Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Easter Promise: Peeps and Jesus

(Originally for the YASC Lenten reflection blog)
For the past week, everyday I arrive home at Sungkonghoe University, I get to feeling like I’m all of ten years old. Why? Well, the joy of the Easter promise of course. But not the whole Jesus-Easter-promise. No, no, no. My childlike anxiety is caused by the other Easter promise. The one of Peeps…glorious, fat, yellow, sugary peeps, thanks be to God. In other words, my mother has sent an Easter basket to Korea, and I am desperately awaiting its arrival.

But, in all seriousness, I’m 22 years old and have been living on my own for 5 years now, and my mom has never missed an Easter basket. I hope she knows how much that means. When I was a kid, Easter was my favorite holiday. There was a lot of pain and confusion growing up, and as any child of divorced parents knows, Christmas and like holidays can be complicated. I guess my family wasn’t religious enough for Easter to count as a complicated or sorrowful holiday.

And remember that fake, tacky, plastic Easter grass? I do. I remember one year experiencing an acute feeling of joy when I found the first piece inevitably embedded in the carpet during Holy Week. It meant mom had pulled down the basket and the peeps were on their final march to my belly.

No matter what the situation. No matter the stress, the loss, or the terrible fights that would pass between my mom and me. The Peeps would come, like a bright sprinkle covered ray of sunshine. More often than not, they would not arrive into a perfect household. The Peeps, throughout the years marched through death, divorce, depression, and now, thousands of miles. They never solved problems, but when the world feels like it has been pulled out from underneath you, the smallest consistency becomes very dear. And perhaps the best thing about Peeps is that they are always the same. They taste the exact same way now as they did when I was 9.
And the way I have come to love Peeps, is so much like the way I love the Jesus that is presented to us during Holy Week. The Readings for today come passion and during this time, Jesus and his disciples will be thrown into the midst of despair. In the period of just a few days they will experience the betrayal of a friend, the death of a teacher, persecution by the government, self-doubt, the death of a son, a complete change in their world order, and even in case of Jesus, his own death. And it is a painful death; one that even he is his wisdom is scared of.

Take a moment, as lent closes to remember the pain in your own life. Reflect on those moments when it felt like God had abandoned you. And then try reflecting on the last days of Jesus’ life. Jesus is not outside of or above human suffering. He experiences it all with us. When his friend dies, he weeps. And he does not offer any explanation. He does not step away and explain that it is a blessing in disguise. He does not believe that it will simply get better. Jesus manufactures no coping mechanism for his disciples.

But He remains with them. Constantly.

There is misery in life. We feel it. And we are reminded of some of it’s forms throughout Holy Week. But Jesus is there with us in our sufferings. Understanding what we feel. He does not magically remove our pain, or reveal God’s plan. But he walks with us.

And likewise, the Peeps will come. They are constant and assured. They do not cure anything but they are a part of it all. Every year. No matter what. Their round and empathetic presence reminding me of the promise of next year and the hardship overcome in past years.

Dear God, this year, when we gaze upon Peeps, a wonder of Your creation, help us to remember that there is constancy. Help us to feel the promise Jesus made to be with us in all things human. Open our hearts to You so You may share with us in the sorrows that bear no expression in words, but can only be felt in the human heart. Amen.

*Nota Bene
I wrote this reflection on the train to work this morning. When I arrived home this evening, I discovered the Peeps had successfully completed their journey to Asia.

Party Time

This past Wednesday was a special day at living together, the mentally handicapped ministry where I work twice a week. We took a well deserved break from our normal afternoon of work and had a PARTY! It was a birthday celebration for all the students who had birthdays during the past month. It was nice to take a moment to appreciate one another's company and celebrate the passing of another year. Speaking of which my year here in Korea is flying by. I can't believe it has been almost 8 months since I arrived here and only 4 more until I return home! I hope the passing of this year brings be as much joy as this birthday celebration.
Voting on the celebratory message.

Birthday Wishes

Singing Happy Birthday and watching the cake with great anticipation.

And what Korean party would be complete without a little (or a lot of) Karaoke?

