Monday, July 25, 2011


"You don't understand what I'm saying," my MIL said.  "I know he went out to play and spread fertilizer, but I want to know did he go straight out or did he wait a little while and then go out?"

She was right.  I didn't understand.  But it wasn't what she was saying.  I got that part.  It was what she was meaning.

You see, what she said was, "Is Father out playing or is he in the other room resting?"

My automatic response was, "Father isn't playing.  He went out to the field with the fertilizer."  You see, my mind is just totally western sometimes.  It never dawned on me that this was a question of when something was done, even though I have lived with my in-laws long enough to know their habits quite well.  Instead, I thought this was a question of what was being done.  Both choices seemed to assume that my FIL was not working, when in fact, he was working quite hard.  I wanted to make sure my MIL knew he was working.

But that's where my western mind made the big mistake.  IT'S OKAY FOR FIL TO PLAY!  It's expected!  It's healthy!  Only in my backward culture (and I am not being sarcastic here) is this an accusation. 

I can't tell you how depressed I was after this conversation--mainly because I know how hard we are both trying to communicate. 

You see, we leave for home in 17 days.  That's it.  17 days.  And there's still so much I would like to do with my in-laws and so much I wish I could say and so many ways I wish they knew that I do love them.

How do you tell your MIL that you're sorry that you have to take her grandchildren back, but that you're just not good enough to navigate the Korean system?

How do you tell your FIL that you believe in his son's ability more than your own?

How do you explain how grateful you are for what they try to do, even if you don't entirely understand it?

Of course, it's not the first time we have misunderstood one another. There was the infamous time before my oldest was born that my mother-in-law desperately wanted to wash laundry, which I understand by gestures and which I was trying to tell her would have to wait until our downstairs neighbor was finished.  That part was okay, except my MIL could not understand what I was trying to say (my Korean was not good enough) and I did not realize that the word she was saying was "laundry" and not "faster"--the Korean words are virtually the same to western ears--and so the two of us were reduced to frantic messes.  So when my husband came home 90 minutes later, he was greeted by an exasperated father and a mother and wife in tears. It was not our finest moment.

But then, we can misunderstand each other without saying a word.  When we first moved to Korea, there were many times when I just couldn't communicate what was happening.  My parents-in-law would tell me something, and I would be completely unable to respond.  I was so angry at myself and so frustrated.  How was it possible to have studied Korean, lived here for a year, and have been married for six to a Korean, and still not be able to say simple things? (Well, I'll tell you--no language book or class I've ever been in has provided socially appropriate phrases for things like, "Sorry, but I have to nurse the baby RIGHT NOW," or "The baby is completely out of oufits because he peed through his last one and I haven't yet learned to function in a country without clothes dryers.") I was very clearly frustrated, often breathing heavily and sometimes even leaving the room.  But later, I found out my in-laws were worried that I was angry with THEM. I was so ashamed.  Not only was I unable to find the right words, but in my inability to speak, I was accidentally hurting the people who were trying their best to help me.

And let me tell you, trying your best to help is not always helpful.  Like the time I wiped and put away all the dishes for my mother-in-law only to have my sister-in-law wash them again because the towel, which was totally dry and out the way we westerners keep our dish towels out, was "too dusty and dirty," and should be rinsed first.  Or the time I put up the squid where it was cool only to have it come crashing to the floor when someone used what was below it.  Oops!

Will the four years I spent learning Korean customs which are so opposite mine make up for the two in which I snapped at poor Eugene for putting wet silverware on the table?  What is poor taste in America (didn't you even have time to dry the dishes?) is considerate and cleanly here (see? These are newly cleaned--no dust).

I don't know the answers only that whatever the solution, it is not a simple one.  I only hope each day brings us closer to understanding.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


“This world is not my home.
I’m just a-passing through...”

