Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tales from a children’s center

So I just wanted to check in with everybody back home and let you know how my work has been going. A lot of my posts have been about special occasions -- festivals, field trips, etc. -- and while those are certainly fun, they aren't really representative of my day-to-day life as a YAV in Korea.

As you (hopefully) remember, my main job is working at the Beobdong Area Children's Center, where I teach English classes for elementary and middle school students. The kids come to the center Monday through Friday afternoons and have lessons. Each class has its own teacher, and during the afternoons they study and do homework, getting tutoring in the subjects where they have trouble.

The center has lots of really cool things to offer besides academics, however. For example, on Thursday this week, they were having an art therapy class, where special teachers come in for the afternoon and guide the children through a project. I've seen them other days drawing, painting, pressing leaves, and so forth. Monday and Friday, they have orchestra class, and are learning to read music and play the violin.

Thursday night is soccer night, which is something the kids get really excited about. At 7 o'clock everybody runs to put on their coats and shoes, and we all walk about a block down to a little tiny park squished between two apartment complexes. This is free time for the kids to just run around and play, with each other and with me, and it's one of the things I look forward to most during my week.

The kids also come to the center some Saturdays. (In Korea, school and work are in session every other Saturday, and off every other Saturday. So the kids come on their free day once every two weeks.) It isn't a study day, though. Instead, the center does fun extracurricular activities like field trips, cooking lessons, etc.

In November, I joined the gang for an exciting field trip. They were kind enough to take me with them when they went to Bburi (Root) Park, and also to the Daejeon zoo, O-World. It was a joint trip with a local elementary school, and it was partially funded by local companies.

Bburi Park is so named because it is a heritage park where people can learn about the origins of their families. For example, as you may know, "Kim" is a very common Korean surname. But not all Kims are the same. Because Korean families traditionally keep a chronicle of their ancestors and descendants, they can trace their family back hundreds and sometime thousands of years to a specific time and place. So for example, Kim Mi-ran (the Chief) married a man named Kim, but they are Kims that originated in different places. For me, this was a really cool experience. I think it's amazing that people can know so much about the history behind their families.

O-World is a sort of a combination of zoo, botanical gardens, and amusement park. We had lots of fun seeing the exotic animals on the safari tour, and afterwards got up close to pet and feed the more domestic animals. And later, the fifth-grade boys roped me into a few rounds of the stomach-churning Viking ship ride (because the line was too long for the roller coaster – but don’t worry, we made sure to sit in the bow of the boat for maximum queasiness). To sum up, much fun was had by all.

005More recently at the center, we’ve been making Christmas preparations! These include decorating a Christmas tree, making Christmas cards, and singing Christmas songs. The Chief is a great singer and leads all the kids in a hearty chorus. I tried to teach the kids some favorite English-language Christmas songs, only to realize that they are really pretty difficult because they use antiquated vocabulary. How do you explain lines like “Round yon virgin” or “Deck the halls” to kids who struggle with the alphabet? We also spent quite a bit of time cutting out and decorating Christmas cookies (both the chocolate and cheese varieties). Over a couple of days, we easily made thousands of little angels, stars, trees, and yes, the traditional (?) Christmas giraffes.

I am so happy to be getting to know these kids. They are sweet and smart and funny, if sometimes a little on the loud side. I have so much fun with them and I can honestly say I love them all!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Things to be thankful for

I have happy news, everyone! I just found out in my most recent fundraising report that I have reached my goal of $9,000! I want all of you back home to know that I am so grateful for your loving support -- both emotional and financial. None of this experience would be possible without my generous church family, and I can't wait to meet you all again and share my year with you.

And speaking of giving thanks . . . I recently celebrated my first Thanksgiving away from home! The three of us YAVs were busy working on Thursday at our respective centers, but we made sure to make time on Friday. Then in the evening, we hosted a dinner and invited the other Americans we knew: Mike and Sue (who are guest professors at Hannam) and Kristin and her family (who live on the military base nearby). We had to be creative with our food preparation, since many traditional Thanksgiving foods aren't readily available here. But everyone worked hard to make it special, and altogether we had more delicious food than we could eat! For example, we had no turkey (you don't see those much in Korea), so Kristin provided fried chicken and bulgogi (grilled meat) instead. We had green beans and carrots as well, mashed potatoes, and a sweet potato casserole. I did fried mandu (dumplings) as an appetizer. And for dessert, our resourceful guests managed to rustle up a couple of pies (although the whipped cream was a little harder to come by)! All in all, it was a great evening of food and fellowship.

Coming soon: an update on my work at the children's center. Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Venturing abroad (more than usual)

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to Seoul with Simon, Haejung, Katie, and Jenny. We definitely did some touristy stuff, including our visits to Insadong (where they sell traditional Korean crafts to appeal to visitors and foreigners), the South Gate market, and Gyeongb0kgung. This last was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1897 in Korea. After they moved the capital to Seoul, they had this palace built (I believe in 1396). We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard, where soldiers in period dress march out to the beating of drums, carrying their banners proudly. It was an extremely colorful display! Afterwards, we toured the most important parts of the palace, starting with the throne room and eventually reaching the king's private chambers.

The term "palace" is misleading, because it is not really one building, but many enclosed within a single compound. And the accommodations are surprisingly small and simple for royalty. Oh, there's definitely decoration and ceremonial stuff (see the many, many photographs I took), but compared to the lavish palaces concocted by European royalty in their heydays, this seemed very minimalist. The grounds were exceedingly beautiful, offering neatly trimmed lawns, quiet ponds, pagodas, and fine mountain views.

We also went to Sungnyemun (aka Namdaemun), Korea's No. 1 national treasure. It is the Great South Gate, one of eight which were built in the ancient walls that surrounded the city. The Great South Gate was the main one for entrance into the capital. Ceremonies and public executions would be held in the courtyard in front of it. Two years ago, an arsonist burned it down, leaving really only the stone foundations of the gate. The loss inspired the Korean people to spring into action to rebuild their nation's pride. And as much as possible, they are using traditional methods and materials in the construction, so that the process is in and of itself a monument to past days.

The real highlight of the trip, however, was meeting our fellow Presbyterians! The PC(USA) has three couples who are mission co-workers in Korea: our own Simon and Haejung Park, Sookhee and K.J. Bae, and Art and Sue Kinsler. We had already met the Baes briefly at Stony Point, but this time around we got to hang out more. K.J., who currently works in the mission office of the PCK, gave us a tour of PCK headquarters, where were staying for the night (on mats on the lovely heated floors -- seriously, why don't Americans heat their floors??). He also gave us an overview of the PC(USA)'s mission work in Korea, which dates back to the 1880s. One of the very important things that mission projects in Korea have done is to promote education, especially for those who are at a social disadvantage. The PC(USA) was a pioneer in terms of Korean women's education at a time when women were expected to be concerned only with raising children.

