Messiah - My Testimony to
by Bo Hi Pak
Chapter Five - The Challenge of Learning English
My six months of study in the United States had caused a tremendous upheaval in my life. I felt like I had been given a new set of eyes with which to look at the world. Now I could see how big and complex it really was. And I realized that if I really wanted to understand the modern world and take advantage of all it had to offer, I had to learn English. I became determined to accomplish this. The willpower and ability to work hard I had used as a student, farmer, teacher, and frontline soldier I now focused on learning English.
From the day that I arrived back in Korea, I began doing everything I could to find ways to learn English. In Kwangju, I visited all the noted English schools in the area and registered for classes in one night school. I was a firearms instructor during the day and a student during the evening hours. I attended classes one hour every evening.
It didn't take me long to realize that this was not going to be enough. At the rate of just an hour a day, I might study for the next ten years and still not be able to speak English. However. I couldn't do anything that would detract from my primary responsibility as an instructor. First and foremost I was an instructor in the infantry school.
"How am I going to manage this?" I thought. "There must be some way that I can study English twenty-four hours a day, taking time out only for meals. If I could do that for just one year..." I sighed and told myself that it was just a dream.
Then, one day, I heard about how I might be able to make this dream come true. The army was setting up a school to train military attaches who would later be assigned to Korean embassies overseas. Those chosen to attend this school would do nothing but study a foreign language for a full year.
"Heaven must have created this school for me. Otherwise, how is it possible that a school that fulfills my dream so precisely is being created?"
There was a problem, though. Only thirty people would be selected, based on an examination, which meant that the odds were against me. In addition, I had to figure out how to get permission from the infantry school's commanding officer to apply for this new assignment. At the time, this was Brig. Gen. Jong Cheol Suh, who would later go on to serve as minister of defense.
On the evening that I visited General Suh. I was very nervous and became even more so when his guards were at first reluctant to let me see him. When I was finally able to sit face to face with the general, I argued as forcefully as I could for per-mission to take the exam.
"I'm not asking this because I am dissatisfied with my present responsibilities." I emphasized, "nor is it because I want to leave the infantry school. This is a once-in -a-lifetime opportunity for me to learn English. There's no guarantee that I will pass the exam, hut please allow me to at least take the exam when it is given here in Kwangju on October 1."
I was one of the most popular instructors among the students, and General Suh was very fond of me.
"Captain Pak, I understand your earnest desire to pursue this assignment. Why, though, is it so important for you to go now? There will be a second and a third opportunity to attend the military attaché training school. I'd like for you to remain here with me for a while longer. later, when I an rotated to a new assignment, I will he responsible to make sure that you are admitted to this new school. Do you understand?"
It seemed he didn't want to let me go. In the army, the moment a person puts general's stars on his uniform, he is transformed into a god. I was a mere captain. There would be no sense in trying to argue with the general. I hid my disappointment as I replied, "Yes, sir. I understand," and left the general's residence. I was deeply dejected.
On October 1, one of my good friends, Captain Jin Tak Lint went to take the exam. When he came back, he stopped by my quarters to tell me about his experience. I covered myself' with a quilt as I listened to him talk. Then, on his way out he gave me some unexpected news.
"By the way," he said, "I saw in the newspaper this morning that General Suh has received new orders. Apparently he's been reassigned to army headquarters."
I threw off the quilt and jumped to my feet. I found the morning paper and, sure enough, there it was. But it was already too late for me. If I had only known about this one day earlier, I could have taken the test. I was churning with regret and frustration.
"Where did you say the test was given?" I asked my friend.
I memorized the address, changed my clothes, and ran out-side. When I got to the testing hall, it was empty except for a janitor sweeping the floor. I asked him: "Excuse me, but do you happen to know where the testing officers from Taegu are staying for the night?"
"Well, I don't know, but I would guess it would be the hotel over there," he told me.
I quickly went over to the hotel he indicated and asked the same question of an employee.
"Sure," he said. "They're in that room."
It was a very small, traditional Korean inn. I had no idea what I hoped to accomplish by meeting the officer responsible for administering the test. I had to do something, though to shake off the heavy load that was weighing me down.
I knocked on the Korean-style sliding door. Inside, there was the sound of someone getting up to answer the door. Soon, the door opened and a gentleman in civilian clothes appeared.
"Who is it?" he said. Then a look of recognition flashed across his face. "Oh, it's you, Captain Pak. What brings you here? It's really good to see you. Please come in."
I was thoroughly confused. I kept looking at his face, but I could not remember ever having met him before. I didn't have the slightest idea what was going on. He obviously knew me, but I had no idea who he was.
I went into the room and sat down face to face with this person. The test administrator had one of the hotel employees bring some beer and snacks. He handed me a glass and then began filling it with beer.
