Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Crossing Cultures

Who would have guessed that moving to Tanzania and back again was only the beginning of my international life?
In the Amsterdam airport, on my way to Kenya for the first time, in college, 2005
Chacos on my feet, camera in my backpack... I was off to capture the world (and learn a ton along the way!)
I never. Ever. EVER planned on or even conceived of meeting and marrying a Korean. Ever. Especially after living and teaching Kids from around the world in East Africa for four years! But God has a sense of timing, wisdom, and humour that I have yet to figure out.

And so, while I was once worried about coming back to the States and to no one who could understand my weird Christian world-perspective or grieve and rejoice with me about events around the world, I've found my life to be anything but. And while cross-cultural marriage has its challenges (much less than expected, to be honest, in the case of these two crazy world-travelers!!!), the perks of joining with another international for life, and of having an incredible multicultural community in part because of it, makes my life richer and more thankful. Who knew I would have the chance with my husband to touch and shine light in the lives of people from every continent* around the world without setting foot outside of good ol' Dutchland, West Michigan?

I get to tutor kids from overseas and whose parents are internationals. I think missionary and third culture kids are some of the coolest kids out there. We're surrounded by cross-cultural marriages in our church and at our dinner table. 

Who would have guessed our wedding party would have people representing every continent* without even realizing?

Our wedding 'guestmap' :)
And then there are the (completely regular) days when I sit at our dinner table as the only "American," among a Korean, a French man, and an Egyptian straight in from overseas. Or with a Korean, Bulgarian, a Nepelese man, and a Malaysian. 

Notice the continuing Korean theme? Yep, this guy's pretty much my favorite. :)

Picture taken by Samara, budding photographer, age 10.
I've tried more new foods since returning from the Land of Tanz than I did while there. I know what celebratory Chinese New Moon cakes taste like, what traditional red bean tteok treats look like for Korean thanksgiving, and that Bulgarians make the best cheesy bread and salad on the planet. I know that Malaysia knows how to make some seriously cute wall-hangings of monkeys for the upcoming Chinese New Year's "Year of the Monkey," that Koreans say "Kimchi!" instead of "Cheese!" when taking pictures, and that little girls from Bulgaria, Iran, Mexico, Uganda, and Australia all equally love to sing the "Let it go" song with the same exuberant gusto and sweeping elaborate gestures as their American counterparts.

There are the days when I connect with dear-to-my-heart missionary friends from the Land of Tanz and my heat aches for the people I got to serve with there. I still want my kids to grow up overseas, if even for a short time, and I wish the country we live in wasn't so bent on individualism that we'd get excited for a neighbor willing to trade ingredients and share household items when needed.

But I have no doubt that this is where I'm supposed to be. That God's crazy, out-of-this-world plans were established for me long long ago, and that they are better than I could ever have imagined. And so we set out on our knees with prayers for wisdom, grace for ourselves and each other, and a lot of thankfulness each day as we cross cultures in our home and beyond... and know that none of these opportunities, connections, or relationships would be possible without Him.

*(minus Antarctica, of course!)

It's a Miracle!

Or is it just answered prayer?

I think sometimes God just likes to show off. It seems like I've had a lot of prayers being answered in big ways recently, and I'm a bit in awe of how He chooses to use His little, fallible child.

Do you ever, like me, get surprised when God answers your prayers?

Maybe I just lack faith. And sometimes, I struggle with that whole "pray continually" thing. (Ok, make that usually!) But then there are times that I actually put into practice what He commands... And He always, always blows me away.

You'd think I'd learn, right? Apparently, I'm a slow learner. But in those times when I pray fervently and seek God, He answers. Not always right away. I'm still waiting for prayers for healing for my horrible allergies... I DID wait 10 years after college before meeting the man I'd marry, and then there were those many weeks where our house kept getting broken into over and over in Tanzania when it seemed like prayer wasn't working. Or the time I prayed and prayed and funds didn't come in to go back to Tanzania for an extra. 3. Long. Months.

