Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas gifts, tangible and not

I'm setting this post to appear in the middle of the week like I did last time. There won't be an email reminder, but hopefully you'll see it on facebook and click the link. I feel like no matter how many words I type, no matter how many hours I spend in front of a screen, I'll never be fully able to explain what it's like to be here. There are too many moments when we're laughing so hard we forget what was funny in the first place, or we're so exhausted we don't even have the strength to change clothes before we climb into our sleeping bags. I wish I had the time to write out every moment and post it on here to remember forever, but that's not the way life works I suppose. I do my best and hope that the other memories won't fade too quickly.

Last Christmas was definitely one I'll never forget. I knew it would be hard to be away from home, but I didn't expect that it could be so beautiful as well. I found myself keeping track of what time certain events were taking place in Korea - the candlelight service at Jubilee should be starting now, JM should be handing out presents to the kids, the huge English service is in an hour. It's funny how I missed a Christmas I'd only had once almost as much as the one I've experienced all my life. I wonder who bought Min-Ho's present this year.

On Friday, our team led a Christmas celebration near the camp. We were expecting the program to be in the camp and to have three hundred people attending, but we ended up smashed into a tiny room in a pastor's house with a mix of people from all over the community. I'm learning to hold plans with open hands here; nothing is the way you thought it would be, and that's okay.

When we began, everyone was politely seated around the room, but moments later we were flooded by dusty children from the camp. Seeing them side-by-side with the freshly bathed kids from other parts of the community made them look even more colorless than ever. It hurt my heart but at the same time I rejoiced that they had come. The program was partly in Hindi (translated to English for us) and partly in English (translated to Hindi for everyone else). They sang a few worship songs in each language, and the kids climbed on us as if there were some kind of silent competition to touch the ceiling first. One of the women on our team gave a message about the meaning of Christmas, then the rest of us put on a little play about the birth of Jesus. Last year, I was in two different Christmas plays, and I guess they were practice for my huge role this year as Mary. Everyone in the room laughed when I turned around with a shawl shoved inside my punjabi; apparently I'm going to be the most hilarious pregnant women the world has ever seen. My shawl later became the newborn baby Jesus, which drew an equal roar of laughter from the audience. At least I can be certain everyone was entertained.

Christmas Eve, we separated into three groups and wandered the village singing Christmas carols. The first few houses we visited, we knocked to introduce ourselves before we started singing, but that tradition quickly faded. We found it far more entertaining to stand outside a house and sing as loudly as we could until someone took notice and came down to say hello. After our songs, we explained (through our faithful translator) the meaning of Christmas and why we were celebrating. We left some simple gifts with the children and headed to the next house. Our last stop was a sweet little day care in our village. I still had my nail polish in my bag, and the contrast between the responses was unbelievable. In the camp, the second I reach into my bag, I hear incessant "ma'am!"s rising up all around me, and the children literally smack each other to be the first to get painted. The children in the day care, however, were hesitant and shy; it wasn't until a few brave ones showed off their painted nails that the rest would come anywhere near us. By the time we left, they were displaying their splatters of color as if they had the most expensive manicures. It was precious.

Christmas morning certainly didn't feel like Christmas. We headed to the church we've been leading; it was the fullest I've seen the English service since we arrived. Our team gave testimonies, sang Christmas songs, and gave a message about the meaning of Christmas before heading to the village for lunch. We returned to the base and dispersed, reading, napping, praying, until the classroom was ready for our celebration.

We began our Christmas party by praying for this nation. We wrote Christmas cards to the people here and prayed that one day people would know the God who sent His son as a baby to show His love for us. It was quiet, reverent, and sweet, and I'm thankful we started our celebration focusing on something outside of ourselves.

After a delicious dinner, we returned to the classroom to open our presents from each other. Instead of buying cheap souvenirs for every other person on our sixteen-person team, we were instructed to give "intangibles" - gifts written out on slips of paper that represent what we would give to each other if we had no limits, financially or logistically. We read them all one by one, laughing at some and crying at others. Some of my favorites that were given to me include:
- a gift card for one free Indian child
- a classroom that folds up in my pocket that I can use to teach any child, anywhere
- unlimited hugs and hand-holding with a person (I'm hoping she meant a guy) who wants to hold hands with only me
- freedom for North Korea
- Brian (everyone here loves him as much as everyone at home)
- a puppy that never grows up
- the ability to always make kids listen to what I'm trying to teach
- a few schools in North Korea (that was a popular one for me... my friends know me well!)
- a library with endless books
- a lightsaber
Although I don't physically have any of those things, I love the fact that my friends know me well enough to give me gifts that make my heart so happy. And writing the intangibles for my friends was the most fun I've ever had Christmas shopping - no price limits, no pesky "does this actually exist?" getting in the way. I gave one friend the ability to feel rested by eating cookies, another unexpiring visas to every country, and another a Bible that transports you to whatever story you're reading. I've never been so excited to give people presents, presents that I had thought of specifically for them that I knew were exactly what they wanted. It beats the crap out of wondering whether they already had the movie I bought or if the sweater I picked would be insultingly large. Plus, it was all free! Please don't call me cheap if I start including intangibles in birthday cards; I'm a little obsessed with the idea of giving imagination as a gift.

After we finished sharing our gifts with each other, the leaders pulled out surprise gifts from our families. The room got silent as we unwrapped our presents, thinking about how we could have been at home with our families this year, but God had different plans. I got cards from my parents, sisters, and dogs, and a picture drawn by my precious nephew. I also got a ton of candy and games that I can play with the kids in the camp, and a bracelet that I tied around my ankle to remind me of home. It was sad and strange not being able to skype with my family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day like I did last year, but it's wonderful knowing I'll get to see them in March instead of being nine months away from coming home.

