In the years that we were living in Pasadena, Mom and Dad had watched as the political climate in South Korea become increasingly nationalistic. The government started pressing Protestant mission organizations to prove that their missions work in South Korea was necessary, and that they were doing tasks that the South Koreans themselves could not. The number of visas were being restricted and several missionaries with other organizations had already had to send missionaries to other countries instead. In addition, the group our mission organization had been working with had splintered and was no longer considered by the government to be a stable sponsor. By the start of our fourth year, the writing was on the wall that the door to return to South Korea had closed, and our missions organization, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, asked my parents about changing their field of service. They were interested in having my Dad become professor at the Alliance Biblical Seminary (ABS) in Manila, Philippines. The change was a disappointment for my Dad, who really wished to return to South Korea, but he accepted the new assignment it faith. Serendipitously, the leaders of the South Korean churches we had worked with had previously approached ABS about training their South Korean missionary candidates there, so Mom and Dad were encouraged that their work with Koreans would continue even in Manila.
During this time, my parents had remained silent about the changes to us kids until they knew for sure what they would be doing and where we would be living. One seemingly normal evening after dinner, Mom and Dad called us kids around the dining table for some news. “We’re not going back to South Korea,” they solemnly said. They explained the changes that had taken place and told us that we would be moving to the Philippines instead. The news that we would not be returning to South Korea came to me as a shock, but not as much of a shock as the next news. The CMA has its own school for missionary kids located in Penang, Malaysia, and their preference was that CMA families serving throughout Southeast Asia would send their kids to live in the boarding houses on campus there. But there was another option. A few miles away from where we were expecting to live in the Philippines was a large and well known school for missionary kids. We would be able to live with our parents and simply take the bus to school. Mom and Dad pulled out paper pamphlets and two large VHS tapes for each of the schools and we sat down as a family to review them. Dalat International School was located right next to the beach on the island of Penang, Malaysia. The area was a popular area for international tourists and living in a doom would mean scheduled field trips to malls, cultural sites or tourist attractions. On the other hand, Faith Academy was located on the outskirts of Manila, Philippines. It was the largest missionary kid school in the world and as such, had many programs for sports, academics and other activities. After looking through the materials, I looked up at my parents and perhaps for the first time in my life, questioned their sanity. Giving us the option between a smaller boarding school or a bigger live at home school did not seem like a choice I would have given my kids. But apparently, I was the only one excited about living locally and attending Faith Academy. My brother and sister, enticed by the prospect of beautiful beaches, dormitory life, and teenage independence both favored going to Dalat. There was a palpable tension around the house for the next few days. My parents were firm believers in giving us kids options and a say in the final outcome, but this choice was perhaps the most difficult; tearing the family in two. After a few days and a few persuasive discussions, everyone finally came to an agreement to stay together and attend Faith Academy. But there was catch. While my parents didn’t tell us at the time, the CMA would fully pay for us to attend boarding school at Dalat, including flights to and from school over Christmas and summer breaks. But they would only partially pay for our education down the street at Faith Academy. Because of its larger facility, more teachers, extra programs and bus transportation, Faith Academy was a more expensive school to attend. Any difference between the cost of attending the two schools would need to be paid out of our parents’ pockets. My parents did not normally discuss finances with us, mainly because their financial system rested on God’s economy of providing exactly what we needed at the moment we needed it. While we were regularly told stories about God’s provision for our family, our parents did not want us to be worried about the fact that there was almost always a shortfall in our budget. So when it came to our schooling choice, Mom and Dad believed that we should pray about what God wanted, and He would provide based on His faithfulness.
The night of our first discussion, I can remember falling asleep and dreaming about our new life living in a wood hut with a dried palm frond roof. I thought about the small tribal community we would be living in among the few dozen other huts in the village. The next morning, Mom started to fill the disparity between my dreams and reality. We were going to be living in Manila, a city of 8 million people. It was the thirteenth largest city in the world and bore virtually no resemblance to the jungle hut life I had envisioned in my dream. The city would have reasonable amenities such as grocery stores, running water and flush toilets, and most Filipinos spoke English, or at least enough English to get around. The downsides to being in a major Asian metropolitan area were the traffic, pollution, crime and poverty. I can remember being up for almost anything and looking forward to the adventure of living once again overseas. We picked up books from the Pasadena library about the Philippines and we looked through the catalog of programs offered at Faith Academy. One of my sister’s friends had parents that were serving as missionaries in Hong Kong, and their daughter would be boarding at Faith Academy. My brother was excited about being able to pay a variety of sports, although the football would involve a round ball and no padding. Mom and Dad, however, were so busy finishing up the graduate course work that they did not have time to give it much thought. Mom does remember a Filipino student at Fuller hearing about our new assignment and being glad. “It will be good for you to experience the plight of people there,” he said, leaving Mom to suspect that we were in for a steep learning curve.
