Thursday, September 6, 2012

The story ends with a meal and a moral or two

(Continued from last post...)

Just to explain: the exact time frame and specifics of what happened are, of course, filtered through emotions and the fuzzy memories of 35 years ago, but this is my account to the best of my memory.  There are plenty of other details that I bet could add much more perspective and flair and comedy to this story if all of us girls could get together and remind each other of what happened and how each experienced the same events through their own eyes.  I'm so pleased to know that my old (not so old) pal Barbara who was with me on the trip has been reading these posts and enjoying them, so Barb, or Beth or Rachel or any others of you who might be reading this, if you have any new insight to add, please do so!! Also one correction, this happened in May of 1978, not 77 for those of you who might care...:)

So now the morning of our last day dawns and we are ready to head home.  But not quite yet... The local police chief wants to meet and greet us in his office in town.  We are to be escorted off the temple grounds and taken to see him, and we have no idea why.  We cook our very last breakfast over the campfire of blueberry pancakes from an American mix that someone was able to buy at the US Army post exchange back in Seoul - a real treat!

By this time we had all become good friends, not just friends because we went to the same school, or friends because we'd known each other for so long.  We had a bond that came from sharing something unique and difficult that forced us to pull together and work as a team.  Among us were really popular girls, jocks, cheerleaders, brainy girls and just regular ones that didn't seem to fit in anywhere, but now we all belonged to an elite group.  We were the girls that had just gone through the most absurdly weird, trying, hilariously funny and yet sweetly insightful camping trip ever, and came out friends.

So as we left the beautiful mountainside that we had called home for a week, and walked into the police station to meet the most honorable police chief, we were laughing and as relaxed as ever.  Much like our afternoon with the head monk of the monastery, we were smashed into his office and sat on sofas lining the wall.  Glasses of coke were brought out for us and we sat around waiting to see why he had asked us to come.  I had thought he wanted to question us more about the robbery, but instead we discovered that we were to be a part of some PR stunt.  Newspaper photographers were there and we were lined up to snap pictures with the smiling police chief and his officers and we guessed we'd show up in the papers the next day.  They took a few different angles of Coach Gustafson shaking hands with the police and all of us grinning to the camera, and who knows what they reported about us later? I've wondered if I ever came across that police station if I'd find my 16 year old smiling face hanging on a wall somewhere... who knows?

Time to go yet?  Nope.  We were now to be the honored guests of the honorable police chief at a local Korean barbecue restaurant that served the country's famous beef pulkogi, grilled at the table over hot coals and eaten with white rice and spicy kimchi and plenty of other spiced and flavored vegetables.  To feed a huge bunch like us must have cost the police department an arm and a leg, but they insisted, and we didn't complain!  To be honest, the beef was a bit tough, and we had all eaten better, but compared to food out of a can for five days, this was great!  The police officers who were chosen to join us were happy to indulge their appetites, and we munched away until we couldn't eat any more.

With many thank you's and much bowing and handshaking, the very dirty and tired bunch of us boarded our train to head back north to the capitol city of Seoul.  One distinct memory I have is going to the back of the train with Barb.  There was no caboose, just the very last train car that opened up to the tracks that were rapidly flying by.  Obviously this would never be allowed on an American train these days with all our stringent safety regulations, but that was rough and tumble Korea, still recuperating from a war just 25 years before, and under the oppression of a dictatorship.  People were poor, humble, trusting, and abundantly friendly - and safety was not much of an issue, just like indoor plumbing and sanitation was low on the country's priorities.  We took turns sitting at the back opening and letting our legs dangle over the speeding train tracks, leaning against the rail and watching the countryside whiz by at 80 miles an hour.

What had God shown me in this extraordinary trip?

  • That no matter how ashamed you are of your failures, just persevering and pushing through is an act of faith that God can use to turn failure into a blessing.  By the end of the camping trip, I even got praises for my little orange tent as others began to complain about theirs.  Who woulda thunk it?
  • That I had become comfortable with living among those who didn't know my Lord and Savior - too comfortable.  I needed to see these people who had become ordinary and mundane, through the eyes of someone else (Coach Gustafson) who felt sorrow for the spiritually lost so that I could question how real my faith was, and how much I cared about the lost myself.  
  • That God's creation reveals who He is - that His hills and mountains and the beauty of His starry skies overhead are all a way for Him to call out to us to tell us how deeply He loves us and wants to be an intimate part of our lives.  The day that we finally climbed all the way to the top of our Narnia mountain was an experience so deep that I felt the presence of God speaking to me through His creation.  As the Swiss love to yodel, the Koreans loved shouting, "Yah-ho!" to mountain climbers.  (Not yahoo, yah-ho!)  And as they shouted, smiled and waved, and as we shouted back, it was as if we were all proclaiming, "Isn't God amazing?  Look at His beautiful handiwork!"
  • That in times of danger and fear, God comes through even when we are weak - God also may choose the most unlikeliest of people to answer us when we are in need (e.g.. num-chuck monks!)
  • That if anyone tries to tell me about the superiority of eastern religions, Buddhism in particular, I know by experience, that those who were deeply committed to that path were also quite ready to leave that path to enjoy laughter, singing and American top 20 music.  That their leader had no real answers when asked about what he believed or why anyone should want to follow their path.  He seemed a bit unsure himself.  What we had - though we were not necessarily the greatest testimonies of our own faith - was still something sweet and attractive to them, something that they wanted to be a part of.  (It had to be spiritual in nature because God knows we sure didn't smell very sweet or look all that attractive after days without bathing!)
  • That boldness, strength, assurance and faith are built through pushing through tough times, not by just praying for these qualities to appear.  That God honors those who try, who stick with it, and who seek to find Him at work in every situation.