I hope your celebration of Christmas was as beautiful as mine. Sure, December 25th may not actually be Christ's birthday, and maybe a lot of our traditions have been adapted from ancient pagan celebrations. But Christmas isn't about long lines at Wal-Mart or unending credit card debt; it's about remembering the day that God invaded earth and invited the people He so desperately loves to know Him personally, and that truth is the same no matter what country you celebrate in.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not quite camping

I have (of course) a million things to tell you again, and I've got about four hours until I need to head back to base for dinner. Let's see how this goes!

This week was completely different from our mountain climbing excursion last week. We spent most our time down in the camp, which isn't a camp at all. "The camp" is our nickname for the slums, a name that refers to the tents people live in rather than their social status. These are the poorest of the poor, the ones society pretends don't exist, and the main focus of our days. I thought I knew what poverty was until I came here.

The people in the camp are so dirty, they almost look like ghosts. The children have matted hair, and the youngest ones don't wear pants. Many of the adults numb their pain with constant alcohol, but the children aren't yet old enough to realize how hopeless their situation truly is. The teenagers are starting to know; their eyes are starting to reflect the sadness that haunts the adults, but they haven't completely given up. It's like watching hope die, day by day.

Walking into the camp is so difficult to explain. It's dirtier than I thought a place could be; the children's bellies puff out in their shirts, and even the little ones have such calloused feet they can run through rocks and garbage without flinching. There's no sense of order; the children are all so desperate for love that they'll literally jump off rocks, hoping someone will take notice and catch them. They tug at anything that's hanging from you, a bag, jewelry, your hair, wanting something of yours to belong to them. Nail polish is like gold. Boys and girls alike flock to anyone with nail polish, the colors making a striking contrast to the dust and grime on their hands. I can't help but think of the little girl in the red coat - a splash of brightness on an innocent child caught in a desperately colorless situation.

There's no question that it's hard being there. I found myself wanting to "rescue" all the kids, take them home with me, wash their dirty bodies, clothe them in Disney Princesses and Spongebob, and send them to preschool. I want them to come home to fluffy beds and warm dinners; I want them to have shoes. I want them to know comfort the way American children do.

But it's an impossible paradox. They belong here; they belong in the arms of the mothers who gave birth to them, and they deserve to know their native culture. The solution to poverty isn't tearing every poor child away from his family and dropping him into an American home. The solution also can't be to throw money at the families who need it, because someone has to teach them what to do with that money so they don't land back in the camp when it runs out. It's much more complicated here, with castes choking the hope from these people's eyes. There's no quick fix to poverty, just as there's no immediate end to cancer or violence. The roots are too deep to tug out and expect the weed to be gone forever.

We'll spend the rest of our time while we're in the north working with people in the camp, and most of our time in the south will be spent loving and teaching street kids, children born to women in prostitution and often abandoned to raise themselves in the streets. If I'm going to feel any culture shock here, it won't be because the food is too spicy or the bathroom is a patch of grass; it will be when I'm holding a child who smells like she's never had a bath and wondering how our world can be considered "civilized" when a hungry, dirty child is utterly forgotten.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's like living in the Bible

I won't have internet again until next weekend, so I'm going to try to set this post to appear on the blog sometime in the middle of the week. If it doesn't work, I guess you'll have two posts to read at once! Lucky you!

First: one of the girls on my team emailed me some pictures! Here's a bit of the way life has been this past week:

Now, stories.

After two nights at the teacher's house, we packed up our things and headed to another village. As we set out, Anil told our team to pray that God would be faithful in giving us another place to stay with kind people who would feed us. Having seen God provide the previous few days, I was actually excited to see where we'd end up this time around.

We hiked for a few hours, getting lost once or twice and stopping once to eat some snacks since we we're sure the next time we'd have food. We rounded the side of a mountain and saw a huge village spread out in front of us; well, I suppose it wasn't huge, but it did have roads and a few little shops selling snacks, which we hadn't seen in days. We prayed for a place to stay, and the first house we came to offered us rooms. Every home you walk past in these villages will offer you chai; we had tea nearly twenty times in four days. As we sat in front of the house sipping our chai, about a dozen women gathered at the edge of the house to stare at the strangers. A few of them were holding babies, and if you've ever met me, you know I love to steal babies. I asked our translator if it would be okay for me to hold one, and he just laughed. He told me to go try, and as soon as I walked up to one of the women, she practically tossed her baby in my arms. Success! I went back to the benches where the rest of the team sat, proud of my accomplishment. The baby and I became best friends while he chewed on my scarf and sneezed in my face. Ah, love.

We dropped our things in the family's spare room and headed down to the main part of the village to make friends. As soon as we got to the bottom, our team stopped for some momos (basically mandu, only not even half as good), and our translator chatted with the men hanging around the shop. One of the men was a teacher, and he asked if we would like to visit his school in the morning. Schools seemed to be our thing, so we jumped at the chance. Since the last school had about twenty-five kids, we asked how many we should expect and prepare for, thinking it would be around the same number. Nope. This school had five hundred kids. Five hundred!

The teacher took us back to his house for chai, and it was one of the nicest houses we'd seen since we started our village hiking. They had a color tv and an indoor bathroom, and the cups they served our tea in looked quite expensive. The family offered to let us stay with them, but we had already agreed to stay with the other family, so we declined. On our way out, we met a few other people who seemed rather influential. Anil talked with them, then came back to tell us that he had just met the president of the village, and he would like for us to stay at his house. The house he led us to wasn't even finished yet; the president himself had never spent a night in it, but he was letting us stay there. They started preparing food while we went to gather our things from the other family's house; we sang worship songs the whole way.

In the morning, we met the teacher at the school and he let us play with the children. We pulled out our trusty balloons as we interacted with the youngest kids, and the rest of the school came from their classes to watch us. I asked if I could have a piece of chalk to draw a hopscotch board on the ground; the teacher had no idea what I was doing, but he let me draw. I demonstrated a few times while the kids stared in awe at a few chalk boxes on concrete; finally, a few of them were bold enough to try it themselves while the rest of the school crowded around the space. The teacher asked me if I knew of anything else to draw, but I couldn't think of anything else that didn't require other materials - can you think of anything else we might be able to do?

