the weekend

September 17, 2006

This Friday I headed down to Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul. It is the headquarters of Korean Buddhism, more or less. This is the place I got my first translating job in Korea. You can see some of the results on Koreanbuddhism.net where I did some translations of biographies of great monks (only one nun, unfortunately). Before going, I was a bit worried, cuz first of all i was a bit tired and depressed, the reality of living alone in a big city really setting in now, and second, because I would have to tell them that I wouldn’t be able to help them with work now because I would be too busy with my studies. In fact, I almost postponed. That would have been a big mistake.

I went and had a great time. My contact, Mr. Nam, was more than gracious and worried more for my sake than his own. He was okay with me not working anymore and just let me know that I could come back and work whenever the time was right. Moreover, he knew some old friends who would be able to help me with my research! We then went out for vegetarian lunch with some other workers there, including my friend Sujeong, and had an interesting discussion about my research – mostly about feminism and the history of Korean patriarchy. One man was adamant that “patriarchy is disappearing quickly,” I disagreed. More importantly though, the two women said nothing but merely smiled when I gave my opinion. The key fact being that neither had felt comfortable to speak up on the topic in front of two older men, depsite the fact that their opinion would obviously be the most pertinent, right?

They also asked me if i had seen “Loose Change” the movie about 9/11 and the supposed claim that the U.S. government was behind it all. Oddly, it was the third time I was asked the question in the past week. It seems it’s been getting a lot of play here. Some believe the government was directly behind it, others that the government knew and let it happen, still others ridicule such claims altogether. Not so much unlike the spread of opinion in the US it seems, though i’d say the numbers believing the first two categories are much higher here in Korea.

I also had a kind of inspiring thing happen. I went to the Jogye-sa store to buy some incense and while there, i looked to see if they had my book. Sadly, it couldn’t be found. Sujeong asked if I’d seen my book and I said with a frown, “No, i guess they don’t have it.” As I pouted like a baby, she went to the desk to inquire and voila, it was all out and they had ordered more. I think this is the only place it is selling well. I haven’t had contact with my publisher in a little while, so I don’t really know. I’m guessing no news is bad news, so I’m afraid to check in ~~gulp~~.

After bidding farewell and a warm round of thanks to Mr. Nam and Sujeong, I headed off for home with a big sense of relief. Feeling all giddy on a Friday afternoon, I decided to start taking some random street shots, like a news stand and a sidewalk fortune teller (click for more info and bigger pictures).Then, I took one too many pictures. As I walked through the street underpass (many of the busiest streets don’t have crosswalks.

Rather, you walk underneath them), where they have advertisements and stuff, as you can see from the picture on the side with a woman sporting a horn arising from her bum area.

I saw one of the many beggars who take up residence on the steps. Korean beggars are quite unlike American beggars. Many of them are sitting or on their knees, bowing down completely, not showing their faces in a sign of utter humility and perhaps not a small amouth of shame.

I wanted to get a quick snapshot so you could see what it looks like, but dang if I hadn’t accidently turned the flash on. I took my shot and quick tried to scoot away when suddenly I hear the guy yelling at me, “Why’d you take my picture!!!???” I had a total brain fart and did what…? I lied!!! “I didn’t take your picture!” I have no idea why I lied. I was shocked mainly because he had grabbed me pretty tightly, and, not used to having strangers get physical with me like that, I think it was a defense mechanism to try and immediately de-escalate the situation. I was bigger and he was already under the influence (as the odor seemed to indicate), so, I didn’t want grab to come to push to come to shove… and I guess I just blurted out whatever it was that my instinct thought could stop the scene from escalating. Didn’t work. Worse, I was now stuck in my lie…

