1990-robert-cindi-joel-pandaWith our furlough years almost over, the summer before our departure was spent visiting family, while we still had the chance.  We went to the Panda restaurant in Pasadena with Uncle Bob in the years before it turned into the popular chain Panda Express.  We took one last road trip up to our Grandparents house in Sunriver, Oregon and visited Crater Lake.  And we took a trip up into Washington to meet some relatives we hadn’t met before – our Great Grandma and our Uncle Dale and Aunt Leigh.  They lived several hours north of my grandparents house on a farm in Worden, Washington.  Along the way, we stopped at a ghost town and explored the old buildings in Shaniko, Oregon.   I was tired from staying up 1990-03-crater-lake-family-1the night before, so when it came time for continuing the road trip, I asked my parents if I could take an afternoon nap in a sleeping bag in the back of the station wagon, and this still being the 1980’s, my parents obliged.  What I failed to realize was that the journey took us through the high desert of Oregon, and when I awoke several hours later covered in sweat.  I unzipped the sleeping bag and felt the cold air rush in against my now damp clothing.  As darkness settled, we stopped at a restaurant for dinner and I felt chilled to the bone sitting in the air-conditioned restaurant throughout the meal.  Heading onward, we pressed into the night and finally arrived at the long gravel road leading to my Uncle Dales farm.  Waking up the next morning, we explored the surroundings of their farm.  They had acres of land that grew a 1989-07-shaniko-hotelvariety of crops and several farm animals.  At the center of the land was an old farmhouse with several outlying buildings.  During the day, I spent time exploring around the grounds, looking at the farm animals, and riding on the back of an all-terrain-vehicle while my Uncle drove.  My parents deemed that my brother and sister were old and qualified enough to drive off on their own, and I watched as they gleefully drove off across the field, down the gravel road, and disappeared.  A few minutes later they returned looking nervous and frightened.  Apparently one of the cows did not appreciate them encroaching on their space and chased them away while by brother quickly hightailed it back to the farmhouse.  Before dinner I assisted Grandma and Aunt Leigh pick 1989-06-uncle-dales-family-oregonfresh raspberries from the rows of vines that grew next to the farmhouse and that night at dinner, we sat down at a long farm table covered in a white tablecloth and had a meal resembling a thanksgiving dinner, compete with ice cream and fresh raspberries for desert.  The next morning we hopped back in our old Oldsmobile station wagon for the drive back to my grandparents house and then the further drive back to our home in Pasadena, California.

Our time spent at the Lambert House had been an answer to prayer and a time of rest and blessing for our family, but our privilege of living there had only been granted for one year.  So, in June 1989, it was time for our family to move again.  While Mom longed for another single-family home, God provided different place – a three-bedroom apartment in a complex filled with other furloughing missionaries.  The complex was owned by Providence Mission Homes, the same organization that had provided us with the Lambert house, and was located a mere two miles away on North Mentor Avenue.  In God’s wisdom, He placed us in an environment with other missionary families, which was a great encouragement and helped us keep our vision for Christian ministry overseas alive.

The apartments had a diverse group of residents, with several different nationalities represented, and most of them were families like ours.  There were two sides to the complex, each with around 20 units on two floors separated by a central rectangular courtyard.  In the middle of the courtyard were several cinder block structures filled with dirt and topiary plants.  At the back end of the courtyard there was a half-sized basketball court with the hoop hanging from a large flat wall.  We would play basketball, wall ball, kick ball and any other type of ball activity we could think of.  The worst part of the complex design was that the sound waves would bounce off the concrete floors and off-white stucco walls in a loud echo.  When a large group of kids were playing outside, it was a noisy event for everyone in the complex.  While most the families understood, those without kids, those with infants, and those trying to study would regularly come out and ask us to keep it down. As kids with nothing else to do, we would quiet down for several minutes, and in the excitement and forgetfulness of our play, the ruckus would soon return.