Especially exciting, we went to Sookhee's organization, the Woman Ministers' Association (WMA). The PCK is very male-dominated, even more so than in the church in the U.S., and they only started ordaining women in 1996. Before that, women who wanted to be ministers were simply not allowed, and often they were ridiculed and driven from their home congregations. Even now, women are still underrepresented and facing many struggles against discrimination and double standards. It can be really difficult for women to find a church, because so many congregations want the traditional male pastor.

So, Sookhee opened her center to support and empower women, both generally and in ministry. The WMA encompasses two shelters: one for runaway young women, and another for domestic violence survivors and their children. Both are designed to be safe places where women are protected and loved by their sisters as they learn to stand on their feet again. And Rev. Han and Rev Nam, who run the shelters, are amazingly devoted to their work, and really take these women to heart as their adopted family. Both spoke warmly of how rewarding it is to see troubled people reclaim their lives, bit by bit. Sookhee's group also opened two retirement homes for women ministers, who, because of their unordained, outcast status, often don't have spouses and children who can take care of them. And in the basement of the center, there is the Yeji Church, which is a memorial church for women's ordination. I was so impressed and moved by all of Sookhee's work (read more here), as were Katie and Jenny. All three of us are very, very interested in participating in such a ministry, either with Sookhee, or with other women's shelters closer to home (Daejeon).

That evening, we had dinner with our mission co-workers and bonded with them over galguksu (handmade noodles, which were cooked at our table in a broth containing a multitude of mushrooms, and served alongside enormous dumplings). At this point, we were introduced to the Kinslers, and got to hear extensively about Sue's work, which is very exciting stuff. She has been working towards reunification with North Korea, which she believes to be near, and towards helping the suffering people there. She makes regular trips across the border to help provide for orphans and the differently abled. (Read more details about what she does here.)

On Monday, I was invited to travel to Muju with the Chief (who is in charge of my center) and her daughter, Myung-ju onni. Muju is their hometown, about an hour away from Daejeon, and the weather is noticeable colder there, because it is in the middle of the mountains. In fact, when we got to the top of the mountain, there was actually snow there! If you're wondering what the purpose of our trip was, it was danpung nori -- a trip to enjoy the fall foliage. We drove partway up the mountain, around and around it winding roads, and then we took a cable car further up. Unfortunately, the leaves nearer the base of the mountain hadn't changed color much yet, and the trees on top of the mountain had lost all their leaves already! So in that sense, the trip wasn't terribly successful, but it was such great fun hanging out with Chief and Myung-ju onni. Their smiles kept me warm even when the mountain winds were blowing.

On the way back, the Chief and Myung-ju onni stopped to show me some points of historical interest. Long ago (read: time of Jesus), Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Muju is actually quite close to the border dividing two of these three kingdoms, Baekje and Silla, and there is still a gate of sorts there -- not a free-standing structure like Seoul's Great South Gate, but a simple tunnel carved through the rock. It was really awe-inspiring to be in the presence of something made so long ago.

The nearby town is named Seolcheol, which means "Snow Stream". There is a very interesting story behind that name, it turns out. Long ago, on top of the mountain, there was a very large Buddhist temple, large enough, in fact, to house 9,000 monks. And every morning, 9,000 monks would emerge from the temple to wash rice for their breakfast in the mountain stream. The people of the town below called the stream "Snow Stream" because it was turned white from all that rice-washing.

As always, continue to stay tuned! And please enjoy looking at my photos for these trips, which can be found here (coming soon, probably tomorrow):


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fun, fellowship, and festivals

Whew, that last post was kind of a doozy. I'm pleased to report that this one is substantially more light-hearted.

Last week Katie, Jenny, and I stopped in at the foreigner's festival being held near EXPO park. This festival combined an international food event with a hot air balloon extravaganza. Down by the river, there were hot air balloon rides (unfortunately pretty pricey for not going very far), hang-gliding, kites, building model airplanes, and other activities. On Saturday there was a taekwondo demonstration going on with little kids duking it out for an audience. Up higher on the bank, there were tons of booths for different foreign foods (although some were strangely labeled -- the Mexican booth had samosas??). There were so many delicious smells wafting through the air, it was impossible to decide what to eat. We went around collecting free samples, and invested in a couple of choice snacks.

This past Sunday the youth group from the university church took a field trip to Okcheon, where members Winnie and Katie (not YAV Katie) live, to have fellowship time. Okcheon is about 30 minutes out of Daejeon, and is the countryside in comparison. It was nice to get out of the city and see some green! First we stopped to visit a famous historical house where the former president's wife was born. I admit that the names of those people didn't mean much to me, but it was cool to see a large, traditional Korean house where the nobility lived (although it was actually a reconstruction). Afterwards, we went to Winnie's house, which is very close, to hang out. We ate mandu (dumplings) and delicious Korean grapes (juicier than the American kind), and then went outside to learn a trade . . . farming!

Winnie's father grows peanuts and sweet potatoes, and we had a lesson in harvesting them (fortunately, it's not very difficult). We happily yanked the peanut plants up by the roots and scrounged around in the dirt for the potatoes (got some really huge ones, too). The garden itself is very beautiful -- it is located in the house's backyard, and from there you can look out on amazing views of the mountains.

This week, Hannam had its school festival, lasting three days. During this time, there are many fair-like booths set up to sell food and drink, offer entertainment, and award prizes. You can play carnival-style games of chance and try to win big against slim odds. There are also demonstrations going on where the various school clubs show off their skills or otherwise attract people to their group. (The chaplain's office and the students who attend the university church, in particular, had a good thing going in the form of free coffee and homemade waffles with whipped cream and syrup.) The big highlight of the event is the famous Korean singers who come to perform and hold concerts at night. I visited on Wednesday afternoon with some of my Korean friends with whom I'm doing an English-language blog project. Very soon (as soon as she sends it to me), you will be able to read the article Hyojae wrote about it (and what we've written about other Hannam- and Daejeon-related topics) here.

I'll be in Seoul for the weekend with my fellow YAVs, and I hope to post about that trip too! I will also be uploading more pictures when I have more time. Once again, stay tuned, and I would love to hear from you!

Friday, October 8, 2010

English fever

...or, my thoughts on teaching English in South Korea. Let me preface this with the statement that being a Young Adult Volunteer is a mission of being, not doing, and that the three of us are here not to save the world or to solve problems that we perceive, but to live in harmony with a community. Too often in the past, mission has been done with the idea that we are the enlightened ones and we know what is best for others. Therefore, the YAV program's focus is not on us and our idea of mission, but on actually listening to the people around us, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and working to fulfill their needs as they perceive them.

