May 2, 1986 Chicago – United States
It was the last flight home after our two-week whirlwind 12,600 mile trip home. Mom, as only a Mom would do, had prepared me for my journey back to the United States by warning me of a new danger I needed to be aware of: drugs. “If someone offers you drugs, you need to tell them no and walk away,” she said sternly. But in an act of hypocrisy, before we had even landed, Mom was telling Dad that after landing she needed to visit “the drug store”. My attention was peaked and I began to plead with Mom not to go (in light of all of the horrible drug effects that had been previously described to me). At that point Mom stopped and informed me about the difference between street drugs and prescription drugs. In South Korea, it seems she had always used the word, 약국, “ Yak-kuk”, to refer to a pharmacy and now she was using the American term “drugstore.” This was going to be the first of many things I would need to learn about my home country. Despite the fact that I had been born in America, I had left for South Korea when I was two years old and my home country was all but foreign to me in memory. My parents, siblings, friends and media had taught me about the USA, but this was the first time I was going to experience it for myself.
Of all of my first impressions, the strongest was my amazement with America’s racial diversity. Having lived in South Korea for the previous four years, I was used to seeing a more uniform version of mankind – people with similar skin color, of a similar height, with a similar hair color. But walking out of the Chicago airport I was amazed by the sheer diversity of people; from pasty white skin to browns and midnight black; from blonde hair to hair that was red and even curly. I was also walking among veritable giants much taller than anyone I had seen in Asia. Among all of the races, I remember being most amazed by the African Americans (my mom says I thought at first they were East Indians); how brilliant their white smiles were against their black skin, how different their American dialect was, and how their body language, mannerisms, and how they carried themselves were all so different from other Americans I had met – all more vibrant.
Arriving at Chicago, all three of us kids were restless, weary and tired and our parents even more so. Moving across the expansive terminals, we kids entertained ourselves by running up and down the long horizontal escalators or “moving walkways,” dodging among the other travelers. Run with the direction of the belt and it feels like you are sprinting at Olympic speeds. Run against the belt flow and it feels like you are in slow motion. In either case, both directions were served with disgruntled business travelers and the elderly who viewed such foolery as mischief. Our parents were reserving their judgment; obviously worn by the long trip and reserving what was left of their parental emotion for larger infractions.
We had returned to Chicago because it was where our Grandpa and Grandma lived. Grandpa, as I have mentioned before, was aptly nicknamed “Mr. MacFry,” having developed the process for making McDonalds french fries, and now worked at their Corporate Headquarters as the VP of Technology Development. Our plan was to spend several weeks reconnecting with them and then travel the remaining distance home to California by road trip – meaning that our time in Chicago still very much felt like we were tourists. But it was also a time of acculturation, which out of all the family, had the most to learn. Mom noticed that many of my behaviors from Korea continued: I would sit cross-legged atop the dining room chairs, nosily slurp milk and soup out of bowls, accompanying their completion with a loud burp, and leave little muddy foot-prints on the toilet seat where I had squatted instead of sitting. Needless to say, Grandma did have some concerns about her young grandson’s behavior. But she also smiled and laughed as I squatted at street corners waiting for the crosswalk light to change, as I held my hand up high as I walked across the street between the lines, and as I fell out of bed at night, not being used to having a bed that was raised off the floor. The differences in cultural practices often stymied me. At church one Sunday, I was offered a plate of doughnuts, but in South Korea, it was unsanitary to pickup food with your hands. Divided between my strong desire for a doughnut and a strong moral calling not to pick it up with my hands, I ran away, found a napkin, and somewhat belligerently retrieved my doughnut from the box, upset at the lack of consideration for decent behavior.
After being carted across the globe, sightseeing in my parent’s old haunts and meeting their friends, all I wanted to do was simply relax and enjoy American playgrounds. But Dad had attended high school in Chicago, so once again our parents packed up the kids and went sightseeing to more places. It was difficult for me to understand the emphasis on seeing so many of these old places – they were simply places where old memories had been made, but were now devoid of the people and times that gave them their purpose. I found it difficult to connect with them. The upside, however, was that some locations were far more interesting than others – visiting Chicago’s cafes with their amazing assortment of meals, seeing the U.S. Army First Infantry Division museum (think young boy and tanks), and the nightscape shows at Adler Planetarium where my Dad had studied astronomy back in High School. And of course we made our obligatory and eagerly anticipated trips to McDonalds.
