Sunday, May 29, 2011

Glimpses of Korean history

Earlier this month, we set aside a day to visit the city of Kwangju, a place where our missionary predecessors flourished. The city has a long tradition of missionaries, who notably founded a hospital, a girl’s school, and a nursing school. We were lucky enough to get tours of these places, and also to visit the mission house (an interesting mixture of Korean and Western architecture) and the missionary graveyard, a beautiful site located on top of a hill.

Missionary graveyard 

Kwangju is very significant in recent Korean history because of the democratic movement, culminating in the uprising on May 18th, 1980. In brief: On that day, a protest against the government, mostly by unarmed students, turned disastrous. Paratroopers were ordered to suppress the protest and they did so violently, with the use of clubs and bayonets, eventually even opening fire on the crowd. Not only were many protesters murdered, but innocent bystanders were killed in the crossfire. This led to enraged protesters organizing to fight back, and more than a week of hostilities ensued until the city was retaken by the army on May 27th.

At the memorial parkThe uprising was in response to the military dictatorship of Jeon Du Hwan, an ROK general who had taken control of the country via a coup in December 1979 (generally), and the May 17th announcement of the expansion of martial law in Korea (specifically). While the uprising did not achieve anything directly – martial law was not lifted, and Jeon remained in power for eight more years – it is nonetheless an important moment for Korean democracy. The courage of the protesters and the people who resisted the government’s brutality were continuing inspirations for the rest of Korea not to give up hope. The response to the massacre also revealed depths of kindness and generosity in people as they reached out to help each other – sharing food, donating blood, and so forth – and to comfort their grieving neighbors. We paid a visit to the memorial park that currently stands in Kwangju in testament to those terrible events, but also to the spirit of resistance that flourished there.

Our other field trip this month was to one of the most significant lines in the world. I never realized that the DMZ was such big tourist business, but apparently it is; 500 tourists come through a day, on average. Mostly they’re foreigners – South Korean residents have to undergo a three-to-six-month background check if they want to visit, presumably so the government can ascertain that they aren’t spies or anything else suspicious like that.

Even so, it’s not the most convenient tourist destination in the world. You have to go through an agency (which isn’t cheap, by the way), you have to sign a release saying that your family won’t sue if you get killed, you get inspected twice by soldiers on the way in, and there are lots o’ rules. To name a few:

  • You have to dress properly. No sleeveless shirts, no shorts, no pants with holes, no flip-flops or sandals without backs to them, no national logos, and so on.
  • No carrying bags of any kind – anything that could be hiding a bomb or a weapon.
  • No pointing, waving, or making other weird hand gestures.
  • No cameras with large lenses and no taking pictures, except in a few very limited areas.

These are concerns having to do with security and with the very tense relationship between North and South, but also nobody wants the North Koreans taking pictures that could be used in propaganda. They are constantly watching the South Korean half with binoculars and cameras.

But before we get there, let’s take a step back. That wasn’t our first stop. Before that, we went to Unification Park and  At Unification ParkImjingak Park, which wait on the road north. Unification Park is home to numerous monuments to the heroes of the Korean War, such as the monument honoring journalists who were killed in the conflict; the monument to ten suicide bombers who gave their lives attacking a North Korean camp; and a couple of monuments to individuals who performed acts of incredible bravery. At Imjingak, you can see Freedom Bridge, which was built in a hurry by South Korean soldiers fleeing North Korean forces; a very old train, riddled with over a thousand bullet holes, that was left behind enemy lines after it was attacked; and four statues facing north, who represent South Koreans looking back towards family members they left behind. There are also numerous banners and ribbons demanding peace and unification for the two countries, once one. And there is an altar that serves an important purpose. It’s a Korean tradition (one that originates in Confucianism) to return to one’s hometown and honor one’s ancestors, for example on Chuseok. But after the division into North and South Korea, people with roots in the north could no longer return there. So an altar was built at Imjingak as a place for those people to come instead.

Only afterwards did we continue our journey north, towards Camp Bonifas, the last outpost before the DMZ proper. There we were debriefed and presented with a history of the place before boarding a military bus and heading for the Joint Security Area. This is where diplomatic talks are held under the aegis of the U.N. Originally, the JSA was shared between North and South, and soldiers from both sides could cross the Military Demarcation Line freely within that neutral zone. But after a conflict in the 1970s in which several people were killed, the division became strictly enforced.

The whole area, by the way, is a landmine zone. The roads and the outposts themselves are in areas that have been cleared, but wandering off the paths is inviting one of the tens of thousands of landmines still in the ground to go off under your foot.

