Sabbatical 5

It was Monday, April 13. We had only been in Korea for five days but it felt like we already had a month or more of memories! And it wouldn’t stop. We checked out of our guesthouse in Gangnam, and took the train to Gimpo, an airport now geared for Korean domestic flights. We boarded a flight to Jeju Island, which some call, “the Hawaii of Korea.” This beautiful semi-tropical island, south of the Korean peninsula, is located in the Korea Strait that joins the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. It is somewhere between the Philippines to the south and Korea to the north, west of Japan and East of mainland China. It is a gem of a place and a popular resort famous for its food, beaches, volcanic mountains, spectacular scenery and hiking. Thanks to Daegyu, a wonderful young Korean friend we met in Vancouver last fall through Hyun Jin (Jini), we found some remarkably cheap flights, car rentals, and hotels. Indeed, we received even more Korean generosity as Hyun Jin’s family rented our car for us. Just amazing! We were again overwhelmed.  Many of you will remember Hyun Jin (not to be confused with Kyung Jin) who endeared herself to our church last year. Last December, near the end of her time with us, she spoke so effectively to our church on what it is like to be a second language foreigner in Canada, which greatly informed our discipleship as a church in reaching out to internationals.
After such a social week in Seoul, Jeju was more of a marital retreat and adventure for us with lots of exploring, hiking, people encounters and, of course, eating! Indeed, we had heard about the famous Korean barbequed black pork (heugdwaeji) on Jeju, so, upon arriving and settling into our hotel, we found the most exquisite Korean barbeque place nearby where black pork was their specialty. When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed and seated at a round table that had a barbeque and chimney apparatus extending downwards from the ceiling to the table, stopping just inches above the gas lit flame where our meal was to be cooked. Our server and host, whose English was quite good, entered into an animated “let’s get acquainted” conversation with us. We noticed that he was not in a big hurry to get on with the meal. Indeed, relationship, community, and even spirituality were all intertwined in what soon felt like a deeply sacred event. We felt ourselves slowing down.
It struck me how much food means to Koreans in a deeply spiritual way. They truly celebrate as a “food culture,” and, it makes sense. Less than sixty years ago, the nation was starving, eating food waste discarded by allied soldiers who had fought on their soil during the brutal Korean war which claimed over a million lives; some of those, Canadians who were buried there. Now, there is an abundance of food, but it is still not taken for granted. As such, there is a reverence for food, and a sacredness in eating. Our server at the Black Pork restaurant actually became our chef. While we watched, he prepared the barbequed pork in front of us while continuing to carry on an animated conversation with us. Then, along came an amazing array of side dishes including kimchi, rice, and special flavoured sauces. With the interaction between the server and the served, it felt like a harmonious blend of culinary delight, social connection at the heart of community, and spiritual encounter. What I observed was that in order to fully enter into this experience, we had to “slow down.”

Haenyeo – The Remarkable Women of Jeju
Another wonderful food experience on Jeju Island occurred for us when we visited the famous Korean Haenyeo divers. On our last full day, we drove our rental car to the opposite side of the island, about an hour away. The Haenyeo are female divers, most of whom are 50 years of age or older, who have made their living all their lives providing for their families by diving for exotic seafood. These women, almost like real life mermaids, without the aid of an oxygen tank, dive to depths of 20 metres (that’s right, 60 feet!) to catch seafood. We arrived in time for a scheduled demonstration of their skills. They first gathered together and, prior to their dive, they wrapped their arms around each other like a sorority, and sang one of their traditional Haenyeo songs, many of which were prayers invoking divine help for their catch. Then, they waded into the deep and disappeared into the sea for about 30 minutes after which they returned with an exotic catch of octopus, sea cucumber, clams, and abalone. One of the women waved a wriggling octopus (affectionately called moon-aw in Korean), in front of me and through gestures, asked me whether I would like to have it for lunch! I nodded, mindful that I would soon need to give an account to our Korean friends. She disappeared into a kitchen facility they had onsite and a few minutes later, returned with the same octopus all chopped up (and perhaps a little steamed, I couldn’t quite tell!) I was told that the real delicacy was eating the octopus while it was still wriggling as you swallowed it so you could feel it moving in your throat! I detected no movement as I ate it. Perhaps they had drugged it as an act of compassion for the poor white guy!
It actually turned out to be quite delicious, especially with all the Korean sauces, and particularly accompanied with Soju, a very strong and popular Korean beer. I have had it quite frequently since then (octopus, that is!), and even back here in Canada. I was so proud of Kathleen who was game to try anything as long as I tried it first. Being the great sport that she is, she tried some octopus with me, to the wonderment of many Chinese tourists who seemed very intrigued as they observed us merrily eating our moon-aw lunch together by the seaside as if we were native-born Koreans!  It was truly a shared experience, and great for our marriage!
We drove back to our hotel that day, physically tired, but feeling so enriched and happy. We felt like we had plunged deeply into the heart of another land, losing ourselves in its culture and ways, and in so doing, we had recovered some of our own humanity. It was another sweet way that the Father had poured his grace into us and restored our souls. This wild adventure into another world pulled us out of the ministry ruts such as the seemingly never-ending cycles of preparing for Sundays and then recovering from them. It drew us out of the orbit of wrestling with moral, theological, and ethical dilemmas, mediating relational disputes and conflicts, and putting out repeated relational or administrative fires. Of course, all of these are part of the life of a pastor, but due to significant emotional and spiritual weariness, what had normally been simple issues, were starting to feel life-threatening. Immersing ourselves in this completely different world, not as missionaries with an agenda or project in mind, but, simply as friends plumbing the nectar and drinking deeply of all that was beautiful about Korea, was just so replenishing.
As we drove back to the airport to catch our flight back to Gimpo, we savoured those amazing five days in this special place. While it wasn’t on the Korean peninsula (mainland), all of our homestay students had visited Jeju-Do during their childhood – either on a school trip, or on a family holiday – often both. It was part of their psyche, their memory, and their story as Koreans. Our next stop would be Jeonju, the home of a world famous rice and veggie dish called bibimbab, but, more importantly, it was the home city of most of our homestay students we had met in Canada. Now that we had experienced Jeju-Do, we had so many stories to tell them and experiences to share with them, adding to our sense of solidarity we felt with our wonderful Korean friends.
All over Jeju-Do, we noticed large billboards that said, “We love having you here.” All we could say in response was, “Thank you Jeju-Do, for you gave us the gift of slowing down and savouring life again.”

Wade Pallister