A few years ago, I invited an American friend to come with me to visit my home country, South Korea. We both taught together at the same school in the Middle East. I was excited to see my friend fully enjoying the culture and people of South Korea.
While in Seoul, we visited a unique cemetery located at the outskirts of the city. This small piece of land is dedicated primarily for foreigners who lived to restore hope in Korea from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. Approximately 500 bodies are buried in this cemetery, including many children.
Some of the tombstones displayed a brief inscription about their lives. It did not take long to realize that many of those buried in this cemetery were Christians. As I walked through the aisles and read about the lives of the people buried there, two observations struck me.
First, I was quite shocked to discover that a significant number of expatriates who were buried in this cemetery died of ‘과로사’. This Korean word does not have an exact interpretation in English but could be translated as “to work oneself to death.” I saw unfathomable passion to serve and love the Koreans and the communities in which they lived. I later learned that many of these Christians came to Korea as young adults, and their hard work was vivid enough that it was recorded as the cause of their deaths.
Second, these Christians were professionals in their work and contributed and displayed their love for Korea and its people in many different aspects that impacted the society deeply. Many renown educational and healthcare institutes were established by them, and they influenced other areas of society through their vocations by:
- Providing vocational training to rural people.
- Advocating the human rights movement.
- Working to end Yangban (the ruling class) system for equal rights.
- Leading the enlightenment movement for women through education.
- Fighting for the liberation of Korea from Japan’s occupation (1910-1945).
- Translating Korean literature into English and English literature into Korean.
- Introducing Western sports, including the establishment of the YMCA.
When these expatriates served Korea, the country was poor, forgotten, and overlooked. The Korean people and society lacked access to physical, intellectual, and social enrichment. With servant hearts that desired to see transformed lives, the expatriates worked hard to bring the hope and restoration that my forefathers needed.
Their passion and professionalism cost their lives, and I am one of the fruits of their love for Korea and its people. As an IDEAS Associate, I now continue their legacy through my vocation as I work to see lives transformed in the Middle East.
About the Author: Jae is the IDEAS Director of Project Operations for Jordan and is a licensed professional engineer and a math and science teacher. He speaks Korean, English, and Arabic. Jae and his wife have been IDEAS Associates since 2014 and currently reside in Jordan with their 3-year-old son. Enjoy other blogs by Jae, such as "The Value of Unproductivity."