The school fed us lunch before we passed out Bibles and said goodbye to the kids. We grabbed our things and climbed on a bus back to Anil's house, where we spent the night singing worship songs around the fire. We walked through Anil's village the next morning, playing with kids and talking to people. It was what I imagined the disciples' lives to have been like.

I've been trying to follow Christ for about seven years now, and in that time, I've read the stories in the gospels probably hundreds of times. There's a part in Luke (it's also in Matthew, but I'm simplifying) where Jesus sends his disciples out to tell people about the Kingdom of God, and he instructs them on how they should travel. He tells them to enter a village and find the man of peace, and to stay with that man until they leave the village; he says that man will welcome them and feed them while they stay at his home. I'll admit, I usually skip over that passage when I'm reading. I can't imagine walking into Detroit and trying to find a "man of peace" to let me stay at his house for free and feed me the whole time I'm there. All the times I've read that passage, I skimmed it, thinking it could never apply to the world as it is today. One morning, as I sat on the edge of the mountain writing in my journal, I remembered having read something about visiting villages, and I flipped through the gospels to find it. When I came across Luke 10, I was shocked at how much those instructions fit exactly what we were doing. I don't think the Bible has ever felt as real to me as it did in that moment, and I'm so thankful for that hour I spent on the side of a mountain in the Himalayas. Sometimes Jesus feels a bit like a movie character, a historical figure that America distorts to fit its political agendas. In that moment, and so many moments since I've been here, Jesus felt like the Son of God, and I'm so very grateful.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What we've been up to, and thoughts on poverty

I honestly didn't know what to expect from outreach. I guess when I left, I kind of assumed that it would be a continuation of lecture phase; we'd be learning more about God and learning how to interact with the world in a Godly way. Turns out outreach is more about everyone else than it is about me. Life is just that way, I think.

This past week, we were thrown head-first into a missionary lifestyle. The team I met and ministered with in Thailand stayed at a guesthouse and did things like teaching English at a coffee shop and having a carnival in the slums. Since that was my only frame of reference for outreach, I expected things to be the same for us. Not so, my friends, not so.

Our team of sixteen divided into two teams of eight, which is significantly more manageable when traveling internationally. Each team was partnered with a pair of nationals to help us navigate the area and communicate with people in the villages we visited. We said goodbye to the other team and hopped on a bus - a bus of death. The roads here are only really wide enough for a single car, and they wind around the sides of the mountains so much that just drawing a picture of the road would likely give you motion sickness. Whenever we encountered another vehicle on the road, our bus would slam on its brakes and dive into the ditch so the other driver could fit around us. I'm shocked that I've yet to experience a car accident here.

After a few hours on the bus, our driver pulled over next to a tiny shack and our translator told us we had arrived. There was nothing around us except that little shack and a few dozen houseflies, but we unloaded the van and watched the bus pull away. Our leader walked us over to the little shack and ordered eggs for everyone on the team. When we finished our lunch, we gave our leftover bread to a little boy on the side of the road who looked so excited you'd have thought he'd never eaten bread before (maybe he hadn't), and we followed our translator up the side of the mountain.

That's right. Up the side of the mountain.

In case you weren't a blog reader when this happened, I'll remind you that I'm NOT a mountain-climber. I love wandering through nature, but once you start telling me we've reached new altitudes (seriously, from 4000 to 6000 feet - then back down. then back up. then back down.), I'm out. Sometimes I even got winded walking up the stairs out of the subway station in Korea; mountain-climbing is not in my blood. Unfortunately, whining is really annoying and doesn't make the hike any better for anyone, so I sucked it up and climbed.

And climbed.

And climbed.

I kind of forgot to bring my camera cord with me, so I don't have any way to get my pictures from my memory card to the computer I'm currently using. That's kind of a bummer, but it is what it is.

When we finally reached a place in the mountains where you're actually in the clouds, our translator told us we needed to start praying for a place to sleep. Everyone smiled and nodded, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one silently cursing the man who led me all the way up a mountain without having a plan for what happened at the top. Anil (our translator) walked a little ahead of us, and by the time we caught up with him, he was chatting away with a man he had met on the road. When we reached him, he told us that the man he met was a teacher, and not only had he offered to let us stay with him, but he also wanted us to come to his school in the morning to teach the kids. Naturally, everyone looks at me whenever the word "teach" appears in a sentence, and I immediately got nervous. I know how to teach rich Korean kids who have better vocabularies than most American high schoolers; I have no idea how to teach kids who live in a poor village in the middle of the Himalayas.

The house we were staying in had a single room on the bottom floor, about the size of two twin-sized mattresses pushed together. When you climbed up the concrete stairs, the floor above was about twice the size of the bedroom (I think there was a room for animals on the ground floor that we didn't see). The floor and walls were made of concrete, and the upper floor was lit only by a small fire in the far corner. The teacher and his neighbors sat down in the kitchen, preparing to cook dinner for eleven unexpected but entirely welcome guests, and the team headed out to play in the fields.

While the teacher cooked, our team explored the area. There were about four houses clumped together on the side of the mountain but not much else. A few yards down, a shepherd sat on the edge of a patch of grass, watching two little sheep play in the grass. The sheep played around us like little puppies, and one of the guys on our team decided he wanted to hold one. I wish I had a video of what happened next. Ian made eye contact with the sheep closest to him. We all stood silently while they had their staring contest; suddenly Ian lunged at the sheep, snatching it up into his arms. The sheep started baa-ing like crazy while Ian grinned the cheesiest victory grin I've ever seen. Eventually, he set the sheep back down, and it scurried down the hill to its shepherd. I don't think I ever realized how much sheep adore their shepherd; the psalms about Jesus being our shepherd had never felt more significant than they did in that moment.

The teacher cooked us dinner and laid out mats for us to spread our sleeping bags on. Some time in the middle of the night, the girl beside me realized that I was shivering like crazy and not even a little bit asleep; she pulled me under her blankets and I finally warmed up enough to drift off.