Birthday Boys cutting their cake.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lazarus and Blossoms

It is spring in Korea. Which means, first of all, there are cherry blossoms and other beautiful flowers everywhere. Second, that I am throwing off the dead rot of winter and feeling life again. It happens every year that I forget that spring will come. And this year in particular has been a real lonely and difficult winter. But Spring will always comes. I know it is a bit too early still for the Easter themed blog I would like to write. But the Gospel lesson this past Sunday was the story of Lazarus rising from the dead, so our minds are already on resurrection. I hope that this spring joy to you as it has already begun to do for me. To help you along, here are pictures of the flowers and pictures of my Sunday school students being toilet paper Lazarus. I say it's to help them remember the story, but really it's because I always opt for what will be the most fun for me.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


 Chogokbo is a traditional Korean art form. It is the creation of a piece of clothing or decoration by sewing together scraps of discarded material. Though it is similar to what we might think of as a patchwork quilt, there is a very different design principle. In patchwork, the clashing of the quilt is exalted. Though a pattern is formed, the quilt in no way tries to hide the fact that it is created from a wide variety of fabrics. But when a chogokbo is made, the idea is to really and truly gather the pieces into one, to create a continuous design. One seeks to remove the historical borders between various pieces of fabric. It is also said that a chogokbo is not merely a piece of cloth, but is also the life history of the woman who made it. Traditionally, working class women made the chogokbo by collecting scraps of fabric left over from their employers. Often times, it would take them many years to collect enough pieces to make a garment. By this time, their collection would show their own history, where they had been, who they had worked for, and what they had done, all indicated by the kinds of scraps collected. It is also extremely easy to date a chogokbo based on the fashion of the period. This chogokbo comes to represent an individual woman, as well as the historical context that made her. This story is considered to be the most beautiful part of the chogokbo.

Chogokbo is also the name of an organization that I work for here in Korea. They are a women’s group that began by providing material resources for refugees from North Korea. Here in South Korea, people from North Korea are able to gain citizenship and a number of government resources simply by coming into the country. This process, however, is much more complicated than it seems. These citizens are not legally allowed to leave North Korea. Many of them escape to China on a work visa and remain there illegally for many years until they can afford to safely travel to South Korea. This move also means coming to terms with the isolation. Once they have left the North, there will likely be no more contact with the people they leave behind.

Chogokbo started as a way to provide job training and financial support for such women. Slowly but surely, in addition to providing these resources, the headquarters began to resemble a clubhouse. This is when the director realized the need not just for financial resources, but for a place where people could get together and be themselves, cooking, eating, drinking, singing, joking, sharing life’s troubles, and their own personal stories and histories. Hence the organization took on life as chogokbo. The idea was no longer to simply provide material support, or scraps of fabric, but to create a complete picture of each woman, a chogokbo. Further, the organization has become a place for the Korean diasporas to join together in a chogokbo of their own.

The organization consists of women from North Korea, South Korea, and Korean Chinese, as well as Koreans living permanently overseas. Yet, the sense I get overwhelmingly from talking to these women is that no matter how different their upbringings were, they feel that their history is shared. They all want to know more about one another and about themselves.

An average meeting at chogokbo goes something like this. First of all, we eat. And boy do we eat. And it is loud, and funny. Everyone pitches in and brings something. Everyone does dishes but refuses to let anyone do their own dishes. Every Wednesday is like a big Thanksgiving family dinner. People laughing and telling stories. Gossiping. Lots of gossip. Finally things settle down a bit. And the dinner is put away and replaced with “snacks”, or in my view, second dinner to be eaten at more or less non stop for the next couple of hours. Then the talk begins. It starts generally with a short lecture. Or someone telling their own personal story. After this, there is a question period and a time for anyone else to share their own stories. These can be anything. I know at first I expected it to be week after week of sad serious stories and nothing else. And while the history that is pieced together here is true, and there are many sad parts to it, the women move from lightest jest to most serious discussion with ease. A debates on cultural differences was ended this week when a woman from the North told about men there not helping out women with heavy work and generally not being chivalrous. She told about how shocked she was when she got to the South and men pulled out chairs for her and carried their girlfriend’s bags. But she concluded, after a few weeks in Korea she realized how rare it was and decided that men everywhere were the same. An older woman piped up to say the only difference was South Korean men had taken up chivalry as a way to get women to bed. There was a great deal of laughter. Then the beer was passed around. And the conversation fell to Korean industrial workers in China and finally ended with the most important Korean discussion of who was getting married. These meetings find their finality when it gets a little late and the group gets jolly enough to start making music. One woman is particularly skilled at Korean folk music and is pestered to sing for us. She pretends to hate it. After the singalong, people hug and slowly make their ways home.