So late at night, we disembark at Seoul Train Station and go our separate ways, to see each other again in school on Monday.  I have the furthest to go, gotta take a taxi to another bus station and then another hour and a half ride north to my house in Tong-du-cheon. I finally stumble into the doorway with my ragged clothes and backpack.  My mom smiles and says, "Oh, you're home!  Did you have a nice time?" and then proceeds to walk out of the room to attend to some other business.  I follow her and try to tell her everything that happened but she's in that zone of nodding her head and saying, "Uh huh, that's nice..." and I  know she isn't hearing a thing.

"Mom!"  I followed her into another room,  "Weren't you even worried about me?"

"No, I know you can take good care of yourself, and I was praying for you anyway.  Tell me all about it later, I've got things to do..."  And off she went again.

Oh well, God knew exactly what had happened, and He knew that this would somehow form who I would become today.  That was the final lesson of that trip - that if nobody else knows or cares what God is doing inside of you, He knows and He'll use it to impact your world if you let Him.

Finally, I've told the whole story - now to get my mom to hear it 35 years later!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Singing, laughter and practicing what one preaches

(Continued from previous posts...)

Well, here we are in the wild outdoors at the southern tip of Korea, trying to have a normal camping trip, but nothing is going according to plan, while everything has become weirdly funny and unpredictable.

After breakfast, a visitor comes to our campsite, not our young martial arts friend, but a police detective and a few uniformed cops march up our hill.  Nancy and Beth speak the language the best, and the detective squats down to chat with us and get all the important information about the guy robbed our campsite the day before.

It becomes apparent that the local police department is very worried about gaining a bad reputation.  They want to know all the names and nationalities of our fathers, their phone numbers and who they work for.  They even ask the impossible question of our dad's passport numbers - how are we supposed to know that?  I guess the fear that one of us is a daughter of some foreign ambassador or a high level businessman would cause them to feel compelled to do some damage control.  Even though most of us had missionary dads, I guess just the fact that we were Americans was enough to cause worry.

We are told that from now on until we return home, armed police guards will be posted to watch over our campsite day and night.  Though we appreciate the VIP treatment, we're not too thrilled with the idea of having strange men hovering around watching everything we do.  But when the detective leaves, the uniformed officers leave with him and we wonder if we had heard right.   Oh well, time to get back to business of camping.

We plan another excursion into the further mountains to get a close up look at our own Cair Paravel of Narnia, and then hear that we are officially invited to tea at the head monk's office in the monastery nearby.  Was he coerced into this by the police who were afraid of any negative fallout from our robbery, or was he just doing his charitable duty as a good Buddhist?  We had no idea, but it seemed that it would be wrong to deny ourselves the adventure of sipping tea with someone who was elevated to the position of an almost Buddha, no matter what his motives were.  Our police guard appears, and looks not too happy to be given the job of watching our stuff, so he squats in the grass behind our tents and lights up a cigarette.  Well at least we know our things will be safe and we can all leave for our tea time as a group.

We are incredibly unsanitary, our hair has been shampooed so infrequently and our legs are all unshaven, and our deodorant is having to work overtime.  We have climbed mountains and hills and sweated and slept under the stars for days now, and all our clothes have been smashed into backpacks that are now half full of dirty laundry. But we are having the time of our lives... thief or no thief.  No one notices how dirty each other is since we're all in the same boat, and when the time comes, we march down to the monastery to meet our host monk.

We are ushered into a room by a very humble looking maid. It's the head monk's office filled with books and scrolls and ancient paintings on the walls, part of the 300 year old structure of the temple and monastery.  Giant beams of old tree trunks hold up the ceiling, and instead of the traditional wax-papered floor that is heated by coal in the winter by underground channels, he has a more western style concrete floor with actual sofas and chairs.  He is sitting in his serene splendor, bald, double-chinned, chubby and silent.  It's a regular American style chair, but he is sitting on it cross-legged, meditation style in his grey robes.

We file in and take our seats on the sofas against the walls, looking at him.  Nancy and Beth and others who speak Korean well, greet him and he nods and says a few words.  Then, it's silent.  No one talks.  We have no idea what to say.  Coach Gustafson, our leader, feels the need to strike up small talk and asks a few polite questions that have to go through translation.  His answers are short and he asks us nothing back.  Coach realizes that in front of her is a leader in a religion that she feels is deceived, that leads people away to God, not to Him. She'd like to evangelize him, to engage in a discussion about faith and asks him what he believes.