The next morning, the teacher cooked breakfast for all of us before leading us across the hill to his school. They introduced us to the kids and told us we'd be heading over to a playground on the other side of the hill. The kids darted off up the mountain at a pace unnatural to human beings, and we pasted on smiles as we climbed behind them. Every time we reached a flat piece of ground, the kids spread out and started playing, so we assumed we'd reached the "playground." Not so. We'd play a little in the grass, and suddenly the kids would sprint up the side of another cliff without any warning. The boys played soccer with the guys on our team while the little girls took pictures with our cameras and giggled at their faces. In that moment, I'd have traded my macbook for a bottle of nail polish and a few coloring books because I knew how delighted those simple things would make the little girls in my lap.

When we got as high as the mountain would go, Anil sat the kids down in a circle and told them about how much God loves them. Anil told them that they could dream, they could have ideas for great things they wanted to do in their lives and they could actually do those things. We sang some songs and played a few silly games, and we handed out candy before climbing back down to the school. In the end, it was so simple, yet so profound at the same time.

The kids we were playing with will never see an iPad. They don't know what video games are, and they'll probably never try things like ice cream or french fries. Unless their parents can somehow miraculously afford to send them away for school, they'll likely get married and raise their own families in a little two-room cement house on the side of a mountain. Their clothes were washed in a river, and they eat rice and dahl with their hands for nearly every meal. Yet their school takes place on the side of a mountain. Their playground overlooks the most beautiful stretch of land I've ever seen, and they get to spend an entire school day playing soccer with a bunch of foreigners. They're taught to honor and respect people who come to their village and to appreciate what they're given. As I watched these kids chasing balloons through the hills, I thought about my students in Korea with their fur coats and iPhones. I thought about how every time I gave chocolate to my students, they demanded more, but how these kids were so excited to just have a little bit. I thought about the difference between not having any money and being poor, and I started to feel a little sad for those who have everything they want, yet nothing they actually need.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Four hours.

I'm leaving for India in four hours. Four. That's one less than the number of fingers I have on each of my hands. Also, that's the number of guys in 98 Degrees (remember them?). Four.

I just spent the last half-hour reading through my pre-Korea posts, and I stumbled across this one. Fifteen months ago, I was preparing for my first across-the-oceans adventure, and I was scared out of my mind. I remember wanting to unpack all my bags and beg for my job back, but I didn't. I hopped on a plane and moved to a country I knew nothing about, and it was one of the best things I've done in my life. I remember being so terrified that Korea would chew me up and spit me out, that I'd hate every second and wish I'd never left the comforts of America's suburbs, yet I've spent the last three months wishing I were back in that smoggy, crowded city.

I know I won't regret this new adventure just like I'm forever grateful for my time in Korea. The anticipation just sucks.

It's going to be strange traveling with fifteen other people, sharing living space, and not being able to "kamsahamnida" my way out of awkward situations. But overall, it's easier this time. I know that no matter what country I find myself in, I'm just me, and I always like ice cream.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

And the money's all in!

On Thursday afternoon, our teams needed $35,000 for everyone to be able to go on outreach. We cried and we prayed, thinking some of our friends were getting left behind next week.

Then a day and a half later, everything was paid.

We're all leaving for outreach in just a few days. How cool is our God?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

If you've got a little extra cash lying around...

I'm leaving for outreach next week, which means about fifty other people are leaving with me. I was blessed to have money in my savings from Korea, so I was able to pay off the rest of what I owed out of my own account. Unfortunately, the rest of my school hasn't received any severance pay from completing a year overseas, and they still need more money. For everyone to go on outreach, we need to see about $21,500 come in by... tomorrow.

This is just the first of so many miracles God wants to do in the next three months. If you can, please help us make sure no one misses out. Even if all you have is $20, that's $20 we can put to such good use. I know it's the Christmas season and money is tight everywhere, but you can always make more money. We have about 24 hours before plane tickets are cancelled and people are left behind. If there's anything you can do, please help us.

If you'd like to donate, you can click this link to donate online. At the bottom, select "other" for where the funds are going, and type in my name. Once it gets processed, I can move it around to one of the other people on my team who needs it.

Oh, and pray. When we started praying this morning, we needed $35,000. It's not even dinnertime and we've already gotten $13,500. Prayer's been working so far, so we'll keep doing it. Join with us?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fancier format, same old me

Yesterday I posted something silly on facebook. Expecting ten, maybe fifteen people to respond, I wrote a short message saying I'd be sending outreach updates via email when I leave the country next week. It's been less than twenty-four hours, and I've already gotten nearly sixty requests to be on that update list. I didn't know there were actually sixty people on my facebook that even read my status updates, yet that's how many want to read spam about my life. You all realize Brian's not going to be with me this time, right?

Although I'll be fasting from facebook while I'm overseas, I'm still completely welcome to share my stories with the masses. When I left for DTS, I started a new blog with the intentions of posting things I'm learning here, but this season of my life turned out to be deeply personal and not quite blog-worthy. I had posted a handful of things on there back in August, but that blog's been dormant longer than this one. I decided that since many of you are already following this one, it would be easier just to revive it from the depths of your google reader than to create something new.

A few changes:
- I'm not going to write the country I'm going to in any of my posts. While we're not defying any government authorities, we're technically going as tourists, and it's wiser to simply not mention any specifics.
- We'll be starting our trip with six weeks in a small village in the north, followed by six weeks in a major city in the south. I'm working on code names. Santa's Workshop and the Concrete Jungle are currently in the lead, but I may come up with something better.
- I can't promise how frequently I'll be writing. Let me say that again: I can't promise how frequently I'll be writing. We're required to write weekly updates, but we may not have access to interwebs every week to send them out. If I'm MIA for a few weeks, I'm not dead and I'm not in jail. I'm just too busy hanging out with orphans to search for an internet cafe.
- Remember, I won't be checking facebook for three months. This blog is still linked there, so feel free to comment on posts there as well as here. However, if you ask a question there, I can't answer until March. I'm not ignoring you; well, I guess in a way I am. But I'm ignoring everyone, so don't feel bad.