Except, looking back? It was during those 3 months that I had sinus surgery which helped relieve my allergies. God opened my eyes to the possibility of coming back to America to stay and serve here. Oh, and I also met my now husband.

Maybe it wasn't so bad after all?

But back to prayer. There's a verse in acts which always makes me laugh a little, about how God was doing extraordinary miracles through Paul. Which begs the question, were ordinary miracles so common that these particular instances had to be differentiated out?

And then I wonder... What distinguishes a "miracle" from "answered prayer," anyway?

Is it the longing behind it? The pervasiveness of our prayers, the seriousness of the issue, the delayed gratification of waiting and hoping?

The presence of God in the seemingly impossible situation?

And isn't that our every day? Our need for grace in every moment, the breath we have been given to breathe, the provision of a kind word when we most need it or patience to give that to others?

Regardless, it seems like what God says works*. And hopefully, this time, the lesson will stick...

*Surprise surprise, right?!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


I’m always amazed at what I take for granted… until I don’t have it.

In Tanzania, it was often electricity. Hot water (for a shower). Or clean water, even (the kind you’d be willing to use for a shower, not the kind you’d actually drink).
Picture from: Lyndy Henrickson

While I’m still amazed at the ability to get hot, clean (drinkable even!) water out of our shower faucet, and doubt I’ll take that for granted any time soon… most recently, I’ve been even reminded of some even more basic elements of life we take for granted.

Over Christmas, I got a stomach bug – the kind that won’t even let you drink a few sips of water without quickly ejecting them. I was beyond thirsty (although the kind nurse at urgent care didn’t think I was dehydrated, thanks to ever great-looking veins), and was at the desperate point of wanting to quench my thirst. I meditated on the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) in a very real way, and understood the desire (in some small way) to get a single drop of water from someone’s finger into my mouth to help appease my need for fluid. So I got creative. If I couldn’t actually DRINK the water, I could at least put it in my mouth, right? Enter scene left: me standing in the bathroom pouring water into my mouth, holding it, spitting it out, and starting over again. It wasn’t quite relief, but it was certainly a good start until the anti-nausea meds kicked in and I could keep something down!

More recently (this week, in fact), a cold coupled with teaching Sunday School brought me to the point not just a head-cold, but no voice. While I’ve had students choose to “lose” the use of their voice – or leg – or arms – during Special Needs day in my classroom at school (to understand a tiny bit of what having a disability feels like - often with humorous and thought-provoking results), I don’t think I’ve actually ever lost my own voice to the point of a whisper.
And wow, has it been humbling. When handing off a package to a friend, I couldn’t properly (in my mind) explain why it had taken longer than expected to get them what they needed. And although I’m by nature a listener, I’ve realized in the last few days just how much I try to defend myself through words when I feel I’ve been wronged or judged… often with my husband (who is, in all reality, just trying to be helpful and loving). But when even whispering requires extra effort, and I have to choose between defending myself or sharing my thoughts on something else a little later? Suddenly priorities kick in and I’m just thankful for the few words I might be able to share about my day.

And so, in good ol’ Holland, MI, I’m reminded yet again in ways I didn’t expect of how to be thankful for what I have. Whether electricity, heat in our home, or a voice to ask questions over my ever-working smartphone… I am more than grateful for what I’ve been given. Especially for the people around me who love on and care for me even when I’m not as thankful as I should be!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Great FRIENDS and PHOTOGRAPHY... a win-win weekend for the Chungs!

Due to some unexpected opportunities to experience the stomach bug over Christmas, SM and I didn’t get to go to Texas to visit some dear friends of mine as we had planned. Thankfully tickets are much cheaper in January, and MLK day gave us an extra day to spend with them! So we hopped on a plane last Saturday and headed to (slightly) warmer weather, sunshine, and lots of smiles!