His answers are vague and all about finding peace and harmony.  Do you believe that Jesus was God? she wants to know.  Everything has God in it, according to him, so yes, he doesn't mind saying that Jesus was God, just like you or I could someday become God.  Coach asks if it bothers him that we are Christians and don't believe in his religion.  Absolutely not, he says, all religions lead to God, so if we are happy as Christians, then he sees no problem with it.  He doesn't want to save us from our deceptions, he doesn't want to convert us, he doesn't seem to care about teaching us anything about his own faith at all.  Coach is frustrated.  She was hoping for a good debate about the Lordship of Jesus, but all she gets is a passive fellow who would rather meditate silently on harmony and inner peace.

So in a matter of ten minutes, there is absolutely nothing to say.  We stare at him, and he stares at nothing.  Eventually the maid brings in trays of hot herb tea that we sip and stare and wonder how long this is going to last, and why he even invited us to visit him in the first place.  Coach comes up with new questions to ask from time to time, but his answers are odd and he has no interest in talking.

So as it goes with teenage girls, we start to just look around and find things to whisper to each other, and giggle, and eventually whispers turn into low murmurs, and more giggling, and in time we're just talking to each other as if he isn't even there, because he has zoned out into some zen-like state.  In fact, he's pretending to be in a zen-like state as I catch him smiling at times, enjoying just watching us interact with each other.  It seems that the poor guy who isn't allowed to watch movies or TV or have any worldly influence, but just spend his days in meditation to attain Buddha-hood, is finally getting some fun in his day to have his office packed with very worldly girls.  Dirty and disheveled ones, but something new and different to spice up his emotionless days.

He really seemed not to mind that we were ignoring him, so we started to discuss the odd paintings on his walls.  They must have been hundreds of years old, and I'm sure that now they'd be worth a fortune, but they were meant to be there, not in some fancy auction house or museum.  One very fierce looking warrior painting caught my eye.  He was wielding a sword and had a pot belly and all the hair on his chest was parted down the center.  The longer I looked at it, the more hilarious it was.  I pointed it out quietly to the other girls, and as each noticed, we started giggling, and then laughing to the point that we were crying and holding our stomachs.  The warrior was supposed to be deeply spiritual and fearsome, but he looked so ridiculous, we couldn't hold it back.

In the middle of our laughing frenzy I looked at our serene head monk, and low and behold, he was chuckling too.  He had no idea what we were  laughing at, but just the sound of laughter was contagious to him.  I began to wonder if he really believed all that he was taught by his religion that denying the pleasure of family, marriage, laughter, strong feelings or convictions, even modern amenities and having to live in a sparse austere way, leads to true spirituality.  I looked around his office more, and saw that he was wearing a watch that was quite expensive, and in the back room, I saw the antennas of a TV, a radio and a heater.  He obviously was not practicing the religion that he preached.  I wondered why he had chosen this way of life if he found he would have to secretly compromise, whether he was truly happy - but then of course, happiness is not something that a good Buddhist is supposed to want.  But this Buddhist, with his chuckles shaking his chubby frame as he sat cross-legged on his chair was really having a happy moment.  He may have had to pay penance for his unspirituality later with months of fasting and sleeping on the cold ground,  and we may set him back a couple of years in his pursuit to attain enlightenment, but he sure was having a good time and didn't seem to mind.

"Well, I guess we're about done here," said Coach, and we thanked our host, and filed back out of the monastery to head back to our campsite.

Evening came and we knew that the next day will be our last, heading back on the long journey north to Seoul.  Dinner over the campfire and the brilliant stars shine through the clearing of trees on our hill. We wondered about our num-chuck friend and how he did in his competition, and before we know it, three shiny bald heads appear in the moonlight.  More miscreant monks have snuck out of the monastery to get a closer look at the American girls.  Word must have secretly gotten around that we were friendly, and they saunter up all embarrassed and curious.

"Hello, how ah you?" They practice their English, and we invite them to have some Oreo cookies which they gladly accept.  We ask them their names and they eagerly strike up a conversation with us.  They ask us to give them English names, so based on their Korean names they are transformed into Joey, Wally, and another name I've forgotten like Petie or something like that.

"You came from America?"  Yes, we answer.

"You know Elton John?"  No, we've never met him, but we know his songs, we laugh and they ask us more.  Do we know John Travolta?  John Denver?  Olivia Newton John?  The Bee Gees?  (Remember, this is the late 70's when disco was king.)  Obviously these guys have been secretly listening to radios, and they want us to sing with them some "Stayin Alive" and "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road," which we all try to sing, but none of us know all the words.  We find out that the song they love the best is John Denver's, "Country Road Take Me Home."

So we all burst into song around the campfire.  Even the police guard joins us for some Oreos and we sing:

"Country road, take me home to the place I belong,
West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home country road..."

Hilarious Korean accents murder the lyrics, and they want to sing it again and again, along with as many other top 20 songs that we know.  In the ancient hills of Korea, not far from the East China Sea, among Buddhist black belt monks, accompanied by an armed officer, we sing songs of West Virginia at the top of our lungs into the moonlit night.  It was surreal to say the least.

Tomorrow, we finally head home, but the adventure is still not over...