It’s an old hymn, and one that I love--every last line of it.  But until I had lived in another country, one that will never see me as belonging, did I ever see that hymn as literal.  I have a home where I belong and everyone knows it, but it is not a home in that way to my husband.  My husband has a home like that too, but it will never be a home that way to me.  And, unfortunately, as the last 18 months have shown me, neither will ever be that kind of home for my children.  It is this last that leaves me weeping.

Prejudice and racism are such subtle things.  True, there are occasions where they parade naked like the emperor bereft of his clothes (because truly the arguments behind such things are no more than vanity), but most of the time, it is not obvious.  It often masquerades as “just following the rules” or “not doing more than expected.” Racism and prejudice are very subtle, so subtle that when you point your finger it seems an illusion, but...

A couple of weeks ago we went to the school after lunch to hopefully meet some friends for the boys.  There is very little to do in this town, and until summer vacation starts, there isn’t even a hagwon for the kids to go to.  In bigger towns, the hagwons start around 1:00 because elementary school for 1st, 2nd, and sometimes 3rd graders ends at 12:30 most days of the week.  But there aren’t enough little ones here to support the business, so if we want to meet some kids the boys’ ages we need to go to the school around 1:00.  We’ve done this a couple of times now and run into kids, but we haven’t met them often enough to befriend them.  

So today we went, and an older gentleman actually stopped me and told me to leave because the kids are studying.  This is true, bu-ut...
  • Again, half of the school releases at 12:30, and there are usually kids on the playground at 1:00 on any given day of the week (barring torrential rain and/or blistering heat).
  • We were careful to stay far from the building.
  • We were careful to speak softly.
  • There are other businesses (like the new local lending library for ADULTS) which operate on the school grounds (literally inside the school fence) DURING SCHOOL HOURS (according to the sign, they are open from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM).
  • Hagwons from neighboring towns often pick up kids at the school ground during those hours and so, while they are waiting for the hagwon kids, those kids are often out playing at exactly that time.

So...why should he ask us to leave when what we are doing is perfectly normal, usually done by many of the people in the town, and when we were especially careful not to bother anyone?

Is it racism?

It’s hard for me to see how it is not.  Yes, what he said was true, but it was also not true.  Half the school had been released and those kids are usually playing.  Would he have said it to someone else?  A kid, maybe.  A parent? Probably not.

I was super mad, probably not super nice, and made sure I did not make the kids leave right away because they had done nothing wrong, and I didn’t want them to feel that they had.

So we went back home, had an ice cream, and walked to the mountain.  I was debating whether or not to turn around and go home since the last time I had gone to the mountain, a guy kept demanding to know what I was doing in this little town and how I knew about the mountain.  For the most part, I can brush this off when it’s only me, but it’s a lot harder to watch my kids take it.  

But I decided to keep going out of respect for my husband.  

You see, the first I really became aware of the subtlety of racism was after I married my husband.  I saw he and his friends discriminated against.  There were times I could do something.  There were lots of times I couldn’t.  And it was then that I became aware of how “following the rules” and “not going out of my way” were excuses to treat those who were different as less than those who were not.  And my husband has never chucked it and gone home, although I am sure he has felt like it more times that I can count.

For example, my father has been using the same mechanic shop for about five years now, ever since the one he used since 1974 went out of business.  When my father and I go, the people couldn't be nicer.  Do you need to use the phone?  Do you need a lift home?  Etc.  When my husband went, they told him he needed to sit in the smelly, grimy (it is a repair shop after all) waiting room for the four hours it would take for the car to be finished.

Again, is it racism?  Not necessarily, but when you normally go out of your way for people who look like you but don't do it for people who look different, isn't that a type of prejudice?

I don't think we see it.  I don't think we know it when we do it.  It is subtle, like the morning fog or a heat haze over the highway.  It is nebulous like the early stages of a headache.

But its nefariousness cripples like a migraine.

Thank goodness, though, not everyone falls into it.  The rest of our afternoon was terrific.  We ran into people who had known the boys since they were babies, and they made over how much they had grown.  The boys rejoiced in seeing things that they remembered again and climbing walls they had climbed before. 