"Here, let's drink. It's so good to see you again, Captain Pak."
My position was becoming more difficult by the minute. I still had not been able to say a single word. The administrator emptied his glass and said:
<INDENT>"I guess, Captain, you might not remember me. After all, an instructor can't be expected to remember the faces of all the people he's taught. I'm Lieutenant Colonel Chung," and I was a member of the 22nd Senior Officers Class. The first class we took was your class on the M-1 rifle. I was very impressed with you then. The least I can do you is buy you a beer." He then began to laugh out loud with great amusement. I began to feel a little more at ease, now that I under-stood the connection between us.
Then, the lieutenant colonel directed a question to me.
"By the way," he said, "why have you come to see me?"
I explained the whole story. "The commanding officer of the infantry school has been reassigned, so according to the promise that he gave me I should have been able to take the test today. I just feel terrible that I didn't know this a day earlier. I didn't come here to ask anything of you."
The superior officer listened thoughtfully to everything I had to say and then replied.
"It's times like these when it's good to have former pupils. There will never be a better time than this for me to repay you for all you did for us as our instructor. I would like for you to take the examination now, right here. Fortunately, I still have a few extra copies."
"What?" I replied in disbelief. "Here? You want me to take the exam now?"
"I think that's the only way. I return to army headquarters in Taegu tomorrow. There, I will report that all applicants in the Kwangju area have completed the examination and I will turn in their exams to the headquarters staff. I am still here, though, so I have final authority on who can and cannot take the exam. I haven't lost that authority. Of course, Captain Pak, I'm not the one who will grade the exam, so I can't be responsible for whether or not you actually pass."
This couldn't have been anything other than the work of Heaven. I took the test lying face down on the ondol floor in that room. The exam was composed of separate tests on eight different subjects. As I filled in eight different answer sheets, Lieutenant Colonel Chung remained in the room to watch me. From time to time, he would say, "Come on, Captain Pak. Take your time. Here, have a little more beer."
This is how I came to he picked as one of thirty people to enroll in the first English-language class of the Army School for Military Attaches. I could not have become what I am today without the assistance of the superior officer whom I met that night. This officer has retired from the military, but he is still alive. I have not disclosed his real name here, because I would like to respect his privacy. I owe him a debt of gratitude for having opened the way for me to pursue an entirely new direction in my life.
"The Hundred Reading Method"
The Army School for Military Attaches was using the building of the Dalsung Elementary School in Taegu as its temporary quarters. My wife and I packed what few belongings we had and moved to Taegu. We managed to rent a room that was not far from the school. My wife was pregnant with our first child.
On entering the language school, I was surprised to find that all the other students were already quite fluent in English. Many of them had worked as military interpreters. All of them had majored in English at the most prestigious universities in Seoul. They had come not so much to improve their English skills as to be recognized as having graduated from the Army School for Military Attaches so that they could pursue careers as military diplomats.
I was the only student who had to start with learning the alphabet, like a first grader mixed in with college students. I was faced with an impossible task. We would report to class in the morning and spend eight hours doing nothing but study English. This, of course, is what I had hoped for. But because the students' overall level was relatively high, we were not provided any basic texts. We went right into texts that were considerably advanced. There seemed to be no way I could catch up, much less keep up, with the rest of the class. We would be tested every Saturday, and on each Monday our seats would be reassigned to reflect our scores on the test.
The students with the ten best scores the previous Saturday would be assigned to Class A, and the next ten students to Class R. The ten students with the worst scores would be placed in Class C. It became clear, though, that I would not be able to keep up even in the lowest class, so a "Special Class" was created for my benefit. This was the final step before being expelled from the school altogether.
I had to take emergency measures or my days at the school would soon be over. In my desperation, I came up with a special strategy. I called it the "Hundred Reading Method." This simply meant that I would read each day's lesson one hundred times.
When I arrived home in the evening, the first thing I would do was look up all the new words in that day's lesson. These averaged from two hundred to three hundred every day, and it took an enormous amount of time to find them all in my English-Korean dictionary. I asked my wife to help me. We bought a second dictionary and worked as a team. I would underline all the day's new words in red and number them. She would look them up in order and place a strip of paper with the corresponding number in the dictionary on the page where each word could be found. After she had looked up a few dozen words this way, we would trade dictionaries.
This saved me the time of having to flip through the dictionary trying to find each word. I just had to turn to the page with the strip of paper that had the number corresponding to the word I was looking for. I would then copy down the definition and pronunciation symbols of each word. While I was doing this, my wife was already looking up a few dozen more words using the other dictionary.
It was an ingenious joint operation. Without my wife's help, I have no doubt that I would have been told to leave the Army School for Military Attaches. This is why I often tell her, "Half of my English ability belongs to you."
