The day before winter vacation, our employer took us out to dinner. I was strung out from another eleven-hour work day, but socializing with the director is mandatory. I sat in the corner of the all-beef buffet, smiling and nodding along as a dozen plates of pink meat were presented to us like an offering to the gods.
I plucked the slivers of beef with metal chopsticks and dropped them on the stove in the center of our table. As they withered and browned before my eyes, the (married) school driver encouraged me to down shots of wine.
“You are so beautiful,” he slurred as our coworkers averted their eyes and giggled. “I love you. Drink, drink!”
The director looked on, a small, uneasy smile on her flawless face. She looks ten years younger than she really is, but she always appears withdrawn and melancholy.
(Everyone knows she’s having an affair with a director from another hagwon—we’ve seen him at the school, standing only a few feet from her children. I used to laugh about it.)
I left the restaurant feeling as if I’d eaten an entire calf. When I got home I stripped and gazed at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t believe how bloated I was. I couldn’t believe the dark circles under my eyes, even as I pressed the creases with my fingers.
Rubbing a swollen belly and nursing a heavy head, I called my father to wish him good luck. In a few hours he would begin chemotherapy.
“I wish I could be there for you, Pa,” I said, holding back the tears. Throughout his first operation, I’d been advised to show as little despair as possible, lest my father become depressed.
“Just pray for me, baby” he said. I’m sure he was talking about going to church, but since I was officially the worst Catholic in all of Korea, I settled for a Buddhist temple in the southeastern part of the country.
The next day I received the following message on Myspace, from a fellow expatriate in Korea.
Hi I have an offer for you if you choose to accept it I will give you $5000. I am not looking for sex all you have to do is tie me up and torture me. Intersted?
Switching off the computer, I felt no flattery, disgust or anger.
Bundled tight like sausage, I reached the temple more than two hours late. Weary from eight hours on the subway and bus, I was disheartened to hear that not only did I miss dinner, but I had yoga practice in twenty minutes.
I changed into my sweats, pulled my hair into a high ponytail, and raced down to the practice hall. When I arrived all the blood rushed to my head as I remembered I’d left my permission slip in the dorm.
The instructor, a monk bound in loose, gray cotton, was not amused. Holding a thick wooden stick in both hands, he gazed at me suspiciously with the smallest eyes I’d ever seen. Yet he appeared friendly and somewhat approachable. “He wants to know why you’re here,” explained his English interpreter, a young European monk, smiling in embarrassment for me.
I was mystified to see a Caucasian fluent in Korean, and at the same time attracted. It took a few moments before I composed myself and apologized.
After it was confirmed that I really was not Korean and would give my paper to the instructor the next day, I was allowed to join the class. It was relatively small, with two foreign women sitting in the back. I hurried over to them, exchanged a shy grin, and began stretching.
The practice hall was the size of your typical martial arts gym, only with a painted Buddha smiling down at us from the east, surrounded by red walls. To his right was a drum. To his left a weight-lifting room. The monks, slender from a vegetarian diet and years of yoga, all wore gray and had wide, reckless grins spread on their faces. They looked so young, fearless and happy. I wished I could speak to them.
Considering I hadn’t worked out for the past three months, it must be said that I held up very well compared to the other newcomers. I could feel my months of yoga videos and classes easing into my softened muscles, and my limbs unwound in unison. As others struggled I rose from a deep slumber.
After the workout the European took us foreigners aside to teach us how to meditate. As he skimmed his thighs, back and head with his fingertips, I flushed crimson. It was the first time I’d felt attracted to anyone in Korea.
As I trotted up the hill leading to the women’s dorm, I introduced myself to my roommates. There was R, an earthy, curly-haired Canadian; and W, dark-haired, pierced Kentuckian. They were both English teachers in Seoul and in their mid-twenties. As is the case for many in this new country, their close friendship had been forged quickly and passionately.
“Is it just me, or are the monks here really hot?” W asked.
“I know!” I shrieked, pleased to know I wasn’t as perverted as I thought.
“It feels so wrong,” R sighed. “But when I saw them working out, I just . . .”
