One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Korean Take on an American Tradition

 Korean take on American Thanksgiving right here before you: muffins, apples, melon, chocolates, chicken Caesar salad, grapes, shrimp salad, sweet potato casserole, bananas, and, yes, even pumpkin pie
I know its 14 hours premature for my friends and family back home, but here I am in Korea,  celebrating Thanksgiving with my fellow teachers. I thought Thanksgiving might feel a little hollow this year with me being away from home and enveloped by a completely different culture; and yet, paradoxically, I feel so full.  Maybe not full from festive dishes like turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce (oh, how I lament not having these dishes!), but none the less full of warm, fuzzy, oozy emotions... and Caesar salad, muffins, and sweet potato casserole.  Not your traditional Thanksgiving.  One look at our spread and I'm flashed to something from the Peanuts Gang. Well, it was quite a leap from a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. I don't think Snoopy brought shrimp salad and chocolate truffles.

I'm compelled by tradition to say how thankful I am this year.  I'm thankful for my friends and my family, and (ironically) I'm thankful for a job that has also pulled me away from them. For me, there is nothing like being away from home to make me miss it and appreciate it down to my very core.  I wish that weren't the case. I wish it didn't take a holiday or being halfway across the world to remind myself of these things.  I'm guilty.

It's funny, people have asked me if I feel different about the U.S after living abroad.  I suppose they wonder if I've turned into an ex-patriot wanna-be and find myself more bitter, cynical, and critical as the days go by. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. Nothing makes me miss my home more; nothing makes me more grateful; and if I come back with criticisms, they are only with the hope that a country that I love will improve itself.

I am also thankful for my fellow teachers. They are wonderful women.  I find that, time and time again, they will go to great lengths to help one another.  I've been drawn into this community, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that I'm the newest and youngest teacher at the school. I'm asked "how are you" quite frequently and I get the distinct impression that they are not asking out of courtesy but out of genuine concern.

Last week Mrs. Kim asked me a similar question and I told her that I was great, but maybe a little homesick with the holidays around the corner. I explained Thanksgiving and told her that it was a big holiday in the U.S.  She said a few words in Korean to some of the other teachers and the subject was dropped, but not for long.  On Tuesday Mrs. Kim told me that they wanted to have a "Korean Thanksgiving" on Thursday.  They asked me what Americans usually eat. I rattled off a list.

"Stu--ffing??"  "Yes, Stuffing," as I pointed to a picture I'd pulled up online. They laughed. I didn't understand their words, but their expressions were saying "NO!"  I couldn't sell them on "stu--ffing," but I think I won some advocates in the sweet potato casserole category. This dish was my contribution to the potluck today.  Someone else was good enough to buy pumpkin pie at Costco (a little piece of the U.S. right there for our non-turkey Turkey Day convenience). We may not have had turkey and we may not have had cranberry sauce, but oh man did we have pie!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North and South Korea: Should we be worried?

Yeonpyeong Island, the site of the shelling, is located close to the border on the west coast side, close to Incheon.  I'm living in the city Taejon, which is nearly in the middle of the country. It's surrounded by mountains and is a good distance from the conflict. 

I've decided to post something on the recent artillery firings between the North and South.  I've gotten a few concerned messages from friends and family. First of all, I am fine and nowhere near the conflict.

Here's a link to a BBC news article:
It gives more detail explaining the incident than I can really go into.

I tried to gage the seriousness of the situation from my co-teachers reaction. The language barrier makes it really difficult to say for sure, but my impression is that most Koreans are not worried. To give you an idea...  Yesterday, I had my first open class with my 5th grade co-teacher.  An open class is a class that is open for the public to watch (neighboring schools' teachers, principles, and parents all come to observe your class).  We had been preparing for weeks; so with it finally finished we had a little celebration in the staff room. The head 6th grade teacher interrupted the party to tell us the shelling had just happened. All of the teachers jumped to their desks and onto their computers to check for news updates. The alarm lasted for 10 minutes and then, like nothing had happened, they were all back to sitting around, eating, and talking about the open class.

