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“i’m coming home, via chicago”

July 31, 2007

“dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me”

Coming home, via Chicago, so, I might as well play the song that says the same, even if it’s opening stanza isn’t the most uplifting.

Woke up at 5.30 am and decided to head out for a little stroll up to Seongmi-san to say goodbye. Saw lots and lots of old men and women getting their workout on. It was a rather joyful way to go through an otherwise sad experience.

The roads were almost empty….

but the mountain was not…

I shed a tear or two as I made my final ascent up the natural sanctuary that made Seogyo-dong a bit more tender space to live in.

The mountain spirit was undisturbed and told me to get a move on.

The ajumma was certainly getting on with her business…

Some grass and a flower in the wind…

The way home…

and the path back, for whenever I want to return.

My last stroll made me really miss my neighborhood. Just seeing things that are so normal that will again become so foreign: the cab driver who accepted my offering of orange juice immediately, without suspicion and instead only a smile and “thank you!”; the ajummas having their kaffee klatch on the mountain at 5.45 am.; the ajeossis bringing up their transistor radios to listen to trot music and clatter on about the ajummas below who are clattering on about them as well; the lovely grandma who huffs on by, but not without saying “Good morning!” to me in English as she passes; the strange looking ajeossi who sings to himself so loud and profoundly, oblivious to whomever may pass.

I saw more people at 5.30 am in my ‘hood than I may see at 12 noon in my home to be. I’m starting to think that in some ways, the culture shock of going from Korea to the US may pale in comparison to going from “huge city” to “small town.” Here, if you want things to happen to you, you just go for a walk, but back home, I think it’s going to take a lot more effort on my part to get the pot stirred up. It’s a recipe for a bit of loneliness if I don’t take care. Will there be a grandma in Appleton to wish me “Good Morning”? A cabbie who joyfully accepts a gift from an unknown stranger? I’ll find out soon enough. In just few hours, I’ll be coming home, via Chicago.

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Na neun gayo.

July 30, 2007

So this is it, the morning of my last full day in Korea this time around. 85% of the final goodbyes are done, but some of the hardest ones remain. I’ve already shed a few tears, but the heaviest ones are yet poised to drop.

I have very little left to say right now other than it’s a weighty thing to forge out a new life in a foreign land, and then have to leave it all behind. I’ll be back, but the world I’ve created this year will not be here when I return.

Lee Sangeun (aka Lee Tzsche) provides the mood music and refrain with her song “Samak사막” (Desert)…

“Na neun gayo.”

I’m leaving… I’m leaving…

😦

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Art-to-wear

July 28, 2007

One of my odd jobs lately has been providing some translation for a fashion design professor I met through a mutual friend. She produces what she calls “art-to-wear.” Her latest works include body painting and body suits that employ traditional patterns and pictures from the world of Buddhism. Such encounters are the types of things I’ll be missing quite a lot as I move on to life in Appleton. Don’t know how often I’ll be coming across things like this…

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or this…

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Still, the time has come, the goodbyes have begun, and it’s time to walk down a different branch in the road.

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The Cats of Minsokchon

July 26, 2007

Some brief thoughts, but first a song for your enjoyment. The song and thoughts have no relation whatsoever. I’ve just been giving it a pretty hard listen, so, I thought I’d share. Pure pop, of the summer variety, by a band named Phoenix. They hail from Paris, and sing in English. Go figure… Song’s called, “One time too many.”

We said goodbye to Jaime, who had a splendid time here in Korea (and we had a splendid time hosting her). It was her first time in Asia, and she was very excited to take in everything. She seemed to really like the bath house, especially. I second that.

The monsoon weather has set in to a pretty even pattern, lots of haze, sometimes cloudy, occasional showers… and always humid. Luckily, we’ve escaped the wrath of heat I faced two years ago when I was here for a summer of research. Daily temps over 100 and scorching sunshine. No thanks.

