Christmas Memories from Korea

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Despite recent (and ongoing) changes to the Mormon missionary program, the majority of those charged with traveling the world and evangelizing on behalf of the LDS Church are (and will likely remain for a good while yet) young white men from supportive Mormon families in the western United States. Being young, usually not very worldly-wise, usually not very experienced in dealing with foreign cultures or differing sensibilities, and usually carrying around with them expectations shaped by growing up in a family- and tradition-centered church, the Christmas holidays can be a rough time. Twenty-five years ago I was one of them, going through my second Christmas as a Mormon missionary in South Korea. My second Christmas in the country was better than my first. Why? Well, let me explain.

South Korea has more Christians than any other East Asian nation, but that still doesn’t make Christmas a major event there, or at least it didn’t back in 1988 and 1989. Some stores would put up decorations, and some families would have trees, but overwhelmingly the feeling was that of a borrowed holiday, something that was being embraced (when it was) for reasons that, however deeply felt, weren’t at all organic. (Though Christmas is actually a national holiday in South Korea, unlike any other Asian country.) Mormon wards and branches would, like other Christian churches, make mention of the day in talks and songs, but there was little, if any, real cultural spirit behind the celebrations, at least none that I–a 19 and 20-year-old pretentious-and-never-particularly-comfortable white kid from an overdose-on-Christmas upper-middle class family in the western United States (let me tell you about the time Dad brought home an 18ft. pine for our Christmas tree…)–could discern. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, which at least partially explains the way we American missionaries would go out of our way to create some kind of connection to the holiday (and here I’m speaking overwhelmingly of the elders; the sister missionaries, far more than us males, seemed to be able to integrate into the rhythms of Korean life, perhaps simply because they were such a minority, whereas amongst the male missionaries, Americans dominated).

In December 1988, my first Christmas in the country, that connection was seemingly furnished for us from above. The mission–like the country–was feeling pretty good, I suppose. The Seoul Olympics had been a great success (or at least the Koreans thought so). The country was a year into the presidency of Roh Tae Woo (노태우), and while there were protests aplenty (and would continue to be throughout my time there), the scandals of his presidency hadn’t happened yet. (For that matter, neither had the Tiananmen Massacre next door.) Back in those days–at least in our mission–we missionaries had to buy Books of Mormon to sell or give away in our proselyting, and the costs of a Korean mission being pretty high anyway, there was always a grumbling about money, and a great deal of rejoicing when news of some new generous subsidy being bestowed from the mission office, which happened, it must be said, not infrequently. It was in the midst of this that the news came forth: the Korea Seoul West Mission was going to throw a huge mission-wide American-syle Christmas party, at none other location than the 63 Building (육삼 빌딩), which was then the tallest building outside of North America. (As you can see, it kind of dominated Seoul’s skyline back then.)

It was a strange couple of days, rest assured. Missionaries gathered from all over; we crashed at each others’ apartments, and those elders and sisters who had been around for a while made plans for a mostly unsupervised day in Seoul, while we newbies (I’d only been in the country for a few months by then) listened in, intimidated and scandalized and envious. The party took place in the banquet room, where we were fed not just fine Korean fare, but oysters, fresh roast beef, salmon, and lobster. Missionaries wandered throughout the building, up to the observatory deck, trading war stories and jokes and (no doubt) outright lies. There was a talent show which got completely out of hand, with different groups of elders and sisters competing with each other to win prizes (a competition which got fierce enough that when one group of sisters, decked out in black ninja outfits, took to the stage to perform a rather impressive choreographed dance to some K-Pop hit of the day, another group of American elders rushed on to the stage and promptly broke out in all sorts of–in retrospect, rather pathetic–break dance moves, thus disrupting their act), all of which came to a rousing end with U2’s “Desire” blasting over the loudspeakers. (That was the choice of the American zone leader who’d somehow ended up in charge.) Truly, it was a bit crazy. I mean, there was an ice sculpture of the Korean Temple, for heaven’s sake. I have no idea how much the whole thing cost (the long-time financial secretary to the mission was released soon afterward and, though I was later companions with him, I never learned much about how the whole thing was pulled off), but it was a small touch of Reagan’s bull-market America, right there in Korea. I’ve often shared stories of this party with other missionaries, and when I think about how outrageous it all was, even I have a hard time believing it happened. Thank goodness I had my camera and, thus, hard evidence.

