Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Korea calling

After I got home from my mission in '93 I wrote letters, in Korean, to a few friends and companions. This is a card that I kept tucked into my dictionary, where I made a list of words that I found myself looking up frequently. After Doug and I got married, went and taught in Chonan for nine months, and then went to Newfoundland, the list continued. (I can kind of tell what was happening when by looking at it--moving from words like "graduation" to words like "Canada" and "dialect.") I wrote to Kim Ji Won, who'd been a student in one of my classes; to Mr. Ha from Doug's kendo class, who owned a restaurant and made wonderful soon tubu jjigae (we spent a memorable New Year's Eve with his family); to Lee Soo Mi in Suncheon; and to Kim Son Mi in Nonsan. Somewhere along the way I stopped writing.

I've thought about my neglected correspondents every once in a while. Wondered if there were any poor sad letters wending their way to Newfoundland and then getting rejected and sent back. This year I finally made a card for the Lunar New Year, and planned to see how many of those friends I could get back in touch with.

I still might never have sent them, as February approached and they remained under my desk. But after we had the Korean lady randomly show up at church and I was just stumbling all over myself, I was seized with a sense of urgency. I pulled out my White Field Korean book and went over some grammar forms. I watched videos on youtube. Then, that Friday, I had planned to make keema matar (not Korean, it's Indian) for lunch, and realized we didn't have any garlic. Immediately I had an idea. I would borrow some garlic from our Korean neighbors. It was like a sign.

Our Korean neighbors are the Kim family. The mom's name is Hyun Ju (현주) and they have two girls, five and eight-ish. I had talked to the mom a few times, reasonably successfully, but I was still kind of nervous about talking to her. So I got myself all psyched up, went and knocked on their door, and asked, "혹시 마늘 좀 빌려 주시겠어요?" At first she didn't think she had any garlic, but then she found a bowl of peeled cloves in the fridge and brought that over. (It even smelled like Korean fridge.)

Later that evening, when Doug came home with more garlic, I peeled some replacement cloves and took them and the bowl back over. I ended up going in and talking to Mrs. Kim for a while, and it was fine. I think watching the videos helped me get myself back in Korean head-space. Not that I'm amazingly fluidly fluent or anything, but it's coming out a bit better.

She wanted to know more about our church. When I talked to her before I had told her that I'd first gone to Korea as a missionary, and she was curious about that, but I didn't feel that I'd answered her questions very well. So she said that she wanted to find a church to take her kids to. (Her husband works on Sunday.) She'd tried some Korean churches in the area, a while back, but didn't feel like they were a good fit. She specifically mentioned that she wanted something that would help her kids learn to make good choices. So I told her about the Korean branch in Federal Way. There's another couple in our apartment complex, Patrick and Catherine, that have been attending there for a couple of years. (Catherine is Korean. Though she just recently became an American citizen, so I should say she's Korean-American) I said, "We could all go together!" She said they had plans that Sunday, but she'd like to go sometime.

Well, after this I went home just grinning and thinking, "Ah! That's what it was all about!" And maybe so. I had been wondering if there was a reason why I was feeling nudged in Korean directions lately.

I started getting my cards in the mail, writing short letters to go with them. It had been quite a while since I'd written a letter in Korean, but with my trusty "words that I can't spell" card and google, I went to work. (I've discovered that this online translator can be frustratingly unhelpful.)

When reading Sister Hadden's blog (and a couple other sister missionaries'), I kept thinking about the sweet Korean sisters that I lived with and served with, particularly Kim Sang Kyung. When I lived in Kongju house she was a greenie there, and then transferred to Taejon. A month later I transferred to Taejon to be her companion. We had kind of a rough time. (For a variety of reasons.) Later, when I was on a three-month internship at a publishing company in Seoul, I ran into her at the temple. (She said I looked exactly the same, and I said, "I know, I'm even wearing the same clothes!") I went to Institute with her during the time that I was there, and also on an outing to Doksugung palace with another friend of hers. I was glad that we had a chance to build a better relationship. (I wrote something about her that I will have to share later, since this is going to be too long.)

A while ago I found this site that has pictures of all the Korean MTC groups. These were published in the Korean church magazine (which used to be called 성도의 벗, The Saint's Friend, and is now the Liahona like all the other foreign language church magazines). It's fun to go through the pictures and pick out people that I know. Here's Kim Sang Kyung:

She's the one in the middle with the plaid skirt. (The tall guy on the left is Han In Sang's son.)

Kim Son Mi was another friend that I needed to reconnect with. She'd been an investigator--my companion and I met her and a friend on the street in Nonsan, started doing the discussions, and then I transferred to Taejon. She was baptized not long after that. Nonsan branch met in a rented building, so they usually went to Kongju for baptisms, but on this occasion they decided to come do it in Taejon, so I got to be there. That was wonderful. Three years later, Son Mi served a mission in Pusan. We exchanged letters while Doug and I were in Chonan and she was serving in Taegu, and kept in touch when we went to Newfoundland. The fun thing about her letters was that she never simplified her writing for me, but used a lot of colloquial and chatty (and sometimes baffling!) forms.