In the months before our departure, we started the process of preparing for our lives overseas, which incidentally involved a lot of needles. First there was the trip down the highway to the dentist for our cleanings and a subsequent return visit for a filling or two. Then it was off to the Community Health Center to update our vaccinations for a tropical climate. The day we received our typhoid shots, Mom and Dad had no sooner arrived back at our apartment after dropping us kids off at school, than the nurses were calling them back. All three of us kids were uncontrollably shivering from a fever with chills. Returning home, all of us watched the television as we sat under warm blankets and waited out our reactions. Our last step was getting a medical release required the CMA saying we were fit to be missionaries before leaving. Attached to his clipboard, the doctor had a form listing off requirements we would need to meet. There was a standard physical, an eye examination, and we giggled at the idea of having to pee in a cup. Just as I thought things were coming to an end, I received the worst news imaginable: they needed a blood sample. After my experiences with needles from my burns, I had an intense fear of anything medical – especially needles in my arm. I watched as the four other members of my family had their blood taken and was told after each one, “see it’s not that bad.” But they were lying. This was torture. Dad reminded me “You can’t go overseas without this son, so it will be OK.” And when my time came, I bolted. I ran around the office and hid behind the table. Dad followed and after two laps running around the office, he stopped. With the doctor on one side and my Dad on the other, there was nowhere to run. My Dad captured me and forcibly sat me down and held my arm while my blood was drawn. A minute later, crying and relieved that the whole thing was over, I calmed down with a lollipop in my mouth. The medical reports and lab tests were sent to C&MA headquarters where they were to be assessed, so it would be a few weeks before we received a final answer, but my parents asked the Doctor if he had found anything concerning. Finding a major medical problem now would not just delay our trip, it could end our career as missionaries entirely. The doctor responded that there were a few minor things to watch for, but nothing major that he could see. A since of relief settled over our family. I can still remember walking out of the doctors office, my parents commenting that we had just competed the last step in our application process to return overseas, and I felt a since of peace and excitement. A few weeks later, my parents received a letter from CMA headquarters with our medical approval from headquarters, clearing us for our next step of packing up our lives.
The entire time we had been on our four-year long furlough, Mom and Dad reminded each of us kids not to buy anything that we would not be able to fit into a suitcase, and even then, we knew that it would have to be a really important toy or souvenir to make the final cut. When time came to start packing, the expectations had been set, we were mostly prepared for the event. We divided our possessions into four categories: suitcase, barrel, storage or donate. Items we necessary on a daily basis like clothes and a few personal items would be packed into suitcases to take with us on our flights. Other items such as necessary books, our first, second and maybe third priority toys, the rest of our clothes, extra shoes, and the like would be loaded into 55-gallon metal barrels and be shipped across the ocean – taking 4-5 months before we would see them again. What was left would either be stored in our Grandparents attic, or be left behind. Emotions ran high during this time, especially for my sister, whose quiet and introverted demeanor held firm attachments to her friends and the familiar. Mom and Dad oversaw the operation, sorting through every possession we owned as they asked (again), “Is this something that we really need to take? What are you going to use that for?” My parents were set on taking as little as possible. With all of our possessions sorted, Dad carefully began to load the metal drums, filling each space inside like a giant game of Tetris. Large items would go in first. Clothes and foldable products would then be packed in the spaces in between larger objects until there was only a small amount of head room left. Leaving my collection of Legos, a boy’s most prized possession, for last. With the barrel full to the brim, Dad would dump the Legos on top and shake the barrel until the small pieces rattled and settled into every nook and cranny of available space. The lid was added, and the ring was locked in place. Dad then took out a can of white spray paint with a stencil set and painted our family’s contact information on the side of each barrel. Dad then rented a truck, and with an able-bodied assistant, loaded the four barrels up for their drive down to Long Beach and the designated shipper. The several month wait to see our possessions again had begun. Next, we started the process of selling off or giving away anything that was left – table lights and house furnishings; clothes that would be unsuitable or out of season; thick bathmats or towels that would mold before they dried; all but the smallest of our seasonal decorations; school supplies that could be bought overseas, photo books and slides we did not plan to keep; plants of all sorts; extra foodstuffs; kitchen appliances that would not work on a different voltage and heavy bedspreads. Many of our things were shared with newly arrived missionaries and international students beginning at Fuller, and other things went to family, including our parakeets and plants. Whatever remained was donated to the Salvation Army.
