Friday, July 29, 2011


I've been invited to speak at Central BC in Warner Robins during both of the morning services on Sunday, July 31. This is one of the most efficient ways to let many on my newsletter list know of the opportunity, if you'd like to come or will simply ask for favor and blessing in that moment. It's an honor to be able to share this part of my life with people who watched me grow up.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

flying the friendly skies

For the last two weeks, I've been in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Colorado. I've ziplined through canopies, viewed a glorious sunrise from a farmhouse attic window, watched Amish girls hang laundry in the breeze and made jokes about my own altitude sickness at 12,000 feet above sea level.

Life doesn't slow down for homecomings, but if that's the price required for reunions, it's worth it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Uptown Charlie

Ziplining is always fun, no matter if it's in Thailand or Richland Creek, North Carolina. What's not fun is arriving in enough time to find a place to eat - preferably something local and healthy - and ending up having to settle for chain eateries that could be found anywhere. Aren't the mountains supposed to be full of mom and pop Americana?

We stopped at a restaurant that looked like Applebee's retrofitted with sports paraphernalia. It was called Uptown Charlie's. I saw no Charlie nor anything that was discernibly uptown. Stick with choosing sandwiches served with fries, though, and it won't disappoint too much.

We chose a booth and realized soon after sitting down that we were right beside a baby shower -- a baby shower taking place in front of a mosaic wall of tv screens broadcasting simultaneous sports programs. The women in attendance were all young. Some had small children with them. A few were pregnant. The mother-to-be wore a corsage on the strap of her maxi dress. They all went outside but left behind the presents and the the snacks in the care of boyfriends/husbands drafted for security detail. I had no idea what they were doing out in full sun. Photos, maybe?

My friend forget something in her car, made a quick dash outside to retrieve it and then returned a few minutes later. She looked sad. "They're all out there smoking. Even the pregnant ones."

"Maybe that's why we couldn't find anywhere else to eat," I said. "Maybe no one else is gonna pray for those families today."

And so that's what we did.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I met Sung-il just a few weeks before leaving Harbin for the summer holiday. He was sitting outside the library one evening and saw me walk by. I was doing what I usually do in the evenings of spring and summer: taking a good long walk around campus. More often than not, my ipod is my companion, and I don't hear much beyond whatever song is piping its way into my ears. I never knew he was trying to catch up with me until he appeared in my peripheral. A person just knows when someone is matching pace in order to be noticed.

I turned my head, pulled out my earbuds, and raised my eyebrows in a signal of acknowledgement. I never quit walking, though. I wasn't nervous; after all, a white person in Asia often gets requests from students to engage in conversation for brief English tryouts. "Hello," he said. "Hello," I countered. "Where are you from?" he asked, his pupils dilated in curiosity. "Guess," I said.


"You're right."

"Can you guess where I'm from?"

I inventoried him for a few seconds. He was undeniably Asian - straight black hair, dark almond eyes, flatter nose, angular cheeks and jaw. But his build was taller, his shoulders broader than the average student at HIT. The veins underneath his arms gave him a more rugged look than I was used to seeing among males on campus. And by virtue in approaching someone he's never met, he had given me doubt about his nationality ever being Chinese. Still, I couldn't completely eliminate it, either. So I compromised:

"You're either Chinese or South Korean."

He beamed. "South Korean!"

"Ah," I said in satisfaction.

"Are you a teacher here?" he asked. I affirmed that I was. He asked if he could talk with me for a few minutes. I saw no harm in it since I was out in a very public space with plenty of people around. Plus, he immediately struck me as an atypical South Korean exchange student; his fellow countrymen keep to themselves. They compose a good majority of students who live in our dorm, and they travel, live, eat, shop and do almost everything else in a pack. I'm skeptical that they make much progress with their Chinese; they're always speaking Korean with one another in the hallways and elevators. His curiosity about me, in turn, sparked my curiosity about him, and I thought it might make for an interesting evening walk.