And in South Korea, what people want from us is for us to teach English. To be honest, I have some very mixed feelings about this, and I'm going to try to explain them here. (Warning: lots of grammar babble and linguistic theory to follow! If that kind of thing bores you, skip to the next post.)

I've been told that people here judge and are judged by their ability to use English -- i.e., if someone has no English skills, people assume they aren't well-educated in other areas, either. And companies would much rather have employees with good English skills, because it is a valuable asset in the business world. People live and die by their TOEFL and TOEIC (the standardized English-language proficiency tests) scores, which determine what opportunities they can have. Thus, there is a huge push in Korea for kids to be exposed to English at a young age, study it hard all throughout their school years, and hopefully live abroad in America, England, Australia, or somewhere else where they can become fluent. In such a society, three native speakers are too valuable to waste; hence, we have been put to work teaching classes -- primarily to disadvantaged children whose parents can't send them to the best schools and buy them all the English books and videos and games that richer parents do.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for intercultural literacy. Heck, I'm spending a year in a foreign country, and working hard to learn the language! And I'm not trying to single out individuals as being in the wrong, either. During my work week, I get to interact with so many amazing people who are doing a very good thing in trying to give kids from poor and broken families equal opportunities. It's the overall concept, the societal trend, that I have a problem with. This movement worldwide towards English as the language that everybody needs to know is disturbing to me.

For one thing, even if we accept for the moment that everybody should have one language in common, English specifically isn't a great choice as a global language because it is very difficult to learn. Let's take a look:
  • Its spelling rules are difficult to master: it has an alphabet where letters are sometimes pronounced one way, sometimes another, with many exceptions and silent letters.
  • It has many arbitrary grammar rules that have no real meaning for communication today (example: back in the days when Latin was considered the language of scholars, it was decided by grammarians that you can't split infinitives because you can't do it in Latin, where the infinitive is one word).
  • It has a strange mixture of "strong" (past tense formed by changing the stem vowel) and "weak" (past tense formed by adding -ed) verbs.
  • It has definite and indefinite articles, which are missing from many languages (I dare you to try to explain the meaning of "an" or "the". What do they contribute to a sentence, exactly?).
  • It has many helping verbs -- do, have, and will to name the most common -- that add extra steps to the process of composing sentences.
  • English verbs are conjugated sometimes, but not always.
  • English nouns are declined sometimes, but not always.
  • English speakers depend largely on their vocabulary choices to convey connotations, which makes memorizing an enormous amount of vocabulary necessary for even a fairly basic level of conversation (as opposed to a language like Japanese, where connotation is often expressed in the grammatical form).
I'm not saying that every other language is completely free of such complications. Of course not! Every language has its confusing points, its irregular verbs, its structures that seem totally convoluted at first glance, its colloquial expressions that make no literal sense. What I'm saying is that comparatively speaking, English is a terrible choice for international language because of its relatively high learning curve (although I hear from the folks in Kerala that Malayalam may very well have the honor of being the most difficult language in the world).

Which brings me to my second point. I have a lot of trouble with the idea that the way to resolve conflicts of communication is for everybody to be forced to communicate in the same way. And I firmly believe that any experiment or movement with such a goal, no matter how idealistic the motives behind it, is bound to fail. No matter how hard you try, it is simply impossible to divide language from the history and culture behind it. The very patterns of our grammar and syntax reflect the way we think and the way that we, as a society, perceive.

For example, in Russian, feelings and conditions are often expressed indirectly, as opposed to the active form that is habitual with English speakers. You don't like something; instead, it is pleasing to you. You aren't hot; it is hot to you. You don't have a car; a car exists by you. At this time, I think I will refrain from making any sweeping judgments about what these grammatical examples reveal about the Russian psyche, because that is just asking for trouble, but the point is that you can easily see how language and thought are tied up together. The differences in the ways we speak reveal differences in the way we perceive. In this case, the Russians choose to speak of themselves passively. It's very strange to me, when I think about it, that they would give the agency of the sentence to an inanimate object, but it is a natural way for them to talk.

Allow me to provide another example of the inherent difficulties here. You may have heard of Esperanto, the artificially constructed international language born over a century ago. The idea of Esperanto was a very noble one: its creator, L. L. Zamenhof, sought to create a politically neutral language that could be used for peaceful communication and mediation. Esperantists proudly claim that Esperanto is neutral because it has "no culture". But is this really true? Zamenhof was a talented linguist, speaking several languages fluently and several others competently, and he was intensely devoted to his project. I don't doubt that he worked things out to the best of his abilities. Yet all his experience was with European languages, and this is reflected in the undoubtedly Euro-centric nature of Esperanto, which is strongly influenced by the Romance and Slavic tongues -- never mind that Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic are also among the world's most widely spoken languages alongside English, Russian, and Spanish. So can we really call his language neutral? And yet, drawing from all languages of the world to create a "fair" language isn't realistically possible, either.

After all this, it may seem cheap of me to say, but I must admit that I don't have a solution to the problem. I'm here for the year, I'm teaching English, and I don't have the power to change anything, just to help these kids prepare for the realities that already exist, the realities they will eventually have to face. But for me, one of the great joys of language, and the reason I majored in language studies in college, is discovering a new way of life and thinking through the words we speak, because the richness of culture and history are closely bound up with the simple everyday activities of talking and listening.

I don't know what the solution to all the misunderstanding in the world is, but I am sure that I know what it's not: for everyone to become the same. Teaching everyone English won't make us all magically think the same; it won't immediately making understanding each other easy. All it will do is confine everyone to a form that strongly favors some, creating a further power imbalance that will hinder communication. I love the English language; I think it is a beautiful language, a language of poetry. I wouldn't discourage anyone who wants to learn it, not for one minute. But to force everyone in the world to speak it is denying a fundamental truth about the wonderful complexity and variety of the world we live in. I don't want to whitewash the world with English if I can help it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

곰세마리 (Three bears) song

Today, with our heads about to explode from taking so many tests, our teacher decided to show mercy on us and fill the rest of the class time with a fun activity, in the form of learning a children's song.


Three bears in one house

Papa bear, mama bear, baby bear

Papa bear is fat

Mama bear is skinny

Baby bear is very cute

Growing up straight*

*In the version of the song we learned. It's a little different from the one in the video.

Of course, I expect you all to practice this at home so we can have a sing-along when I get back~

This post contains pictures of cute children, consider yourselves warned

So, as of today, it's been a week since I started working at the Beobdong Children's Center in Daejeon, finally beginning my volunteer work. I have to be honest: while I've been grateful to have some adjustment time, it's also been difficult for me to just BE without something to DO. So I was glad to be taking on one of my first major challenges.

