They say it is, but hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Sometimes we look back on things and times and people and places, and we only remember the good. Sometimes we look back on things and times and people and places and we only remember the bad. Sometimes we only remember the big things. Sometimes we make the small things into bigger things than they were. I find it interesting that often when talking to friends or family about things that happened years ago, we both have significantly different memories of any given event. There are different things that each of us has chosen to focus on when looking back at a particular moment in history, on a particular person, or a particular phase of life. Our memories are imperfect, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to be learned from the past.
Lately I’ve been looking back over my life, and even more specifically over the past decade since I graduated from high school. I’ve been realizing that even though it seems, from the outside looking in, that it has been a string of random events, experiences and happenings, in reality, God has been orchestrating it so that it has been a perfect conglomeration of moments, ordained to fit together in a way that I could never have imagined or planned. I look back on some of the bizarre and seemingly insignificant instances that led to some of the “accidental” best decisions that I made, or experiences that I’ve had, or opportunities for growth, and I know that there are no accidents. And as I look forward to the future, and contemplate plans, and spin ideas around in my head, I take a profound sense of comfort in knowing that God has been faithful to me in the past, and I believe with my whole heart that He will continue to be faithful to me in the future. That doesn’t mean that life will always be easy, or that there won’t be hardships, heartaches, or tears, but it does allow to me to believe that there is always a purpose for everything, and that sometimes the unexpected ends up being best.
My friendship with Ben is one of the things in my life that makes me certain that God is in control, and might do things a little differently than I would choose to. It makes me laugh when I think of it, because for all intents and purposes, Ben and I have basically nothing in common, but he’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s a city boy to the core, with a Guyanese background, who hates winter with a passion. He loves Mississauga, refuses to go see western Canada for a string of reasons that make me laugh, and has very little interest in traveling. He’s an avid baseball fan, and owns more ties than anyone I know. He has a better sense of fashion than I do, and cannot comprehend the value in camping. He hates country music, and is constantly running late for everything. We met towards the end of high school, and I never saw it coming.
He became a Christian a while after he started coming out to our church youth group and exploring Christianity because of a crush he had on a girl there, and then he started hanging out with all my friends while I was away at my first year of Bible College. When I came home that summer he was a part of the crew. The whole group of us were practically inseparable that summer, and a large portion of it was spent in my parents’ basement watching movies and playing foosball.
I don’t know how or when it happened exactly, but somewhere between late night conversations at Tim Horton’s, and numerous hours on the phone, he went from being some guy who was friends with my friends, to being one of my best friends. I’ve had Christian friends for my whole life, but Ben showed me what Christian friendship could look like. I started carrying my Bible around in my purse with me because it seemed like almost every time we were together he wanted to talk to me about what he was reading in the Bible, or some sermon that he had been listening to. He may not even know this, but he taught me to look at Scripture differently, to think for myself, to be wary of bad theology. Maybe it was because he was a newer Christian and hadn’t grown up learning about God, but he taught me to dig deeper, to want to know more, to see things from another perspective. He was constantly asking me how he could pray for me, and that wasn’t something that I’d ever encountered in a friendship before. He let me be real. He let me be honest about my thoughts, my feelings, and my motives without judging me, even when they make me look like a terrible person. He’s like an older brother to me, and he’s the one I would tell anything to. And with my years of moving and traveling, he’s the one I’ve always been on the phone with, or in more recent and cost-effective years, on Skype with frequently. Ours is a friendship that has stood the test of time and distance, and is all the stronger for it. Bible College was great, but in some ways, I think I owe at least as much to Ben.
That’s not to say he’s perfect, or that our friendship is, because trust me, he’s not, and it isn’t. But, God has used him to teach me so much, and to open my eyes to so many things. He’s been a support to me through the ups and downs, through the good times, and more importantly, through the tough ones, and at the same time, allowed me to see him through his good times and his bad times. So there was no way I was missing his wedding.
The first time he told me that he thought Laura might like him, I laughed at him. I’d known Laura for years, albeit not well, and I was convinced that there was absolutely no way that she was interested in him. Well, here we are eight years later, and it turns out that I was wrong. Last year, as summer approached, he decided that he was finally ready to propose to her, and we started discussing various proposal options, ranging from insane to practical, and when I came back for a visit in July, a bunch of us helped him out in asking the big question. There were glow sticks and fireworks, and it was pretty epic. And she said yes.
