This past Thursday, February 24th, the mother of one of my coworkers passed away. We were informed of this right at noon. Just the previous day we learned that she was in critical condition and so it was quite sudden. My coworker’s name is Chun Jong Woo,
which if he was in America it would be Jong Woo Chun. In Korea they say the family name first, unlike us where we say it last. I however call him “The Man”, as he has been here at HHI for 20+ years and he is an incredible wealth of knowledge and is 2nd in charge after Mr. Lee. Mr. Chun helps me during our lunch break to train me in the art of brazing and I deeply respect him. My understanding was that he and his family were Buddhists.
As Kang and I were walking home that night he asked me if I would like to go to a service that night for Mr. Chun’s mother. Kinda like a “wake” here in America. Absolutely I said. I would be honored to do so. As we walked I questioned Kang about body preparation here in Korea. To make a long story short, they do not embalm here. As I explained to Kang the embalming process he asked, “Why? Like a mummy?” Kinda. Burial here is virtually unknown of here. Land is so scarce here almost everyone
cremates the body. If you can’t afford to buy a house how is one to buy a plot for burial?
I was picked up at 8 PM in front of the apartment. On the way to the wake I asked Kang about the process that I could expect. Everything here in Korea is structured out the wazoo. I figured that it had to be the same in this area of life and I did not
want to offend Mr. Chun in the process of paying my last respects. As we were driving Kang explained that because he is a Christian he does not bow as he sees Ancestor Worship as idolatry. I agree with that statement. I did explain to him that the
mindset of the believer is what’s important. Are you worshiping or paying respect?
The mindset of the believer determines the verdict of one’s actions. And so as we were driving my mind was questioning the practices that I would soon be witnessing, are we
paying respect to the memory of a coworker’s mother or worshiping her? At this point I wanted to ensure that I did not cause a brother in Christ to stumble by my actions, given to us by God thru the Apostle Paul.
Our driver, also a coworker by the name of Min Ji Hoon, was
also what I thought to be a Buddhist. It was at this point that it was clarified to me that they were not Buddhists, but they belonged to Confucianism, which the Koreans see as the same.http://www.tabblo.com/studio/stories/view/1721993/?extnav=tag&tag=korea
We arrive at the “Funeral Home”, a huge granite building,
reminding me of a structure the size of the Alabama state capital. It was not a private institution, but a government building. We went to the room
that was listed for the mother of Mr. Chun. We pass thru multitudes of flags and wreaths. Later I find out that the flags represent HHI, Mr. Chun’s family crest, and several other identifying entities. The wreaths were from HHI, the chairman of HHI, the Unions of HHI (which is the most powerful union in Korea) and once again multiple entities. As I said
before, Mr. Chun was a well-respected and long term employee of HHHI. We enter a room full of tables where we take our shoes off. Immediately to our left
is a “parlor”. As we enter this area we are surrounded by folks in traditional Confucianism/Buddhist garb, with the men on our right and the women on our left.
They bent over at the waist at a 90 degree angle and started uttering a
sound. They were not chanting, not moaning, not wailing, and just uttering guttural sounds. The 2 men in front of Kang and me were Buddhists like Mr. Chun. They approached the area in front of us which was kinda like a fireplace mantle, only bigger. It was maybe 8 to 10 feet wide and 4 feet tall, and double tiered. The area was draped
with flowers that looked like lilies with a picture of the deceased in the middle of it. On a ledge going the width of the mantle were offerings of apples, dates, melons, and other fruits. On the floor on a bed of coals were a teapot and an incisor of incense. Two of my
coworkers approached the tribute area and poured a cup of tea and placed it on
the mantle. They stepped back, just a few feet before Kang and me, and went to their knees, then prostrated themselves on the floor in front of the tribute area. The lines of men and women on either side of us did likewise. Everyone stood to their
feet and they repeated the process again. At this point all four of us men in the center of the room turned towards the men on the right side of the tribute area. I am being careful to call this a “tribute area” because I do not know the state of mind for the individuals performing these actions. Since there is a tremendous difference between worship and respect and honor I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to assign motives. All of the men (Kang and I included) as well as the family members bowed and prostrated ourselves to each other twice and then the men in mourning talked to us. I
had no problem doing this as I know my heart. I was not worshiping the men, but honoring the grief that they were feeling for the loss of a loved one and it deeply pained me to see a man (Mr. Chun) that I have known for just 2 months in anguish. In
many aspects I have fears that I will soon be facing similar pain due to my
father’s cancer and both of my parents’s advanced ages. After the men were finished speaking we stood and each of us placed a monetary offering in a drop box in the parlor to help the family.