The Beobdong Center is about ten minutes away from Hannam University by bus. (Yes! I can take the bus now! And get off at the right stop! I feel so ridiculously proud of myself.) It occupies the second story of a multi-story building. It is run by Rev. Kim (aka "the Chief") and her daughter, Myung-ju onni (big sister Myung-ju). Both of them are amazing and sweet people who are capable of making you feel right at home. There are about four teachers there who give the kids lessons in science, math, and whatever other schoolwork they need help with. There's also a teacher for piano, and there's a cute little closet-sized practice room for the kids to do music in. The walls are decorated with photos of the kids and art that they themselves made. It is very small, but a sunny and warm place, both physically, now at the end of summer, and emotionally, because of the love the people there put into what they do.

Let me just say that the first week had its ups and downs. Despite having about a month of Korean lessons under my belt, the average conversation is too complex and happens too quickly for me to grasp. Besides that, the Korean we're learning in the classroom is formal, polite Korean -- and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the informal, colloquial way kids talk. So I did struggle to communicate, particularly with my first- and second-grade class.

That's right, class. I was not really expecting to be asked to teach formal classes (I was thinking it would be more along the lines of playing with them and teaching them English words casually, through games), but serious lessons are apparently what my center needs most at this time -- desks, textbooks, and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm here to serve them, and to meet their needs, and I'm perfectly willing to do classes. But it was a little bit of a sink-or-swim situation when I walked in last Tuesday, with no lesson plans prepared, and was asked to give lessons, starting immediately, to four classes' worth of students. See you back at shore. Hopefully.

So I dove in. God is pretty infamous for throwing curveballs and calling people to do the unexpected, right? A YAV needs to be flexible, if nothing else. My first class was with the first- and second-graders, three very cute but very hyper little boys who speak virtually no English (they don't start that subject at school until the third grade, apparently). They're very enthusiastic and they have more energy than they know what to do with, so keeping them focused on a task can be difficult. The first day started off well, with them telling me their names and then practicing writing them in English letters . . . but things kind of went downhill from there. How do you give kids directions or discipline them when they literally don't understand a word you say?

So the second day I came back with a different approach, and brought in a deck of cards. This time it was much better. I showed them the numbers one to ten, then spread the cards out on the table and had them slap the number I called out. This caused the entire classroom to echo with smacking sounds and loud, joyous screams of "Five!" and "Eight!" when they found their target. Okay, a crude method, maybe. But you know what? They got better at their numbers. At the beginning, they kept making mistakes and slapping the wrong ones, but they quickly learned (if only for the sake of beating each other to the punch). And I really don't care if they're loud as long as they're participating wholeheartedly. (And, you know, as long as the Chief doesn't mind, either.)

My next class was with the third- and fourth-graders. This may be the most promising group in the sense that they are better behaved and better able to focus than the younger kids, but they don't have the inhibitions that the older class has (more on that later). They love shouting out the words they know and trying out the new words I teach them. Today we we went over time- and date-related words like the days of the week, the seasons, etc. and then practiced listening and reading skills with that classic known as bingo (which was always a favorite in my beginning Spanish classes).

After my first two classes, around 5:20, it's time for dinner. There is a kitchen in the center that feeds all the kids and teachers. Kids eat first, of course. So far, the food has all been very delicious. I've had mandu (dumplings), gooksu (noodles), and today there was -- well, I don't know what it was. I think it was some sort of seafood -- squid maybe? -- under the breading. Anyway, it was yummy. And the center serves a particularly fiery version of kimchi to go with every meal, so I am toughening up my taste buds.

After dinner, I have the fifth- and sixth-graders for a while. They have the best English skills . . . well, in theory they do. In practice, they are easily the shyest group that I teach, and getting them to say something . . . anything . . . requires quite a bit of (figurative) arm-twisting. Even when it's just reading a vocabulary word from the textbook. They're happy enough to repeat what I say, but they don't want to be put on the spot or have to generate anything. That's a feeling that I can definitely understand, of course -- I am never going to win a prize for being the world's most extroverted person -- but many years of studying language and of studying the study of language have taught me that, as embarrassing as it can be, you just have to put yourself out there and speak it, or you won't learn it. (My Korean professors know it, too. When I go home at lunchtime every day, my throat is sore from all the Korean I've been shouting for the past four hours.)

I have a middle-school class as well, consisting of five students from the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. However, since I arrived in the middle of their semester and they are all studying hard for their mid-terms, I won't start teaching this class until later in the week.

Please don't misunderstand, though. Reading back over this post, a lot of it is talking about the challenges of the job rather than the rewards; but make no mistake -- I'm very happy to be where I am right now. All of the kids are unbelievably cute and sweet and funny, and they've welcomed me with open arms, and despite my struggles as a newbie teacher, I'm eager to go back for more. I know there will be tough times as I try to figure out the best ways to communicate and to make the lessons interesting and meaningful for the kids, but I think I will end up learning a lot in the process -- about Korean culture, about language and learning, about the kids, about myself.

Tomorrow, I have my first class teaching English to the Sunday schools kids at Youngrak Presbyterian Church, and two weeks after that, I'll start going to the library to read English-language children's books to the kids there. I'll let you know how those adventures turn out! Stay tuned!

I love 9 a.m. classes

Wow, it's been a little while since I wrote! I've got tons to say, and I think that instead of making one huge post, I will split it up into a couple of smaller ones. This time it's about . . . school!

Korean language school has been pretty intense these last couple of weeks. I'm not even joking. Last week Hannam's Korean language school held its second annual writing and speaking contest. Everyone in the language school is required to participate in the writing part, and cash prizes are awarded to the people with the best spelling and prettiest handwriting. (I did all right on the spelling part, but pretty handwriting is not my strong point. Not when writing the teacher's dictation down as fast as possible, anyway.)

Then everyone gets herded into the student building for the entertainment segment of the program . . . watching one representative from each class embarrass themselves in front of everybody else. That was the case for most classes, anyway. A couple did group performances, like this scene of a marriage (left) acted out by one of the third-level classes. Our class, 1-C, was represented by Aaron (above), who talked about himself and his hobbies, and really challenged himself to use the most sophisticated Korean at his command. Unfortunately he didn't win. His nerves caused him to trip over his tongue in a couple places, so he ended up getting robbed by a girl from another class, who did indeed deliver a speech with very beautiful pronunciation, but in the simplest Korean possible. Bogus. Anyway, we enjoyed cheering our oppa on. In Korea, we say: Fighting! Fighting! to encourage people to hang in there and do their best, so we were yelling that from our section of the auditorium.