This family “adopted” me over furlough and gave me a “home away from home” when I needed it on those long months of masters classes, Partnership Development, and seemingly closed doors. I got to watch their girls when their youngest was born, and take pictures in the hospital. They welcomed me into their lives, and stepped past any unforeseen barriers into mine in a way I very much needed. They celebrated the joys and mourned the hardships that came along the way. They celebrated my last masters class (of the semester) being finished and walked around – and around – the neighborhood with me as I processed my desires to teach missionary kids, to connect kids in America with those around the world, and to be married someday.

When I finally made it back to Tanzania, and they realized I no longer had access to an English-speaking church, they started worshipping with me over Skype most Sundays (after church for them, Sunday evenings for me) and praying over me over the miles. I could say, “things are going alright,” and they would say, “So by ‘alright’ you mean that you're not sick at the moment, but half the parents are... that the students are driving you a bit nuts as you come up on Christmas... that you're wishing for some cool rain to make it feel like the holidays... that things are hard but you are making it through?" Yep, pretty much. They read between the lines and got it.
Screenshot of Skype Worship...
SM got to meet them before they moved down to Texas last year, and Joy was in our wedding. But it was high time for SM to actually get to KNOW this family that I adored so much (and talked about even more). Besides, who doesn’t want to take a trip to Texas in the middle of sub-freezing January temperatures in Michigan?

So off we went. We got to spend time with their four girls and I got to remember again just how amazing SM is with kids. He played games with them non-stop! We also went hiking/bouldering one day and saw some of the beautiful countryside in a local state park. And I enjoyed not only being “Aunt Crystal” once again with girls that love me, and a sister to a couple who exemplify Christ beyond their knowledge to all those around them… but also loved spending time taking pictures of the adorable cuteness of their kids as long as they would let me (which, by the way, was a LOT!). Here are just a couple of the pictures I captured along our trip.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

New Traditions

When we talked about how to spend our first official married Christmas together, this isn’t quite what I imagined.

We talked about what traditions we’d want to start. (Ok, I talked about it. He asked for examples, since he’s basically been on his own for ages). I mentioned how I would love to spend the week before Christmas with people doing fun Christmas-y things, like making cookies with friends or watching Christmas movies together.

Which we did. We had lots of time for movies, more than I expected. And a Christmas cookie extravaganza with girls did happen, on the one day I was feeling 100%.

But spending this week-before-Christmas switching between bed and couch, trying to keep down liquids, wasn’t quite what I had in mind. (For the record, I was only sick-sick Sunday, then after a "normal" day Monday, ate something that disagreed with both SM and I, that put me back in sick mode and him in "discomfort" for the next few days. Blah!)

And no, I’m pretty sure I’m not pregnant. Though for the first time in my life, it is a bit strange to realize that the possibility is actually real. More-so, of course, than the virgin-birth Mary variety.

And so we began our first Christmas together with sickness. SM pointed out today that last year around this time, I was heading out to dinner with his friends while he stayed home on his couch sick with a flu/cold… and this year he’s headed to the candlelight Christmas Eve service where we were supposed to meet friends, while I stay home on his (now "our”) couch and munch more toast.

Let’s just hope this isn’t a tradition we’ll keep!

Despite some unplanned events of the past week, however, we have both learned a lot. This is the first time either of us have been sick since we got married in August, and I’ve gotten to see a side of my husband that I “knew” was there but hadn’t yet really experienced.

The seriously caring, tender side that takes really really good care of me when I’m sick.

Ok, call it newly-wed-ism. Maybe it won’t last, just like everyone seems to say. But all in all, I married a really good guy.

A guy who hasn't just learned the importance of Christmas movies and that Elf is actually pretty amusing, but also one who got to experience someone else miserably throwing up and not keeping anything down including water for the first time ever just days before Christmas Eve. Who learned about the Urgent Care system and even got to navigate picking up his first-ever prescription on his own, all in one day. Who has figured out the BRAT diet and learned that sprite, crackers, toast, and ginger ale are all really really good things to have around. (Poor guy never gets sick! I -ahem- feel so bad for him. ;)

All in all, as I lay here typing, listening to a made-for-TV Christmas special streaming down from the apartment above, looking at a Christmas tree filled with lights and memories of Christmases around the world, with gladness in my heart for the amazing people God has surrounded me with over the years and for His unfailing presence and love... and when I think of the reason we’re here doing any of these things at all… I remember that the first Christmas probably didn’t go quite as expected, either.

