The first Koreans I met were in Xi’an, China.
The first Koreans I met were in Xi’an, China. They were missionaries and so was I. We had bubble tea on a university street on a hot evening and talked about miracles. Mean little homeless cats stalked across the Lazy Susan on the café table. The Koreans, a young couple, were mildly concerned about the state of my salvation because I wasn’t Catholic, like they were. The police deported them the next day for proselytizing, which is officially illegal in the country. I forget their names now.
This was summer 2007. It was my first trip to Asia and I’d flown over with eleven other bible college students. White saviors, there to do the Lord’s work. To witness to the locals and show them the signpost to salvation. After seven weeks of laying groundwork we’d leave, pushing them off on their own like kids on a bike, reinforcing them from the other hemisphere with the power of prayer. Hoping they’d start a church or something and that the conversion rate would grow exponentially in our wake.
To get visa approval we had to go “undercover” as university students enrolled in a Mandarin speaking course. We were coached by our school’s Student Missionary Union to stay off Facebook in the country, because that would expose our links to the church. And not to use the words “Jesus” or “missionary” in public, in case the local police overheard us. All of this was enough to allow myself to indulge in daydreams of espionage, of being an international renegade infiltrating a secular Communist bloc. I remember the rush of wrapping my Bible up in T-shirt and burying it deep in my suitcase like I was smuggling a 9mm Beretta through immigration. I was James Bond, if James Bond were a nineteen year-old American Christian who had never kissed a girl and didn’t know what beer tasted like.
So it was a vice-free excursion. No alcohol or nightlife. But that was fine; at that point I didn’t know what I was missing. Lights out at 10:30, after prayer meetings and four-chord worship songs strummed by our team leader. During the day we’d entrap college students by hosting huge ultimate Frisbee games on the quad. The goal was to make friends, invite them to coffee, then slowly sneak in our message during conversation, which we’d direct toward the topics of passions and dreams.I didn’t really bother with any of that. I was happier sticking with the leisurely perks of a summer abroad; tearing into a plate of dumplings on the street and posing in front of pagodas wearing aviators. I didn’t consciously acknowledge it until years later, when I got a little separation from it all, but I was a fraud that whole summer, as I had been from the jump. A wholly insincere Christian, only really enlisting as part of the flock because it was all I knew. Evangelism wasn’t a priority. I just went on the trip to impress girls from church and to compile a Facebook album.
I was less of a human being than I was a wellspring of arrogance, this being courtesy of a stilted worldview and a perception narrowed to the width of a sniper scope. Mine was an untested, unchallenged childhood spent behind a shield. Comfortably inside the middle-class Baptist bubble. I look at American soldiers in Seoul and trust-fund backpackers in the Philippines and many of them regard the planet with same superior smirk that I used to. Seeing each country as some quaint destination that exists for our amusement. Or yet another place populated by natives in need of our ideology.
I was the rebel of the team, because I’d vault the campus fence at midnight and go on six or seven-mile runs through Xi’an. Past the Drum Tower inside the old city wall or through the alleys in the Muslim quarter. Or through the red light district, where the girls carrying trays in dive bars wore shorts that showed their ass cheeks. A new sight, for me. The filth in the underworld was almost impressive: the decades of grime packed into the grooves of the sidewalks, the rolling hills of trash and the grease slicked all over the steel walkways twisting overhead. Old women in shapeless clothes just squatted and shit wherever they happened to be walking.Every run was another spin of the kaleidoscope. Sweaty taxi drivers on break tipping back flasks of baijiu, one of whom casually vomited in his cupholder as I went past, as if this was standard operating procedure. I spent a lot of nights out there, pounding through the city. My curiosity impelled me; I’d come all this way, I wanted to see something real.
And I did. There was the night a guy had his girlfriend pinned in front of a bar with her arm corkscrewed behind her back. He was knocking her head sideways with open-hand slaps as I came around the corner. The other drinkers all sat nearby and sipped. I’d never been in a fight; I don’t even think I’d ever seen someone get hit. He yelled at me to go away and I did. I still think about that moment.
Xi’an in the country’s old capital. Like any Chinese metropolis, it’s the real deal and makes Western cities look adorable. Its towers spawn out into infinity. Some people look at a city like this and regard it with urgency, because they see eight million people who are damned unless they can reach them all. I was wondering who could reasonably expect us to do such a thing.
I got lost in the sprawl some nights and the humidity would force to me to a stop. If you ever slowed down, then groups of kids on canes came up to ask for money. Most of them had been maimed by local bosses or whoever organized the begging racket. There were little girls whose legs had been broken and reset so they healed backward. Slumdog Millionaire schemes. If Jesus loved them, he had a strange way of showing it. On Wednesdays we went to an orphanage and took the disabled kids with swollen heads swimming. They liked to be held weightless on the surface of the water. Doing this made me feel helpless. Against ugliness, against all this cold chaos I kept witnessing. All these vignettes were adding up to something. They put deep cracks in my foundation and forced me to a point of honesty.
It’s been eight years since then and now I drink. Now I don’t believe in Heaven or a guy who decides if you get to go there. Billions still do, but I don’t necessarily begrudge them that. Someone has to go to the orphanage. What has kept surprising me is that, despite all the warnings of the emptiness that tortures the lost souls on the other side of the fence, I’m more fulfilled now.Now I’m back in Asia. There’s a stretch of road near my villa here in Korea that I’ve learned to avoid because it’s a missionary hunting ground. Enter the zone between the golf driving range and that glassy new hospital and you’re straying into the confluence of three churches. Right in the middle of overlapping fields of fire. You can feel the neon crosses tracking you like target reticles. The Christians always dress smartly and they’re quite clever; they’ll stop you to ask for help with “Englishee homework” before quick-drawing a Bible and beckoning you inside the church to hear the “Secret of the Passover.” My fellow expats will relate. Sometimes blond Mormons from Utah will come up and I’ll shoot the shit with them just to enjoy a rare sober conversation with a foreigner. Twice, cars have shuddered to a stop next to me and their drivers have rushed up with leaflets. I empathize with their urgency. They care about my salvation. I guess in a way it’s kind of nice that someone does.