A sign that home is near . . . the 10 day weather forecasts no longer apply.

A sign that will be near our home . . . I ordered a wood name plaque for the 방랑당 bahngnahngdahng. It turned out incredibly well. I got goose bumps when I saw it. Then, later that night, two of my study partners, Yujin and Giseok, gave me a going away present – a big dojang (stamp) with the characters 放浪堂. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Gave me goosebumps and a few tears. I’d show pictures, but that’d spoil it. If you want to see them, you have to come to the bahngnahngdahng.

Finally, we visited the Korean Folk Village in Yongin (한국민속촌). I hadn’t been there in 13 years. They’ve made continual improvements, and the entire site is just fabulous. The preservation of trees has made all the difference, as each section remains separated from the other, lending the entire park a feeling of multiple cozy villages nestled into one another. An interesting side-note, and one I hope that others will catch onto, such that the little guys might gain a little fame… the village is full of chubby, beautiful cats! There were cats everywhere we looked. Of course, they steered clear of the humans, and rightfully so, but they seemed to love the village the most of anyone. They reminded me of the cat portraits from the Joseon dynasty painters Kim Hongdo (김홍도):

Kim Hongdo

-Hwangmyonongjeopdo (황묘농접도)

and my personal favorite, Byeon Sangbyeok (변상벽):

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-( I don’t know the title 😦 )

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-Myojakdo (묘작도)

To the cats of minsokchon MAN-SE!- may they live long, peaceful, and happy lives (and stop fighting with each other, you two I saw – you have a huge space to yourselves, enjoy it!).

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Congrats to Chris – now well into his thirties!

July 21, 2007

Mr. 31 ~ Happy Birthday and many more!
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Here’s hoping this year’s version of July 22 is plenty enjoyable for the dongsaeng. As someone who associates “birthday” with “gray and rainy,” there’s certainly no small amount of jealousy that Chris can enjoy his birthday grilling by the pool and tossing back a coupla cold ones. Then again, the dog days of summer far better suit his sunny and warm personality than the gloom and doom of November. We’re looking forward to celebrating in person in only a few weeks. Congratulations!!

As for news in Korea, the past week of travel was most enjoyable, as nearly every chance to get out of Seoul has become. The stress of city, uh, supermegamonstercity life have truly started to take their toll on me. Irritable, exhausted, distracted – I can’t seem to calm down unless I have a beer these days. Just too much too fast too often. And the tiny apartment doesn’t offer much respite.

Fortunately, I have generous friends who offer solace at their sanctuaries. First, in Gwangju where we spent time with my dear friends Bob, Hwanchul and Vanya. At night, we chatted til the wee hours and watched silly youtube videos. During the day, we ventured to the Gwangju National Cemetery to learn about the 1980 Democracy Movement and subsequent massacre. Then, up to a valley deep in Mudeung-san to sit by a mountain stream and gorge ourselves on mountain vegetables and rice wine.

Oh, how can I forget? Before the day’s trip began, I had my own Korean version of Michael Moore’s Sicko. On the way down to Gwangju, as our bus stopped into a highway rest area, I indulged as I always do on some roasted new potatoes. Suddenly, my tongue notices a new topographical feature in the cracks and crevices of my dental plains – ack, a new canyon! Seems my tooth got brokened by the potatoes! Weird indeed. Granted, a smaller piece had broken off earlier that week, but still – potatoes? This second piece was significantly larger and demanded quick attention. Still, we wouldn’t be back to Seoul for a while and we wouldn’t be in Gwangju but for a few days – would I have time for a crown? Yikes.

Well, long story short – went to dentist without an appointment, didn’t need a crown, had a permanent porcelain filling to cover the hole, final price – $40 and 2 hours – 1.25 of which were waiting in the office. Not bad.