I then participated in a traditional Korean food setting while sitting on the floor for the next four hours. By the time I left my legs were numb, as well as my butt-tocks (in the immortal words of Forrest Gump). Mr. Chun came out and talked to us. He was deeply honored that I would come to this event. It is virtually unheard of for Westerners to participate. I do not know if this is because they are not invited or if it is because they feel uncomfortable in doing so. Over the course of the night I had the priviledge of meeting Mr. Chun’s wife and children. During the entire night I did not see expressions of grief similar to what I have seen back in the states. What I saw appeared to be folks
in a state of shock.
There were a couple of things that I noticed during the night as the reflection on the window opposite me peered into the parlor where the family members performed the ritual. Many questions came to my mind as I witnessed the events of the night
that I asked Kang about concerning the practices of Buddhists however he said
that now was not the time and I agree. There will be time for follow-up and my friends need time to grieve. I have been blessed to develop relationships with my Korean teammates. Kang did clarify during the night that they do not believe that their
ancestors become demi-gods. They pray/mediate for guidance from the dead and also for their intervention to their god. Sounds very similar to what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about Mary.
Another coworker (Chi) asked me if they could give me the
nickname “Bald Eagle”. And no it’s NOT because I can’t grow hair! It was explained to me that I have such a focus at my job for what I am doing. I was told that I am like an eagle that has
identified its prey and is diving down upon it from above to capture it. I have been hunting and have seen a hawk
diving to kill its prey many a time and so I understand the analogy. It’s a nice compliment actually. Debey has said this about me all my life. Chi also asked me if I would be willing to go to Seoul one weekend with him as that is where he is from. Even though he said that he knows zero English and my knowledge of Korean is elementary, we have developed a friendship that allows us to communicate without words. I am really looking forward to the trip.
I returned home at 1 am. I am thankful that I have Korean friends that have allowed me into their personal lives to the extent that they have. I am honored that they respect me, as respect is extremely prized here. God has blessed me to put me here when He did. Working with Kang today we talked about the odds of me coming to HHI with its 50,000 employees working here on a daily basis, and yet out of that I am placed alongside a fairly good English speaking brother in Christ, and then to be so well received. He agrees with me that this is a God thing.
At this point in time I was finished with my post however calamity struck again just three days later. My #1 boss, Mr. Lee Ho Soon’s father passed away. I found this out about lunchtime from Mr. Kwon. Mr. Kwon is Mr. Lee’s supervisor, a big boss
in the company. He informed me that he had heard how I had taken part in the wake of Mr. Chun’s mother and that I was
a “good man”. After lunch the team gathered in the office and they were talking away. Numbers were written on the white board and conversations going 90 to nothing. To
make a long story short, 12 of them were going to get off at 3 PM and drive to Andong (pronounced An-Dwong), a journey of 3.5 hours away one way. Unfortunately all of us Alabamians had a meeting at 5 PM with a representative that had flown in from Montgomery, just for that meeting. Obviously it was very important to HYPO that this meeting take place. The more I thought about it, the more that I felt I should go to the wake though. Mr. Lee has been very kind to me during my time in Korea and I really looked up to him. He had shown me in a previous week pictures
of his father as well as his “offerings” to his mother that had previously passed away. So I called Mr. Son Chang-Gon, the HYPO manager that we have been involved with from day 1 and explained my desire to go to the wake instead of the meeting. Mr. Son graciously said that it was more important that I be with my teammates during this time in support of Mr. Lee than it was to go to the meeting. I graciously thank Mr. Son as in my experiences with American companies I can’t say that they would have come to the same conclusion.
And so our journey began. When they said we were leaving at 3 pm, they were not joking. We did not have time to hit the showers and so all us men took sink showers out of 2 sinks. It was not a problem as little hair as I had but it was hilarious to watch these young Korean men with heads full of thick black hair trying to get their entire heads under the faucet. I even took the time to help wash some of their hair in the back. We hit the ground running and we drove through parts of Ulsan that I not seen before.
HHI goes on for miles and miles. We drove past ships under construction that just blew my mind. HHI builds 15% of the world’s deep ocean ships every year and I can believe it. We drove past a golf driving range. Anybody that can hit the ball 15 yards is going to feel very manly. It consisted of about 5 levels of floors, with a mesh net 15 yards from the driving mats. So you could knock the heck out of the ball and it was only going to go
as far as the netting. Made it to the edge of the city of Ulsan and our driver took a toll booth ticket. We then took out like a bat out of a very hot place where we passed rice fields. There were rice fields everywhere as well as mountains that remind me of Gatlinburg. We reached speeds of 150 kph, which when I placed that into my metric converter was 93 mph. Glad I did not know that at the time. Our driver, Jo Jae IL, had a GPS on his dashboard that he had programed to get us to the funeral home. The unique thing about it was that it kept track of the speed cameras, which were about every 5 miles. It told you how far away it was and the speed for the area. As long as you reduced your speed by the time you got to the camera, you were ok. If not then you received your ticket and picture in the mail. Did I say there were rice fields everywhere? There were a multitude of Christian churches everywhere. We passed through tunnel after tunnel and Jae IL was lucky I did not puke in his car the way that he was driving.
