Friday, July 31, 2009

Soft Art and Sunrise.

  It has been five months now since landing in Korea.  My situation here has changed, though my feelings remain mostly constant.  I don't say much about my going ons here.  I often say little of a great deal.  Now, it is summer, and my time here is nearly half complete.  The first rainy season has come, and is now ending.  Here in Yeosu the weather is more mild than the rest of the country, and this first monsoon season passed quickly over us with no horrid flooding or downpours, though we did receive our share of rain.  You can always see the rain in the clouds before it comes, and smell it hanging there in front of you deliciously.  Some days I would drive my motorcycle to school and get caught in some torrent coming home, splashing through puddles dotted across the slip n slide of the pavement.  I was soaked, the rain tumbling down on me, my clothes doused and dripping, and all the water wetting me, the puddles and pavement, and the fog on my helmet visor, all that rain, all that rain, I just smiled, and laughed some reminiscent laugh. I laugh like that so rarely, but the rain, the rain does things to me, some emotional, bi-polar lover.  
  Some nights the wind would whoop and whish so loudly out my door, the thunder booming and beating, and lightning some melodic trance of hypnotic strobes. I would lay in bed, the window so close to me, and hear the night and the storm and violence, and I had reason to be awake when I knew I would be anyway, and I was in love with the rain again.
  What have I done in Korea?  How am I to make report of five months time?  Is it worth the read, or my time in writing it, when this night, this night I have much to do, but I don't forget you, nor of the absence I know is coming, so I write. 
  Well, in wanting to experience a culture different than my own, Korea certainly answers the call.  The people, while outwardly friendly, are also very traditional, and not easily accepting.  Being a foreigner in the most homogenous country in the world, where 98% of people living here are natural born Koreans, I am an oddity, and in the small coastal town I am in, I stand out more so than other areas.  I cannot go anywhere without being stared and pointed out.  Children and high school girls giggle, and often the boys as well, and the attention we as foreigners draw is like we are some Korean pop star, though a pop star feared with having some contagious disease, for though we are certainly an oddity and curiosity, we will always be outsiders, and always be treated as such here.  I am taller than most, though by no means the tallest person in town.  South Korea is the tallest nation in all of Asia, though I am certainly well above average height, and in a continent where everyones hair and eyes are the same color, I certainly stand out with mine.  "Oh, hairstyle good," is a common phrase I hear, and the curiosity to touch the foreigner gets the best of the children here, particularly my blonde hair, or my arms and legs, as body hair is not so common here.
  Favorite activities amongst the Koreans are in the Bongs, the Jim Jil Bong, PC Bong, and No Rae Bong.  The Jim Jil Bong is a public bath house, usually divided in to 5 floors, men's changing room, women's changing room, men's bath, women's bath, and the Jim Jil Bong floor.  The bath portions are filled with saunas, steam rooms, and pools of various temperatures, both hot and cold.  Many of the baths are filled with spices or herbs, and of course, as it is a bath house, dozens of men walk around naked, stretching out for massages, showering, or relaxing in the warm baths.  The bath houses provide soap, towels, toothpaste, lotion, and more, and it's common for people to frequent the bath houses each morning before work, or at night before bed.  The Jim Jil bong floor is essentially a large cultural hall where there are often thin mats or blankets and wood blocks or pillows to rest on.  This floor is co-ed and as the Jim Jil Bongs are open 24 hours, they also make cheap hotels, as you can find a corner somewhere on the floor and crouch down for a night's sleep.  During our first experience in a Jim Jil Bong, we woke surrounded by hundreds of people matted across the floor, and carefully tip-toed over them.  
  PC Bongs are essentially internet cafes, but really only used for on-line gaming purposes, as this is a nation addicted to computer and video games.  I asked a group of students to tell me what their dream vacation is, if money was not an option, and several answered that their dream vacation would be to stay home and play video games as long as they could.  This would be a typical response.  No Rae Bongs are karaoke bars divided in to individual rooms.  This is the popular form of karaoke in Asia.  Instead of busting out your incredible singing voice in front of the whole bar, you rent a room with your group of friends and are given the privacy to make a fool of yourself in front of only those who know you and are willing to photograph and video your embarrassing moments to later document on facebook.  
  My own experiences here are perhaps not so grand, though to me still memorable.  My friend Justin invited me to his gym to work out with him.  Well, this gym is a Jiu Jitsu studio, and my first day there the Gwang Ja Nim, or master, asks me to grapple with him, so here I am going at it with the teacher.  I've returned several times, and though I haven't learned any moves or really how to perform the art at all myself, still I am asked each time to wrestle by others there, and I act as their little rag doll to toss around as practice.  I am the sparring partner who allows you to hit them, but never hits back.  It's funny really, and I have even wrestled one of the Korean national champions several times, and I struggle through with him, but in the end, he always has his way.  I did once make someone tap out as I wrapped both ankles around his throat and victoriously choked him with my feet.  In the humid air that is Korea, wrestling around in a building with no AC works up a mighty sweat, and I love it.