Okay, back to travel tales. The next day, we took leave of the boys and went to see my Gwangju gal pal, Elaine, and hunkered down in the air conditioned comfort of her swanky apartment. Of course, no week goes by without sweat and toil, so, I did have to include a running workout, this time on the nice new track at Cheonnam University. It was my first “speed” workout in a while. Using the discipline accorded by a track, I managed a decent 5 miler in rather ridiculous heat and humidity. Warm up mile, 3 fast miles each quicker than the previous, then a “cool” down. Made me very eager to get on a track more regularly. Though my mileage has improved this year, my speed has tanked, so, I need some more training of that sort. Plus, oddly, I love the monotony of laps, where all I have to worry about is pacing. Anyways, sorry to bore you with that.

The night proceeded with ssambap (rice and side dishes wrapped in greens – think, fajitas, but using lettuce instead of tortillias) and patbingsu (ice, sweet milk, red beans, strawberries, sweet rice cakes), not a bad combination. Then home for more chats and wishful thoughts that we’d see each other again in the not too distant future. Elaine was one of my best friends here this year. I can’t say enough about how comfortable she made me feel when I was stressed, or how generous she was as a host. We spent quite a few hours complaining, laughing, and teasing each other. It was sad to say goodbye.

But goodbye it had to be, and at a very early hour. The next day we had to catch early buses, well, I had to catch an early bus and the ladies decided to join the fun. I was off to Baengnyeon Hermitage and they were headed back up to Seoul. My mission was to meet up with one Ilman Seunim 일만(日卍)스님(Seunim is the appellation for Korean monks), a friend I’d made at a trip to a temple in May. His hermitage is part of the immense Haein-sa complex. Though the weather was less than ideal, with fog enshrouding the entire Gaya Mountain, it made for a very peaceful and contemplative mood. 79350-01.jpg

My room was on the front face of the building on the far right. It looked straight out into a mountain valley, as you see in the second picture. Though the valley was mostly fog, it didn’t matter. Somehow in my mind, the beauty was all there intact. It made a great frame for my little cell, and I spent a good long while simply staring into that pleasant abyss.

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What is a visit to a hermitage like? Quiet. Great vegetarian food. Lots of green tea with chatty monks who like to laugh a lot. Prostrations, hundreds of them. Booming chanting that echoes in the hills. 2.40 am wake-up! Visits to surrounding hermitages and “brother monks.” Baengnyeon-am is famous for being the final resting place of the most famous Korean monk of the modern age, Seongcheol Seunim. This meditation master was known by everybody, primarily for his incredibly strict regimen and his meditation prowess. His fame grew so wide, and seekers so many, that he instituted a rule stating that only after doing 3,000 prostrations can anyone get the chance to meet him. Even now that he’s passed on, people still come to the hermitage to do their 3,000. I didn’t manage that many, but a minor chunk at least. Seongcheol welcomed anyone, rich or poor, Buddhist or Christian, as long as they did their prostrations. When President/Dictator Park Chunghee came by, Seongcheol blew him off. “Did he do 3000? No. Sorry. Not interested.” To Christians, he did have one fairly major stipulation, however:

Just a few days ago, three Christians came and did their 3,000 prostrations. I always tell Christians that there is one condition that they must agree to concerning their prostrations. The condition is that when they prostrate, they must make a wish that all those who refute their God and who curse Jesus are the first to go to their heaven. And they think that is really nice. After all, isn’t such an attitude a truly religious one? The one thing I can’t fathom is how people who claim to be truly religious can go around saying that only followers of their religion will go to a wonderful place after death, and everyone else will go to some place terrible.

The Buddha always said that the greater a person curses and hurts you, the greater you should respect, help and serve that person.

In fact, despite the fame of this hermitage, I wasn’t really all that interested in the legacy of Seongcheol, I just wanted to visit my friend. He’s an incredible man, Ilman. He was previously a Korean Marine Recon soldier (basically, the Korean version of the Navy Seals), but had a conversion after seeing not a few deaths take place right at his side during training. He also took part in the brutality that is Korean military training, beating many a young recruit. He himself admitted to “shedding buckets of tears” during his own training, suffering from the pain of constant abuse. Interesting confession to hear from such a big, strong man. He shared his picture from his Marine days, and he was definitely a frightening sight. I said he looked terrifying. He said he was terrifying, and that’s why he became a monk. We were both glad for his change.

