Friday, March 31, 2006

Oz and poo

Wizard of Oz in Korean. Click here to see a video.

Each month we usually go on a field trip with our morning kids to somewhere in Seoul. This month instead of a field trip we watched a puppet show of the Wizard of Oz at the school. The Korean version left me a bit confused, although it has been since highschool since I've seen it all the way through (albeit watched on mute and paired up with the Dark Side of the Moon). Even so, I remember Dorothy as a brunette and the ruby slippers as red, not silver. I'm baffled by a dramatic battle scene with some laser light creature and I have no idea who a few of the recurring characters were.

Even though it was a great break from class on a Friday, Wizard of Oz didn't quite live up to last month's field trip to the Human Body Museum at the COEX. We walked through the mouth and slid down the throat of a giant, plastic human. We got up close and personal with the heart, lungs, liver and intestines and listened to a presentation given by the spleen. We played with massive, undigested plastic donuts, pizza and fruit in the stomach. We walked out the other side into a room with mysterious brown piles of what I soon realized to be excrement. I looked up at the exit and realized we had just unknowingly walked through the bowels and exited out a massive asshole into a room full of enormous piles of plastic shit (I'm not making this up, my batteries were dead or else I would have the visual proof). None of the Korean teachers or students seemed to consider this was anything but normal but all of the foriegn teachers were looking around with baffled faces that said, "Seriously, is this for real?"

Thursday, March 30, 2006

"Faithful to our instructions, we lived like pilgrims [with only the usual linen haversack on our backs] and made no use of those contrivances which spring into existence in a world deluded by money, number and time, and which drain life of its content."

-Hermann Hesse, 1877-1962

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Korea Herald article

Bell at Hwagyesa temple

The Korea Herald must find writers hard to come by these days because today they published a story I wrote along with the above picture:

Far from the madding crowd
By Aly Young

In Korea, there is an abundance of Buddhist temples to explore, but as a foreigner wanting to experience Buddhist meditation and Dharma talks in English without doing a temple stay there are limited options.

However, during my first month in Korea I was lucky enough to stumble into the Seoul International Zen Center located at Hwagyesa temple in northeast Seoul.

Every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. foreigners and Koreans alike can sit and meditate together in 30 minute periods, each separated by 10 minutes of walking meditation. At 3 p.m. a Dharma talk is given in English, usually with consideration that there will be newcomers to Buddhism in the audience.

The temple was founded in 1523 by Master Shinwol and burned down in 1618, then rebuilt the following year. It fell into disrepair and was repaired in the late 19th century. It now houses several famous statues, including a carving of the Bodhisattva Kstitigarbha as well as two urns donated by the Queen Consort of King Honjong.

I found Hwagyesa temple 5 months ago and have since been to many Sunday meditation sittings, Dharma talks and even a weekend of "Kyol Che" with the monks where I woke at 3:30 a.m. and participated in chanting, bowing and 9 hours of meditation each day.

Kyol Che translates into 'Tight Dharma' and refers to a 90-day summer and winter meditation retreat when monks spend the majority of each day meditating.

It was a very new experience to have such intense, disciplined introspection. When I thought about long periods of meditation before that weekend I had imagined a rather undeviating experience of sitting and merely clearing my mind. The roller coaster of thoughts and emotions I actually experienced was very far from that preconceived idea.

In the beginning I went to the temple out of curiosity. I continue to go because of the all-encompassing question that Buddhism has sparked within me: What am I?

The chaos of the city melts away within the serene confines of Hwagyesa Temple, despite it being just a short walk from the crowded streets of Seoul.

When I walk through the temple gate on Sam Gak mountain I feel detached from the city. A stream runs alongside the path to the temple, which leads to one of the entrances to Bukhansan National Park right before coming to the Main Buddha Hall.

The meditation period begins with the hollow wooden beating of the chugpi. I sit propped up on a pillow in the half-lotus position and begin letting the thoughts and emotions collected in a week of teaching kindergartners and a lifetime full of attachments drift away.