  I think other than my adventures in the mud some few weekends ago, my favorite experiences here in Korea are in riding my motorcycle out through the country side, and across Dolsan Island, or out past Yeo-Chun to some beach, though it is not always the destination, but the journey that I go for.  One destination though was lasting and a favorite of mine.  It is Hyangiram, a temple atop a mountain at the end of Dolsan Island, on a cliff staring out to the yellow sea.  Rather than attempt again to recapture what I cannot, I will copy what I wrote then, on my two separate journeys to Hyangiram.  
Wednesday, April 15th, the year of our Lord, two thousand nine.
    "...We walked up the mountain, the many steps, through the rocks carved out to pass through, me ducking low to fit the trail.  We heard the resonance of the temple bell hum out her tonal beauty.  We saw the monk slowly swing the wooden beam and rope of a pendulum, as an invitation for the bell to sing her songs.  We heard the monks chant, their followers bow, and kneel, and pray.  This was among one temple on the mountain.  The other, the peak itself, the ridge and rise of the mountain standing tall above the other temple below.  Are all mountain peaks temples?  Did God design them as such  We walked to that temple too, the burn in our legs prodding us still upward.  I must always reach the top.  I always wish to walk inside the temple, not merely stand at the doors or across the way.  I walked in that temple and there was a prayer inside me, released through my reverent awe.  Perhaps we all had prayers, the solemnity of a windy mountain peak.  I shall pay my homage in all temples of this kind..."
  Thursday, April 23rd, the year of our Lord, two thousand nine.
 "...We hiked straight to the top of the mountain, skipping over the temple in order to see the sun set. Kelli and I headed straight up, able to go faster than the rest of the crowd and made it up to see the sun slip down behind a mountain across the way from our own peak.  The rest made it up after that, but the glow beaming out from behind the mount was soft and luminous.  dusk is a glorious time to be on a mountain.  The gentle mix of blue and white hang well in the sky.  The islands around seem to stand out more in the subtle colors of dusk and the water calm and silent below.  The wind blows brisk and cool and I always find comfort in the wind.  Is it some memory of home?  The canyon winds that stream down and blow out over the orchard?  I wonder if one reason I love the ocean, the beach so much is because of the wind.  She always calms me.  I feel she has some song that only I can hear.  We walked off the mountain to the temple to show the others .  They were impressed and amazed as we were, though I do not think anyone saw the beauty I saw there.  I am always curious to meet people who see what I do, the beauty, who understand.  It was dark when we walked down.  Kelli and I looked for a place to eat, though the shops had closed down.  The Elders gave us snacks and that was our dinner.  Hyangiram does not have a temple stay program, but they let Kelli and I spend the night anyway.  Everyone else went home, but we slept at the temple on blankets on the floor and watched the sun rise.  It is known for its sun rise and means "standing where the sun rises."  There were no mountains to block the view of the sun rising up above the water, a giant orange and yellow circle like a Japanese flag.  Hyangiram is one of the four sacred praying places in all of Korea and if you stand and pray toward on the Goddess of Mercy statues, it is said your prayer will be answered.  I offerred my prayer, the same prayer of mine for many years, the prayer I am not sure I believe in.  We ate breakfast with the monks, rice and various kim chi and headed down the mountain for work.  I am happy we stayed, slept in a Buddhist temple, sacred and holy, woken at 3:00 a.m. from the prayers of the monks, watched the sun rise, standing where the sun rises, ate our rice with monks, and fell in love again with the mountain.  We sayed in a temple that does not offer temple stays and I made my wish."
I have said enough for now, and must be about other business.  In a couple hours I will be sleeping the night away on a five hour bus ride to Seoul from where I will fly to China, and then Japan, a month with my backpack, i-pod and camera, no plans or itinerary, only myself and the hopes of a million breaths.  I leave you now with the poetry of So Chong-Ju, a Korean poet, and his ode to these Korean mountains, and mountains everywhere, temples of their own. 
"One morning I suddenly looked with fresh eyes at our ancient mountains. They were just squatting there, as usual; they seemed to have quite forgotten how rough and stupid they were, and the clouds in the sky were all the time clustering and snuggling round them; there was no way I could understand why those clouds were pressing so closely against such repulsive old things.
But as I gazed at the familiar sight of them wooing each other, the next day, and the next day, and the next, I finally realized what it was all about.
It's just like when our young human couples kiss each other's cheeks, and stroke one another's hair; only these gestures have been going on for perhaps several hundred thousand years! As if all that remains of earth's sordid battles has been cleansed and gone soaring up to become clouds, that now for ever flow over a unified jade-coloured space: by their constant gestures of unrestrained longing the clouds have perhaps been consoling the mountains ever since they were young.


