Archive for the ‘Holy Matters’ Category

What does October have in store for me?

Let’s check my Hyun Bin calendar!

Return of the Hyun Bin calendar! 

3rd: Day off. Time to watch those pirated DVDs gathering dust on my bookshelf.

On Wednesday, I have to go back to work, but the holiday extends through–

5th-8th: Yoga in the mountains! Four days in Gyeongju, at my favorite temple. Which also happens to be my favorite place in all of Korea.

I’m knitting a gray scarf for the head abbot. The last time I saw him, I asked about practicing Buddhism, but I don’t think he found me serious. Hopefully we can further discuss this.

14-15th: Pusan International Film Festival. Heading down south with MF, Z and Z’s coworkers. 

20th: Jay-Z concert in Seoul.D already bought the tickets. H to the izz-o!

21st: Korean Proficiency Test. I’m signing up for a class that’s associated with a church in Seoul.

You actually don’t have to be Christian to join, but they do encourage you to attend church. (People from different religious backgrounds take the course, so I probably won’t be pressured.)

The semester only lasts for six weeks, but you know how competitive I am. If I’m not working, and I’m not in yogilates, I’m studying.


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"Moving to Korea is the best thing I've done for myself," a young woman from Washington D.C. told me three weeks ago.

A monk was escorting our ragtag team of female expats to a few Buddhist sites in Gyeongju. As usual, I'd dove for the window seat and was staring out at the open markets and mountains, periodically drifting in and out of conversation.

Temple-hopping tends to make me rather withdrawn. But this time around I was pleased to find myself in the company of people just like me–well-traveled, resentful towards Bush, weary of the whole bar scene and in need of clean air and starry nights.

"Have you ever traveled in Asia before?" Anne asked me.

I shrugged sheepishly. "When I was a kid I lived in the Philippines for a year, and Guam for two years. But I really want to visit Thailand. My parents went to Bangkok for their 25th anniversary and they had the greatest time."

Beth, a cute brunette marathoner, wrinkled her nose at me. "Oh, you don't want to go to Bangkok. It's full of tourists. If you want a real experience, you have to get out of the cities."

Gazing out of the window wistfully, she began to tell me about her last summer, spent backpacking through India, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I looked out at the lush trees, straining under the weight of cherry blossoms, and envisioned myself in those seemingly faraway places.

How long would a trip like that take? How broke would I get? And how long before I see my family again?

"I knew you would leave," my mother once told me when I had announced my departure seven months ago. "When you came back from Europe, you were different."

She was right. What once made me happy–driving my father's 1989 Camry to Harlequin Comics for my monthly reads, sitting in the gazebo in the middle of Ellis Lake and watching the water change colors, running up and down Stabler Lane, laughing and talking shit with old friends as the sun melted into the horizon–only made me feel exhausted.

I did not actually want to go back and do those things. I just wanted to sit back and romanticize them. I wanted to think of only the good that came with the orchards, and forget the bad.

Let me look upon my suburban life with a distant tenderness. Let me long for my parents and my sisters, and let them remember me as an adventurer–young and fearless, devout and strong.

Boy at beach

The monk dropped us off at a beach, where a king had been buried long ago. I watched him trod through the sand for a moment before I seperated myself from the group and joined him.

He'd complimented my kicks the day before, so I felt like we held the silent but firm bond of martial artists.

"Why did you become a monk?" I asked him as we watched a young boy skip rocks against the water.

He lowered his eyes. "Never ask monk why," he said.

We stood in silence for a minute. He hesitated and said, "When I in the college I go to temple no far from here. I see painting of the Buddha and I am empty. I do not think about future, I am happy in the now. Everything is bright and good. And I go, I want learn more.

"And I cut hair and have temple life," he concluded, smiling and running a hand over his bare scalp.


Last weekend, while window-shopping with T in Itaewon, we find my roommate, who is talking into her mobile.

She flashes a gold band, her fingers fluttering before my eyes. "My darling, I'm engaged!" she gasps, teary-eyed.

I hold her for a long time. "I'm so happy for you, M."