029The actual JSA meeting buildings are very small. We were allowed to go into one, where two soldiers were standing guard. Specifically, they have one guy watching the door that opens on the North Korean side. They secure that door during tours, because there have been incidents where the North Koreans have tried to pull people through to the other side. (We only actually saw one North Korean guard, standing across the way watching us through binoculars.)

As for the guards on the South Korean side, they are chosen from among the elite. They are often black belts in multiple martial arts, know multiple languages, and are tall and imposing-looking. They wear military police helmets and have huge sunglasses so no one can tell where they’re looking. On duty, they stand in a taekwondo ready stance.

As we made our way out of the DMZ, heading back for Camp Bonifas, we stopped briefly at the Bridge of No Return. This was the location of the final POW exchange of the war. When the North Korean prisoners crossed the halfway point on the bridge to return to their own, and the South Korean prisoners did likewise, it marked the last time that people traveled freely between the two countries, once one.

Another tour that is available (although we didn’t do it) is a tour that goes to the third infiltration tunnel. For those of you who don’t know, South Korea has so far discovered four tunnels drilled through the rock under the border, all of a sufficient size to move a lot of troops through them quickly, all well-positioned for an attack on Seoul. The South Korean government has blocked off these four tunnels, but it is believed there may be quite a few more that they have yet to find – possibly up to a total of 17 tunnels in all.

Seeing all of this really brought home to me the wrongness of the situation. I had always known about the Korean War and the division of the country, but seeing a people armed to the teeth against itself is a lot more powerful than reading about it in a history textbook. After all, how frightening is it to draw a line of barbed wire across your country? How horrible is it not to know if your relatives on the other side of the border are alive or dead? And how messed up is it that we accept that as a matter of course these days?

For more pictures of Kwangju, see here. DMZ trip pictures are here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Are you being served?

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” – John 13:8

A couple of weeks back – on Palm Sunday, actually – I came walking into church with a big bowl full of water and a towel. “Okay, folks,” I announced to my youth group. “Today I’m going to wash your feet.” It seemed appropriate, at the beginning of Holy Week, to reenact one of its defining moments of love; to think about Jesus, the servant Lord, and how we, in our turn, can serve others. A nice neat meaningful little Sunday school lesson, wouldn’t you agree?

One problem, though: nobody wanted to get their feet washed.

I really should have seen that one coming, honestly. After all, doesn’t the Bible story turn out the same way? Peter doesn’t want Jesus down on his hands and knees, scrubbing away his grime. He doesn’t go into details about why, but clearly the idea is an uncomfortable one.

In the same way, my youth group friends were not down with the foot-washing thing. The moment I declared my intentions, I was confronted with panicked expressions. “Why didn’t you warn us about this?” they asked me. And although they repeatedly balked at the idea of me taking a towel to their feet, they offered to do mine instead.

I took a couple of important lessons from this. First of all, don’t spring ritual cleansings on people – not even during Holy Week. But in a more general sense, this story has become representative of the struggles of my year of service.

Every day I’ve shown up at my children’s center, eager for something to do. Anything, really, provided that it’s useful. It doesn’t have to be teaching English. I just want to help. Heck, I would scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush if that might be helpful.

But it wouldn’t. You see, our children’s center is a fully-functional place. It already has a wonderful staff and facilities for all its needs. It does not, repeat not, need me. That was an important illusion of mine that has been shattered. Don’t get me wrong – I never at any point leading up to my YAV year thought that I was going to be saving the world or changing things with a capital C. But I did think I would be a little more useful than this.

In fact, to date, I have done much less serving than being served. At first at the center, I was a dependent and a guest. People brought me drinks, washed my dishes, and just generally didn’t let me do anything, no matter how simple, for myself. That hospitality was hard to bear. I kept trying to say that I could handle myself – that I could even help out with things! But I got shot down pretty consistently. There were days when I thought I was going to go crazy sitting watching other people do all the work.

Slowly, bit by bit, things did start to change. They began to include me in other aspects of center life, and to let me help out with chores that weren’t dependant on being fluent in Korean. I was so absurdly grateful . . . If you had told me a year ago that one day I’d be overjoyed at being allowed to mop the floor, I would have recommended that you take yourself to the hospital and make sure you didn’t get your head hit. But these days, I feel like I’m starting to wise up a little. And in my work (or, sometimes, lack thereof) at the center, I recognize a more complicated process going on than my former idea of simple serving.

