This story is from my first short story collection, Stories from the Creekbank.
I hadn’t thought about this story in years. It still touches me as I re-read it after all of these years.
Love is still love… in any language
Now where do I start in describing a passionate love affair I became involved in a few years ago. I didn’t plan for it to be exactly like this…
I didn’t plan to fall in love and have my heart stolen, by a group of thirteen South Korean young people. So let me start at the beginning as to how my life was so touched by this special group.
When a Korean‑American named James Kim first called concerning a camp for Koreans wanting to learn English, I was somewhat skeptical. We often hear from groups with grand ideas and many times these ideas never “take on flesh” and actually happen. And the idea of a group coming from Korea to the great metropolis of Dry Creek was pretty grand (and far‑fetched). But as the fall of 1996 rolled on, the ZOE (This means “real life”) English Camp began to take shape and become a reality. So on the night after Christmas 1996, I sat waiting anxiously for this group to arrive from Baton Rouge via Seoul and Detroit, Michigan. Another reason for my anxiety was the fear of never removing the strong smell of Korean food cooking in our kitchen as a group of their ladies cooked a welcoming meal. The strong odors of garlic, cooked seaweed, and “Kim Chi,” a fermented cabbage dish, greeted anyone entering. I thought to myself, “What have we got ourselves into for the next three weeks?”
Then they walked through the Dining Hall door. All much younger than I had imagined (ages 9–14). All looking tired and as if they were 12,000 miles from home. Few spoke any English save giving their names and a heavily accented “Hello.” They were all so quiet. Little did I know that this quietness and shyness would soon disappear!
The first couple of days were spent getting situated and recovering from jet lag. On their third day at camp we began touring Dry Creek. When we visited Harper and Morgan’s rodeo pens, their main interest was with the fire ant mounds. They gathered around a mound and cautiously poked it with a stick. As the fire ants came roaring out, the kids emitted a loud “Ahhh” (their favorite reaction to any event or startling statement.) I explained through “Tec,” one of their interpreters, about fire ants. I mentioned how newborn calves can be stung to death if laying in a fire ant bed. This brought great comment in Korean among the group. James Kim later told me that many wrote their parents stating, “In America, there are ants that will kill you.”
As we rode out into the field in their van, we were followed by the rodeo bulls. Ahead of us the cowboys in their truck led us out to the resident buffalo. You should have seen and heard the commotion from these city slickers, from a city of 10 million people, as they saw their first buffalo up close. One commented from the van (this was interpreted to me): “I feel like we are at Jurassic Park.”
Later we visited King’s dairy farm. Our guests got to feed calves with a bottle. But the main event was watching the milking of the cows. Mike King explained the process as he attached the milkers to each cow’s bag. As the milk gushed through the pipes to the accompanying sound of the milk machine, many comments went excitedly back and forth among our guests. My favorite one (interpreted to me) was, “I’ll never drink milk again as long as I live.”
From that Saturday on, they were no longer strangers but quickly becoming friends. Their shyness was quickly disappearing also. One of the oldest boys, Won Jun, whom we called Mark, asserted himself as the resident prankster and wit. (All of them went by English names they selected during their stay at Dry Creek.) Another young boy, whom I called “Bull,” quickly fit in at camp by getting a fine black eye from a swinging golf club. I watched his shiner closely hoping it disappeared before his mother saw it at the end of January. I am happy to report that Bull left Dry Creek minus his black eye.
All of their personalities continued to bloom. But of the ten boys and three girls, “Sarah” became our all-favorite. Sarah was a small frail eleven-year-old. She was by far the smallest of the group. She had a skin disorder that made her very shy and aloof from the other children. In addition, she ate so little that I feared for her health. But she also possessed a deep curiosity of everything and everyone around her. This curiosity and her winning smile won us all over. Sarah became very dear to all of us.
In spite of the language barrier, we all communicated fairly well. I learned that a smile is understood in any language. Sometimes if we were speaking to one of the young people with no adult to interpret, they would become confused. The Koreans adopted a very quick solution when they became confused by our English questioning. They simply said “Bye” and quickly turned and ran.
They were all amazed at American culture. When I asked one boy what amazed him most about America, he replied, “Wal-Mart.”
Each weekday the Koreans were busy with classes in English grammar and conversation at the White House. At 1:00 they were scheduled for lunch but never arrived on time. We jokingly called it “Korean time.” I began telling them the time of an event thirty minutes earlier than it was. In spite of this, they still arrived late.
So sometimes after 1:00 they would come streaming into the dining hall, books under their arms, laughing and talking. It hit me that they were really no different from American school kids.
Mealtimes were special with our friends. Their diet had been one of our major concerns, but they loved American food. You should have seen them wolfing down those corn dogs. They really enjoyed any dish with rice especially Mrs. Betty’s gumbo. One day Shelia Marquez cooked a wonderful Mexican lunch. They quickly showed us that their healthy appetites crossed all ethnic lines.
My favorite mealtime event was when they would sing their blessing. They sang it to the tune of the song “Adel Weiss” from The Sound of Music. After a verse in Korean they sang in English:
Thank you Lord for your love
And the blessings of this day
Thank you Lord for this meal
And I love you forever
Jesus I praise your name
with my heart, all my will, and all my soul.