"We were sitting in the park, just watching people walk by, and suddenly his friend takes out a camera and starts shooting away. I'm like, 'What the fuck?' And then he takes it out and proposes. It all happened so fast, I don't think it's sunk in yet.

"Pia, I'm engaged!"

T and I join K on the roof of a Canadian bar. He's been there since noon, swinging back cold beers, developing a sunburn and feeling up a married woman. "I didn't recognize you!" he slurs, forcing me into a headlock. "You're so dark now."

His companion eyes me warily before breaking out into a grin. Her husband Jon joins us and gives me a long look-over. "You must be K's tiny dancer," he says, nodding approvingly.

I smirk at K disdainfully. "I can't believe you still call me that."

He hands me a margarita. "Don't blame me. I've never even seen you dance. And thank god for that."

"Then how did you come up with such a dumb nickname?"

"It wasn't me. NYer thought of it. You got wasted and let yourself go one night."

I blink at him, confused. "He . . . What?"

"You really surprised him. He didn't think you had it in you. So yeah, the name stuck."

"Does he ever . . ." And then I shut myself up.

I finish my drink in five gulps and look out at the sunset. A chill passes right through me, and I hunch over.

He smirks at me knowingly. "Forget him. Have you gotten laid yet?"

"Please, let's not talk about that here."

"You just need to get it over with. Nobody special is coming along. Just do it and walk away."

I sit down, sipping away at chunks of ice. "I don't care if the right man never comes along. I'm not going to throw myself at the next one who looks in my direction. I'm not like that."

"Dancer, I know you more than you know yourself. And you need to do it." He takes my hand and forces it on his chest.


Three weeks ago, I sat on the beach, watching my companions. D stood in the water, her pants hiked up to her knees, looking out at a small island a mile away.

Beth dug her naked feet in the sand and peered up at the sun. Anne and her friend were talking to some locals near a convinence store. The other women wandered near the waves, unaware of the water creeping up their slacks.

I saw a lone bird in the distance, and felt a pang in my heart.

I remembered my last vision of the orchards, from my mother's SUV. The sun was setting, warming the skies in a blaze of orange glory. As we drove past, a flock of blackbirds burst out of the peach trees, squawking in protest, united in the inevitable.

As Anne joined us Beth suddenly turned to me, her eyes concealed behind her aviator shades. "A cousin of mine called the other day," she mused, smiling sardonically. "I spent a good fifteen minutes telling her about the mountains, the temples, being on my own and my travel plans.

"And you know what she asked me? She wanted to know if I was dating. Just that one thing. I told her I'd seen a few guys, but nobody special. She was so disappointed. And why?

"Here I am, having the best and worst time of my life in a country most will never know or understand, and all she wants to do is talk about my love life."

"Typical," Anne drawled, plopping down beside us. "That's all anyone wants to talk about. But you can't blame them.

"They don't understand what it's like over here, they can't relate. They just want to connect with you, and how can you discuss something that's this foreign?

"When you go back," Anne told me, "everything's going to be different. People you were once close with? It'll be easier talking to a little old lady here than your best friend back home.

"Everybody's just going to want to talk about your love life. They're going to ask when you're going to stop with this travel bullshit and get a real job and get married. Nevermind that you work more hours than they do and are doing this all on your own.

"You're single, you're overseas and they just think you're playing with a bunch of little kids and getting drunk every weekend and having one long vacation in the tropics.

"The only people you'll have to talk to–really talk to–are people like you. And those are so hard to find back home. You'll feel like a freak, a loser . . . You'll only feel right again when you come back."

"It's going to be so lonely," I told myself.

"If this is the life you're meant to have," Beth said gently, "you'd better get used to that feeling."

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Much thanks to D for sending me these photos, which were taken two weekends ago at my favorite temple.

However, they hardly do justice to the splendor of that night.

Imagine doing yoga in the mountains, under the stars and right next to these lanterns . . .

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“Bali, bali.”

“What’s he telling us?” D asked, following my lead as I broke into a run.

“Hurry, hurry,” I answered. Then, grinning, I pointed at my watch. “It’s stopped. Crazy.”