No room in an inn.

No women to surround her... only an unexperienced husband pushing past cultural norms to be there for her when she needed him most.

No place for Mary to lay her newborn, except a dirty feeding trough.

Definitely no privacy, no glamour for the virgin-birth mother, just lots of unknowns of what God might be doing and trying their best to be available and be faithful in hard circumstances.

And I remember that Christmas this year, in a comfortable home with doctors and food and clean blankets and clothing and controllable warmth - despite a few hiccups - is actually going pretty well...

Christmas Traditions

My husband, poor guy, is slowly but surely learning the importance of celebrating the Christmas season. Don’t get me wrong - he knows the importance of the season! But having lived as a bachelor for so many years on his own, he never got to experience the importance of traditions that (I think) make it even more special and memorable along the way.

Last year, when we were still just dating, and I was preparing to make the third of 5 moves in a year from one house to another, I lamented about not being able to decorate for Christmas. SM offered his place, at which point I was both ever-grateful for the offer and shocked he had never had a Christmas tree since coming to Holland (Michigan). How could that be?! Lucky for me, my new roommate asked me to come early to help decorate my new house with her tree, and I used my own small Christmas tree from years past to decorate with the man I would later marry.

It was fun. He loved having the ambiance of a tree, and his parents were more than impressed at this girl who brought Christmas cheer to his life, apparently. :)

Come this year, after navigating Thanksgiving across Indiana together, we’re now moving into the Christmas season as a married couple for the first time. I’m so thankful to be living in ONE PLACE for awhile ;) and to be establishing traditions together. What SM didn’t know, though, was the importance of said traditions. Putting up a Christmas tree? Yes. Candles? He’s learning ;). Christmas movies? This is a brand new thing.

I used to love watching Christmas movies on TV while making Christmas cookies at my parent’s house. Early in college, I decided to make this a tradition, and set out to acquire copies of my favorites. I didn’t realize at the time just how important this would be for my soon-to-be transient lifestyle, but I am forever thankful I did. Because Christmas. Became Christmas. When White Christmas, Elf, and Miracle on 34th Street hit the (laptop) screen. Later The Nativity Story got added to the mix, and housemates insisted on Home Alone’s presence in the lineup. In climates where Christmas falls in the hottest season of the year, and temps flux between 80 and 100 with 98% humidity and full sun, it was helpful to have little things in place that helped make the season feel a little more like, well, the holidays. We’d do things like make snowflakes out of A4 (printer) paper to put on the windows while eating fresh pineapple from the duka down the street, and watch the year-before’s downloaded Thanksgiving parade on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as we feasted on the biggest chicken we could find (since we didn’t have the day off). Or turn on the air conditioning full blast (though it didn’t really do much!) while watching white Christmas and let ourselves pretend we were in a place where things were “normal.”

But SM, poor guy, didn’t quite understand this before now. So when I mentioned watching some of the Christmas movies that we watched together last year AGAIN, just 12 months later… he was confused. “But we just watched that last year? You mean you watch them ALL EVERY year?”

Yep! I sure do!

Because when you live in places where it doesn’t “feel” like Christmas, such traditions become important.

Later, my favorite person, as he slowly accepted and adjusted to this idea of watching Christmas movies EVERY.Single.year. asked a few insightful questions.

1. Do any of the “traditional” Christmas movies have anyone of color in them?
Hmm. Ouch. Well, no. Unless you count the cook in Miracle on 34th Street, everyone is pretty much just… white. As a cross-cultural missionary and now in a cross-cultural marriage… this makes me cringe. They’ll still get watched every year… but my eyes have definitely been opened!

