Lost in Snow Country

30 03 2010

Since this was my first winter with snow (which I actually love in small doses), a friend recommended the novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. Apparently he was the first Japanese author to win a Nobel Prize for literature. I finally got my hands on a copy, so here are my thoughts:

In middle school, I felt it was time to broaden my literary horizons. So I moved from Black Beauty to Shakespeare. Specifically, The Tempest. I barely understood the plot, let alone the nuances and background stories (although I had better luck with Dickens).

That’s pretty much how I feel about Kawabata. I sense a greatness throbbing beneath the plot, a genius at work in the world of words, but I’m missing it. I feel I must read it again… but that I must read other Japanese authors first so I’m better able to approach Kawabata. While reading, I am missing the cultural background, the assumptions and perspectives, and even the language of the original.

One thing I observed: The story is told in a series of snapshot moments. Spanning years, only a few days are spoken of. The passage of time is jerky, like the train that runs through the center of the novel: rushing recklessly forward, then screeching to a halt at a small rural station.

But the conversations are most elusive. I could blame the translator, but I suspect that the original is full of puns / plays on words / nuanced meaning. Having lived in Japan, I know how very sensitive Japanese culture is to words – it’s all about the way you phrase something, the tone used. So the conversations in the novel leave me frustrated, almost as though they remained in Japanese… dense and impenetrable.

I have thoughts on certain devices used in the novel, but it’s like a child commenting on adult lives. Sometimes insightful, but mostly ignorant. Still, I’ve been a master of words for such a long time, it was disorienting to feel lost. But it made me remember what used to drive me forward. It’s good to be reminded of how much we don’t know, to remember the thrill of discovery and the passions of youth that have mellowed with time and experience.


Found the Stacks!

23 03 2010

I work at a top university and yet, I’m surprised to discover a library. This week, after 6 months here, I ventured into the depths, or rather heights, of the SNU library. Wonder of wonder! Books! The best part? They’re about 30-50% English (at least in the fields I’m interested in).  I was most impressed to find a basic selection of theological books, so much so, that I proceeded to check out more than I can possibly read in the next month (including Tillich’s Systematic Theology – since when am I interested in pure systematics? And can we all say, “Nerd!”)

Well, this blog was intended to motivate me to keep up with my studies, by being more of an academic pursuit. While that’s clearly not the case, I’ll be doing short summaries & analyses of whatever I do manage to read.

There’s not going to be any order to what I read, just the whim of fancy. I also don’t promise to finish any of the books… so you may get nice summaries of the first half of a book. If I’d been doing that the past few months, there would have been a lot more posts.

The first book I’ll be reading: Christianity in Asia: 1500-1900. I’ll only be reading sections I’m interested in, mainly Japan & Korea, and likely China.  I’ll post on those sections later. But for the moment, I’d like to introduce the author:

Samuel Moffett. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because his father was one of the main missionaries to Korea and bore the same name. Moffett Sr. entered Pyongyang in 1890 as a Presbyterian missionary. He was responsible for founding the first seminary in Korea, and a great moving force in the Korea Christianity. Moffett Jr. was born in Korea, then ended up serving 25 yrs there himself. In other words, the history of Christianity in Korea is inextricably linked to the Moffett family.

After his own 25 yrs on the field, Moffett Jr. returned to the US and became a professor at Princeton. Now he’s in his 90’s (b. 1916). He’s still working on finishing the third and final volume of his The History of Christianity in Asia. I pray he completes this task.

Some Teenage Wisdom

20 03 2010

As a teenager, I came up with my motto for life: No regrets. Now, that’s not so unique, but I went further. I named two corollaries. Or rather, two applications of this rule.

First, the past. Whatever has happened is in the past. It’s over. Sure, we’ve got to live with it. But there’s no point crying over spilled milk. You just get a rag and clean it up. Particularly in my life, this meant there was no point being angry about a screwed up childhood. Others made their choices and I have to live with it. But I’m not going to regret it.

But then this also applied to the present and future. I’m eighteen and I’ve got a life to live before me. Choices to make. Life choices. “I don’t want to stand with the setting sun and hate myself for the things that I’ve done.” So I won’t. I’ll make my choices with care and consideration. If I do this tonight, will I regret it tomorrow? Yes. Then I’m not doing it. Simple as that.*

At least, it all seemed that simple. No regrets. Move forward. Look forward. Watch where you step along the way and keep moving.

Those steps led me to God. Then there was a whole world of other mottos: Love God. Love others. Serve God. Keep the Sabbath. Meditate on the word. Ask everything of God. Be humble. Be gracious. Loving. Kind. Honest.