So here we are, three months after the close of my Korea chapter, starting a new adventure overseas. This one will be shorter (only three months), be more hectic (fifteen other people are going with me), and smell more like curry than kimchi. Are you ready?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I landed in America last Thursday, and my days have been a whirlwind of visiting people I love. I've cried so many times that I've lost count about the thousands of little moments I missed out on while I was gone, and it's surreal to try to prepare myself mentally for packing up and leaving for six more months.

I have a million things swirling around in my head now that I'm back. Although America is familiar in every way, it still feels a little... off. There's English everywhere, and not all of my friends are teachers. People have their own cars, and apartments have more than one room; no one but me holds up a peace sign in pictures. I feel like I dreamt Korea, like I came up with this elaborate story of a great adventure, then I woke up without having done it. When I drive down 71 and instinctually take the right exits, I feel like I never left. But then someone asks me a question about life as an expat, and I hear my own voice giving very specific answers. I drive past a Taco Bell at every exit, and my memory flashes to the time Kelsey and I walked for half an hour in the middle of the night to get to Taco Bell from Haebangchon. I realize that no one around me has any idea where Haebangchon is, and I struggle to connect with the person I was a year ago so I can be the person my friends all still think I am.

I tried to describe it to Rosie like this: it's as if I went back to my parents' house and discovered my favorite childhood blanket. It smells just right, it feels just right, but when I stretch it out to cover myself up, I discover it no longer reaches my toes. It's not that the blanket changed and is somehow less adequate than it was before; it's simply that I don't fit it the way I used to. I'm different now - not better, just different - and I don't quite fit the way I did before. I don't know what to do with that.

I thought I would stop this blog when I got back, but I'm finding that I want to cling to it just a little longer. It helps me remember in my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged state that Korea wasn't just a dream. It's funny how I feel just as much an outsider now in the place I grew up as I ever did in a foreign country.

Perhaps if I could get more than four hours of sleep at a time, I wouldn't be such an emotional wreck. Yeah, I'll blame it on the lack of sleep.

Monday, August 29, 2011

I still haven't packed

Tonight I said goodbye to a twelve-year-old boy who stood in the doorway of an orphanage and cried as I walked away.

What could anyone say to make that hurt less?

The only way I'm getting through this week is by thinking about how my dad's coworkers all know the exact time I'm getting home because he's been talking about it for weeks. And how Rosie's cleaning her apartment a week in advance so I can sleep on her couch in her bed this weekend. And how there's a Harry Potter-themed homecoming party invitation sitting on my parents' kitchen counter. And how in order for the next adventure to start, this one has to come to an end.

Before I came, Ben told me that there would be nights that I'd be so homesick I couldn't stand up. He didn't tell me that the nights leading up to my departure would make me break down in tears on the sidewalk.

I'm really excited to see everyone at home - I really am. But leaving Korea is going to be one of the hardest things I'll ever have to do. Bear with me while I figure myself out these next few weeks, okay?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What comes next

When you prepare to leave a place, people naturally ask you what you plan to do next. Very few of my friends have asked me that, however, because I've been dead-set on grad school since November, and they had no reason to believe that plan would ever change.

It has.

In January this year, I attended a conference about human trafficking and modern-day slavery. During the conference, I begged God to tell me how I could be involved, what role I could play in changing the world. I started working on the only thing I knew I could do well - writing lesson plans. I felt like I was being called to mobilize the next generation to go out and make a difference, and I was genuinely excited about coming home and teaching my little unit on slavery and calling it a day.

Fast forward to June; I attended another conference with the same nonprofit, Not For Sale. This time, with the encouragement of my friends, I anxiously approached the president of the organization and politely suggested to him that they needed to provide more resources for teachers who wanted to get involved. He told me he completely agreed - then asked me to write all the resources. K-12 curriculum. Me.

My pastor asked me shortly after if I could be interested in directing the first Not For Sale Teacher Abolitionist Movement. Although I wouldn't be in Korea much longer, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do, so I jumped at the chance. For the last two months, my team has been discussing programs and curriculum formats, and we're hoping to have all the resources finished, tested, and published by the start of the next school year.

But I'm pretty sure this isn't going to stop there.

I've always wanted to be involved in something bigger than myself. In college, I went through a phase where I was pathetically grumpy that I hadn't been born during the Civil Rights Movement because I thought I had "totally missed out" on fighting against injustice.

That fight, while it has changed opponents, is still very much going on. And I'm going to join it.

Depending on what research you read, there are anywhere from 27 to 100 million slaves in the world today - more than any other time in history. In fact, if you check out slaverymap, you can find documented cases of human trafficking in your city. This isn't a "somewhere else" problem (as though people in other countries aren't "people" after all) - this is a problem in your backyard. And it's not going to stop until enough people stand up against it.

Therefore, when I get back to America next week, I'll be packing up my bags and moving to Colorado Springs to study at a Justice & Mercy Discipleship Training School with Youth With A Mission. I'll be learning about fighting injustice from a faith-based perspective for three months before I head out to an outreach country to work with local organizations who fight against trafficking and slavery every day.

If you are feeling called, I really could use some financial support on this endeavor. Although I made enough money in Korea to pay for it, that money was supposed to go to my student loans. I technically have enough in my bank account, but the whole goal of coming to Korea was to pay off some of my loans, and I won't be able to do that if I use all the money on my DTS. My birthday is coming up soon; if you'd like to donate to my program as a gift, I'd be forever grateful.

Additionally, I'll be discontinuing this blog when I leave next week. I know a lot of people have enjoyed reading it this past year, and you have no idea how much I have appreciated knowing that people cared enough to keep up with my life. This new step I'm taking is going to be a drastic turn, and the content of my writing is going to shift greatly. I've already begun a new blog, and it's taking shape as a deeply personal account of my heart as I learn about injustice and human trafficking. I thought I was going to keep the blog just for me, but friends have already been asking to see it. I'm going to keep it password-protected for now, but if you're interested in following me as I stumble around in this new battleground, let me know. As long as you promise to pray for me as you read it, I'll give you the password, but be forewarned: it won't be nearly as funny as the stories you're used to reading. Slavery is a whole different ballgame.

