Most missionaries leave their home country for the mission field for a period of several years (usually four) in what is called a term. At the end of their term, they return to their home country for furlough, a year where they can re-connect with their home culture, churches and family. After their furlough year, some missionaries return to their previous field, while others due to changing politics, needs elsewhere or a myriad of other reasons, are sent to a new field. The number of terms a missionary serves becomes a symbol of their service, much like the stripes on a soldier’s shoulder. But one of the main effects of the term system is that from the moment the missionary arrives on the field, they, as well as the people they serve know when the missionary will return home for their furlough; barring any problems, of course.
In the months leading up to the end of a term, missionaries work on wrapping up any projects, begin the difficult process of packing up their belongings, and begin the even more difficult process of saying goodbye. “Lord willing, we will all see each other again,” we told everyone preparing for our departure from South Korea. Our intention was to return after our furlough, but instead of a normal one-year furlough, we were returning to the United States for four. My parents were both going back to seminary for additional training – my Mother to receive her Masters degree and my father his Doctorate. A one-year absence is easier to plan for and the return can almost be anticipated. Instead of selling everything off, things can be put into storage or lent for use while gone. But leaving for four years, the return becomes more uncertain.
Upon completing our first term in South Korea, it was time to head back to the United States. But instead of taking the direct route across the Pacific, our parents decided to take us the long way – through Hong Kong and the Middle East to Europe and Great Britain before we returned across the Atlantic to home. Part of this was nostalgia – our parents had friends in Hong Kong and contacts in the Netherlands. They wanted us to see where they had met in London and the site in Portsmouth where our paternal ancestor had left for the New World in 1622. But they also wanted us to have a wider cultural experience, seeing the sights and sounds of European countries we would later learn about in school. Our anticipation for seeing new sights did not make the goodbyes any easier, however, and our final days in Korea passed by too quickly. We said goodbye to friends and colleagues, sold or gave away many of our old toys and household goods, and thanked God again for His many mercies in The Land of the Morning Calm.
World travel in the mid 1980’s is laughably different than travel today; the main difference summarized by one word: personable. The first step in travel back then was to contact your travel agent, whose sole job was to schedule and arrange your flights, hotels, rentals and excursions. Respected travel agents had a wealth of knowledge and contacts in foreign countries and would customize your trip to suit your personalized interests. The tickets would arrive in the mail several days later, noted by their heavyweight paper, unique font and magnetic strip on the back. On the day of your departure, you would check in your luggage at the front of the airport bustling with crowds. For domestic flights, there was no security and no ticket required to go into the terminals and frequently, your family would walk with you to your boarding gate and say goodbye as you walked across the jet bridge. For international fights though, you needed a ticket to proceed through security, your luggage was x-rayed, and people would walk through a metal detector. In that regard, the international terminal was an exclusive place. Arriving at the boarding gate, you would check into your flight and receive a new set of paper tickets – this time with your assigned seat numbers on them.
During your flight, your needs were catered to by stewardesses dressed in neatly matching outfits, makeup and done-up hairdos. Stewardesses at the time were respected professionals with excellent manners and communication skills – often speaking several languages. Headphones, pillows and blankets came free of charge; as did full cans of soda. Meals delivered to your seat were normally very well done and came with soup, an entrée, a side and dessert (along with those fun little capsule like salt and pepper packets). Seating and service in coach was much more like business class today with the advantage of extra leg room and seat width. As a child on an international flight, the stewardesses would normally bring around a special bag filled with coloring books, crayons, toys and other activities. During a lull in service during the fight, you could ask the stewardess if you could see the cockpit, and be escorted up to the front of the plane to talk to the pilots. On the original 747’s there were three people in the cockpit – a pilot, co-pilot and a flight engineer who sat at the side of the cockpit in front of a wall of gauges and switches. His job was to monitor and control the aircraft systems during the flight and make adjustments if needed. The flight engineer’s job was gradually eliminated by the end of the 1980’s as computers and automation took over those tasks.