A week after than party I was transferred to Ansan (안산)–or “Banwol” as some of the older locals who had been shaped by the Japanese occupation more than four decades earlier still referred to it. Today Ansan is part of the greater Seoul megapolis, but a quarter-century ago it was coastal town whose connection to the big city was a single (admittedly busy) train route. There was a small Mormon branch there, which met in an upstairs office space, where we’d huddle around a single coal stove for protection from the cold winds coming off the sea that would pass through the thin walls and windows with ease. It was, for me, a lonely and dispiriting place to spend the holiday, made worse, I suppose, by my constant berating of myself for feeling that way. There was a genuine attempt to bring some Christmas spirit into our shared drab space that holiday, with a Christmas Eve social during which a group of Primary-aged children sang some songs and a short nativity was acted out. (Unfortunately, we American elders decided to contribute a skit to the evening’s entertainment which, while well-received, was characterized by some especially immature and, in retrospect, highly insensitive antics on our part. At least we didn’t get arrested, though.) But all those attempts, both by myself and by others, didn’t change my put-upon mood. All through the holiday, I found myself defiantly listening to my homemade cassette tape recording of the Osmond Christmas album (the original double album, the one with the solo number by Merrill which never made it on to either of the album’s cd releases) over and over again. The song I most associate with that Christmas, though, was a ridiculously maudlin cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas” by Lee Sun Hee (이선희), which I seemed to hear everywhere and which brought me to the brink of tears almost every time. (In the decades since, it has apparently become a bit of a seasonal K-Pop staple, though usually lacking of the aching earnestness of the 80s version.)

Christmas in 1989 was different, perhaps because I’d matured, and got some of the self-pity and self-aggrandizement (yes, those two emotions can go together) out of my system, or perhaps because the odd go-for-broke sentiment that characterized so much of my first year or so in the mission seemed to have dissipated. I still wasn’t at peace with missionary work (that actually wouldn’t come until many years after I came home), but I’d been assigned to a large ward in Suwon (수원), where I ended up spending the final year of my mission, something I am profoundly grateful for. There was a feeling of genuine community in that ward, or at least I could feel that the community was there, and draw some strength from that, outsider though I was.

The mission had another Christmas party, though this one was far less extravagant. Talent shows and silliness abounded, as always, but I think this time around there was less pretension, less of a “what can we get away with this time” sensibility, and more honest fun. A bunch of us got together, ostensibly to do a scene from The Pirates of Penzance, but actually singing Ray Stevens’s “The Pirate Song,” and it was a blast (given my general shamelessness I was chosen to play lead, and, unfortunately, I was still a rather immature and insensitive performer: I went out on that stage, and I was flaming.) Christmas Eve itself was spent at the home of generous, older American Mormon, a man who was a veritable Santa Claus/Father Confessor to lonely and struggling missionaries far from home, on Osan Air Base, Songtan Station, which was near Suwon. I spent much of the evening attempting to explain, in whatever level of ridiculous detail my broken Korean allowed, the plot and significance of “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original, being shown that night on the Armed Forces Korean Network!) to the lone Korean member of our party. The snow fell heavily that night as we took a late bus back to our apartment, and a reflective, simple song “또다시 크리스마스” (“Again Christmas”), from the second (and last, and not as good) album by the 80s K-Pop masters Deul Guk Hwa (들국화) was playing from an intercom outside a store near the bus stop. The brassy, yet humble tune and lyrics (“어디에나 소리 없이 사랑은 내리네”–“Love is falling everywhere without a sound”) fit my mood perfectly.