The visit was only one day, as Ilman Seunim had to get up to Seoul to prepare for his own trip to the States. He’ll be staying in New Jersey at a Korean temple there for three months. Looks like I may have an east coast trip to ponder.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll leave you with an odd cartoon that kind of suits my state of mind about now….(click on it to see a bigger size if you can’t read it).

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The End Game, and historical memories

July 15, 2007

written by Matty (for a change, thanks for the hard work the past few weeks Dominica!)

some music for your listening, er… pleasure(?): Sam Cooke, “Change is Gonna Come.”

Oh boy, it’s come to this, the end game. I started to leave about a year ago, in my head at least, and now I’ve started to come back, again, a little bit early. I could say it’s gone fast, but that wouldn’t take account of the cold, dark, long February that seemed to last forever. I could say that it’s gone slow, but that wouldn’t take account of the fact that it seemed like yesterday that I was having one last swim at Brighton Park and one last beer with my Ann Arbor homies. So, I’ll just leave it at, “it’s gone.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things back home already, getting a new homeowner’s policy and changing the car insurance – a far cry from venturing through the mountains in search of remote hermitages, I know. But the tide of reality is rising, and the boat needs to be ready to sail. Already, the halting last (second last?) goodbyes, the promises of “one more visit before I go,” the plans of “last time doing X,” etc. etc. Two weeks and change, with one week spent in Gwangju and Haein-sa doesn’t leave much leeway for fulfilling all the finalities, but we’ll see what we can do.

Currently, we’ve sped up the final days by hosting an old friend from Ann Arbor (well, who we met in Ann Arbor, but is actually part of the Chicago/Wisconsin crew and now living in Libertyville, IL). This is her first time in Asia and she seems to be enjoying herself thoroughly. It’s giving me yet another chance to take in sights I’ve yet seen in my 13 years of coming and going here.

Sights such as the Seodaemun prison, a museum dedicated to memorializing the patriots who gave their lives in the anti-colonial Independence struggle against the Japanese in the early 20th century. While I had hoped that this site might serve as an interesting entry point for our guest, giving critical insight into a key frame of the contemporary Korean mindset (namely, as a post-colonial state, still recovering from the trauma of a horrific past century), there was quite a bit of disappointment. We certainly were able to learn a bit about the predations of the Japanese and the trying circumstances facing Koreans as they were forced into the modern period through the wrenching gyre of the Japanese Imperial war machine, and there was certainly some admiration for the blunt force utilized in dioramas that left little to the imagination, yet. . . the blind nationalism that seemed to set in stone the monolithic ideas of an Evil Japan continuously torturing a Pure Korea was too much to take. Moreover, whatever pedagogical benefits may have been possible in the bold portrayal of the harsh truths of colonialism, even to the expectedly young audience, were wasted within a knee-jerk nationalism that only served to solidify already fixed and narrowed conceptions about Korea as perennial victim. That this reactionary nationalism was the true pedagogical purpose, and not some larger goal of developing a much larger and more encompassing hatred of torture, injustice and imperialism in general, was given credence by the presence of numerous bits of grafitti stating, “F**K Japan!” and the like.

