Wednesday, 31 July 2013

kcl diaries: sketches from the tube

A man in a suit sat down in the empty seat next to me and unconsciously covered the armrest between our seats with his broad, striped suit jacket. I was displeased. I wanted to rest my elbow on that armrest and here it was suddenly draped in the pompous flap of a businessman’s suit. Not wanting to ask him directly to move it, I spent the next three minutes casually trying to push his jacket off the armrest with my elbow. After a concentrated effort during which I tried to look as oblivious as possible, my elbow finally staked a claim for itself on the arm. Aha! I allowed myself a small triumphant smile. Then we arrived at the next station, and in the two seconds that I removed my elbow to scratch my nose, the pompous suit jacket also removed itself and was replaced by a chubby, dimpled arm belonging to a large woman who comfortably took over possession of the recently conquered territory without so much as a “How d’you do?”


While changing lines at Green Park Station, two boys who didn’t quite reach my shoulder whizzed past us through the station on rollerskates. They looked free and blithe and invincible in a way only little boys who are daring enough to ride the Tube in rollerskates can look, and as they skated ahead, weaving through the crowd of suits and summer dresses, their lively figures made a pleasing contrast to the tall sedate shapes walking briskly around them.
We saw them again when we arrived at the platform for the Piccadilly line, as they skated over to us to ask, “Is this train going to Hyde Park Corner?” Yes it is, we told them, and they contentedly retreated a little way from us to wait near the edge of the platform for the train. They stood there in their rollerskates, looking as if they might at any moment roll over onto the tracks, but they were unconscious of any cause for fear. Finding no room for itself in the boys’ minds, fear chose instead to settle on everyone around the youngsters, and my friends and I watched the rollerskaters anxiously while they chatted in still-unbroken voices with each other. When the train pulled in, they clambered onto it cheerfully, quite unaware of the sea of hands behind them, stretched out in case they needed a steadying push. The doors closed, all the suits and summer dresses and rollerskates safely on board, and the whole carriage sighed a collective sigh of relief.


I changed lines at Green Park from Piccadilly to Jubilee, with three stops to go until Southwark. The train was mostly empty, and I absorbed myself in my phone. When the doors opened at Westminster I was jolted out of my self-imposed isolation and panicked, thinking I’d missed my stop. I ran off the train discomposed, and as I watched the train pull out behind me, I realized I had alighted two stations too early. Why is my response to panic always to run and never to freeze? I spun around in the middle of the station and tried to look cool as I walked sheepishly past everyone else who had got off and back to the platform to wait for the next train. After about five minutes, the train pulled in, and I climbed into a carriage overcrowded with sweaty bodies that made me think longingly of the cool, empty train I had pointlessly left minutes before.


I sat down diagonally across from a young girl and her brother. The girl looked at me and leaned over to her brother to whisper something, and they both stared at me and smirked. I matched their stare and shoved my earphones into my ears, feeling both amused and frustrated with myself for caring enough to glare back at them. They continued to stare and smirk and nod their heads knowingly, and I found myself wondering what could possibly be so entertaining about my person at that moment. In a fit of immaturity I rolled my eyes at them. I immediately felt as though I was about two inches tall, and decided to stop paying attention to the giggles coming from my two o’clock before I could go any lower in my own eyes. I was glad to get off a few stations later, glad to escape the tween-shaped reminders of my own self-consciousness.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

kcl diaries: little ghosts

South Woodford - the east London suburb I grew up in - is a quiet neighbourhood, free of the sometimes-oppressive crowds of central London. And yet every time I go back to visit, it seems to me brimming with life. There are people, people, everywhere, but, oh- they are invisible to everyone else. You see, Woodford is peopled with the cheerful ghosts of my happy childhood years, and every time I go back they are always there to welcome me. I am jostled at every turn by a little figure in a blue and white checkered school uniform dress with her black hair in two little plaits, or by her friends, racing down the street to see who would be the "rotten egg" for that afternoon. Little ghost Yuries greet me at every new street - there's one reading by the alligator bookshelf just inside the big windows of the library, there's another queueing to buy an ice lolly from the ice cream van, there's one excitedly rushing to push a child-sized shopping trolley inside Waitrose, and - hallo, what have we here? - Yurie and a whole army of merry little ghosts marching out of the Pizza Express, proudly carrying the pizzas they each made all by themselves on what was undoubtedly the best class trip ever.

It's impossible that going back to visit Woodford can be anything other than a happy experience for me when the place is crowded with the memories and people (both invisible and visible) of my happy early years. We are drawn to revisit places of personal joys, not necessarily with the expectation that we will experience the same feelings and relive everything over when we go back, but because just being there is joy enough. I know that I am privileged to have been able to visit so many times since moving away permanently, and each visit is like walking through the pages of a giant photo album of my childhood, except that the subjects in the pictures cannot be seen with the eye, and all the pages from different years blur together.

It is selfish of me, but I am glad to come back and find that things are mostly the same. That most of my friends and their families still live at the same address, that the Churchfields schoolchildren still wear the same uniform that I did, that the Odeon is still where people watch their movies, that the South Woodford tube station is still mostly empty and peaceful. But really, it would be ridiculous to have expected anything else. Children have been walking down Churchfields Road to go to school every morning for generations, and I'm certain the Odeon and most of the pubs are older than I am. When it comes down to it, my nine years in Woodford was just a passing through, of sorts, just a blip on the life and history of the place, and though my life changed radically and brought me to all sorts of unexpected places (I still marvel, now and then, that I ended up in California) after I left, the life of Woodford continued on in the same trajectory it has followed for years and will continue to follow. Which, as I said, is only cause for happiness for me. It is nice to come back to the familiar.

