Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Name Game

In Gunsan, trees are flowering, sky is blue.

Friday night I got on a bus out of Seoul on my way to Heungcheonsa, a temple 3 hours south of Seoul in Gunsan. I arrived to Gunsan by 9:30 pm and spent the night at a jimjilbang. The circumstances behind this weekend trip were unusual. Through the far-reaching connections the internet has provided, I was informed recently that there was another woman in Korea that shares the same given name as me. She has since abandoned her English name and was recently ordained as a Buddhist nun, and is now known as Soen Joon Sunim. She has a blog at One Robe, One Bowl and an introduction can be found here. She is 26, from Colorado and is one of the most amazing people I have met in Korea (or elsewhere for that matter).

When I first arrived at the temple Saturday morning after meeting Soen Joon Sunim, we spent some time making lotus lanterns for Buddha's birthday (May 5th). While watching me separate the delicate leaves of paper, one of the sunims said I must have made lanterns before in a previous life and my past karma had brought me to Korea in this life. Quite an interesting thought.

Afterwards, I followed Soen Joon Sunim into the main hall and struggled to follow along while she chanted. How she has managed to memorize it all in Korean is beyond me, but even without understanding all of the words, it was beautiful.

The day began as overcast and drab but after lunch the clouds were gone and the sun was shining. A perfect day. For lunch we had tofu, vegetables and a fresh cilantro salad that will not be soon forgotten (I never see cilantro in Seoul and I seriously miss it). After lunch, we walked along the park trail that was sprinkled with cherry blossom petals and sporadically lined with flowers.

After our walk, Soen Joon Sunim spent the next few hours studying and I walked back up to the park alone and found a peaceful sunny spot, surrounded with cherry blossoms and overlooking downtown. The best naps for me are always outside and always on a sunny day. With a slight breeze blowing, the conditions were perfect and I took full advantage. When I woke up my mind was clear and refreshed and I did some catching up in my journal, which had been neglected for far too long.

After dinner I took off to Boryeong with a tentative plan to meet Soen Joon Sunim and some of the other nuns at Buddha's birthday parade next Sunday in Seoul.

Formerly known as Amanda Young... times two

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sunset from a bus

...more from this weekend to come soon.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Random subway encounters

Ninety percent of the time my head is buried in a book on the subway but sometimes I would rather sit and just be aware of my surroundings. During these times it never fails that a either a foreigner walks in and sits down next to me or the Korean next to me starts up a conversation. I've met some very friendly and also some very... interesting people on the trip north from anyone's.

When the train is full and I have the better part of an hour I usually go to the back of the last car and sit on the floor by the wall. (It's much easier to read sitting down.) I always get strange looks from everyone (especially the old men who often offer their own seat) but sometimes I even prefer to sit on the floor even when there are open seats.

Last Saturday I was sitting on the floor reading a book and a group of about 8 middle school students were standing and sitting in the chairs around me. One of them said "hi" in English and I said "hello" back in Korean to them. They all ended up sitting around me and asking me questions. As soon as they found out I was from America the most burning question they had was if everyone in America is fat. I told them that no, everyone is not fat but yes, America does have a serious problem with obesity and Korea will soon join the in the ranks if McDonald's and KFC openings continue at the same rate. We continued talking about fat Americans (they were obsessed) and then what Korean food I liked until we came to my stop. Then one of the girls linked arms with me and asked me (with her best puppy dog face) to stay on the train with them until their stop. They were all still waving as the train pulled away. Even though I spend several hours each weekday surrounded by kids, I can't seem to get enough of them.

A couple months ago I was at a bar in Itaewon and from across the room I hair twin. Before that moment I didn't know such a person existed but as soon as I saw the nearly identical hairdo I was instantly convinced. I went up and introduced myself and the striking similarities were noted immediately by both parties. The kicker, he is a 26 year old gay man! Anyways, I got on the subway a few weeks later and he was sitting right across from me. And this was in Anyang! Weird.