Knowing that the wedding would be the following spring, I signed a shorter contract at my job in Korea when I decided to stay on for a second year. And so after finishing my job there, and travelling for three weeks, I flew into Toronto from England one evening in May and Ben picked me up at the airport as he has done numerous times over the years. I spent a glorious day and a half in Canada, doing laundry, running errands, and eating at Quiznos, before he picked me up to drive me back to airport for a flight filled with seventy or so of his and Laura’s friends and family, headed to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
After three weeks on the move in China, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, and briefly Canada, it was nice to actually stay in one place for a whole week. I actually unpacked; hung clothes in the closet and everything. I had never gone on an all-inclusive vacation before, so it was a new experience, and was very relaxing. A little weird and awkward at times, but a decent trip all the same. It was filled with sunshine, sand, sunscreen, and shade. I read, I swam in the pool and in the ocean, I went for walks on the beach, I ate at an all you can eat buffet, and while some of the people in the group weren’t altogether thrilled with the food, after being in Asia for so long, I was just pretty excited about all the options of non-Korean food! I made some new friends, and reconnected with some old ones. I slept, and I slept, and I slept. And it was wonderful.
And possibly the most wonderful part of all was when a group of about nine of us went to the twenty-seven waterfalls. I thought we were going to go for a bit of a hike, which apparently involved some climbing, and that we were going to see some waterfalls. Sounds cool, I thought. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After letting Andrew negotiate a price for a taxi-van, we all piled into it, and off we went for my first adventure off the grounds of the resort; my first foray into the real Dominican Republic. We got there and were given helmets and life jackets. Maybe that should have been my first clue that this wasn’t exactly a hike… Anyway, we started walking up a mountain through a forest, and we got to the first waterfall. And we got to JUMP DOWN IT. And it was AMAZING. We continued along, at various points walking, floating, swimming, or climbing, and jumping down some waterfalls, and sliding down others. Because we had started too late in the day we were only allowed to do fourteen of the twenty-seven waterfalls, which was truly unfortunate, because it was one of the coolest and/or most thrilling things I think I’ve ever had the chance to do. Seriously, so much fun.
The ceremony itself was beautiful, and so was Laura. While I was initially a little skeptical of the match, over the years as I’ve gotten to know Laura better, I’ve realized that it’s a good thing that she and Ben found each other. Who knows who else would have adhered to some of the weird views that those two share. I was grateful to be able to celebrate their big day with them, and am blessed to be a part of their lives. And as much as I had enjoyed my month of traveling, I was also grateful that when it was done, I got to go home.
I was seven years old, living in Unionville, Ontario, and my parents called my brother and I into their second floor bedroom one evening. I have a mental image of magazines lying on the floor; the predecessors of the same magazines that are still lying on the floor next to my Dad’s side of the bed at home to this day. I see hardwood in my mind, but in reality, I have a feeling my parents had carpet on the floor of their bedroom in that house. The light shone brightly overhead and my Dad lay in bed, my Mom sat next to him, while my brother and I sat on the floor.
“We’re moving to England,” he said, and with that sentence everything about my life changed.
I became something other than the norm. “Where did you grow up?” became a question that needed to be answered with a paragraph answer instead of a single word. From that moment on I was the new kid. Five times. I got to used to change, to new, to different, to moving, to making new friends. And to this day, staying still is still a little foreign to me. We became a family that traveled. Everyone I knew traveled. My definition of normal was altered indefinitely. My understanding of the world multiplied exponentially and the world itself shrunk.
What if we had never gone? What if I had grown up in suburban Ontario and never left North America? What if my parents hadn’t dragged me all around Western Europe, sleeping in a tent and eating bread and cheese, by the time I was ten? What if my parents were normal people who took the money that they were alloted for an annual trip back to the motherland and actually took a trip back to Canada instead of to some foreign locale? What if I hadn’t gone to private all-girls schools? Would I be less afraid of guys?
I don’t know.
But I do know this: I became that British schoolgirl with a posh English accent and the royal blue uniform and the striped tie. I had the beige knee socks and the matching brown duffle coat. And to this day, England remains my home away from home. The way that Korea now is, too. I rarely think of England as truly foreign. It’s comfortable, familiar, and it keeps calling me back.
Years later, I spent a semester of university back in England, and I stood on the platform at the Oxford train station one day watching British school girls in uniforms and I thought of who I might have become if at the age of ten my parents hadn’t moved me back to Canada. I wondered where my life would have taken me. I would have kept my English accent, I would have done my GCSEs and my A-levels, and who knows where I would have gone to university or what I would have studied. I wondered who my friends would have been, and where I would be now. Would my character and personality have turned out essentially the same? If I’d stayed in England I would have blended in with the crowds of people at the train station simply getting on with another day. I would have been an average English girl who grew up to be an average English woman. Would I have ever had the desire to go back to Canada? I watched these people, knowing that as a kid I was one of those little English school girls, and knowing that I easily could have been one of those English adults that lead completely different lives than I do. I watched them, thinking about how that one single decision on the part of my parents, altered my life and who I am forever. I don’t regret it. I want to be who I am today… but I would like to meet who I might have been.
And so, when I realized that pretty much every flight back to Toronto from Kuwait had a layover in London, I figured that it couldn’t cost that much more to just stop in and visit for awhile.
