I wrote this–the only sustained essay I’ve ever produced about my mission–about seven or eight months after I came home, while I was a student at BYU. It appeared in the Winter 1991 issue of Insight, a BYU student publication. I lost the electronic copy long ago, and so, in posting it here, I’ve had to type it all up, which meants I’ve had to re-read it for the first time in I don’t know how many years. The prose strikes me as ridiculously precious, and the actual story I tell is much too pat. There is an immature and unearned presumption and world-weariness to it which embarrasses me today. And it also occurs to me now that I never really could speak or understand Korean particularly well, and so I wonder whether my recollections of what I said or heard that night, now 18 years in the past, were ever accurate even in the first place. But still, I kind of like it. For all its weaknesses, for all that I left out then or would express differently or not at all today, it still manages, I think, to say something honest and true, just the same.
(I haven’t attempted to update or fix any of the details or translations I mention; I’m leaving it exactly as I wrote it, almost two decades ago.)
I stepped out of the Dong Suwon Hotel and breathed in the warm Korean air. It was about midnight, June 11, 1990, and I needed a taxi. Walking over to the sidewalk, I started waving. It took me less than three minutes to flag one down, which was good–when you’re running away from your parents you don’t want to be caught standing around. A one word command to the driver was all it took to send me on my way. No backing out now.
I knew the route the driver took. We passed by Dong Suwon Byongwon (hospital) where Bishop Chi Hyon-Chae had paced back and forth, waiting to see his wife and newborn son and where, less than three months later, they brought Biship Chi to die. We sped past the little apartment where Im Ch’ung-Bin and Hwang Yun-Hye had awaited their first child with joy and anticipation. The last time I saw them, there were still waiting–waiting for their son to heal, waiting for his heart to beat steadily, waiting for the doctors to tell them their baby need never go under the knife again. And we went through an intersection where I’d seen girls chant like cheerleaders, urging their fellows to pick up their rocks, ignore the gas, and charge the riot police one more time.
Yes, I knew the way. I could walk it blindfolded.
To cartographers, Suwon is the capital of Kyonggi Province, a city of approximately 600,000 people forty kilometers south of Seoul. To missionaries, it’s a decent post: it has a nice big ward, good bus routes, and is far enough out of Seoul to allow for a little relaxation. To me, it was–is–a home. I spent the last year of my mission there, surpassing all previous records for length of service in Suwon, at least for Americans. There had been a native sister that served nearly her entire mission there. In fact years later she returned to Suwon and married a young man by the name of Chi Hyon-Chae, who was later called as bishop. She bore him a daughter, Chi Na-Rae, and a son, Chi Sol, who will know his father only as a picture on the wall.
My father was sleeping soundly back at the hotel. Mom too. I was still a missionary, though I’d said all my final farewells and really didn’t consider myself one anymore. I had been released to the custody of my parents, meaning there were my “companions” and I was to stay with them while we toured Korea–a country I had wanted to understand more than I had wanted anything else before in my life. I didn’t though. In the end, as it slowly dawned on me that I was leaving, I realized I barely understood myself, much less the country I had served.
Why should I understand it? was the self-mocking question I asked myself. I was, after all, just a missionary.
The taxi stopped at my destination. I said “Kamsahamnida” (thank you), paid the man 1100 won (roughly $1.75) and stepped out. Before me stood Bukmun, the North Gate, one of the four old wide tower-gates of Suwonsong, the fortress that King Chongjo had built more than 200 years ago as an act of filial piety to his murdered father. Through time and war the original walls and gates of the once mighty structure had worn thin and crumbled. A massive restoration project in the mid-seventies had brought much of the fortress back, though the city of Suwon had long since out-grown the stone boundaries of that more medieval time. The new Suwonsong was, of course, different from its precedessor. It hid no archers, no caches of food, no assassins, no guards. Its walls, ramparts, and four restored gates were huge stony reminders now, speaking silently of Korea’s rocky past.
I had come to say goodbye.
My mission didn’t just end in Suwon; in a very real way it began there. The elder who came to Suwon in the summer of 1989 had long since left the scene, though as I looked upon that massive structure, before which the express buses coming south from Seoul make their first stop, I remembered him. He had left Seoul in the midst of the heat and humidity of the rainy season long before. What had he hated about the city? I wondered. I really couldn’t remember–it was all so petty and distant now.