Pursuing meditation has admittedly not been an easy undertaking, but the more I do it the easier it becomes.

The Dharma talk that follows is usually an hour long followed by questions from the audience.

On this particular weekend the room was crowded in anticipation of hearing the inspiring and entertaining words of Hyon Gak Sumin, the guiding teacher for Hwagyesa.

He was born into a large Catholic family in New Jersey, graduated from Yale and received his Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard. He decided to become a monk after meeting Zen Master Seung Sahn (the founder of the Seoul International Zen Center) at Harvard, and has since written the bestseller "Man Haeng: From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple" and translated several of Sahn's English-language works into Korean.

The Dharma talk was unscripted and interactive, and many times drew laughter from the audience. Questions of innocence and evil, cartoons and killing and the impermanence of everything were all discussed. At one point Buddhism was even related to The Matrix.

Hyon Gak Sunim answered many questions with a simple, "shut your mouth," and at one point had a confused questioner come up to where he was sitting in order to hit him with his wooden stick.

However he was not being rude, he simply wanted the questioners to to use their "don't know minds," to clear their minds of preconceptions.

Besides being a very entertaining and passionate speaker, Hyon Gak Sunim has a very important message behind his words that cannot be taught through just his speaking.

To get to Hwagyesa take subway line 4 to Suyu station and go out exit 3. Take bus 2 to Hwagyesa stop. From there it's a 5 minute walk up the mountain.

For more information visit

Monday, March 27, 2006

Fortunes and dreams

Shrine on Ingwansan Mt.

I've wanted to get my fortune told by one of the mysterious white-bearded, palm reading mystics near Insadong since I first saw them but I haven't been able to find one who speaks English. Oftentimes I've found that if I have a fascination towards something or someone it's not necessary to go out of my way to pursue it because it usually finds me, sometimes in the most unsuspecting places.

On Saturday I followed a sign in an alley in Insadong to a place which translates into 'Meditation and tea'. I like both so I decided to go inside and check it out. I ordered a cup of hot, red 'omicha', or five-tastes tea to stimulate all my taste buds with it's salty, sweet, bitter, tart, and peppery flavor. I was getting settled in on my cushion on the floor with my book in hand when a Korean man dressed in robes who worked there came and sat at my table. He asked if he could do a body constitution reading for me. He said he wouldn't charge me because I was a foreigner and his English wasn't very good. I didn't know what I was in for but I of course agreed.

He started off by asking my birth date and time (January 15, 1981; 9:30 am). He closed his eyes for a few seconds and then began telling me about the five elements and something about metaphysics. He said I was the 'Earth' element and went on to tell me many things about me, some of which I found to be very far off from the truth. He told me I'm uncomfortable with change; In reality I'm uncomfortable with routine. He also said I have problems trusting people, which I disagree with (if anything, I have the opposite problem). He told me that I have good concentration, strong principles, my best seasons are spring and summer. He said weak areas on my body include my neck and my ankles. After telling him I was a vegetarian, he tried to persuade me that I need to "eat flesh" for nourishment for my body. One particularly random thing he said was, "cheating boyfriends are attracted to you."

He asked me if I had any questions and I asked him about sleep and dreams and told him I've always had very vivid, strange dreams. He said (and I completely disagree) that people dream because we have unsolved problems that we're trying to work out in our heads. He asked me to give an example of one of my dreams and I told him the first one that came to mind:

(A guy comes up to me and starts talking to me and for the first couple minutes I amazingly fail to realize that he has two heads. One of them is not a functioning head and cannot be removed because a major artery is connecting them and an operation would be deadly. Almost as strange as having two heads-- the "dead head" has a shoe shoved completely into the mouth and has somehow morphed into being part of the head. As I looked at this guy I knew that the "dead head" was once his only head and functioned normally until there was a terrible accident with the shoe. The new normal looking head was a clone of the other one and was actually grown on the neck of this man. We walked for awhile and I was surprisingly not very disturbed at all talking to a two headed man... it seemed almost normal. )

Afterwards he said, "Your dreams, not small problem. Big problem." He told me to start eating sour foods such as grapes and oranges to help with this "problem". Overall, it was interesting and I'm happy to have randomly found my way into the tea shop with the fortune tellers.