I may feel helpless and frustrated, even patronized, when I am not working, when others are doing things for me. And that’s exactly why I have to recognize that they must feel the same way. It’s not any better a solution for me to serve them one-sidedly. After all, how arrogant of me is it to assume that I am the only one who wants to be involved, working hard on something that is meaningful? I’ve come to realize that the concept that I am the only one who can serve, even if it is only unconsciously held, is one with unfortunate implications: it implies an offensive sort of superiority, and it’s the same fallacy that Jesus had to call Peter on: the most important lesson of serving is learning how to be served.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Yes, I still work at a children’s center

. . . although you would never know it, to look at my blog. In fact, I am so far behind that I find myself condensing events of the last few months into one short, easy-to-digest post, whereas once I would have tried to write about them in detail. Oops. Shoulda kept on top of that. Here are some of the high points of the spring, anyway.

  • February 25th concert. We spent the winter vacation honing our musical skills all day, every day. Going to the center back in those days meant the constant sound of recorders, ocarinas, xylophones, bells, piano, violins, and singing: the kids were all 031hard at work practicing the songs they were to perform (from memory). I was put in charge of the handbell choir, which was mostly made up of the younger kids. We spent hours every day practicing the songs “Butterfly” and “Morning Greeting” (better known in the U.S. as “Frere Jacques”). Then on the day of, everybody squeezed into their matching outfits and climbed onto the stage of the community center next door. I was very impressed with all the kids, and thought that the choir sounded especially good (although obviously no one was better than the bell players!). It was a great opportunity for the kids to show off for their families, their teachers, and each other.


  • Going to watch some soccer. Daejeon is home to a World Cup Stadium, which was our destination for some Saturday afternoon fun one weekend in March. The Daejeon City Football Club (DCFC) was playing FC Seoul in one of the first games of the season. The outcome was disappointing for soccer fans; at the end of the game, the score was tied up, and since apparently they don’t do overtime, the match was called as a draw. But for those people who could care less about sports (me), it wasn’t a problem. Hanging out together was a lot of fun in and of itself.010
  • Earth Day drawing contest. Around Earth Day, the Expo Science Park had a festival to educate people about environmentally-friendly behavior. This included booths where you learn about buying green products; craft stations where you made stuff (keychains, hankies, etc.) out of recyclable materials; free plant giveaways; and, last but not least, a drawing contest for kids. The topic: “The area where I live.” I suppose the idea was for kids to draw the things they found beautiful about their neighborhood. Interestingly enough, the kids I teach seem to share living space with dragons and robots. And the sky there is yellow.

Kids drawing 19

  • May 5th celebrations. 5/5 around here is a national holiday known as “Children’s Day.” Everybody gets the day off work and school, and the kids often get presents from their parents and grandparents. Our center children went to a festival in a local park, where they were having a talent show, and showed off their skills dancing to a K-pop song. Then everyone chowed down on snacks (like tteokbokki!) and had fun doing the activities, like jump rope, walking on stilts, and making balloon animals.
  • Music camp. We recently took an overnight camping trip to Muju Resort up in the mountains surrounding Daejeon. (Not actual, outdoor camping, to be clear – we stayed in a building.) We brought our recorders and our ocarinas and our singing voices to learn some great new songs (for next year’s concert, maybe?). There was plenty of time to play outside, too. And at night everybody curled up on the floor and giggled themselves to sleep. Ah, good times, good times.


And now you know why I have no time to write. I’m totally busy, with all this on top of the usual stuff! At any rate, that’s a quick summary of what’s new (and not so new) in the world of Becky Francisco. Continue to stay tuned!

Somebody start an import company, quick

Oh man, I am so behind on my blogging. I haven’t written a proper blog on my YAV work since Christmas, and believe me, I feel bad about it. I’m currently working on rectifying that. In the meantime, please accept this to tide you over.

“This” is a list of things that I really enjoy about Korea and Korean culture, things that have often caused me to ask, “Why hasn’t this caught on in America?”

1. Tteokbokki. A popular and cheap snack food that combines the soft squishy goodness of tteok (rice cake) with a kick of spicy flavor! (Actually, I could go on and on naming Korean foods I like that need to be more widely known in my home country. Tteokbokki gets special mention because I just think it is really delicious.)

Korean street food, mmm

2. Heated floors. In our YAV house, and in many other places around Korea, heating comes via hot water flowing through pipes under the floor. This is brilliant because a) the rising heat warms the house very efficiently, and b) I’m the sort whose feet are always cold. Seriously, we’ve been very toasty this winter. I think this system works better than what we have in our house in the U.S.

Press the button for zapping action!3. Mosquito-zapping tennis rackets. We’ve all had the experience of that pesky bug bothering us, the one we just can’t seem to swat. Well what if you had something with a nice large surface area – much larger than your traditional flyswatter – and it electrocuted your bugs so that you didn’t have to worry about whether they were properly squished? If you live in Korea, this doesn’t have to be just a pipe dream! I’d bring one home, but I don’t think they would allow it on the plane.