Monday, August 22, 2011

We're in the single digits

... and I still don't want to write anything. I cried on the subway again tonight thinking about not being here anymore. Then I got home and crumbled into a useless ball on my bed, whimpering into my blankets and listening to stereotypically sad music. I'm. Not. Ready. To. Go.

But ready or not, I leave next Thursday. I really can't wait to see all the people I left behind a year ago, but leaving here feels harder somehow. I knew I'd be back when I left Cincinnati, but when I say goodbye here, I don't know if I'll ever see these people again. My stomach has been in knots for a week; when I think about all the people I won't see again, I want to throw up. Especially when I think about not seeing this kid every Monday night.

I don't have anything profound to say. I just wish I knew how to say goodbye.

Monday, August 8, 2011

And thus begins the countdown

Beginning with the moment I stepped off the plane last fall, I’ve been keeping track of my time here. Whenever I met a new friend, I was asked the same series of questions: what’s your name, where are you from, and how long have you lived here. I still get asked those questions, but now instead of listing how many weeks or months I’ve called Korea home, I tell people how much time I have left. I can’t remember when it switched, but it turns my stomach every time. I’m leaving Korea in three weeks and two days.

I’m ready to go home. As amusing as living here has been, I long to be able to make small talk when I’m shopping, to talk to my waitress, to find food I recognize at the grocery. I miss driving my car and listening to the radio; I miss smiling at strangers and knowing they’ll smile back. I want to be able to ask for directions and buy movie tickets and read street signs. I miss my country.

But unfortunately, I can’t return there unless I leave here. And I love here. I love the students I get to see every morning, I love the hustle and bustle of big city life, and I love the people I fill my time laughing with. I’ve been really happy while I’ve been in Korea, and I feel like the more I clutch onto my last days here, the more they drip through my fingers like water. I just want to freeze time and not forget these moments.

Which is why I haven’t written anything on here in the last month. Every time a day happens that would make a good blog post, I wrap it up as tight as I can and hide it away inside my memory. I know it sounds silly, but I feel like every time I write a story on here to share with everyone back home, I have to give that story away to you. When I got here, I wanted to do that. I wanted to break the stories into little pieces and send them out to anyone who was willing to guard a tiny bit of my memory. I liked knowing that people back home were laughing at my mistakes and talking about my pictures. But  right now, I just want those things to belong to me. I’m afraid if I share them with anyone, they won’t be worth as much to me anymore, and I need them to stay important. I feel like instead of life happening to me and being something I should share, life is happening for me. Moments that are so heartfelt and emotional feel like they only belong to me, like if I shared them it would somehow cheapen them. I’m overwhelmed by the joyful quality of my life here, and I’m desperately holding onto it with everything I am.

I know you want to read the stories. I rode an elephant in Chiang Mai last week, and one of my kids made me laugh so hard yesterday that I couldn’t breathe. I got kicked out of a coffee shop for being foreign, and I made friends with a girl named Banana on the night train in Thailand. The stories are funny and exciting and what life is all about, but right now, I just want them to belong to me. I have pictures of all those things and hundreds of other moments, but every time I go to upload them to facebook, I become strangely possessive. I want to be the one who looks at the pictures; I want to be the one who knows all the stories. I don’t want to let any of it go because if I do, I have to admit it’s almost all gone.

I know one day I’ll look back on the blog and wish I could read all the moments I haven’t written. One day, I’ll forget about the man who gave me his seat on the subway because I was crying or the family waving goodbye to the girl getting on the night bus to Bangkok. I may not remember all those stories, but I hope I remember the feeling of being filled with gratitude and appreciation for the story I’m living. I hope I can remember being so passionately in love with the life I’m living that I didn’t want to risk losing a single drop of it.

So that’s why you won’t be reading the stories just yet. Maybe once I get home, I’ll write down the ones I know people will enjoy the most; or maybe I won’t. Maybe you’ll have to sit across the table from me, sipping an overpriced (but fair trade!) Starbucks coffee and ask me about the time someone peed on my pillow or the time a prostitute showed me pictures of her precious two-year-old daughter and I hugged her because I didn’t know the Thai words for what I wished I could say. Maybe that’s the way stories are meant to be shared anyway, watching the other person’s eyes light up when they laugh or fill with tears when the story is hard to bear. I’ll always appreciate the power of the written word, but right now, I don’t want an audience. I want a conversation.

And I want to slow time down a little bit before Korea disappears into just a memory.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What exactly are you trying to sell me?

I've become far too accustomed to life here. My roommate when I lived in Cincinnati, Katie, is currently in Taiwan with her boy, and she's sent me the most precious things about how funny the locals are there. As I read about her adventures, I realized that I see those things every day; I've just forgotten to be amused by them. With only two months to go in Asia, I'm going to try to rectify that a little bit.

Everywhere I go, there are advertisements. That's not unexpected; I live in a huge city and people gots to make the monies. Unfortunately, as someone who doesn't understand Korean and isn't familiar with every Korean product, I sometimes have a really hard time figuring out what, exactly, the poster is trying to sell me. And thus, we get the aptly titled game, "What exactly are you trying to sell me?"

I'm going to show you a handful of ads, and you're going to tell me what you think they are trying to sell. If no one plays, I'm not posting the answers, and I'll feel awfully rejected - you don't want that, do you? Good. Let's begin.

Poster 1:

Poster 2:

Poster 3:

Poster 4:

Poster 5:

Poster 6:

Poster 7:

Marlene, you're not allowed to ask for Augustine's help. Happy guessing, everyone! I'm looking forward to seeing your answers!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

I really do miss America, sometimes.

