My year is over. Let the beauty of Korea speak for itself.
My year is over. Let the beauty of Korea speak for itself.
Today was my last day at the Children’s Center. It was a bittersweet afternoon. We spent our last time together playing favorite games. I put together a short movie from the year and the kids gave me cards they had made. I think I was more sad about me leaving then they were. Ha.(How many faces can we fit into the screen?)
I also said goodbye to the Pastor and Pastor’s Wife who run the center. They have been nothing but kind and welcoming to me this year. Countless times they made I felt at home at the center, their house and Korea. They would take me to expreience new foods and places and were patience with me as I struggled to learn how to communicate. Samonim always had an endless supply of kimchi ready for me 😉 While I was thousands of miles from my home, their love helped to make Korea a second home for me.
Even knowing that I would have to say goodbye, you are only so prepared for how hard it really is. On the other side, sometimes you don’t know when the last of something will be. I walked many times this year to and from my site. It was something I enjoyed, something that I looked forward to. I stopped doing it once the humid and rainy season came. Riding home today I realized I don’t remember the last time I made that walk, a walk so frequent and important to my time here. Knowing that my last walk was forgotten was as difficult to accept as my planned goodbyes. The last of anything good hurts. Though as my favorite bear so wisely states.
Enjoy a few last photos of my site and the people who made it so special.
How amazing to think back one year. 10 months and 7 days, 310 days ago from now I had just arrived in Korea. To think how strange and unfamiliar everything was. All my senses were bombarded with sights, smells and sounds that were different. Wrong. One of the common feelings then was the feeling of loneliness. Loneliness surrounded by people, For an outgoing person begin unable to strike up a conversation with ease is a living nightmare. I was along. Alone and surrounded by many. Yet I stood out. I stood out as a novelty. I stood out as a curiosity. I stood out as a stranger. I was alone in a sea of constant chatter, unable to understand.
Understanding that a mountain is there even if the fog is covering it – Suraksan Mountain (수락산)
I think true loneliness is wedged between two people on a crowded bus and the chatter of people around you is nothing more then sounds you can’t comprehend.
How was I ever going to to build relationships with people when I couldn’t even speak or understand? My reasons and program was built around relationships, to connect with with my new community. Instead I was barred by the very thing I loved most. Words. The very thing relationships are built upon were hidden from me. Instead I had words to learned that were wrong. All wrong. One of my journal entries said.
“Language class was hard today. I feel like I am in a battle. There is so much to take in it physically hurts. My head hurts. My mouth hurts. My tongue hurts. Everything about the sounds and feelings in my mouth feel so wrong. My tongue fights every formation and every syllable, refusing to conform. It is large, lazy and useless in my mouth. My brain struggles to make sense of something it perceives as non sensical, utterly incomprehensible. Something that can never make sense. It doesn’t want to submit, to surrender and become dominated by another way of being. Though if I truly want to begin to understand and experience, I will have to let go of what I understand as right.”
On a trip with the pastor from my volunteer site
In the beginning all the sounds and words were foreign and indistinguishable for me. A common thought. ” How does X express Z when Y is missing!” I struggled to make sense of it it. Then something happened. Things started to changed. Slowly. There was a moment. (That I don’t remembered but I see the change so it must have happened.) A moment when I realized I needed to stop seeing and thinking and truing to understand in ways I already knew. I needed to stop trying to understand through English. Instead I needed to surrender to the foreign, the strange and lose a bit of myself in it. I needed to forget what I though and knew as the right way, stop seeking understand and instead just experiences it as it was.
Two of my friends. Our conversations are pretty haphazard but fun
The whole concept of surrendering yourself to God has never really sat well with me. I don’t want to be controlled on the whims of a being I can’t even see. That’s not what its about. Its about giving myself fully to the moment right now. Letting myself go and and wandering off the path. Its about getting lost but not seeking anything. Its about experiences but not always understanding, not being shackled to comprehension but surrendered to a timeless moment.
A view of a farm with Daejeon in the background.
Some of my closet Korean friends here speak little English. They will tell you they speak none but that is a lie. The process of becoming less then strangers and building relationships with them has been nothing short of magic. As I continued to learn, to practice and accept incomplete comprehension, out relationships grew. we began to understand each other. We gave into the unknown and allowed a language without words to from. We began to listen to each other. Listen to our expressions and actions made loud without the constant chatter. These moments held words, carefully chosen but completely expressed. pronunciation and grammar mistakes abounded and phone translators were our best friend. More then not most of what we communicated was lost to not understanding, but the effort remains. It built the walls of friendships. Each stone held together by a thoughtfully and carefully chosen word.