4. Combination Bible/hymnals. Why not cut down on the number of heavy books in your church? Place all your worship aides in one volume, like the Koreans do!

5. The jjimjilbang. When you’re all stressed out from working hard at your YAV placement, why not drop in at the jjimjilbang? For just a few dollars (seriously), you get up to 24 hours of access to the sauna-like facilities. The main focus is the hot rooms (the salt room, the soot room, the red soil room, etc.), which are available at varying temperature levels and degrees of humidity, all the way up the bulgama, or cooking pot, which is slightly cooler than sitting in boiling water. The idea is to get clean by sweating. There are also cold ice rooms to cool you down when the heat is a little too much to take; massage chairs; quiet rooms for resting; cafeterias to supply your food and drink needs; and often play rooms for children. You can also stay there cheaply overnight, if you don’t mind sleeping in the traditional Korean-style (i.e. on the floor).

6. Lobster crane games. Okay, so maybe this last one is just for kicks. There is one of these on my walk home from work. Yes, it is what it sounds like. You put in some coins and you try to use the crane to pick up a live lobster. I really don’t know what the person who made this was even thinking. I wish I had a better picture than this to show you, too.

Lobster crane game

That’s all for now, folks. And I swear, more is coming, including: an update on children’s center activities; info about our recent trips to Kwangju and the DMZ; and some reflections on my life as a volunteer. Until then!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tis the spring of souls today

Now the queen of seasons, bright with the day of splendor,Shintanjin 14

with the royal feast of feasts comes its joy to render;Pink flowering tree

comes to glad Jerusalem, who with true affectionEnglish cafe

welcomes in unwearied strains Jesus’ resurrection. TulipsAs spring returns to the earth, may it return in your heart also. Happy Easter, everyone!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Japan Part 6: Hiroshima and Miyajima

The red circle is us.

Sorry this blog is so late in coming! I honestly meant to get it up sooner, but got taken out of action for a little while with a nasty stomach bug. Feeling much better now, though.

The main objective of our Hiroshima trip was to attend the peace forum, which was held in a beautiful little chapel at Hiroshima Women’s University. Many thoughtful and interesting opinions were shared, I think it goes without saying. Jenny, who has her masters in international development, took the opportunity to look at the root causes of violence in our world; Okdeuk took a more national approach, and discussed a problem very close to her country’s heart – the recent North/South Korea violence. The Japanese students who spoke talked about the local peace movement, how it was still strong so many years after the war, and how it opened their eyes and changed the way they thought about the world.

To go along with this, it was only Peace Park (Genbaku Dome in background)appropriate that we pay a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. And honestly, the only word I can think of to describe it is tsurai – that Japanese word that goes beyond just painful and into heartbreaking territory. One of the most striking images (and one I will carry with me always) is that of the Genbaku (atomic bomb) Dome. The dome was located almost directly beneath the epicenter of the explosion, which is why it can still be seen today; had it been further out, the  concussion would have hit it sideways and knocked it down. So today the dome occupies the strange position of being one of the few relics of the event, yet also a testament to how deadly and destructive that event was. Seeing its crumbling walls looming over the river, seeing the clouds move through the skeleton of the dome, is nothing short of haunting.

Moving on to something a little brighter: a big highlight of the Hiroshima trip was that we got to do homestays. I don’t want to knock the absolutely royal red-carpet treatment we got in some other places. However, for me, actually being received into someone’s home and sharing their life, if only for a day, was even more touching than any official welcome could be. The Shingu family – Yuu and her parents – took great care of me. They also let me use their kotatsu. (What’s that, you ask? Only one of the greatest Japanese inventions ever! It’s a table, you put your legs under it, and soon you’re all toasty and warm.) At any rate, Yuu and I had a lot of great conversation, because as it turns out, we have a common interest in linguistics – she studied French in addition to English. It was great to talk with her about the politics of language and share our cross-cultural experiences.

The day afterwards, I said my goodbyes to Yuu and her family, and our gang headed out on a sightseeing trip to Miyajima. Miyajima is an island in the nearby bay – you take a short ferry ride to reach it – and it is well-known as one of the most scenic places in Japan, due to its lush natural preserves as well as its traditional architecture, all surrounded by shimmering waters. Even in January, the effect was magical.

Itsukushima Shrine

To be more specific, the island is famous for its Itsukushima Shrine, a very old Shinto relic that is perched half on the shore, half on piers over the water. The torii, or shrine gate, is out in the middle of the bay, and back in the day, people had to steer their boats through there on their approach in order to purify them. People still worship at the shrine in the modern era, too; it’s customary to make a hatsumoude, the first shrine visit of the year, on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, in order to pray for good fortune, health, wisdom, etc. in the coming year.