Once all the words had been looked up, it would be time to begin the "Hundred Reading Method." First, I would take a hundred matchsticks in one hand. Then I would start reading the day's lesson and take out one matchstick each time I came to the end of the lesson. I didn't let myself go to bed until I had completed all one hundred readings. Some nights, it would be light outside by the time I finished.
My hands would become so sweaty that the heads of the matches would melt, and the palm of my hand would be covered with the red die. I always read out loud. Reading silently is of no use in learning a language. About halfway through the night, I would lose my voice. If all I could do was to move my lips, then that's what I did to complete the readings.
Saturdays and Sundays were the same as any other day. In fact, I doubt that my strategy would have succeeded if I hadn't had time on the weekends to catch up where I had fallen behind during the week. The flood of new words was too much for me to handle during the week. The weekends, when my colleagues were relaxing, were the only chance I had to catch up.
"Please Don? Call the Doctor"
My wife and I were so poor that we couldn't even afford enough food for ourselves. The salary of an army captain in those days was not enough to support a husband and wife, let alone a baby. Both my wife and I began to suffer from malnutrition, and I developed a number of black spots on my face. It was in these circumstances that my wife gave birth to our first child. We were in no position to even think about going to a hospital to have the baby. Our landlady was very kind and fortunately, had some experience as a midwife. She promised to deliver our baby when the time came, and we trusted her. My wife's health during her pregnancy was not good, even while we were still in Kwangju. She often had diarrhea, so it was difficult for her to maintain her strength. The symptoms continued after our move to Taegu and right up to the day of her delivery. Neither of us had any experience with babies.
The contractions would come, but my wife wasn't able to push properly because she was too weak.
About five hours into her labor, she gave birth to a baby girl but was too weak to deliver the afterbirth. I looked into her eyes, and I could see that her pupils were losing their luster. I knew something had to be done quickly to help her, just then, she lost consciousness.
"Hold on! Hold on!" I cried.
There was no reaction. I began to fear that my wife was going to die.
"We have to call a doctor," I said as I stood up. "Where's the nearest hospital?"
My wife must have regained consciousness just at that moment. She grabbed hold of my pants leg and pleaded in a voice that was just barely audible: "Please, don't call the doctor."
I burst out crying. She knew she was on the verge of death, but she was asking me not to call a doctor because we couldn't afford such a luxury. Even if she were to die, she didn't want to put us in financial debt.
How was it possible that she would be just like my deceased mother who at the moment of her death had said, "Don't call the doctor." The daughter-in-law had taken after the mother-in-law.
I refused to listen to her, though and ran out to the street and toward the nearest doctor's office. I saw a young man on a bicycle coining toward me.
"Sorry, I need to borrow your bicycle for just a while!"
I grabbed the bike by the handlebars and used my body to push him off the seat. My face was white as a sheet, and the young man must have understood that I was facing a dire emergency for he made no attempt to run after me.
I tried several times to get on the bike, but my legs were so weak that I couldn't even pedal. In the end, l wound up pushing the hike all the way to the clinic. In hindsight, it was silly that I didn't just put the hike down and run. In my panic, though, I didn't have the presence of mind to let go of it.
Inside the clinic, I shouted that I had an emergency.
"Please, save my wife. Please."
"I'm with another patient now," the doctor said. "You'll have to wait."
I had no choice. As I stood there in the waiting room, each second seemed like a thousand years. I kept wondering if my wife was taking her last breath at that very moment.
"Doctor," I pleaded. "Please hurry. Please!"
Finally, the doctor and I left the clinic. As we traveled hack to our room, the distance seemed several times farther than usual.
When the doctor reached my wife's bedside, she was still alive. He immediately took out a syringe and gave her a shot. Then he performed a procedure to remove the afterbirth.
"What's going on here?" he demanded. "Why wasn't this woman taken to a hospital to have her baby?"
He had no idea about our financial situation. He kept waving his hands to express his strong disapproval.
"Thank you, doctor. Thank you for saving my wife," I said. I thanked him over and over as he prepared to leave and walked out the door.
I went to the market and somehow managed to buy some meat. This was an incredible extravagance on our meager budget but my wife needed to recover her strength. I prepared stew with beef broth and kelp and spoon-fed it to my wife.
Before long, she was strong enough to speak.
"I'm sorry it wasn't a boy," she said, and looked over to where the baby lay.
"It's better if the first child is a girl." I told my wife. "They say you can depend on the first daughter to help her mother around the house. Anyway, that's not important now. I'm just grateful that you've come back to life. I'm grateful to you and to God.
I thanked God that He had given me such a wonderful woman as my wife. I told myself that I was the most fortunate person in the world to be the recipient of such sacrificial love as my wife had demonstrated.
Tears at Taegu Train Station
Even in these circumstances. I continued with my Hundred Reading Method. With our baby at our side, our joint effort became even more enjoyable. I was still young, and my memory was good. With a hundred readings I could commit the entire lesson to memory.