That night I heard the sound of a mountain singing in a clear ringing voice. Yes, rising out of a darkness still as if submerged a thousand fathoms beneath the sea, I clearly heard that mountain sing.

It must have been past midnight. It sounded like a song sung softly by a new bride alone, venturing to open her lips only a few weeks after her arrival at her new husband's family home. It was the kind of song that gives a glimpse of flowery fields seen when still a maid, and it brought their fragrance floating by. The mountain sang in a soft deep voice, seeming eager to arouse not just those flowers but even their very roots.


  Can anything remain so long unforgotten? Sometimes we hear of a young widow who has stayed intact and chaste, living alone for thirty years or more, still in the bright clothes she wore when first she entered her dead husband's home. But for how many years has each mountain stayed in one place?

A voice as clear as that of waters that grow no older though they endure the fall of countless dynasties: it seems that such a voice can be heard ringing in every mountain.


The next day

there was something which kept attracting my gaze in the bright daylight: the green shade there that seemed to have some secret to tell me. Here and there in the checkered shadows, it was as if grazing things were whispering, glimmering pale and green, then suddenly they were parted by what seemed to be the passing of a vast fragrance and there came thrust towards me a gilded swing bearing a melancholy youth. It seemed there was a desire to make famous, if not the mountain itself, at least its sons and daughters..."


Monday, July 13, 2009

"Marble and Mud."