A few weeks ago on a Friday night an older foreigner sat down beside me and within a few minutes started up a conversation by saying that all the Koreans sitting around us were "just like monkeys" and "all they care about is money". He said that he's originally from Australia but grew up in eastern Europe and is now a plastic surgeon working on a 5-year contract for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Does Korea really needs more plastic surgery, I ask. I thought MSF was established to provide healthcare in war-ravaged and developing countries.

The man, Sebastian, says that he is here to provide breast implants to women who have had mastectomy surgery. I'm not disputing that women who have lost one or both breasts to cancer would feel much more confident and secure after plastic surgery, but aren't there more, um... urgent, life-threatening matters going on in the world? I don't understand. He also told me how out of control the plastic surgery craze is getting in Korea and that kids getting "eye jobs" to make their eyes bigger is becoming ridiculously common. What a sad, sad world when a child feels he or she must go under the knife to be accepted by their media-hypnotized, narcissistic peers. The amount of plastic surgery here is incredible. Walking around in Apkujeong, one in every few shops seems to be a plastic surgery clinic. I've heard of young Korean women who get a job for the sole purpose of getting cosmetic surgery with the money they make. Ridiculous!

I could go on about other interesting people on the subway I've met but that's enough rambling for this post...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bonguensa Temple

Pagoda and lanterns at Bongeunsa temple

On Saturday I took my broken iPod to the COEX Apple store where after short inspection, the technician on duty proceeded to suck in air through his teeth and shake his head slowly back and forth. Not a good sign. It would be 200,000 Won ($200) to fix it if it's even possible. Admittedly, I shed a couple tears. But only a couple. Then I got over it and decided that it was a sign that I needed to lighten my load. What I won't get over quite so fast is the loss of my Pimsleur Korean lessons.

After leaving the COEX chaos behind I walked to Bonguensa Temple. Within minutes of passing through the gate two Korean men offered me coffee, rice cakes and a chat on a circle of wooden stumps. One of the men was complaining that about being thirty-seven and single. He spontaneously screamed at the top of his lungs in broken English, "ALL I WANT IS WIFE!!!" I laughed and jokingly asked him why he didn't shave his head and become a monk so he would no longer have the need to be unhappy about not finding a wife. He said he doesn't even like monks. After talking for awhile about marriage, the weather in Kansas, and Hyon Gak Sunim I went on my way to walk around the temple.

I'm not sure the story on this guy at Bongeunsa but notice the wire and lightbulb revealed underneath the thin layer of paper skin.

The cherry blossom trees in Seoul are amazing. As I was walking down from the trees behind the Buddha I stopped to admire some nearby white-blossomed trees. A silver-haired Korean woman stopped to do the same. She started telling me about the trees and how they "snow" petals down in the spring. Just as she said this a breeze came up and shook loose a showering of white petals from the sun splayed tree above us.

Buddha statue at Bongeunsa

Black Day

Jajangmyeon or black noodles

Friday (April 14) was Black Day, which is the day when everyone who didn't get anything for Valentine's Day or White Day, goes out and eats black noodles. (In Korea, Valentine's Day is a day for girlfriends to give gifts to their boyfriends and White Day (March 14) is for boyfriends to give the gifts.) I didn't give or get anything either previous holiday so I went out and tried Jajangmyeon for the first time. It's noodles and vegetables in a black bean sauce and it was much better than I was expecting (black noodles kept reminding me of black pudding).

Monday, April 17, 2006

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars..."

-Jack Kerouac, "On the

Friday, April 14, 2006

Soju: the devil dressed in green

Adam, Heather, Maria and I

I woke up this morning with my head pouding from the simultaneous killer headache and a bad eighties tune that's been rolling around the tunnels of my subconscious since the noreabang the night before. As I was mentally searching for memories that were completely obliterated by that little green bottle of poison, I stepped out of bed and noticed a couple bruises, inevitably from my self-acknowledged clumsiness combined with the effects of alcohol. I would like to reiterate that soju is the devil. I usually don't touch the stuff but at staff dinners it's nearly impossible. The boss or a Korean co-worker pours a shot and gives it to you in front of everyone. If you refuse, to some, it's the equivalent of refusing their friendship. And I thought the days of peer pressure were long gone for me. Then I moved to Korea.