I know I've been awfully heavy on the "Korea is my soulmate" posts lately. I'm not going to try to make excuses for it; Korea has been the peanut butter to my jelly, the macaroni to my cheese, the trash can to my kimchi (that's what I do with kimchi, anyway). I suppose it's not actually Korea that I'm desperately in love with; I could write a whole post on how the Christian ex-pat culture is a perfect fit for the way I tend to make and keep friends, but that would bore you all to tears. I know everyone in my family is freaking out, trying to figure out how they can get me deported to ensure that I will, in fact, return to Ohio sometime before menopause. Don't worry everyone; I'm coming back in September whether I like it or not - to zap through grad school so I can get a better job, uh, here.

That said, there are a few things I miss about America. Aside from the obvious (my family and friends, being able to understand when people talk to me, and Chipotle), here are a few other things you don't know matter until you're not in the country anymore.

1. I can't wait to buy produce in normal quantities.
This one is huge for me. I love eating fresh fruit all the time, but it's really hard to buy that kind of stuff here. I can find nearly anything I want, but not in a quantity that makes any sense for a person living alone. Bananas come in bunches of thirty, grapes are sold in giant flats, and strawberries come in heaping bowls. On the flip side, a small watermelon is 20 bucks and a half a cup of blueberries will run you around 7.50. I miss Kroger.

2. I can't wait to see the stars.
Apparently light pollution is not only a thing, but it's a big thing. I know this is a problem in many American cities as well, but I've never lived in any of those cities, so it feels like a Korean problem to me. When I look up, I just see an endless expanse of... smog. On a very rare occasion, I can find the moon up there somewhere, but I miss being able to lay in the grass and stare at the sky, feeling very, very small.

3. I can't wait to shower without getting my whole bathroom wet.
I don't think this one needs an explanation. I complained about my shower right after I got here, but for the most part, I've adjusted. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I probably needed to wear plastic sandals in the bathroom when I dry my hair after a shower because standing in a puddle of water and holding something connected to an electrical outlet is actually quite dumb. I'm lucky I never zapped myself, and I'm wiser now, but I'm still really looking forward to having a real shower. And bathtub.

4. I can't wait to use a dryer.
Air-dried clothes are crunchy and wrinkly, and I'm far too lazy to actually worry about ironing them. I'm looking forward to not looking like a hobo anymore.

5. I can't wait to listen to the radio.
If Korea suddenly banned iPods, I'd leave immediately. I couldn't survive a day without that little box of sound attached to me somewhere. I listen to it when I'm walking, when I'm on the bus, when I'm on the subway, when I'm in stores, when I'm grading papers, and sometimes when I get home and I'm too lazy to put it away and turn on my computer. My iPod is my best friend... but it's getting a little old. I've started listening to sermons instead of music because I'm tired of all the same songs. I'm so excited to get back and see what new music is out there to... download for my iPod.

6. I can't wait to have breakfast options.
I'm a creature of habit, so I usually choose a cereal and stick with it for a few months. This method worked well for me when I first got here; Frosted Flakes were all I recognized, so they were all I bought. However, nine months of Frosted Flakes and peach yogurt for breakfast every single day can kind of get boring. I've mixed in Honey Nut Cheerios from Cost-Co once or twice, but my breakfast routine has basically remained the same. I seriously can't wait to eat those little chocolate donuts, Lucky Charms, and Toaster Strudels... all at once.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Hiking" doesn't mean what I thought it did

This doesn't come as a shock to most of you, but I'm from the midwest. Born and raised in Ohio, I call it pop and never soda, carry an umbrella, sunscreen, and mittens year-round, and hate the colors blue and yellow. This weekend, I learned that I also misunderstood the word "hiking."

My family used to go "hiking" when I was younger, and my friends and I went "hiking" all the time in college. "Hiking" for me meant walking along a relatively flat trail in some tree-filled location, occasionally climbing over a fallen tree branch or medium-sized rock. I loved going "hiking" out at Houston Woods when I wanted to hang out in nature in Oxford, and I frequently met friends at Winton Woods in Cinci to explore the "hiking" trails. As I understood it, "hiking" was fun, relaxing, and peaceful.

Enter Korea.

Earlier this week, my friend Jay asked if I wanted to go hiking this weekend at Bukhan Mountain. Using the definition I just described, I determined that hiking was, in fact, something I wanted to do with my friends. A few days later, Jay emailed me some details of the trip, explaining that the peak we were going to ascend was rated an "intermediate level" climb and checking to be sure we were all up for the task. Never one to overestimate my physical capabilities, I emailed Jay back to ask what exactly an "intermediate level" trail might look like. He replied that as an American girl who grew up playing sports and is in shape, I should have absolutely no trouble climbing up the mountain.

Let's all take a moment to laugh about the fact that Jay assumed I'm in shape and have ever played a sport in my life.

After an email like that, I couldn't hardly respond and say I'm too out of shape for the climb; my pride is much, much stronger than my laziness. I happily agreed to the challenge, assuming "intermediate" climbing was as challenging as "intermediate" Dance, Dance Revolution: harder than I'm used to, but still entirely doable.

Do any of you see where this is going yet?

We met at the subway station at 9:20 in the morning, and we headed out for the trail. Our group consisted of four guys and four girls, and everyone seemed pretty chipper despite it being before noon on a Saturday. The entrance to the trail was up a set of stairs, but the ground leveled out fairly quickly after we reached the top. All was well.

Our group chatted happily and enjoyed the trees for a while, but sooner than I expected, we came to a bit of a climb.

My friends and I jokingly referred to it as "level 1" and headed to the top. After each set of rocks, the ground would level out again and we'd resume our cheerful banter, sometimes stopping to be annoyingly American.

On one of our stops, someone hilariously commented that a nearby monstrosity (Baekundae Peak) was actually our planned destination.

"Sure," I said. "That's pretty and all, but you can't actually climb that part."

"Yes you can, and we are! See those little dots? Those are people climbing!"

I started to get a little nervous. And by "a little nervous", I mean, "it's a good thing I was sweating so much or else I'd have peed my pants."

