By Ashley Chang '23
February 27, 2022
Last semester, my grandmother’s husband passed away. Afterwards, my Dad flew over to LA, helped her pack a few suitcases, and came back with her all the way to Forest, Virginia. She moved into the guest room in my parents’ house, the only bedroom on the first floor, and she cooked so much kimchi they had to give the neighbors some. I was in college at the time, and my brother Taylor called me every Thursday from 4 to 5.
“It’s just weird, you know…” He’d leave off the rest of the words, as if I was supposed to finish these things.
“You don’t like the food?”
“No, I do. Actually, I like it a lot. I just—” He looked straight at me, glasses wriggling through the Discord screen. He straightened them as he sorted out his words. “I can’t speak Korean.”
He couldn’t tell her the food was delicious, at all.
Before Grandma filled the fridge with ojingeo and leftover tangsuyuk, my family used to go to Bedrock Community Church. It was located in Bedford Virginia, and it was the kind of place where the pastor used Eric Foreman grills in demonstration. They were like the USPS: through rain or snow. Some days, the roads were so covered I felt the snow sinking all the way into my boots. My shins started to soak. Still, they kept the 8AM service and only considered canceling the next few services, given the impending blizzard. Back when we still went to Bedrock, I scribbled notes during my visits home, listening to Pastor Jonge Tate give his spiel.
“Some people don’t come because they can’t find a good spot in the parking lot. Can you believe it??”
We started going to Lynchburg Korean Church after Grandma moved in. We took the television in the basement and relocated it into her bedroom. Early in the morning, she would start playing K-dramas about historical figures where the guys wore hats so big they would put Lincoln to shame.
“Is that Ashley??” When my Mom called me on Sunday nights, Grandma waved and said hi. She moved back to LA before I came home for break, but still I remember how she’d nod her head, hair flapping in unison, as Mom FaceTimed.
Taylor called after Grandma moved back home. He said she might be happier now. He kicked his soccer ball round and round my bedroom, which he’d converted into a practice gym, and I nodded. At her house, Grandma had a large tank her husband would refill every few weeks. I wondered how the fish were doing.
I went to the Korean Church with my family every week that I could during my 44-day-long winter vacation extravaganza. It was one of my favorite parts about this stay.
Both of my brothers wore the headsets they passed out by the door to the Korean Church. Andrew was a freshman coming home from college, and Taylor y’all have already met. The headsets were for people who didn’t have the same background in Korean, and they played off-sync taped-up recordings of an English translation to the sermon. I was surprised that the pastor had prepared so much. We watched every week as the same 4-6 kids in an assortment of grades ranging from preschool to fifth gathered on stage, singing songs about God or forming Goodwill-costumed nativity plays, all for the weekly Talent Show. One time Justin Kim, Andrew’s friend, went on stage and played “A Silent Night” on trombone. His face grew bright red. Afterwards, my Dad clapped Justin’s back in the parking lot. He said great job on the solo.
My first day at the Korean Church, the pastor made his announcements. And, as he did every week, he congratulated the new people dropping by.
“Today we have Tim Jun-Do-Sa’s daughter with us. Everyone, give it up!” Dad’s a professor at a local university, and he had many students attending the church. All of them, both international and not, put their hands together and clapped. The rest of the congregation joined in. Usually I get embarrassed or weirded out in these kinds of situations, but when I stood up, I didn’t.
After the sermon, the Korean Church gathered together to say grace and break bread. Usually, this came in the form of gathering in the shed behind the chapel and eating kim-chi, myukguk, and the occasional bit of cup ramen. Dad loved church lunch. He patted his belly and said we were saving money these days. There was one Sunday though, when all the minivans and Honda Accords left the parking lot right after the final benediction, driving over to Hibachi Japanese Buffet. During announcements, the pastor had said a generous (but anonymous) donor had given us all Hibachi Gift Cards for our lunch before Christmas.