"There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in mudl" - Carl Sandburg I do so rarely write, and unsure I'll have much to say this night. I have written so little about my time here in Korea. I'll find the motivation to write more of my time here later. I suppose I am not yet sure who I am writing to, or for. It is for my own benefit I know, some second journal to assist my first, but I know what life is like here for me, so I find I rarely need to write it down to tell myself. I know few people read this. I know few ever will. Perhaps it is only that which gives me any sense of honesty or courage. I have always hidden my secrets in the most obvious of places, for it is there they are often hardest to find. I will tell you one thing of my life here, the annual Boryeong Mudfest. It is perhaps the biggest and most well known festival of the year in Korea, and certainly known as the most fun. It is a weekend of good, not-so-clean, fun. Twelve years ago a city called Boryeong decided to try and boost up its tourism. A good way to do this, they thought, was to capitalize on the cities well-known mud. The mud of Boryeong is known throughout the country, and other parts of Asia for its cosmetic value. It is known as some of the best, and finest mud around. Many companies bottle it up in body lotions, facial scrubs, soaps, or set up spas to soak in. With all that in mind, the city decided to throw a festival dedicated to this brown nectar of the earth and created Mudfest. While mudfest started off much smaller, it quickly took off and gained popularity, particularly with the foreign crowd here in Korea. The festival takes place over two weekends in July. This past weekend was the opening weekend, and between the two weekends, during those four days, between one and two million people participate in the festivities. There is a parade, fireworks show, live bands and theatrical performances, booths, food, camping, games, mud pits to wrestle in, a mud prison where spectators throw buckets of mud on those who wish to lock themselves inside. There are giant inflatable walls covered in mud to try and climb, rings, and a huge slide dowsed in mud to slide down. The city is on the coast and has the feel of a real beach town with long sand beaches and a board walk. All the festivities take place between the beach and board walk. It would be similar to Huntingon Beach's fourth of July celebration in California turning in to a giant mud fight. It was a total sensation. I went up with my friend Ruth. We woke early and took two seperate busses to get there, and had a spot reserved in a min bak, a traditional Korean stlye of motel infused with hostel where a bunch of people sleep on blankets on the floor. We painted each other muddy with paint brushes sloshed and slid, went swimming in a mud swimming pool with muddy water spraying down on us from sprinkler systems placed obove. We slid down the giant mud slide, splatted and splashed everywhere we went. We painted ourselves with red mud, blue mud, green mud, yellow mud, brown mud and ran through town revelling with hundreds of thousands of other people doing the same thing. Everything was chaotic, and yet simple and calming. I have always loved to play in the rain and splash in the puddles, or lay myself in the gutters and feel the rain water rush over and around me. Do not we all still have a child like that in us, who wants to splash in the puddles and come home dirty and wet? Mudfest answers that call, and if you are unaware that child still breathes inside you, Mudfest will bring it out, smiling and howling for a long waited dance in muddy puddles. You can throw it at your friends, cake it across your body, or fling and kick it to the sky, and never worry of it hitting someone else. The numbers of people who come, are proof of who we never really forget to be inside. Nearly half the people who attend are foreigners, and it's almost like being back home at a festival, English language and western faces everywhere. The city even tried to realize the festival has turned in to a foreigner festival and had some of the bands sing English songs, and hotels set up "buffets for foreigners." They were poor buffets, but nonetheless, it was a nice change from rice, kim chi, and fish with bones still left inside. It was surprising with the number of foreigners attending that the clubs refused to let foreingers in. They are Korean only clubs. That is not uncommon here in Korea. Some restaurants and bars here in my city are the same, either refusing to serve foreigners, or making it unpleasant for foreigners to be there, and people, old and young alike point and stare without trying to hide what they are doing. While Korean people are very friendly, they are neither open-minded, nor open. They embrace neither change, nor individualism, but instead conformity and sameness. They do not like that which is different, particularly in people, and I know no matter how long I were to stay here, I would never be fully accepted. I will always be an outsider here, and will always be looked at as someone a little less equal. Many families disown their children if they find out they have been dating a foreigner, and if that foreigner is a westerner, it is even worse. It is not this way in the big cities, but where I am at it is still considered rural and country with traditional and conservative Korean values. I love this country and her people, though I would never want to stay here for this reason alone. They are an un-accepting people, over-generalized I know. Anyway, back to Mudfest. It was a blast, and even the rain at night while we watched the fireworks shows and walking around in panchos to protect us from the stormy winds and slanting rain that hit late seemed to add to the splendour and authenticity of the weekend. Can mud ever be mud without a little bit of rain? All the rain could do was add mor puddles to splash in, and give a greater sense of something unique and something grand. We should play in mud more often, stop and feel it between our toes or brushed against us, then slide our flesh across another, slippery snake of skin. I should never wish to take away the rain, nor wash away the mud, and so in memory to the many days I played in puddles, with feet bare, or that I rushed like slip and slide through the mud, I alone or on the motorcycle I drove when I was young, to those memories, to many memories, I wish to write the words, but instead, leave you only with what I have said. "The world is mud-luscious and puddle wonderful." -E. E. Cummings.