My favorite memory from that holiday season, 1989, was traveling with a large number of young people from our ward far outside out proselyting area–outside our mission boundaries, in fact, though I suspect no one remembered to inform the mission leadership, thank goodness–to climb Mt. Soyo (소요산), north of the city of Seoul. It was a huge event, planned for weeks and involving close to 30 people. It was bitterly cold day, enough to make one want to bail on the 4am start time, but in the end it was a trip filled with camaraderie and good humor. We packed in our meals and had a glorious cookout in near-freezing temperatures. We explored Buddhist shrines and talked about religion and nature and fate. We challenged each other–missionaries and Korean members alike–to rock climbing contests and snow ball fights. We missionaries swapped stories, sure, but I thought there was a little more openness, a little more receptivity, in what I heard–at least, I hope there was more of than in what came out of my mouth. We made it all the way to peak, and–as was (and I hope still is) typical of the Korean people–we sang songs and gave each one of ourselves a little bit of alone time. I had my Walkman with me, and a tape that I’d picked up at a music shop somewhere in Suwon, a tape which I still have today: a Korean production (hopefully legally obtained, but quite possibly not) of George Winston’s December. I can remember sitting near the top of the mountain, listening to his rendition of “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head” three or four times over. (Obviously, much of my pretension remained, but still: it was a wonderful moment, one which impressed upon me a sense of quiet majesty and grace and simplicity which I found beautiful. However much growing and maturing my mind and soul still needed and still had awaiting them in the months to come, that Christmas moment was one worth treasuring.)

I’ve not saved my missionary journal, not any of the letters I sent or received from my 22 months in South Korea. That’s a loss, I recognize, especially when it comes to writing down memories like these: there’s so much that I need to reconstruct, so many disconnected pieces of evidence–a photograph here, an odd note there–that’s it hard to avoid accepting that I might have all sorts of essentials wrong, or might be including the accidental inventions of two decades’ worth of oral story-telling in my account. But then honestly, just how distant is anyone’s memory from myth? I’d love to return to South Korea someday, and travel back to Ansan, and Suwon, and Mr. Soyo, and Osan Air Base, and see if there was anything I remembered, anything I could connect with. Maybe there would be; I’d love to believe that all the good things–the language, the friendships, the positive lessons–would come flooding back. But maybe they wouldn’t. And in which case…well, isn’t that what invented memorializations like holidays (like everything we manufacture and make our own, again and again, out of our own subjective acts of cultural retrieval and interpretation) are for? So that we can reconnect with ourselves, set apart and see those moments of foolishness and joy and despair and grace for what they are. I had many such moments in Korea. Some, clearly, were better than others. But still, this Christmas, I’m grateful for them all.


  1. Brad Brewer says:

    Thanks for the reflections of your Christmas on your mission. I was in the Busan, Korea 10 years earlier and find my mission memories very similar to yours. I too realize some of my youthful acts that didn’t reflect the actions of a “eye single to the mission” missionary. But know that #sharegoodness happened or we wouldn’t see the fruits of your labor in Korea. And some of my mountain top moments anchored me to the important things in life. 메리 크리스마스

  2. I served in Ansan and Suwon, granted many years after you did, and I’m fairly certain I climbed Mt. Soyo with my ward around new years, I’d have to check my journal to see if it was the same peak. Ansan does have a church building now and the Seoul skyline is quite a bit different. Christmas has caught on more in Korea as they have become more and more westernized. Thanks for this sharing your memories, it brought back fond memories of the Christmas parties I shared with my fellow missionaries and local ward members.

  3. That’s really nice, Russell. “At least we didn’t get arrested.” That’s about as high as praise gets for those out-of-control talent shows, which seem to thrive in many places, and which seem to me pretty clearly related to that otherwise morose state you mention–a release from it or something. An effort to get some attention when most people aren’t paying you any, I don’t know. I/We did some things just as unfathomable (now), some of which actually could have gotten us thrown into jail, come to think of it. Anyway, thanks for this.

  4. Brad,

    I was in the Busan, Korea 10 years earlier and find my mission memories very similar to yours.

    I was lucky enough to be able to visit Busan for a couple of days before I left for home in the summer of 1990; I wish I could have spent more time there, or could visit it again. The coastline looked beautiful.


    I served in Ansan and Suwon, granted many years after you did, and I’m fairly certain I climbed Mt. Soyo with my ward around new years, I’d have to check my journal to see if it was the same peak

    Wow–how fun it would be to find out if climbing Mt. Soyo was something of a Christmas/New Year’s tradition for the Suwon saints, and had been for decades! That would make my own memories of the event even more meaningful.

  5. I was in Pusan about 10 years before you. I remember being the only missionary who didn’t get a single Christmas present. My mission president had made sure that the Korean missionaries would get something. My family sent nothing. My nonmember step-father was an alcoholic and had drunk Christmas away. As it was, I was paying for my own mission. Thank goodness it was only $100 a month way back then.

