Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Aches and Reunions (21 February)

Waking up this morning is far easier than walking.  I’d anticipated my thighs being sore today as a result of the bowing but I hadn’t even considered the repetitive strain that my upper arms were under during those same bows.  Walking up stairs at school is far less painful than coming back down.  Each step is like a baseball bat being beat against my weary body.  Mercifully, today is a quiet day at school with limited expectations so I’m able to spend most of the day at my desk surfing the net and catching up on blog entries. 


I can’t help but think that today’s horoscope is spot on…for yesterday’s adventures:  “Perhaps you planned to attend a group event but circumstances beyond your control got in the way.  Maybe it was cancelled.  This could cause some disappointment for you and others.”  I had planned to meet friends for dinner but ended up in the wrong city nearly three and a half hours away which caused frustration more than disappointment.  “A project of your own is likely to need some attention, and this challenge could keep you engrossed for hours.”  My blog is permanently several weeks behind despite my having blogged diligently for the past two months.  Granted, I’ve managed to get a lot done on my blog but it’s reaching a point where I’m tempted to just forgo the last five weeks of entries and start afresh from today’s date – if only my ego and pride would allow me to do so.  The final part of my horoscope is spot on for today: “Tonight, treat yourself to dinner out.”  Since I missed last night’s dinner, and I haven’t seen Catfish in 10 days, we’re meeting at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant tonight, Hoa Binh, to catch up on the events of the past 10 days; there’s no way I’m missing this dinner!

With the start of the new school year around the corner, offices are abuzz with teachers moving desks.  In Korea and Japan, teachers change desks at the start of every year because it helps to keep things fresh and something about ‘energy’ that I still don’t quite understand.  The amusing part is that when these teachers move desks (and even offices), they move everything – including their keyboard, mice, computer screen and trash cans!  I’m devastated that this means that my fantastic co-teacher will be moving to another office just as I’ve finally been deemed cool enough for the International Office.  However, we’ll be getting three new Korean teachers in our office: Mr Jeong, a new English teacher and Moon Arang (a Spanish teacher).


Since Arang is moving to the office that I’m in – and since she’ll be sitting diagonally across from me and we’ve never really spoken to one another before – she decides that it’s time to formally introduce herself at lunchtime when we find ourselves sitting next to each other.  The conversation goes something like this:

Arang:  Sarah, we haven’t met but I am Arang.
Me:       Moon Arang? Spanish teacher, right?
Arang:  (Surprised gasp) You know! Thank you!  I’m moving to your office.
Me:       Awesome!!
Arang: Really? (With very confused look!)
Me:       Of course (With equally confused look).  You were in the fourth floor office
              with Mr Jeong.
Arang:   You know who I am?
Me:        Of course! You play piano too, right?
Arang:  (Another surprised gasp) How do you know?
Me:       You played at the school festival in December.  You play very well.
Arang:  I’m honoured that you remember me.
Me:       I also play piano.

This is where the conversation ends because, frankly, I think I’ve overwhelmed her with the fact that I actually know who she is and remember hearing her play piano at school in December.  She also seems surprised that we actually have things in common – I honestly thought she didn’t like me so it seems we’re both a little surprised today.  I seem to have finally convinced some of the teachers that I plan to stay in Korea and that even though I’m a foreigner, I’m not a bad/conceited/obnoxious person.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Show Me The Way To Go Home (20 February)

Considering my unsuccessful attempt to find bus #79 and the Bangsong Bus Station in Jeonju yesterday, I’m a little apprehensive about finding my way home from the temple.  Mariah, however, is confident of how to get back to Jeonju and has invited me to travel with her.  Relieved that I won’t end up having to take the AK bus all the way back to Seoul in order to get home, I take her up on this offer. 

The AK bus drops us off at the Geumsan Bus Station approximately one and a half kilometres from the temple.  Waiting at the bus station is the #79 bus which I’m convinced is the one that I can take to get to Jeonju.  I query this with Mariah who tells me that she doesn’t know anything about this particular bus since she took the #5 bus to Gimje.  Okay, I’ll follow her to Gimje then.  We’re at the bus station for about 10 minutes and as the #79 bus drives away from us, I struggle to silence that pesky voice in my head that is telling me I should’ve been on that bus since that’s the most direct route home.  Within minutes, however, the #5 bus arrives and we’re soon settling ourselves into seats for the trip to Gimje.  When we arrive in Gimje, the pesky voice in my head starts telling me that I should stay on the bus until it gets to the bus terminal and then catch a bus from there back to Gunsan but, once again, I ignore it and follow Mariah off the bus and to the train station.

The Scenic Route

We enter the train station and attempt to buy a ticket for the same train on which Mariah has already booked a seat.  The train is only leaving at 15:30 and I once again hear a niggling voice inside my head asking why I have to take a train to get to Jeonju when the temple is a mere 20 minute drive from the city.  Ignoring the voice once more, Mariah and I chat while we wait for the train.  As we chat, I can’t help thinking that it’s already been nearly two and a half hours since we left Geumsansa and I only live 90 minutes from the temple – I should be back in Gunsan already.  Something doesn’t feel right but it almost seems rude to ditch Mariah and try to make my way to the Gimje bus terminal even though Gimje is only an hour bus trip at most from Gunsan.  Instead, I find myself getting on a train wondering where, exactly, I’m headed.  The first stop is Iksan and I again wonder if I should get off the train and find the bus station.  I hesitate too long and we’re once again moving through increasingly rural scenery.  The train trip is scheduled to take just under two hours and I quickly squelch the part of me that questions why I’m on a train at all and ignore the increasingly suspicious voice that tells me I’m heading closer to Seoul than Gunsan.  Catfish, in the meantime is halfway to Gunsan having arrived back from Thailand this morning.