“What a waste!” we shouted, startling the locals.
Needless to say, we bonded instantly. We snuck into the dining hall and poured ourselves water, gulping lustfully in exhaustion.
“The night is so different here compared to Seoul,” W said as we headed back to our room. “You can actually see the stars.”
“It’s easier to breathe here,” I noted. “And it’s not as cold.”
I slept on the floor that night, my throat filled with phlegm and my eyes filled with visions of my father in his hospital gown in that tiny room.
He was surrounded by machines, that IV that dripped every two seconds, flowers browning at their edges, dull green curtains. His face settled in a weary smile. I felt myself lower my body into the stiff chair at his left, felt my tongue heavy with no words and comfort.
What was I doing here? Why didn’t I go back to California for winter break? And why had I left for Korea in the first place?
I woke up surrounded by tissues hardened with green snot. Moments later I heard the approaching call of a drum.
“That shit’s supposed to wake us up?” W groaned. Wary of the thousand bows I would have to do if they missed the four-o’clock bowing, I nudged them awake.
After we snuck over to a vending machine and sucked on tin cans of cappuccino, we ran down the hill to the practice hall. Rows of young boys were stirring on flat brown pillows, their hair tousled, their bodies hunched over with lack of sleep. The apprentice monks pinched and prodded them awake as we bowed and meditated.
After we finished the head instructor knelt over me. He chatted carelessly, his smile wide and his eyes bright. After a minute I stopped telling him I didn’t know Korean. Suddenly I understood.
He pointed up. What God do you pray to?
I cupped my palms together and held them at the center of my chest. “Catholic,” I said, stressing the syllables, trying to hold his gaze, trying to make him believe I was honest.
“He likes you,” R said as we headed back to the dorm.
“He probably still thinks I know Korean,” I said, looking up into the shrines nested deep in the mountain ahead.
“No, that’s not it. He saw you praying. He thinks you’re Buddhist.”
I chatted for a while with some of the locals. Because of my appearance, they found me more approachable. They were more pleasant than the Koreans I’d met in my city. The chanting and meditation had made them soft and open.
As my roommates rested I ventured up the steep mountain. Since there were steps, ropes and hand rails, it was not so difficult to check out the several rooms and shrines.
The highlight was the Buddha carved in stone at the top. It was not as large as I’d thought, and it was rather simple, but that gray rock seemed to hold all the colors in the world. Its eyes shut and smile slight, I saw contentment and peace—the only two things I wanted for myself and my family.
Leaning against the rails, I looked down into the grounds below. I wondered how my father was reacting to the chemo. I wondered how my mother and sisters were handling it. I hoped they kept all the strength I could not possess—and at the same time, I found solace in knowing that they had each other.
After a hearty and delicious vegetarian breakfast, the head instructor took us hiking. I had no traction on my shoes, but it was important for me to show the monks I could keep up with them. Following my instructor, I was reminded of the times I would follow my father on his sunset runs, peddling fast on my pink bicycle, my chest filled with so much admiration it could burst. How young I was back then, how impressionable!
Back then I believed nothing could touch me as long as he kept me close. Back then I believed we would go on forever.
Soon I was the only foreigner in the fast group, and the adult students had begun speaking with me. Although their English was very stilted (“Speak slow!” one pleaded when I began to pepper him with questions), they didn’t appear self-conscious at all.
“You come here from Seoul all by yourself?” asked J, a tall, twenty-something university student who’d been going to the temple for six months. “You are brave.”
Brave? That was the last thing I’d call myself. But as we trotted into a field of yellow grass, he dropped the conversation, spread his arms out and shut his eyes. The instructor turned to me and smiled slightly. I didn’t think you’d make it.
I grinned back and looked over the lines of trees and hills below. Had I really trekked such a distance?
Overcome with pleasure, I fell to my knees and bowed three times. I crossed my legs and cupped my hands in front of my stomach. Closing my eyes and tilting my head towards the morning sun, I could only see red and feel my body melting in the light.
Next: Leaving paradise. New Year's in Seoul.
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