Friday, March 24, 2006

New bike, Mormonism & George


I've been busy this week and I can't believe it's already the weekend (after 5 hours of teaching today). Last Sunday night I bought a bike (yippee!!!) and I've been enjoying riding all over Anyang on it since. I've decided that listening to the iPod, answering the phone and riding the bike is a bad idea. This is when multitasking turns deadly. Luckily, for the sake of my life (but not at all good on any other aspect) my iPod decided to die yesterday. All I see is a file with an exclamation mark when I try to turn it on. I'm so sad, I can't begin to explain how much that sucks. Oh well, that's life. Hopefully I can get it fixed at the COEX iPod store. On a positive note, my phone now works after nearly a month with the speaker being broken. I couldn't hear anyone but they could hear me. It led to some interesting one-sided conversations and I am very grateful to have my speaker capabilities back. (So, I don't even know if you answered your phone or not, but if so, this is Aly and I can't hear you...)

Last night I invited my cousin Jamie (Elder Patel) and his companion, Elder Zabriski over for dinner. They're not allowed to be in the same room alone with a female so I also invited my co-worker Jamie to join us. I made curry and we sat around and chatted about the family back home for awhile and then after dinner the conversation turned to religion (as of course it would with missionaries). While I have respect for my cousin and believe he truly believes what he is doing is right, I think Mormonism is about on par with Scientology as far as whacked out religions go. (Speaking of Scientology, check out the recent South Park episode about Scientology and Tom Cruise, 'Trapped in the Closet'. Funny stuff.) I personally don't think Mormonism is much crazier than other religions, it's just a relatively new religion and therefore easier to question it's authenticity. (I could go on for hours with questions relating to that but don't worry, I won't.) I don't respect or appreciate the ban on information (books and media deemed inappropriate, which the Church says are "evil", but in reality are conflicting to the teachings) for the members of the Church of Latter day Saints. But, while I personally think it's insane, millions of others disagree. Last night I had a dream I was stuck in a world full of Mormons, it was the worst nightmare I've had in awhile. I woke up at 4:30 am and couldn't fall back asleep for an hour.

Enough religion for one post. The picture above is of George, a kid that transferred to my class last week. He is disgusting! He is the only student I have that constantly repulses me in so many ways. Where to start...? First, his fingers are always in his nose. Sometimes he eats what he finds, other times he decides to wipe it on the clothes of another student. I give him a tissue and force him to use it and then he eats it. Yes, he eats the snot-filled tissue. He eats anything, including but not limited to: the plastic part on his colored pencils, his glasses, the stickers I give him, paper cups, random items found on the floor, balloons, coloring paper. I give him candy and he throws the candy away in favor of eating the wrapper. The other day he was chewing on a deflated balloon (the Korean teachers wouldn't let me take it away). Every couple minutes it would fall on to the floor and he would pick it right back up and continue chewing on it. He let a couple other students have a chew and then every once in awhile he would take it out of his mouth and wring the saliva out into a puddle on the floor. A couple days ago he called me over to him with the sole purpose of having me watch him blow a huge blob of green snot out of his nose and then let it slide down to his mouth. And he did it with a smile. Ewww...and with those thoughts fresh in my head, it's time to eat breakfast.
By request, here's a link to the South Park episode, "All About Mormons"

Sunday, March 19, 2006

St. Patrick's Day

Austin, Mark and some green milk

I love holidays. Especially when they fall on a Friday and involve turning typically boring colored food and drinks green. I gave all my classes green milk and cookies today to celebrate. After morning class, Will yakked all over the floor and two Korean teachers freaked out at the sight of the kryptonite vomit. They were about to call an ambulance when the other students explained that Aly teacher had given them green milk. Green milk? Why on earth would she do that, they wondered. I explained St. Patrick's Day to them but all I kept getting in response from them and my students was, "Patrick, Patrick? Who is this Patrick and why does he like green so much?"