By 17:30, we finally reach our destination of Jochiwon and I’m relieved that I have only an hour more of travelling ahead of me before I’m back in Gunsan.  KiwiKat and NZ2 are waiting for Catfish and I to get back to Gunsan so that we can all go for dinner together.  It’s another short bus ride to the city centre and Mariah offers to see me to the bus station.  It’s close to 18:00 by the time we finally arrive at the bus station and I feel the uncertainty crashing into me as I realise that I don’t recognise this bus terminal.  That pesky voice once again comments that I’ve really taken the scenic route in getting from Geumsansa to Jeonju: a 20 minute trip to Jeonju has taken over five hours. I conclude that I must be at the express bus terminal and we head to another terminal which is close to where Mariah lives anyway. 

Why Won't You Sell Me A Ticket To Gunsan?

We arrive at the smaller terminal and I’m told that I also can’t catch a bus to Gunsan from this terminal.  I’m starting to wonder where exactly I am and that Jeonju is a lot bigger than I’ve ever noticed before.  A woman at this bus terminal writes down the name of the correct terminal for me, Mariah and I exchange numbers and I promise to contact her if I can’t get a bus home tonight as I bid her farewell and give the written address to yet another taxi driver.  An exhausting feeling of déjà vu nearly knocks me off my feet as the driver unceremoniously drops me off at the same bus terminal that I’ve just left.  I decide to ask for a ticket to Gunsan at the counter where the only phrase I understand is “Opsseoyo” (Don’t have).  I feel myself starting to panic as exhaustion overwhelms me.  Desperate not to cry, I step outside of the terminal and try to phone my fantastic co-teacher who lives in Jeonju; her phone remains unanswered and I feel the hysteria begin to rise from deep within as the pompous voice in my head does a victory dance while chanting I told you so! far too loudly considering I’ve been awake since 3:00am. 

By now, Catfish is not only back in Gunsan but has already arrived at NZ2’s apartment which is where I should’ve been for the past three hours at the very least!  In addition, the AK bus is already back in Seoul.  I phone Catfish in panic just to hear a familiar as my frazzled brain tries to figure out why I’m not able to find the correct bus terminal.  Catfish checks the bus schedule online and KiwiKat suggests that I phone Seokjin for help.  I try to get hold of Seokjin but am unsuccessful.  I then phone my Canadian friends and ask if they’d mind fetching me from Jeonju but when I describe where I am in Jeonju, they seem even more confused than I am.  He tells me that I should be able to walk to the correct station and even tells me the Korean name for it.  I again hail a taxi, give him the name of the station and am irritated, puzzled and even more confused when he tells me that I’m already at that station. 

I can feel the hysteria rising like a tsunami as exhaustion, frustration and confusion overwhelm and I must be quite the site standing on the streets of Jeonju sobbing my heart out over a bus!  To make matters worse, my phone battery is dying.  I text YeonJeong in desperation and ask her for help: How do I ask for the intercity bus terminal in Korean?  In my tired mind, the only logical answer is that I’ve been taken to the wrong bus terminal – it never enters my mind that I might not actually be in Jeonju.

Shiwae Buseu Terminale ka Juseyo

As guilt joins this party of pathos, I think once again that I should’ve been back in Gunsan by now and I feel guilty that three people are waiting for my return before going to dinner.  As I text KiwiKat to tell her that I’m still trying to make it home in time for dinner, YeonJeong phones to help me; she asks me to give the phone to a taxi driver and she’ll tell him where to take me.  Relieved to finally be speaking to someone who understands exactly where I want to go, I hail a taxi and hand over the phone.  After much conversation, I start to suspect that something is wrong.  When another driver comes over and joins the conversation, I’m starting to think I should get out of the taxi and take my chances elsewhere.  Three taxi drivers are now involved in a discussion as to where to take me and YeonJeong is still talking to the first driver in a bid to get me home.  I hear the words “train station” and “Iksan” and am impatient in telling them that I don’t want to go to Iksan – I want to go to Gunsan!  I ask YeonJeong to ask the driver if he’s prepared to drive me to Gunsan even though I know that it will probably cost me at least 60 000 won for that trip; she’s one step ahead of me and has already been told that he’ll drive me home for 130 000 won.  I can’t help feeling further frustrated and ripped off: I may not be able to speak or understand much Korean and I know I’m a foreigner but I’m not stupid.  130 000 won for a 45 minute trip is a bit ridiculous and KiwiKat is telling me to get out of the cab, find another taxi and not pay that amount.  She also insists that I phone Seokjin.  I explain that I couldn’t get hold of him and that YeonJeong is assisting me. 

From Gunsan’s “Get Sarah Home” control room, the kiwis and Catfish are double checking bus schedules online and telling me that the buses run until 23:40 every night.  That’s great to know – if only I could get to the right bus station!  From the Seoul “Get Sarah Home” control room, YeonJeong is also checking bus schedules online and telling me that there are buses from Jeonju to Gunsan; she also texts me “Intercity bus terminal” in Korean. It’s now 19:00 and I’m still no closer to getting on a bus than I was an hour again when my latest “Find your way home in Korea” adventure began.  As I once again venture inside the bus terminal, I notice a student wearing a university jacket with the words “Chonbuk National University: Physical Education” emblazoned across the back.  I know that that’s the university in Jeonju so there’s no doubt that I’m in the right city if only I could silence that pesky voice that’s now pointing out that the sign on the building I’m about to enter says “Cheongju Intercity Bus Terminal”.  I know that there’s some disagreement on the romanisation of Korean names but Cheongju sounds like a completely different city to Jeonju. 

Cheongju and Jeonju Are NOT the Same City

I march to the ticket counter in fierce determination and decide that I’m not moving until they sell me a ticket to Gunsan.  The kiwis and Catfish have already gone to dinner since I’m obviously still going to be a while and I’m now tired of this game of Let’s Confuse the Waegook!  I reach the counter and ask for a ticket to Gunsan where I’m again told “Opsseoyo” along with several other things.  Despite my determination not to cry, I feel tears of frustration start sprinting down my ruddy cheeks as I helplessly tell the woman that I don’t understand her – while thinking And you probably don’t understand me!.  Another passenger at the window next to me steps in to translate much to my relief: She tells me that there are no direct buses to Gunsan from this station as the last bus left at 17:45.  I have to take a bus to Jeonju bus station and then catch a bus from there to Gunsan. 