“My English name is Jack.”

“You don’t look like a Jack.”

He smiled, presumably because he was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to overcome his Korean name. I asked him to say it for me.


I listened intently, repeated it to perfection and have never called him anything else.

By the time my departure date had arrived, he had spent nearly every evening walking with me. He had also joined me and my friends for meals, ktv, bowling and badminton. There was never a reason to wonder about his motives. He is planning to spend the following semester in Australia and severely needs all the English practice he can get. It was no inconvenience for me to have a conversation partner for my nightly walks, and as our conversations – like our walking – turned and winded, I found myself cheering for him.

Sung-il is the second child born to two South Korean parents. His father was killed in a car accident when he was very young, and his mother has never remarried. She now works as a waitress, or at least that’s what his English led me to believe. Sung-il’s sister never went to college, but she has a good job at a major electronics company. She has helped to subsidize his education. His goal is to be CEO of a company that liaisons among South Korea, China and the US.

Sung-il is a Chinese major, which is why he is at HIT. Rather than live in the dorm where we reside, he chose to live in another dorm to get away from the South Korean contingent. Instead, he roomed with guys from Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also chose to spend much of his free time studying in the library. I later found out he was asked to be the representative of his class. During our short weeks of befriending one another, he attended the Sunday services with me and my usual group. His aunt is the one in his family who introduced him to faith. He has been like-minded since the age of 14.

Once he graduates, he will serve a mandatory two-year service in the national military. In South Korea, it is required of all males, regardless of education or status. Before being conscripted, he wants to spend his last semester of student freedom doing something worthwhile, so he has chosen to move to Australia, where he knows only one person. He has no place to stay and no job. He will fly into Sydney with enough money in his pocket to keep him afloat only for only a short time. Finding employment and accommodations are immediately crucial. His sister has purchased his plane ticket with the warning that he must not waste his time there. From what I know of him, I don’t think he will.

His English is filled with comical errors, but his personality wins over almost anyone who talks to him. The energy that percolates inside of him sometimes comes out when he walks; there is a discernable bounce to his steps. When he talks, it seems as though he uses his whole body. His face contorts, his eyes brighten, his voice explodes in exclamation and laughter, his arms flail and he inserts random stretching techniques into his gate. Talking to him may very well burn as many calories as walking with him.

And did I mention he will dance at the drop of a hat? In front of old Chinese couples leisurely practicing waltzes in park courtyards? And then combine that with singing Korean pop songs in front of the very same people? I was only momentarily embarrassed. More than anything, I admired his zeal.

And now, he is preparing to go to Australia. I don’t know if we’ll lose touch; I’m not hopeful that a friendship of only a few weeks will be sustained throughout the next months’ worth of adventures, but I do hope and pray for his success and that he is not exploited by people who prey on his unfamiliarity of his new surroundings. His intrepidness and determination, though hidden behind a veil of playfulness, are the kinds of elements that have steeled many men for answering calls of eternity to go and serve and sacrifice. If my pessimism comes to naught, it will be a delight to be audience to the next chapters of his life.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Leavin' on a jet plane

I left Harbin this morning in the care of my taxi-driving friend while the sweet and familiar faces of about four friends became a mural through the passenger window.

I am at the Beijing Airport for the next two hours, then boarding a flight that will take me to Chicago and then Hotlanta.

I've already been to Starbucks. Enjoyed a sandwich that, while bland, was still a CHICKEN SANDWICH WITHOUT THE LIKES OF CORN AND KETCHUP. Proof that I haven't completely outgrown my western palate.

I am now sitting at the gate and distracting myself with the complimentary wi-fi and the unexpected company of a dear friend whom I've known since my first year of teaching. She and I met at training and spend time together every year when we congregate in Thailand. She is on the same flight, two rows away.

There are so many foreign faces here, and by "foreign," I mean "my kind." I never cease to be amazed in travel.