At first these meetings confused me. I loved them. I thought they were very important for the women and for the community. But one thing confused me. Chogokbo called themselves a peace organization. And while even after 6 months of doing “peace work”, what it means is still very vague to me, I never imagined it as a meeting of the chogokbo social club. So I asked the women, why they thought it was a peace organization. Their answer was simple and profound. They said that so much of the policy and reunification work that the government undertakes, specifically the South Korea side, is based on the idea that they know the North Koreans. But for years there has been so little contact and so much prejudice and propaganda. The idea of what North Korea is like and more importantly, how the people think is a much more complicated and beautiful story. So in policy meetings, misunderstandings abound, they say the government tends to forget that they have developed a separate culture over the last 60 years. They believe that in the policy suggested, it is clear that the government is assuming everyone is thinking the same way. They believe the best way to fix this problem, to develop peaceful policy has a simple root, getting to know one another. And the informal and loving environment that chogokbo offers is how you get to know someone. Hard debates and silly jokes, Northern and Southern, Young and Old, food, and music and stories, these are the scraps that are sown together to form a more complete whole. These women with the honest vulnerability of friends are seeking to make a great and peaceful chogokbo.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


 “It’s like Prison.
“No, it’s like family.”
“Ok, it’s like being in prison with your family.”

When I first arrived in Korea, this is the way the seminary community that I would be living in was described to me.

Well, time moves fast and a number of the wonderful folks who have supported me over the past six months are on their way to begin their ministry in the world. I hope they know that I am incredibly thankful for accepting me into their community. I wish them the best of luck and offer prayers that they work as much good in the world as their kindness as worked on me.

Here are photos of the graduation ceremony. 
First of all, there is this guy. I think he would rather be anywhere in the entire world than at this graduation ceremony. Luckily, his sister gave him a hearty slap to wake him up/encourage him. Also, pictured are the bouquets which are commonly given to the graduates, male and female. The streets from the Subway to the School were lined with people haggling over bouquets in true Korean fashion.

The seminarians who were graduating from behind during the large ceremony.

The priest from Myanmar who stayed with us during the semester to work on his dissertation receiving his P.h.D.  Or has he would say, "Finally", receiving his P.h.D.
This is a picture of the large graduation ceremony for everyone at the university. During this brief and simple ceremony one representative from each department goes on stage to collect the diplomas for the entire department. Later they distribute them at at smaller and more personal ceremony.
For the smaller ceremony, we naturally got the run of the University Chapel. Here the six graduates are actually receiving their diplomas.
Family was an important part of the ceremony. During the ceremony, all the teachers made speeches, the graduates made speeches, the families were introduced, and then the families said their congratulations.
The little gal in the front is the daughter of one of the graduates and simply had to be a part of the fun. Behind her are the graduates and department heads.
And then came the photos. Like a million photos. Group photos, individual photos, and every paring of two or three photos. Just happy to know that my inability to take an appropriate photo transcends cultural bounds.
Finally our graduates and the president of the seminary. Good luck guys!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Changes in the Borderland

Recently, at a Chogokbo meeting, we had a special guest who has been living in the borderland between China and North Korea. She moved there to study the way North Korean culture and economy are changing, based on the communities of both legal and illegal North Koreans working in China. Her talk was very interesting and in a lot of ways changed the way I think about North Korea. I wanted to share some of this information in the hopes that it will provide a different perspective for you as well. I will do the best I can to relay it here, I am no expert, so please bare with me. If you notice something that seems incorrect, please let me know. I am trying to learn as well.