By now, a crowd had gathered and he was demanding to see my camera, which I had quickly thrust in my pocket by now. Another man came to our side and started explaining to me in Korean why he was mad with me. (Why he felt this necessary, I don’t know. It was kind of funny. The first guy was already making his point clear! If he’d tried the English translation thing, okay, but why did he need to reiterate in Korean? Cuz the guy was a beggar. I wanted to tell him off, cuz I felt he was being rather condescending to the beggar who was doing just fine on his own, but, he was just trying to help, so, no big whoop.) He said that it was against the law in Korea to take pictures of strangers and thus he was right to accost me. This is not true, the law allows you to photograph almost anything in public, including people, but whatever. I wasn’t going to argue law. So, I argued money! Here, have some money and leave me alone. Nope, didn’t work and his grip and yelling was getting stronger. I switched tactics, trying to get the moral high ground, “Stop grabbing me please!” I demanded a few times in Korean. He let go, but then turned the tables. “Show me the camera then!!!” Uh oh. Nice move beggar man. “uh, i, uh…” What to do? The picture was sitting there in the memory card, like the telltale heart! Thinking quickly, I pulled the camera out and made sure it was in the “take a picture” mode, such that the screen merely showed the live action in the camera lens. I tried to hold the camera as still as possible, to make it seem like the live scene was in fact a still picture. “See, no picture! no picture!” and then I put it away. He seemed confused, as well he should be. There WAS a picture, and he knew it, but not knowing digital cameras, he couldn’t figure out exactly what I had done. Yet we both knew it was there, somewhere…

How’d it end? Some rich business folks came meandering by and didn’t like this dustup ruining their pleasant lunch time one bit. This old rich guy in a really nice suit grabbed me gently, looked me in the eye and said, “What’s going on?” and I was like, “uh, I don’t know” and he just started walking with me in the other direction, “Just go… go.” And that was it. I booked off towards my destination, deleting the picture as soon as I got a safe distance away (why? cuz I felt guilty, that’s why. Though it wasn’t against the law, it was not the most polite thing to take his picture. And then to have this rich guy come down on my side like that… why? Cuz I’m not a beggar? I’m a white guy?)

Anyways, thank goodness it wasn’t my regular subway station!

Then on Friday night, I had my last session with a friend of mine, Hyun-bin, who spent all week preparing for a job interview/presenation in the United States. She is a designer for LG who wants out of the Korean working environment. Despite her skyrocketing success winning national and international awards for her cell phone designs, she had only 20 days off the entire year. That doesn’t mean 20 days besides weekends. That means 20 days total – less than 2 days a month. And these aren’t 8 hour days either, more like 18. I said, “Dang, you guys need a union!” She said, “We have one!” (Ouch. Not a very strong one. They need lessons from GEO! ha ha ha) “That’s exactly why I’m going to the States!” Right… good choice. Weekends off shouldn’t be a luxury. We spent an hour or two each day this past week editing and re-editing her 20 minute long presentation and then working on pronounciation and intonation, etc. Lots of fun actually, owing primarily to her hard work and her kind disposition. She said work will settle down when she gets back and she can start giving me Korean lessons…. I’ll believe it when i see it! Not because i don’t trust her, of course, but because she’s always going to be so busy as long as she’s at LG, i think. Anyways, it was a fun week of hard work with a good new friend.

Saturday came and went uneventfully. I went for a long run on the Han gang again. Got nice and sweaty, but still haven’t encountered a running group, as I’m hoping for. Then I went out to work at some cafes, getting some research prep done and doing some more editing for a friend back home. I took the subway out and walked back, taking in the revelry on the way home. It was so lonely, watching everyone, i mean EVERYONE, seeming to have a grand old raucous time, and me just schlupping my way home by myself. I stood in front of this huge singing room complex that had windows open to the street, showing the merriment going on inside. One room in particular caught the attention of passersby, as they seemed to really be getting into it. This lovely ladies and handsome men all danced and sang with such happiness… and of course, there was a foreign guy in there too, just to say, “ha ha, you suck, you lonely loser.”

Could I be any more pathetic? Worst of all, the little restaurant on the way home wasn’t making any more fresh gimbap, and all the premade stuff had meat, so i couldn’t even get a proper little snack before I got home. Boo! It was time for a shower, a little video chatting and sleep. In-deed.