Yes, it is easy to mistrust and to be less than fair, less than kind.  And it is even easier to do so when you don't understand the other person, when they act in surprising ways, or when you simply don't know them. 

But for every one who acts unkindly, perhaps there are even more who try to act with kindness.  For all who reject us and cast us out, there are gentlemen like this one below, who cradled my little son and carried him across a busy street.

For every negative word, I am told we need seven positive words to recover, and so we are fortunate that it is beautiful and healing to decide to love.  And in this little town, we are so blessed that so many choose to love.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Right and Wrong

"난 형이야!!!" My oldest son cries.  Literally it means "I'm the older brother," but figuratively it means, "I'm in charge and know what's right for you!"  And sometimes Big Brother really is right; Little brother will really get hurt if he climbs that rock or tree or banister.  And other times, Big Brother is not so right; flies are not bees and won't bite you; citronella stickers will protect you from mosquitoes, but you don't need one for ghosts; and you will not float away after you have a really big fart.

I recently watched an amazing talk by Kathryn Schulz on being wrong.  And it mirrors the situation above.  One thing she points out is that, until you know you are wrong, being wrong feels JUST LIKE being right.  You can't tell until reality hits you in the face.

For example, when we first moved to Korea, I almost went to war with my in-laws over hiccups.  Yes, hiccups.  You see, Little Brother was 9 weeks old.  9-week-olds hiccup.  They just hiccup.  It's part of development.  Their lungs and diaphragm aren't in sync.  I believe What To Expect When You're Expecting says something like, "Kids don't die from the hiccups.  It's part of growing up.  Leave them alone, and they will go away."

Koreans do not see hiccups that way.  No, there must be a root cause and it must be remedied.  FYI-natural human development is not one of these root causes.  They also do not believe in the same remedies we do, but this is not about that.  The most common of these root causes is being cold.  So when Little Brother was hiccuping ad nauseum in 90 degree heat, naturally he needed more clothing.  And when his body was covered with heat rash and the child was sobbing uncontrollably, it must have been caused by something else.  Finally, another halmoni intervened and said, "He's dying of heat!  Lay off!" (Thank God for halmonis!  This halmoni is one of my particular favorites.)

But another root cause of hiccups, according to Koreans, is having just urinated.  That was always halaboji's question:  "Did he pee?"  And you know what? He had! In Little Brother's case, this was right!  Now, it took a long time for me to get over myself enough to check and see if halaboji was right (and if it had been the other halmoni, Little Brother might still be hiccuping), but when I was able to question if somebody else might be right, then I actually found part of the cause of Little Brother's problem (and saved Little Brother from a lot of diaper rash as well!).

You see, as I am spending a lot of time in a different culture as well as preparing to send kids back to school, I am facing a lot of backlash about right and wrong from all directions.  And in this case, the backlash from Christians is the worst.

Yes, God gave us the ten commandments.  Yes, there are commands in the Bible.  Yes, Jesus came to fulfill the law and not destroy it.

But I also think he came to show us we were wrong.  Not wrong as in "we have sinned."  Yes, we have sinned.  But I think he came to show us we were wrong as in "we haven't got a clue."

Just think about the sermon on the mount:
Think you haven't murdered?  Have you ever been angry?  Have you ever called a name?  Same deal.
Think you haven't committed adultery?  Really?  Ever said, "Man, s/he's hot!"?  Same deal.
Think you can help your neighbor improve?  Have you checked the plank in your own eye?

I keep going back and looking, and I can't find Jesus calling anyone a sinner but the people who thought they were sinless.  Sure, he called out, "Repent!" and people listened because THEY KNEW THEY HAD A PROBLEM!

It's when we think we don't that we have trouble.  And, oh, I have trouble a lot of the time.  I thank God for giving me a husband with an awesome BS meter and a super low tolerance for the stuff.  I miss him terribly and can't wait to be back home with him.

But that will take me away from people I love, whose ways are not my ways but are not necessarily wrong ways.  Every day here teaches me about love--how hard it can be but how much it is worth it.