Later I pulled a few teachers aside (those that spoke better English) and asked them what they thought about it. A few were worried, but most for male relatives who are currently serving in the military.  (All men have a two year obligatory service)

"Our country is divided" was one statement I heard unexpectedly. Many Koreans still view the situation between the North and South as one country divided and not of two waring countries. In fact, most South Koreans want to be reunited with the North one day. Much like what happened in Germany and Berlin, the Korean war split families into its northern and southern vectors. So what stops unification? A tyrannical dictator, for one. North and South Korea are like night and day. The South has prospered: their economy, infrastructure, and commerce has grown considerably in the last 20 years. A city here is like a city anywhere in the west. Meanwhile people in the North are very literally starving. I have friends who have visited the DMZ (It's a popular tourist destination.. though not one thats currently high on my list )  I've heard that you can clearly see a stark contrast between the North and South just by standing at the DMZ. There are trees on the southern side, while on the northern side there are patches of clear cutting, mines, and barbed wire fencing. Thats no place I want to go.

It's hard to say whether the problem will continue to escalate. Its forced me to think more seriously about "what if" scenarios, but I refuse to stoop to fear mongering.  Yesterday, I registered with the American Embassy here in Korea (something I should have done when I first got here). I'm calm, but keeping a watchful eye. For now, all is fine and my bags remain unpacked.

Flesh Eating Fish in 3D

No, the answer to your burning question, I didn't see Piranha in 3D. Though, I did have a very 3D flesh eating experience.

Last week I went to a cafe in downtown Daejeon that had something called "Dr. Fish." (You'll have to forgive me for being so late on this post [cough cough, Brian]. I'm having to play a little catch up. Sadly I've joined the devoted group of Dexter watchers and it's consuming the time that I would otherwise spend doing... well, just about anything else.. blogging included.  Lesson: I have no self control when it comes to addictive TV series. Please save my personal life; do not recommend new ones.).

I went with a group to grab a coffee and get my feet exfoliated by these tiny fish that eat the dead skin from your feet. We walked up to the pool area and washed our feet (don't want to kill the little monsters, I suppose) then we grabbed a pillow and sat on the side of a small pool filled with 50+ fish.  It's amazing how quickly they swarmed our feet.  Poor little guys must not get a variety of food or I don't think they'd be so eager to snack on us. It was a really weird sensation. It tickled mostly and that, mixed with the novelty, had me laughing for a solid 3 minutes. It felt like bubbles, really.

And then like a flip of a switch, I felt a little horrified.  My mind twisted the image of tiny fish tickling my feet to swarms of fish eating my dead skin... which is precisely what Dr. Fish is.  I hadn't realized that I was doing it, but a friend mentioned that I was sullenly staring at the fish. He was right, I was. It was all becoming less funny and more grotesque by the flesh eating minute.

After an hour in the pool and upon a final examination of my feet, I'm not all that sure that Dr. Fish did much exfoliating. Cool experience. I'd go back, but maybe to get a coffee and to smuggle the little piranhas some fish food flakes instead.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Pepero Day!


I learned an interesting cultural nugget about Korea today.  Korea is full of quirky holidays. 

I walked into my elementary school this morning and was immediately greeted by smiling children holding up red, green, and golden boxes-- some wrapped, some with ribbons, but each holding thin long stick cookies, dipped in chocolate.  "Jessica Teacher! Pepero!" as they gestured the boxes in my direction.  I couldn't help myself, each additional box of peperos made me want to skip down the hall. I threw my arms around my students, thanking them profusely while most stood stunned with their hands at their sides. I suppose some of them might have felt a tad accosted by what (only now) appears to have been an overreaction to stick shaped cookies. As uncomfortable they might have felt, I couldn't stop hugging them if I tried. I saw my co-teacher, Shi On, chuckle as I hugged one of our students on the way out of class 6-5.  She, with more grace, accepted her box of peperos by simply saying, "thank you."  My defense: It was my first pepero day experience! I felt so loved <3  

I had been warned (somewhat) about pepero day. I spent 5k won (roughly 5 U.S. dollars) on six boxes of peperos the day before, thinking that number should be sufficient. My thought was that if any students gave me a box, I would give them one in return.  Not knowing the scale of this holiday, I didn't want too many. After all, any remaining boxes would only end up back in my apartment!... . . . I should have bought a few *dozen* more! I gave the first six away in a snap.  Then I resorted to recycling the boxes I had been given by giving them to other students.  Finally I gave up after I realized that even this tactic could not sustain the pace. I did what the other teachers did: I accepted the boxes, thanked them for it, and watched them giggle as they scampered off (but not without a squeeze!).