I left the Middle Eastern heat behind me, and landed at London Heathrow airport. It seems to be a universal consensus that it is one of the most horrible places on earth, but I am in awe of it. People in Toronto have a reputation in the rest of Canada for believing that they think they live in the center of the world. But they don’t. Take a look a flight route map, and it turns out that the world revolves around London, England, and more specifically, Heathrow airport. If anyone actually lives in the center of the world, it’s the people in London. For crying out loud, the center of time emanates from that city. It’s the home of the world’s international language, and the Commonwealth. It’s the descendant of one of the world’s largest empires. A tiny little island on map in an airline magazine with red lines going out in all directions connecting it to the distant shores of innumerable destinations.
I took an elevator down to the London Underground, my favourite transportation system in the world, and hopped on a Piccadilly Line service headed to Victoria station. I dragged my suitcase along sidewalks looking for the place to catch my bus to Oxford. I eventually found it, handed my bag off to the driver, climbed the stairs to the second floor of the bus, sat down, and breathed a sigh of relief.
I spent my three days in Oxford retracing my steps from my semester there, visiting one of my favourite bookstores of life, shopping at Primark, and going on a walking tour to relearn the complex history of the city. I took a twenty minute train ride out to the little town of Charlbury where I and the other eleven students in my program had lived for the three months that we were there. I wandered around reminiscing and loving the contrast from the Asia and the Middle East that I had just left behind. I breathed in the fresh air, loved the green grass and the fields, and the memories of what I consider to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. I had a delightful dinner with the assistant director of my programme, and her husband, and a quick visit with the director, before catching the train back into Oxford for the night.
I got up bright and early and dragged my luggage across town to take a bus to the bus stop. Once at the bus I waited for megabus, the United Kingdom’s answer to cheap transportation, to come and take me north to Manchester. My friend Graham met me at the other end, and we took a tram out to his hometown of Bury. After hearing so much about it while we were in Korea together, I was anxious to see if it lived up to his descriptions of it. It came as no surprise that the first thing we did after dropping off my luggage was to go out for meat pies and Irn Bru. We ambled around in Bury’s World Famous Market, and saw the line-up stretching along the length of the counter and beyond for the infamous “black pudding.” We sat down and indulged in the epitome of English culture with a cream tea. We explored the town and visited the sites of the various entertaining anecdotes that I had become familiar with over the course of our friendship. My tour of Bury finished with an introduction to some of the family, and a dinner at his parents’ place. He walked me back to my hostel, we said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways; him back home, and me on a train the next day to Carnforth to visit my friend Sarah at Capernwray Bible School, which is housed in an old manor house surrounded by fields of sheep.
Being at Capernwray Bible School was a fantastic two-day peek back into the world of being a student. I attended lectures with Sarah and loved learning. I hung out with her classmates, and ate in the dining hall with the other students. Sarah, her roommate, and I borrowed the old, neon yellow bikes one afternoon and took a lovely little ride along a canal and through the English countryside to a teahouse on a farm. After a few weeks full of goodbyes, it was refreshing to spend two days reconnecting with an old friend, and spending some time in God’s word.
I took a series of trains from Carnforth down to southwestern Wales, where my parents were coincidentally hiking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. We stayed in hostels at night, and spent the days hiking in the sunshine among the lush, green, rolling hills which drop off into steep cliffs and give way to the vast expanse of water that stayed on our left as we kept heading north. I love Wales. I love the fields of sheep, the vacant space, the giant skies. I love the perpetual proximity to the ocean. And my three days there this year fed my love of Wales even more. Life moves slower in Wales, and I appreciate that.
I stood at an intersection near Pwll Deri early one Tuesday morning, hoping that the bus schedules could be trusted and that any minute a bus would appear from the otherwise quiet and empty street, to help me begin my journey that would ultimately result in my getting on a plane to finally fly back to Canada. It was a few minutes late, but the bus showed up, and after a series of buses and cabs and buses and trains and tickets and times, I arrived in Oxted, my childhood home. One of my Mom’s good friends picked me up from the train station that my Dad used to arrive at every evening after work and leave from every morning. I slept and packed and wandered around and explored, and then Pippa drove me back to the centre of the world, and I got on a plane and flew across the pond to the city that only thinks it is.
My trip to Kuwait was a little bit like an adventure on a Starbucks cup; it reminded me that everyone sees the world a little differently. The world’s most famous coffee shop used to have these cups that had quotes on them by various people, from various places, with various professions, and various points of view about life, all under the heading of “The Way I See It.” The excitement of finding out what little glimpse of the world would be inscribed in black ink onto the white paper cup containing my caramel hot chocolate was well over half the fun of going to Starbucks, and definitely a large part of my choosing it over Second Cup on any given day. Among the quotes are such gems as:
“When I was young I was misled by flash cards into believing that xylophones and zebras were much more common.”
“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear.”
“You can learn a lot more from listening than you can from talking. Find someone with whom you don’t agree in the slightest and ask them to explain themselves at length. Then take a seat, shut your mouth, and don’t argue back. It’s physically impossible to listen with your mouth open.”