As the day progressed, I moved from green milk to green beer on an evening out with a reunited elementary school classmate, Miles and a university friend of his. Miles will soon be studying Korean full time at Yonsei University. This weekend him and one of his friends inspired me to start studying Korean more seriously. We'll see how it goes. Today I met a man who works at the Spanish Embassy and I asked him if he spoke Korean. He said he's not going to bother to learn it because he's here for such a short time...3 years! That's crazy talk. I'm here for 5 more months and consider it worthy to learn as much as I can before I go. He thought I was crazy.

A St. Patrick's Day card and shamrock bookmark from Jasmine

Friday, March 17, 2006

Moon view

New Bambi Class

My old Kitty class has graduated to Bambi class (minus Deborah, Stella and Andrew). I have them for my first class of the day for phonics. William only looks cute and innocent, he can be a terror at times.

Front row: Tracy, William & Danny. Back row: Jay, Amy, Ali & James.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

New view, new class

Sunrise from my new window

Instead of waking up in a pitch black room, never knowing what time it is, I now wake with the sun every morning. I love my new room! I now hear the constant hum of traffic, occasional horns, loud speakers and the rush of students leaving class and congregating on the sidewalk every night at 10:30 pm. I know what time the sun rises and sets and what the weather is like when I wake up. A window (especially an entire wall of a window) makes me feel much less like the cave dweller I felt like for my first six months.

Sally and Wendy

The new Kitty Class. Front Row: Sally, Douglas and Andy. Back row: Sebastian, Melody, Wendy, Tony and Will

My new classroom unfortunately does not have a window, but it's okay because my kids have all my attention anyway. My new class is the youngest class in the school and they are true beginners to English. I ended up naming only two of my morning students (Douglas and Will named after two friends back home); The other names were changed by parents after the first day of class (Bonnie was changed to Sally, Echo to Melody). But I did get to name a few students in my afternoon classes. I named Phyllis after my Mom's middle name, Taylor (for a girl) after the name I would have been given had I been born a boy, and Graeme after a friend in Scotland.

My new class is cute but has been a lot of work. I'm thankful that I didn't start out as a new teacher with this class because I would have gone crazy. They each have the attention span of a gnat and it was hard getting some of them used to me. Melody would cry and scream if she was left in the room alone with me. She is now okay with leaving the door open and she even (gasp!) looked me in the eyes on Tuesday and said good morning! Although she did pinch me yesterday when I tried to teach her that the color wheel should include more colors that just green.

Douglas cried the entire first week but has recently decided that laying on the floor by the door suits him better (ignoring me completely). The rest of the students all seem to really like me and it's been fun working with new students for a change. I still have my old Kitty class (now Bambi class) for one hour of phonics each day and I'm happy about that. Having completely new students to English it will be interesting for me to see how much they progress by the end of August and in the process to see if I am actually educating these young minds or I should give up teaching altogether!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Different forms of chanting

This is a video. Click here to view.

It had just started to mist when I arrived in Shinchon on Friday night. As I was walking towards Nori Bar I stumbled upon crowds of Yonsei University students gathered into circles yelling and jumping up and down. When asked what was going on the only reply I got was, "Chanting! Join us!". I did for awhile but it was impossible to know what was going on. Perhaps now I can relate more to my new students when they listen to me sing English songs to them and I expect them to join in. I'll remember that. After I had my share of chanting I headed into Nori Bar to meet friends for cheap beer, good music and dancing.

Nori Bar in Shinchon

On Sunday I went to Hwagyesa and participated in an altogether different form of chanting that didn't involve soju or beer.

Bell at Hwagyesa

Monday, March 13, 2006

"The little experience of life I've had has taught me that no one owns anything, that everything is an illusion-- and that applies to material as well as spiritual things. Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever (as has happened often enough to me already) finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them."