Thank you Lord for your love.
Lord, I love you forever.
After lunch was our favorite time of the day—Activity time. Our camp staff prepared an activity or field trip for each afternoon. We had some fun! You’ve never enjoyed yourself until you show slides about Louisiana snakes to a group of Korean youngsters who speak little English! We did every type of activity imaginable—visiting a herd of wild elks, seeing emus, going to area farms, playing crazy games, shooting archery, and climbing the forestry fire tower. When our volunteer firemen brought the fire trucks to the camp for a demonstration, they were amazed, not at the red engine, but our two fire women, Doris and Kathy, dressed out in their gear. For the rest of their stay, they called Kathy “Firewoman.” In Korea, women are not allowed to be part of the fire department.
Another enjoyable trip was to Foreman’s Store across the street from the camp. When they entered the room where the Cajun boudin is made, they all held their noses the entire time. This amused me after I had earlier smelled their rotten cabbage dish! Another interesting trip was to East Beauregard School, where the Koreans were a big hit and especially “enjoyed” touring the school’s processing center/slaughterhouse.
Probably their favorite activity was shooting black powder rifles with Roger and Frank. They talked about it for days. In their eyes, Roger and Frank became even taller than they are (and that’s pretty tall) due to this event. They had seen enough American television that they looked at Roger as John Wayne and Frank as Matt Dillon.
On the weekends they would travel to either Baton Rouge or Leesville where they would stay in the homes of Korean Baptists in these communities. After their first weekend away, Yeongsu Baek, one of their leaders, announced exciting news. He shared that each of the thirteen had accepted Jesus as their personal Savior and been baptized that weekend at the Leesville Korean Baptist Church.
This was exciting news! But I honestly was a bit skeptical concerning whether each one had fully understood God’s plan of salvation. But as I observed and talked to them, it became very evident that a wonderful event had occurred in their lives—they had come to know the wonderful love of Jesus in their hearts!
After so much fun, learning, and building friendships, our days began to draw to a close. Our entire staff became filled with sadness as we anticipated our friends leaving on the last Saturday. At Dry Creek, we are used to groups leaving and we always miss them. But this case was so different‑ Our Korean friends had been with us for 24 days, and we knew that we would probably never see them again on this earth.
During their last week with us is when the famous ice storm of 1997 hit Southwest Louisiana. At Dry Creek we mainly received sleet and fortunately did not lose our electricity. The Korean youngsters were amused at our excited reaction to white stuff on the ground, because South Korea is much colder than Louisiana.
On that last Thursday, they entertained over one hundred of our community lunch guests. No longer were they the shy children who’d arrived after Christmas. Each stepped to the microphone and spoke in surprisingly good English. “My name is Paul. How are you doing? I like soccer. Have a good day!” Everyone had a great time at this meal. After the meal they all received Dry Creek T‑shirts that we each autographed. That evening all of them went to Mamma Lee’s restaurant for the Oriental buffet. They had a time!
Friday was a cold day as all of our weather had recently been. Being this was the Koreans last full day here, many visitors arrived from Baton Rouge and Leesville. On Friday night they held a party at the Lodge. Everyone shared through tears of the friendship and love that had grown. Then we went to the prayer garden for a campfire. Everyone gathered closely around the fire to stay warm, but there was already a special warmth on each person’s face as we sang and laughed together.
To the accompaniment of a guitar, they performed a Korean folk song replete with a folk dance. As the Koreans danced around the campfire, I felt as if I was in a faraway country instead of Dry Creek. (I just hoped no Baptist preacher walked up at that time to see folks dancing around the campfire.) After more singing they brought out gifts for all of our staff. They had put much thought and love into the presents they gave us. Angela Marquez then introduced them to another American treat—S’mores around the campfire. Many a marshmallow went to a fiery death during this time.
Well, Saturday finally arrived and the time came to leave. I’ve never liked goodbyes, and this was one time I especially dreaded. When they came to the office, everyone cried, including all of our staff. We all hugged and went outside where we joined hands and prayed together. Then they loaded up and were gone.
Later as I walked to the lodge, it seemed so bare and empty. Stopping under the pines I thanked God for the privilege we have of serving so many people. And I thanked Him for this special opportunity of Dry Creek Baptist Camp being part of His mission. In this case, we didn’t have to go to a foreign country… They came to us. And they came from homes where Jesus Christ was not known. They left here with God’s love in their hearts.
As I continued walking under the pines, I caught a sense of an event far off in the future… Seventy years later in fact. An elderly Korean woman in her eighties named Soo Jung is surrounded by her great-grandchildren. For the hundredth time her grandchildren ask, “Tell us again about your trip to America as a little girl.” And Soo Jung smiles as she looks at her surrounding three generations of family, knowing they’ve been reared to know the Jesus Christ she met years ago in America. And she begins again to tell her story, “Well, I was very young but I remember it as if were yesterday. America is a beautiful country and I saw so much. But what I remember best are the people.”
And she dreamily smiles as she recalls the faces of long ago in a special place called Dry Creek. And one of her grandchildren asks her, “What was your American name?” Soo Jung replies, “They called me Sarah.” And once again she recalls the warm love she felt there and remembers that love is still love… in any language.