I spent my four days in the small Middle Eastern country of Kuwait this past May asking non-stop questions. Questions about why they wear this, and why they do that, and what they think about this, and who is that, and how does that work, and when did that happen, and how is it possible that having a separate nanny for each of your children is normal. No one was safe. I interrogated my friend Katlyn, her family, her friends; basically anyone who could help to explain the alternate reality that I found myself in. I’ve travelled a fair bit, but I don’t think any place has ever felt quite so completely foreign and new as Kuwait did.
I mean, outwardly, there are many similarities between Kuwait and any other modern country. I could go to the mall and eat at a Chinese restaurant, and then go order a Chai Tea latte at a coffee shop before going to browse at the Gap. I could order pizza, or go out to an Italian restaurant with a menu in English. But underneath the surface of it all, there was something intrinsically different, unknown, unfamiliar, and ultimately baffling. I think it was the juxtaposition between the modern and the traditional, the dishdashas and the Rolex watches, the valet parking at the mall and the crowded stalls at the Old Souk market, the modesty and the vanity simultaneously existing in the covered women with three layers of makeup and high heels, that had me so in awe of the place. I was intrigued by the way in which religion and politics were so intertwined that it is actually illegal to eat or drink in public during daylight hours during Ramadan. Maybe I find it odd because the North American society that I’ve grown up in is so preoccupied with the separation of church and state, so assertive of the right to freedom of religion, so individualistic in nature that the government wouldn’t dream of imposing some of the laws on its citizens that exist in Kuwait, and we as citizens can’t fathom ever following them.
I sat in Katlyn’s apartment and listened to her go on about all that she had learned in the eight months that she had spent living there. I went out to lunch at a restaurant that was also a furniture shop and let Katlyn’s friends tell me all about their experiences of living as expatriates in an Islamic country so far from home. I tried Oreo popcorn one evening while hanging out with Katlyn’s parents and siblings, and listened to them talk about their daily lives there over the past two years. Katlyn’s parents drove us out to the desert one morning, and her dad gave me a little bit of the history of the country, and the “Highway of Death” that we were driving on toward the Iraqi border. We stopped by some of the bombed-out ruins of the Gulf War, and Katlyn and I got out and wandered around. I was struck by how different it was from visiting ancient ruins, or anything that the tourism industry has gotten its hands on. There were no roped-off areas, no admission fees, no red tape, no crowds of people pulling out their iPhones to take pictures to post on facebook; just history sitting there in the sand. And as I meandered through the crumbling cement of what used to be people’s homes and saw remnants of bathroom sinks, couches, and ceiling fans, it hit eerily closer to home than the remnants of more ancient tragedies often do. These bombings had happened during my lifetime, in homes that marked a similar way of life to my own.
The Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf became more than a name on a map. The Middle East became more than a never-ending string of news segments that seem to be full of unsolvable problems and endless commotion that I didn’t really understand. Being there helped me to better understand the multiple friends and acquaintances of mine who grew up there and emigrated to Canada and now go to my church in Ontario. I gained a new appreciation for what it might have been like to be a Christian in a society that is so thoroughly Muslim.
Even in this age of globalization where I can buy the same hamburger on the opposite side of the world, or the same dress at Forever 21 in Korea and Kuwait, people see things differently, have different definitions of normal, have different experiences that lead them to draw different conclusions. And as I visited the grade one class that Katlyn had been teaching for a few months, I watched each of those little kids, and thought about the preconceptions that they were developing, the definition of normal that they were formulating, the mental state that was evolving as they lived out their young lives in a place that was so completely different than the places that I spent my childhood in. I thought about the kids that I had been teaching in Korea over the past two years, and about how the world that they understood was so different both from that of these kids at a private English school in Kuwait, and the one that was the structure for my initial analysis of life. And a week later I sat on a train in England and watched two little boys interacting with their father or uncle, and I knew that their expectations and understandings of life were so utterly different than kids growing up in other parts of the world. And I thought about that day in the future when these kids grow up, travel to some place new, meet these other kids, and realize that the world is big, even though it’s small, realize that things they never gave a second thought to are completely new or foreign to others. When you’re little, things are the way they are. You don’t question it, until you go someplace where things aren’t the way they are.
The way I see it is not the way you see it.
When I was at Torchbearers Bible school in Leptokarya, Greece back in the winter of 2005, the program directors divided us students up into small groups of about twelve people. We had meetings twice a week in which we studied the Bible and shared with each other. Then, at other various points during the program, they had us do these things called “initiatives,” and I’m pretty sure that we all hated them. The idea was team building, and the challenges that they set for us to “overcome” together were frustrating, annoying, and to me, seemed rather pointless. One day we had to transport our entire team over a piece of rope tied between two trees about six feet off of the ground without touching the rope. Another day we had to all share a pair of extended skis and walk to a finish line. My three months in Greece were tough on me for a number of reasons, not the least of which were some personality conflicts within this small group that I was placed in, and I dreaded initiative days.