To begin with, there are two prevailing theories about what will happen with the North Korean economy. The first, and certainly the most prevalent in the West, is the idea that the communist economy will eventually become extremely disadvantageous to the people. Once this happens, there will be some type of major reform or overthrow of the government. This however, has not yet happened, despite major starvation that occurred throughout the 1990s. In fact, with the support of China, the North Korean economy, is getting better, though I would not go so far as to say recovering. This brings us to the second theory. This is the idea that rather than collapsing or leading to a government overthrow, the communist economy will slowly transition into a capitalist economy as it becomes more advantageous for the people and the government.

This struck me as quite a shocking idea when I first heard it. I think mostly because it is so contrary to my American conception of North Korea as being totally stuck and immune to any sort of development. But when I began to look at history, this idea is not unprecedented. There are many examples of land reforms and redistribution of wealth according to the communist ideal that have over time crept back into forms of capitalism. If you wish to look further into this, the most prominent example in our age is that of China, just google “China” and “Capitalist” if you don’t believe me.

Our guest speaker suggested from her time in the borderland between North Korea and China that the second theory is gaining a foothold. First a little background about the area. North Korea shares an 880 mile long border with China to its North. The area that was the object of study is primarily a rural area. This area is home to native Chinese, people of North Korean heritage who escaped to China during the Japanese occupation or Korean war and are now Chinese citizens, and North Korean citizens that have come to work or trade with China, some legally and some legally.

This population is, in itself, a sign of a changing economy. The border between China and North Korea has become more and more porous in recent years and there has been a great increase in legal trade, not to mention black market trade. This has also led to the set up of small local markets. This doesn’t sound like much, but for many years markets that were not government controlled were strictly forbidden. This led to a number of merchants that were nicknamed grasshoppers because when the North Korean police would come into the area, they would all hop away. Out speaker shared the story of one grandma selling her good who refused to pick up and move one day. The police told her that she should at least pretend to move when they came by. Supposedly she told them she was just one dead grasshopper and she was left alone.

This leniency eventually crystallized into the legalization of small local markets where the vendors are required to have a license and are taxed by the government. The legalization of the capitalist markets has also, according to sources our speaker interviewed, prompted an increase in the amount of illegal trade and selling taking place in the context of these local markets.  This change was due in part to the vast starvation that happened in the 1990s. Since government supply was so low, people were forced to look elsewhere to fulfill their basic needs. This took the shape of local merchants and the tradition carried on until it was legalized.

The vast starvation also had another important effect on the North Korean people, according to our speaker. Though not a direct economic effect, she says they way that North Koreans viewed themselves in relation to society shifted at this time. The people she interviewed talked about believing in and behaving as a part of a larger social order. They said, however, that this idea was weakened during the period of starvation because the difficulty of finding food shifted the focus from doing for society to taking care of you and yours. While this attitude is not shared by all, our speaker posits that this subtle change of thought can possibly be a seeds of change towards capitalism in North Korea.

The final change brought about by these local markets is the one our speaker finds the most interesting. Before the markets, every farmer was responsible for every aspect of his crops, right down to the transportation. After the markets appeared, those who managed to afford a license began to hire others to actually transport their crops to market. Though this might seems small, the speaker took it as an indication of the beginning of division of labor and therefore a fundamental change. The local people in one area were even able, with the help of an NGO, to set up their own bus line to help with transport to and from market, an important leap in their rural infrastructure.

But most importantly, our speaker stressed the exchange of ideas that is made possible by the increased traffic in the border area. Workers are allowed to come to China and return to North Korea. Though they are often times supervised by members of the North Korean government, the speaker claims that they are still exposed to a more advanced level of development and technology. Furthermore, the cell phone towers in the border area of China provide service, albeit in a very limited range, to North Korea, in spite of the North Korean government’s attempts to block them. This means that traders and smugglers have open contact between the two countries. A small area of cell phone coverage might not seem like a lot to us, but it can lead to bigger things. The speaker sighted an event that happened a few decades ago where a Chinese woman was allowed to attend a student event in Pyongyang, the Capitol of North Korea. She said by the next year it was reported that all the young women were sporting the same haircut.