We passed isolated graves that I witnessed as we drove by on the interstate. At each site there was a post like a horse hitching post. The graves also were not flat with the ground. Picture a round bale of hay in the center of a clear cut field about 10
yards in circumference. This is what each grave looked like. I was told by coworkers it was because the dead were buried sitting up. I do not know if this was true or if they
were just pulling leg. We also passed a HUGE Buddha statue sitting (literally) on the top of a hill visible from the roads. I am guessing that it was 50 to 75 feet tall. Just to let you know there were no billboards by the wayside. My goodness, what would Stuckey’s do in Alabama without having the ability to have every half mile? The Korean music also
was “different” is all that I can say. I enjoyed it, just different. When we got
off at the interstate we had to present the toll booth ticket and pay the
operator for the mileage both coming and going. These booths are at every exit and so they tax you till you are going blind.
We arrived at the funeral home in Andong. This wake was different from the previous one that I had attended just a few days prior. While no sorrow was evident at Mr. Chun’s wake, it was very visible here. There were the same rows of flowers outside the entrance to the area for Mr. Lee’s father from HHI, the Union at HHI, etc., as well as the same “tribute area” and mantle visible with the picture of Mr. Lee’s father centered in the flowers. The same offerings of apples, tea, dates, and melons were on the mantle. I noticed though that as my 12 coworkers went through the rituals described above that
Mr. Lee was bawling his eyes out. As before I did not prostrate myself on the ground to the picture as the others
did, however I bowed my head and said a prayer for Mr. Lee and his family and departed father. I did, once again as
before, prostrate myself to Mr. Lee in respect to the loss that he was suffering. As we all stood up, Mr. Lee made a bee line straight to me, bypassing the other men in the room. Tears were flowing down his face as he kept saying, “Thank you” and shaking my hand. All I could do was hug him and say that I was sorry for his loss. He did not understand the English but I believe that he understood me.
As we left the parlor a relative came up and gave us an opaque orange envelope and in it was a meal ticket and a $10,000 Won bill (about $10 US). After this we went down to the funeral home/hospital restaurant (by the way, I did not tell you that they were both on the same premises). Don’t know if that’s being frugal or else just that the doctors suck at this hospital. We went back upstairs to dine with the other guests and family members. The first thing they did was give us a bottle to drink, kinda like a Red bull. Translated it is called “Good Morning”. It prevents a hangover. I drank two shots of Soju and a small paper cup of beer that night. I ate raw octopus at this wake as well as cuttlefish. If you have not read my previous articles on our lunches, cuttlefish is
actually squid. It should be, for the sake of truthfulness in advertising, be called cuttlesquid. Just saying is all. Mr. Lee came over during the course of the night as he made the rounds sitting and talking to the guests that had attended that night. As he came over he sat next to me. Mr. Lee introduced his wife and 2 sons to me that night. As fine a family as I have ever seen, no matter which continent I was on. One thing that I will remember for the rest of my life is “toe socks”. Mr. Lee always wears toe socks, and tonight was no exception. http://photobucket.com/images/toe%20socks/ At a wake you are to drink however you are not to toast. When Mr. Lee sat next to
me he poured me a small paper cup of Soju and I returned the honor to him. We raise our cups to each other but not to touch, as that constitutes a toast. He touched my cup and toasted me out of respect to me. Also, the senior in position and older man’s
cup is to be the highest cup when they are raised. Once again he placed his cup lower than mine as a sign of respect to me. All of these actions are nuances that communicate meaning to each other. I stopped him and we also toasted again, with me making sure that my glass was in the correct position in order to communicate to him that I admire and respect him greatly.
As we left for the night I wanted to take care of any nature breaks before I left and you will be surprised when I tell you this. Not a single indoor restroom is heated. Not the floor, not central heating, nothing. Not at the church I attend, NOWHERE in a public Korean building are they heated. I will tell you one thing; you sit down and take care of business quickly when the temperature is 15 degrees in there. To top off the night, Jae IL does not watch where he is going as he backs out of the parking garage and hits the column that he parked next to. I guess they need to include concrete columns on his GPS going forward. We arrived back home at 1 am and I had to get
up at 6 for work and so I hit the bed.
No matter the nation, no matter the faith of the grieving, no
matter the verbal language spoken, pain is understood by all. Thank God for His grace and mercy to those that He calls for eternal life. We know that we just sleep momentarily, but we will be with Christ for all eternity giving Him glory. That reminds me of a song that Elder Rick posted on his Facebook page, and I have included a link
for you to listen. I encourage you to listen to the words of this old German hymn.http://www.challies.com/quotes/the-long-goodnight