Now, I think the world of Ryan, Callie, and Graham, so it wasn’t like I had to learn to like them, but those moments dragging luggage around the city of Weihai and navigating through the subway system of Beijing, up and down multiple flights of stairs, taking turns waiting at the top or bottom while the guys generously ferried bag after bag up or down, wishing for escalators, going through security check-points, and dragging suitcases along seemingly endless sidewalks reminded me of those days of initiatives back in Greece. You see different sides of people when you’re dealing with frustration together and it’s true what they say, that overcoming obstacles together helps to bring people together and creates a sort of bond that often can’t be fabricated in any other way. There was something wonderful in the shared excitement about the three yuan (fifty cent) McDonalds’ ice cream cones we had halfway through our seemingly interminable but realistically short walk in the stifling heat from the subway station to our hostel, and about the communal elation as we lugged our bags up a final flight of stairs, opened the door of our room on the fourth floor of Sanlitun Hostel, and flopped on the beds for some much needed rest. All these years later, I see what our program directors were trying to do, and if I was in charge, I would probably do the same thing. My K-group (as they were referred to) did overcome challenges; both the physical and the other type that we dealt with, and I look back on those people, one or two with whom I still keep in occasional contact, and I’m glad that we overcame our differences, that we managed to learn to get along, to understand better what teamwork means.
Our week in China was everything it should have been: fun, educational, and full of moments that make you chuckle. I had the privilege of traveling with three great people, and was grateful that Callie had done all the necessary research before we embarked on our adventure. Had we followed her advice and boarded tourist bus #867 from the bus station by our hostel instead of listening to a Chinese woman who told us the that #980 was better, we would have avoided the drama of being escorted off the bus by a man trying to obtain an exorbitant taxi fare from us, and eventually being dropped off at a bus station in the middle of nowhere with no way to the Great Wall but to barter with men in unmarked taxis. We learned our lesson. Callie knows best. After an exciting day of walking along one of the world’s great wonders, and taking a toboggan-type slide back down the mountain, we took tourist bus #867 back into Beijing.
We ate dumplings and duck, and attended a very secure soccer game, complete with soldiers with riot shields. We explored the Forbidden City and touched all sorts of random old things, supposed to bring us luck. We ambled around Tiananmen Square, and took a nighttime stroll around the city. We took another overnight train and ended up in the beautiful city of Xi’an, where we stayed in a fantastic and excellently priced hostel with a wonderful cheap breakfast. We took a bus out to see the nearby Terra Cotta Army, and I was intrigued by being able to see the various stages of an excavation in progress. We joked all day about the Chinese Emperor who, at the age of thirteen, decided to start planning for his death and mausoleum, by ordering the construction of thousands of terra cotta warriors, each with a unique face, and somehow resisted the temptation of buying a picture of ourselves as Terra Cotta warriors. We ate dinner at a slightly sketchy authentic Chinese restaurant, and went to see Avengers at the theatre. We exchanged currencies at a local bank with a man whose allegiance to the bank seemed somewhat uncertain as he was standing on our side of the counter, pulled out a photocopied sheet of paper with exchange rates on it, a calculator, and Chinese currency from the fanny-pack he was wearing and traded money with us.
We left Xi’an behind and took a day-time train to Zhengzhou. After admiring our conductor’s ability to cram luggage into spaces where it didn’t look like it would fit, the four of us exchanged seats with people in order to sit together for the eight hour trip. We passed the time by playing the “m&m game.” It’s nice to know that even in our mid to late twenties we can still make life interesting with candy.
We had booked a hotel within two minutes walking distance of the train station, but because that seemed too easy for us with our piles of luggage, we thought taking the wrong exit and making a thirty minute loop of the “block” would be a better idea. However, this did provide us with the opportunity to experience a random dance-a-thon taking place in the “town square” on the back side of the train station. We eventually found our hotel, checked in, and then Ryan, Callie, and I went on a hunt for some food. And what did we discover? McDonalds and KFC heaven. Literally within five minutes walking distance, there were seven separate KFC restaurants, and about five or six McDonalds’. We picked one McDonalds for our late night snack, and then went to a different one for breakfast.
The next day we rose bright and early and got on a bus out to Shaolin Temple, where the martial art of Kung Fu originated. It still operates today as a martial arts school, and it was fascinating to watch the kids and teenagers practicing. We attended a short show and were impressed by such feats as popping a balloon with a needle through a piece of glass, and all sorts of Cirque-du-Soleil type twisting. The four of us then spent a chunk of time doing a photo-shoot of our best Kung Fu impressions in the park outside. I mean, how else would you conclude such a day?