We’d only been at the temple for a few hours when we started our workout with the monks. I broke away from D to join the master, who had remained as tough and distant as I’d remembered. We jogged up the winding hill, past the dorms and dining room and towards the cave shrines.

Although I used to do ten-milers through the orchards back in California, running uphill was extremely rough. However, I bit my tongue and held on, even as we raced up the mountain steps. We rolled back down and went up another hill, where the other monks were waiting.

The head abbot spun me around by the shoulders, towards the lotus lanterns lighting the mountain in shades of red, pink, yellow, green and blue. “Beautiful, yes?”

“Ne,” I sighed, sucking in as much air as I could. I leaned over, rubbing the blood back into my legs.

“There are two thousand lanterns.”

“Wa!” I said, turning to him. I’d seen some of his staff making the lanterns by hand earlier this morning.

A few minutes later the rest of my class joined us and we took pictures. I took D aside and hugged her. “Thanks for doing this with me,” I said.

“Pia," she gasped, "after being in the cities for so long, I didn’t know places like this existed in Korea.”

I looked up into the clear, starry night and smiled. When did I stop being the newcomer? “Yeah, it’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?”

We finished our exercises out in the open, under the lights of the stars and lanterns. After class a young monk approached me.

“Your kicks are excellent,” he said. “Did you study the martial arts?”

I shrugged, trying to hide my pride. “Taekwondo, Tangsoodo and Hapkido.”

“That explains why we mistook you for Korean,” says J, a journalist from Busan, as we walk back to the dorms. “You look Filipino, but your speech and mannerisms fooled me and my boyfriend. It must be all your martial arts training.”

“I’m hardly fluent in Korean,” I said. “And . . . I’m not a real martial artist.”

“How long are you staying here?”

Just then the master flew past us and raced up the mountain, as swift and fluid as a jaguar. I watched him dart into one of the cave shrines, illuminated by the thousands of lanterns. Taking a deep breath, I wondered.

Just how long do I plan on staying here?


The next day was painful.

My crotch and thighs stiff from ninety minutes of sitting meditation in the cold outdoors at four in the morning, I began to walk uphill in an effort to relieve my cramps.

I found Anne—a tall, blonde and lithe public school teacher in her late twenties—writing in her journal in front of one of the shrines. I sat next to her and took out my water bottle, offering it to her.

“Sorry to disturb you,” I sighed, leaning back on my palms, watching the birds shoot out of the trees one by one.

She turned off her iPod and guzzled the water. “No, that’s okay. I just wanted to relive our meditation here, that’s all.”

“Do you think you’ll come back?”

“Nah. An experience like this is best had only once.”

“Maybe,” I said, stretching out my legs. “I can’t stop thinking about this place. I’ve been in love with it since the very beginning. It’s crazy, but I don’t ever want to leave.”

She laughed. “That’s probably why your watch broke. I can understand,” she sighed, handing my bottle back. “I spent my last vacation backpacking through India. For the first three weeks, I was in this yoga school. Four hours a day in the heat. It was crazy, but by the end my friend had to tear me away.”

Grinning madly, I gasped, “You can study yoga in India?”

“Of course you can. It’s very cheap—five hundred dollars gets you a room and food, hours of yoga and endless lectures on anatomy and spirituality. It was actually a month-long program, but the last week was for yoga instructors only.

"Why?" she asked, eying me. "Are you interested?”

“Well, not for the summer, that would be too hot. But if I get a public school job and long winter vacations . . ."

"Sure. And if you’re serious about this Buddhism thing, you can go to the same town the Dalai Lama is in. You can go anywhere in India and Nepal. There are so many different schools—and of course, you’ll need four or five months to really do India, unless you just want to explore one state.”

Suddenly, I remembered when I’d learned my grandmother had cancer. Holding her waxy hands as we faced each other in bed, watching our faces under the covers. Denying.

“When I graduate from college, we’ll go to India . . . we’ll see the Ganges River—”

“What’s that?” she sniffed, her breath stinking of Marlboros.