Sunday has been much better. Woke up after a long rest, had a relaxing breakfast, got all the cleaning/dishes/laundry done and then decided that instead of working all day, I’d go check out this temple where a whitey monk gives talks on Sundays. This temple is the only one near Seoul with foreign monks in residence. I’d never been before, so, the timing seemed right.

It took about an hour to get the the temple, Hwagye-sa (“sa” means temple), and I got a seat just before the talk started. Part of me wondered what the heck I had come so far for on my day off. I had heard such talks before numerous times, and the topic (the orginial “Zen” master, Bodhidharma) was one I had not only heard, but taught about in my own classes back at Michigan. Nevertheless, it started well and I heard some good stuff: “Bodhidharma defined mind like this, it is in every moment, that place where language cannot go.” Moreover, it was nice just to sit on the wood floors and smell the incense again. I really miss that opportunity in the States. There are temples in the US, sure, but it just isn’t the same.

But after about 40 minutes or so, I started to get bored. Not that the topic isn’t important, or relevant, or interesting… but, I knew it all intellectually, at least. I got to thinking, “you know, this isn’t it… to know isn’t to be, and I need to be. Enough with the knowing…”

Just then, the monk started saying, “You know, it really is ridiculous to keep coming to these talks after a while. It really is. You hear the same things don’t you? Isn’t it boring? I see some of the same faces again and again, you’ve heard this again and again. Why are you here? You need to do it, not hear it.”

Woah. So, I packed up, did my bows, and left, right on cue. This left me time to wander around the temple grounds a bit, get some water at the “ong-dal-saem” (mountain spring), and

chat a bit with the “ticket taker” at the gate to the national park (as you can see, he didn’t much give a whit about taking any tickets! everyone just passed on by and entered the park!).

This was followed by a nice swift climb to the ridge line, where I could get yet another gorgeous view of Seoul and the mountains that endlessly embrace her.

Up there, I happened across a dad who was carrying a Michigan hat! We talked.. he’d been to Ann Arbor.

Small world. Then I ran down the mountain path and went back to the temple, cuz I smelled food! Dinner at a temple is always an open affair. In fact, it isn’t called dinner really, or food. It is called a “rice offering,” and thus, as long as the monks and nuns are fed first and there’s something left over, anyone else can chow down.

Well, funny thing, i notice a fella who looks familiar in front of the chow hall. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s one of my former students from Michigan! I knew he’d decided to come to Seoul, but to see him out of the blue (No “Go Blue” reference here, Go Red!) was wild. The dinner ended up not happening cuz, well, there turned out to not be enough food this time, so, he and I and the friends he came with all hiked down the mountain and went out to eat together. It was fun to be with a group of Korea newbies, but also kind of intimidating, in that I realized how lucky I was to not have to be an English teacher any more – meaning of course, that I’d better get my ass cracking the books, pronto.

Pfew… that was the weekend it was.

All in all, a good time… Still, if I could be anywhere, it’d be on the banks of the Pecatonica to celebrate 90 wonderful years for my incredible grandfater, P.J. Burns. Happy Birthday Grandpa! I love and miss you very much!



  1. Your adventures in subway photojournalism are particularly striking because there is currently some buzz over a flickr set of “homeless faces.” Doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience and I’m glad to hear it didn’t get out of hand. Did you try your Godzilla imitation? It seemed to work with those kids, anyway.

    Within the span of 3 weeks, on the other side of the world and in a city of 10 million inhabitants, you’ve managed to just run into two friends from the West. Whoa. That’s a little creepy, actually.
    I also would like to send much love and many happy birthday wishes out to Hollandale. Happy 90th Grandpa!

  2. What a busy and fun-filled and exciting weekend you had. What a small world to run into 2 friends. Glad and good for you. Thanks for taking the time to tell us everything. I really enjoy reading it all and am so glad to be clued in to everything you’re doing and seeing. They missed YOU on the Pec, too. Love you.

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