My final night in China Callie and I stayed up late into the night chatting, and we awoke early the next morning to catch our trains. After one more McDonald’s breakfast, we made our way to the train station and said our goodbyes. Ryan and Callie headed to Shanghai for a few days, and Graham and I embarked on an adventure back to Beijing and beyond. We took trains, subways, buses, and planes, not to mention the walking and the waiting, and it was another one of those hot, sticky, luggage-dragging, crowded, stair-climbing, sweat-dripping, bond-creating, will-this-ever-end days. We boarded a plane on Qatar Airways, which I have to say, had great food and entertaining safety videos, and arrived in Doha, Qatar a number of hours later in a world that was nothing like the Asia we had left. After being told that we couldn’t change our Chinese currency for the local currency we wandered through the airport to see what we could have bought had the situation been different, and then went our separate ways to our respective gates. Graham got on a plane back to his homeland of England, and I boarded a flight to Kuwait, where entirely new adventures awaited me.
After an all-nighter of packing, planning, and one last norae-bang session, I walked into the building that I’ve walked into every weekday for the past twenty-two months, only this time I wasn’t going there to teach. I walked up to the front counter, handed Lucy my apartment key and two goodbye notes to pass along. I said goodbye to my director, and to the new girl taking over my classes, and I walked down those stairs one last time. I passed under the sticky red ball on the ceiling that hasn’t moved since I arrived, and past the superman and spiderman stickers plastered on the wall of the staircase down to ground level that preceded my arrival and will remain after my departure. I smiled as I crossed the Yongam-dong town square one last time back towards where Callie was waiting with our luggage. We caught a taxi to the bus terminal, and our adventure had begun.
Prior to the “History of Japan” and “History of China” classes that I took in university with Professor Zietsma, I knew next to nothing about Asia or its history. I took the first to fulfill an upper level history class requirement, but I took the second because Zietsma has a way of making the world seem to make so much sense, and I loved taking history classes with him. Three years ago, my friend Matt and I sat in the library studying for our “History of China” final exam, and joking about our potential upcoming trip there at some point while we were teaching in Korea the following year. We decided that Matt would be the tour guide because his ability to remember details long-term exceeds mine, and so he would be able to remind me of everything that we had learned in our wonderfully fascinating class. But things change, and Matt didn’t end up coming to teach in Korea with the group of us from my university that headed over here in the summer of 2010.
And so, Monday night I stood at the bow of the ferry that took us from Incheon, South Korea to Weihai, China, with three people whom I didn’t even know existed back when the thought of going to China first entered my head, and yet who have come to be great friends in the intervening time. We watched the sunset and the first few stars come out and I thought back to the perfect moment I stood in the same place on a ferry headed to Venice looking up at a blackened sky strewn with stars with my friend Steve from Australia. I love ferries. I love boats. I love being out on the water. I love the way people come into your life and leave little lingering lessons and moments that make memories. Even though goodbyes are hard, sometimes they are necessary to make room for new things.
Our bus to Incheon was followed by a taxi ride to the ferry port, and then a thirteen hour ferry. Graham has become an expert at making new friends, and a Korean man that he befriended when we first arrived on the boat bought dinner for us before we headed up to the deck. The air was a perfect spring temperature with a light breeze refining the moment. The sun set, the stars came out, and we went back inside to distribute m&ms in keeping with the tradition I’ve upheld since childhood ferry trips with my parents from Dover to Calais. None of the four of us had had much sleep in the past few days as we had all been busy planning, packing, and preparing for the big move as we all left Cheongju, our home of the past few years. Despite the noises filtering in from the hallway through our open door to abate the intense heat and stuffiness in our room, I fell asleep quickly, and slept soundly.
We arrived in the port city of Weihai around 9:30am, and stepped off of the boat onto mainland China. Our initial plan had been to take a 25 hour ferry to Tianjin and then a two hour bus to Beijing. But, as life would have it, that ferry was completely booked when we checked about two months ago, and so we ended up with an extra day in a city that none of us had ever heard of or knew anything about. And I’m so glad that we did. It was a day filled with luggage, and waiting, and guessing, and discoveries, but it was great, and I’m surprised at how smoothly it all went. It was a nice introduction to a China in a city that isn’t overrun with tourists. Callie and I left the guys with the luggage to go take a couple pictures with Weihai’s “famous” Gate of Happiness, and returned to find Graham and Ryan surrounded by Chinese people wanting their pictures taken with them. I think we were the biggest attraction in town.
After being convinced by some more of Graham’s new friends that it was too far to walk to the train station with all of our bags, we got into two blue taxis with the hope of arriving with all of our luggage and not being ripped off by the driver. We found each other easily at the front of the train station, and took turns making runs to the grocery store to get food for lunch and stock up for our impending sixteen hour overnight train ride to Beijing while the others stayed to watch the luggage.
Our Chinese train experience was a little different that we had anticipated, but a pleasant one all the same. We thought that we’d be in a room with two other people, but as it turns out, there really are no rooms. There are little partially divided sections with two stacks of three beds. Climbing into the middle bunk assigned to me, I got settled in, and then watched as Graham tried awkwardly to make our jam sandwich dinner in the bed across the divide.