She's the one in front, with the big smile!

I wrote a short letter to Son Mi--pretty much the same thing that I was writing to everyone else--"Hi, it's been a long time, hasn't it, this is where we are now, we have two kids, here's my email..." and then I got into the box of old mail that I'd recently run across, and pulled out a letter of hers to get the address. I sat down and read the letter... and then I put mine aside and started writing a different letter.

Her letter was dated January of 1998, and it it she talked about how she missed being a missionary (and missed me), and how the economy was bad and she was thinking of going to Seoul to look for a job, and she should probably be looking for a nice guy to marry, too. She sounded kind of down, and as I read it I felt stricken--I couldn't even remember whether I'd ever answered that letter. I think it was the last one I got from her. So I drafted a more personal response--it's been 12 years, sorry about that, I hope things are better now! I miss you too!

After the mailing comes the waiting. In the era of digital communication, a few weeks seems like an eternity. The Lunar New Year arrived. We heard about the activity at the Korean branch. I invited the Kims, but they were going to be at Grandma's house and couldn't come. We went with Patrick and Catherine. That was fun. Not quite the connection that I was looking for, but I felt like it was a step in that direction.

The week after that I started feeling antsy, thinking that, if my letters were going to reach their destinations properly, they should have gotten there by now. I was doing some Korean-related searching on google (I keep hoping to find some LDS Korean bloggers to follow, because I think that would be a blast) and I found a site for Kongju ward, with photos of some of the members. I recognized Sister Lee Jeong Hwa. She's in the wedding picture, and a couple others. We lived together a couple of times. She was in my greenie house in Gwangju, and then later in Taejon. (I remember going on splits with her once and she introduced me to sam gye tang, which is like chicken soup with the whole chicken.) I always thought she was really sweet and pretty.

I sent a message to the two email addresses at the top of the site, asking if they knew Lee Jeong Hwa and if they could pass along my email. One guy got back to me the next day and asked for my phone number, which I gave him. So he called me from Korea, then called Lee Jeong Hwa on a three-way-thing. I talked to her for a few minutes (in English--she was always really good at English) and got her email address. I told her I was looking for Kim Sang Kyung and Kim Son Mi. (I thought she might have met Son Mi, since Kongju and Nonsan are so close.)

While all this was going on, I printed out a map of how to get to the church in Federal Way, and took it over to  Hyun Ju (Mrs. Kim). We made plans to go that Sunday. I really wanted to go but didn't want to drag Kate along, so we decided that I would just take Andy and get a ride up with Patrick and Catherine.  Hyun Ju said her mother lived in Federal Way, not far from there, so she was familiar with the area. I gave her Catherine's cell phone number just in case.

Sunday morning I had an email in my inbox from Lee Jeong Hwa. She had tracked down phone numbers for both Kim Sang Kyung and Kim Son Mi. She said Son Mi was living in Chongju (probably 흥덕 ward). I'm still not sure how she found her. I checked the time in Korea and saw that it was 1:00 am there, so figured that was probably not a good time to call. Then about an hour later, while I was sitting at the computer eating my oatmeal, I got an email from Kim Sang Kyung! She sent her phone number also, and said, "Please call!" So I wrote right back and said, "Now? It's 2:00 in the morning!" Didn't hear back, so I figured I'd try after church.

The Korean Branch is on the afternoon schedule this year, starting at 1:40, so I went to our ward's sacrament meeting as usual, then after we got Kate dropped off at Primary, Doug brought me and Andy home. I got something to eat, and got Andy cleaned up and changed. I saw the Kim girls riding their scooters outside and they were wearing dresses, so I figured they were planning on going. When Patrick and Catherine came to get me, they said the Kims' car was already gone. We hoped they would make it there okay.

The way the Korean branch works is that they meet in conjunction with another ward, with their meetings overlapping. The kids meet with the other ward for Primary and Young Men/Young Women, in English, while the adults have Relief Society/Priesthood meeting and Sunday School in Korean (and any spouses like Patrick who want to can go to the other ward's meetings for that part), and then they have sacrament meeting in Korean at the end.

Traffic was bad, since it was a gorgeous sunny day and everyone was out enjoying it, but we made it there with a couple of minutes to spare. We scoped out the parking lot but didn't see the Kims' car. Catherine and I went into Relief Society. About five minutes after the meeting started,  Hyun Ju came in. (Yay!) Everyone was very welcoming. The lesson was "Free to Choose," which I thought was just perfect since  Hyun Ju had been talking about teaching her kids to make good choices.

It was so fun to go to church in Korean again. I talked to lots of people (and met the parents of a Korean-American sister that I knew from the mission). The sister who taught the lesson in Relief Society spoke very clearly and I didn't have any trouble following her. (Had varying amounts of comprehension with other people.) Andy was very good. I had along lots of snacks to keep him happy.