Whereas the Saturday tests used to be a terrible burden, I was now at the point where I actually enjoyed them. The questions were always taken directly from the lessons. When I saw the questions, I could immediately tell which page they were taken from and could recall everything else that was on that page. The whole textbook was in my head, so I would fill in the answers as easily as if I had the book open in front of me. Sometimes I even got a perfect score. When that happened, the next Monday I would be moved from the last seat in Class C to the very front of Class A. That evening at home, I would celebrate with my wife.
However, things didn't always work out so well. If during the following week I wasn't so thorough in applying the Hundred Reading Method, then I would look at the test questions and have no idea what they referred to. The Monday after that would be terrible. I would fall all the way back to the bottom of Class C. My standing went through a number of drastic changes during the second half of the one-year language course. My colleagues even began to jokingly refer to me as the "parachute brigade" because I would climb to the top of Class A. "parachute down" to the bottom of Class C, and then climb hack up to the top of Class A.
My wife and I were buoyed up by signs that I might succeed in my studies, but at the same time her health was steadily becoming worse. She needed plenty of nourishment so she could breast-feed our child, but there wasn't even enough food to provide for her own nourishment. Some Korean mothers would prepare a very thin rice gruel and feed this to their babies, but we didn't have the rice.
The only solution was for her to go live with her parents until I could graduate. My wife strongly opposed this idea. She was adamant that we should stay together, no matter how difficult the situation. I spent a lot of time convincing her that this was the best course. I wasn't at all happy about having to live apart either. Her presence meant a lot to me, not to mention that her help had been invaluable in improving my academic standing. I felt, though, that this was not the time to be guided by emotions. For the sake of our future happiness together, it was better for us to live separately for a time. I felt that if I genuinely loved my wife, I should give her health the highest priority.
One evening, my wife, the baby, and I headed for Taegu train station in time to make the midnight train.
"Don't worry about me," I told her. "Just concentrate on recovering your health. I'll he eating all my meals in the school mess. It's just too had that, without you here to help me, I'll probably never set foot in Class A again."
"I'll he hack as soon as I'm well enough," she said. "I don't want to be separated from you." She wiped the tears from her eyes. Just then, the baby began to cry in a loud voice. It seemed as though she was also protesting the separation.
My wife took the baby in her arms and boarded the train. Soon, the whistle blew, and the train slowly moved out of the station. I stayed on the platform and watched as the train disappeared into the night. "Then I sat down on the concrete and began to cry. It had been all I could do to keep my wife and child from seeing me cry. Now, there was no holding hack the tears, and I cried aloud like a three-year-old. I had sent my wife against her will hack to her parents with our baby, but now that she was gone I immediately felt an overpowering loneliness and a lack of self-confidence.
I shouted out in the direction the train had disappeared up the tracks: "Please, forgive your husband for being so incompetent." My tears kept falling onto the darkened platform.
A Crushing Disappointment
The day came for the first class of students to be graduated from the military attaché school. Exactly one year had passed. I had wanted a chance to concentrate on learning English, and I had gotten it.
I had been through all sorts of twists and turns, but in one year I had managed to advance from learning the alphabet, through the English texts used in Korean middle and high schools, and finally to the level of English taught in Korean universities. For contemporary English, I was studying Time magazine. For classical English, I had studied Sketchbook and The Complete Winks of Shakespeare. It had been the most difficult course imaginable. It was though, the exact fulfillment of the dream that I had while at the infantry school. My wish had been fulfilled, and I was really looking forward to the graduation ceremony.
As a part of the ceremony, there was a congratulatory speech by a U.S. military officer who was working as an adviser to the ROK military. He said, "Honorable graduates. I come here today without a translator. It gives me great pleasure to be able to speak to you directly in English."
At least, that's what I was told he said. To my utter surprise and dismay, I did not understand a single word. I was dumbfounded. I had endured tremendous difficulties during the previous year. I had developed spots on my face from malnutrition and even forced my wife and child to make sacrifices. To think that after all that hard work. I couldn't even understand someone giving a simple congratulatory speech. What had I accomplished?
I was so discouraged as to be almost at the point of despair. I returned to my shabby rented room, lay down on the floor, and pulled a quilt over myself. I couldn't even move. I had heard that when people are faced with particularly big failures in their lives they have a tendency to contemplate suicide. I wondered whether my feelings were similar to those that have made others think of such a drastic act. I could almost understand why they would decide to kill themselves.
I stayed on the floor of my room for three days. I was so despondent and heartbroken, I couldn't even bring myself to eat or drink. Whom could I blame, though? No one except myself. I thought of my wife and child the day we separated at Taegu Station.
I thought how sad Mother would be if she were alive to see me in such a depressed state.