As for this week, it must be Official Test Everybody On Everything Week, because in the last two days, I have had four exams . . . and more are coming before the end of the week. Yesterday I took a long written exam, then a reading exam where I stood in front of the class to sight-read a passage. Today there was an oral exam where the teacher interviewed us one-on-one, and also a dictation test. Katie and Jenny have been hit pretty hard, too, so it isn't just my class. Maybe they are trying to weed out the weaklings?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Arboretum and pictures (finally!!)

So, I finally got all my Korea pictures uploaded to the computer! I went back and added some pictures that were relevant to my blog posts, and posted several new albums on my Picasa account, so go check them out!

On Thursday we went to the Hanbat Arboretum on the north side of town. Well, not right away. First we got on the bus and missed our stop . . . by a lot, thanks to our minimal Korean ability. By the time we figured out our mistake, we were at the end of the line, so we walked back towards our destination, mostly along the river (and sweated off a few pounds in the process). When we got there, we found that it was a very beautiful place, although very different from the arboretum I know (the Connecticut College one).

The beauty of nature was on display there, but in a very orderly and tidy way. Someone worked hard to carve out a green place in the middle of a busy city. The lawns are all perfectly trimmed, the trees and flowers evenly spaced. Although it was hot and humid (still! at the end of September!), quite a lot of people were there walking, and children were riding their bikes on the track around the central lawn.

I'd love to write more, really, but at this point, I've been up half the night sorting and uploading photos...I'm exhausted. Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Links for my Korea albums to date:

City of Daejeon
Daejeon National Cemetery
Hanbat Arboretum

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Chuseok!

That's right, it's the holidays here in Korea! This week is Chuseok, the thanksgiving festival. Chuseok is a holiday of the lunar calendar and corresponds to the full moon, which means it is a date that shifts from year to year. This year it falls on Wednesday, but Tuesday and Thursday are also national holidays so that people can travel to be with their families. From what I've heard, Chuseok is all about giving thanks for a bountiful harvest, enjoying time with your family, and also honoring your ancestors and deceased relatives. I asked some of the Korean students here what they do for Chuseok. They said that back in the day, Koreans dressed up in the hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and danced in a circle. They were very quick to reassure me that they didn't do that anymore, though. In modern times, it really is pretty similar to American Thanksgiving in the sense that people get together with their families and have a huge meal.

Speaking of which, Haejung-imo invited us over to her house today to have another cooking lesson and to share in the feast. She taught us to make chapche, which is a very tasty and colorful dish. You cook sweet potato noodles in boiling water, while meanwhile preparing onions, peppers, carrots, mushrooms, beef, and egg. Then you add all of those things together and season with salt, soy sauce, and sesame oil. We also had sukju namul and kong namul, which are vegetable dishes consisting of different kinds of sprouts. Then there was a dish made with silverfish (I forgot the Korean name), and pickles seasoned with sesame, and pork and kimchi stir-fried together. For dessert we ate hotteok, cakes with red bean filling, dried persimmons (they taste kind of like apricots, I think), and we drank red tea. I stuffed myself, and it was probably the most healthful holiday meal I've ever had, too. (Haejung-imo promises that if we keep eating Korean cooking, we will be a lot slimmer by the time we go home.) Another traditional Chuseok food that we had earlier in the week is seongpyon (I think that's right -- I still haven't figured out how to romanize Korean words), which is a small rice cake with filling inside (I like the kind with honey).

In other news, yesterday we took advantage of our time off from classes to visit the Daejeon National Cemetery. It's an enormous graveyard that also serves as a worship site, a war memorial, and a beautiful and peaceful natural preserve. Heads of state, soldiers, police, and other people who have made contributions to the country are buried there. Special ceremonies are held throughout the year to mark important dates, such as Memorial Day and the anniversary of the Korean War. They also have service projects where elementary school children come and tend the graves, cleaning them and leaving flowers, in order to teach them patriotism and respect for the country's fallen heroes.

We started our visit by driving down a road lined with many Korean flags -- only appropriate for a patriotic place. The cemetery grounds proper, i.e. the sites that are considered holy, are accessed by entering through the Red Gate. Past the Red Gate is the Fountain for National Defense (which for some reason was not fountaining!). This fountain is topped with a bronze statue of Koreans holding up the globe. The center of the fountain is a beautiful relief carving that, according to our guidebooks, features symbols of longevity.

Behind the fountain is the Memorial Tower, which commemorates the past, present, and future of the country, as well as being a monument to those patriots who have died and their achievements. The middle of the tower reaches up skyward, intricately decorated with bronze carvings, while at the base carved stone wings stretch out left and right. At the bottom of the tower a poem is engraved (I wish I could read it), and there is an elaborate incense burner for use during ceremonies. Inside the tower, there are memorial plaques for those soldiers MIA or KIA who were never retrieved, as well as a sepulcher for unidentified bodies. The tower also contains some very beautiful art, with guardian statues to watch over the dead. (Or so the guidebook tells me. We couldn't actually go in.) Even without anything going on there (it was a quiet day with very few visitors), the feel of the place, standing at the base of the tower, was overwhelming. It was, for me, a little like attending a Holy Week service, where breaking the reverent silence feels like sacrilege.

After that, we walked around the cemetery grounds to enjoy the natural beauty around us. Most of the cemetery is surrounded by mountains, so it is in its own peaceful little valley. The day was overcast (and sometimes rainy), but at points the sun emerged to light up the mountains. We hiked up a little ways into the hills to enjoy the view, strolled through the cemetery's bamboo forest, and stopped to admire the wildflower garden and the ponds.

We also visited the "future-oriented" Patriotism Hall. This building serves as a museum for teaching today's generation about the past, with a major focus on the Korean War. Unfortunately it was all in Korean, so I can't say that I learned much. Also unfortunately, we couldn't get into the Memorial Hall and Enshrinement Hall, where burials and religious rituals are held. We think maybe people are only allowed in there on official business.

I took many pictures of this very beautiful and awe-inspiring place. I hope to upload them soon and share them with all of you!

Next week, once the holidays are over, we move from this transitional period into actual work at our volunteer sites. Stay tuned to hear all about it!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting some fresh air

Yesterday, after classes and after meeting with Haejung-imo and Uncle Simon to discuss our plans for the upcoming week, Jenny, Katie, and I decided to go out and explore the city a little. (We'd wanted to before, but, not knowing where anything was, we hadn't gotten very far -- until someone was kind enough to give us maps and tour guides.) Since we don't know how to use the bus system yet, we decided to splurge on a taxi to take us to the Daejeon station, where the "old downtown" is. After crossing over an enormous curvy white bridge and stopping for a few minutes to watch the synchronized fountains shooting off in patterns in the river below (it was a seriously awesome spot, just wait for the pictures), we found it. There's a certain broad street that's walled off to traffic so people can just take their time and stroll around without worrying about crossing the street and getting run over by the crazy drivers. You can find a ton of cafes and norebangs (singing rooms, where you go to do karaoke) there, as well as some sizable crowds.