Relieved to finally understand that I can get on a bus in the right direction, although puzzled as to why I have to take a bus to Jeonju when I’m already in Jeonju, I hand over 10 000 won and purchase a ticket for the 19:30 bus.  As I walk away, I’m further puzzled as to why the ticket cost nearly 10 000 won when the trip should take less than 10 minutes to the other side of town.  I phone my Canadian friends to tell them that I’ve bought a ticket but that it says Cheongju to Jeonju.  I’m confused: I don’t want to go to Cheongju but does this mean that I’m currently in Cheongju and not Jeonju.  That pesky voice is back and telling me that I’m getting warmer while my friend tells me that they’ve sold me the wrong ticket and I should change it.  I tell him that I’m getting on this bus and if need be, I’ll take a bus to Seoul and go home from there while wistfully thinking that if only I’d stayed on the AK bus all the way back to Seoul, I would’ve been on my way home to Gunsan by now.  I switch off my phone to try and save whatever power may be left in my battery and once again stare at the name of the bus terminal as it finally dawns on me: I really am in the wrong city! 

On the Road Again

I march purposefully to the assigned platform and board the bus as my brain eeks out the last of its energy trying to figure out where exactly Cheongju is and how long it’s going to take me to get back to Gunsan since the train trip was two hours.  At 19:30, I send Catfish a text to say that I’m in Cheongju and won’t make it in time for dinner.  She’s replies that I should once again try to contact Seokjin who, was an older male, would probably have more success than YeonJeong.  When I confirm that I really am in Cheongju and am now on a bus to Jeonju, her only response (shared by the kiwis) is laughter – much laughter!  My Canadian friends have also contacted me again and are trying to work out how long it’ll take to get from Cheongju to Jeonju – hopefully in time to catch a bus back to Gunsan.  I switch off my phone again for a few minutes.  As the bus leaves the station, I send up a fervent prayer that I’m finally heading in the right direction as I switch on my phone to discover two messages from my fantastic co-teacher: The first is to tell me what to ask a taxi driver in order to get to the correct bus terminal.   The second is a little more frantic: your phone was busy and is now dead. Hope you’re going back to Gunsan! Where r u?  I phone with the reassurance that I’ve figure out I was in the wrong city and am now on my way to Jeonju.

I can only imagine how the kiwis and Catfish must be laughing at this latest and unexpected adventure.  I, on the other hand, am not at all amused: I’m exhausted, frustrated, emotionally drained and I’ve missed dinner with my friend – in fact, I suddenly realise that I’ve missed dinner entirely.  Catfish tries to keep up a supportive role as she tells me that I’m at least now on the right path, that this is an “Oh Korea!” moment and she can’t wait for the blog entry; KiwiKat shares the sentiment.  I’m still not amused.  As Catfish points out, 130 000 won taxi fare from Cheongju to Gunsan doesn’t seem quite as bad now that I know I’m about 40 minutes north of Daejeon and a good two and a half hours from Gunsan. 

Now It's Funny!

By 20:00, I’m starting to see the humour in the situation as I realise that I’ve been travelling for 7 hours already and have barely left the province; I have half of Catfish’s travelling time and she flew back from Thailand!  All this for a trip that should have taken no more than two hours.  The pesky voice in my head is doing yet another victory lap as it rubs my nose in the fact that it’s been right and telling me so for the past seven hours – if only I’d listened to it earlier.  As we rattle over bumps in the road, I feel my heavy eyes start to close as I think of a song that was a hit in 1926 with alternative (suitable) lyrics for this adventure:

Show me the way to go home
I’m tired and I wanna go to bed
I left Geumsansa seven hours ago
And I went to Cheongju instead!

I finally arrive in Jeonju at 21:30 and am so relieved to recognise the bus station that I all but sprint off the bus and head straight to the ticket counter.  I can see a bus bound for Gunsan waiting at the platform if I can just get there fast enough.  I’m so tired that it takes me a moment to register that I’ve asked for a ticket to Gunsan in one sentence using three different language: French, Afrikaans and English.  Without any Korean, I’ve been perfectly understand (if only it had been this easy at 18:00 in Cheongju) and have a ticket to Gunsan in hand – just in time to see the Gunsan bus leave the platform.  As I wait 15 minutes for the next bus, I text everyone to let them know that I’m in Jeonju and waiting for a bus to Gunsan; I’ll be home within an hour.  As I wait, I calculate the cost of the trip home realizing that it would not only have been quicker if I’d gone home via Seoul but cheaper too.

I get back to Gunsan at 22:45 – nearly 10 hours since leaving the temple which is only 90 minutes away – and I’ve never felt so relieved to be home as I am tonight. I send a final text to KiwiKat and Catfish to let them know I’m finally home.  NZ2 suggests that I stay away for another four hours making my day 24 hours long and take a nap  in the morning under my desk at school like the previous foreign teacher used to do.  I draw the line at staying up any later than necessary but a nap at school seems inevitable as I collapse in exhaustion. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

All in a Monk’s Day (20 February)

Determined to have a full temple experience, I force myself to get up at 3:00am to prepare for the pre-dawn ceremony which is the first of the day’s prayers at the temple.  The 3:30am call is optional and only half of the girls decide to get up for this experience while the rest opt for an extra hour’s sleep.  We quickly dress and put away our beds before meeting ByungWoo and the temple staff outside to be shepherded to the main temple where we’ll get to participate in the ceremony.  It’s not as cold as we’d expected at this hour.  Nevertheless, there’s a definite hustle to get seats directly next to the heaters in the main temple.  Once again, I can’t help wondering what made the monks decide to give in to modern items like heaters for the cold winter months considering the simplicity of the rest of their lives….

Disappointingly, this ceremony seems to be over in less than 20 minutes and we’re soon bowing our way out of the main temple and heading back to our sleeping quarters where the remaining AK members are woken to join the rest of the morning’s activities.  Apparently the room where we slept is actually a meditation room and so it is needed for part of the morning's activities which means that the early wake up call is no longer entirely optional much to the apparent disgust of several foreigners who are struggling to wake up – my guess is that it’s the same group of girls who were considerate enough to only go to sleep at around 2:00am this morning thanks to their constant chatter and laughing for nearly four hours last night.

