the fact that our parents were fluent in Korean, in later years it became an annoying fact that they could freely discuss their parental strategy without being questioned mid-process. Sitting at the dinner table, they could discuss any topic at length from what was for desert to the circumstances of what trouble we had gotten into that day, while our only option was to bemoan our parents’ ability. Now, as a parent myself, it would seem beneficial for all parents to possess such a skill, even if the kids were to protest!


Throughout South Korea, the yin-yang symbol could be found almost everywhere. It was painted on walls, street signs, everyday items like dinnerware and featured in the middle of the South Korean flag. The yin-yang was a symbol of an entire philosophy: balance. The light of day must be balanced by the darkness of night, the heat of summer must be balanced by the cold of winter and the modern must be balanced with the past. In my basic childhood understanding, when taken in the context of gender, the yin-yang juxtaposed the differences between men and women. The strength and dull appearance of the men was offset by the delicate beauty of women. The strict and disciplinary nature of the father was offset by the nurturing and understanding care of the mother. The boisterous and haphazard nature of men was offset by the calm servitude of women. Each gender was valued for their own strengths and brought together, they provided the balance needed for a successful family and relationship. Mom later explained that in reality, the relationship was much more complex than that, with Confucian and Taoist beliefs viewing the “positive/active/male principle in nature as much more vital than the negative/passive/female principle in nature” and that “the female principle is more duplicitous and submissive.”  But as a young boy, I had the habit of taking complicated philosophical and cultural elements and distilling them down into the simplest of concepts, writing off the imperfections of my simplified worldview as “too complicated to understand.” In contrast to Korean culture, Western culture had focused not on balance, but individualism and equality; that is, that men and women should able to do the same things, be treated the same way, and each make their own choices in life. So in addition to our difficulties with language after arriving, understanding and adapting to Korean gender roles was also a challenge.

In South Korea, much like other East Asian countries, it was the duty of the first born male child to take care of their parents when they were elderly. This Confucian cultural value had several immediate implications. First, every family needed a male heir to provide a comfortable future for the parents. Many couples and especially newly wed women sought out fortune tellers, shamans and professional guides to grant them a first-born male. A first-born male was a life-long symbol of blessing from the ancestors, and an event that was widely praised. Second, first born sons would be given every opportunity that the family could afford so that they could get the highest paying job possible; thus providing the best care for their elderly parents. Their expected role in life was to become a secure provider for the family and especially for their parents, regardless of their own desires. Third, the bride of the first born male was often carefully chosen by the parents. When the parents were elderly and retired, they would move into their sons’ house and it would be his wife, their daughter-in-law, who would be the primary caretaker for his parents. Conveniently, since the parents themselves were responsible for arranging their son’s bride, there was a vested interest in finding a bride who would be a good caretaker for them. Additionally, her value was seen in having children, pleasing her husband, cooking, and in her hospitality towards guests. A good bride would bring honor to the family name, but would also draw a higher dowry price. All of these complexities often meant that parents would hire a professional matchmaker to negotiate the right bride for the right price. Second or future sons were also treated as privileged, though not as much as the first, just in case the first son did not fulfill his honorable duty to his parents. While many of the same principles as the first son applied, they were typically given what was left after providing for as well as a little more leeway in their choice of career and bride. Girls, on the other hand were less valued than sons because they would, by implication, eventually belong to another family. A girl would often provide free labor for the family as well as a dowry price once wed, but a daughter’s education was typically not as important as her abilities as a housekeeper. Neo-Confucian cultural patterns required that a woman leave her parents to join her husband’s family. Her primary duty was to provide a male heir and to care for her in-laws. This duty was so great that in older times a husband could even divorce his spouse if she were unable to give him sons. Admittedly, after the Republic of Korea was established in 1948 these traditions began to change. Women legally achieved constitutional rights for equal opportunities including access to public education and to work outside the home. While today’s Korean society is not as dominated by Confucianism as it was in the past, those traditions and their legacies are still prevalent. In the 1980s, at least, they were still powerful undercurrents in many if not most social interactions.

