Reflections of a “Koraiish” Missionary Kid
by Dr. Dan Kim
Our life experiences can often bring deeper and more wonderful illumination to God’s Word.
When missionary candidates contemplate the possibility of doing long-term foreign mission work, they must consider (among other things) the effects of the mission experience on their families. There are many struggles for a new missionary in a foreign land, particularly when it comes to using or learning a foreign language and understanding a place’s culture and customs. Often missionaries’ children will likewise struggle with the new context, though with varying degrees of difficulty depending on their ages. According to some research, children under the age of 12 are capable of becoming fluent in a foreign language and culture while older children will most likely become at best partially fluent. This means that the younger the missionary kid (MK), the more he or she will assimilate to the new context. Issues such as this suggest the need for adequate preparation so that a missionary family can overcome the inevitable culture shock and serve the Lord for many years to come.
When I was 5 years old, my family moved from Korea to Thailand so my parents could serve as missionaries. My situation of being a Korean MK in Thailand and attending an international school where (formal) English was spoken and taught was, to put it mildly, challenging. To describe it, I have coined the adjective “Koraiish” (kor-AYE-ish). It is intentionally combined from the three languages (Korean, Thai, and English) that I encountered daily upon first setting foot in Bangkok, Thailand. Instead of dealing with learning how to read simple books or how to write my name in my mother tongue like other children my age, I was learning how to do it in two different languages and learning to communicate orally in a third. (I never learned to read and write in Thai.) My parents tell me that it took one full calendar year before I even began to say anything in Thai, at which time I began speaking in complete sentences.
In hindsight, it was a tremendous learning experience for me. I had lived in, through, and out three different languages and cultures through the preferred immersion method. Because of this, I find tremendous delight in eating durian, the king of fruits in Thailand; in eating extremely spicy and garlic-laden foods commonly found in Korea; and in eating the various kinds of cheeses found in the United States. In all three cases, foreigners might be turned off, perhaps even repulsed by the respective pungent smells of these foods. Veteran missionaries will tell rookie missionaries that one way to truly adapt to a new culture is to eat its more challenging foods. Thus, I recall my family trying to mask the smell of durian with the equally pungent smell of kimchi so that we might become more assimilated with the Thai people.
I can honestly say that I am better equipped to serve the Lord because of my experiences as an MK. For me, the Joseph narratives in Genesis 37–50 are the type of stories that resonate with my life experience. At the young age of 17, Joseph was unwillingly sold as a slave in a foreign land, forcing him to learn a new language and culture. Yet by God’s grace, his experience was a powerful witness to the Egyptians as he testified to his brothers: “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5 ESV). This is exactly how I feel about my experiences as an MK. Despite being taken to a foreign land, not of my own volition, and being thrust into learning new cultures and languages, I can truly declare to others God’s grace to me through these trying times.
In many ways, our life experiences can often bring deeper and more wonderful illumination to God’s Word. For example, a couple who has experienced infertility could read the story of Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1–2) and share with others how they felt emotionally, physically, and psychologically during their own struggle with infertility. Likewise, an MK might read the Joseph narratives and describe some of the experiences and feelings that Joseph may have encountered during his early days in Egypt. These are just some examples of how we can learn in deeper ways about Scripture from each other in the body of Christ.
Another benefit I see of being an MK is the ability to recognize the telltale signs of culture in Scripture and in people with greater accuracy and nuance. For instance, I can intuitively recognize that certain patterns found in local churches are more a result of context and culture than biblical or theological mandates. The way churches in Korea pray “out loud” versus the common “popcorn” style of prayer found in American churches is a good illustration of differing cultural expressions of the biblical mandate for believers to engage in corporate prayer. Neither is the only means of biblical prayer, nor is one preferable. They are both simply cultural expressions of a biblical mandate and are appropriate within their individual contexts.
In his book American Ways, when Gary Althen writes, “It is not possible to take one or two aspects of a culture and transplant them somewhere else,” he implies the importance of recognizing that a culture—with its strengths and weaknesses—is a complete package. Just because I do not like something about Korean culture does not mean that I can take the parts I do like and transplant them into Thai culture. Each culture is a functioning system in its own right and must be respected as a whole. Thus, I am at the same time comfortable in three cultures yet feel equally foreign in each of them. This is why I can understand intuitively what it means to be a stranger (Hebrew ger) in a foreign land, to be in the world but not of it (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17). It is this experience that has prepared me to more easily assimilate into new cultural environments. Not only do I respect and carefully observe the various cultures represented in the greater St. Louis area but also I find myself respecting and carefully studying the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament was written and the Hellenistic culture from which the New Testament was written. This approach has equipped me to be a better expositor of God’s Word.
If you are considering long-term missionary service, I exhort you to seek the Lord’s will in your life and to obey him. Yes, there are many issues to pray over carefully and to consider before going into missions. Most likely one of the issues will be your children. If you find yourself in this position, I want to encourage you: I can honestly say that my testimony of God’s faithfulness and grace in my life is a fulfillment of his promise found in Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” ESV). I believe that a direct result of my parents’ obedience to God’s call has been an outpouring of God’s grace upon my life in remarkable and almost inexplicably good ways.
Dr. Dan Kim, assistant professor of Old Testament, served for three years as an assistant pastor in two Korean-American churches on the East Coast. He was born in South Korea and moved to Thailand as a child, where his parents and older brother currently serve as missionaries and where he; his wife, Tammy; and their firstborn, Joseph, also served a one-year short-term mission. Having been raised in a tri-cultural environment, Dr. Kim has firsthand knowledge of many intercultural issues. In addition to his interests in Old Testament studies, Dr. Kim has a heart for evangelism, overseas theological education/missions, and adult Christian education. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Covenant magazine.