During our stay with our Grandparents, we acquired our new to us car from them -a loud diesel 1980’s Buick station wagon with fake wood panel siding. The most amazing thing about the car was it had motorized windows and door locks – a luxury feature in those days. At the end of our stay in Chicago, we loaded our suitcases into the back and started our road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. For a kid who has spent the greater part of four years in a single city, the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles seemed endless. How big was the U.S. anyway? Along the way we visited St. Louis, our old church in Stillwater, my birthplace in Oklahoma, as well as family and friends in Dallas. We drove farther in one day than I had in all of our four years in South Korea, meeting people I had apparently met before along the way. But we kids, who where accustomed to long trips to strange places and meeting people who we had apparently met before, took it all in stride. Cruising through the desert of Arizona, we visited family in Riverside, finally making it to our final destination in Pasadena, California.
During my parents’ ministry in South Korea, both of my parents felt called to return to their studies so that they would better be able to teach pastors overseas about the Bible and theology. We came back to the United States and settled in Pasadena, California, the home of Fuller Theological Seminary. Dad had previously studied at Dallas Theological seminary which was in the conservative wing of Evangelical perspective, and Fuller would be nearly on the opposite side of the spectrum. But the C&MA had directed Dad to study missions and church growth there. “We want you to have a Fuller experience,” they had said and the best place for that was Fuller Theological Seminary. My Dad would be working towards his PhD in Theology and my Mom, thanks to a Fuller couple’s grant would tackle a Masters degree in Missiology (the study of would missions). The expectation was that after completion of their studies, they would return to Korea and serve again in missions mobilization and training.
Driving up from Riverside, we kids played on the lawn while the folks checked into Fuller, then went to a management agency to look for apartments. We found one we could almost afford in a low-cost area and unloaded our trailer. In South Korea, while we were not wealthy, we had certain things that a wealthy family would have because of our mission community links. We had a large home for entertaining guests. We had a helper to hand wash the clothes, clean the house, wash the dishes and watch over me. We enjoyed new clothes from the used clothes (largely Presbyterian mission barrels), the frequent love and support gifts of friends and churches in the USA and the generous gifts and services of our Korean hosts and friends. We always had enough funds to keep food on the table. But returning home to the States meant a drastic change in our lifestyle. We were still living on a missionary’s salary, now in but in California. We would need to trust the Lord to make the proverbial end’s meet more now than ever.
Our first apartment was located on N. Michigan street in Pasadena, between East Orange Grove Blvd and the 210. The apartment complex was a two story tall building painted brown with a parking lot running down the north side. There was no place to play as such, no pools or playgrounds, but there were several large trees planted along the street that added a touch of shade and color to the otherwise bland landscape. Our apartment was a modest two bedroom unit located on the ground floor closest to the street. The three of us kids slept in one bedroom while my parents slept in the other – and we all shared a bathroom. I slept on the floor between my siblings who were on the our grandparent’s old twin beds, and we each had a single dresser drawer and a small section of closet for our clothes. Looking back, it was hard, but we did what missionary kids have always done—learn fast and adjust. After first arriving, we had very few possessions to fill the apartment – only what we had brought in our suitcases. Our remaining belongings had been packed and shipped back to the States via ocean freight – which normally took three months to cross the Pacific, clear customs, and be delivered by a freight company. But the fact that we had few belongings had its benefits – a closet space in-between the two bedrooms had no purpose, so it became a defacto private escape area for my sister, who would retreat to the quiet and private space to get away from the tight and boisterous environment of her brothers and family.
Once we began to settle in, we also started to realize how our lives were living in a proverbial time warp. Living in South Korea in the early 1980’s, the country was still a largely agrarian society and the popular styles- from clothes to haircuts- were reminiscent of America in the 1970’s. Upon arriving home, Dad’s sideburns and wingtip shirts were obviously now out of style. Before we had left South Korea, Mom and Dad had known that we would pay an order of magnitude more for things State side, so they stocked up on clothes before leaving Korea. The result was that we truly looked like we had just crossed the time barrier—we wore Member’s Only jackets, twill pants instead of jeans, Puma sneakers and polo shirts. My brother’s Hispanic friend later remarked, “Dude, you were strange when you first arrived.” So great was our ignorance we did not even know who Michael Jackson was.
The transition from South Korea to America was not particularly difficult, but it did impress on each of us how much our experiences abroad had shaped us into different people. As we began to settle in, our usually fast paced life composed of ministry, speaking, travel and hosting gave way to being frugal, finding new friends and everyone starting their studies again. It would take me several years to sort out the impressions made by different countries, cultures and ways of living, and it would take me even longer to figure out who I was in the midst of it.
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