The apartments were off of a moderately busy street lined with other apartment complexes or multi-family homes.  It was not really a safe place to play given the amount of vehicular traffic, and we also were warned not want to leave any toys or bikes outside lest they suddenly go missing.  Given the unsavory nature of the location, access from the street level was controlled via key to the large metal grate doors and the underground parking area had a single large metal grate that would lift up at the push of a button on the garage door opener.  Behind the back wall of the apartment complex was a dimly lit parking lot that was often used as a convenient spot for drug sales or other illicit activities.  We normally would have not noticed, but there were occasional sounds of people shouting, fighting or even gunfire that would erupt in the late evening.

Our apartment was located between two units near the backside of the complex on the bottom floor.  Walking into the living room, there was a Salvation Army couch, and a large CRT TV complete with wood veneer, dial channel selector, and bunny ears.  To the left of the living room was a kitchen with traditional 1970’s dark wood stained cabinets and brown and ivory linoleum floors. Mom and Dad’s room had a queen bed, a small table for their computer and dot-matrix computer and a small private bathroom.  On the opposite side of the apartment were two bedrooms – one for my sister and one shared by brother and I.  With few things to do around the complex, I would often seek out my brother to see what he was up to or if he wanted to play.  I would watch him draw, play with his toys, or purposefully be annoying to garner his attention.  As time went along, it became an unwritten rule that when he was in the bedroom, I was not welcome, and in acts of petty revenge, I would rummage through his stuff or play with his toys after he had left.  Fighting between my brother and I became a regular occurrence at the apartment, in the car, or any other place a minor power struggle might play out.  My sister on the other hand had a room all her own and was normally even less interested in playing with me than my brother was.  To keep the family peace, I would sometimes suggest moving my brother and sister in a room together so that I could for once in my life have a space of my own, but that suggestion was swiftly shot down by Mom and Dad, as my sister “needed her privacy.” Kicked out of the bedrooms, I would head out to play in the living room or kitchen as much as Mom and Dad, who were trying to concentrate and get their work done, would allow.  Once their patience had ended I would head outside to spend hours playing in the center courtyard of the complex. I would make my rounds to see if any of the other kids wanted to play, and if not, I would invent my own games, play with the snails in the garden planters, or lay on the concrete floor in the shade of the big wall and repeatedly bounce a ball against the wall.

In the evenings, our family would sit down to watch TV together, but nothing like what other families I knew were used to watching.  Mom and Dad had become devoted fans of murder mysteries shown on Masterpiece Theatre, so while most other families were watching the Cosby Show, Family Ties or the Wonder Years, I was watching the episodes of Sherlock Homes, Inspector Morse, Agatha Christie, Miss Marple, or my favorite, Hercule Poirot.  We enjoyed the stories where the viewer was shown all of the pieces to the riddle throughout the story, and then it was tied neatly together by the detective at the end.  We distained the stories that added pieces of information that only the detective knew at the end, the thought being that anyone could have solved the mystery themselves, if only they were smart enough to see the connections.

After three years of attending Jefferson Elementary School, my parents were aware of the fact that I wasn’t enjoying school very much.  I was getting bored with the classwork and having a difficult time keeping friends.  The reality was that several cliques had formed along racial lines at school and it was difficult to have friends in more than one group.  If you spent time with one group, the other groups would not welcome you and vice versa.  I tried for a while to interact with the friends I had made in the years prior, spending alternate days with different groups, but my efforts only resulted in my being marginalized among all of the groups. Instead, I turned to a habit of reading the Bible during my lunch breaks.  That is, until one of the teachers told me that my Bible wasn’t allowed at school.  When a school aide mentioned this to my parents, they began to look for a different environment for me – a school where I could have “wholesome” friends and be able to read or talk about my Bible freely.  My parents’ solution to this problem was to enroll me at a private Christian school up the road for fourth grade at Pasadena Christian School (PCS).  Walking into the whitewashed front office of the school and looking at the facilities, I was excited, worried and guilty.  I knew that many of the kids attending would be Christians, like me, and that would likely lead to the possibility of more friends – or at least less conflict.  But I was also worried about the seemingly stringent application process and the sheer cost of it all.  While my parents did not openly discuss the cost with me, I knew from the moment we looked at the school it was expensive – not the least on a missionary budget.  It made me think about the sacrifices the family would have to make for me to attend, and I felt guilty that I would be going to a private school while both of my siblings would still be going to public schools.  But as my parents always did, they simply asked me to pray, to trust God, and leave the rest up to them.