Pepero day is celebrated on 11/11. It's a day when young Korean children and couples exchange this delightful cookie.  Pepero's, if you'll notice, are in the same shape as the "1"s in it's date. And there you have it folks! All it takes to make a Korean holiday...chocolate dipped cookies in the shape of the date they are celebrated.  What a fantastic marketing scheme, Lotte Department Store (the manufacturers of peperos).

Pepero Day, as I learned from the teacher's table at lunch, falls into a long list of commercialized holidays in Korea. The 14th day of every month is some kind of holiday for couples, which is appropriate for a country that obsesses about marital status.  (When I got to this country the string of questions that I was usually asked started with "Are you single [single=not married] ?'  "Do you have a boyfriend?" "Do you want a boyfriend?" "Do you want a Korean boyfriend?" and "How old are you?")  So here they are:
January 14th: calendar/planner day. Couples give each other this gift ... I guess to help them remember the next eleven
February 14: Valentines Day: An imported holiday, but uniquely Korean. Women give gifts to men on this day. No worries ladies, it's made up for triple fold on ..
March 14th: White day:  The day men reciprocate by giving gifts to women that are worth 3 times the value they received on February 14th.  Way to go ladies! clever thinking!
April 14th: Black Day: I don't think I would have survived my adolescence with a holiday like this.  Singles who did not celebrate on feb. 14th and march 14th get together a eat ja jang myun - a black noodle soup or anything else black. So let me get this straight... couples get candy and flowers... singles get to eat black food together to morn their single status. ummm.. I don't think so. You can keep that one Korea!
May 14th: Rose day: Couples exchange roses
June 14th: Kiss Day:  self-explanatory
July 14th: now here's a good one: silver day: couples exchange silver jewelry. I think this holiday needs to make it's way back to the States
August 14th: couples drink Soju (a rice liquor in a green bottle) and take long walks in the woods. I suppose in Korean fashion singles can drink themselves into a stupor
September 14th: Photo Day: ... I think you've got it
November 14th: Movie day
December 14th: Hug day

I came home with a bag full of pretty little boxes of peperos. Now to pawn them off.  I went to yoga tonight and was able to give away 6.  If this sounds like a charitable act, I assure you, my waist line is thanking me for this.  I love and hate the thought of eating peperos for the next 3 weeks.
Peperos that I received from students <3

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rising with the Monks

Golgul Temple

Last weekend was Halloween and I decided to do something a bit non-traditional. I didn't put on face paint or go to a party, but I did dress up.... if you're willing to count Buddhist trainee garb as a costume. They have programs in Korea where people have the opportunity to live like a Buddhist monk in a temple for a weekend.  I think it's safe to say that I couldn't have done something more polarizing than stay in a temple the weekend of Halloween, but in hindsight (and with a little more sleep) I'm really glad I went.

It was a beautiful time of year to go into the mountains near Gyeongju.  Like home, the leaves are changing this time of year so it was very colorful this weekend. Not to mention, we got lucky with the weather: no rain and temperatures in the 60s.

We got there around 2 on Saturday, checked in, got our temple uniform (i.e Halloween costume) and jumped right into a lesson in archery.   My friend and I noted that the master of archery shattered our imagine of a Buddhist monk. He was a Norweigan man is his late 20's with blond hair and blue eyes. But boy, were we ever wrong in doubting him. Could he ever hit a bulls eye! And later in our stay he led the yoga and Samudo training as well.  Samudo is a form of martial arts and yoga that's practiced in this particular temple. Being a Buddhist form of martial arts, Samudo is never used to harm anyone.  They don't even pretend to hit one another in Samudo routines.  I think it can best be described as a form of dance that synchronizes the mind and body.  
A Samudo performance from young boys training to be monks.

The temple uniform reminded me of something between Aladdin (the big baggy tapered pants and vest) and an inmate (orange vest).