And Now for 108 Bows

As irritable foreigners wipe sleep from their eyes, our monk greets us with some unexpected news which ByungWoo translates since the temple’s translator is not yet present: It’s time for us to do 108 bows.  The regret in ByungWoo’s voice is echoed in the moans heard around the room as I take in the general Ah crap! expressions around me.  I’d been told about the 108 bows that we’d have to do when making our Buddhist prayer beads but nobody had mentioned the 108 full bows that are part of the morning prayers.  In addition, no one seems to have considered that such rigorous exercise at an hour when we’re barely awake is tantamount to torture for many a foreigner – it’s the equivalent of flogging us or locking us in the stocks.  Nonetheless, our monk cracks the bamboo stick and the bows begin.

Each crack of the bamboo stick signals the start of a full bow.  Many of you are probably thinking that our reluctance to perform 108 full bows is a bit churlish since your idea of a bow is probably bending from the waist which, after four months, I’m used to now doing on a daily basis.  Allow me to clarify that a full bow means bending into a kneel on the ground, bending over, raising your hands on either side of your head and then standing up only to repeat this motion over and over again.  Not only is it tough on your thighs and knees but the speed at which you move from one bow to the next is rather quick – 108 bows takes less than 15 minutes.  The speed is just too fast for me and I’m disappointed that I only manage to do 64 bows before having to excuse myself for fresh air and a respite from the stifling heat of the room.  Even with the doors open, the room is unbearably hot.

After the agony of 108 bows, we’re introduced to meditation and our monk teaches us the correct posture for mediation.  I’d always thought that meditation involved closed eyes but according to our monk, it involves squinting at your nose – closed eyes means that you’ve fallen asleep and that earns you a reprimand from the meditation master.  Meditation is followed by group massages as dictated by our monk.  By 6:00am, we’re starving and grateful that it’s breakfast time even if it is a traditional Korean breakfast.  As much as I like kimchi, I’ve never eaten if for breakfast and I’m a bit hesitant about this meal which is also going to be eaten in the traditional monk style – Baru Gongyang.   We’re assigned to two groups: One will collect all of the breakfast things from the dining room and the second group will return the breakfast things and take care of the dishes.  My group hastens to fetch breakfast and, when we return, our monk selects people to serve the various parts of the meal and we’re shown how to serve these things and how to receive them.  We’re also shown how to set out the bowls correctly on the place mat.

Baru Gongyang

There are four bowls in the set and they all fold away neatly into one another.  The first (and smallest) bowl is placed in top left hand corner and is used for the side dishes – this means the kimchi and vegetables in the meal.  The second smallest bowl is placed beside it and is the water bowl – this is the water that you use to clean your bowls and the water that you ultimately have to drink.  The second largest bowl is placed in the bottom right corner and is used for soup while the largest bowl, naturally, is used for rice and remains in the bottom left corner of the mat. 

With our bowls in place, we’re ready to get the ‘cleaning’ water.  I’ve already heard about the process involved in this meal and can’t help sending a rather fervent prayer that the previous person cleaned these bowls thoroughly.  I’m grateful though to have been told that the water used to clean the bowls also has to be drunk at the end of the meal so when we’re told to decide how much water we think we’ll need to clean our bowls, I’m careful to consider the ultimate action in this meal and accept less than half a bowl of water as opposed to the full bowl of the person sitting beside me.  The water is poured into our rice bowls where it is swirled around before being transferred to the soup bowl then the side dish bowl and finally the water bowl where the chopsticks and spoon are also cleaned.  From here, we have soup and rice served to us and we’re invited to help ourselves to side dishes.  We’re reminded to take radish which ultimately becomes our scrubbing brush when it’s time to do our dishes. 

I can already hear several foreigners complaining about the meal ahead as we’re reminded to only take as much as we will eat since the monks don’t believe in wasting food: Everything in your bowls must be eaten so it’s advisable to choose your food carefully.  The meal is tastier than expected although it simply feels strange to be eating soup, rice and kimchi so early in the morning.  We’re told that everything that the monks do is done as quietly as possible and we’re encouraged to make no noise while eating.  I’m disappointed to hear several foreigners grumble, complain and ignore this as the clatter of chopsticks and spoons continue to echo around the small meditation room in which we sit. 

Scrub Little Radish, Scrub!

After our meal, it’s time to do our dishes.  Once again, I’m semi-grateful to have already been told what doing the dishes involves in this particular meal and I feel slightly disgusted at the thought of what lies ahead.  We pour water from our water bowls into our rice bowls and use the slice of radish as a quasi-scrubbing brush to scrape the remnants of rice from the sides of the bowl.  Once the rice bowl is clean, we transfer the water to the soup and side dish bowls respectively repeating the cleaning process with each bowl before finally eating the radish and drinking the water.  Many people are thoroughly grossed out by the idea of drinking this water but, as KiwiKat has already explained, it is all just food and it’s food that you’ve just eaten – assuming, of course, that the previous person who used those bowls cleaned them thoroughly.

Touring the Grounds

After breakfast, we’re given just over an hour of free time.  Most people seem to opt to use this time to get some more sleep but I’m wide awake at this point even though it’s barely after 7:00am so I decide to explore the temple grounds a bit more.  I’m amazed at how many Korean visitors there already are on the temple grounds but the relatively peace and tranquillity of the morning is thoroughly enjoyable as I wander from temple to temple reading the notes about each building and thinking about how much history is contained in some of the buildings.  I may know next to nothing about Buddhism itself but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the beauty of my surroundings and I'm reminded of just how much I enjoy the early hours of the morning - if only I could get myself out of bed at this time more often.