Afterwards we explored the underground mall. At first I was confused. I thought those stairs in the sidewalk went down to a subway. Well, it turned out to be this underground mall and arcade. It was pretty much like any mall -- lots of teeny tiny shops where you can buy clothes, shoes, cell phones, and overpriced snacks. We also ended up discovering an open-air market, where we walked for quite a while. Jenny bought some hotteok from a street vendor to share with Katie and me. This small snack is just genius. It's a little cake, and when you bite in it has a sweetness to it. It was fresh off the griddle, melt-in-your-mouth warm and chewy. Best of all, it was extremely cheap -- 5 for 1,000 won. That's less than a dollar people. We may have to go back for more of those.

Then today we had another field trip! We went to Jeonju, which is a bit more than an hour from Daejeon, to do some sightseeing. Our first stop was at a church built around the turn of the century, in 1908. It was interesting because of its shape: the church is L-shaped so that men sit in one wing, women sit in the other, and the pastor stands in the pulpit where the two wings meet. This was a concession the Christian missionaries made to Korean traditional values, where men and women are not of equal status.

Next we visited the Jesus Hospital Museum. This is a brand-new museum commemorating the hundred-year-old history of Jeonju's Jesus Hospital (which is actually the Presbyterian Medical Mission, but that's a mouthful, especially for people who don't speak English). Jesus Hospital was founded by Presbyterian missionaries, and brought a lot of important medical innovations to the region, such as setting up Korea's first center for cancer treatment and initiating a program to get rid of parasites. At the museum you can see lots of the medical equipment they had back in the day. Some things, like the stethoscope, haven't changed much -- same simple principle applies. Other things I saw made me glad that I live in 2010. (Although someday people will probably look back and think the same thing about our times!) There were also many photos of the patients and the hardships they suffered -- malnutrition, tumors, leprosy, and much more. One particularly disturbing picture had to do with the hospital's campaign to reduce parasites in the area. Apparently, the program started because one day, a young girl collapsed in front of the hospital. When the doctors took her in to be examined, they found she had over 1,000 parasites in her body! The photo was of a pile of all those parasites that the doctors took out of her. (Fortunately this was not right before eating.)

Afterwards we took a trip to the Korean cultural village, which is apparently a pretty big tourist attraction for Jeonju. We had a lunch of bibimbap, a dish the city is famous for. For those of you who don't know bibimbap, well, you can make it with lots of different things. But the basic idea is that you put vegetables and seaweed (or meat, or tofu, or whatever you prefer) on top of rice, and then a fried egg on top of that. Then you add spicy gochujang sauce (made from red peppers) and mix it all together before eating. With the bibimbap we had a delicious pancake (I forget the Korean name!) containing green onions and pieces of squid. It was soooo good, hot and flaky and savory. Then we took our time walking around the village. One of the main things to do there is to watch them make hanji, a special paper made from the bark of mulberry trees. And of course to buy hanji products. It seems that if you're sufficiently resourceful, you can make just about anything from it. There were many beautiful decorative boxes and fans made with hanji, plus much more. We even saw hanji socks! I wonder if they would fall apart if they got wet, like regular paper does? If so, they would not have been good socks for today. It was pouring more or less nonstop all day long, and our shoes got pretty soaked and muddy at times.

Thanks to everyone who commented last time! I love hearing from you, so please keep telling me what you think!

Monday, September 6, 2010

First days

So, hey there, everybody. I'm in South Korea!

The travel out there was pretty much as you would expect -- very long and tiring. We had a 14-hour flight from JFK to Narita, Japan, and then, after a brief layover, another three hours to Seoul. From Seoul it was about a three-hour drive to Daejeon, a drive that took place late at night. As we were driving through the Seoul area, high-rise apartment buildings surrounded us, each with myriad windows shining different colors of yellow, orange, pink, even pale green and blue. In the dark, the steel and concrete of the buildings were invisible, and instead we were inside a gigantic stained-glass cathedral formed by the city itself. In that moment, I just had a feeling that God had brought me to the exact place where I needed to be.

Eventually we got to Daejeon, and the place that will be our home for the next year. The house we're staying in, which is on the campus of Hannam University, is amazing, almost too nice for poor missionaries! We have everything we need and more. Originally, the house was meant for guests of the university -- visiting dignitaries and so on. Simon and Haejung-imo ("imo" means mother's side aunt. We call her that because in Korea, it is considered rude to call older people by their first name only) live very close and we see them often. The first few days, we visited the chaplains' office and got introduced, and generally just got accustomed to the area.

On Sunday, the three of us attended the university church. The worship service was all in Korean, yet had familiar elements. It was a really weird experience to hear the organ start up with the tune "Holy, Holy, Holy", a song that is so familiar to me, and then hear the congregation chime in in words that I don't understand. We also got to say the Apostles' Creed in English while everyone else was saying it in Korean. Partway through we left the service to meet with the youth group. As I understand it, we will be giving a lesson and talking with them every week. They are mostly high schoolers, and their English is very good. They seem eager to get to know us.

After the service, there was a coffee hour featuring gimbap (which is a common snack or picnic food, and looks like what Americans think of as sushi -- seaweed wrapped around rice and vegetables) and tteok (rice cake). Then some of our new Korean acquaintances dragged us away to the Bible study for the college students. It was very well attended, probably around 50 or so youth. Every Sunday after church, the students gather together in one place, sing and pray and eat, and then break into small groups of eight or nine to talk about the scripture passage for the week. Each of us Americans was put into a different small group so that we could get to make friends with the Korean students. The people in my group are great (a little more on them later). And all of them were very interested in the question of whether the pizza we were eating was like American pizza or not. (It was, pretty much. I think takeout pizza is pretty similar anywhere you go, although I've heard that there are kimchi, bulgogi, and octo-squid pizzas out there.)

This week, Jenny, Katie, and I are visiting some of the potential sites we can work at. Both today and yesterday, we went to inner city centers that have various programs designed to meet the needs of Daejeon's poor and socially disadvantaged groups. There are after-school programs for children from broken families; a fellowship and exercise program for the elderly; a program to support the poor migrant workers living in Korea; and much more. They are very exciting sites with many opportunities to interact with the community, and we're really looking forward to getting involved. For now, though, we're concentrating on our language classes and making connections in the immediate community. In a few weeks, around the end of September (after the Chuseok holidays), we'll begin our field work. Hopefully, when we begin, we'll have partners from Hannam volunteering alongside us. Having one of the Korean students would be great, and would help bridge the communication and culture gap.

