updated 1 February 2000
Where was b? 1999
South Korea- The Land of the Morning Calm
Korean Links:The Korean History Project - a site on Korean History
I got a fine introduction to Korea. The day after I arrived hundreds of uniformed police/soldiers in full riot gear, armed with clubs mobilized togreet the spring time student demonstrations. It's literally a seasonal game. From what I gather, after the students gradute they have to serve 2years in the army so naturally soldiers face off with their underclassmen. I guess it's a kind of political sport. The students shouted and threwrocks on the street; the soldiers didn't engage them.
I was enroute to see a German Elvis with two guys from my guesthouse. Free beer, food, exhibits, an Elvis impersonator, and many Koreansswooning to the King. So after we watched the student/ police face off we caught a cab to see Elvis. Which was more intense I'm not sure.
Seems like North Korea is as bad as anyplace. The S. Korean students used to support the opposition party against the military gov't, now thatthe opposition has been elected to power (Kim Dae Jung, former politcal prisoner, a la Mandela) some of the student groups find it moreinteresting to be anti-american and support union with N. Korea. Korea is certainly in the running for one of the most volatile and potentiallydisasterous places in the world.
In downtown Seoul, a bus load of old white folks passed by in a bus. A bilingual banner draped across the bus read, "Veterans of the Koreanwar". They waved at the people on the street as in a triumphant parade. Their bus was moving very slowly, however, because the riot control hadslowed traffic down to a crawl in this area. The bus of veterans was headed right for the street where legions of riot police were gathering information. Seemed like an ill-conceived route to take the veterans along. Veterans who watched their friends die to make this country whoseapparent idea of democracy is a game between rock weilding students and police covered with padded vests, shields, and face masks. Thenagain, it is the country they inadvertently helped to make.
Following the days of scheduled protesting/ rioting there will be another procession to proceed along the same avenue in Seoul. A traditionalpaper lantern festival celebrating Buddha's Birthday. Apparently Korea takes idea of yin and yang balance seriously.
I was in the old fortress town south of Seoul, known as Suwon. I was invited there by Mrs. Pak, a Korean woman whom I had met in Kyongju. Istayed with her, her 2 boys (8 and 13) and husband. She was interested in having an English speaker around because she was studying Englishin hopes of working in the tourist industry.
We visited a recreated folk village. As we toured an upper-class (yangban) home she explained that her ancestors were yangban. There are nowno offical class distinctions in Korean society, though naturally distinctions remain from centuries of separation.From what I was able to infer from Mrs. Pak's comments, her great grandparents were upper class, but her grandmother was not able to marrywell because she was forced to serve the Japanese occupation forces as a sex slave. Mrs. Pak indicated that her own husband was not suited toa woman of her caliber. An enduring legacy? I don't know what he does or doesn't do to her, but she doesn't like it. She has been separated fromher husband 2 times (once for 2 years) during their 14 year marriage. He maintains a schedule similar to that of the Japanese salariman. Heworks 6 days a week, leaving the house at 8am and returning at 10pm. She says he is a good father, but not a good husband. Her mother forbidher to marry the Texan man whom she still dreams about.
b's saving his won on a Won Buddhist farm in South Korea thanks to the WWOOF international network of organic farms.
The farm is known as Youngsan, it's near Kwangju (site of the 1980 Kwangju Massacre, in which the governement killed 200 or more studentswho were peacefully protesting). WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. The workers are travelers, such as myself, who agreeto stay at least a week. One works a few hours per day in exchange for room, board and experience. I've been working with rice, barley, grapes,and gardens.
I usually wake up around 5am. I have the option of joining an hour meditation session. Breakfast is at 7. All meals consist of a similar array ofdishes. Rice is the naturally the staple, served with various kinds of kim'chi, the other Korean staple. The most traditional kim'chi is cabbagepickled with garlic and red pepper (Everyone should have to board a crowded subway train in Seoul in the morning after everyone has had theirbreakfast of kim'chi- wow). There are many kinds of kim'chi made with cucumber, daikon radish etc. In addition to rice and side dishes, there isalways some kind of soup. The morning soup is often a light seaweed soup.
I generally work from 8 to noon. But I sometimes work two four-hour shifts and have the next day free. Machines do most of the interesting work,so most of the labor for humans is pretty dull. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying the chance to work in agriculture. I relish such opportunites to becomeless alienated. And it's a heck of alot more pleasant when Mao doesn't have a rifle in your back.