At 8:20, we once again meet in front of the meditation room where people are just waking up for the second time in over four hours and we assemble for our tour of the temple grounds – the same self-guided tour I’ve just taken.  The community work segment of our itinerary involves chopping logs of wood but sadly this seems to be more of an experience to simply try to chop wood than any real interest in doing community service and most foreigners don’t even bother to try and chop a log of wood.  The final part of the tour is the monks’ graveyard which, although very small, has an incredible sense of history surrounding it.  With the tour done, it’s time for a meditation walk in the pine forest where we’re shown a beautiful love tree and told that anyone wanting more love in their lives should stand beneath this tree.  The walk ends with a brief meditation in the most tranquil and beautiful parts of the forest and I have a sudden desire to stay in this spot all day.  Unfortunately, our meditation is short and we’re soon heading back to the main temple grounds for the final part of the temple stay experience: Making Buddhist prayer beads. 

108 Bows: Round Two

Back in the meditation room, before being shown how to make the prayer beads, we’re first offered tea and rice cake in celebration of Mariah’s 30th birthday.  Our monk has dubbed her Mariah Carey since she first pointed out that her first name is pronounced the same way as that of Mariah Carey – and not Maria as so many Koreans apparently say.  She’s given three large candles to blow out while we all sing “Happy Birthday” and the ‘birthday’ cake is handed out.  I genuinely like rice cake and this is some of the tastiest rice cake I’ve had in Korea.  With the celebrations done, the monk gets down to the business of demonstrating how to make the prayer beads.

This Is How We Do It...

Before we can even place one bead on the string, we first have to do three full bows to Buddha.  Once we’ve done the introductory bows, we have to do a full bow for every bead that we place on the string; there are 108 beads so a bow for every bead, three introductory and three concluding bows means a total of 114 bows just to make one set of prayer beads.  We’re each given a packet of beads, a cloth to work on, an hour to make the prayer beads and the option of which temple we’d like to use.  Most people opt for the main temple which has large heaters in it but I choose the oldest temple because I like the sense of history and I’m fascinated by the three enormous statues in this particular temple.  Fortunately, there are also some heaters in this temple although the weather is rather mild for a winter’s day. 

Working at my own pace, I’m determined to do all of the bows this time although prostrating myself to Buddha just feels odd.  I’m not overly religious but I do feel a slight sense of guilt with each bow and the cross around my neck weighs heavy on my conscious.  Midway through the making of our prayer beads, a monk comes in to do the midday chants.  It’s rather relaxing listening to the rhythmic chant of the prayer and I find myself moving in sync with the rhythm of his chanting.  Unfortunately, I also find myself the midday entertainment for a number of Koreans who have come into the temple for the midday chants.  I’m the last person in this particular temple to finish my prayer beads but I feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing that I’ve actually done this as I head back to the meditation room where we’ll be helped to finish off our beads. 

Back in the meditation room, I’m asked if there are definitely only 108 beads on my string.  I’ve used all of the beads in the packet we were given and I’ve just assumed that this means there are 108 beads on the string.  Once again, I experience that assuming anything in Korea only leads to screw ups as I count the beads carefully and discover that there are, in fact, 144 on my string.  I did an extra 30 bows for beads that I must now remove in order to have a correct strand.  I reluctantly pull of the extra beads and hand the string to an ajumma who finishes off my strand of prayer beads by putting on the decorative and mother beads before tying a knot, burning the edge of the string and handing it back to me.  With the final activity now over, we have lunch where a random ajumma seems fascinated to see so many waegooks in monastic wear.  She walks up to us with a camera and starts taking photos of us as we stand in a line waiting to wash our lunch dishes before collecting our bags, returning our monastic wear and heading to the AK bus for the trip home.  

Temple Life (19 February)

Mariah and I arrive in the meditation room where the AK group is mid-orientation.  We quickly take a seat while our monk demonstrates the correct way to walk on the temple grounds.  Whenever we walk to the dining room or between temples, we should walk in single file, approximately four feet apart and with our right hand folded over our left in front of us.  We’ve missed most of the orientation so the only other temple etiquette we hear about is that there is no talking in the dining room, restrooms or shower rooms.

Lotus Lanterns 

The first activity following the orientation session is the making of lotus lanterns.  The temple volunteers provide each group of four with a lantern frame and baskets of leaves prepared from crepe paper.  I’m not the most artistic person but seriously, how hard can it be to glue leaves onto a frame in straight lines – apparently a lot more difficult that it first seems….  Finding the correct placing for the top row of leaves is perhaps the most difficult part of the lantern as you need to be careful not to cover too much of the opening where the candle needs space to breathe.  As we diligently glue pieces of craft paper to our lanterns, our monk takes the time to chat to a few of us and helps me glue and stick pieces of paper to my frame. 

With our lotus lanterns finished, the final step is for us to write a wish for 2011 on the paper provided which is then stapled to the bottom of our lanterns.  We then hang the finished lanterns on the ropes outside and have a 40 minute break to wander around the temple grounds.  It’s a great opportunity to take some photos and I’m mesmerised by the tranquillity and overall beauty of the location.  I’ve always loved forests and mountains because they’re so peaceful – Geumsan is no exception!

At 17:30 we meet for dinner which is served in the dining room.  It’s a bibimbap style dinner although I’m not entirely sure that this is actually bibimpbap.  In addition, the soup is tofu and bean curd – fermented bean curd.  Eating dinner in total silence is slightly unnerving: I’m so used to meals taking only a few minutes and trying to do several other things while eating that I find it rather strange to simply sit and eat dinner in silence at a table.  It seems this is a shared feeling judging by the agonised expressions of many people around me.  Our monk takes it upon himself to inspect our dishes too before we’re allowed to wash them.  The monks don’t believe in wasting food so every last grain of rice must be eaten – something many foreigners don’t seem too happy to hear.  Several people ignore this instruction and discard much of their dinner in the nearby trashcan simply because they don’t like the taste of the food; it would’ve been preferable to simply take less food than to discard so much of it.

Calling All Corners of the Earth...

We don’t all have time to wash our own dishes as we’re hurried to the next part of the temple experience.  There are four percussion instruments on the temple grounds and these are played daily, at regular intervals, and numerous times.  It’s time for our monk to tell us about each of these instruments and demonstrate two of them.  Briefly, the four instruments represent land, air, water and the underworld.  The first of these, the large drum, is made of cowhide and buffalo hide and is played to summon all earthbound creatures to the world of enlightenment.  Two monks demonstrate this particular drum with the most amazing, rapid and long drumming I’ve heard – the total playing time had to have been at least seven minutes. 