We stopped in at the Buddhist temple on the mountainside, too, and got stared at by many little monk statues and several very large demon ones. Plus, I got my fortune told by an omikuji. That’s where you shake up a jar of sticks, draw one, and get an oracle according to the number on the stick. Seems like I will have good luck this year! (Well, fingers crossed, anyway.)

Miyajima is also the place to pick up your momiji manjuu, which are little cakes shaped like maple leaves. These are then filled with just about anything you like – red bean paste, green tea, honey, custard, chocolate, you name it. We stopped in at a little cafe specializing in the confection. However, there was no way I was gonna choose just one of those scrumptious options, so I ordered one of everything off the menu. (I did have extra money left in my food budget. Well worth it.)

Here are the pictures from Hiroshima, and here are the pictures from Miyajima. Once again, the props go to Katie and Soo-min, so thanks for letting me use your wonderful photos, guys! This concludes the epic Japan saga!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Japan Part 5: Tokyo

The red circle is us.

To be honest, Tokyo, the current capital of Japan and one of the biggest cities in the world, was not high on my list of places I wanted to see in Japan. Big cities are big cities, right?

Honestly, though, I am glad now that I got to have a look at it. Tokyo is definitely a glamorous place – like New York in that I don’t think I’d ever want to live there, but it was cool to visit. Actually, I find myself wishing that I had had more than a single day to check it out.

Our first stop was at Sensouji Temple in Asakusa. This temple is famous for its huge red paper lantern hanging over its huge red gate, also known as the “Thunder Gate.” The path to the temple is lined with stalls and shops selling everything imaginable to the “pilgrims” who have trekked their long way there.

Afterwards, we headed to the Meiji Shrine, which was built to commemorate the Meiji Restoration of 1868. That’s when the rule of the emperor was restored to Japan, which triggered great changes for the country, including modernization of both industry and education. The shrine itself was a simple, elegant structure, surrounded by acres of woodland. A number of people were there, offering up prayers. We didn’t stay long enough to disturb them.

Tokyo skyline

Following a rather disappointing visit to the Imperial Palace (they wouldn’t let us in!), we decided to take in some of the city’s more modern side, and visit some of Tokyo’s famous districts, such as:

  • Harajuku. An extremely colorful place, even on a Monday. Everywhere bright colors called out to us and delicious smells tempted us (I wound up with some delicious Indian food and a crepe for dessert).
  • Akihabara. A Mecca for lovers of all things electronic – computers, cameras, you name it. It’s also a place for diehard gamers to meet for conventions.
  • Shinjuku. Kind of like the Times Square of Tokyo – it’s where things are happening. Specifically shopping and fashion things. There were a ton of high-end clothing boutiques.

The problem was that we only really got to glimpse this stuff. Tokyo is just such a big place, I could have used a week seeing everything I wanted to see, like the Rainbow Bridge or the gardens in Shinjuku.

One other thing I got a peek at: Mt. Fuji, yes the Mt. Fuji, was visible through the train window on the way there. That alone made the trip to Tokyo worthwhile, at least for me. A fun story you may not know about Mt. Fuji: in one of Japan’s very old legends, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the emperor falls in love with a woman who turns out to be from the moon. Eventually, she has to return to her home there, but offers him an elixir of immortality as a parting gift. Since he doesn’t want to live forever without her, he climbs the highest mountain (the mountain closest to the sky, and thus, her) and burns it. From that day on, the mountain was called by the name “immortality”, becoming Mt. Fuji.

Actually, to be honest, my camera died near the end of the day in Osaka, and for the last couple of days in Japan I was unable to take any pictures. Thus I have to be indebted to Katie and Soo-min for lending me their photos from Tokyo – thanks so much, guys! Those pictures can be seen here.

The next (and last! finally!) part will be about Hiroshima. Also coming soon: the Beobdong Area Children’s Center has a concert tomorrow!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Japan Part 4: Osaka

The red circle is us.

The day after the Kyoto trip, we hopped on the train again – this time for only about 20 minutes – to visit Kobe’s neighbor, Osaka. Believe it or not, Osaka was also the capital once, a heck of a long time ago, even before Kyoto was. We’re talking around the 7th century here. At that time, it was called “Naniwa-kyo,” and was considered a vital seaport for trade, especially with Korea and China.

Yes, as you may be able to tell, we had a very historical day in Osaka, starting with a visit to the infamous Osaka Castle. It was the home of Mr. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, warrior and lord, who unified Japan in the sixteenth century. This is also the crazy guy who had the solid-gold portable tea room built, so that he could have tea in style, anywhere, anytime. Umm, and he might have invaded Korea a couple of times. And killed those Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki (Christian missionaries and laypeople of various origins) that I didn’t mention when I wrote part 2.