The complexity and duality of male/female relationships in Korea were very different from those in the Western worldview and of course Mom and my sister felt the effect of these differences. If a guest showed up at the house unannounced, a flurry of activity would happen. First, it was expected that the guest bring a gift for the family – in the form of food, drink or presents. Frequently, a visiting guest would bring presents for the children of the house, or at least the male ones. There were more than a few times that my brother and I received gifts from visiting pastors while my sister went unacknowledged, as tradition had it. Second, the women and children needed to leave the area so the men could talk without distraction. Third, it was expected that you would offer a cup of tea or coffee to the guest. Fourth, it was expected that you asked if the guest was hungry. If he was, Mom would begin to prepare a meal or offer the men the meal already prepared (as visits would conveniently happen around meal times). It was an unwritten rule that we would always have our kitchen stocked with extra ingredients should a male guest come over. The wife was expected cook the food, serve the food, and in some cases, not say anything unless spoken to. Fifth, after the guest left, there was an obligation of the guest to host you in the same manner should you show up unexpected at their doorstep one day. These social obligations were indelibly stamped on our day to day interactions. Mom recalled one story of guests visiting during our first year in Korea:

One time I invited four people to our home for an American style dinner (the table was set for six, or three couples) and more than twelve arrived! While Dad entertained them, I ran up the hill to our Australian neighbors to get extra plates and more food! The culture patterns took over automatically— the men sat at the table and were served the best portions while the women sat on the couch and were served second. I served everything I had, including left over spaghetti, to have enough food. At the end of the meal, one of the men turned to me and said, “And now we will have apple pie and ice cream.” Well, that was what I had prepared, but I knew I was going to run short. So I asked the wives if they wanted dessert and they politely said no. We had only been in country a little while so I took them at their word and served only their husbands. I was surprised when the women began leaning over their husbands at the table, sharing the dessert. So I learned that polite guests will turn down an offer several times to be polite and need to be asked at least three times to persuade them. The evening turned out to be a lot of fun even if it was hard work. It taught me a great deal about the cultural expectations of always making more than you need and expecting uninvited guests!

In practical terms, pastors would come to visit unannounced around dinnertime to talk with Dad in what we called “pastor alerts.” We kids would retire to a bedroom and Mom would let us watch TV to entertain and pacify us. Dad and the guests would sit down in the dining room and begin talking. Mom would switch gears and give the men the dinner she had prepared for the family and return to the kitchen to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us in replacement. Once the men were settled and attended to, Mom would join us kids in the bedroom to eat her sandwich and make sure we were kept quiet. For me, as a young male, guests were always looked upon favorably. Sometimes there were gifts and if not, there was at least the treat of watching TV during dinner time… and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For my sister, her memories were of watching my brother and I receive gifts while she watched from the background. She was consoled and understood that this was a normal cultural practice, but still there was a strong since of exclusion. At the intersection between Eastern balance and Western equality was the inevitable inequality, which Western culture distains.

Nowhere were the cultural tensions of South Korean male/female relationships more highlighted than in the daily several hour long soap operas I would sometimes watch with Esuk. At their worst, the episodes would highlight the struggles of Korean culture: the first born son’s obligation to make money would lead to cheating, corruption or gambling, while upholding the family name resulted in silencing and hiding any problems. Alcohol abuse was often a way to escape from life’s’ constant pressures and the wife’s honorable duty to care for her husband and his parents, was non-negotiable, even if she were mistreated. Young love in the soap operas was a subversion of the parents’ right to choose an arranged marriage and affairs were therefore common outside of the loveless arranged marriage.

But not everything was negative. The Korean culture showed a great respect for their elders and made sure they were well cared for. The family unit was cohesive and the collective resources would be pooled for the better of the family as a whole and not the individual. Friendships, in this light, would also form very strong bonds and collectively, the society would stand together to protect the nation and their identity. There were also people who chose to run counter culture to Confucian patterns despite the embarrassment: the father happily playing with his three girls and seeing his genuine love and caring for them; the couple who diligently cared for their disabled child even into their adulthood; the man willing to expose corruption at the cost of going to prison-even while those responsible would walk away free. And secretly at least, there was a great reverence and honor for these men and women. And like many other conservative cultures, the mores seemed to change drastically from what is viewed as public (being outside, being a guest or having guests) versus private (alone in the comfort of your own home). Once in a private setting, husbands and wives could interact with each other and their kids freely, away from the societal pressures and expectations. Husbands could show genuine care for their wives without embarrassment and wives could openly voice their concerns to their husbands without him losing face. As with many other patriarchal societies, while men were influential in public, women were influential in private, with the overall balance of power always favoring the men.

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While these values were a hardship for my sister, she still had the opportunity to be treated as an equal at Seoul Foreign School. Mom on the other hand, was not so fortunate and often bore the brunt of the cultural differences. She had come to the mission field to work with Dad in ministry and had attended the same language school classes as he did. Yet, Mom could not help out in the churches as Dad did. South Korean churches had their own female church workers, the chandosa, who were single. Since Mom was married, the expectation was that she would be needed at home to care for her husband and children. So while Dad was busy working with the local pastors, Mom began teaching Bible studies at home as well as working in Pioneer Girls groups with the school girls at Seoul Foreign School. Together, as much as culturally acceptable, both of my parents pushed the cultural envelope. Mom recalled: “The women in the Bible study I taught were well-educated, professional women and yet if Dad came home in the middle of a Bible study, the women would automatically gather their belongings and stand to leave. The expectation was that David would need me to cook for him or care for him. Walking in, he would always greet the women warmly and invite us to continue.”