After a prayerful summer, my parents both took on extra part time jobs, Mom working in academic advising and Dad working longer hours as a teachers assistant, and I began attending fourth grade at Pasadena Christian School.  My teacher for the year was an African-American woman with a booming voice, long painted finger nails, and of greater than average size.  I was at first intimidated by her appearance and direct attitude, but I quickly discovered that she was a very nice woman and a very good teacher.  The curriculum at the school was much harder than what I had been used to at Jefferson Elementary, and I had to play catch-up to learn things most of the students already knew. My most vivid memory of my teacher was a presentation she gave to the class after her trip to Australia.  Over the Christmas break, she and her husband and flown to the land down under for several weeks to see the sights of the outback and Great Barrier Reef.  Returning from her exciting trip, she showed all of us a slideshow from her travels.  But the pictures I really remember were of the giant sea turtle they had for lunch.  The tour guides had stopped at a location where they prepared a traditional celebration meal – including cooking a sea turtle in its shell.  My heart sank.  I can understand killing a sea turtle for survival or to commemorate an important event, but this was just a tourist gimmick.  The other kids in the class had varied reactions to seeing pictures of the bloodied turtle laying on its back with the bottom shell removed.  Some winced, others were excited and asked “what did it taste like.”  “Well, I don’t know” she said laughing, “I guess it tasted like chicken!” before moving on to the next slides.

1990-joel-and-ticklesAcross the classroom, on one of the counters sat the class pet, an oversized brown rabbit named Tickles.  Being older and wiser fourth graders, our teacher gave a different child each weekend the opportunity to take Tickles home to care for him.  Because the homes and apartments we had lived in had restrictions on pets, our family had only had birds or fish, and the prospect of being able to bring a larger animal home was especially exciting for me. I would regularly remind (or more aptly pester) my teacher that I was more than happy to take Tickles home for the weekend if no one else wanted to.   When I did get the chance to bring Tickles home, I would sit and talk to him through his cage and when allowed, let him slowly plod around our apartment exploring the surroundings.  With the intermittent lack of things to do around the apartment complex, Tickles provided me with something to do and someone to play with – even if it was just a rabbit.

My other memories of school at PCS were varied.  I can remember the day that my parents gave me money so that I could buy a hamburger from the school cafeteria and my excitement that I could be like one of the other kids who regularly bought food for lunch.  Given that this was a private school, the quality (and cost) of the food was much higher than at the public school I attended, and many of the parents had elected to pay for a healthy fresh lunch for their child instead of packing their own. Another memory was of the school fund-raising drive, again the type of sell-to-your-family-friends-and-neighbors type of affair.  But in addition to getting a prize from the catalogue, if you sold more than $100, you would get to ride a in a limousine down the street and pick up a McDonald’s Happy Meal through the drive through.   I can remember watching with a field of other kids through the chain link fence the day the limo arrived and carted several loads of kids down to the McDonald’s, coming back with the distinctive red Happy Meal boxes in hand.  I wasn’t as much jealous, as curious, wondering what the experience would have been like, but knowing that it wasn’t in the cards for me.  Even at that age I recognized my displeasure for having to sell people things.  I had no problem presenting the option to people to purchase something, but not the killer instinct to close the sale.  Often times I would get done talking to someone about purchasing a box of 20 candy bars for the fundraiser, and after being turned down thinking to myself “yeah, I wouldn’t buy a box of these either.”