Sacrament meeting ran late (that's the hazard of having it last), and the Kims had somewhere to be, so they had to leave. But when I talked to  Hyun Ju the next day (when we were outside with the kids and she called me over to their back door and gave me a huge bunch of spinach that I still haven't figured out what to do with), she said she enjoyed church and will probably go back this week. Apparently the girls had a good time in Primary, too.

By the time we got back from church it was almost 5:30 (long day!) and I had various things to take care of. At 7:00 I tried calling Kim Sang Kyung. (That would be 11:00 am Monday in Seoul.) It went something like this (in Korean):

"Hello! This is Helena! Sister Ahlstrom."

"Ah! 자매님!"

"Are you not busy now?"

"Can you call back in forty minutes? [In English:] After forty minutes."


That worked, since we normally get Kate's pajamas on at 7:45 and start bedtime stuff at 8:00, so I figured I could squeeze a phone call in there. So I called back later and it was just so fun to talk to her. She's always had a quirky sense of humor. She said, "Lee Jeong Hwa called and said you really wanted to get ahold of me. She asked if perhaps I owed you money."

She did get my letter but just hadn't gotten back to me yet. She was away from home traveling when it came. (She said, again, that I still look exactly the same.) She's still single, living with her mom in Seoul, working at a place that makes "modern" hanboks (she has a design background) and doing a little English teaching with young kids. We caught each other up on people that we both know (I told her she should get on Facebook) and she said, "When your kids are a little older, come visit!"

After we got the kids in bed I decided to try calling Kim Son Mi too. I couldn't get the number to go through, for some reason, so I thought I'd try the church and see if there was someone there who knew her. The Kongju ward site that I found is connected to this site which has information for all the wards and branches in Korea. (Not all of them have pictures, unfortunately.) So I tried calling the Chongju 흥덕 ward building, frantically going over what I would say if someone actually answered. No one did. I tried Son Mi's number, tried the church again, and then right then I got an email from Son Mi. It was amazing.

She said that since my letter went to her parents' house first, and her mom didn't know who I was, it took her a while to get it. She was very happy that I remembered her and got in touch. (She also said I still look exactly the same. That seems to be the consensus.) She's married seven years (I think--either that or her first child was born when she'd been married for seven years--that part wasn't quite clear) and is now hugely pregnant with her second child, who is due in just two weeks. I'm thinking I should make her some booties.

It was quite a day. Church in Korean, emails, and a phone call. It was just more and more Korea all day long. I loved it.

I do enjoy following blogs, looking at pictures, watching videos, reading about other people's experiences in Korea. It's like a confirmation that Korea is still there, still Korean, and it'll still be there when I get to go back someday. But the confirmation that the part of Korea that knows me is still there was just really wonderful.

I emailed both Kim Sang Kyung and Kim Son Mi back, of course. Haven't heard anything back since then. I need Son Mi's current address so I can send her some booties!

Mr. Ha's letter came back on Monday. He's not LDS so I have no idea how we might track him down. I'll have to ask about that.

(Whew! This got way longer than I was planning! I just wanted to get it all written down.)


Heather T. said...

*smiles* All those connections and serendipities...

Barbie said...

What an amazing day. I'm excited that you've been able to reconnect with so many special people.

You still look the same as when you were twelve, wearing that white and navy gingham ruffly top in your school picture in Mom's room.

scrapper al said...

I'm so happy that Korean connections are connecting. And yes, you look the same as when I first saw you on 2peas, lol.

Also, I find you post very timely as I've been thinking about connections these past few weeks. Sometimes it seems like too much work to call or write to someone and sometimes it feels like a one-way street. And I think perhaps I should stop blogging or tweeting or whatever one uses to connect these days. But then, I see that connections and reconnections are made both the old-fashioned way with snail mail and with new fangled technology and I have hope that reaching out is worth the effort. (Whew! Talk about long-winded.)

Helen in Australia said...

I really enjoyed reading that -- it's so great to reconnect with people.

Kathey said...

I enjoyed reading about your reconnections too, and about going to the Korean Branch. Great adventures, and who knows where all this will lead. :D Love, Mom

Kathryn said...

What an amazing story! And it's not over yet! I'm glad you were able to get back in touch with friends and were able to go to church with your neighbors. I hope that goes well, keep us posted!

Mimi said...

I'm so glad it all came together!

MamaBug said...

I loved reading this post! Isn't it great how things come together sometimes?

Lara said...

This was amazing to read. It is really wonderful how everything happened all at once, and I think such a faith building experience. For you, and for those of us who get to read it!

I've really been feeling the last several months the same way about my mission and all the connections I've lost as I gradually stopped writing over the years. Fortunately, several of them have found me on Facebook recently (yay!) and it has been wonderful to catch up. On another note, there is a Romanian couple living in our town (probably the only ones) and we have become friendly with them. We really feel like we need to share the Gospel with them. Your post has given me an extra little push to just do it already.

Becky said...

Fantastic post! This week my phone rang and it was one of my Korean girlfriends calling while riding the subway to work. We talked forever and I couldn't believe she was calling me from underground in Seoul. I miss Korea so much and can't wait for our next visit this Spring.