And it teaches me about my savior who is love, who teaches me daily that if the rule doesn't feel like loving, then perhaps I haven't understood the rule.  And it teaches me about humility.  The drunk guys at the local grocery love to laugh at me.  And they are right; I am usually wrong.  Of course, I am not too fond of them when they laugh, particularly when they call out to a friend who missed the excitement, "Did you see that?  Her mother-in-law said that was the wrong kind of noodle!  Hahaha!  She didn't know about the noodles!"  They don't mean anything, but it is a little hard to take in the moment.

But mostly it teaches me to accept brokenness, that loving from a broken place is more welcome than loving from a perfect one, because when we acknowledge our brokenness, when we are open, we grasp the opportunity to accept one another and to become whole.

Finally, I leave you with the words of Birdia Tak Wai Chan
posted on (And listen to this talk!  It is perhaps my best spent 20 minutes in a very long time--cuddling my babies aside.)

Jan 5 2011: i think she may have found Tao accidentally:

"To be whole, let yourself break.
To be straight, let yourself bend.
To be full, let yourself be empty.
To be new, let yourself wear out.
To have everything, give everything up.

Knowing others is a kind of knowledge;
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Conquering others requires strength;
conquering yourself is true power.
To realize that you have enough is true wealth.
Pushing ahead may succeed,
but staying put brings endurance.
Die without perishing, and find the eternal.

To know that you do not know is strength.
Not knowing that you do not know is a sickness.
The cure begins with the recognition of the sickness.

Knowing what is permanent: enlightenment.
Not knowing what is permanent: disaster.
Knowing what is permanent opens the mind.
Open mind, open heart.
Open heart, magnanimity."

Peace :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Movement, thy name is Mother...-in-law

"We were up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning!" my mother-in-law cried, relating her escapades with my father-in-law in bailing out the basement with, it turns out, buckets and dustpans.  "Aboji didn't even go out to play.  I didn't even go out to play!"

And this is really saying something because, aside from the fact that "going out to play" is not an expression we in America would ever use for anyone over 6-years-old without meaning something steamy, my mother-in-law never stays down.  She seizes life with both hands and throttles it.

Life has not been easy for her.  She was born in the mountains in a very small rural area that her brother now operates as a fruit farm.  During the general poverty that followed the Korean war, which she in fact lived through, she was unable to continue school after the 8th grade.  Later, when circumstances were such that she could finally return to school, she found that her eyes were not so good and trying to learn with all of her responsibilities was impossible.

But she never gives up. 

I don't really know about the time in between then and the time I met my husband, but I can certainly tell you that since I met my mother-in-law in 1999, she has never stopped moving.  Even in her sleep, she will occasionally bark an order...lest you think she is out of commission!  Never!

After my husband and I met, I am told my mother-in-law told him not to marry me.  What can I say?  My husband is as persistent as she is.

When we returned after being married, intent on explaining everything, my mother-in-law seemed truly pained to her two sons, and so the truth wasn't completely sprung on her at the moment.  I was out of vacation after two weeks, so I had to return home.  For the remaining 6 weeks that my husband was there, my mother-in-law dutifully tried to set him up with another Korean girl.  Like I said, she never gives up!

And this turns out to be a truly terrific thing, because in 2006, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, had two-thirds of her stomach and much of her esophagus removed, went on chemotherapy, and received a whole host of other instructions. 

Let me tell you, the woman never gives up.

The reports we heard about her weren't good, so we packed up and went to Korea as soon as my second son was born.  The woman had paid such attention to the doctors and taken life by the horns so strongly, you couldn't tell she had ever been sick.  My father-in-law, who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2004, yes, you could tell.  My mother-in-law?  No way!

The doctors recommended exercise, so three times a week, she heads over to a pool in a neighboring town (well, technically they are now the same town, but historically, they have always been two).  I went with her a few times.  She takes two buses to get there.  She makes herself completely at home in the locker room with the other halmonis and enjoys the conversation as much as the sauna, which she indulges in both before and after her swim.