Turning towards Bukmun, I read a little sign listing the fortress in the archives as a national treasure. I intended to climb it, to clamber up its left side, which sloped down into a grassy knoll, flip over the retaining wall that surrounded its top, and look inside the wooden chamber that topped Bukmun like a hat. See what’s there.
We elders had joked about climbing Bukmun before. In truth, what we really wanted to conquer was Nammun, the South Gate. But it was located at the city center and we couldn’t approach it without being spotted. It’s illegal to climb national treasures, and despite our irreverence, none of us really wanted to make our lot any more difficult than it already was. But the next morning would find my parents and me on a southbound train, and the Suwon I knew would disappear as Seoul had before it. I needed to do something, something foolish and spontaneous.
I needed one last look around. A final goodbye. I knew that leaving Korea on Friday wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as leaving this city the next day would be. I deserved this.
Climbing up wasn’t hard. Nearby, a drunken man lying on a park bench seemed to be staring at me. Korea’s a hard country, and Korean men have raised hard drinking to a fine art. This man’s performance (fully clothed, minimal movement, silent) was one of the more staid routines I’d seen. I considered waving, but decided against it. He was under enough stress already.
My mission had taught me about stress. Looking out over a side wall near the top of Bukmun I could almost seen the zone leaders’ house. Ten months before, two men in that house had struggled in vain to control a zone that didn’t care for control. I spent my first three months in Suwon there, and I saw a lot. I saw leaders who called men to repentance for crossing streets outside the crosswalks, leaders who though they could force men to do right. I saw missionaries who though a three-hour day was plenty, who sent letters of protest to the president saying they were “on strike” until he removed the zone leaders. Once, the assistants to the president came down, called the zone together, and asked all forty of us if we sustained our priesthood leaders. A Korean sister, a Korean elder, a former companion of mine and I were the only ones who raised our hands.
I reached the top of Bukmun, flipped over the chest-high retaining wall and landed on sand. The sand ran in a five-foot wide strip surrounding a wide open chamber elevated by thick wooden pillars and topped with an ornate roof. I climbed a dozen old wooden steps to take a look inside. Here, I thought, looking at the dust which covered the floor of the empty chamber, soldiers had watched for traffic from Seoul and played baduk while the Yi dynasty slowly collapsed around them.
There was a time when I though my mission would collapse. I had thought my situation hopeless, my goals lost causes. I surveyed Suwon’s main street beneath me, a road that connected the old North Gate with the city’s center, a road lined with restaurants, tea rooms, bookstores, and churches, a road I had walked a million times. Why had I gotten up those mornings, when nothin but an empty appointment book and long hours on the street faced me? Why hadn’t I given up then?
It was getting late and I knew I was teetering on the edge of melancholy. I wondered why I had come to Bukmun. Arrogance? Some wish for confidence, for satisfaction? There wasn’t any to be found–not for a simple, ordinary missionary who had come, as most missionaries eventually do, face to face with the real issues and found himself lacking, and especially not for one who disregarded rules, both his parents’ and his Church’s, in order to sneak out alone and satisfy his ego.
Keeping my eye on a young couple making small talk on a bench opposite the drunken man, I climbed down. The college kids didn’t see me, or maybe they did but just didn’t bother to make a fuss. To them, I was probably just another crazy American soldier. Just one more foreigner who didn’t care.
I decided to walk up the main street and catch a taxi back to the hotel. My route took me towards the chapel, the church I had attended for so long. I had spoken in sacrament meeting there for the last time just two days before. In the crowd that Sunday was Kim Myong-Hwan, the only man I had taught and baptized in my ten months in Suwon. My “greenie” declined to participate in those discussions, so I taught him along with two good friends, Lee Sang-Ho and Chang Si-Song. The day I stood to say goodbye to the Suwon ward Chang was off serving a mission and Lee was sitting behind me on the stand. Kim sat alone towards the back of the chapel, his silent demeanor expressing a filial sadness that made my heavy heart seem cheap by comparion. His father had died just weeks before, and he was the first-born son.