-from Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Metrosexual man purses?

Man purse sighting on the subway in Seoul

This is something you would be hard-pressed to find in America: a man holding a purse. In Korea, I see it everyday. At first I thought there was some sort of man purse phenomenon in Asia that I was unaware of (although that may account for a percentage of these sightings). After further inspection I noticed that the men were actually carrying their girlfriends purses. How the weird, metrosexual sort of way.

I am trying my hardest to imagine a scene in America which involves a man carrying his girlfriends purse. Maybe on a deserted alley in the middle of the night? Maybe... if she had no means to carry it herself. But I doubt it. Maybe if she was dying. But then again, who cares about a purse when your girlfriend is dying? I just can't conjure up the image of a steak-eating, beer-drinking, football-watching man, carrying a purse, ever. (I should also say that I don't think you would see too many non steak-eating, beer-drinking, and football watching men in America carrying their girlfriend's purses either.)

I shouldn't be too surprised by this trend because in Korea, metrosexualism seems to be the look right now. Not only do they carry purses, but I think they borrow their girlfriend's clothes (in particular, anything pink, purple or flowered) and take their bi-weekly hair appointments. These metrosexual men dress, gel, moisturize, file and accessorize in hopes of resembling the latest Korean pop star. They spot their reflection in a shop window or a subway mirror and spend more time looking at themselves than a insecure teenage girl, except they're doing in front of hundreds of people!

The most surprising aspect is the number of these pretty boys who have a girlfriend hanging off one arm (while a purse occupies the other). It's strange how much Korea has embraced the metrosexual fashion considering how anti-gay Korea is (in general). Maybe metrosexual is the next best thing for Korean men who are repressing their true sexuality because of their disapproving culture. Or maybe a pink shirt is just a pink shirt and carrying your girlfriends purse is just that.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Enigmatic time-management logic

I walked downstairs at the hagwan this morning to see a huge pile of wall clocks on a table in the hall. I assumed they were being synchronized. I stepped into the office to learn our director has called an impromptu meeting.

To summarize:

"We got a complaint from one parent about too much game-playing in class. Some of you have bad time-management skills. Because of this, I have removed all clocks from your classrooms. I will be removing the clock from the teachers room also. No handphones allowed in class. If I see one you will be fired on the spot. If your time-management skills continue to suck, you will be fired. If you don't want to work hard at this school you can turn in your notice because we don't want you here anyway."

I guess it's time for Aly teacher to buy a watch.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Better than a Saturday movie, this is life

The weekend was an interesting one with the fun starting Friday night and not ending until late Sunday. The weather gave me the impression that winter is finally over, but we'll see what happens. On account of the good weather and a long day with nothing planned, I decided to walk without a destination and see what I would encounter.

I think I was somewhere around Samgakji station when I came upon a street I dubbed 'Prosthetic Limb Lane' after the dozen or so shops with legs, feet, arms, hands, and fingers eerily displayed in the windows. I have no idea how all these businesses survive unless there is an excessive number of limbless people in Seoul. It's certainly not everyday you get to see more than one assortment of mingled, dusty plastic limbs. Some were strangely lifelike while others looked like props straight out of a horror movie.

When I got to Seoul Station I sat on a bench in the sun and stayed quite awhile. The diverse crowd that congregates outside makes it a very interesting place to sit and watch how people interact. There are the homeless men usually drunk on soju who make the occasional request for money when the bottle gets low. There are also the Christian missionaries, some singing, some preaching on a microphone and some walking around attempting to proselytize anyone who crosses their path. Continuously walking through this slightly fluctuating crowd are people going to and from the subway, the department store and LotteMart.

On this particular day there was also man in a business suit with a top hat who kept doing dramatic taekwando moves while talking to himself.