"No," I told myself. "I won't allow myself to fail. I know what the problem is with my English all this time I've been studying with my eyes and not my ears. Now, I have to work to gain the use of my ears."
I sat up with renewed determination. I made myself presentable and went over to the Army Language School in Taegu. I knew that this school was operating an English conversation course for army officers scheduled to be sent overseas. At the school, I was interviewed by a U.S. military adviser. He, too, decided that the problem with my English was in my hearing and speaking abilities. He helped me register for a three-month course intended to teach everyday conversational English.
It was the beginning of another desperate effort on my part. This time, I used the "Hundred Listening Method." I would listen to everything a hundred times, especially the lesson of the day. The school was equipped with a language laboratory, and I made use of this facility around the clock. I used the lab tape recorders to listen over and over to recorded conversations. I would listen a hundred times and try to mimic the pronunciation a hundred times. This way, I hoped to accustom my ears to hearing English and also learn correct pronunciation.
Of course, I continued this process on Saturdays and Sundays. I was the only officer in the school who would spend all night in the language lab.
After three months, I met the same counselor for a second time to determine if I was ready for graduation.
"Wow," he said. "Are you sure that you're the same Captain Pak I met three months ago? I'm really surprised. Your hearing ability is perfect. Congratulations."
This gave me a new sense of determination. "All right," I told myself. "I'm gradually gaining the use of my ears and mouth for English. Now, I should go study in America again. I won't have a translator this time. Instead, I'll study together with American officers. This is just the beginning." I took an examination in English and was chosen to go back to the C.S. Army Infantry School as a member of the Allied Forces Officers Corps.
Second Visit to America
I returned to Fort Benning, Georgia, in September 1956. The infantry school campus hadn't changed much since I'd last seen it. There were some fundamental differences, though, in my own situation. This time, I would be studying together with American officers without the assistance of a translator. I took the infantry communications course first and then the beginning military course. Another important difference was that I was now a married man with a wife and child and another on the way. My stay was also longer this time. I would he in America a full year. I believed that this would be a major step for me to complete my English studies.
One of the first things I did was buy a tape recorder. I chose some English materials and asked someone who worked as an announcer at a local broadcast station to record these on tape so I could begin my "Hundred Listening Method" again.
Listening to lectures given by American instructors and living together with American officers wasn't just a chance for me to improve my English. It was also an important way to learn about American culture and the American way of life. It would also help me understand how Americans think.
We were given $150 a month to cover our living expenses, but I managed to live on S60 and save the remainder. By American standards I was living in extreme poverty, but I could do this by reminding myself about the situation of my wife and child. Besides, compared with my life while I was attending the military attaché school, I was living like a millionaire.
I also attended worship services regularly at the church where Rev. Seuk Ki Dong, whom I had met on my first trip to America, was pastor. One day, Reverend Dong asked me to give the sermon. I chose the topic "God Has Blessed America" and talked about what I had seen and felt about the United States. The main point was that America had been able to grow into a great nation because it had been blessed by God, so it should take care never to forsake God. Everyone seemed inspired.
During my first visit in 1952, I had been able to speak only a few words of English. Yet there I was, less than four years later, giving the sermon. Everyone in the congregation looked at me with amazement. One gentleman who remembered me from the previous visit came up to me after the service, grabbed my hand, and said, "When I saw you come to the pulpit I wondered who was going to interpret for you. When I heard you speak in such fluent English I said to myself, "This can't possibly be the same person!"
I learned so many things during my second visit to the United States that it would he impossible for me to describe them all here. It was also a time of valuable training for me. All the effort I had put into learning English bore wonderful fruit during this visit.
I arrived back in Inchon by ship after a sixteen-day voyage. My wife, our daughter Na Kyung, and a son, Jun Sun. who had been born during my studies in the United States. greeted me at the pier. I had strongly urged my wife to go to a hospital to give birth to our second child. She had rejected this suggestion, however, and had given birth again in a small rented room with the help of a midwife. Fortunately, it was a much easier delivery this time.
From the port, we traveled to our home. The house where I had lived before traveling to America had been torn down, and my wife had moved into a tiny rented room in another house.
The first thing we had to do was build ourselves a house. The military agreed to lease us a small plot of land and my wife and I decided that we would use this to build a house for our family. The only capital we had to work with was the money I had managed to save in the United States by cutting back on my meals. Even that amounted only to $1,000.
My wife and I hauled our own bricks and laid them ourselves. We hauled our own sand and mixed our own cement. The skin of our hands developed cracks. Soon, we succeeded in building a small Western-style house that we could say was the product of our own sweat and blood. Others might look at it and say it was just a shack. To us, though, it was a "home sweet home" that we would not have traded for even the greatest palace.
