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!


  1. Wow, sounds like great people, great food, great spirit. Can't wait to see the pictures.

  2. Ha, I commented on the old post. Silly me. Sounds like everything is great except the minor computer issue. Good friends, great new adventures and experiences, and lots of support to help you on your journey.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  3. What a great start to your adventure in Korea. After you return home, I'm nominating you for Ambassador to Korea.

    Cheers, Uncle Denny

  4. Hi Becky, love your blog...glad to see you're doing well...keep it up!

    Nancy Warmath

  5. Hi Becky,
    Looks like you are on an amazing adventure for the next year. I'm happy that you had the opportunity to partake in this project. Looking forward to more posts.

    Uncle Dave

  6. Great detailed description! Feels just like being there. Looking forward to pictures and hearing more as the adventure develops!

  7. Couldn't post a comment on today's blog, so went back to this one. You will have a complete record of your year this way. It will be interesting to look at these after a few months, when your perspective has changed!