1983 Cindi and Mr. Chi speaking

Dad broke ground at pastor’s retreats and vacations, too. Once, at a hotel after we were leaving the public baths, he came back to check on me since the men had finished earlier. The pastors laughed and jokingly called him henpecked, however, their wives took note. Later, when the bus stopped at a tea room, the women and men sat at different tables, as usual, and a husband tried to join our women’s table. The women shooed him away. One of the reasons for this was that if a man were present they had to speak to him in high form, cater to him and serve him first. If they wanted to enjoy themselves, they simply excluded him from the table. Slowly but surely, Dad would show his caring for my Mom in the most basic of Western gestures – listening, cooperating, caring for us kids, and the occasional scandalous kiss on the cheek. Both the Korean men and women surrounding them took note and in small ways, in caring gestures, there were changes. Mom was allowed to speak at women’s gatherings at Shiheung Church and after the service, the pastors broke the traditional pattern by welcoming us as a family to the head table. They accepted us even when their own wives did not eat with us—ever!

1986 03 March 10 LIFE Pastor Sohn

Now let me say that my parents’ goal as missionaries were not to Westernize the Korean people. Upon arriving, Mom learned the expectations of women in the Korean culture and performed her duties honorably, as if serving the Lord. In fact, I never learned of the conflicts she had internally about her experiences in Korea until I was well into adulthood. But there were things that my parents did wish to convey. When reading the Bible and asking the question “how does God view gender?” there is a significant case that His intention was both balance and equality. God created men and women physically and physiologically different and those strengths and weaknesses were meant to compliment each other: the balance. But God also treats men and women equally with His love and His expectations are that we each have our own individual relationship with Him: the equality. Early on, Dad was teaching on family relationships at the Korean Bible Institute. Arguing that husbands should love their wives he quoted Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love [agape] your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.” A dozen student hands shot up, “What about ‘Honor your father and mother’ in Exodus 20:12,” they asked, “and ‘Children, obey your parents in everything’ from Colossians 3:20.” Clearly, what was at stake was not only the verses but the social dynamics that accompanied it. In the US, parents were often cared for by the government through Social Security, allowing both the parents and their children to retain their independence. In Korea, however, the nuclear family was seen as the the basis of society. Children who did not care for their parents were endangering not only their family but also the stability of the nation, in Confucian terms. Through this interaction and many others, we learned the contextual nature of biblical studies and the importance of learning from each other.

1985 May 19 Sarang Church 10th0001

In the thirty years since leaving Korea, many aspects of gender have changed. The combination of lower female birth rate through selective abortions beginning in the 1970s, and the growing number of women choosing a college education and a career over marriage in the 1980s, resulted in a shortage of women to marry, and higher dowry prices for those that would. When women were given the chance to work they could provide the family extra income that before had only been provided by the sons. Thus, they became more important to the family and to the care of parents. Today, young women in South Korea have a very different sex role than their mothers and grandmothers, especially in the urban areas. In a trend that spans across East Asia, most women are no longer interested in being subservient housewives. The ability for them to become educated, enter the workforce and choose their partner has led to women rejecting relationships that are not based on respect and love. But cultural attitudes are hard to change, and as a result birth rates across East Asia have been plummeting. Men are having to depart from traditional cultural values and learn new values to attract a partner. Employers, too, are trying to create a more flexible work environment for both men and women to accommodate working families with children. And governments have stepped in, offering large financial and social incentives to couples who have children. The clash between Eastern and Western values has brought about tremendous change in the region, the effects of which will likely take several decades more to reconcile. In the process, I pray that they do not abandon their cultural identity in exchange for Western values. At their extremes, both Western equality and Eastern balance have their own problems. The solution lies not within either, but within the example given to us by Christ: each using our own gifts for the betterment of others, and in showing great love, mercy and forgiveness to all.

Thanks for following along! If you want to read other stories as part of this series, a full list can be found here: Child in a Foreign Land.  If you are interested in following along, we have links for e-mails, Facebook, WordPress and YouTube on the sidebar of the website.  If you want to share a link to this story/video, simply choose one of the buttons below this post.

© Divergent Life Media, LLC

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