Some of the kids I work with writing animals in English and Korean
Language helps speed up relationship building and allows deeper faster, but it is not needed. Something its gets in the way. When we talk to much that we no longer listen. I learned in my moments without words how to listen. I think that where God is, in between our words. In the moment when understanding is still cloudy and foreign. In that space where you have to really listen and lose a bit of yourself to not understanding.
The west Coast, Its so foggy this month you can’t even tell where the water ends and the sky begins.
As the year progressed my langue conversations have grown as have my friendships. One of my memories is of sitting and talking with a friend on a train ride. I asked a complex (complex in that it had two verbs) question. It was after I understood the response that I fully realized I wasn’t using English. Most days I don’t understand. Its only the simple, slow conversations I can comprehend and can really only respond in even simpler. Its fun when I do understand, or make guesses and am right. Everyone including myself is surprised.
The night scape of Deajeon
One of the quotes that has stood out to me this year is by St. Augustus.
In Korea I have to give up fully understanding everything. I had to give into the unknown, believe that it would work out and trust the process. I had to allow myself to let of of what was comfortable and right. I didn’t lose myself. I found another part of myself. I still lonely at times. That’s just part of life and being human. I do however feel like I am not longer a strange. Here we have become joined, our lives crossed for a time. Our moments shared. Together we are building a temple. A place of peace between us and around us. Building an understanding that peaces supported not to words alone but by simply being.
I think the point of living is to grow from one another. Its about getting lost together and experiencing the wonderments of life. To puzzel over them together. We will never fully understand it. After my year here, I’m not sure I want to.
You are never really sure what you will miss until it is gone. I have less then fifty days left to my YAV year and each day I am struggling to hold two feelings simultaneously.
A sadness to departing from a country that is becoming my home and friends who have made their way into my life. A sadness that I know the possibility and perhaps reality that we may never meet again. And an immense excitement to return to what is familiar, what I left behind.
As the months have gone by, the feelings of being far from home have ebbed and become little more then a distant memory. A slight tug at the heart, a small yearning. As things have become more comfortable here I have thought of home less. Consciously.
The days are quickly passing by and my longing has begun to increase. I am finding the things I took for granted and thought so mundane are what I yearn for most of all. I miss my porch, facing into the forest, birds swooping and munching at the feeder in front. I miss spending mornings and evenings on the hammock, listing to the sounds of the earth. I miss my dog, and snuggling before bed, or rambling walks through the woods, never encountering anyone but ourselves.
Most of all I miss the solitude. Here I have realized that solitude is a luxury and a culture thing, but also a need of mine. There has been very little here. Living in a city I have surrounded by people. Everywhere I go, I see them. The sounds of life, traffic and people often drown out the soft bird calls through my window. I share a house with three others, and have a roommate.
Even then campus forests are filled with Grandmothers and Grandfathers out for strolls. The only time they are empty is at night, but the sounds and lights of the city penetrate the thin canopies.
I didn’t realize I was missing the stars until last night. Staring and losing myself in their vastness is something I cannot do here. I miss the the loud silence of the country. The rumble of traffic reduced to a single car a distances away. Growing up in the country, and the country that has the space to be far from cities has shaped me more then I knew.
I have loved living in a city, the connivence and proximity of everything completely trumps the 45 minute drive to the grocery store. But there are days, cramped on a bus with 60 other people that I miss driving in a car, alone, with the radio blaring.
I have found ways though. Places where silence is prevails. Moments of solitude.
You never know what you will miss until it is gone. In fifty days I will be home. Another fifty and I will begin to feel the pangs of the Korea I left behind. Sad, but beautiful pangs. To long for something is to have loved something. I’d rather yearn for what is no more, then to not know it exists at all. But be excited for what is to come. Simultaneously, two feelings as one. That is life.
A few shots from a trip to an arboretum earlier this month. A reminder that nature and beauty is everywhere.
(The Bridge of No Gun Ri)
The May afternoon is hot and bright, summer is coming. I am standing, staring at a railroad bridge, it’s M shaped arches supporting a track across a small river, a single cement road running through the left side. The walls of the bridge are covered in spray paint, hundreds of white circle and triangles. Each mark a bullet hole. Evidence. If I close my eyes I can almost hear the sound of gunshots echoing off the valley walls triggers pulled by scared young Americans. The sounds of screams turned to silent sobs of men, women and children trapped under the bridge, waiting to die.
(The Circles are bullet holes and the triangles are actual bullets. )
This place is called No Gun Ri. A small insignificant area of Korea that suffered a devastating consequence during the Korean War. Between the days of July 26–29, 1950 several hundred civilians, mostly women, children and elderly were trapped and fired upon until dead.