In “The Memories of August 15 (Day of Liberation) Reflected in Korean Anniversaries and Memorial Halls,” (click link for PDF of the whole article) SNU Professor Jung Keun-Sik states the problem as such:

Displaying pictures or items of persons who were actually incarcerated in
this facility resulted in leaving out certain aspects that should have been included in the exhibition, and also ended up causing some problems. First, it generated a question of how other penitentiary facilities maintained during the Japanese occupation should be addressed in the exhibition themes of this Seodaemun facility. Second, the history after 1945 was completely dropped in the facility’s general programming, and it raised an even bigger question of how the issue of incarcerated left-wing prisoners produced by the political situation that followed the Liberation, and the incarcerated persons who were involved in democratic campaigns afterward should be addressed or included in the exhibition’s format
and contents. Third, the actions of the socialist activists were also ignored.
Fourth, the persons who were devoted to national liberation movements yet were incarcerated in other penitentiary facilities were left out as well. And fifth, other “general” criminals unrelated to political issues whatsoever yet incarcerated here anyway, were left out as well.

While this criticism might be parried by nationalists with the tired claim, “You have to understand, we are still recovering… ,” such rebuttals lose their validity when you have counter-examples to show that Korea is certainly capable of doing better in terms of historical memory. For example, the Donghak Peasants Revolution Memorial Hall in Jangeup, for example, uses the particular struggle of Korean peasants and links it up to the worldwide democratic revolutionary movement. Of course, this move is easier, because the Peasants were fighting with other “Koreans” (I use quotation marks because at that time, there were no such people calling themselves as such, there were peasants and the people who stole from them, without the new identity of “countrymen” to ideologically bind them). Fast forward to 2007 and we have the category “Korean,” pure and victimized, that can be used as a refuge against the “Others” whether Japanese, or American, or whatever. As a result of this maneuver, the museum fails to address anything that happened after the colonial period, as when Syngman Rhee used the prison to torture his political enemies, or when Park Chung-hee used the prison to torture his political enemies. Korean on Korean torture, of the same sort and in the same place as the present museum, gets erased – and what is left? Nationalist ignorance, xenophobic hatred, and political impotence – an altogether depressing story. ahuuuuu…..

But, let’s don’t end there. We moved on, to Namdaemun, where I managed to find a cane for our slightly ailing friend. While this wasn’t a big deal, in some ways it was quite fulfilling. We didn’t have much time and Namdaemun market is HUGE. We didn’t have time to wander, but I wasn’t making any progress. So, following the sage wife’s advice, I inquired at a pharmacy. They didn’t have canes, but they had directions. I followed said directions, and minutes later, voila, a cane. Trivial, yes, but with no minutes to spare on bad language skills, it was in some minor way a validation of the language training that this year was supposed to benefit. Yeah team.

From Namdaemun, on to Bongeun-sa. This is the second of the two major urban temples in Seoul, the other being Jogye-sa in downtown. It was nice, impressive, but I was a bit too hot and busy to really enjoy it. Still, another Seoul attraction seen for the first time, so, enjoyable.

Sunday was on to Jangdeok-gung, one of the major palaces in Seoul. This one is special in that is only open to guided tours, so you have to show up at a certain time. A particular highlight were the king’s ancient Daimler and Cadillac. Smoooooth. But most spectacular was the “hidden garden” off o’er the hills and up the mountain a ways. The sounds of the city were entirely absent, though only hundreds of yards away. Sweets songs of rare birds drifted through the blowing leaves. I could have stayed here for the whole afternoon. Alas, we only got about ten minutes.

Then, a trip to Insa-dong, where we began our last bit of tourist shopping, including what may be my most exciting purchase of the trip, a hyeonpan or name plaque for the new house. I won’t say more till it’s ready to go… don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say I’m very eager.

Tomorrow starts the week long trip. I won’t be around for a little while. Till then, be well.

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Squeaky Clean

July 13, 2007

Oh, the joy that is going to a Korean bathhouse! Tuesday was made even more perfect by a post-run trip to our neighborhood bathhouse. Besides family, friends, and food, this is definitely the thing I will miss most about Korea.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to write this post, mainly because I felt that since these basically don’t exist in the US, photo illustrations would be indispensable. However, for obvious reasons, cameras are not allowed in bathhouses! But with a little imagination on the part of readers and some help from google images, hopefully I can give you all some feel for the experience.

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