I like sleeping on trains. I like going to bed in one place and waking up feeling quite refreshed in a whole new world. Beijing was waiting, ready to be explored.
As a foreigner with an E2 visa allowing you to live and work in South Korea, it is required that you pass a basic medical exam when you first get to the country. Twenty-two months ago I sat in the front seat of my director’s car, headed to the hospital for said check-up. My co-workers and I have joked about Mr. Kim’s eclectic mix CD that he plays for the foreign teachers when taking them on occasional errands, and it’s true, there doesn’t seem to be any coherency to the assortment of selected songs. But in the midst of this amalgamation of musical moments emerged a song that gripped me. The strains of a deep, mellow voice issued forth the words “It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home,” and I missed houses with lawns. I missed the colour green. I missed the sky, and I missed my Canada. I had never heard the song before, and I hadn’t heard it since. Until this week. I was sitting in the back seat of a cab headed from my SLP staff goodbye dinner to my last Tuesday night Bible Study, when a slow, smooth song began to play on the radio. The chorus confirmed my suspicions that it was in fact one and the same as the song on Mr. Kim’s mix CD, and I smiled. There was a sense of poetic perfection as I sat there listening to it, knowing that I’m going home, and there will be green grass when I get there, and remembering that moment when I had first moved to Korea.
Tomorrow is my last day of work as an English teacher at SLP in Cheongju. The past few weeks have been a blur of constant activity. Between work, church, Bible Study, social events, and planning and preparing for what’s next, there are few moments left unaccounted for. I’m excited to let the pace of life slow down a little in the next few months. I don’t want to live as though the grass is always greener somewhere else. I don’t want to be constantly anticipating the next adventure in my future to the point that I miss the one that is my present. But, that being said, I’m excited to move on to what’s next. I’m excited, but at the same time, I’m packaging the fond memories of this place and the lessons learned here to take them with me, knowing that I’m leaving here different than when I came. I have loved the almost two years that have passed since that first time that I heard that song. Cheongju has become a home to me. I spent some time re-reading old blog entries from the beginning of my time living here, and it reminded me of how much things have changed since that week I spent living in a motel before moving into my apartment. It reminded me of a time when the people that I’ve grown to love and appreciate were new acquaintances. It called to mind the nervousness that I felt when I first started teaching, and made me aware of how comfortable I’ve become at my job. It reminded me that people don’t use remote controlled air conditioners in Canada.
I took a little detour when walking home from Bible Study the other night, and I walked up the ramp to what I consider to be one of the only real patches of grass in the city. It’s raised up on a hill, and surrounded by trees, so you feel a little more removed from the chaos. I lay down on the grass, and I looked over at the busy street down below and watched the cars driving up to red lights. I watched life happen, and I thought about how next Tuesday there would still be cars and taxis driving up and down that portion of the Ring Road here in Yongam-dong, Cheongju, South Korea, but that I wouldn’t be here to see it. Korea is going to go on existing without me. The kids that I’ve spent so much time with are going to continue coming to class every day, and life will carry on.
Tonight is my last night alone in my apartment. My friend, Callie, is coming to stay with me for my last three nights in the country before her and I and a couple others head to China on vacation for a week. Tonight was my last Bible Study leader’s meeting. Tonight is the beginning of the end.
I was certain then, and I’m certain now, that Cheongju was no accident. I prayed about moving to Korea more than I’ve prayed about most things in my life, and I had a total peace that God would put me in the city that he wanted me to be in, at the job he wanted me to have. My church here has been a constant blessing to me, and I will take fond memories with me of the community that has become my expat family from around the world. I know that it is a large part of the reason that God brought me to this city. He’s used people and experiences to help me overcome things that I was struggling with when I moved here, and He has helped me to grow as I’ve encountered new challenges. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I’m looking forward to touching the green, green grass of home.
Seasons change. The fresh snow that fell at the close of January, coating the power lines that run haphazardly above my street and causing them to resemble a silvery spiderweb that glistened in evening glow of the street lights, has melted. Any day now the cherry blossoms should be out on the trees that line the river. The promise of spring is in the air that is almost warm enough to justify packing up my winter coats.
Seasons change in life, too. It’s been an eventful two months, filled with ups and downs and differences.
February was full to the brim as the school year drew to a close, and I said goodbye to classes that I had been teaching for six months. I had spent an abundant amount of time with my Stanford kindergarten class in particular as I taught them for at least two periods a day, five days a week. One day the girls were complaining that Danny, my genius trouble maker, was trying to kiss them, and I had to tell him that he wasn’t allowed to kiss girls if they didn’t want him to. His response was simply to say, “But if the girl is cute, then I want to kiss.” I couldn’t keep the laughter on the inside. But despite the fact that deep down I really did love those kids and that on occasion they said the most hilarious things, I was excited to let them move on to elementary school, and I counted down the days until they graduated. By the end of my eighty minutes teaching them every morning and sometimes another forty minutes after lunch, I felt like I had just run a marathon. On the other hand, I knew that I would miss my Yale kindy class when I didn’t get to teach them anymore. They made Monday mornings okay, because regardless of how tired I was from a busy weekend, they always seemed to have energy and enthusiasm and an abundance of information and affection to share. I said a sad goodbye to my A13 class with whom I shared a special bond. There are certain kids who have come to have a special place in my heart, and I think that when I look back on teaching in Korea years from now, I will think about Ben, and about Leah, and wonder where they are, and what their lives turned out like. I took pictures of each of my kids, marked tests, wrote evaluations, and wrapped up another term.