The second instrument is a suspended wooden fish that is hollowed out from the bottom.  Drumsticks are played with the hollowed out part to summon all of the aquatic beings in the world and the sound that results is similar to a drum being played underwater.  The cloud shaped gong is the third of the instruments.  Also suspended, it is made of iron and is used to summon all airborne creatures while the final instrument is a large bell that is approximately 30cm thick, three metres high and perhaps four metres in circumference.  This bell is used to summon all beings suffering in the netherworlds and you do not want to be standing next to the bell when it is struck with the suspended log.  In groups of four, we all have a chance to strike this bell seven times as part of the day’s ritual.  According to Geumsansa’s website, “the playing of these four instruments is symbolic of the Bodhisattva dedication to relieving all forms of life of their burdens and sufferings, and to lead them into a pain-free world of liberation”.

The cloud shaped gong for summoning
airborne creatures to enlightenment.

Having learnt about the percussion instruments, we follow our monk and tour leaders to the Main Buddha Hall where several monks are preparing for the evening’s chanting to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Predecessors.  Although interesting to observe, apart from doing full bows several times in 20 minutes, there is limited comprehension as to what has just happened.  This is further exemplified by the confused bows foreigners make just before leaving the temple: Each person bows in a different direction – some bow to a Buddha, some to a Bodhisattva, some bow to the monks while others, like me, simply give a confused bow that is inadvertently aimed at a blank wall.  The monks take little notice of our departure as they continue their chanting for several hours into the night while we file away for the next activity on our itinerary. 

Meditational Walks by Lantern Light

We return to our meditation room to find our lanterns aglow and casting a beautiful light across the building beside it.  We collect our lanterns and once again line up to head back to the main courtyard where we’ll do a meditational walk.  As we walk, our monk tells us to focus on the wish that we wrote on the piece of paper stapled to our lanterns – by focusing on this wish while we walk, it will be granted.  My wish is for good health in 2011 – so Korean as many people point out.  Our walk leads us around a pagoda several times before being lead up and around the oldest temple and back to our home base where it is now time for tea and conversation with our Buddhist monk. 

Evening Tea

We’re encouraged to ask as many questions as we like whether they are about Buddhism, monks or even Korea in general.  Our monk obliges us with answers to many personal questions too such as: How long have you been a monk (20 years) and why did you become a monk? (to find out who I am).  I find it rather difficult to understand why he became a monk to find out who he is and, at 18 years of age, to be so sure of his course of life.  Despite my difficulty in understanding this, however, I’m also a little envious of his conviction that this is the right decision for him.  At 29 years of age, I still doubt my path in life and lack even a fraction of the conviction that this man demonstrates every time he opens his mouth.  It’s an interesting conversation and one that leads me to question a few things in my own life. 

The sound of the monks’ chanting floats across the courtyard from the Main Buddha Hall and provides a sense of tranquillity unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  In the hour of down time that we have before lights out at 22:00, we prepare our beds, take cold showers and have a moment to reflect on everything that has happened and the many new experiences of the last six hours.  We’re reminded of the pre-dawn ceremony in the morning and many people frantically set alarm clocks for 3:00am.  It’s been a long and exhausting day – so tiring that I barely realise that the text message I’m sending KiwiKat about ByungWoo has actually gone to ByungWoo instead.  Maybe it’s a sign that cellular phones don’t belong in temples and that after the day’s excitement, a good night’s rest – or rather five hours of sleep – is sorely needed if I’m going to be up at 3:00am.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Temple, Temple, Where Are You (19 February)

AK trips usually mean having to travel to Seoul a day early in order to be at the pick up sites on time.  This weekend’s trip is one of the few in my province so, since I live only 90 minutes away from the destination, I can meet the group at Geumsan Temple instead of travelling all the way to Seoul.  I have no idea what time the bus from Gimje to the temple leaves so I’ve decided that I should leave at around 10:30am and rather spend a bit more time in Gimje if need be than be late in meeting the group at the temple.  The AK trip is scheduled to arrive at Geumsansa at around 14:00 so I expect to arrive before them. 

Thanks to my appalling lack of punctuality, I end up only leaving Gunsan at around 12:00.  Jeonju and Gimje are roughly an equal distance from Gunsan so I opt for a bus to Jeonju which is a bigger city in the hope that the buses to the temple will be more often than those from Gimje.  Unfortunately, this also means changing bus stations in Jeonju and I, as yet, have no idea where the second station is or what to say in Korean in order to get to that station. I text my fantastic co-teacher who lives in Jeonju and even she seems uncertain as to which bus station I need to go to – I’m starting to think that the bus to Gimje might have been a better idea after all. 

Hajima ajeossi!

In my haste to get on the Jeonju bus, I didn’t pay careful attention to where I took a seat and ended up sitting in the third row.  The first three rows on buses in Korea are often reserved for older people but I convince myself that this will not be a problem since the bus is fairly empty – it’s barely half full.  Of course, being a foreigner can sometimes be a disadvantage: Where many Koreans seems to actively avoid sitting next to the waegooks if they can help it, many older men seem to happily sit next to female waegooks on a bus.  This seems to be one of those days as I notice an older man pass by two empty rows of seats and make a beeline for the empty seat beside me where he happily squashes himself down beside me and half on top of me. 

As the bus pulls away, he even has the audacity to slide a hand under my thigh while showing me to move over despite the fact that he is already sitting in half of my seat too; if I move over any further, I’ll be climbing out of the window of the now moving bus.  I shuffle over in my seat as far as I can and take out my book in an attempt to signal that I do not want to be disturbed.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t deter this man who seems to see nothing wrong with putting his hand on my leg every time he tries to talk to me.  I politely tell him that I don’t understand Korean and feign total ignorance happy to play up to the stereotype of arrogant foreigner in this situation.  He’s not easily discouraged! 