At one point a Buddhist nun walked by and a drunk homeless man approached her. She gave him 1,000 won and kept walking. A minute later the homeless man is sharing a bottle of soju with his neighbors. When it was gone one homeless man from the group in a NY Yankees shirt came up to me and asked for money. I asked him why, and he said he was hungry. I said okay and his face lit up for a moment until I stood up and started walking to the convenience store. I motioned for him to follow me. I asked him what he wanted to eat-- ramyeon, kimbab, boiled eggs, a sandwich? He shakes his head and says, "Anio. Money," even after I tell him he can get anything he wants in the store to eat. He refuses and I go back to my bench in the sun. Five minutes later he comes back and politely asks for a sandwich. I obliged.

After a few minutes of scripture readings and questions about my spiritual beliefs, an unrelenting missionary told me I was going to "herr" (pronounced "hair"). He emphatically pointed towards the ground and spelled "H-E-R-R." Being a teacher in Asia, I'm accustomed to the L/R confusion with my students but this was a particularly funny situation, considering the context.

I was about to leave when I look over and see a man going psycho on the man with the microphone. Naked. He ripped the poster down with a picture of people who are burning in hell. (Maybe me in 50 years. Or tomorrow.) He picks up the metal stand and starts swinging it around. Naked. That was one of the oddest things I've seen in Korea so far.

If any Seoulites out there in the blogosphere are looking for free entertainment, head to Seoul Station on a Saturday afternoon, grab a seat and enjoy.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

3 more reasons to be vegetarian in Korea...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Toilet talk

This post is appropriately dedicated to the faithful readers in the bathroom at know who you are.

Before I came to Korea I really didn't give much thought to the differences I would encounter in the bathrooms. A bathroom's a bathroom, right? Well... yes, but some of the bathrooms here I would definitely never come across in Kansas.

First, there's the squatting toilets as pictured above. I was freaked out about these when I first got here but now I don't think twice about them. Flushing the toilet with your foot is definitely more sanitary (not that I don't do that on ordinary toilets though). The other day I heard a couple female foreigners talking in a public bathroom in Seoul with only squatters, "There's no way in hell I'm using that thing! Let's go." I smiled to myself and wondered how long that would last.

As if public bathrooms in general aren't already disgusting enough, Koreans seem to think the toilet is the perfect place for a smoke. There are many conveniently installed ashtrays right next to the (usually nonexistent) toilet paper roll. Nothing quite like a simultaneous shit and a smoke, I guess. Baffling.

The area usually reserved for washing your hands is usually unfortunately right in front of a mirror. Not much hand washing going on with all that staring into the mirror. If anyone ever bothers to turn the water on, ice cold water is what will you will usually find.

Then there's the relatively frequent bathrooms where you're not supposed to flush toilet paper. There is usually an overflowing bin for used toilet paper. Yuck. I thought the ability of a toilet to digest toilet paper would be one of the most basic functions of a toilet. Nope, not in Korea.

Then there are the bidet toilets you find in some of the more posh areas and at saunas. A few months ago I had my first encounter with a bidet toilet in Korea. I was out with Korean friends at a bar in Apkujeong when I excused myself for the bathroom. When the time came to flush, I looked down at a panel on the side with about 30 different buttons written in hangul. I just wanted to flush the toilet.

I wasn't looking for pulsating, soft aerating, massaging or vibrating. I didn't want to push the button that heated the seat, massaged my ass or automatically closed the lid. And no, I didn't want a blow dry either. I just wanted to flush the damn toilet! Is that too much for a girl to ask?

There was only one toilet and now a line had formed right outside the door. I stood aside and decided on the button that most likely resembled a flush button. Wrong answer. A stream of water squirted out, missing me but going straight for my backpack, which is hanging on the hook of the door. I thought it would never end.

I involuntarily got misted with toilet water spraying off my backpack. The water was forming a puddle at the bottom of the door, which could be seen by all the Korean women patiently waiting. Screw it, the toilets not getting flushed. After the bombardment stopped, I walked out with my dripping backpack past several giggling Korean women. No more bidets for me, thanks.