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Archive for January, 2006

Disgust (Reprise)

Is he gone? Can you imagine? He asked me to marry him.
Me, the wife of that boorish, brainless . . .

“Madame Gaston!” Can’t you just see it?
“Madame Gaston!” His “little wife.”

No sir! Not me! I guarantee it.

I want much more than this provincial life.

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.
I want it more than I can tell.

And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.

–Beauty and the Beast

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Really, that’s the only thought running through my head right now.

I have fourteen tests to write in two days, 50 report cards, two plays to push on kindergarten students, my period, an apartment that’s been consumed by one giant dust cloud and a Taekwondo instructor who is now completely infatuated with me.

Oh, and I lost my wallet and passport last night.

Shit.

Edited to add I just picked up my wallet/passport at the shop across the street. I’m such a spazz.

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Down With It

They might have rejected me the first time around, but The Korean Blog List has taken me under their wing:

http://korea.banoffeepie.com/

If you are seriously considering South Korea as your new home, I strongly recommend reading a few blogs first. Most foreign teachers I’ve met did little or no research before coming here.

“I hate the food.” “I hate the spitting.” “I hate the stares.”

Well, did you know what the food would be like?

“Um . . . no.”

Don’t let this happen to you!

Of course, there are several things I don’t like about Korea, but for the most part I was prepared for the food, my employers and the culture. I mostly read travel guides, but the blogs are what helped me the most.

There’s a particular personality type that will thrive in this country; then there are other sorts that will pull midnight runs. Do a little reading before you sign your contract. If you like what you see and are willing to tolerate what you don’t like, then by all means fly on over.

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Our Twisted Heroine

It occured to me the other day that those who have randomly come across this site might wonder why I have not listed the name of the temple I visited during my winter break. All I can say is that I am extremely paranoid when it comes to my little blog–a feeling that I’m sure many other bloggers can identify with.

However, if you happen to be in South Korea and are interested in having a mindblowingly spiritual, physically active and humbling experience at a charming Buddhist temple, email me and I will gladly give you details on how to contact the place and get there.

And then you’ll have to invite me to tag along, because I will happily jump at the chance to go back as soon as possible. I must warn you that the temple is smaller than other tourist favorites, but if you enjoy exercise, the outdoors and exploring other religions, I promise this is the perfect vacation for you.

Other news: Being a vegan in South Korea is hard. Especially if you want a social life. Yesterday I finally gave in and had a cheese-and-tomato sandwich before my Korean language course in Seoul. I was with K, it was the first class, and we were lost, late and hungry. And I hate talking about veganism with my carnivore friends, because I don’t want to offend or inconvinience anyone. Anyway, I’m not going to beat myself up for eating some dairy. I do want to be a vegan, but it will be a lot easier when I return to the states and can read labels.

I finally started my Taekwondo lessons. Honestly, it’s the big reason why I’m here. This particular school has an instructor who is warm, knows (limited) English and has trained a foreigner before. There are two adult students in their twenties (one who has an impressive grasp of English) and a 20-something female assistant instructor who is very outgoing.

The school has been very accomodating to me. Although classes usually run on weekdays, the head instructor has invited me to practice with them on Sunday. And he’s text-messaged me six times in the last two days just to make sure I’m okay and having a good time. He gets very flustered while trying to explain things to me, but I think we’ll get along swimmingly.

Already I have realized that this school is going to be difficult. And I’m not just talking about the language barrier. After six years of Taekwondo, my body is used to higher kicks and lower stances. I haven’t practiced grappling and ground sparring since my Tangsoodo days. And there’s tumbling! Not just cartwheels and forward rolls, but handsprings. Needless to say, I’m intimidated. And since I spent two years out of school and don’t know the language, I have to start over as a white belt. But I don’t mind.

I really don’t get time to read, but yesterday I bought a few books. Here’s what I pull out when I’m bored on the bus or subway, Korean and Japanese language books excluded:

Our Twisted Hero by Yi Munyol
*Some call Yi South Korea’s most successful novelist, so of course I had to pick one of his books up. I haven’t actually started it yet.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
*I bought this while I was in Osaka last month. In the past few weeks I haven’t touched it, but I did enjoy the first few chapters.

Introducing Buddha by Jane Hope and Borin Van Loon
*An illustrated guide for people who want to learn more about Buddhism. Haven’t opened it yet, but it appears witty and approachable. It reminds me of . . .

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
*I bought this a few months ago while writing comic scripts. It wasn’t what I expected–I wanted to learn about creating comic book characters and plots–but it is a delightful read. It’s so much more than your Batman or Peanuts strip–ancient art is also discussed. I strongly recommend this for any art snob and comic book nerd. And if you happen to be both of those things, why isn’t this on your night table?

After hours of grilling from one of my Korean co-workers, I can finally read Hangul. It’s not that difficult–most people can learn it within a week–but I didn’t have the time to commit to it. But now I know how to pronounce syllables. That doesn’t mean I can actually understand the language itself, but it does come in handy when I’m figuring out which bus I need.

I will finish my entry on my temple stay and New Year’s soon.

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Meat, Men and Meditation

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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