The guy standing right behind me is the archery master. As a side note: I hit the target on this shot (it was the one and only time)
This is where I "slept" Saturday night. The two blankets and pillow on the top shelf made my "bed" on the floor.  My roommate, a Korean girl who was roughly my age, took the set on the bottom shelf.  We went to bed around 10 that night after 2 hours of Samudo training.  One monk emphasized the importance of our attendance to the early morning chanting and meditation service.  Missing this event meant missing breakfast and 3000 bows as punishment. Needless to say, I was really worried that I wouldn't wake up to the 4:00 wake up call.  I can say now that there was no need for me to be so worried. I hardly slept that night. I think I checked my watch at least 4 or 5 times and I had been laying awake on the floor for an hour before I heard the monks chanting at 4am to wake the community. 
Before the birds were singing, we trekked up to the temple  (I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say we had to hike to the top of the mountain to get there.. maybe they make monks hike to the top to increase their gratitude in reaching the temple).  Just a few things about temple procedures that I learned and experienced.  Buddhist temples have three doors (two on the sides and one in the front).  Only the monks enter the front entrance.  You never enter with your shoes on and once you walk in you should do 3 half bows immediately.  Then you grab a small pillow and do 3 full bows. A full bow means that you put your hands together in a prayer position in the center of your chest and bow halfway at your waist. Then dropping to a kneeling position, your forearms and forehead must touch the floor. You hold that position for a half second and then turn your palms face up and (with your forehead still touching the ground) raise your palms above your ears. If  it sounds complicated.. it's not. You do that three times representing your thanks for the 3 jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (those who have found enlightenment).

The morning chanting service was quite neat.  The monks were already seated on their pillows in the front when we walked in. We filed in and followed suit. The chants were in Korean and though we had romanized translations, I really couldn't follow. I listened instead as I did the 108 bows. 

Then came the hard part: 30 minutes of meditation.  I know sitting for 30 minutes doesn't sound difficult, but you'll have to trust me when I say it was harder than sleeping on the floor that night.  Several things about it are hard. First, you sit in something called the half-lotus position, which will kill anyone's knees, hips, and, especially for me, back.  Second, you're told to "quiet your mind" and focus on your breathing.  It's hard for anyone to keep their mind quiet, but I found that my mind is like a small child in this regard. In telling it not to do something, it of course, had to do it... and man, was it loud.

Meditation went something like this:
"Aww, this is kind of nice being able to close my eyes.. I could sleep.. would they catch me if I slept.. would I have to do the bows if they caught me.. maan, its got to be 4:35.. I wish I could look at my watch.. probably 4:36 now..  that's 3:36 at home.. I wonder what everyone's doing.. I'd give anything not to be doing this right now... ooo, ooo, okay, my back hurts.. I want to reposition but how quietly can I do this.. that was a little loud.. .straighten your back.. please, god, just let the time go by..  maybe another 23 more minutes to go.. okay, focus, focus on your breath...fill your chest and empty it out.. fill your chest and empt.."  Then a few golden seconds of silence.  "hey, I'm doing it!.. .damn it." 

We followed the sitting meditation with a walking meditation down to the dining hall for breakfast. I could handle doing walking meditation all day in comparison! There was no pain and it was pitch dark .. which for me, made it so much easier to zone out. The wind was blowing and because we were only a little ways from the coast I could smell the salt in the air. Walking meditation was a much more pleasant experience and I think a more successful one, at that.

Breakfast on Sunday was a traditional Buddhist ceremony. It was complicated and ritualized... two things that made me pretty nervous. A few interesting parts:  Buddhists monks don't eat for pleasure, they eat simply to sustain their bodies (If the meditation didn't rule this lifestyle out for me, then that stipulation definitely did. I enjoy food). When they eat that eat mindfully and with gratitude.  Not a single grain of rice or drop of water can be wasted. So we had to eat every bit of food that we received. I mean every. grain. of rice. If we didn't then the monks would have sent us back to finish.  We had to clean our 4 bowls ourselves with a little bit of hot water and a piece of cabbage.  We had to drink the remaining water and eat the cabbage (I know that sounds horrifying, but it really wasn't bad... they are vegetarian so in the end it was just hot spiced water that we were drinking). 
Tea Ceremony: Through a translator we were able to ask one of the monks questions. It was the only time we were able to speak to them.

What did I get from this experience: well, apart from the bags under my eyes, I did leave with a greater knowledge of Buddhism and a new found appreciation and mindfulness of the food that I eat and the bed that I sleep on... oh and gratitude for backed chairs... I'd be okay if I never had to sit in the half lotus position again.
These two pictures are of the group who did the temple stay this weekend. Nice people from a lot of different places: Norway, Korea, Iceland, Iran, and Germany