While air travel between the United States and Europe was common, travel to almost everywhere else in the world was considered “exotic.” Posters in travel agent offices would taunt travelers into exciting and off the beaten path adventures to Istanbul, Cairo, Rio de Janerio, Shanghai, New Delhi or Hong Kong. These were the days before globalization and before resorts and tourist traps catering to westerners. For exotic destinations, your travel agent would normally arrange for a real travel guide – a local native whose job was to keep you safe, take you from place to place, translate and help you negotiate prices for purchases. For our first stop after leaving South Korea, we were visiting Hong Kong, but instead of hiring a travel guide, Mom and Dad had good Canadian friends that lived there and acted as our guides instead.
Hong Kong in 1986 was still under British rule and had a unique blend of both Western and Asian hard to find elsewhere. As someone who really enjoys flying, I wish that I could remember flying into the famed Kai Tak Airport – one of the most technically difficult airplane landings in the world until it was replaced in 1998 – but alas I cannot. The airport was located at sea level and surrounded by mountainous terrain, requiring the pilots to fly less than 100 feet over the top of the mountains and quickly descend to land; often battling the crosswinds of Kowloon Bay. After our flight, we were treated to a visit of the Old Town, cotton candy at the mall and the amazingly tall settlement apartments located in the New Territories. One night, we rode the famous red Peak Tram car up the mountain to Victoria Peak to see the glow and tall buildings crowded in the bay below.
Our favorite place we visited in Hong Kong was Ocean Park. Located at the end of a mountainous peninsula jutting into the South China Sea at the southern end of Hong Kong, the main way to reach this theme park was by cable car – winding its path up and down the mountain side. Mom, who is afraid of heights, sang hymns as the little gondolas swung in the wind. The ride I favored was a “log ride” called Raging River where you would go through a slow, winding path followed by a moderate drop into a water pool waiting below (about half as steep as the log ride at Disneyland). I can remember riding it three or four times before my parents cut me off. Another ride, a roller coaster called The Dragon, was built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean below. After the gentile climb to the top of the track, the coaster dangles you over the edge with an expansive view of the ocean and fall below, proceeded by a quick dissent into a loop and then hurtling towards the ocean and banking at such a time as to give the appearance that you are falling into the ocean below. I was too young to ride it at the time, but that is probably for the best. There were other features as well that any young boy would be attracted to: dolphin shows, an aquarium, a high diver, and a lot of amusement park food that I’m sure was not good for me. For years, one of my favorite possessions was the souvenir I purchased – a small plastic rectangular keychain with the Ocean Park logo on it. It burned in our house fire in the Philippines, but that’s another story.
We also visited the island of Cheung Chow. At the time, the island was still primarily a fishing village and we would watch the junks and trawlers move about the around the harbor – as if watching a scene from a movie. But the island itself was so packed with houses that motorized vehicles were not practical on the small lanes. While we were there we visited Pak Tai Temple, one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong with its statues of guarding lions and generals. In a juxtaposition to the traditional temple, we also visited a Christian seminary where our denomination had a school.
After a few day’s stay in Hong Kong we boarded another flight for Europe on China Airlines. This was a great experience – my brother received a pilot’s hat and little silver lapel wings while all of us kids received socks, a bag full of puzzles and toys. Good thing, too—the flight was long and included a long layover in Dubai, Saudi Arabia for refueling. We watched as workers quietly and efficiently came on board, cleaned our seat pockets and loaded on food. In the dark of night, we looked outside through the windows on a desert stretching as far as the eye could see. During the flight from Dubai to Frankfurt, our thoughts turned to the Chernobyl disaster which had taken place a month before our flight, but the overall impacts of the disaster were still unknown. Landing in Frankfurt, weary and worn, we changed planes yet again, grabbing a 737 to Amsterdam. On that flight we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and saved enough jam and butter from our meals to last our stay in the Netherlands. The bread and cheese of Europe was a real contrast to Asian fare where breakfast often included rice and noodles or salad.