There was one surprising development after my return to Korea. I received a message telling me that the army chief of staff wanted to see me. This was the highest-ranking member of the military, which made him almost a godlike being. I could think of no reason for him to ask for a lowly captain such as myself.
A Fateful Assignment
The next day, I reported to the office of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Sun Yob Pack. He was alone in his office when I arrived. I stood tensely at attention and saluted him. General Pack kindly told me to take a seat and began explaining why he had sent for me.
"Captain Pak, you did well. Your record in America is a great source of pride for all army officers. General Malloy, the commandant of the infantry school, sent a letter to Maj. Gen. Willis S. Matthews, chief of the Korea Military Advisory Group here. In this letter, General Malloy says that you completed the course in America with the highest marks. General Matthews has asked to see you, and I don't believe he intends to just give you a few words of congratulations. I think he wants to take you on as a member of his staff, so don't turn him down."
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I understand."
I saluted again and left the room. I was more surprised than happy. During the sixteen days I had been traveling across the Pacific Ocean, a letter from the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School had already been delivered to Korea.
I went to the office of the head of the Korea Military Advisory Group (KMAG) that was located within Headquarters, United Nations Command. General Matthews was a man with a healthy tan and a warm personality. I gave him the same rigid salute as I had General Pack and introduced myself'.
"Well, well, Captain Pak," he replied, "you have done well." He then laughed and stood up to shake my hand. "Captain Pak," he continued, "have a seat and make yourself comfortable. I received a letter from General Malloy at the U.S. Army Infantry School, and he praised you very highly. I want to thank you for having earned such good marks. I asked you here today so that I could congratulate you."
The author (second from left) with Maj, Gen.Willis S..Matthews (center), chief of the Korea Military Advisor's Group.
He paused for a moment, then began speaking again.
"I told General Pack that I would like to have you become a member of my staff. How would you feel about that?" He looked me straight in the eye.
"Yes, sir," I replied forcefully. "I will follow your order. It is an honor, sir!"
Thus, in September 1957, fate led Me to the position of aide-de-camp to the KMAG leader within the U.N. Command. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in my military life. At the time, I had no idea just how important this would become for me in the future.
The English that I had learned now became an indispensable tool for me to accomplish my mission. I was expected to be an interpreter for the KMAG leader -- in short, to be his mouth and ears. I would accompany him to official meetings with senior commanders of the Korean army and even to private functions where he would deepen personal relationships with these leaders.
On one occasion, I accompanied Maj. Gen. Hamilton House (who replaced General Matthews as head of KMAG) to a conference where he was to address a group of Korean generals. General House, like many Americans, liked to begin his talk with a joke, hoping to put his audience at case. However, that was a moment that struck fear in my heart. Translating humor from one language to another is incredibly difficult. What is funny in one language can fall completely flat in another.
This time General House said something to the Korean generals that I knew was an American joke, but to me it had absolutely no meaning. I drew a complete blank. The general was looking at me, expecting me to translate, and all the Korean generals were waiting. I had to say something. So in Korean I said. "Gentlemen, the American general was trying to entertain you, and he told what I'm sure is a most wonderful American joke. It must he a very funny story, but it is so funny that even I do not understand it. But I'm sure it is a very good American joke, a very funny one, so could you kindly do me a favor and laugh?"
The roar of laughter really brought the roof down. The only puzzled person was the general. Later he said to me, "It took me several minutes to tell that joke. You must be a great translator. You translated in thirty seconds and everybody laughed." Then I confessed to the general what t had done. He said, "Well, that is OK, Bo Hi. Your joke was probably better than mine."
Although this translating challenge was not so serious, the job itself was. The relations between our two nations depended on it. Could I really fulfill such an important responsibility? Was my English good enough? For me, it was a glorious challenge.
As an army captain, I was still a junior officer, but I began attending social events of the senior officers corps of the U.S. and Korean militaries. The world may look at this and say that I had become successful. As far as I was concerned, though, I was still waiting for God to give me His calling, which I had firmly pledged myself to follow when He saved my life on the bank of the bloody Changchon River.
A Call to the Ministry
I soon received a proposal that, at first sight at least, seemed to he an answer to my dreams. I was enjoying my daily work as the aide to the chief of KMAG. My family had a home that was small but comfortable. On Sundays we attended church regularly, and the members of the congregation began placing their trust in me. Rev. Seuk Ki Dong. who had led me to the Christian faith in America, had returned to Korea, and I had the good fortune to be able to receive his guidance every Sunday.
One Sunday, Reverend Dong told me he wanted to meet with me after the service. He wouldn't tell me what it was about, except to say, "I have something to say to you that is probably going to make you very happy."
I was very curious. After the service, I met with Reverend Dong in a quiet room.
"I remember once," he began, "you told me that you regretted not having had the chance to attend university."