No matter how much I try to make it clear that I don’t understand what he is saying to me and that I don’t speak any Korean, he presses ahead with his attempt to converse with me all the while running his hand down my leg.  It takes every ounce of my self-control not to smack him and I silently vow to sit in the very last row of seats in future on every bus ride.  He even takes the liberty of taking my phone out of my hand to look through my messages and numbers, and methodically helps himself to the paper and book on my lap to peruse despite clearly understanding no English.  In desperation, I text KiwiKat to ask how to tell him to leave me alone; her response: Ya! Hajima! in a loud and angry tone – it works and mercifully, we finally arrive in Jeonju where I eagerly get off the bus forgetting that I have no idea where to go from here in my desperate attempt to escape from this creepy ajeossi.

Geumsansa ka juseyo...

Having heard that the AK group has already arrived at the temple, I give up trying to find the Bangsong bus station in Jeonju and decide to take a taxi to the temple.  The 20 000 won taxi ride from Jeonju to Geumsansa is a peaceful and pretty drive and I can feel myself slowly starting to relax as I allow myself to consider the next 24 hours at the Temple.  I’ve heard mixed reports about the Temple Stay but have consistently heard that while it is something you only do once, it is also a trip that must be done.  Most foreigners try to cram it in right at the end of their contracts in the final weeks before leaving Korea for good so I feel a small sense of smugness in checking it off the “Experiences List” before I’ve even reached the halfway mark of my contract. 

I arrive at Geumsansa at 14:30 and immediately text ByungWoo to let him know I’ve arrived and am not certain where to go from here.  I’m relieved to see another foreigner standing just inside of the gate as this means that I’m not the last person to arrive for the trip.  We introduce ourselves as we wait for ByungWoo to meet us and show us where to go.  Within minutes, he’s heading towards us and we’re introducing ourselves once more before following him and an organiser from the temple to the room where we’ll get our monastic wear.  We take several minutes to negotiate the doll-sized outfits around our more voluptuous frames before once again following ByungWoo and the temple organiser to the venue where the rest of the group are already learning about temple life.  ByungWoo takes this moment to show me a message that KiwiKat has sent asking him to look after me this weekend.  It’s good to have friends looking out for me!

Change is Afoot (18 February)

Catfish has recently told me of the staff changes at her school – including the fact that she is getting all new co-teachers since her current co-teachers will be teaching third grade for the 2011 school year.  I hadn’t really considered that my co-teachers may not be my co-teachers for 2011.  In South Africa, you’re a teacher for a particular grade and tend to teach the same grade for several years.   Assumption is always dangerous in Korea and this has once again been proven as I rush to my fantastic co-teacher and ask her if we’ll be teaching with different Korean teachers for 2011. 

I’m devastated when she confirms that this is so and I suddenly realise just how disappointed I am to have spent so much time invested in building relationships with both of my co-teachers over the last three months and will now have to start the entire process all over again.  I feel like I’ve spent the better part of the last four months attempting to prove myself at my school in one way or another: I’ve had to work hard to convince my colleagues that I’m different from the previous foreign teachers who have abandoned their contracts mid-way or sooner, I’ve had to work hard to try and get my co-teachers to trust me and engage with me so that we can be a successful team in the classroom and I’ve worked extremely hard to convince my students that I’m in this for the long run.  I’m now facing the reality of having to start all over again and I realise that I’m extremely anxious with the uncertainty of knowing who the new Korean English teachers are, who will be my new co-teachers and whether or not the last four months I’ve invested in my attempts to establish a relationship with my fantastic co-teacher and Mr Jeong have all been for nought. 

My fantastic co-teacher tells me that there will be a meeting after lunch for all of the Korean teachers to hear what their new responsibilities will be for the new school.  Each teacher apparently submits requests and a plan for what they hope to achieve in the year ahead and what their personal goals and aspirations are with regard to the school.  After the meeting, my fantastic co-teacher tells that she had hoped to be a homeroom teacher for 2011 because she feels that she has a good relationship with the new second grade students but it’s a demanding job and one that her husband and family asked her not to take for fear that it will be too taxing on her.  She does, however, receive all of the things that she’s requested for the new year and, despite knowing that this means I’ll probably be seeing a lot less of her in the year ahead, I resign myself to the fact that I’ll be starting from scratch in establishing relationships with the new teachers and dig deep within myself to the adult buried deep inside of me to congratulate her and wish her much success and happiness for the year ahead. 

Painting the Town Red - Gunsan Style

The rest of the day passes quickly and NZ2 tells me that KiwiKat is on her way down to Gunsan for the weekend.  I’ve already signed up for an Adventure Korea trip for this weekend so I won’t be able to see her over the weekend unfortunately but I’m still excited by the news that she’ll be arriving at the end of the school day.  She arrives shortly after 16:00 and manages to find her way to our office where we chat briefly before my fantastic co-teacher tells us all that we can leave at 16:30. 

We head into Gunsan to run a few errands after school – mine involves recharging the airtime on my cell phone at the Qook store opposite the bank.  I keep returning to this particular store since there is someone who speaks decent English.  Unfortunately, even though I mostly only go to the store in order to recharge the airtime on my phone, most of the staff there seem to panic with a deer-caught-in-headlights reaction every time I walk in – they all insist that I wait for the guy who speaks English no matter how hard I try to convince them that they can help me with such a small thing.  KiwiKat and NZ2 amuse themselves outside of the store by taking photos of each other dancing next to the dancing character that is a signature of the store.  Today, it’s dancing pig and by the time I finally manage to get the airtime on my phone recharged, they try to convince me to pose beside the pig.  I refuse on grounds of dignity and the fact that I actually have to frequent this particular store in order to recharge my phone each month; I already embarrass myself enough without trying to embarrass myself further.  They head back to NZ2’s apartment to a dinner of French toast which I decline since I need to still wrap KiwiKat’s birthday present before we again meet for coffee at Angel-in-us. 