Arriving in Amsterdam, Mom and Dad had planned a great tour, but us kids were almost too tired to take in all the sights. My sister slept through most of our boat ride down the Amsterdam canals and I could not grasp the significance of Anne Frank’s house. To me, it was a story about a girl trapped in the ceiling of a house until she died and the book she wrote about it. Disingenuous, I know, but I didn’t understand any of the context at the time. I do remember standing on the street in front of her house and looking at the beautiful canal that bisected the rows of houses. A man walked up to Mom and asked her for directions in German, and having studied German, she tried to reply, but all of her words came out a mixture of German and Korean. The man looked confused and concerned until Mom, flustered at her inability to communicate, waived her hands and said “Please ask someone else” in German. Our hotel in Amsterdam was a guest house for international missionaries with some pretty strict rules. Because of the jet lag, all of us kids got up several times during the night to use the bathroom at the end of a creaky wooden hallway. The next morning at breakfast, two Dutch ladies served us plates of bread, ham and cheese along with a soft boiled egg in an egg cup while scolding us and telling us that we needed to be quiet at night. Thereafter we got along by pretending we were living in Anne Frank’s house, shutting doors quietly and creeping up and down the hallway and stairs. The other thing I remembered from the Amsterdam guest house was the emphasis that Mom pushed on etiquette at the breakfast table. Where the utensils should be, how to use your napkin and for some reason, a litany of rules Europeans had about butter and bread. Sometimes you butter the bread on the plate, others you can pick it up to butter. Sometimes you first transfer the butter to your plate and use a separate utensil to spread the butter, other times it was the same utensil. Sometimes you could apply jelly, jam, preserves or marmalade (all of which were described to me as different in nature, but who cares) to previously buttered toast, and other times you should not. For a boy who simply liked toast with butter and fruit spread on it, it seemed laborious to keep things straight.
Down the road from the city of Amsterdam, we took a drive through the country looking at levies and windmills. We had come too late in the year to see the great blooming fields of Tulips, but there were plenty of postcards and posters reminding people what it looked like anyway. At some point, my parents were lost and had to ask for directions, but we finally made our way to the city of Hague (which is famous for its significance in international courts), but as a child I was oblivious to this. The reason we were going there was to visit Madurodam – a type of theme park with a miniaturize city in Holland created in 1:25 scale. It had residential blocks, parks, a harbor complete with storm walls, and my favorite – a scale model of an airport complete with planes moving up and down taxiways and runways. During our stay in the Netherlands, we also visited the Rijk’s museum, the city of Gouda, known for its cheese and Kinderdijk and Marken Island – all of which I have no memory of.
The only other memory I have of Amsterdam was the takeoff flight when leaving. I always thought it was fun to push my chest forward during takeoff and feel the acceleration of the plane pushing back on me. Normally, on the 747’s we were used to flying across major global routes, the takeoff speeds were slow, so it wasn’t too much fun. But this plane was a 737, a puddle jumper in comparison. Its seemingly short fuselage and engines that looked like they had been flattened in some unfortunate landing accident did not give me much hope in a fighter jet like takeoff, but I was mistaken. The takeoff was actually quick enough to push my chest fully back to the seat and in only a few short seconds, the wheels lifted off as we headed up into the sky. My favorite moment during takeoff was the moment right after the wheels first lift off the ground and the wings bear the complete weight of the plane and there is a slight dip of the plane, leading to a three-second-long sinking feeling as if someone were pushing you down into the seat cushion.
After after what seemed to be an uneventful and un-memorable flight from Amsterdam, we flew into Gatwick Airport south of London. Later we came to learn that shortly after our departure from Amsterdam, the Dutch army bomb squad had found two explosives and two detonators in a Japanese man’s luggage, shutting down the airport. And if that wasn’t bad enough, we found out that the airplane in the gate next to ours at Gatwick Airport later blew up in Sri Lanka. A group of militants trying to create an independent state in the North of Sri Lanka had placed a timed bomb on Air Lanka Flight 512 in an effort to stall peace talks. Because of technical difficulties before takeoff, the bomb exploded while the plane was on the ground killing 21 of the 128 passengers. The realities of these events were far over my head, but it was a constant reminder that our lives were in God’s hands – no matter where we were at on the globe.
Our housing in London, The British Foreign Missions Club, was another missionary bed and breakfast. It was again an older style building with creaky wood floors. Entering the building with our suitcases we were surprised to run into a large group of Koreans! Mom and Dad instinctively bowed, greetings were exchanged and for a time it was like being back in Seoul again. They were apparently gathered for a conference and serving as missionaries all over Europe. Dad had preached in one of the pastor’s churches so this was a real cause for celebration. I remember they gave us several bunches of bananas—a fruit that had been a luxury in Seoul. The next morning at breakfast it was time for another lesson in cross-cultural living; we were served spaghettios in tomato sauce and baked fish sticks – for breakfast! Whether this was simply the food had on hand or what the British regularly ate I could not tell, but it was certainly different.