Does our boss have these dinners on school nights because he finds pleasure in watching us suffer through the day surrounded by swarms of noisy children? I hope not, but sometimes I wonder.

A typical staff dinner for my school goes like this: We go to a kalbi restaurant and sit Korean-style, on the floor usually taking up the entire restaurant. Mound after mound of raw flesh is then brought out and thrown on the grills on the table. I eat lettuce, rice and red pepper paste, a meal (or lack thereof) which only fuels the soju fire.

The Korean barbecue is a long process. Round after round of meat, soup and side dishes are brought out along with the never-ending supply of beer, soju and becksaju. Mr. Park, the owner of the school, typically comes around after round #1 of of food to give the ceremonial soju bomb (a soju shot dropped in a glass of beer) to initiate the new teachers into his school. Then the shots start flowing for everyone. And like I said before, you can't refuse a shot from your Korean boss, now can you?

Mr. Park on the left and Tab pointing to the soju bottle

I have not ever taken part in or witnessed this sort of social drinking with co-workers and bosses before in America. The most ridiculous things happen at staff dinners and the next day at work it's back to normal for the Koreans. It's definitely a different drinking culture here. It's socially acceptable to be belligerently drunk here (unless you're a woman, that is), even in front of your employer.

Almost anything is forgiven and forgotten the next day. It's like it didn't even happen. Like the time a foreigner got wasted and fell asleep with her head in my bosses lap at the noreabang. Once one of the Korean teachers got so drunk she couldn't go home to her parents house (despite the fact she is 27 years old) so she passed out on my couch. Or the funniest one, when a guy at my school woke up in his boxers at 4:30 am near the subway with no recollection of how he got there or where his pants were.

We always go to a noreabang (karaoke room) after dinner but I usually only last a few songs before the soju sleep wave hits me and I stumble home and pass out (usually around 10 pm). The noreabangs are usually in the basement of some random building a few blocks away from my apartment and luckily I have a good sense of direction when my consciousness has long departed for other worlds.

In any case, it's always a good time had by all. Maybe as a warped psychological experiment on work environment and alcohol-induced social relationships, elementary school's back home (Earhart?) should try it out and see what sorts of bonds are formed and what repressed emotions are released by the wicked memory-snatching genie inside that little green bottle.

Flesh eaters

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Yellow dust weekend

Yellow dust over Cheongyechoen stream

Palace near Gwanghwamun station

On Saturday the air was thick with yellow dust and correspondingly the SARS masks were in full effect. I wandered around the Dongdaemun markets for hours searching for nothing in particular. You can buy nearly anything at at Dongdaemun market: books, clothes, accessories, medicine, tools, toys, pets, plants, herbs, food, sports equipment, makeup, stationary, fabric, leather goods, shoes, buttons, wedding supplies, ginseng products, and a whole lot of random crap. One of the most interesting finds came in the form of a Korean man selling toys. As soon as he saw me he started spewing out random Elvis facts and told me he had memorized 100 Elvis songs and then proceeded to sing a few for me. Quite a friendly fella he was.

Saturday night I went to a birthday party and didn't end up going to sleep (for a meager couple hours) until the sun was nearly up. It was definitely good fun had by all complete with food, drinks, games and laughs.

Not wanting to let a perfectly good day go to waste for the reason of insufficient sleep I pulled myself out of bed reasonably early considering what time I fell asleep. I went up Inwangsan with a friend and we enjoyed the weather from the top of the city. Storm clouds started forming in late afternoon that reminded me of home. As far as violent weather goes, for me, nothing beats the greenish-yellow tint in the sky, the smell of tornado weather, the calm before the storm and mom yelling at us all to come to the basement. I'll definitely miss Kansas tornado weather but Korea is transforming into quite a beautiful city in the spring (besides the yellow dust).