I meet them just over an hour later outside of the store where they have again been entertaining themselves by taking photos of each other dancing next to the new character – the outfit was changed in the 90 minutes we were gone.  Somehow they manage to convince me to pose for a picture while I feel like a complete idiot.  We then head to Lotte mart which, as KiwiKat points out, is how we paint the town red on a Friday night in Gunsan.  Lotte mart is a hub of activity as usual and I head to the pharmacy while the Kiwis head to Skin Food where NZ2 needs to buy a birthday gift for KiwiKat. 


The pharmacist in Lotte mart speaks fairly good English and all I need is Tylenol which is also called Tylenol in Korea.  I approach the counter confidently and the pharmacist smiles as he greets me.  “Hana Tylenol, juseyo,” I say confidently and am greeted with a slightly puzzled look; I try again and smile encouragingly while confident in my Korean pronunciation and proud of the fact that I can form a whole sentence in Korean.  Once more I’m greeted with a slightly puzzled look as the pharmacist asks me to repeat myself again while he listens carefully in an attempt to decipher what I’m trying to purchase.  With slightly less confidence, I narrow my request down to just “Tylenol” which now sounds more like a question than a statement as I try to figure out where I’m going wrong in this exchange.  This time, I’m greeted with a broad smile as he turns away to get a box of Tylenol for me.  I pay quickly, stuff the box into my bag and scurry away hastily to the second floor where the Kiwis have wandered off to.  KiwiKat then explains to me that Tylenol is three syllables in English but four in Korean: my request should actually be Ty-he-le-nol.


After a brief, and rather feeble, attempt to distract KiwiKat in Lotte mart while NZ1 and NZ2 find party paraphernalia for tonight, we head to Angel-in-us where we are meeting two other foreigners whom I haven’t seen since NZ2’s 40th birthday party in early October.  They teach at a hagwon so they’ll only be meeting us after 21:00 which is when we arrive at the coffee shop.  By the time they arrive, we’re all in good spirits and joking around before pulling out party hats and gifts for KiwiKat who’s birthday is actually 1 March.  The party hats turn into a competition of who can wear theirs the longest – naturally KiwiKat wins – and we find ourselves leaving only when Angel-in-us closes for the night; it’s been a surprisingly good evening even though I have yet to pack for my AK trip.

Happy to See Me? (17 February)

My back is incredibly tense and, cute doctor aside, I do firmly believe that acupuncture makes a difference.  The fact that the oriental doctor I visit happens to be an absolute sweetheart and cute is simply a bonus and one that I thoroughly enjoy.  Since we are currently working semi-flexi-time at school, I ask to leave school early on Thursday afternoon in order to have a doctor’s appointment.  It’s only been about three weeks since my last visit but I really miss chatting with the cute doctor.  The coordinator/translator at the Medical Centre seems to think that I only make appointments with the cute doctor because I like him but she’s more than happy to oblige when I text her with a request to make the appointment for me. 

I arrive at the Medical Centre’s Oriental Medicine Department and am greeted in the usual friendly manner.  As I chat to the coordinator, the nurse joins the conversation saying that she has the same symptoms as me which, honestly, is something of a relief to hear.  We probably only chat for about 10 minutes as I sit with the suction caps on my back which, I’m told, draw blood to the surface and help to improve circulation.  While chatting, I’m aware of the fact that cute doctor is in the cubicle right next to me treating another patient.  As he finishes with that patient, he seems to also become aware of the fact that we’re speaking English in the very next cubicle and I hear the curtain behind me move as a rather excited Dr Kim exclaims something in Korean followed by my name over and over again.  I don’t have to understand much Korean to know that he’s asking if it’s really me who’s back and he soon changes to English as he greets me while struggling to contain his apparent enthusiasm.  With the suction caps on my back, I’m hesitant to turn around lest I accidentally loosen them so I simply lift a hand an wave while saying hello.  Within a minute, he’s gone around to enter my cubicle from the front and seems to have regained his composure slightly; this time he greets me a little more calmly with a "Long time no see" as the nurse leaves with a huge smile on her face.  I get the impression my visits to cute doctor are something along the lines of an entertaining Korean drama for the staff in this department.

Long Time No See

As cute doctor asks the usual questions about my symptoms, the translator tells him that the nurse mentioned that she has the same symptoms as me.  He seems surprised and calls the nurse over to tell him what her symptoms are because, clearly speaking Korean, it’s easier to hear this from another Korean person than from a foreigner via a translator.  He decides that my qui is blocked and hurries to fetch a larger needle than the usual ones for acupuncture.  With increasing trepidation on my part, he explains that he is going to use this larger needle to try and unblock my qui which he thinks is causing the tension and pain in my back; I’m not too happy about this new approach but I trust his judgement despite the cautionary voice somewhere inside of me that tells me that this is going to hurt like hell.  The voice is right….

Each stab of the needle feels like a hot knife being pushed into the most painful parts of my pain and then wiggled around a little bit to help unblock the passageways that are currently obstructed.  I understand that this is not a deliberate attempt on his part to hurt me and cause me further pain but I can feel the tears rapidly springing to my eyes.  Pride will not allow me to cry in front of cute doctor but when he starts prodding around my neck with the big needle, I can’t help but freak out a little.  I’ve always been sensitive about things done to my and particularly when they involve needles – even more so in the last two years since going through a biopsy for thyroid gland problems leading to surgery to remove my thyroid gland just over a year ago.  The neurotic part of me decides that even if this cute doctor, he’s still not going anywhere near my throat with that needle and I sense his hesitancy when I try to express this. 

Before I know it, the appointment is over and I seem to have offended him in some way.   As I get dressed again, I can’t help but feel a little despondent that today’s appointment has ended so abruptly with him once again returning to the sanctuary of his office.  It’s quite a surprise then that the translator insists on me saying goodbye to him on my way out, and even knocks on his office door to tell him that I’m leaving.  I’m rather relieved to discover that he is still friendly and happy to chat to me despite my earlier hesitancy with the treatment he recommended.  I leave the Medical Centre with a spring in my step and head to the ESL bookstore next to the CGV cinema to purchase our Korean grammar books for our lessons thinking of how much I enjoy just chatting to the cute doctor and wishing that I could see him outside of the hospital sometime.