"Yes, that's true," I said. "If I had been able to continue in the military academy for four years, I could have learned all the subject matter that is taught in a normal university curriculum, and I would have received my bachelor's degree. The war broke out, though, and my studies were cut short so that we could defend our country. But why do you bring this up today?"
Reverend Dong listened intently to my words and then began speaking in a deeply serious tone. "I have a proposal for you," he said. "This may seem incredible to you, but the mission department of our Church of Christ has decided that it would like to offer you a four-year scholarship to a seminary in the United States. It will be arranged so that your family can accompany you to the United States. This will be a chance for you to complete the studies you wanted to do."
I was at a loss for words. I had no idea how to take this sudden turn of events. If it were true, it would be the realization of an impossible dream. Ever since my studies at the academy had been interrupted by war, I had felt had about not being able to complete a standard four-year college education. If I could go to America, study four years, and receive a bachelor's degree, this would he the best thing that could ever happen to me. Once I received my degree, my future would be guaranteed. This offer seemed like the luckiest break imaginable. I was so excited I couldn't even begin to hide my emotions.
"Are you serious? Is that really what the church decided? I can't believe how lucky I am! I don't deserve such an incredible blessing. l will never forget this blessing as long as I live!"
But there was more to what Reverend long had to tell me.
"There is one condition, but I'm sure you won't find it very difficult. After you graduate and return to Korea, we want you to become a minister in the Church of Christ."
"You want me to be a Church of Christ minister?"
I closed my eyes for a moment. I wanted to think carefully about what I had just heard. The decision to become a minister cannot be taken lightly. If I decided to accept it, I would be committing my whole life to this work. I had to he sure that I had the conviction and the calling. I decided it would be better not to give a definite answer on the spot.
"Could you give me a day to talk this over with my wife? I promise to call on you tomorrow and give you a definite answer one way or the other."
After leaving Reverend Dong's office, I went to a nearby park and took a walk. The first thought to cross my mind was that this might be the answer to the pledge I had made to God when He saved my life. If so, then it was a calling to become a minister. I wasn't at all certain, though, that I was capable of fulfilling such a holy position.
It had been five years since my baptism into the Church of Christ in Columbus, and I had done everything I could to be a faithful and pious Christian. For some reason, though, I could not feel a flame of religious fervor burning within me. It was possible that I was attending church merely out of a sense of duty. When I stopped to think about it, I realized that my feelings toward the church had cooled.
I asked myself: "If the fire of God doesn't yet burn in my own heart, then how can I expect to be able to light the fire in the hearts of others? If I myself don't have a clear understanding of God, then how can I teach about God to others? Wouldn't this he an act of hypocrisy? In fact, wouldn't I be guilty of using God for the sake of having an opportunity to travel to America and study? If that's true, my conscience will never let me get away with it.
"Isn't it true that the reason I don't have a fervent faith is that I haven't been able to find clear answers to several fundamental issues regarding Christianity? Do I really think that I can become a minister despite all these factors?"
I spent a lot of time agonizing over these questions and talking over Reverend Dong's offer with my wife.
Fundamental Doubts Regarding Christianity
Now that I was faced with this decision, it was no longer possible to avoid dealing with my questions by concentrating on my busy career. In a way, the many demands of my military duties had made it easy not to think of the questions that had been bubbling under the surface of my consciousness. Now I could see that the lack of resolution to my doubts was a major block to committing myself further to the church.
Some say that with religion, it is virtue to believe blindly. I, however, could not agree with this. I believe that modern religion must he logical and scientific. I wanted to believe in God on the basis of having knowledge of the truth.
One question that I had been struggling with was this: If God, as Christianity teaches, is good, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, then how is it that there is so much evil in the world that He created?
The French philosopher Albert Camus, like many other great thinkers of the twentieth century, grappled with the problem of evil. His conclusion was that, when one looks at the reality of evil in the world, it is impossible to justify a belief in a good, omniscient, and omnipotent God.
Would I decide that the world was too full of filth and too evil to allow me to believe in the existence of God? Look at human history, which can be seen as a gallery in time where humanity's deception, hatred, corruption, and violence are exhibited in abundance. These have nothing to do with the goodness of God or with agape (self-sacrificing) love. Look at the ugly selfishness that people exhibit. People's interests collide all the time in our society, leading them to do everything from file lawsuits to commit murders to start wars. Why wasn't it possible for an omniscient and omnipotent God to create a world without war?
I had no intention of going so far as to deny God Himself. At the same time, I could not silence the skeptical voice with-in me that shouted: The world today cannot possibly be the same world that God created. Something must have happened in order for it to have become what it is today."
Modern Christianity did not have a clear answer on this point. In the Bible, there is just one passage regarding this problem. This is the Book of Genesis, chapters two and three, where it says that humankind broke God's commandment and ate the "fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" and fell as a consequence.