Frankly, I forgot about the “No regrets” rule. There were too many other things to worry about. But now, as I’m hitting 30 this year, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting.

And you know what? I think “no regrets” pretty well sums up where I am in life. And I’d say that’s pretty biblical.

*Yeah, I’ll make some mistakes along the way, but then it falls under the first corollary.

Cleaning Traffic Cones

18 03 2010

Saw something odd the other day: A man was cleaning the traffic cones with a high pressure water spray. In Korea, these traffic cones are permanently installed everywhere to prevent U-turns. They’re thin and tall, with reflectors on top. Pretty nondescript really. As I approached, I wondered, why? I mean, I can see them, they’re stopping people from U-turns, I’d say they’re doing their jobs. Besides, no one walks there or touches them, and they can’t really be that dirty.

Then I pulled up alongside and waited for a red light. I watched as the man moved the hose up and down in long sweeps to cover the side, then slowly walked around to get all angles. The water streaming down was black as ash, looked like he was washing away a layer of charcoal graffiti. 

Ok, so they were really dirty. They sure didn’t look it all lined up together. But it was only later that night, when I was returning home, that I understood. 

See, there were two long rows, but he’d only done one side. In the dark, suddenly I could see. The washed cones were bright and clear, while the dark ones were … dark. Sure, I could see them, but they might as well have been trees compared to the glowing reflectors of the others. 

In between the washing and the night-time observations, I heard a sermon on holiness. As Christians, we’re supposed to be traffic cones. But so often, living in the dirt of this world, we get a coating of filth over us. It’s not so noticeable – it builds up gradually and all of us are covered in the same soot, like the matching cones in a row. And, at some level, we’re still standing out and doing our jobs. 

See, the dirty cone stands out compared to the trees and poles. But the effectiveness of the dirty cone is nothing compare to the effectiveness it could have.  The cleaned cones reflect the light more truly, more brightly. So, I guess we’re supposed to pursue holiness.

Restless and content

15 03 2010

A friend IM’ed to say she’d gotten into Harvard’s MA program. An old student got into Harvard for u-grad. A seminary classmate was accepted for PhD studies in my field. All in all, it’s the season for those acceptance letters to arrive.

And I miss it. There’s some part of me that feels I’m missing out. But strangely, I’ve never felt that way before. I never really noticed the “acceptance letter” season before. I never felt left out.

This season is hitting right when I’ve been feeling the need to learn again. In particular, the need to be an expert in something. It sounds pretentious, perhaps. But so often, I feel out of my element even when discussing things I know. I want to delve into a subject, read the experts, know enough to have something worth saying on it.

I’m restless. I’m excited about the possibilities, I’m longing for the day when I can go on with my studies.

But I’m not anxious for it. This is a blessed time of peace and tranquility, and I’m grateful for it. My time in Korea is just that, a rest. It’ll help me be prepared for whatever comes next. So, yeah, I look forward to something, but I’m content to let it come in its time, in God’s time. When it does come, I’ll be more than ready for it. And I think that’s exactly how waiting ought to be: there are moments of yearning for what comes next, but mostly joy in the present.

What’s in a ring?

10 03 2010

Just found my class ring. These clumpy rings mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. The best years of their life. A time when they thought being on the swim team was their greatest success. For some, it’s the awkward reminder of the geek in band. A first love. A petty fight. Friends and growing up.

Not mine. High school was a bleak time with a few bright spots. But mostly it was a time of tears. Not the tears of a broken teenage heart. The tears of a broken soul in the night. Tears of hopelessness and homelessness. These are the tears shed in silence. In darkness. In solitude.

But the ring… that was pure defiance. I was forbidden from purchasing it, so I got a secret job and did. It was an extreme act of self-definition, of independence. I didn’t know it at the time, but the message I was trying to send was this:

“I’m not a bad kid. I want simple things. I want normal things. And I’m willing to do what it takes to get them myself, because I know no one’s handing them to me. So, lay off. Back off. Keep your distance if you’re not going to help me. Because I’m not a bad kid. The things I want aren’t bad things. I want a class ring. I want to graduate high school. I want to go to college. So stay out of my way, because I’m doing it. With or without you.”

Just a few months after this, I finally moved out of the house: A teenage run-away for all the right reasons.

Now, I know this blog is supposed to be about God. About the academics of faith. But you see, I don’t come from ivory towers. I wasn’t born to this life I live. I wasn’t raised to this faith I profess.

I’m not the same person that bought that ring. But if I’d never been that person, I would never be who I am today. The anger and defiance, the yearning for something more – those drove me on. And that, that was God. That’s my theology.

More than ten years have passed since I bought a ring. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be putting it on again.