“It’s a holy river, Lola. Hindus go there for salvation. And then there’s the Taj Mahal! It’s supposed to be the most romantic place in the entire world.”

“What do I care about water and the homes of people I don’t know? All I want is for my family to be together in one place.”

“But wouldn’t you want to travel after you get better? Stop smoking and fly around a little?”

“Pia, when you’re my age, all you’re going to want is the people you love, under one roof. I don’t like California either, but even though I want to be in the Philippines, I don’t want to leave you, your sisters and your mother.

“Someday,” she sighed, “after you’ve had your turn around the world, you’ll understand.”

I turned to Anne, who was tucking her iPod into her knapsack. “Do you ever miss
Minnesota?” I asked her.

“Um, no,” she answered, her upper lip twitching.

“But what about your family?”

She shrugged and stood up, pulling me to my feet. “You know, I did a little, during my first year. But then I just decided to let them go. Not my family—but those negative doubts in the back of my mind.

“Now I’m having a way better time. It took me a year, but I finally love Korea—Most of all, I love the opportunity to travel. I’ll visit my hometown every now and then, but I’m never going to live there again.”

“You mean Minnesota?” I asked as we began our descent to the dining hall.

“No. I mean the United States. I’ll never live in America ever again.”

I smiled to myself and tapped my watch. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”

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Visited my favorite temple, near the southeast coast. I'm too tired and sore to post pics and write, but here's a taste.

If you think they're cool now, you should have seen the lanterns at night.

Part of our training last night included running through this mountain (as well as the hill leading up to it). Obviously it was difficult, but the lanterns were lit–all two thousand of them.

And for anyone who is wondering, I finished the run second, on the heels of a marathoner. Not to brag or anything.

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Roads and Trails

 “What cute gloves!” I gushed. “Do they come in pink?”

I was preparing for a trek up Bukhan, a famous mountain on the outskirts of Seoul. Feeling fierce in a vintage-looking Ramones shirt and sweats, I was ready to dominate what I felt was an unworthy challenge to my athletic prowess.

It must be said that I’d only hiked three times prior to Sunday. Twice while wandering around Buddhist temples, and once with K and NYer (the latter held my hand on our way down, which probably made me queasier than the altitude).

Hiking is an exceedingly popular hobby amongst the older population—and by that I mean anyone with grandkids. Every weekend the elderly suit up in the trendiest gear, pack up eggs, rice cakes, water, cigarettes and soju and take the subway to one of the numerous mountains littering the country.

I was drawn to the activity mostly out of my desire to visit more temples. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) monks were only tolerated in the mountainous areas.

Also, my Taekwondo classes had stopped running on Sundays, and I needed some form of exercise or my body would implode in job-related anxiety.

In Korea, there are two ways to reach the top of the mountain. One can either take the road and enjoy the scenery and scout some temples with ease. Or blindingly use the trails, which is what I did.

I had done very little research on Bukhan Mountain—I just assumed that it would be a beautiful walk with little discomfort. Of course, I was wrong. It all began innocently enough . . .

. . . Then the ground was steeper . . .

 . . . Until I was faced with a stretch of white rock, rope and cables. No steps.

It actually gets more difficult than this—at one point I was just pulling myself upward with my arms, and my feet weren’t touching anything at all.

Did I mention I was just wearing two-year-old running shoes? As little old men and women passed me in their hiking boots and walking sticks, they laughed in embarrassment for me.

Some pumped their fists in the air and shouted, “Fighting!” I was too worried about my well-being to pump back.

As I climbed higher and higher, I was slipping and didn’t know how I would get down. All that kept me going was the hope that I would find a road that would send me back to level ground.

Finally I found a flat area I could sit on. And the view made the journey well worth it.

View from Bukhan

As I guzzled Powerade I thought of how I’d felt stepping out of the airport in Incheon five months ago. I’d been so desperate to latch on to someone, to find my niche—to find a family.

Now I was wandering aimlessly, and I'd found something that could make me happy.

I had just gotten up to continue when a young man approached me. “Don’t go,” he said. “Dangerous.”

It only took a few more steps to realize he was right. I stumbled back down until I found him with some of his coworkers, who urged me to sit with them and take their rice cakes and water.