2. Aren’t there any GUY Christmas movies?
Again… hmm. Neither of us are huge fans of Home Alone. And I’ve never actually seen the Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation... so I don’t know if that counts. We rewatched Elf this year and he’s apparently decided that it’s a great guy movie, but we could still use some more. Someone recently suggested that Star Wars #5 has a desert/snow scene so that might work. Any other suggestions? Anyone?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Korean Thanksgiving

Happy Korean Thanksgiving! 
(Ok, this is a bit late, since it was on September 27, 2015... but this week seemed like an appropriate time to finally put this up anyway!)

Life has gotten a bit crazy the past couple of weeks months, but that didn’t stop Sang Mark and I from celebrating a special (though new to me) holiday that’s a special part of his heritage – Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving! I had no idea that such a holiday existed, and it got me thinking how in our Korean-Canadian-American-(slightly East African) marriage, we’ll have a lot of thanksgivings to celebrate each fall! Korea, Canada, and America all have their own celebrations on their own days, with their own traditions. That’s a lot of opportunities to give thanks!

Since I am still on a crash-course to learning about Korean-everything, I was curious to learn more about this holiday. We went to Korean church here in Holland to celebrate the day, with an English-version service for all the outsiders who came to celebrate, and then joined a feast of Korean food afterwards.

Later I asked Sang Mark about his memories of Korean Thanksgiving growing up. He said that people usually travel from large cities to their hometowns to spend time with family on this day. Apparently the trip usually takes hours – not because the country is large, but because traffic congestion is so bad in Seoul. (Think of our American Thanksgiving weekend traffic, in a city with 10 million people!)

In Sang Mark’s family, his father had basically raised his 7 younger siblings after their parents died, so everyone came to their house for the holiday. The women (moms and aunts) came a couple of days early to help make the food with Sang Mark’s mom – kind of like how it works in Tanzania before a wedding! I guess it’s easier (and more fun) to make large quantities of good food with people you love, all in one place… instead of everyone making dishes separately and bringing them to a gathering later, as we often do here in the States.

Traditionally, Korean Thanksgiving was meant as a memorial and time of thanksgiving for their ancestors. Since Koreans traditionally believed that a person’s spirit doesn’t die when they die physically, but stays around to protect the descendants, they honored the ancestors (charye) and returned the favor by preparing special foods for them. Sang Mark’s father did insist that they bow down to give thanks to their grandparents who had already passed… but since the rest of the family were strong believers, they immediately turned to worshipping God after this.

I appreciated the way that the Korean pastor explained about this day. He said, “Traditionally, Koreans gave thanks only to our ancestors for the harvest. But as Christians, we give thanks only to God.”

Sang Mark says Thanksgiving was always super fun. He’d come home from school, and everyone was there – all his cousins and aunts and uncles. They ate a lot of food… no turkey, but lots of different kinds of meats like gulbi (a kind of pan-fried fish) and bulgogi (a kind of Korean BBQ using thinly sliced beef). They had lots of different kinds of soups, vegetables like cooked spinach, and a kind of “glass” noodle called japchae. They ate a lot of fruits too, like Asian pears, honey-crisp type apples, and gaum (persimmon). Chestnuts were a part of the day, as well as steamed rice cakes (or songpyeon). Some of these were made with sweetened red beans and honey inside, and some with brown sugar and sesame seeds. I find them a bit bland (then again, I tried a piece alongside a super-sweet Walmart-bought cake!) but SM (and most Koreans, of course) think they’re amazing.
Source: rasamalaysia.com
Source: BostonChildren'sMuseum.com
Much like my family Thanksgiving experiences, along with all the food were fun games to play with cousins. Sang Mark played Yutnori, which is a board game. “Yut” refers to the wooden sticks, and “nori” means game. In this game you throw four sticks into the air, and let them fall to the floor. Each stick has a front and back side, with dots. Depending on the combination of dots that you get, you advance like in monopoly.
Source: ReelAsian.com

With lots of yummy food, games, and time with family – I can imagine why any young boy would enjoy this holiday! We certainly enjoyed our own American version of Thanksgiving with fun family, food, and lots of travel this past weekend... especially as our first major holiday together since being married.