I had always avoided Korean public baths, but there was no avoiding the locker room if I wanted to get in the pool.  Let me tell you, those ladies scrub themselves raw!  No wonder kids never want to go with their moms to the baths!  Just when I thought she wasn't going to have any skin left, she pulled on her suit, and out we went to the pool.

Now, I have always taken it for granted that most Americans know how to swim.  We are usually taught from a very young age, and most high schools require swimming.  But such is not the case here, and I immediaately understood why my mother-in-law thought swimming was so difficult.  She was trying to pull herself throuugh the water with splayed fingers!  Needless to say, she wasn't going very far.  But she never gave up.  She just kept going until the clock signaled that her time was up.  Then she climbed out and headed back into the locker room to scrub off what remained of her skin.

Five years later, she still heads over three times a week.  She can work me, my sister-in-law, and half this little town under the table.

She's always selling vegetables to someone, giving away something, or headed to meet someone else.  She is the local farm-union liaison, and as such, not only holds a monthly party for most of the women in town (which my father-in-law is none too thrilled about. let me tell you), but she also sells huge old bags of rice, which she manages to lug up and down the basement steps on her nearly 70-year-old legs, and occasional other things, like the bags of myeolchi (anchovies) that sent great cascades of fishy fragrance up from the driveway in the July heat.

Her eyes have seen her country transformed before her eyes.  Symbol and language systems have changed more than once.  Different calendars are used, and fewer and fewer in this country are doing kimjeong (the traditional kimchi making for the year), much less making their own doenjang and soy sauce.

But she never gives up, never lets go.

I sometimes don't realize what an awesome example I have in her, and I hope as I near seventy, I have half the persistence and energy she does.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Be Still and Know

My mother-in-law and I may differ on many things, but one thing is certain: we both would die for my children.  My mother-in-law's love for my boys cannot be measured.  It exceeds all boundaries.  That is a terrific thing for them, but sometimes a trying thing for me.

I remember when my second son was a baby, he was a terrible sleeper.  He cried himself to sleep--for afternoon naps as well as for the night--for the first three years of his life.  For the forty ear-splitting minutes preceding each and every rest, he needed to be bounced and walked until his little eyes could no longer reopen and his gaping mouth no longer emitted shrieks.  It was awful.

When he was finally asleep, I would oh-so-delicately place him in a reclining seat (the only thing that wouldn't immediately jolt him awake), and my father-in-law and I would gaze at him with bated breath to see if he would actually remain silent and slumbering.

And, inevitably, approximately three minutes later, my mother-in-law would re-enter the house, stand next to the peaceful infant, and volubly inquire, "애기 잔다? (Is the baby sleeping?)"

Not anymore, Omoni, not anymore. 

And so, one day, as I laid the little one down and his eyes remained faithfully shut, I whispered a prayer that today, please, Lord, may Omoni not shout and wake up the baby.

Three minutes later, Omoni arrived.  My heart sank.  Then she opened her mouth, and nothing came out.  She was completely hoarse.  For three days, she didn't speak.  I felt terribly guilty.

I learned to be careful what I pray for.

Lately though, there are prayers that seem to go nowhere and situations that seem completely unchangeable.  There are days that I am so disheartened that I can hardly lift my eyes from the floor.

And perhaps then I am not listening. 

I say that because maybe eight months ago, maybe longer, the Lord began telling me, "Be still and know that I am God."  Now He told me a lot more than that, too, but that's unimportant to this story.  "Be still and know that I am God."

Periodically, He reminds me of this.

This last week has been hard.  The honeymoon period is over.  I realize how very much I love my family--ALL of my family--and that we simply are never going to be together and that some issues (neither good nor bad, just there) will simply never go away.

It was a hard realization, even though I could have told you this more than 11 years ago when my husband first asked me to marry him.  It seems that I have to come to terms with it over and over again. And it seems that God just doesn't hear these prayers.