We are in a valley surrounded by mountains. A muddy river runs through the valley. In the good 'ol days, villagers used to collect clams from theriver. They could sell natures bounty for a sizable profit. Those days have passed. A nuculear power plant went into operation and the clamsdisappeared. South Korea is the size of a small American state and has 14 or so nuculear power plants. It seems they bury the waste in theground.
This is considered a holy land by the followers of Won Buddhism, a reform branch of Buddhism established here about 100 years ago. "Asmaterial civilization develops, spiritual civilization should be cultivated accordingly," so runs the motto of the Won sect. This branch of Buddhismeliminates the Asian emphasis on the image of the Buddha. Accordingly, the temples have none of the Buddha statues or paintings that typicallydecorate temples and monasteries in Asia. In place of the Buddha image they have a circle. The circle seems to represent the undefiled,non-descriminating, non-dualistic buddha mind. There is a small University here that trains future "priests." Thus I have internet access.
It's very mellow out here. The few people wandering about generally greet one another with a reverent bow. Very unusual for Korea, though not sounusual in Japan. Here they do it to recognize the Buddha nature of everyone.
The only disturbances are the military jets that terrorize the sky. Military exercises over the Yellow Sea have increased following last week'sclash. North and South Korean boats fired at each other and a North Korean boat was sunk killing 20 or so people. People don't seemparticularly threatened; they have been living in the midst of an unfinished war for about 50 years.
The people at Youngsan said that the Sea was very near, but after two weeks I had still not seen the Yellow Sea, which the Koreans call theWestern Sea. I was pointed in the right direction and off I road on my rickety one-speed bicylce. The paved road ended at a small village. Ifollowed a few dead end streets. I looked in my phrasebook and asked an old man where the Hea-byon (beach) was. He pointed, gestured, andspoke. I followed his general direction.
I passed tobacco plants, their full leaves curriously without fragrance. The leaves were being picked and hung out to dry. The plant remined me ofthe "elephant ear" weeds in Louisiana. I susupect the Louisana climate must be good for tobacco. An old lady squatting on the ground lookedpleasantly surprised to find a red-faced, blond barbarian passing by her farm. We smiled, nodded, and greeted one another. I had become sotrained to the informal greeting (an young ha se yo) I didn't even recognize her polite greeting, the one the phrse book taught- an young ha shim nika. It was the first time I'd heard it used. I had used it at the immigration office when I had pleaded to get my visa extended. But it had evidentlyfallen out of usage amongst the city folk.
I cut through a rice field and climbed up to the road. I walked my bike up the yellow dirt road. The sea came into view, shrouded in hazy mist.
I stood at the edge of a field of chile peppers. From this precipice I had a commanding view of the bay as it opened to the Sea. When I arrivedthere was as much silt in the bay as water. It was low tide (9:30am). 3 men and two women were walking on the brown saturated sand looking forcrabs or something. They were joined by squaking sea gulls. I had seen so much steel gray granite that the black volcanic rocks along the coastmade a dramatic impression. (The Mountains are full of granite which apparently works as a natural water filter. I have never been on a mountaintrail very long without seeing a Korean with a plastic jug collecting spring water.) By 10:30 the tide had risen, small white caps appeared, the windpicked up, warm on the face.
I rode down to the beach. It was a hot Sunday at the end of June, but the beach was deserted except for one family. I touched and tasted theYellow Sea, as I had done the Black Sea, the Libyan Sea, the Red Sea and others. The brown sandy deserted beach reminded me of the lastbeach I had been on, Holly Beach in Louisiana. I enjoyed a liquid snack of beer on the beach. When I returned my bottle to the store I was invitedto join three guys who where sitting outside drinking. We drank and ate dried fish, dried squid, dried minnows, and dried processed fish cake. Noone spoke a word of English but we were able to eat, drink, and laugh. Two boys had come back home for the weekend from Seoul. All weremarried. The middle brother still lived at home. We sat on a sort of porch, with a rice field below. Mountains framed the area and opened to thesea. We drank several bottles of beer. I even had a couple of shots of Soju before heading back through the mountains to the Won Buddhistfarm.
Today I will leave the Won Buddhist community nestled in the mountains near the Western coast. I'm headed to a bonsai tree farm on theSouthern coast near Masan. Another connection through the WWOOForganization.