At Hibachi, Dad made me sit with kids my age instead of with him, Mom, and the other professors. He wanted to talk about Crash Landing and Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha with them, making a bit of fun at Minari and drinking his hot water in peace. I sat at the table across from my parents’, and talked to Melody and Faith, kids I’d bumped into on occasion while churning through high school, and now I wondered if they remembered me like I remembered them.
“You’re Ashley, right?” Faith held out her arms for a hug and talked about her brother, Jonathan, how he got along and was all tight with Taylor. We ate various sushi and the occasional stir fry, and when Faith left midway through to go to her part-time job at Hallmark, I said “good-bye!” knowing that I would see her next week one more time. I talked to Melody about Wii Cooking Mama and having brothers, and when I asked my parents if we could go now, I think about that moment, and darn it, I just feel bad.
Why don’t we appreciate the people who care for us when they’re right there?
At home that winter, I drank Ginger Tea I mixed together using the massive jar the church gifted us for Christmas. The next week, I sat next to my parents as I listened to them talking to the cinematography professor about Squid Game, right after a sermon where the pastor had brought up Ojingeo Game. After finishing half my cup ramen, I walked over to where Melody sat and she said, “oh hi!” We talked about her grad school and the class she was taking with my Dad. What was he like when he was out and about, was he still nice? Apparently, yes. In some ways, I could barely remember what it was like before, back when I woke up at 10:15 to go to Bedrock, instead of 9:45 for the long drive.
Melody didn’t know Korean but said she kept coming here because it just felt so welcoming. She went to another church for Wednesday service, but kept coming here, just, you know—
“It feels like a community, doesn’t it?” I said.
In college, my friend Haley told me that one of her favorite verses is 1 Corinthian 16:14. “Do everything in love.” What an example. It took a few Sundays, but I soon realized I wouldn’t just miss home, but also here, the myukguk, talent shows, tomato-red faces glowing one more time. They do everything in love when they meet me, and it’s what sustains me, even now. That week, I told Melody I hoped her semester would go well. The next week, there was a crazy blizzard so service was canceled at the Korean Church. My family live-streamed Bedrock online and we gather on the couch at eleven sharp.
In the Korean Church, we wore masks and the pastor said he wished he could see our beautiful faces. Still, we had to wait till the right time. When Omicron got hard they started doing takeout meals instead of sit-downs, and my Mom called me and told me about it after I flew back and woke up in my gray-and-blue dorm.
It’s funny. Five years ago, my family moved from China all the way to Forest, Virginia. We’d spent the last eleven years doing mission work serving North Koreans living in Northeast China. A few weeks after we’d moved in, we dropped by the Korean Church, eating their cup ramen, splitting their chopsticks. It was Asian, but not quite in the way we were familiar. Afterwards, we agreed that maybe it wasn’t right for us.
When my Mom called me, we laughed about the Korean Church, smiling and talking about how we were so happy to find a place in Forest, Virginia. We sought Christ together, here.
These days, my brother plays soccer, and my Mom is an ESOL teacher who has also started giving GED lessons. During the last week of my vacation, Mom and I drove home from Liberty Station Steakhouse on the I-95, our stomachs full from my goodbye lunch. We passed by a zillion Bojangle’s on our way back, and Mom glued her eyes to the road. Neither of us terribly loved to drive.
“I just feel like we weren’t prepared for it before, you know?” Mom talked about the Korean Church and the last time we saw the old preacher. Two years ago, Dad had visited the Korean Church once more without us after the pastor got COVID and died. I don’t have anything to say about that, only that it’s horrible, and it’s what happened. When Grandma moved back in, my family went to the Korean Church seeking the community she missed in LA, and other things that were much harder to get back.
Grandma’s back in LA now. She goes to 5AM prayer services in the Korean Church in her neighborhood. When she drives, the traffic lights beam when the sun cannot.
Mom and I cruised down Enterprise Rd., enjoying one of our last few drives together before I flew back to college. The weather was sunny, but I don’t think that’s the reason why Mom smiled. She squeezed 10 and 2, fingers pressing in. “But now, we’re ready,” she said, and I thank God for our joy.
Illustration by Claire Lin '23