His name was Francis and he’d only started studying English when he was in college a few years ago. However, his ears were excellent—he’d spent some time in San Jose—and I was able to talk to him quite easily. He was working for a phone company in Seoul and made a point to go hiking every Sunday with his group.

“Why did you come alone?” he asked me.

“My friends don’t like to go hiking,” I said. “Just drinking.”

“And your boyfriend?”

“He’s in San Francisco.”

(I don’t know why I lied.)

He held my arm as we puttered downhill; eventually I allowed him to take my hand. I was ashamed that I was so dependent on him, and was humbled by how easily the mountain had overwhelmed me.

I’d convinced myself I could easily take Korea on my own, but I suppose I remain far from capable.

When we reached the road he offered to take me back to my apartment. It was out of his way, so I asked if he could take me to the subway station instead.

“Happy Easter,” he said as we climbed into his car.

“Oh, I had no idea.”

“I thought all Filipinos were Catholic.”

“Oh, I am,” I mumbled. “But I haven’t been to church in a long time.”

We soon reached the station. “If I am in your city,” he said, “can I call you.”

I smiled back at him, trying so hard not to look pained. “I have your card.” His face fell and he nodded.

Stepping out, I turned back to him, wishing we could be friends. I thanked him in Korean, spun around and dashed across the street and into the metro.

I stood for the entire ride home, staring out of the window. I passed the rice fields, temples and folk houses. I flew past the paper lanterns swinging from telephone wires and the flowers wavering from the trees.

I saw my reflection in the window, smudged with dirt and darkened from the sun. I felt the blood running through my arms and legs.

And I knew that sometime during my ascent that Easter afternoon, I’d fallen hard.

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I’m smoking.

Disturbed by the sight of my supervisor crying as I quit my job, I bummed my first cigarette from a friend three weekends ago. It subdued the waves of guilt and failure, and complimented my beer perfectly.

“You dumb cunt. I told you not to get addicted,” my roommate told me last week when she found me on the roof, the windows thrown open. I leaned out and sucked, the smoke splitting my chest like a pick through blocks of ice.

“This is my first one today,” I murmured, exhaling slowly. “Anyway, these are menthol lights. Nothing serious.”

“Pia, you’re a Buddhist vegan—”

“A vegetarian studying Buddhism,” I corrected.

“—with a LIVESTRONG bracelet. It isn’t right. You’ve lived twenty-five years without a smoke.”

I swung my eyes away and coughed. “I’m wondering where I should go next. Can I be happy in Seoul?”

“Where else can you go? Because I know you’re not staying here.”

I tapped my cigarette against my favorite ashtray—a white flowerpot with pink tulips painted on it. “I’m not sure. I was thinking about Busan, but I heard it’s just a tad less polluted, with lousier shopping.

“Probably a small town in the south. I don’t know,” I sighed. “I’m taking the train there in a few weeks. See if it’s my kind of place.”

“Busan? That’s so far away. Why . . .” She stared at me for a moment and looked out of the window. “I get it. Give me one of those.”

“You have bronchitis. Didn’t the doctor tell you not to—”

“Yeah, well I’ve been eating like crazy. All I can think about at work is nicotine and alcohol.”

I shrugged and reached into my purse. “Don’t blame me if you get worse.”

We looked over the city and grey horizon, the wind carrying the smoke into our faces. I finished and smudged it into my flowerpot. “I’m not stupid,” I finally said. “I know it’s a big change. I know it’s different. But I haven’t felt okay in a long time.”

“But what about your friends in Seoul?”

“I’ll miss you and the girls. But the capital is too busy for me. Maybe I’ve hung out with the wrong people and gone to the wrong places. Maybe there is a place for me in Seoul that I’ll absolutely fall in love with.

“I just want to be as sure as I can possibly get,” I sighed, pulling out another cigarette. I stared at it thoughtfully. “I want to follow my guts.”

“Wait, just so I’m sure . . . are you going where I think you’re going?”

I nodded, my lips curling around my Marlboro. “I’m paying the temple another visit.”

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