From Ingwansan, we walked towards Insadong and ended up at a palace near Gwanghwamun station. It was different from most palaces I've been to because we were nearly the only ones there. After the palace we went to play ping-pong and I got schooled by a Korean man. Maybe it's a sign I need to renew my membership to the ping-pong hall next door.

Monday was gone in a breeze (after nearly falling asleep in my afternoon classes) and I recovered from my long weekend with a well-deserved 12-hour sleep on Monday night.

Toy markets at Dongdaemun

Friday, April 07, 2006

"Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won't adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words "make" and "stay" become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free. "

-Tom Robbins

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Books, books, books

With subway reading and rarely watching TV I've been flying through the books. There is no doubt I will be taking more books than shirts with me when I leave Korea to travel in September so in the past couple weeks I've been devouring the biggest and heaviest books first, leaving the smaller (but no less significant) ones for the road. I just finished Jitterbug Perfume and am now on Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and I don't want it to end. I think I would marry Tom Robbins based solely on his way with words, despite his grandfatherly age and my disinclination towards marriage if the proposal was available for the taking. I also just finished Good as Gold by Joseph Heller. It was entertaining (after the first quarter) but definitely not in the same realm as his Catch 22 or Something Happened. (Heller himself says, "When I read something saying I've not done anything as good as Catch-22 I'm tempted to reply, 'Who has?'" ) My co-worker lent me a couple of David Sedaris books (Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) in the past couple weeks. They were quick, light reads with both books divided into short self-deprecating stories, well suited for noisy subway trips. I found myself laughing out loud more than once, which provoked strange sideways looks from fellow commuters. Books I'm in the midst of include: No Logo by Naomi Klein , The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley, Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot. Books, books, books, I love 'em.

I've received a couple emails regarding the hot pink Porno by Irvine Welsh displayed in the picture. No, I have not yet read it but I will soon. It's the sequel to Trainspotting, the story written in phonetic Scottish accent and slang, which I found at a used book store last year in Edinburgh. (Funny enough, my dad found Trainspotting on my bookshelf not long ago and started reading it. After the first chapter and a few quick looks through other equally shocking ones, he abandoned it and most likely started wondering what wide array of drugs his eldest daughter is, or was, on. Sorry dad!)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The young and the crazy

Kitty Class: Sally, Melody, Will, Wendy, Sebastian, and Andy

Time is flying and life is good. This week I'm averaging more days sleeping in Seoul than in my own bed. There's always a birthday party (last night), going away party or a bachelorette party (last Saturday) to be had. Last weekend I finally made my way to Napi, the hookah bar in Hongdae after an unsuccessful search last time and will be going back soon to try a different fruity flavor of tobacco.

Hmmm... What else have I been up to? I went to the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett in Insadong on Sunday night. It was entertaining and also the perfect way to extend the weekend as much as possible before the inevitable Monday morning. Unexpectedly, after the play I also witnessed two (possibly homeless) Koreans having sex in an alley right off a main street. That was quite a risque scene, especially for Korea.

From the classroom, my new kids are getting more manageable each week but nonetheless I still tend to feel like an overpaid babysitter at least twice daily during my morning classes. Those feelings usually manifest themselves when I see my class crawling up the stairs to go to lunch and when the unfortunate child of the day (there's always one) approaches me with urine soaked pants. Fortunately for me (but not the deskteacher), cleaning up after these accidents is not my job. It's a good thing they're cute. Yesterday my class was trailing after me in a game of Follow-the-Leader when something wet fell on my sandaled foot. The first in line, Will, decided it would be fun to see how far he could get his saliva to hang from his mouth without losing it. Needless to say, he lost it.

60 seconds in the life of an English teacher. Watch this video by clicking here. This is my Monday through Friday afternoon class. My class is rarely like this... although the students are always sugar-high crazy and very talkative and they do have the tendency to get out of control occasionally. Notice Howie in the taekwondo outfit being pulled off the table and Austin's ventriloquist act.