Originally, a fourth month in Seoul was not planned. But things happen, and they mess plans.
One of the reasons why I extended my time in Korea was because I got LASEK at the end of last year. LASEK is a less-invasive procedure than LASIK, but its recovery time is much longer. To comply with the doctor’s suggestion, I decided to stay at least until first month’s check-up, which was sometime mid-January.
The surgery was painless, not frightening but certainly unnerving. Though my eyes were numbed, I saw everything. During LASEK the machine lasers off a thin layer of cornea (this felt like I was looking at strobe lights at a night club or something). The most unsettling part was what the doctor did after lasering. He grabs a metal tool and scrapes off the lasered layer. Scrape, scrape, scrape. He then grabs what might be surgical grade auto-toothbrush to wipe off residual cornea flakes. Again, none of this pained my eye, but I saw everything.
At first I was scared that the surgery failed. I had slightly blurred vision for about two weeks, which the doctor forewarned. I was still scared. But like magic, every day my sight got clearer. I started to read signs 10, 20, 50, 100, then 500 feet away. One day on my way to my favorite coffee shop I almost had a holy moment after I read “불가마” (sauna) in the far distance. To this day I still can’t believe I’m not wearing contacts.
My cousins are amazing. Last time I was in Korea in 2018, first time in 15 years, I told them I wanted to go to Busan. They made it happened. This time I told them I wanted to go snowboarded. Again, they made it happened.
Come mid-January, shortly after my eye check-up, my sisters say they are coming to Korea: our 큰이모 (oldest aunt on mother’s side) is sick. For the first time in 23 years the three of us were in Korea together. We cramped into my tiny Airbnb. I showed them my foster neighborhood 낙성대 (Nakseongdae). We feasted on good food. We visited 큰이모 at the hospital; her cancer relapsed. We reconnected with cousins and aunts, my mom’s nieces and sisters. 큰이모 passed away short days after. We attended the funeral. We went to see where I spread a bit of mom’s ashes. We went back to our childhood apartment and ate delicious 한우 (“hanwoo” or Korean beef). We said our goodbyes. It was good, very good, to have them in Korea.
Seeing 큰이모 at the hospital brought back some unpleasant memories of mom, however. Like how similar mom looked like 큰이모 in that state, despite being 20 years younger. My 큰이모 was 76 when she passed; my mom was 57. I felt again the sharp grievance of her passing: she was so very young. I miss her.
Although a sad affair, attending a Korean Buddhist funeral was fascinating. Instead of fixed hours at some future date at a church or some place special, 큰이모’s funeral started within 24 hours of her passing and right on hospital grounds. Nowadays Korean hospitals have a separate building called 장례식장 (“jangraeshikjang”), or funeral hall, where the family of the deceased stay on-site up to three days to welcome guests and friends (used to be 5-7 days, but word spreads faster now). Guests are invited to bow in front of a photo of the deceased twice before turning to the host family to bow once (the count is important). Right across the memorial space is a dining hall to feed and entertain guests (some who might have come from afar or skipped meals to attend). Near midnight before the third day, family members (only) are led to see the deceased and say their final goodbyes. This was the most beautiful yet painful part that I was able to participate. We saw her and said first goodbyes before she was wrapped elegantly with gorgeous yellow linen. (보자기, “bojagi,” is the traditional Korean art of wrapping, and it is graceful.) The coffin hugged her body with flowers, and we said our final goodbyes by placing accenting red linen in the shape of petals. The final act, which I did not attend, is taking the body up for burial the following dawn. It was exhausting, physically and emotionally; it was special.
I messed up my visa for Vietnam, but it worked out for the better. So, I cancelled my flights and rerouted to Taipei, Taiwan. I love Taipei; what a gem of a city. I’ll share more in a future post with photos! Instead, enjoy these photos from my new favorite tea shop in Seoul.
This month was by far the hardest month in the Fellowship. I’m starting to feel the effects of being away from home more deeply. I’m not an adventurer or traveler, but here I am on this extraordinary 21st-century version of Robinson Crusoe—-but, you know, without castaway, cannibals, and captivity. I guess it’s more like Eat, Pray, Love, but mine is more Eat, Read, Take Photos.
No, I haven’t been praying. I think that’s one of the reasons why January, culminating on previous months of negligent prayers, was so difficult. I’m not convinced, however, that my lack of prayer has made God fled—-God is not that petty. Rather, it’s the opposite: my lack of prayer has barred God from touching me. And theology might have aided in setting these barriers.
I want to be careful here. I still believe that theology is a gratuitous endeavor, flowing with lush satisfaction. It is absolutely indispensable for the Christian life. So, theology in of itself does not hinder prayer or intimacy with God. It is a good, a very good thing. But humans are quite good at twisting good things.
The theologian goes awry when theology stops at knowing. At least, that’s what I figured happened to me. I’ve learned a lot of theology the past 10 years, and I know I’m better because of it. But my knowledge has kept me from that vulnerable act of opening up. I’ve mistaken of not exposing myself with God’s all-knowing, as if there’s no need to oust myself when God already knows.
Oh, Sooho, you foolish theologian. Where’s the intimacy? What then is prayer? Jesus says you can know a person by her fruits; Barth says you can know a theologian by her prayers. Theology can never replace prayer; prayer is part of theology and vice versa.
Another way to put it is simply this: theology illuminates, prayer sears; theology lights, prayer burns; theology shows, prayer makes.
May I continue in such manner: further in, further up.