Mom and Dad had met in London, so we visited as many of their haunts as we could as well as several other places they had wanted to see: London City Center; Blenham Palace, Stratford-upon-Avon, Christ’s Church, Oxford, Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey, the Tower of London, Stonehenge, the Imperial Museum and the British Museum. Needless to say, it was quite the whirlwind trip. At the Tower of London, I can remember listening to the Yeoman Warder explaining the history of the site, walking through the tall stone walls and the moat surrounding the buildings. But most of all I remember the dungeon and walking past the torture devices – the rack, iron maiden, cages and various spiked tools. It was difficult for me to understand who would ever be mad enough to use such object of cruelty much less invent them. Several blocks away, we went to a much more kid friendly place – a toy store which at the time was billed as “the largest toy store in the world”. I wandered up a large flight of stairs to see a whole wall of every Playmobile set imaginable – literally hundreds of them. While Americans know plenty about Legos, few seemed to know about Playmobile. They were made by a German company and were basically like dollhouse toys for boys. Instead of building blocks, there were castles, ships, spacecraft, airplanes, houses, farms – nearly anything you could think of. These were the toys that were coveted and sold at high end stores in South Korea, and I was in amazement at the selection. I was also in amazement at the price. It was one of those moments when even as a child you recognize that asking for something that expensive was audacious and besides, how would it fit in your suitcase anyway?
During our visit to the British Museum, I remember walking up to real Egyptian mummies and looking at their intricate sarcophagi. Another day, we traveled out of the city and up to Stonehenge where my sole memory was playing around in the grass and the stones. At the time, there was only a simple rope barrier and few people were around, so my brother and I walked through the structure and touched the stone blocks – at least until we were told we weren’t supposed to be there. What I was surprised by was the lack of information at the sight. We were used to museums with displays or guides, but here in a grass field surrounded by farmland were some large rocks and I found myself thinking “why do people come out to see this?” At some point we kids pleaded with Mom and Dad to stop visiting so many places. A special part of our trip was visiting Josh’s former teacher at Seoul Foreign School, who was living with her family in Plymouth. We were also able to see the port where our ancestors had left Britain for the New World.
All too soon it was time to leave England, return to my favorite place: the airport. I would stare out at the different types of planes, the people from all around the globe, the special feeling knowing I was one of the few kids actually flying around this blue marble. I would wander and watch the movement of planes coming in, the fleet of trucks servicing them with fuel, food and luggage. The people boarding, the taxiing patterns, the takeoffs. It was all memorizing and I was in my element. But on this occasion, there was cause for even more excitement. I was at Heathrow, and there was a special plane here that you could only find in a handful of places on the planet: the Concorde. I was hoping that by chance, one would be waiting at the international terminal, but I did not know for sure. I looked at the maps and displays to see what area I needed to head to and walked off with high hopes. I wandered down a large building lined with glass on both sides and sitting to the left of the terminal was what I had been hoping to see. My first reaction upon seeing the plane was that it was actually quite small. It was much lower to the ground than a normal plane and had a much smaller, thinner fuselage. Still, there is was, and my curiosity was satisfied. One of the things I was quickly realizing about traveling was that all of these special places and things I was seeing, were still just things. I would get all excited leading up to the experience and then seeing it go, “Oh. I guess that’s it.”
Leaving Heathrow, we headed for Boston; which after traveling from Amsterdam to London to Boston, I thought Boston was part of Europe for the better part of ten years. My only memory of Boston was our tour of the USS Constitution, docked in the harbor. It was “something, something, something, cannons, something, something, the decks are red because of the blood of the men that died on these decks.” The guide joked that his statement not true, but I was still left thinking about what circumstances and loss of life that would be required to stain a three masted ship from stern to aft in blood. After Boston, we flew to Chicago to visit my Grandparents for several weeks and become re-accustomed to life in America. Everyone was finally able to relax and get some well needed rest, but as we would soon find out, transitioning to life back in America was not going to be as easy as we had thought. But that is a story for next time.
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