They were farmers evacuated from a local village and rerouted. Their military patrol pulling out, they continued South until the came to another Military Unit. Rerouted again to the train tracks they were shortly strafed by airplane gunfire. Seeking cover they hid under the tracks under a bridge where firing from both directions continued for four days and three nights. The event was covered up and forgotten about. Except by survivors.
(Inside the peace park museum. There are testimonies, documents and the exposure history inside.)
Chung, Eun-Yong, who lost two children under the age of six, and whose wife suffered major injury worked tirelessly to expose the massacre. During the Korean Dictatorial regime it was illegal to talk about anything bad that the USA had done. So it wasn’t until The Democracy Movement in the 1980s that he was able to publish a fictional book about the event.
( The woman standing is the daughter of the mother depicted in the statue, holding her younger sister.)
This gained the attention of international reporters who researched further into the story, finding US veterans who were at the event willing to talk. In 1999 an AP report was published leading both The United State and South Korea to conduct reports into the matter. Although no longer denying that it happened, the United States has yet to issue an apology for the massacre.
The Korean War has become something of the Forgotten War. I will be the first to admit that my understanding of it was entirely based upon a few meager paragraph in texts books describing a stalemate and the TV show M.A.S.H. A show which focuses on the events of American Military Personal and not the devastating consequences of the Korean people and infrastructure.
(Stock Korean War Photo)
The Korean War officially broke out 25 June 1950 with the North Korean Army Crossing the newly made bordered between the recently divided countries. It was shortly after the USA held a separate presidential election in the South, officially separating the two countries.
(Photo of Korean Air Bombings During War)
Acting on fears of a second Occupation, Only 5 years earlier The Korean Peninsula had been freed from Japanese Occupation which lasted from 1910-1945, The North hoped to remove the new President and reunite Korea, free from all foreign powers.
The next three years were a bloody mess. The Causality numbers vary. The death count ranges and numbers change as the years pass and countries are forced to reveal more accurate numbers.
A CNN article places the Korean death toll at
US Casualties: (Hostile: 33,739 Non-Hostile: 2,835)
South Korea: (217,000 military, 1,000,000 civilian)
North Korea: (406,000 military, 600,000 civilian)
Bruce Cumings, a Korean War Historian states an entirely different, much higher number. There is controversy over the among of North Korean Casualties and is debated wether or not the numbers are higher then the US reports give.
US Casualties: 33,665 (3,275 non-hostile deaths)
South Korea Casualties: 1,312,836 (Civilian and Military )
North Korea Casualties: 2,000,000 (Civilian and Military)
(Photo of Korean Child During the War)
By 1953 a stalemate had been reached and a cease fire orchestrated. To this day peace has never officially been stated and the Two Koreas are still technically at war. The largest standing army lies on the South side of the DMZ line comprised of Korea’s Youngest Soldiers and American Troops.
(Photo of Young Mother and Child )
The site of No Gun Ri has been turned into a peace park where visitors can learn about the event and the seeds of hope and peace are planted. I have visited twice. The second time we were invited to attended a memorial service. It was touching.
(The man in the middle is the son of Yang Hae Chan. On either side are a few of the remaining survivors of the massacre who were children at the time. )
It was personal. In attendance was the AP reporter responsible for the report in 1999. I had a chance to hear her story. I also had the honor to meet survivors of the massacre, men and women, now well into their later years who were children during the time. The director of the park, the son ofChung, Eun-Yong, Chung, Koo-Do was there. On the wall of the listed dead he pointed out aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. So many dead.
(A list of the 226 confirmed dead at No Gun Ri. Many of them very young, very old and women. )
No Gun Ri has become a place for peace. They work on humanitarian causes and justice. One of their programs is a international youth peace conference held yearly. Students learn about human rights and peace.
Out of tragedy comes hope and peace. Lives shattered and rebuilt become a force for change in the world with zeal. Listening to the stories of No Gun Ri I am struck by a thought. Here are men and women whose lives were completely broken. As they spend decade after decade wanting answers and healing, their children are seeking truth and justice and simultaneously build peace around them. Their tragedy and suffering does not begin and end with their story. They see it again and again happening all around and their efforts have become not only for their own healing and peace but for the sadness and peace of the world. The strength to tell their stories of pain and use their empathy to create seeds of peace and justice in the world beyond themselves is reshaping my understanding of hope.
( This mother actually gave birth to a baby under the bridge during the attack. The mother died. The trapped villagers thought the crying baby was causing the soldiers to continue firing so they convinced the father to drown the baby but the firing didn’t stop)
There is a dokkaebi that lives in our house. Doors will slam shut by themselves. The shower will start to run when no one is in there and the motion sensor light will come on in the middle of night when we aren’t in the enterway. We’ve tested the light. Jumping and dancing next to it won’t trigger it, but walking by it at 2 am to go to the bathroom will. Goblins.
