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Red Neon Crosses

July 18, 2009

crossAsk any expat in Korea for a top ten list of the newest and most interesting things they discovered shortly after arriving in the country, and you’re likely to get a variety of different – albeit similar – answers. Red neon crosses are probably not on many of those lists. However, there is no denying that they are as ubiquitous a sight at night as the Korean flag is during the day. But to most, they have no real meaning or significance.

Expat nights in Korea are generally filled with neon lights of a different kind – those in bars, pubs, and dance clubs. And even those who go to church or are familiar with Christianity would admit that the red neon crosses are a rather curious sight to behold. What other country in the world so openly advertises Jesus’ death with colors so “unbecoming” his character? Yet that is the particular beauty of Korean Christianity. The unabashed declaration of Christ in colors and an environment where he is so often neglected is a wonderful, curious thing. And although neon crosses may feel the most foreign of things to a Christian, after a while they begin to feel the most like home. But it wasn’t so long ago that my own nights were set to a much different neon backdrop.

Flashback

After graduating from university, I set off for a 3-month holiday in Japan with my best friend. Since I’d always dreamed of going to Japan, it was a wonderful opportunity to see the culture I was most interested in “up close and personal.” In America, Japanese culture is nearly as ubiquitous as Chinese culture, as far as Asian cultures go. Everyone knows China brought us Chinese food and green tea, chopsticks, martial arts, beautiful silk clothes, china dishes, and the strange written symbols that have become all the rage in recent years. Japanese culture has brought us sleek and swift technology, modern and well-built cars, Nintendo, video games, Anime cartoons and comics, their own green tea and sushi. Being a computer guy myself, I loved everything “tech” about Japan and desperately wanted to go see a modern “tech” society like it, with all its new gadgets, gizmos, robots, and the neon lights of the city.

Neon Nightlife

I’d experienced something of neon lights during my time in university. I’d befriended many international students and had become a regular presence in many of the activities of my Asian friends. Most of them came from big cities in Asia and were quite familiar with the night life there, and they gradually introduced me to it too. We went dancing, went out drinking, sang karaoke, and occasionally brought those things back to an apartment. I felt a wonderful comeraderie with them as alcohol loosened our inhibitions and made us freer to sing loudly, dance wildly, and carry on conversations for hours. I’d never felt so relaxed, free, confident and comfortable and I could finally understand why people would desire a neon backdrop for weekend relaxation. Biologically speaking, dim lights dilate pupils and dilated (large) pupils generally make people look more attractive and are often used for flirting with the opposite sex.

In Japan, I was lucky for the majority of my time to stay with my Christian Japanese friend and his family in a small city. That kept me out of trouble I’d have likely found if alone in a big city. However, as my VISA neared expiration, my job hunt for English teaching grew more frantic and my need to “see the rest of Japan” grew. I traveled with my friend to big city Osaka where I would later live for a month with another friend. The nightlife in there was incredible as whole streets were lit up with bright neon lights, and we wanted to experience the most of it. We never did get quite as crazy as Westerners are famous for overseas, but my longing for and enjoyment of the neon nightlife grew.

The Calling

One night, after I’d hesitantly accepted a job with a school that was desperately searching for a teacher, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was alone in my friend’s house for that particular night and called my parents. After expressing my gut-wrenching feeling of making a wrong decision, we discussed the possibility of teaching in Korea (since it was clear I had no intention of returning to America). A Korean friend’s spontaneous phone call earlier in the week had opened my eyes to the possibility, but I still had no real thoughts of teaching there. However, while we were on the phone, we discussed the church in Asia.

Japan has churches but they aren’t easy to find as Japan’s Christian population is around two percent and much of is filled with Shintoism and nature worship, or no religion at all. Korea, on the other hand had a church body of nearly 30% of its population, or so I’d heard. I’d not spoken to God in nearly a year by that point: since I’d started enjoying the nightlife, church had become no more than a hobby. However, at that moment on the phone with my parents I could distinctly visualize two very different directions my life could take, one of which I had to choose.

I knew Japan, was familiar with its culture, some language, its customs and cities by that point. I knew the neon nightlife, the fun it was, and the potential trouble I’d get into if left alone and surrounded by temptations. Korea on the other hand was completely foreign, I didn’t even know the dates of the Korean War. Japan was a geek paradise, full of technology, games, and especially girls, with a row of neon lights to guide my path down a dimly lit street. Korea was completely foreign – another planet with absolutely nothing to offer me except a lamp unto my feet. Japan would have been an easy choice to make, but I chose differently.

In the early morning hours, on the phone with my parents, I made a decision that I knew would change my life forever. Just because I hadn’t spoken to God in over a year didn’t mean I didn’t want to give Him a chance to speak to me. I knew that if I chose Korea, I’d be choosing a chance for God to speak to me in a way  that I would hear. But, if I stayed in Japan, I knew I’d actively pursue the neon nightlife, and His voice would have likely been stifled by the booming of bass in a club.

The Future

Korea has not been easy, not by a long shot, and it took one year more before my ears were tuned in to God’s still, small voice on Jeju island. But I know that if I’d stayed in Japan, my life would be vastly different and I’m grateful to have made the choice I did. I’ve not entirely given up on Japan yet either. But these days, my vision for Japan has less of neon nightlife and more of red neon crosses.

Who knows what purpose God has for me in Asia? But for now, I know His plans lie in Korea. He led me here and called to me here, and every time I look up at night, I’m reminded of His faithfulness.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy How Did I Get to Korea? and From Selfish Faith to Authentic Faith which both tell different parts of the story of my journey to and within Korea.

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