In the final weeks, our supporting friends and church groups invited us to speak and took special offerings to help cover our clothing costs. Some gave a donation towards buying a vehicle that we could use overseas. These were all welcome signs of encouragement and helped greatly to defray costs of transferring our lives overseas. Our home church even threw a potluck picnic lunch at a local park after Sunday service as we said our goodbyes. The pressure on Dad to wrap up his doctoral dissertation, complete his teaching assistant work, pack all our barrels, and still make it to Manila in time for the for the ABS faculty retreat and start of classes brought Dad close to exhaustion. On June 20th 1990, we accompanied my Dad with his parents and sister to LAX for his international flight while the rest of us remained behind. We stayed in the apartment, eating of paper plates and sleeping on borrowed sheets so that I could finish out my school year at Pasadena Christian School and my Sister could attend her 8th grade graduation ceremony on June 24th. These travel times were like brackets in time where we entered a sort of liminality—everything familiar removed, toys gone, goodbyes said, and yet we were not yet on our way. Dad called us the next day to let us know he had arrived safely. A typhoon had come through lowering the temperature a bit, he was getting over jet lag, meeting new people, and eating new foods. He assured us that we had a house waiting not too far from Faith Academy, but the imagination of our expectations would differ greatly from the reality—such is overseas life.
Before we knew it, the morning of our departure had arrived. Our clothes were laid out on the floor and our suitcases were staged next to the door. My Grandparents and Aunt showed up to help us to help us take our luggage to LAX. Watching the sights of familiar buildings pass by on the highway, I thought about how the familiar was all about to disappear, like Alice in Wonderland descending into the rabbit hole, and that these sights would be my last memory of the United States for years. Pulling up to the airport, we helped unload all the luggage from the car and carry it inside the terminal to the check in counter. Because everything we needed for our new lives was coming with us, and our luggage was carefully packed to the limit. The costs for the extra bags and weight were several hundred dollars, and I can remember the reluctant but necessary look on my Moms face when she pulled out her credit card to pay. Our heaviest bags now gone, we walked down to the entrance of the international terminal. While guests for domestic flights could accompany family and friends all the way to their gate, only people with tickets could go through security and into the international terminal. We laid our bags down, said our final goodbyes to our family, and with a deep breath, we picked up our belongings and loaded them onto the x-ray conveyor belt.
The international terminal is a unique place – a melting pot of colors, cultures, and languages as people shuffled across the world’s airports. Walking over to our gate, we sat down, waited, and watched as teams of people worked on the large China Air 747 parked outside the window. Fuel, food, luggage, sewage, and cleaning services all worked to prepare the plane for the upcoming 14.5 hour, 7000 mile, 600 passenger flight to Taipei, Taiwan. Boarding the plane, we found our four seats and sat down. I immediately set to work reading through the emergency pamphlet, looking through the in-flight magazine for what movies would be shown, and plugging my two-pronged headphone jack into my armrest. It was not long before the airline jingle started playing and our Chinese stewardesses began their safety demonstration. Finally, I watched out the window as the plane jolted backwards and the outside world began to move. The engines started to whine as they were revved up and various parts of the wings moved as the final flight checks were performed. The massive plane lurched awkwardly forward as it moved down the taxiway, its wingtips bouncing with every little bump. Stopping just short of the runway, we waited for our turn to takeoff as I prayed for a safe flight and for our new lives ahead. We slowly rolled out and turned onto the runway as the engines were brought up to full thrust. It was always amazing to me that such a massive object could take to the skies while going so slow, but three quarters down the runway, the nose tilted up, the wings bowed upwards, and we sank into our seats as the plane took to the sky, the houses under us moving slowly by. Heading out of LAX and over the ocean, it did not take long for the last sight of land to disappear across the horizon as we settled in for a long and boring ride.
Before the flight, and as a special treat, Mom had bought my brother and I handheld games about the size of a large keychain to entertain us during the flight. Mine was a race car game, where every second, the LCD race cars would move and you could use a four way joystick to avoid the oncoming cars. We had also packed a coloring book, a few books, and one of my favorite activities – a Highlights magazine – full of stories, word searches, and picture puzzles. After the first snack break, one of the stewardesses came buy with a kid’s activity bag complete with a China Air Puzzle, coloring book, crayons, and silver plastic pilot lapel pen. I worked through my activities, explored the cabin, excitedly used the airplane lavatory, and had my pick of what to have for lunch (which was free and actually good quality back then). My favorite thing about the airplane meals was opening the individually plastic wrapped silverware sets complete with stainless steel cutlery, a napkin and tiny packets of salt and pepper loaded in two conjoined cylindrical paper packets. Finally, about four hours into the flight, the excitement wore off and I started to get bored. I checked with Mom. “How much longer do we have?” “Ten hours, honey” she said as she started to suggest one of the activities I had already done twice on the flight. Resting my head back and tucking my pillow under my head, I tried to doze off while listening to smooth jazz playing on channel eight. With the only exciting thing about the flight being meal times, I asked for someone to wake me up if food came, and headed to bed as the sun set outside. After a two-hour nap, another meal came by. My bottom was starting to feel uncomfortable, and I was facing a new problem. Mom had also allowed us kids to bring along some candy to enjoy throughout the flight – with my choices being Sprees and Sweettarts. But having slowly sucked on them for several hours now, my tongue was now raw and numb. Not even candy was enjoyable anymore. Another nap, another time wandering up and down the aisle, another round of activity books and building the puzzle. I lifted up the armrest between Mom and I and tried to rest my head on her lap for a more comfortable rest (for me at least). As all of the travelers tried to get settled, seatbacks were reclined cramping the already tight spaces. Looking for things to do, other travelers would open up the overhead storage bins, remove their heavy suitcases and search through the tightly packed contents to find what they were looking for. The good thing was that on Asian airlines, there was the option of getting hot noodles as a snack. In the middle of the night, while the lights were low and many people were sleeping, the stewardesses came by and asked if we wanted a snack. Shortly after, they would return with a steaming bowl of ramen and chopsticks—a potent reminder that we were headed back to ancient cultures and foods.