As I approached the church house, a bent-over old lady crossed the street in front of me and set down a heavy bundle on the sidewalk. “Ayonghasimnikka, harmonim. Sugo manu hasimnida” (greetings honored grandmother, you’re working very hard), I said. Barely looking at me, she started complaining about her heavy load. After a moment I said I would carry it for her. Looking at me squarely she consented, but warned me it was a long way. I picked up her bag of odds and ends and we started down the street. Soon we were talking freely, discussing life and the types of people that wander a city’s streets at 2:00am (old ladies and crazy soon-to-be-ex-missionaries excluded). We passed by the church and I pointed it out to her. I told her about my being a missionary, about my long service in Suwon, about my feelings as I now prepared to leave. I’m sad, I said, very sad.
We turned off the main street and started up a hill. The old lady began to tell me her story. She was fifty years old, and had no children. Her husband had grown ill, too ill to tend the farm they had lived on most of their lives. They had moved to the city just three days before, and she found work with a friend in a tiny restaurant to pay the bills. She walked to and from her job every day. The restaurant gave them food, which was good. They found an apartment, but it was up near the top of P’aldalsan, the tall hill that overlooked all of Suwon. So far to walk every day, she said, and no children to help her. No one to care for her in old age, no one to feed her or respect her. All alone.
We sat on the steps leading up the hillside and were silent for a moment. There were tears in her eyes. She asked my age and I told her. You could have been my son, she said, grabbing my hand. I said nothing, but instead listened to her weep, trying to understand the pain and weakness she felt. Then she turned her teary eyes to me and aske me why.
All I could see what Chi Na-Rae, Bishop Chi Hyon-Chae’s normally vivacious four-year-old daughter, now sitting silently beside her mother on the front pew of our chapel, listening to men say goodbye to her father for reasons that I’m sure she could barely understand. I rushed into the chapel late, dragging my companion, hurt and mad as hell. I wanted to be at that funeral, wanted to offer some consolation, show some grief. But my companion and I had spent a long day proselyting in a small village south of us, arriving at home to the sound of the phone ringing–the Korean sisters calling, asking how I could have been so insensitive as to skip the funeral of a man whom I had said I respected so much, a funeral I had thought was taking place the next day. By the time I got my companion and I there, it was all over. Standing at the back of the chapel I wept in pity and frustration. Na-Rae, glancing back as women surrounded her inconsolable mother, met my eyes. Hers were wet too.
Staring alternately at the starry sky and the steps below us, I began to tell my elderly friend what I wished I could have told Na-Rae–and myself–at the time. I told her what I knew about God and the world around us, about the despair and the joy, the goodness and the pettiness in our lives. I testified of the greatness of God–a choppy, relatively incomprehensible, off-the-cuff testimony, something you wouldn’t find in a discussion pamphlet. Doubting that she understood me, I lapsed into silence.
We were quiet for a time, and then she thanked me. Thanked me for, more than anything else I believe, simply being there.
A short while later we resumed our journey to her tiny apartment. It was a poor, dingy, ugly place, not worthy of this elderly lady who tended her ill husband within its walls. She invited me inside for tea. I declined. Fishing into my pocket, I extracted 10,000 won (about $15) and pressed it into her hand, saying that she needed it far more than I. Weeping once more, she asked if we would ever meet again. Of course we would, I lied. Bowing, I said goodbye, God bless. She stood waving silentely to me from her doorstep until I was out of sight.
Jogging down the side of P’aldalsan, I wondered, as I had at Bukmun, just why I was doing what I was doing. Had I been led to that lady, or her to me? But that wasn’t possible–this couldn’t have been a “spiritual thing.” I had been alone, enaging in free-lance counselling with an older woman in the middle fo the night. My mission president would’ve slapped me in irons. As a taxi pulled over and I climbed in, I questioned myself: how did I know that anything she told me was true, that she wasn’t just some batty old lady after me for insidiuous purposes?
I sat silently for the duration of the ride back to the hotel. I didn’t know, I decided. It wouldn’t matter if I did.
In Suwon, over the course of ten months, I grew a great deal. I can say I love the people there, with a love that I’ve not yet been able to feel for any other people. But despite that love and concern, I never really felt like a part of that city and ward. Often, I was more machine than member. I wanted to show my appreciation by being with the members, by becoming like them. But I was a missionary with a job to do, rules and leaders to follow, reports to fill out and transfers to anticipate. As much as my mission did allow me and did teach me, it never let me feel at home.
But that last night in Suwon, out alone, somehow I did. I felt right with the world as I feel asleep in my hotel room that night. Missionaries need that feeling. They need it, I think, more than almost anything else.
Crossing a rice field north of Suwon during harvest season, 1989