Much sooner than I'd have preferred, our dainty nature hike turned into actually climbing a frickin mountain.

Every time we would get to the top of a particularly treacherous part, I'd feel a little rush of adrenaline, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, only to realize we had another stupid chunk of rock to climb up.

There were tons and tons of people doing the very same climb we were, and most of them were much older than our group, but they still all managed to be handling it far better than I was. In fact, they were quite amused by the fact that I always appeared one misstep from tumbling to my death.

I mean, really, look how delighted that man is by my imminent demise.

After three hours (THREE HOURS) of walking straight into the sky, we finally reached the top. The peak was beautiful, and in theory I should have been praising God for the majestic view I was witnessing. Unfortunately, all I could think about was how if I lost my balance even a little bit, I'd have fallen half a mile. Okay, I probably wouldn't have fallen the whole 2700+ feet; I bet a tree or something would have stopped me. Nonetheless, when your legs are shaking and everything around you is made of smooth rock, you're much more concerned with the placement of your feet than the pretty view.

If the way up was panic-inducing, the way down was flat out terrifying. On top of trying to maneuver across the slippery rocks at a downward angle, my legs were shaking like mad. A bunch of ajusshis (older men) snuck in between the rest of the group and me, and I had a little panic attack knowing I couldn't grab hold of any of my friends should I start to slip. Just when I realized this, my foot slid a little down the rock, and the ajusshi behind me grabbed my hand. They all used their limited English to encourage me to "take it easy" and "please be very cautious" as I tried desperately to get back to my friends. Now that I'm safely sitting on my apartment floor, I can look back and declare it precious and kind of amusing. In the moment, it wasn't much fun.

We stopped a little ways down to have lunch, and that was my favorite part of the climb. We sat on a mostly flat area that still had a great view of the mountains around us, but there wasn't really any risk of falling. Although we were all exhausted and covered with sweat, sitting on the side of that mountain eating lunch with my friends is going to be one of the best memories I have of my whole year here.

It took nearly as long to climb down as it did to climb up, and I would say it was actually harder on the way down (shaky legs and lightheadedness don't make for an easy climb). Luckily, my friend Stephen was fantastic. He made sure to place himself between me and another girl who was also terrified out of her mind, and he bounced back and forth, grabbing our hands and lifting us down off the rocks. Honestly, I wouldn't have made it up or down the mountain without his hand to hold onto. He always seemed to know exactly where we would slip and was ready to grab us when we did. At one point, he was a little ways ahead of me and I got stuck between two rocks. He realized I wasn't behind him and started climbing back down to find me; I made it out before he got there, but seriously, what a great friend.

When we finally got to the bottom, I was still feeling lightheaded, so people kept offering me water. Every time I drank more, I'd feel sicker, and I nearly passed out on the subway ride home. After I finally made it back to my apartment, I immediately fell asleep, and when I woke up, I still felt really dizzy. I ate a handful of M&M's and voila! I felt better almost instantly. I suppose if you climb a mountain for seven hours and only eat an apple, your blood sugar, um, tanks. Lesson learned: when climbing a mountain, everyone else needs to bring water. I need to bring candy.

It's been over thirty hours now since the mountain trek, and I can say with 100% certainty that my muscles - every last one of them - all hate me with a vengeance. Muscles I didn't know I had are screaming out in pain every single time I move.

And it was totally worth it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A love letter

Dearest Korea,

We're finishing up this crazy adventure in just a few short months, and I don't want to wait until I'm boarding that plane home to realize all the great things about my life with you. I want to take a minute while there's still time to make more memories to let you know that I appreciate everything you've done for me. Thanks for the hilarious moments and the sad ones; thanks for the incomprehensible joy and the occasional confusion. Thanks for always being right outside my window, comforting me with smog and the smell of rotting garbage as I struggle to fall asleep with people shouting angry words I don't understand in the street below. Thank you for the million ways you make me smile each and every day, like...

... when I see flip flops with Obama's head on them...

... when I pretend to be Oz while I'm "teaching"...

... when signs are inappropriate in the most hilarious ways...

... when ketchup comes in a smiley face...

... when I get to make Harry Potter at a cafe...

... when people exercise in the weirdest places...

... when you offer me really sound advice...

... when my kids show up to school looking awfully dorky...

... when the view is just too pretty...

... when Journey becomes our mantra...

... when there are too many friends to fit in one picture...

... and when dancing at lunch is the best thing to do...

... thank you. Thank you for these moments and these friends, and for the countless other reasons why two and a half more months just isn't long enough to take in all this joy.

Thank you, Korea, for being you, and for teaching me to be me. Here's to eleven more weeks of us.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Learning to be sassy

I don't know how to wink.

Okay, so that's not entirely true. I understand the concept and my muscles respond appropriately when I concentrate on the task. I guess my issue isn't with the act of winking as much as it is that I don't have any idea what to do with my face while I'm winking. I don't know to what extent I should wink.

When I try to wink, one of two things happens. I either wink too much:

or not enough:

Maybe I should have titled this post "Reason 742 Why I'm Single."

Anyway, so this week, our letter was W. Naturally, I decided it would be a great idea to teach my kids how to wink in honor of our letter. I'm the last person in the world you want teaching someone how to wink (see above pictures), but I'd say it went over pretty well. Better than the time I thought I would teach them how to read, at least.

Not all of the kids were confident enough in their abilities to pose for a picture, but here are a few of the really good ones. And by really good, obviously I mean hilarious.

Lest you think I like any of these kids more than Brian, I asked him to join in the fun too.

I may not be the best at teaching trivial things like spelling and math, but I'm teaching them how to flirt really, really badly, and that's all that matters in the end.

*Note: The first picture I post always ends up as the thumbnail on facebook's newsfeed. I've been debating this whole time whether I should add an irrelevant unicorn or something at the beginning so people don't see those terrible pictures unless they click the link. Screw it. Let's call it a lesson in humility. Or humiliation. Either way, a lesson.