  6. That you so much for this article. I served in Japan from 1981 to 1983 in the Fukuoka Mission. Coincidentally, my first Christmas party happened within a few weeks after I arrived. Fresh out of the super spiritual atmosphere of the MTC, I was not ready for my first companion to be trunky, one of the players and someone with no interest in working. The mission president himself had packed it in and was getting ready to go home. His tour ended maybe six months later, but he was coasting.

    The four of us elders in the apartment decided for our Christmas skit to mock the mission and Elder Kikuchi, the Japanese Regional Representative. My companion had been in the mission home and was friends with the MP, so he knew it would be cool. The plot was that Elder Kikuchi, a man who had found his calling as used car salesman for God, had declared no one could go home until our numbers were up. The setting was sixty years later when everyone was in their early 80s.

    Egged on by the other elders, I wrote a narrative in faux-King James / BoM style, including a line that “Behold, Elder Johnson (one of the more well-known players in the mission) did burn (our slang for being trunky) for all his years.” That line brought down the house as well as when I had Elder Kikuchi saying “Get thy ship together,” after a famous analogy of the whole ship being necessary.

    The mission president’s wife loved it so much she had me give the script to the mission home elders to type her a copy.

    Meanwhile, the mission was not doing well. Many elders down on Okinawa were making no pretense of work. This was at the tail end of the Kikuchi / Groburg era which saw 1,000 baptisms per month in the Tokyo South Mission. You can read about that whole mess here.

    Our mission was getting about a hundred per month and Elder Kikuchi came down and read us the riot act. This was the first time I ever felt that a general authority was clearly wrong. I was translating his harangue into Japanese for the native missionaries, and I simply lied about what he was saying.

    Halfway through my mission, Elder Kikuchi was fired, “reassigned” as they put it, and a replacement came from Salt Lake. He admitted that more than 90% of the people baptized in the previous five years were completely inactive. Our new assignment was to track them down and see if they wanted to simply pretend it never happened.

    I had undergone a faith crisis and the used-car salesman approach appalled me. Even before I went home, all the people we had dunked were inactive. I had not wanted to push them so quickly but was overruled by my senior companions.

    The idea of righting past wrongs invigorated me; I threw my heart into it, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I was much better at this task. I’m probably one of the few missionaries with a net negative number of baptisms.

    The good things I remember from my mission were little acts of spontaneous service I was able to do.

    I tried to talk to various priesthood leaders when I got home, only to be blown off. One bishop said asked if I hadn’t picked up “funny ideas” from the Orient.

    That experience changed how I perceived inspiration and I’m unable to resolve how people can can feel such certainty over small “miracles” where whole programs were rotten to the core.

  7. I currently live in Seoul and Christmas is still understated by US standards – though there are clear attempts by the commercial establishments to ratchet it up. As I understand it, Christmas here is considered primarily a couple as opposed to family thing. The best way to think about it is as a jollified Valentine’s Day.

    Russel, my work plans a little bit up in the air but assuming we are here another year or two, if you want a free place to stay sometime during summer (sorry not the nicest time) to come back and visit with the family or whatever, email me and we can make our apartment yours. It is just sitting here when we are back in the states. It would be our pleasure!

  8. Rah, that’s very generous of you! Unfortunately I don’t see how we could afford a trip like that anytime in the foreseeable future, but I suppose stranger things have happened. Thanks for the offer, and 즐거운 크리쓰마쓰 to you!

  9. Reminds me of my time in Seoul in the mid 90s. Thanks.

  10. Dave S. Says, Our mission was getting about a hundred per month and Elder Kikuchi came down and read us the riot act. This was the first time I ever felt that a general authority was clearly wrong.

    Elder John Lasater of the 70, later in the 1980s, must have been one of this ilk. He came to Italy Catania while I served as mission secretary, forbade us from doing the kinds of service work that are now standard missionary activities, and told us in a zone conference (and the last phrase is a direct quote), “If you don’t put everything you can into your mission, give it your all at all times, the Lord will never trust you again.”

    Like Russell, it took me years to make peace with that.

    Ah, Korea. The lovely Sister Hulme, whom I knew in the MTC, served there. A light-haired, slender 6-footer, she must have been a sunflower in the daisy patch among the Koreans. :)

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