Since the castle got burned down once (or twice), the present-day Osaka Castle is a careful reconstruction of the original. Osaka CastleHowever, we were unable to enjoy the gorgeous insides, unlike we could in Kyoto’s Nijo Castle. The inside has been reborn as a museum, which explains the history of the castle in (excruciating) detail. We followed that up with a trip to the Osaka Museum of History, where we strolled through the eras of Japanese history and glimpsed the many different faces that Osaka wore over the years. And we got to role-play a little, putting on the traditional Japanese kimono, before relaxing downtown and getting some ice cream.

And on the last day of our trip (if I may be allowed to skip ahead a little here), we visited a significant mission site of the P.C. (USA) – the Yodogawa Christian Hospital. We were welcomed to the hospital by some very nice people (they put up “Welcome YAVs” signs in all the hospital hallways!) and got to tour their facilities. Afterwards, we had our own private worship in one of their chapels, with our own private minister, Rev. Choi, presiding. This before being treated to a lovely sushi box lunch (obentou in Japanese; some of you may be familiar with it).

At the Museum of History This hospital focuses on “whole-person healing” and the idea that both the body and soul of a sick person need care and nourishment. They are currently ranked number one in the nation out of all private hospitals. Because they are a Christian organization, a large percentage of the staff (13%) is Christian, although the patients are 99% not Christian (a reflection of the general populace). Nonetheless, patients give an overwhelmingly positive response to the hospital chaplains who visit them to pray with/for them. Every morning, they hold worship, which is available on TVs in every patient room. They also have a lunch-hour broadcast for those interested in tuning in. In fact, they just have so much going on and my descriptions really can’t do it justice, so if you want to know more, you can look at their website here.

Click here for more pictures of Osaka. Part 5 to come soon; the topic: Tokyo.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Japan Part 3: Kyoto

The red circle is us.

The city of Kyoto is one of the most famous in Japan. Its name literally means “capital city,” as it was the capital of Japan during its golden age, the Heian-kyo period, before the unified rule of the emperor was replaced with many warring feudal lords. In addition to being the seat of the government, it was also the birthplace of such literary masterpieces as The Tale of Genji and the Pillow Book, and it is still the home of many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. During the war, Kyoto was considered as a target for bombing, but was ultimately passed over because of the city’s great beauty and cultural heritage. Naturally, with my background in Japanese language and literature, I was very excited to visit here – it was the number one place on my list, actually – and see the legends that I had so far only imagined come to life for me. So I was glad that we had, more or less, a “free day” to take in as much as we could of the city.

Nijo Castle

It turns out that Kyoto is a city of fusion, thousand-year-old temples rubbing elbows with very modern skyscrapers and high-end fashion stores.  My favorite place that we visited was Nijo Castle, which was built to house shogunate troops and visiting (i.e., hostage) lords and their families. Everything was lavishly decorated, but in an understated, subtle way. The dark wood was overlaid with gold and green carvings, mainly of animals – tigers, cranes, hawks. The floors were, of course, covered by the traditional tatami (bamboo mats), but the floors in the sleeping rooms had an extra feature: they were designed to squeak obnoxiously whenever someone walked on them, so that it was impossible (well, very difficult) to sneak up and assassinate the castle’s inhabitants. They call these the “nightingale” floors. We also saw the secret doors built into the walls of the meeting rooms. These doors were for the bodyguards to hide behind, and kept the meeting private while still allowing quick and easy access to the lord’s private army should things get ugly, politically speaking.

Another highlight was Kiyomizu Temple, up on a cliff overlooking the city. The temple was founded in the eighth century, when a certain monk had a vision that told him to climb the mountain, bring down a log he found there, and carve it into the likeness of one of the Bodhisattvas. This he did (apparently), and founded a temple on the site. The temple’s chief feature is the water that comes down from the mountain. It is said that this water is holy water, and that drinking it will give you wisdom, good health, and long life. Of course we had to try it for ourselves. I don’t know about wisdom or good health, but as for long life, well . . . After drinking the water, I noticed that my camera (whose battery had been on the verge of dying) found the mysterious strength to carry on – the display showed the battery completely full again. Coincidence? I think not!! (Hey, no one said it had to be long life for humans!)

To see photos of this stuff and more, head here. Stay tuned for Part 4: Osaka (featuring the Yodogawa Christian Hospital)!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Japan Part 2: Nagasaki

The red circle is us.After our forum at Kansei University, it was time to head to our next destination: Kassui University in the city of Nagasaki. Now, this name is probably familiar to many of you as the site of a certain memorable WWII event. More on this later.