At some point and with great relief, the pilot turned on the seatbelt sign and told the cabin crew that we were getting ready for descent. The stewardesses came by to pick up the loads of trash, napkins, cups and earphones, barely making it past the crowd queuing up for the restrooms. The consistent and now mind-numbing hum of the engines quieted down as the nose slightly pitched towards the ground. In the next two minutes, I quickly packed up my belongings, cleaned up my seat area, tightened my seatbelt, and waited for landing. And waited. And waited. Apparently, I was hopeful that decent would only last five to ten minutes, but it was actually closer to forty. Flying through the clouds and banking towards the airport, the plane jostled up and down, and pitched right as the luggage hatches above squeaked and rattled. It was pitch black outside and trying to look out the window several seats away was useless – any faint image of the outside world drowned out by the glow of individual lights from pesky readers. When the world outside of the plane finally did appear, it was of the airport lights and buildings, as the plane quickly pitched up, flared for several seconds, and hit the ground with roar, rattle and large spray of water coming off the wings and runway. A few seconds later and we were slowly taxing down the runway, now in Asia again after our four year absence. Unexpectedly, the plane slowly glided to a stop away from the airport terminal. I watched as flight crews started work on the plane and a ladder truck drove to the front of the plane to let passengers off. After a particularly long wait for the several hundred other passengers disembarking, it was finally our turn, and we walked forward and to the door. Looking down the steps, there was a string of people being herded into a building a hundred feet away. Stepping out of the airplane was a shock – with my face and chilled body feeling as if I had walked into a freshly steamed sauna. I took note that the tarmac was wet and thought to myself that it just must have been an exceptionally warm day followed by an evaporating thunderstorm. Surely it was not normal for any place on Earth to be this warm and this humid. By the time we reached the airport terminal, I was relieved to feel the air conditioning on my face and already sweat soaked skin.
Many people on our flight were sleeping over in Taipei, like us, before boarding connecting flights in the morning. Entering the terminal, we were herded up a flight of stairs into a room with tables and chairs and where our passports, travel documents and plane tickets were reviewed. Following this we were moved onto busses with a woman shouting “hurry, hurry” in an attempt to move the large crowd along. From there, we were taken to a hotel not far from the airport terminal, handed a key attached to a large red plastic paddle with our room number engraved on it, and went in search of our beds for the night. Opening the door to our room, the air was warm, muggy, stagnant, and smelled of mold. We cranked up the air conditioner, briefly talked about our flight, and discussed our plans for the next day. Our room had two queen sized beds – one shared by Mom and my sister and one shared by my brother and I. But what we were most looking forward to was taking showers, and all of us took turns getting clean. Given that we were now jet lagged and had already taken multiple short naps on the flight over, we were not exceptionally tired. We turned on the TV and scrolled through the channels in Mandarin Chinese. News, soap operas, and one or two popular American television programs, of which Baywatch was one of the most played. The next morning, we ate a lovely continental breakfast next to the sunlit windowed room of the hotel. The regular sounds and sights of planes passing by the windows a perfect setting for our discussion about our relatively short three-hour flight down to Manila that morning. Today was the day, I thought, the day we would see a new country, and our home for the next four years. We were all filled with mixed emotions – stress, anxiety, fear, excitement and curiosity about our starting our lives to come. We all needed new encouragement to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead, and Philippians 1:9-11 became our prayer: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”
If you enjoyed our story and think your friends would like it, we would love for you to share it using one of the buttons below. If you want to stay up to date with all of my writings, travels and personal stories, you can follow my public profile on Facebook on the side of this website (we aren’t friends – you can see me, but I can’t see you – so don’t fear). A full list of chapters from this series can be found here: Child in a Foreign Land. Thanks for following along!
© Divergent Life Media, LLC