Speaking of communication gaps, today was also my second day of Korean language classes. The classes are very necessary because, while the Korean educational system currently has mandatory English education from a fairly young age, the average person that you meet in a shop, a bank, or a restaurant still doesn't speak it fluently or even competently. The classes are in reading, writing, and speaking, and run Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 1 pm. In other words, it's pretty intensive! Right now, there's a lot of reading practice and repetition of basic words and phrases. I have three different sonsengnim (teachers), and all three are really amazing people who know how to encourage while still working you hard. Most of the students are Chinese, but there are a few from other countries like the U.S., Taiwain, Japan, India, etc.

As for entertainment, we've had our fair share of that, too. Yesterday, Simon and Haejung-imo took us to Daejeon's traditional Korean market. In the fish market, we saw every kind of seafood under the sun, and even some things that I didn't know people ate, like stingray. There were also incredible specimens of common seafood, like the giant Russian crabs. One of those is probably about the size of my torso! Then in the fruit and vegetable market, there were mountains of fresh produce stacked up on display. We bought some Korean pears for our dessert -- they're like a cross between an American pear and an apple, both juicy and crisp. It was a wholesale market, so it isn't really a place to do our regular shopping, but it was definitely fun to see!

In Korean restaurants, things are done a little differently than in the U.S. There are some more modern kinds, but in a traditional sort of restaurant, you take off your shoes when you come in and sit on the floor around low wooden tables. On the table is a burner, and the food is brought out to cook on it, right in front of you. In fact, you actively participate in the cooking process by grilling your own meat to taste, adding ingredients to your own soup, and so forth. The servers also bring out bowls of rice, and lots of small dishes for you to eat with the main dish. There's kimchi, almost always, and sometimes a vegetable slaw or scrambled egg-type dish. Korean radish is also common because it's a great way to cool down your mouth after you eat something spicy. And since Koreans love to put red pepper in their food, there are a lot of spicy offerings. Koreans eat with chopsticks (METAL chopsticks. I practiced all spring and summer eating with wooden chopsticks and, if I do say so myself, got pretty darn good . . . and then I find out that the metal kind the Koreans use are a whole different ball game. They are MUCH more slippery), but they also use spoons for soup and rice. Overall, eating out is much cheaper in Korea than in the states. You can get a nice big meal for 4,000-5,000 won (about $3.50-$4.50 US).

Haejung-imo has also promised to teach us to cook Korean foods, and so far, we learned to make changjorim. This is where you cook a piece of meat until it is tender, then pull it apart into little strips and cook in with vegetables (usually carrots and onions and whatever else you want) in a sauce of soy, garlic, and sesame oil. Then you serve it over rice (which is very easy to make when you have a rice cooker, which we do).

We've been exploring the city in our free time, although until we learn enough Korean to use the bus system, we can't go very far. Although one afternoon, two Korean students were nice enough to take us on a drive around downtown, where all the posh department stores are. We also saw the two symbols of Daejeon -- a giant metal tower and a bridge with two gigantic arches, one red, one blue.

I also got taken out by my small group from Bible study. Besides meeting on Sundays to talk religion, they also meet during the week to share a meal and each other's company. We went out to eat bulgogi (grilled meat) cooked in gochujang (spicy red pepper sauce). My new friends taught me how to eat it Korean-style, wrapping some meat and rice and sauce in an edible leaf and eating the whole thing as a package. Besides that and numerous small dishes, we also had chige, which is a kind of soup. You can put all kinds of things in it, but it this case, we had ramyun (noodles), greens, and meat in a spicy broth. It was terrific, and very filling. When I tried to pay my share, I learned that when Koreans go out to eat together, they don't split the check. One person pays for everybody, and then next time, someone else treats.

Afterwards, we went to a cafe to hang out, and -- surprise -- the new girl and the foreigner, yours truly, was front and center. Everyone in my group has been studying English for a few years at least, but since they haven't been immersed in an English-speaking culture, none are fluent. They know this, and it makes many of them self-conscious about trying to speak in front of me. Add this to the fact that I have next to no Korean, and it means that we have to work hard to understand each other. But slowly and surely, we can do it. Over the two hours we spent together, the shyer members of the group got more comfortable talking to me, bit by bit. One of the ways we got to know each other and feel less shy was by helping each other with language. I helped them with their English, and they were excited to teach me Korean words. We had a long talk about the differences between Korean and American culture. They were all really interested in hearing my thoughts about living in the two different countries, and they were all eager to share their insights as well. All in all, I had an amazing time hanging out with them and bonding.

I would say that that's been my experience in general. Since I got here, everyone has been so ready and willing to open their heart to me and make me a part of their community. I feel so grateful and so blessed for all my new friends and new opportunities.

That's all for today. Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving festival, is coming up later this month, so look forward to hearing all about that!

Friday, August 27, 2010


Hi everyone, Becky here. As you may or may not know, all of us national and international YAVs are currently having a week of orientation at Stony Point, NY, before heading out to our respective sites. So far, the experience has been nothing but good! It’s all been sunshine, good food, and good company. Oh, and Jesus too. It’s an indescribably amazing experience to live 24/7 among people who really get the importance of faith to you and your feeling of being compelled to act on it, to seek out more. Up until now, I had really never known that. Faith and religion and God aren’t things I can talk to even my greatest friends about – not without making them profoundly uncomfortable. They, students at a liberal college in the northeast, (understandably) see religion as the source of many of the things that plague our society: the paranoid discrimination against those who are different; the irrational clinging to old ways of thinking and the unwillingness to accept new one; the hypocrisy of pretending to serve others while serving only oneself. They see nothing positive about religion and are proud to proclaim that they have none. And while I love all of them to death, their attitudes mean that I’m always holding a part of myself back. They just don’t grasp how I grew up in a community of faith, eating and breathing my religion, and that to shy away from it is to shy away from a part of me.

This is different, though. Finally I feel like I’ve found my people.

The typical schedule includes a morning devotion and Bible study. The rest of the morning and the afternoon are dedicated to seminars on difficult topics we are bound to encounter during our year of service. Then at night we have a vespers service, where instead of a sermon or Bible lesson, former YAVs share the stories of some of the experiences that have transformed them.

And let’s not forget small group time! I was placed with other international YAVs going to Kenya, India, Guatemala, and Peru, and every day we’ve had time set aside just to talk and get out our feelings about the whole process. All of them are amazing people, and if you have the time, I highly recommend going to check out theirs and other YAV blogs. There are so many interesting stories that are about to be told this year!