In order to get from Kobe to Nagasaki, we took the Shinkansen (perhaps better known to some of my readers as the bullet train). The Shinkansen doesn’t go quite all the way there, down to the very western coast of Japan, but it does go most of the way. To me, it’s just amazing how quiet and clean these Japanese trains are. They’re so much nicer to travel in than airplanes. Also interesting: the staff members passing through the car all bow to the passengers (who mostly aren’t paying any attention). All in all, they’re pretty good places to sleep.

After checking in at our hotel in Nagasaki (we had to take a trolley to get there!), we headed out again, walking to Kassui for our discussion on discrimination in different cultures. This time around, we actually had a fourth perspective: in addition to the American, Korean, and Japanese youth, Chinese exchange students also asked to participate, and of course we were happy to have them.

This was an especially enlightening afternoon for me; the presenters brought up many issues that I had no real awareness of. Deogil spoke about the challenges faced by multi-national families in modern Korea. Many Korean men import foreign brides from other Asian nations, women who then face discrimination because they don’t fit in to Korean culture or speak the Korean language well.

Japanese student presents The Japanese student spoke about a couple of different groups that Japanese society discriminates against. First, the hidden Christians of the past. For many years, especially while Japan was run by the shogunate and was closed to the outside world, Christianity was considered an unacceptable religion, and people caught practicing it were executed. Suspected believers were ordered to defile Christian images known as humie, the logic being that a faithful Christian would be unable to do it. Second, the hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors. The 1945 attack on Nagasaki claimed over 100,000 lives, but there were those who lived through the experience, scarred both physically and emotionally. More often than not, these survivors were shunned by mainstream society, which found in them a frightening reminder of the horrors of war.

The Chinese presenter told us that there is a lot of discrimination in China against carriers of hepatitis B. About ten percent of the population has this blood-borne disease, and for those who carry it, it is pretty much impossible to get a job or to climb the social ladder. In fact, physical traits seem to be a pretty big deal generally. We were shown one sample advertisement put out by a company looking to fill a secretary/office worker-type position. The ad lists desired height and blood type, among other things. There is also quite a bit of regional discrimination. As you are aware, China is a huge country, and it encompasses many cultures and different ethnic groups – just like the U.S. has its own regional subcultures. Thus, stereotypes often arise about the people from this city or that province: “Oh, they’re all thieves,” “They’re dirty people,” etc. 057

That evening and the next day we had free time to take in the city and visit whatever we wanted to. So we took the trolley across town to Peace Park and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Places like this should be required viewing for anyone with the power to make policy. It is impossible to visit here without being strongly moved by our common human condition. Those of us who name ourselves Christians are, I believe, called to look hard at the past – at this event and other acts of violence – and ask ourselves if we really live in a country modeled on Christian values. (Keeping in mind that the U.S. tested a nuclear device as recently as September 15 of last year?) And if the answer is no, what are we first? Americans or Christians?

I took a lot of great photos in Nagasaki, which can be seen here. Part 3 will be about Kyoto!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Year’s Day, Korean style

So this past week (Thursday, to be precise) marked the beginning of the lunar new year, which Korea, like China, celebrates. Young people usually go to their grandparents’ house, bow, and receive an envelope of money. Not having a Korean family, this didn’t apply to me, but I still managed to get in on the action by cooking with my center.


One of the many delicious things we made was buchimge. It’s a great invention where you mix kimchi into pancake batter and then fry it up on the griddle. It has an awesome eye-popping orange color! Now (and this is a secret – don’t tell) I am not really the world’s biggest kimchi fan. It’s OK, I just don’t love it or anything. But when you cook it or fry it – like in a dumpling, or in your fried rice, or in a buchimge – it takes on a whole new dimension and becomes so savory and scrumptious. In fact, this is maybe my favorite Korean food so far. We also fried hobakja (a squash with a buttery texture), made mandu (dumplings), and pretty much ate until we were sick. Good times, good times.


The next day we made snacks. We boiled water, sugar, and rice syrup together, and then used the resulting sticky goodness to make little cakes out of seeds, nuts, and bran flakes. Absolutely delicious (although chewing too many of them gives you something of a sore jaw).

Gostop gameMyung-ju onni also taught me to play go-stop, a Korean card game that is traditional on Chuseok and the lunar new year. There are a lot of rules (and that’s before you get into betting!), but the basic concept is to collect cards fast, by matching the ones in your hand to the ones on the mat, and win control of the game, at which point you can either stop while you’re ahead, or keeping going and take a risk in an attempt to collect more money. Also apparently you can overturn the blanket if things aren’t going well for you. That’s me playing over there on the left – Salgu (onni’s cat) is being the referee and making sure I don’t cheat.