Another event I can remember was the all-dreaded sex education night.  Forms were sent home to the parents that if they wanted their kids to attend the sex education class, they needed to be accompanied by a parent.  I can’t remember if Dad was elected or volunteered for the duty.  Sitting in the auditorium with a hundred-other nervous and awkwardly uncomfortable fourth graders, the speaker began to talk about the Christian perspective on sex;  that God was the one who came up with the idea, but He also gave us rules to protect us for misusing His gift and hurting ourselves or others.  At the end of the talk, they showed a movie up on a big screen at the front of the stage, The Miracle of Life.  I found it all amazing and interesting – until the part when the baby had to come out.  The entire room of fourth graders cringed and shouted “ohhh, ouch, nasty.”  That scene alone frightened the girls for a couple of days.  Dad was largely silent about the whole process.  Driving back home in the car, he asked “Do you have any questions?”  “Nope.” I replied.  “That was enough for now.”

My parents had moved me to PCS so that I would have a better education, be with other kids of similar values, and make new friends.  And while I definitely enjoyed the better curriculum and the shared values, I still found it difficult to make any good friends.  I had plenty of friends in class or on the playground, but no one whom I would call my best friend.  Making friends at ten years old was hard work.  Even if you found someone you enjoyed playing with and being around, both sets of parents would need to meet, vetting each other to see if they were the right type of people for junior to be around.  Then playdates would need to be arranged and one or more parents would need to drive around to homes or parks.  After a few short hours, normally with one of the parents hovering around or keeping watch, the play date would end.  The difficulty setting up playdates amid conflicting schedules, the work involved in getting to the play date, and the added fact that I would soon be leaving the country anyway, meant that I was not very driven to develop strong friendships outside of school.  If a playdate happened, it was great, and if it didn’t, no problem.

My brother and sister, both being older and in ninth and eighth grade respectively, seemed to have an easier time with friendships.  My brother was normally involved in extracurricular sports or would walk several blocks north to spend time at his friend’s house.  My sister spent time with her friends, but also enjoyed spending time alone in her room listening to the radio and reading books.  She had a collection of cassette tapes with her favorite songs recorded she had recorded off the radio.  During her free time, she would offer her babysitting services to the other missionary families in the apartment complex, earning a small sum along the way. Both my brother and sister had gotten involved in playing in their school bands. My brother had taken after the trombone like his father and my sister chosen to play the flute.  They would play for concerts twice a year and also participate in marching band activities – playing during the halftimes of sporting events and marching in parades.  My brother was even able to play during the Rose Parade as part of the Pasadena City College Honor Band.

On occasion, I would go with Mom or Dad to watch my brothers football practices during middle school and would play in the dirt, run up and down the bleachers, or pretend to be a waterboy for the team.  But my favorite memory of my brother playing sports was going to the evening football games.  On one particular cold Los Angeles evening, Mom packed a bag full of snacks and a thermos full of hot chocolate and we headed to an out of town stadium.  The bleachers at the field were tall and impressive as were the bright lights that shone down on the football field.  Climbing up the stadium platform to find open seats, Mom laid down a blanket against the cold metal bleachers and we sat down bundled in our jackets to watch the game.  I had never grown up watching sports around the house, so the whole experience was exciting and full of action.  There were different plays and calls down on the field, but also the cheers, chants and jeers of the fans.  The cheerleaders did acrobats and people were always moving up and down the stands.  Mom recalled that my brother and another missionary kid were the only two white boys on the team, and after a rousing cheer went flat, the head cheerleader put her hands on her hips and shouted into the stands “C’mon, white folk, get some rhythm!”  But one of the things that I remember most about that night was my father’s transformation.  He was normally a quiet soul, reserved and self-contained, and it was rare to see him get worked up about anything.  On this occasion, however, he was a seemingly different man.  His smile beamed from ear to ear as he chanted with the crowd, shouted his disappointment at the referee, and cheered on his son.  The whole experience was amazing to watch and in some ways, changed how I viewed my family.  My brother the athlete, my Dad the sports fan and I the “don’t sip the boiling hot chocolate without blowing on it first or it will burn your taste buds for days” kind of people.