The speaker concluded with an example of the shift in attitude. She told the story of a young North Korean woman who had looked across the border into China and saw the huge differences in the lights there. She said to her all the lights meant were a place to make money that she could bring home to here family. She wasn’t interested in the development she symbolized. She went to China to trade and work but never wanted to leave her own country permanently, even for money. Then she saw a rice cooker in China for the first time. She said the shock of being able to simply press a button and make rice changed her. She began to look at those lights differently. Though she returned to North Korea, and still has no intention of leaving her home country, her idea of social and economic progress has been changed in a fundamental way.

*The speaker admits that the area around the border is a very special area and in not necessarily indicative of what is happening in the rest of North Korea. She also admits that it is difficult to get a clear picture of what the average North Korean thinks as only people of a certain mindset were willing to risk being interviewed by her. All that said, she still personally sees the economic activity in the border area as a very hopeful sign.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Living Together

On Wednesday mornings, I wake up unafraid. The only day of the week when I feel that I am free from making mistakes, free from guilt, and free from the shame that I feel everyday in a foreign country. That deep sinking part of myself that says I’m not good enough, the part that has, incidentally, gotten louder since I have gotten quieter. Around eleven I step through the doors of Living Together and I am greeted with warm welcomes, and hugs, and myself. It feels like sinking into a warm bath of Carlin after a week of living as my alter ego, “Carlin-that-everyone-wants-me-to-be”. Living Together is to me like that phone booth must have been to Clark Kent, I step inside and, suddenly, I am better than I could ever actually be.

Living together is an exceptional ministry of the Korean Anglican Church that serves the mentally handicapped. This philosophy of the organization is in its name, “Living Together”. The organization works on the belief that belonging to a community is a basic human need and a basic human right. Furthermore, they believe that this sense of community is only achieved when all members of the community have meaningful work and are able to contribute to the community.

This philosophy of building a community, teaching a man to fish rather than giving a man a fish, is accomplished in several ways. First of all, everyone in the community is referred to as  “friend” or “chinggo” in Korea. Everyone, staff, cook, the mentally disabled, priests, and myself, everyone, as soon as they enter the building, is a friend. There is no distinction between those giving and those receiving. Everyone shares with one another. This is made possible by providing meaningful work for everyone to do. The organization supports itself through the work of the friends. This has come in the shape of a fully equipped woodshop, where the friends are taught and handle every step of production of items as small as their most popular holding crosses all the way up to the furniture that is used in the center. These are then sold around the country for profit. Additionally, for the friends that are not interested in woodcraft, there are other jobs brought in by other organizations such as assembling parts or stuffing envelopes. Everyone manages to find a job that is satisfying. I personally have found the sealing of envelopes to be a most satisfying and relaxing job. It reminds me of rolling silverware when I worked as a waitress. Don’t know why, but I love it. And finally, the organization makes good on its promise to live together. There is housing for a number of the men who need more attention on the second floor of the building. There are also three group homes. These homes are in apartment buildings in several locations in Seoul. The friends have their own place to make a home. And they love to show them off. I have had the privilege of being invited to these homes for the at home Bible studies that happen once a week. It has been a long time since I have been welcomed into someone’s home with such hospitality and warmth.

For my part, I can’t do a whole lot because I don’t speak Korean. But I am there, every Wednesday, maybe to teach a song in English, but mostly to be a part of a community, to sit and listen and talk. And talk we do, about everything from the president of Korea, to wrestling, to Beyonce, to Legos, and the finer points of woodcraft. I am there to be a part of a community, which means I help with the work, with the clean up, just like all the friends. It is great to feel like I can do no wrong. Not because I don’t make mistakes, trust me, my friends are more than willing to point out when my work has been sub-par, but because it is a community of people who rely on another as much as they are relied upon. It reminds me of the camp game where everyone is in a group and you have to find a way for everyone to sit on another persons lap. I’ll save you the trouble if you weren’t a camp kid. The solution is that you make a circle and everyone has to sit down simultaneously supporting the person in front of them and relying on the person behind them for support. And frankly, both of these feel good. It feels good to me to have someone support me, to be happy to see me when I walk through the door. And it feels good to be able to support another person as well, simply by being actively present as myself. I think this is the balance of an ideal community, the kind of joy that can only be found by truly living together. 

Peace and Blessings, 


P.S. This blog post is without photos for liability reasons.