Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On Identity - Christianity (기독교)

This is part 1 of a series I wrote on my self-identity in Korea. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.

My thoughts are just going to be ramblings in this post, I expect, because it's been a long day and I just want to go to sleep. Taekwondo has left me sore in muscles I didn't know I had (anyone heard of hip adductors?), and I've done a lot of lesson planning the past few days, so I'm tired. 피곤해요 (pigonhaeyo)!

But I've been thinking a lot about identity lately, so -- you know me -- I want to write and share.

Aside from Korean language education and teacher training and practice, Fulbright also provides a host of "cultural workshops" for the ETAs in order to better acquaint us with the country in which we'll be living for one year. The workshops have been on a huge variety of topics, from the Korean education system (within whose constraints we must work), to eating etiquette, to volunteering opportunities, to the K-pop phenomenon. Most of them are lectures or discussions led by current and past ETAs who are simply sharing their experiences. And overall, they've been a mixed bag. Some are simply awful and feel like an unfortunate waste of two hours. Others are informative but boring, or interesting but useless. And then there's the magical workshop that's a combination of informative, engaging, and relevant. There haven't been too many of those.

Anyway, three of these cultural workshops I've attended have got my brain going on issues of identity in Korea. Specifically, issues of my identity (or identities) while I'm in Korea. They are: my identity as a Christian, my identity as a gay man, and my identity as a Taiwanese-American, or more generally as a non-Korean Asian.

(I've decided to write this post in installments, partly because I'm really tired right now and need to sleep, and partly because it's just way too long already. So... Part 1: Christianity. Part 2: Homosexuality. Part 3: Asian identity.)

Christianity in Korea
The workshop on Christianity in Korea was given by Stephen, this year's Program Coordinator. He shared a little bit about the history of Christianity in Korea, explaining that its roots don't go back that far (first Chinese Catholic priest arrived in 1795, first New Testament in 1882, etc.). At least, there have been missionaries in Korea longer than in Taiwan, which is my basis of comparison. Similarly to Taiwan, U.S. missionaries began arriving in the mid-nineteenth century, and with them came schools (Yonsei University) and hospitals (Severance Hospital), those positive aspects of Western influence. After the Korean War ended in 1953, many Christians fled the northern half of the country and resettled in the south. Today, about 33% of South Korea is Christian. Another third is Buddhist, and the last third is simply culturally Korean, which to me means vestiges of Confucian ethics tinting an otherwise atheistic worldview.

After the history review, Stephen went over what it's like to be a Christian ETA. He said that it was likely that our homestay family would be Christian and want us to come to church with them, which ordinarily I'd gladly do. Unfortunately, churches with English-speaking services are rare, only found in large urban areas. He did give us a directory of good (Protestant) churches in Seoul, Busan, and Daegu. But if we're not willing to make an hour-long weekly commute, weekly church in an intelligible language is going to be hard. For example, Anthony, who was an ETA this past year, was placed in a rural environment without a church to go to. He admitted that it was difficult keeping up his spiritual disciplines because of the isolation. But at least he had his network of Christian ETAs (for me this year, it'll be those who have been coming to our weekly Bible studies) to lean on when times got tough.

As for me, if I don't have access to a church whose services I understand and a tangible community that can help me grow, well, I'll be frank: my spiritual life is probably going to suffer for it. I'm not that strong. And when it comes to my relationship with God, it's not really at the point where just Him and me alone together works out perfectly. My whole life I've been surrounded by a Christian community in the places I've called home, but when I was away or abroad for months at a time without a church, well, I lost sight of myself. One of my more pinpoint-able worries before coming to Korea was that if I didn't get plugged into a Christian community, my spiritual life would go downhill.

Being spiritually alone while abroad can be a wonderful chance to challenge myself spiritually and see some growth. In the end, I can't always keep relying on others to maintain a relationship with God. But that doesn't mean I'm not anxious about the prospects of one year without a church.

Proverbs 3:5-6 comes to mind: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths." I'm going to remember this, and also that God is with me wherever I go, present wherever two or three gather, and I'll have faith that it's all going to be okay.


  1. Hey Andrew!

    Here in Japan, we have a JET Christian fellowship that hosts some retreats throughout the year and connects Christian JETs in certain areas of Japan so they can put together an online bible study using Skype. Doing Bible study by Skype is not as spiritually motivating as bible study with physical people and physical manuscripts, but it's better than nothing. I've gotten the chance to meet up with my Bible study friends in person more than a few times each year, and we even had a retreat in my town. Even though we've only met in person a couple of times, I still consider my Bible study friends my best friends here in Japan because of the stories we share with each other each week.

    See if you can't find other English-speaking Christians in Korea to do Bible study with, even if it means you have to do it by Skype and cannot meet up in person more than a few times. Of course, you are welcome to join our group too!


    1. Erik, thanks so much for the encouragement and advice! I can definitely see a Skype network happening with the ETAs in Korea. As long as someone is willing to organize it, of course...