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How Did I Get to Korea?

July 9, 2009

Years ago, when I first came to Korea, I really had no idea I’d be staying so long. Although I’d taken three years of Chinese classes and minored in Asian Studies at my university, I really had no idea about Korea. The only things I knew were that they had spicy food, International exchange students, and my country had fought in some kind of “Communism” war over there at some point (I didn’t even know the time frame for the Korean War – always got it confused with Vietnam). Now, three years in, it doesn’t look like I’ll be leaving anytime soon.

I have to admit I’d always planned to spend at least three years abroad. I’d even committed myself to it at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student missions conference at Urbana in 2003. I’d just always thought I’d be in Japan or China. I’ve had a deep interest in Asia since I was quite young – around 12 years old I guess – when I first remember Japanese cartoons and Chinese food. Around that same time, I also started to get a deep desire to live in another country. Our church supported missionaries abroad in Italy, Columbia, and Mozambique and when they returned to our church from their lives abroad I was always fascinated to hear their stories. What kind of life must they have? I wondered. To fly airplanes in to African countries with medical supplies, or to be surrounded by violent guerrillas and militia in South America, or to live a very similar Western-style life complete with grocery shopping and finances (and foreign money!) in a vastly different European setting must be incredible. For as long as I can remember, I’ve also wanted to experience that kind of life of adventure.

I never thought I’d actually make it though. There is a lot within America that is wonderful and comfortable and keeps people attached to it. Also, being from a fairly small city in the least populated state in the Union made my feel like there would never be any opportunities for me. Even in University, after becoming involved with many International clubs and students on campus and taking two trips to China, I never really thought I’d have much “staying power” (or even “getting there power”) if I wanted to live in Asia. But two significant things turned my frown upside-down and renewed my hope for a life in Asia (although one of them was forgotten until much later). Those things were:  a vision, and a means to get there.

I still remember quite vividly one trip I took a few years back with a friend I knew from InterVarsity. I had wanted to take a road trip up to Seattle with some of my friends over Spring Break, but for various reasons I had to cut my portion of the trip in half and stop in Boise, ID. My friends continued up to Seattle as I met my InterVarsity friend in Boise for a few days. On Sunday, we went to church and though I was surrounded by over 50 Caucasians, I couldn’t shake a mental image that kept popping up in my mind. Imagine, I thought, a room like this filled with heads of black hair, worshipping God as we do, but in a completely different language. I can still recall the striking clarity of that vision that remained framed in my mind as we drove down the long, straight stretches of Idaho highway after church that day.

In my final year of University, I met a Japanese Christian who invited me back to his house in Japan for three months. I’d since long forgotten my vision and was mostly interested in just going over for a bit of vacation and adventure in a new country. But, since I hadn’t forgetten my desire to live abroad, I also had it in my mind to search for an English teaching job while there. Regretably, I didn’t think I could tell my family about my true intentions because I thought they wouldn’t understand and would force me back home. So, I went to Japan “for a vacation” but packed all the essentials I knew I’d need for more than a year. My means to “get there” had arrived.

My job hunt in Japan turned up a number of options, but looking back I’m incredibly thankful that I didn’t take any of them. One giant company collapsed in 2007 because it couldn’t afford to pay its teachers. Another company started work sooner than I’d wanted with more difficult requirements than I’d originally expected, but they were desperate for a teacher soon, and my VISA would be running a little over a month later, so I initially accepted the job. However, I couldn’t sleep that night (alone in my friend’s house) so I made a call back home to my parents to talk to them. After the initial shock and upset that I wasn’t planning to return home (sorry), they helped talk me through my options.

I’d also applied for a few jobs in Korea. I really thought nothing of that, it was completely on a whim. One of my Korean Christian friends just happened to call me in Japan one day, out of the blue, when I was the only one home. We talked for over an hour, and after that, I just thought, Hmmm, Korea, and made a very minimal job hunt. I’d been offered three positions in Korea, but I’d always thought Japan was where I needed to stay. I loved Japan, was studying the language, and was already quite comfortable with the customs and getting around even the biggest cities. I knew Japan was right for me. But God didn’t think so.

I’ve been a Christian my whole life, but in the two years preceding these events, I’d started to stray – even run away – from God. I hadn’t talked to him in more than two years. I regretted it, but I didn’t think God had any place in my life, or needed any. I thought I was fine, even better off without him. After all, I got more girls when I wasn’t trying to “be nice” all the time. But on the phone with my parents that night, I felt less like God was absent, and more like He was fighting hard to save me. After all I’d seen in Japan, from its meager spattering of Christianity to its over-the-top style and outrageous acceptance of every human behavior, I knew the life I’d be choosing if I stayed. Life in Japan was cool, easy, comfortable, exciting, different, and filled with so many wonderful things I’d not had before: wine, women, and song among them. Korea on the other hand was nothing like Japan. It was foreign, unusual, scary, poorer than Japan, cheaper, less vivid and colorful, and I had absolutely no knowledge of its language, history, people, or customs. Going to Korea was like going to the moon.

But, after I’d accepted the job in Japan and couldn’t sleep all night, and after I’d called my parents to talk with them, I really felt like there was more at stake than just my finances or comfort. I had heard that Korea had experienced a huge revival in Christianity and was then over 30% Christian (stats vary). My parents also felt uncomfortable with me staying in Japan mostly because of Japan’s low level of Christians and general acceptance of all kinds of behaviors – they thought I’d get in trouble. I knew I’d get in trouble. I knew the kind of life I’d be entering into if I stayed in Japan: one without God, and with wine, women and song. I also knew the kind of life I’d be entering into if I went to Korea: an open door to Christianity and reconnection with God. Somewhere, deep in my heart I knew that if I went to Korea, God would call out to me and bring me back to himself. I knew that if I stayed in Japan, I’d have a much different life. So there I stood, on the phone with my parents with two very clear, very different life paths stretched out before me. I could see each, and I knew – at least a little bit – what it would be like to walk either. And while it may have been (initially) much easier for me to stay in Japan, I knew in my heart I couldn’t. I took the road less traveled. I hung up the phone, canceled my contract (verbal at that time) with the Japanese school, and accepted a job in Korea and began making preparations to come. And sure enough, just as I’d envisioned, God did call to me in Korea – more than I ever thought He would – and He’s blessed me too. So, if ever there’s a moment in your life when you can see clearly two roads diverging ahead of you, I urge you to take the one you expect God will be on.

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