Monday, October 13, 2008

How I became a Filipino Presbyterian sports star

On Sunday morning, I went with Ray to his church's annual Family Day. (Ray's church has a service in English on Sunday afternoons.) I hoped to meet a few new friends, and I did, sorta. Nothing turned out as I expected, but it was worth it... it might turn out to be a very big deal in my life. Sad to say, if you want to learn more, you'll have to keep reading.

The buses that run to Samduk and downtown were unusually dilatory, and I was a little later than planned getting to the dorm, but still within operational parameters. However, Ray wasn't waiting out front, nor was he in his apartment. I dithered for a moment, then decided to walk to the subway to go back home, and there was Ray at Samduk Junction, waiting to cross the street. He had gone out to the main street near the dorm to wait, I had come in from the side street, and we probably missed each other by a minute when he gave up and decided to go alone. But, because the light was red, he was still on the corner when I got there.

We walked to the church; I thought we'd have a short service there (in English), then play some games. I also thought there would be many Americans I could schmooze with. When we got there, though, we had to walk a few more blocks and board a tour bus. To my surprise, other than Ray, Jonathan (more on him in a bit), and me, everybody on the packed bus was a Filipino. It turns out Jonathan and Ray are the only Western members of the church; everyone else is a Filipino, mostly farmhands and factory workers who have come to Korea to make some money to send back home. They all speak English to a degree; they go to the English service because there's no service in tagalog.

The greetings at the bus were effusive; there was clearly a lot of agape (love) there, and people welcomed me warmly. I have to say that I really miss having a nurturing spiritual community. But I won't go to church every week unless I can find one that comes close to my own beliefs... and the nearest possibility that I've found is a Unitarian group. That meets once a month. In somebody's living room. In Seoul.

Anyway, we took a pretty long drive east and north out of the city, on the road to Palongsang. We pulled up at a massive, new, expensive Christian school complex, with three schools covering everything up through high school. There were perhaps a thousand people packing the place: 920 Koreans, 40 Chinese (the church also has a Chinese-language service), 37 Filipinos, Ray, Jonathan, and me.

You know, a service can seem interminable when it's in Korean. The choir was excellent, and we had a handout with the highlights in English, but still. But the session was just beginning; after the hour-long service, there was another hour with groups and more groups of kids, and some adult ensembles, singing what I'm sure were Christian songs. Mostly they were about at the level of your nephew Phineas' second-grade assembly. But the penultimate act was a wonderful Chinese teen group with a male and a female lead singer, four backing boys and eight backing girls, and their harmonies were I'd-buy-a-ticket-to-see-a-concert good. The final act was a glee club of Korean church elders, and they were excellent, too.

Then we filed into the massive lunchroom to fill our metal trays with a variety of local food, then went outside to the big sports/playground area. (All of the playgrounds here seem to be hardpacked dirt.) The weather is still fall-gorgeous and there were tables set up with fruit, pizza, munchies and drinks. I was sorry at that point that I had just eaten lunch.

There were three teams organized: the Korean speakers, the Chinese speakers, and the English speakers. The first events were dodgeball for the girls and volleyball for the guys. Jonathan and I volunteered for the Anglophones. Jonathan ripped something in his calf during warmups and was in a great deal of pain. So when the game began, there were nine guys chattering in Chinese vs. eight guys chattering in tagalog and me. (It's quite a burden, being the athletic representative of the world's billion Caucasians.) (Come to think of it, I was also sole representative of the billions of people over 30.) I played till we were up 10-1, making several decent hits with no mistakes, and retired before I humiliated or crippled myself. I loved playing and got out while the getting was good.

I talked with Jonathan for quite a bit; he's a visiting professor at one of the local universities. Like Ray, he is right about my age, and he's a witty, interesting guy. (There were little packets of coffee crystals but no hot water, so he swallowed the coffee try and then drank some water to let it heat up internally.) We hit it off right away and I want to stay in touch with him, maybe go to dinner, that kind of thing. It's gospel (so to speak) in the Anglophone teaching community in Korea that teaching in a hagwon is the least rewarding level, public school is better, but university is the best of all.

Jonathan told me that with my credentials, I would certainly be qualified for a faculty position when the new school year starts in March. The university retirement plan is golden, and I instantly got excited about the prospect of teaching there. (This is where the part in the first paragraph-- if you can remember back that far-- about this outing's possibly being very important in my life-- comes in.) Me, a university instructor: many of my teaching friends have said I should be teaching in college anyway. And with a decent salary and a good retirement plan...

My ardor was cooled somewhat when he told me that the full professors rake in the bucks, but a beginning instructor teaching the younger kids whom the university also trains actually makes less than I do now. I don't know why he mentioned that grade level; that's not where my certification or experience lies. Maybe that's just what he knows. At any rate, my schmoozing skills are a little rusty after 54 years of disuse, and I never got around to asking him about college-level pay. I need to find out, and if it's good, I'm going to go for it full steam. This just might be a life changer for me. I know I came to this odd and fascinating place to be open to possibilities; here's one now.

Later, I got volunteered to be on the Filipino team for a "mystery" game. I knew this might be a mistake when they had everyone squat in lines to count the teams' members and I couldn't get within 18 inches of squatting as low as everyone else. When it turned out that the game was to bend at the waist while a child, supported by two adult helpers, walks across everyone's backs, then to continually scramble to the other end of the line until the rugrat walks all the way across the playground, I demurred.

Eventually, we all got on the bus, except for Jonathan, who got a minivan ride to the orthopedic hospital, and returned to town. Everyone on the bus received a Ziploc bag full of various sweets and munchies and a cute little gummy-bear-colored-and-textured clock with a big suction cup for sticking on the wall. One guy hadn't gotten a ticket, so he didn't get a clock; I gave him mine, as I have two rooms where I spend all my time and two clocks.

All in all, it was nice to be around so many warm, friendly people, to play volleyball (maybe for the last time; who knows?), and make a new, interesting friend. And just maybe it will turn into something very big.

Thank you for taking 90 minutes out of your day to read this. I love sharing my life here with my friends.

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