Will scooped up another bunch of kimchi with his tongs and put it on the tray before passing it on to the person next to him scooping meat onto trays. He could see out of the corner of his eye the disapproving facial expression of Yu seonsaengnim (not real name), guessing that his kimchi scooping skills did not stand to muster on the four previous trays, just as the weeks before. Finally she came over and tried to explain again, of course, Will still can’t understand enough Korean and Yu seonsaengnim can’t speak enough English to make the nuance clear as to what exactly makes the perfect scoop of kimchi. She he still isn’t sure whether his scoops are too small or too big or too thin or too thick or too much of the limp outside of the cabbage or too much of the crunchy middle. Yu seonsaengnim picks up a scoop of kimchi onto another tray and indicates, probably, this was what it was supposed to look like. The trouble is, Will was pretty sure that scooped looked just like his last scoop. Not sure what else to do, Will gets as close as he can to the example scoop, and Yu seonsaengnim gives one last chuckle before moving the serving line on.
This exchange happens quite often for our YAVs in Korea as they volunteer at meal centers, similar to “soup kitchens” in the US, around our city of Daejeon. These encounters are wonderful opportunities for our YAVs to practice grace for themselves. Actually an entire YAV year is chock full of instances where our US YAVs are reminded that they don’t completely understand Korean culture or cannot complete a task to the same standards as Koreans. A year of constant failure can often leave a YAV questioning their self-worth, which makes grace even more pertinent. We explore what it means to hold on to our identities as beloved children of God alongside our tendency to make mistakes in another culture.
When Will arrived along with his fellow YAVs, we gave them a challenge in terms of adapting to this new Korean culture. Sherwood G. Lingenfelter in Ministering Cross-Culturally, writes about becoming a 150% person as we seek to live into a culture that is not our own. He compares this 150% person to the 200% person of Jesus, God incarnate, who was 100% God but also 100% human. Since we cannot reach the perfection of Jesus and someone born and raised into US culture can never become 100% Korean, we allow ourselves some grace and recognize that the most we might ever reach will be 75% of another culture. Then, as our new culture becomes more a part of us, we actually lose some of our original culture, thus ending up with maybe only 75% of our original culture remaining a part of us. We put that together to become a 150% person, after spending years becoming a part of our new culture. For YAVs like Will, even more grace is necessary as he will only stay in Korea for 11 months. In such a short time, most may only hope to reach a level around 25%!
In this context God’s grace manifests in the midst of our relationships to help them bear fruit despite our tendency to fail and make mistakes. In the same way God takes us imperfect human beings and brings fruit out of our limited effort, because God refuses to define us by our sin, or failures, or mistakes, and there is liberation in God’s refusal. Even when we fail, grace manifests when God persistently engages with us, believing in us as God’s own gifted and beloved children. This identity transcends our inability to fully adapt 100% to a new culture. So we try, we stumble, and we hold ever more tightly to God’s grace, to God’s faith in us as spirit-filled beings able to accomplish amazing feats as we gather strength through our relationships to each other and to God.
So Will may never fully understand exactly what makes up a perfect scoop of kimchi, and he may never be fluent in the Korean language, but he engages in the struggle of listening and looking for what his Korean partners are asking of him, picking up more of the language little by little so that he knows more than he did when he first arrived. He develops relationships with Koreans that will bear fruit as he carries them in his heart when he returns to the US this summer, so that he can no longer have conversations about Asia, can no longer vote, and can no longer participate in a global system without considering the effects his choices and life might have on the lives of the Koreans he has come to know by heart. This is the fruit we use to measure the worth of our experience here.
This fruit is what we mean when we talk about the purpose of YAVs coming to work alongside us in Korea. They are not here to help poor needy Koreans, and they often find themselves in situations where they are not “helpful.” An Australian Aboriginal activists group of Queensland, 1970’s, once said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
If you see that your liberation is bound up with ours, then I invite you to join us by offering financial donations, prayers, or anything else you are interested in sending. Together, alongside God, let us work for the salvation of this creation.