But it was time for a change.
March brought with it an entirely different schedule and a renewed appreciation for my job, as I have been enjoying it more than I had been in awhile. As there are half as many kindy classes this year as there were last year, I am no longer needed as a kindy teacher, and as such, I have all of my mornings off. In return, I teach substantially more elementary classes than I used to, and I have two middle school classes twice a week as well, and finish at 9:35pm on those days. While I’m glad that I didn’t have this schedule for the entire time that I’ve been in Korea, it has been really nice to have a change, to have the stress of kindy off my back, and to have my mornings free to run errands, see friends, do random chores, and sleep. It’s amazing, but somehow I feel so much less tired when I come home at quarter to ten at night than I used to when I would get home at eight. I’ve had my new classes for a month now, and I’m settling nicely into routine and growing attached to the kids in my new classes. I honestly don’t think that there are any classes that I don’t enjoy. I am especially enjoying my SH11 (Super Honours) class that I teach for a double period on Friday evenings. They’re a group of grade five and six students whose English is outstanding, and I’m teaching them how to write different types of essays. They actually really want to speak in English, and we have a great time together. It’s always a pleasant way to end a work week. On the other hand, I’m teaching a lot of really low level classes at the beginnings of my work days, but while I had previously found that frustrating, I am really enjoying them. Partially I think it’s because they’re great groups of kids who are willing to participate, and partially because I think the books I’m teaching are effective and at the right level for the kids, and it’s amazing how much of a difference that can make in a class.
February and March have both been jam-packed with events and outings and activities outside of work as well. I wrapped up the apologetics course I was taking at Pastor Steve’s on Wednesdays, made a trip or two to Seoul, spent a couple Sunday afternoons watching episode after episode of Primeval with friends, went skating, and ate hotcakes at McDonald’s week after week at our Friday morning breakfasts. I made a trip to the dentist to confirm that I have perfect teeth, spent a Saturday with Jodi before she moved back to Canada, and became addicted to Sherlock on BBC. We spent a night at the church for a spring retreat and went on a short hike in Munui by Daecheong Dam. March was a month with more goodbyes, and goodbye gatherings. Ryan, Callie, Graham and I booked a ferry to China for the end of April, and finally got entry visas to allow us into the country. We had a bridal shower for Helen, and a birthday adventure for Melody. There were meals, and pies, and coffee shop trips, and each week rolled into the next.
Last Saturday, I spent the day in Seoul alone, or as alone as you can be in a city of millions, and it was everything that I needed it to be. I wanted a day of independence, a day when I called the shots, did whatever I wanted to, and went at my own pace. I went shopping in Myeong-dong, and then headed to the Korean War Memorial and Museum. I can’t put my finger on exactly what aspect of history it is that I find so fascinating, as there are some museums and facets of history that I simply don’t find interesting. But, I felt like I owed it to Korea to go see this museum, and I was excited about it. I wanted to do it alone so that I could linger and be the nerd that I am. It met and exceeded my expectations, and I felt like I understood the country I have been living in for the past two years a little better afterwards. At the same time, being there, and loving learning, reminded me of why I decided to be a history minor in university; it made me miss sitting in lectures listening to Professor Zietsma make the world seem to come alive and make sense. It reminded me of my love for learning, and the things about me that make me who I am when no one else is around. I thought about who I was before I came to Korea, and who I will be when I leave.
I call it my “slow motion mood” – when life seems to exist at a reduced speed, when every action takes on a magnitude beyond itself. It is as though life is an artistic masterpiece, and I see everything that I do from outside of myself, from the point of view of a director wanting you to notice things in the way he films a scene. And I love it. I love it when silence reigns and there is no need for words, no need to rush, no need to worry, or try to figure out the answers to questions, voiced or unvoiced. I hear the quiet strains of a ballad internally serving as the soundtrack of the scene, conferring significance upon the mundane moments and monotony of the present undertakings, bringing them together to eventually be a part of something greater, something whole, something that makes sense beyond what I can see and understand at any given moment in the middle.
There have been tough moments mingled amongst the agreeable ones in the past couple months, but in those moments I am sure that God is teaching me something. I am seeing Him humble me and remind me that He is in control. I am hearing Him ask me to trust Him, to take a step of faith and advance out into the unknown, and I’m excited. I’m excited to see what He has in store for my future.
Seasons change. And I’m glad that they do.