Being a sucker for mythology and the fantastical I have of course been spending my time in Korea trying to learn about the mythology and folklore. Once such that I have discovered is Dokkaebi, or 도깨비.(Art like this adorns tiles of temples and other old important buildings. The dokkaebi is a guardian and protector as well as a trickster)
This is the Korean Goblin. To be fair, I did not have to go far and out of my way to learn about it. This past fall the biggest hit K-Drama in the country was called Dokkaebi and was about …guess… yep, a dokkaebi! It focused on an immortal goblin’s life and his bride who was to free him from it. It became a hit among my YAV family and we watched it ritually each week.
(A promo for the K- Drama. Dokkaebi is in the right…its a strange fellow. The man in black is a Grim Reaper)
The Dokkaebi’s from folklore are a bit different from the show. The best way to think of them is a combination between a goblin and a troll. They are small Korean mischief makers, identifiable by their horns and club they carry.
(Super cute cartoon inspired by the drama)
Imbued with power, their clubs are used to make gold from thin air, and are often found in the forest at night, chanting, parting and creating piles of gold. Sometimes they stop travelers as challenge them to a wrestling match in order to pass. Other times people out smart them and take off with the gold.
Here is a folk story featuring a Dokkaebi that I found and wrote up. Enjoy the mischief.
High and deep in the mountains there was an old house. With its thatched roof and windows battered shut against the wind, it stood empty and almost forgotten in the forest. No one had lived there for many years. Now and again the dokkaebi, small goblin creatures, would spend their time there, playing in the run down house and causing mischief.
One day, as it so happened, a young Woodcutter came upon the empty house and decided to move in with his Wife as it was bigger than their old house. Having little interest in sharing, the dokkaebi quickly packed their bags and left. All but one. A small baby dokkaebi remained. He had never seen humans before, only hearing of them in stories and was curious about them. So he hid himself away in a crack in the ceiling. There he could watch the Woodcutter and his Wife go about their day.
One night as the couple was sharing a meal together The Woodcutter said. “Everyday it grows colder out, winter must be coming.” Hearing this and making his voice match pitch and timber, the dokkaebi repeated “Everyday it grows colder out, winter must be coming.” Frightened to hear his own voice echoed back at him the Woodcutter shook in fear. Braver then her husband the wife called to the emptiness “Who is there?” The dokkaebi again matching pitch and timber repeated “Who is there?”
Now both the husband and wife were terribly frightened. Assuring themselves it was just the wind they searched the house for the hole from which is had come. They found the crack in the ceiling. Peering in the saw the baby dokkaebi rolling back and forth from laughing so hard. Startled they exclaimed “Why there is a Goblin living in our house.” Barely taking notice the Goblin repeated in exact likeness “Why there is a Goblin in the house.”
From that day forward the mischievous dokkaebi repeated whatever the husband and wife said. It began to sound as if four people lived there instead of two. The couple became annoyed and tried everything to make the creature leave. But threats and polite precaution had no effect on the goblin. Nothing they said could make him leave and abandoned his fun. Instead he took pleasure in their irritableness and continued to mimic them day and night.
Finally when the Woodcutter exhausted all attempts he asked a friend for help. The friend could hardly believe the incredible story about a dokkaebi living in the roof. Upon entering the house however and hearing his voice repeated back at him understood. He thought for sometime before he bade them outside and advised that they never speak in the room with the goblin.
Heeding this the couple began to communicate in the room only through glancing and knowing gestures. Anytime they needed to speak they would step outside. Inside they remained in silence, giving the dokkaebi nothing to repeat. At first the goblin was content to wait. Though, impatient as he was, he quickly became bored at the lack of fun. Before long it turned to irritation and he blurted out. “Why do you never say anything!” Hearing this the Woodcutter responded “Why do you never say anything!” This upset the goblin greatly. “Don’t do that.” He said. “Don’t do that.” The Woodcutter repeated.” Back forth this went, dokkaebi sulking aloud and the Woodcutter repeating.
Baffled that the tables had turned and losing all interest in the couple the dokkaebi finally came down from the roof. Grumbling under his breath he left the house, never to return, his view of humans tainted by the whole experience. The Woodcutter and his wife continued to live in peace and harmony in the small house, unhampered by other dokkaebi as they had been well warned to stay way.