So, I wasn't supposed to go to church this Sunday.  We were supposed to do family things.  But for various reasons that didn't happen, and I got to go with the boys.

And I prayed for so many things.

And the pastor stood up and preached from Exodus: "[Y]ou will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. ... [Y]ou need only to be still." (14:13-14)

Be still and know...

And the pastor noted somewhere along the line that he hadn't meant to go this direction but that God had taken him that way.

Be still and know...

And that night, my little one accosted me with questions about God, which, in fact, was one of my prayer requests because his brother is so close to God, but the little one stands off.  In a world that changes as much as theirs does, when their language, culture, and family members come and go, they need the firm foundation of God.

And AJ asked me, "Does God really hear you?"

I don't tell him that his very question is an answer to my prayers.  Instead I say, "Oh, yes, child. He really does."

I am seeing even my small prayers answered and though I stand in the middle of differences and situations that seem unconquerable, behold, my whole family will see the Lord's deliverance because He is already moving.

We simply need to be still.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I don't do mornings

I don't do mornings.  I may appear up and alert, but I am not.  I may smile and chirp, but don't disrupt the pattern because I am not nice.  I have tried to be a morning person.  I have, unsuccesfully I might add, scheduled a prebreakfast walk for myself at least every year since the summer I turned 13.  Now I get in a prebreakfast walk, but that's only because I don't eat breakfast and wait until after my kid gets on the bus.

But you see, I know God has a sense of humor because he gave me my in-laws, who are, in fact, quite wonderful people and I love them very much.

But they are much too active for me much too early in the morning.

My mother-in-law is one of those people who is blessed with energy.  The third day we were here, I walked out of the shower at 6:15 and she looked at me as though she was wondering how I had slept so much of the day away.  She rises regularly around 4:30 ,and though she cat naps, she rarely sleeps before 10:00, 10:30, or later.  And she never sits still.  No.  From the moment her head lifts from the pillow, she is moving.  I see my son in her.  A LOT.  I wonder what it was like to be her mother.  I'm not sure I would have been up to the task.

Until the other day, I thought she was the only one.  But the other morning, one of the other grandmothers in the town delivered apricots for my little son.  At 5:57. AM.  I don't do 5:57 AM. 

For as long as I can remember, I have been a night wanderer.  I randomly get up, walk around, read a book, and go back to sleep.  Perhaps it is jet lag now.  My oldest son told me the hotel in Japan was cursed because he was just so tired.  I told him the curse was jet lag.  He still thinks jet lag comes from Japan.  After all, that's where earthquakes are.  He learned it in school.  Perhaps it is jet lag.  But two weeks into the trip, I doubt it. 

More than likely it is simply the combination of weathering the storm, surviving the worry, and starting to work through it all.  Life doesn't go away becasue the scenery has changed.

Of course, then again, there is the whole up at 5:30 thing.

My repulsion to early morning activity is compounded by the fact that you're not supposed to eat before breakfast here.  And anyone who knows me very well knows that I run on hot tea.  Solid food I can go without, but hot caffeinated water with a little milk and a lot of teeth-staining tanins is requisite to my survival.  I thought I could be a missionary at one time, but one mission trip to the wilds of St. Augustine in accommodations without hot tea cured me of that idea.  It cured the religious leadership of that idea for me as well. I was so miserable that they made special arrangements for me to get into the kitchen for some extra tea.

I have limited patience in the morning, and I can sometimes bite my tongue.  But these virtues are absent in the pre-tea pre 7:00 AM morning.  I prayed the other night that I would be nice during breakfast and not say anything to anyone else that would hurt anyone's feelings.  I slept through breakfast.  Is God telling me I'm not capable of being nice?

Today, my mother-in-law went swimming early.  She said 6:00, but she was already gone when I finally took my shower at 5:40.  I had caught outside hanging the laundry at 5:10.  So I am up early to set out breakfast.  Thankfully, my father-in-law is VERY patient in the morning (and has a sense of humor as well).  We'll see how it goes.  Hopefully I won't do any permanent damage.