I put this question to my minister several times. "What is the 'fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil'?" No one was able to answer this question clearly.
Furthermore, how is it that Adam and Eve's sin of wrongfully eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil came to be passed down from generation to generation to the point where humanity exists in such a corrupt state today? What was it about this fruit that eating it placed some sort of genetic curse on all humankind?
Christianity had not been able to provide me with satisfactory answers, and I had even more questions. One had to do with the Bible itself. The Bible is a remarkable piece of literature, a notable work of history, and a great textbook for people to learn about life. Countless valuable teachings are packed into the Bible. These facts are undeniable. On the other hand, much of the content in the Bible is expressed in metaphors. Just as is true with other prophetic works such as Jong gam-rok.2 the Bible is difficult to understand. A person who wants to understand God's consistent will and His providence has a difficult time gaining this information from the Bible.
It is like the proverbial blind men touching different parts of an elephant. Different people understand different parts of the "elephant" to some degree, but no one is able to grasp the whole. For what purpose did God create? What is the purpose of human life? What is the final destination of human history? Does the end of the world prophesied in the Bible signify, destruction or hope? How does salvation come about? Why must there be a messiah? Is it possible for a person to be saved without the messiah? When will Jesus return? Will he return on a cloud? Does a person of faith have any choice other than to believe literally in such prophecies of supernatural phenomena?
I also had questions regarding salvation. It is said that humankind is born with original sin but receives salvation by believing in the redemptive blood shed on the cross by Jesus Christ. Even if a person is saved, though, his children are still born with original sin. Why can't the omniscient and omnipotent God eradicate original sin once and for all? According to the Christian understanding, at least, God seems to be in the role of both causing the disease and dispensing the cure. He causes people to have original sin, and then gives us Jesus, the messiah, in order to wipe our sins away. Will humankind have to continue this cycle for all time?
I had found another major contradiction in modern Christian teachings. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was God's only son whom He sent for the purpose of being crucified on the cross. If that is so, then Jesus' crucifixion must have been in accordance with God's will. Yet, we read how Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup [the cross of crucifixion] pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." [Matthew 26:3913
Did Jesus coming face to face with the suffering he was about to experience, feel the mortal emotion of fear? Was he pleading with God to let him escape the suffering of the cross? Even such martyrs for Korean independence as Ahn Jongkun (1879-1910) and Yoo Kwan-soon (1994-1920) did not pray for God to `let this cup pass."
In Korean history, there is the famous example of the "six martyred ministers." These were six court ministers who were put to death in 1456 for refusing to repudiate their loyalty to a king who had been forcibly deposed by an uncle who then usurped the throne for himself. One of the six, a man named Sung Sam-nun, was being tortured with a red-hot iron. As the person administering the torture pressed the iron against his flesh, Sung had the courage to shout out: "This iron is much too cold! Why don't you put it back in the fire for a while?"
Yet, I was supposed to believe that the savior who had been entrusted by God with the immense mission of enabling all humankind to receive salvation had felt fear in the face of the cross that would enable him to bring about this salvation and that he prayed such a prayer of weakness. I believe any such teaching blasphemes the savior. I came to doubt that Christianity truly understood the heart of Jesus.
Christianity today criticizes Jews for not following Jesus when he was on earth and for allowing him to die on the cross. Yet, if God sent Jesus for the purpose of dying on the cross, then wouldn't it he logical to say that the chosen people of Israel played their part in allowing God's will to be fulfilled? Shouldn't, then, their act of betrayal be a matter to praise, rather than attack? I see no greater contradiction than to judge the Israelites for the sin of betrayal and then turn around and claim that Jesus came to die on the cross.
John 8:32 says, "and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." I was hungry for the truth that this verse spoke of. I wanted to know the truth. I wanted to invest my whole being into that truth. During the five years following my baptism in America, I tried to be a pious Christian. But the further I went and the more I tried to know, the more I felt as though I were sinking into a deep quagmire.
These were my honest feelings at the time that I met with Reverend Dong. I left the church and returned home, where I discussed the matter fully with my wife. Then, two days later, I visited Reverend Dong at his office again.
I gave him my decision politely. "Reverend Dong, I don't think that I will ever be able to forget the enormous grace and blessing that you have given me. Though I am a person of few talents, you have looked after me so much that I doubt that I will ever be able to repay you. But Reverend Dong, I don't think that I will ever he able to become a minister. No matter how much I think about this, I don't think I can have the kind of faith that will enable me to give guidance to others on matters of faith. So, I would appreciate it very much if you would reconsider your offer to allow me to study in the United States."
I had to work hard to hold back the tears as I gave him this reply. I was being offered the opportunity of a lifetime. But I had no choice. Once the meeting was over and I was out of the office, however, I felt good for having acted according to my conscience.
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