The End –
And for a bit of last minute fun, here is a video of my own dokkaebi experience on Jeju Island. There is a road tucked away where water and cars roll up hill. Legend is that the dokkaebi come out, invisible and push it up hill to scare the humans. Of course on our Study Trip we had to try it. Skeptical at first and a failed attempted at water we hopped in the car and well. See for yourself.
We remove our shoes at the door, stepping over the threshold onto the worn wood floors. I can feel the smooth and worn boards as I trod were many have before. Inside the temple the sound is soft, as if it too is hushed at the doors. The outside world paused while inside the colorful ancient walls. The older man beside me, takes a deep breath and exhales. “Can you smell a thousand years?”
This is 법주사 Beopjusa temple in 속리산 Songnisan Mountain. It was Built in the 14th year of Silla King Jin-Heung’s reign. Destroyed and rebuilt many times in its long life the temple is a standing testament to Buddhism and strength of Korea.
Although only roughly 15% of the population of South Korea identify as Buddhist, a 40% some precent identifying as unaffiliated. Buddhism is very much ingrained within the culture and history of Korea and its people.
(Lanterns hung for Buddha’s Birthday. From each lantern hangs a wish.)
I stare up at the ceiling, my eyes lost in the weaving patterns and colors that adorn the wood above me. Just above that stacked tiles run up to the heavens, each on sitting higher then the next. Most traditional buildings are build of wood without nails, therefore each pieces of the temple needs the other pieces to stand, relying on unity and harmony.(The colorful paintings that adorn the the temples. )
(Out front of Jogyesa Temple in Seoul during the Lotus Lantern Festival)
The ceilings are made of layers upon layers of interlocking wood, in order to keep the heavy tile roofs up. The end result is a cloud like imagery. Within the wood structures the mokt’ak, a wooden percussion instrument, hit during ceremonies, echoes through the walls of the temples.
(Maguksa Temple in Gongju. This fish imagery hangs by the temple bell.)
(One of the four gate guardians at the entryways to temples)
They are painted in the style called “tanch’ong”. It means red and blue. Not only are the vibrant colors beautiful and rich to look at it preserve the wood from weather and insects. Images of sprits and monk are interlaced with the artwork, reminding people they are on a spiritual journey. Fish are seen as a reminder of the hard work as they never close their eyes.
(Golden Buddha Statue outside of Beopjusa Temple)
One cannot help but feel the hallow ground of the temples. Buddhism came to Korea around 800 years after Buddha’s death in 372. As it did not discredit or try to overhaul the shamanism that was practiced in the land it blended, the homes of the mountain spirits becoming homes of the temples. Most temples are located deep within the mountains and have shrines to the local mountain spirits.
(Carving of Buddha at Beopjusa Temple)
Buddhism become the state religion during the Goryeo period. However it was repressed during the Joseon era when Neo-Confusionism grew. Persecution of Buddishm grew less a few centuries later after the after Buddhist monks helped repel the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98). After the occupation period of Korea and WWII Buddism again grew acceptance, though not with out a few splits in the order and suppression and arguments with the growing Christian population.
(Jogyesa Temple – Buddha’s Birthday Celebration)
(Temple at Donghaksa. This symbol predates the Nazi and is a symbol of peace and harmony in Buddhism. )
May 3rd this year was the day that Buddha’s birthday was
celebrated. This day is called 석가탄신일 (Seokga tansinil), meaning “Buddha’s birthday” or 부처님 오신 날 (Bucheonim osin nal) meaning “the day when the Buddha came”. I went to Seoul the weekend before to attend the Yeon Deung Hoe, Lotus Lantern Festival. 연둥회. There were lights, music, performances and a parade of lanterns. It was simply beautiful. People came from all over the world and many different kinds of Buddhism was exhibited.
(Dragon head lantern and the operators.)
(Dressed in traditional hanbok, woman carry moon lanterns in the parade.)
3:00am. February. I am outside, the dawn light barely a whisper, a promise to come. dank dank dank sounds the mokt’ak. We follow slowly behind the monk bundled in his grey robes, circling. During our temple stay we were invited to awaken at 3 and join the ceremony of the morning. After the monks have risen they meditate together in the temple, chanting, the eternal sound of the mokt’ak beating with each breath. It is beautiful, it is peaceful.
(A wish hanging from a lantern)
(Maguksa at 3 am)
My exploration of Buddhism in Korea has left me wanting more. As I dip my toes into the vast world I am apart of I am finding I wish to swim deeper. There is so much diverse beauty and knowledge, small pieces to the large picture.
I believe that by being fully present in my life with those around me and seeking out people, cultures and ideas different from me, I can really come to understand the story of life. As my world becomes more diverse the more hope for peace I see. I am learning to smell 1000 years.