This morning, the amazing Rick Ufford-Chase (whom some of you may remember as Moderator of GA, and who is now co-director of Stony Point Center) gave us a great lesson in globalization. I honestly think I learned more about economics -- and the politics that allow and aggravate economic disasters -- in the two hours he spoke to us than in the rest of my life combined. Heck, you could apply that statement generally to this entire week; it’s all been an extreme learning experience. On Tuesday, we took a long hard look at race and how race relations dominate our culture; on Wednesday, we discussed self-care, both physical and psychological, during a time of stress and culture shock; yesterday, we had a lesson in cross-cultural conflict resolution, where we were forced to think about whether our way of dealing with problems was always the best one. We’ve also talked about vocational discernment, interpreting experiences, and oh, by the way, let’s not forget God. It’s been pretty mentally grueling . . . although definitely in a good way.

So, what’s next? Well, all of us are heading to churches in this presbytery for commissioning services this Sunday. It’s great that there are so many congregations that are willing to welcome us into their homes and give us their support! Katie, Jenny, and I (the Korea gang) are going to Gilead Presbyterian Church, where we will tell our stories of who were are, where we’re going, and how we came to the YAV program. Then it’s back to Stony Point to pack one last time, because we ship out on Monday.

All in all, we expect it will be about 24 hours of nonstop traveling until we reach Daejeon. Then we’ll be moving into our new home, starting intensive language training, and looking for job placements. I’m super excited about everything, but I wanted to let you know that it may be a few days before I’m fully settled in and able to take some time to write about it. I won’t forget, though, and I hope everybody back home will keep an eye out for the next update!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What's new with YAV

Hi again, everyone! I thought you might like an update on the process so far. I am pleased to report that I (finally) got my work visa -- thanks to Simon and Haejung for all their help with that! I am also doing very well in my fundraising. Thanks to everyone's generous support, I have already raised around $7,000 towards my $9,000 goal! I hope that the word will continue to spread within the presbytery, not just for the sake of my fundraising, but to let people know about this fantastic program. There are presbyteries out there who regularly publicize this and send their young people to do mission work with the program, and I'd love it if our presbytery could be one of them someday!

I leave in just a few weeks -- orientation begins on August 23. All the YAVs for all the sites will be together at Stony Point, NY, for a week of discussion, reflection, and learning for the year ahead. I have homework, too: before I go, I have to read up on mission work and cross-cultural conflict (or rather, how to avoid/defuse it). From orientation, we will be departing directly to our places of service around the world. We're flying out of JFK on Air Nippon and landing in Tokyo, and from there we'll hop another flight to Seoul and then travel south to Daejeon.

I'd also like to take this chance to introduce the Parks to you. Haejung Park is the coordinator for the new Korean YAV site, and she and her husband Simon are just about the two nicest people on planet Earth. They are so dedicated and so enthusiastic and so caring, and I am so blessed to be able to work with them in this upcoming year. They have been serving in mission for years, and you can read about them and their work on the PC(USA)'s website at Their letters are also posted there, and I think that many of you will find them to be of interest.

It's getting close to that time now, and I just can't wait! I'll post new info here when I have it. Look forward to it!

(To my Crossroads readers: I hope you will all attend my commissioning service on August 15! The lovely Rev. Christine Caton will be presiding, and we're working on what we will hope will be a meaningful service for all of you, as well as some special refreshments!)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A new adventure

Hi, my name is Becky Francisco. I'm 22 and just recently graduated from college. I'm a member of Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Waterford, Connecticut. And I'm about to become a YAV.

"YAV" stands for Young Adult Volunteer. It's a program of our denomination that offers opportunities for people between the ages of 19 and 30 at both national and international sites. I have the privilege to be heading to South Korea as one of these Young Adult Volunteers, and I’d like to share with you a little about what I’ll be doing.

I’ll be stationed in the city of Daejeon, in the central region of the country and about a hundred miles south of Seoul. It’s home to about 1.5 million people. I’ll be living in a little house on the campus of Daejeon’s Hannam University, along with two other YAVs.

The work we’ll be doing is twofold. First of all, education. The three of us will be spending a lot of time tutoring Korean students, from elementary school age to college age, in conversational English. Second, we hope to partner with local Korean youth groups and volunteer in those underprivileged communities that have been left behind by the economic boom in the last few decades.

One important aspect of the YAV program is that it is a ministry of being, not of doing. While I certainly will be working hard at my specific tasks, I am not going there to convert non-Christians or to try to overturn the social order overnight. Instead, my fellow YAVs and I are there as cultural liaisons of a sort – a window to another culture, both for the people of Daejeon and, hopefully, for all of you back home. There are certainly a lot of differences in the ways we live, both big and small. Instead of spaghetti, I’ll be eating kim chi and rice; instead of shaking hands, I’ll bow to people I’m meeting for the first time; and everywhere I go, people will be saying things like “Annyung haseyo” and “Ottoke chineseyo” instead of “Hi” and “How are you?”

It will definitely be a challenge to adjust to living in such a different place. And yet, while we do have all these differences, even more importantly, we have something in common – our faith. One of the great joys of this ministry is that it reminds us that we are all one in Jesus Christ, that we truly do have brothers and sisters around the world, that we are connected to believers in every time and place.

And it is to be a journey of faith. YAVs live very simply, with the basic needs of living provided, and little more. YAVs are leaders in worship in the communities where we serve, whether that be preaching or singing in the choir or working with the youth group. And YAVs are a community unto themselves, getting together regularly for reflection and Bible study and to share the things they’re learning with each other. It is a lifestyle meant to be “poor in things but rich in soul”, because it’s more than just reaching out to others; it’s also reaching inward to grow stronger in faith by living it day by day.

How can you support me in my mission effort? First of all, by keeping me in your thoughts and prayers. Knowing I have loving support will be especially important to me when I’m far from home. Secondly, I hope everyone will keep up with me while I’m abroad. I will be posting a monthly newsletter on the PCUSA website, and I will also be keeping a blog recording my experiences.

Finally, each YAV is asked to defray the cost of sending them overseas by raising $9,000 in funds. If this work is something you’re really interested in, and you’d like to make a personal donation, that would be fantastic. There are two ways to make a tax-deductible gift: on the Presbyterian Church’s website ( or by mailing a check to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3678. It is important that all donations are marked with my name and account number, which is E210901. For all those of you who have donated already, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Obviously, I am so excited to be spending the upcoming year on this project, and I would love to talk to any and all of you who are curious to know more. I’ll be leaving at the end of this August, and in the upcoming weeks I plan on posting more detailed information on my blog, along with some pictures of Daejeon.