Most of all though, I am glad that the friendships I developed in Woodford are still intact ten years after I left. That it is not just little ghosts I come back to, but real, flesh-and-blood friends with whom I can catch up on our experiences of the past four, five, seven, ten years, and in whom I can still see the kindred spirit that caused us to first say to each other, "Want to play a game with me?" in the school playground all those years ago.

Monday, 8 July 2013

kcl diaries: what an opportunity

Today marks the exciting milestone of one full week in London.

It has been a constantly moving kaleidoscope of new faces, historic places, green parks, landmarks, Shakespeare, and sentences that don't always end in rhyme.

Over the course of seven (well, technically eight, or seven-and-a-half, counting the first Sunday) days, I have soaked in the beauty of London's parks and gardens, revelled in the historicity of the city, stood in the very hall Twelfth Night was performed in by Shakespeare's company four centuries ago, walked along Chancery Lane, squinted studiously at portraits of the dead and great Tudors, accidentally followed a girl in my building into her flat, danced for three hours on a boat along the Thames with complete strangers, and climbed on a jungle gym only allowed for children under 11 years old while judging parents looked on. I have been to see one spectacular performance of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre, during which I felt I was a part of the play myself, and I have also been to see Despicable Me 2 at the Odeon at Marble Arch. I laughed much more than I expected to at the former, and I teared up at the end of the latter. I have explained in class why I think portrayals of Lady Macbeth that show her as vulnerable are better, and I have listened as others disagreed with me. I've been to more pubs than I've ever been to in my life, and I have learned all over again what an exhilarating and broadening experience it is to meet people from all around the world, and to have talks with them that are peppered with foreign slang and exclamations of wonder and delight as each person contributes different coloured pieces of their home countries into the mosaic of our conversation.

And it's only been one week.

Yesterday, I met up with an old friend, whom I met for the first and last time on a single day in Korea four years ago when he was travelling around East Asia and a mutual friend connected us, asking me to show him around Seoul (and who might be reading this right now). He told me that since we first/last met, he had become a Christian, and shared with me his crazy, beautiful, inexpressibly encouraging testimony. We then talked for a while about our churches, our ways of ministering to others, our blessings, and our struggles. I mentioned how I felt it to be challenging being away from my Christ-centred community, even after just one week, and how unused to it I was. "All of a sudden I am constantly surrounded by and only interacting with people who don't know Christ," I told him.

"What an opportunity!" he replied.

How right he is, and how I hope that I may not waste it. His three words have lodged in my head over the past twenty-four hours, and I will take them to be the mantra of my remaining five weeks (only five?) here. In more ways than one, what an opportunity it is to be here. An opportunity to learn, grow, absorb, discover and re-discover. But of course and above all, in the way he meant it: to share the love of Christ with the people I meet here and be a light for him in this city.

And now: Shakespeare calls.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

kcl diaries: london is crazy innit

It is a strange and wonderful feeling to be back in the city I called home for the first nine years of my life. ("Strange" and "wonderful" being two adjectives I find myself using together frequently, probably because I find that many strange things are often also wonderful.) Having lived those nine years in a pleasant little pocket of suburbia and never in the city itself I feel new and unfamiliar with my surroundings while still feeling very much at home.

I thought all the websites and emails were exaggerating when they said King's is in the heart of London, but it really is. After I arrived at my dorm yesterday I went for a wander which took me first to the King's Waterloo Campus and then up and down and across the Thames. Meandering through Southbank brought on that odd mixture of the joy of coming home to the familiar and the wonder of discovering new places. And Sunday afternoon was a beautiful day for wandering Southbank - ceaseless activity, rows and rows of old books and prints for sale, clusters of large crowds around street performers, children running and shrieking through water fountains, queues for ice cream vans and Mexican food (although the quality of the Mexican food here must be doubted until proven definitively yummy), a giant upside down purple cow (gotta check out Udderbelly if I can!), and a delightfully chaotic jumble of multilingual babble.

A walk across Hungerford Bridge brought me to a garden I cannot remember the name of, only that it was filled with happy couples and families lying on the grass, a monument to those who fought in the Battle of Britain, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and back across to the Big Eye. The last time I was in the Big Eye was 2009 and I remember being particularly grumpy and sullen that day. Happy memories! And then jet lag took over so I dragged myself through the streets, past Waterloo Station and the Old Vic and - home.

On the way back I stopped at Sainsbury's and had a friendly conversation with the cheery guy who rang up my purchases. He asked how my day had been and I told him I'd just flown in from California, I grew up here but moved to Korea, I go to university in Berkeley, and, sorry, what's that? which city do I like best? San Francisco, I said, and my reply came very easily without my really thinking about it. - What d'you like about San Francisco? he asked me. - Oh, I like the people and the atmosphere, it's free and it's fresh and it's ... mellow. - Relaxed, yeah? London is crazy, innit? he laughed, have a good stay, take care.

London is crazy, but Mad-Hatter-March-Hare-tea-party kind of crazy, the kind that makes you say, "Yes, please, I'd love some dubious-looking tea poured by a narcoleptic dormouse!" And San Francisco/Berkeley is the place I like best, but we'll see what my answer to the Sainsbury's guy is after six weeks. If every day is as happy as these past two have been, then this is looking to be the most brilliant of summers. And with every passing hour, every new person from a foreign country I meet, every glance up from my computer out the window to the night lights of London, I am increasingly grateful to be here. My hope is that as I discover more of this city and understand more fully the blessing of being here, I will through it all continue also to be discovering more of the one who holds this city in His hands and understanding more fully the joy of knowing Him. Please keep me in your prayers! I already feel the challenges of being away from the community I call my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I know He is with me in London as He is with me in Berkeley.