Also, the Chief gave me some really nice socks as a present! Score! (I desperately needed some new ones…)

Look for a Japan update tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Japan Part 1: Kobe

The red circle is us. So, as promised, here’s the first part of my Japan trip.

On Tuesday the 18th, we flew out of Seoul and, about an hour and a half later, landed at the Osaka Kansai airport. From there, we took the bus to Kobe (yes, the place famous for its beef), where we had the use of a pretty spacious house that would act as our “base” during the time we spent in Japan. Most of us were there, anyway. Simon and Haejung were using an apartment on loan from the church, but the other seven of us were borrowing the house of a (currently absent) family.

Speaking of which, maybe it’s time for a little dramatis personae. Joining me on this journey were not only Simon, Haejung, Katie, and Jenny, but also three Korean volunteers from Hannam University and their chaplain. Soo-min works with me on the Hannam blog project, as she has excellent English (she spent a year in the U.S., at Warren Wilson). Okdeuk (also known as OK) taught with me on Fridays when I was still working at the Youngrak Church. Deogil (a guy) has been working with Jenny at her children’s center, specifically helping out with the soccer class she teaches on Wednesdays. Then there’s Hannam’s chaplain, Rev. Choi, who’s shown us three Americans a lot of kindness since we arrived in Korea in September. He’s in charge of the Korean YAVs who work with us, and has listened to our feedback about the program and taken it very seriously.

When we arrived on Tuesday, it was already getting late, so the day’s agenda consisted mostly of a delicious dinner with Bill and Ann Moore, P.C.(USA) missionaries to Japan for more than 20 years. They live in Kobe now, and as our gracious hosts for the evening, provided us with a scrumptious spread as well as the pleasure of their company.

Then we headed to our home-away-from-home(-away-from-home) to fight over who got which room, and what order people were going to shower in. Our house was an interesting mix of Japanese and western styles: some people got beds, but others (including me) bunked down on the tatami mat floors.

Kansei University

The next morning, we hopped on the local train and headed out to Kansei University in the city. This was to be the site of the first of three international youth forums. Kansei was founded by missionaries and identifies itself as a Christian school; however, only around 1% of the student body is actually Christian. (This is an accurate reflection of the Japanese population generally – 0.8% of Japanese people are practicing Christians.) We were warmly received there by the staff, and treated to both a campus tour and lunch. The campus itself was very interesting, its architecture having been based off of the Spanish mission-style buildings of southern California. And the lunch was amazing! We ate with the university chancellor in very high style indeed – it was the sort of meal where you need to know which fork to use when (I admit, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing; I ended up mistaking my spoon for a butter knife [What? it was totally a weird, angular spoon!]). We enjoyed some very fancy food while being waited on hand and foot, so absolutely no complaints there.

In the afternoon, we moved into the actual purpose of our visit: a discussion of environmental issues. I represented the U.S., Guess which one is the American? giving a brief overview of the current policies we have and the challenges we face. I was followed by Soo-min, who told us about the programs the exist in Korea to try and protect the environment, and one of Kansei’s own students, who talked about Japan’s policies. I have to admit, I was very impressed (although not really surprised) that Korea and Japan both have so many environmentally-friendly policies in place. For example, both countries have programs that award consumers “eco-points” for buying green products. These eco-points can later be exchanged for free stuff. They also do much better at sorting their garbage and recycling. Case in point: you eat at an American McDonald’s, you throw all your trash into one big can afterwards. You eat at a Korean McDonald’s, you throw your food waste here, your leftover drink and ice here, your paper stuff here. It’s like a puzzle, trying to figure out where everything goes! And don’t even get me started on the whole public transportation issue.

Afterwards there was general discussion, and while we hardly came up with a solution to global warming or any such thing, many interesting ideas were shared and there were a lot of opportunities for the us to talk with the Japanese students and bond. Not bad, for our first attempt at this kind of thing!

More pictures of Kobe can be seen here. Next time: We go to Nagasaki!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The long silence broken

Hi, everyone! An update at long last! As you may or may not have heard, I’m recently returned from a 10-day study trip to our neighbor Japan – an exciting and illuminating experience for me. I’m eager to share the details (and pictures), but the amount of information is so monstrously huge that I can’t write about it properly all in one post. I think I’ll do one post, and one photo album, for each city, so expect that series to be in the works over the next few days. I should have plenty of time to work on it, since with the lunar new year coming up, everything will be closed down…

Also: thank you so much, everyone who sent me Christmas cards and letters! It means so much to me to hear from you! I have them all set up on my (increasingly crowded) desk and they brighten my day!