While working on the computer, I was startled by some loud explosion. The building seemed to shake and the roof sounded like it was ready toblow off. The other people working in here briefly paused, murmured something, then resumed working. They are still at war; I guess they preferto ignore such disturbances. What it was, I don't know. In Kyongju there was more distant explosion and again the whole ground shook. I hadn'tfelt the earth move since leaving Japan. But this shaking was a jerky, tremor, different from the wavy rocking in Japan. I looked around andeveryone looked normal so I figured it may have been a large noisy truck rumbling by somewhere. Back at the hostel (30km away) and Australianguy asked me if I had felt the ground shake. He had also heard something and thought it may have been an underground bomb test.
I am in a small, rural "county" of 70,000 people. Situated along the Southern coast of Korea where there are great views of small islands andpenisulas. As elsewhere in Korea, mountains surround the area. Today I took in the scenery with Mr. Chang and his family. My host, Mr. Chang,drove me, his wife and twin baby girls along the coast to several small seaports, including Tong Yong, known as the Napoli of the Orient. I haveoften been reminded of the mediteranean while traveling in Korea. However, the geography is about the extent of the comparison. Actually, theremay be a similarity in temperment as well. At least between the Southern Italians and the Greeks- fond of loud and aggressive communicationbetween friends. I recall egyptologist Marianatos (daughter of the discoverer of Akrotiri (the magnificent Greek pompei, but partially uncovered))seemed to think that mountain dwellers were noted for their agression and desert people for their tranquility.
Yesterday, was spent with a film crew from MBC in Seoul. They were at the B&B Bonsai farm, collecting material for a 10 minute segment.Though I don't have much to do with the bonsai farm, they were happy to have a foreigner for material and put me to good use.
The bonsai farm is a touch of culture along the rural seacoast. Local politcal leaders and so on stop by the nursery cafe for some fine green teaor coffee. They relax to the sounds of classical music, gaze at a few choice bonsai trees on display, and make small talk with Mr. Byeun as heserves them tea or coffee. Mr. Byeun, a retired manager for Samsung, seems to be making a descent return on his hobby of bonsai trees. Mr Chang. my host is a local policy maker, anti-imperialist, Marxist, who has begun a "New Wave Movement." He has cards printed, but it's not easy getting themembership rolling in as this is a rural county with no Universities to speak of.
Work at the bonsai farm is pretty relaxed. I have traded in my small hoe from the Won Bulkyo farm, for a large pair of tweezers, which I now useto weed the potted bonsai trees. I've done some pruning, as well.
I took a bus from Pusan to Seoul. The bus was somehow forced off the road and bumped into a concrete gaurd rail effectively preventing it fromtumbling off the overpass. The bus suffered very minor injuries, but the door wouldn't open. A sledge hammer came to the rescue. We were neara rest stop where we unloaded and hitched rides on buses that were going to Seoul.
I returned to the yongwan (cheap inn) where my luggage had been stored for about a couple of months. The other long term residents had clearedout, except for a Canadian woman who had found some work teaching English. I called the TV show director and we met in front of Hardeeswhere dozens of other youngsters were meeting their dates for a stroll along the artsy Insadong street. His assistant proudly handed me a VHScopy of the TV program they had put together featuring the bonsai farm. We walked down one of the small alleyways packed with restaurant/bars.They wanted to take me to a place with more traditional decor. We found a place decorated with shamanistic carvings and traditional implements.We sat at a low table on an elevated floor, drank a pine flavored tongdong-shu? (cloudy alcoholic rice beverage). We ate a some seafood pajon(Korean pancake) and some spicy squid. The assistant spoke pretty good English and we got along well. Ms. Cho, the attractive reporter girl,joined our party. They were anxious to show me the video so we found a parlor with small private viewing booths. The kind of place where pornwould be available in the States, but any kind of movie was available here. I figured I was going to look like an idiot, but they did a descent job ofediting. I didn't understand the commentary, but it was entertaining. We stopped by for drinks at another bar before splitting up.
The next morning I caught an early train to Pusan. I had my last meal of sundubu chige (spicy tofu stew) and off I was on the ferry boat to Japan.My memories of Korea were exclusively of the many friendly people I had met, eager to befriend a foreigner.
Previous -- Next
Index - New Orleans Music - Where's b? - Travels - Festivals - Links