Alongside mission houses and school we had medical concerns to see to during our furlough.  Five years earlier, during the first week moving into our home in South Korea, Dad had attempted to move a two-drawer metal filing cabinet full of papers a short distance.  Bending over to perform the lift, my Dad felt a sharp pain and something slip, and a second later, he was limping away grimacing and holding the small of his back.  Over the five years that followed, he had experienced a lot of pain and discomfort, but it was something he had lived with.  Finally, he went in to have it checked.  “This is the worst slipped disk that I think I’ve seen” the doctor told my Dad.  A couple of weeks later, Dad was scheduled for a back surgery to help remove a piece of the disk that was pinching his nerves.  I can remember driving out to visit my Dad in the hospital.  It was my first recollection of ever seeing one of my parents in a hospital and I was scared at the sight of him having undergone surgery, and I longed for his quick and full recovery.  After a short stay in the hospital, the doctor said that he could go home.  Dad was still in a lot of pain, too weak to move and at one point fainted from the pain in his back.  After several days of rest at home, things slowly started to get better and after several weeks, the doctor cleared him to start doing physical therapy to help support his back.  Dad had several pages of exercises with instructions that he was supposed to perform at home in order to help heal his back, and I remember how diligent he was about taking care of himself.  It took a few months, but his back steadily recovered.  Back to his more usual self and abilities, I remember him expressing gratitude at being able to move again and commenting, “I don’t know why I waited so long to have it looked at.”

As our time in Pasadena was drawing to a close, my parents were busy trying to finish up their papers, studies and work.  Dad was under immense pressure to wrap up his dissertation, complete his work as a teacher’s assistant and begin the process of packing and moving our family for our next missionary assignment.  Mom completed her Masters degree in Missiology and Dad completed his Doctorate in Missiology and a second Masters degree in Intercultural Studies.  On the day of their graduation, they were joined by two of my aunts, my uncle and a few cousins.  I watched as their names were called and they were given decorative hoods for their robes to indicate the degrees they had earned.  As special awards were announced, Mom and Dad were awarded the first joint David Hubbard Award for Spiritual and Academic Excellence ever given to a couple by Fuller – a testament to dedication and hard work that both of them poured into their studies.  After the ceremony, both Mom and Dad thanked their professors, colleagues and friends.  They had made many friends at Fuller from all over the world, and these friendships would be used of God to help and bless us throughout the rest of our ministry.


Over the past four years of living in America, all of us had undergone a transformation.  My brother and sister were now well into their teenage years and on their way to being independent adults.  My parents had arrived as students and were now on their way to being teachers.  And I had arrived as a boy with many South Korean mannerisms, but that had all changed.  I no longer squatted at street corners, I no longer ate or slept on the floor.  I touched food with my bare hands and freely did my homework using my left hand.  My memories of what life was like in South Korea were slowly slipping away, only being remembered when we told family stories or watched slideshows.

I had learned a lot about America in my time here.  South Korea had a distinct homogeneity, with most people being the same height, color, and ethnic background.  The United States, on the other hand, was full of diversity.  My simplistic view of how I understood America when I arrived(largely from the movies), was now much more complex.  Not all Americans spoke English, and not all English was the same.  There were African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and other kinds of Americans.  There were racial tensions between various groups and gang violence that followed along similar lines.  I had a glimpse of what it would be like living the American dream- having a nice house, two cars, two kids, good friends, good schools and an easy life -and it made me nervous.  The American dream was busy, it was privileged, it was consumeristic, it was individualistic.  For me, that life appeared too easy, too routine and too predictable.  American Christianity, too, seemed easy, compared with my experiences overseas.  Most people -on the surface, at least- seemed to go from day to day, month to month, without needing anything from God.  It looked easy for people to trust in their own provision or solve their own problems; easy to reduce their acts of Christian service down to attending church and donating money. Despite my concerns about America, I still identified as an American.  I shared its principal values of life, liberty and freedom, its patterns of order and orginization, and took pride in its patriotism.  But even at ten years old, I desired something different than the American Dream.  I desired a life with adventure, with unpredictability, having value as something other than a consumer or donator, and a life in which I much more obviously needed to trust in God.


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.

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