Saturday, February 27, 2010

Apartment tour

We are back in Yangpyeong, the original school we were assigned to. However I made a video of the apartment we lived in for a month in Ansan so you could get an idea of how we were living. I thought I would share it with you now and then later show you our current apartment.
Here is the video:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Valentines/ Happy Lunar New Year

The warm floor combined with the tendrils of light streaming in from the open window blanketed my body, almost uncomfortably. I rolled over to see my husbands sea green eyes open staring at me with sleepy tenderness, “Happy Valentines day” he whispered so as not to wake our hostess in her door-less loft. We had gone into Seoul for the weekend and spent Friday night out on the town. Saturday we struggled to find something open, despite the holiday on which it was predicted that 50% of Seoulites would leave for the countryside. We eventually lost hope while fighting the bitter cold, that some cultural event lay hidden pining to be discovered like a buried treasure. This past weekend was the Lunar New Year, one of the biggest holidays in not only South Korea but in all of Asia. It is a time for family, aka: women slaving away in the kitchen. We asked one of our co-workers if she had enjoyed the weekend:
"How was your weekend?" Kyle asked.
"It was okay I guess" she replied tenebrously.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"It's hard for all Korean women" she replied quietly.
It's a story I have heard before. Women cook all weekend and don't have time to enjoy their family. "The weeks are more relaxing than the weekends!" they say, which is especially true if visiting the in laws which is expected often.

But in general, the holiday is supposed to include family time, honoring ancestors, and playing traditional games. I had read that folk villages were having celebrations and many events would be happening for foreigners to experience a taste of what this celebration was all about.

Our decision: Go to Insadang, the traditional part of town, and see what was going on there. The folk villages were having events, surely so was the most famous section of Seoul.

Result: WRONG! Insadong was deader than dirt.

So upon our departure from the city bus with the gas pumping, curve hugging, maniac bus driver unfamiliar with the brake, we decided to let our queasy stomaches settle with tea and birds at the Flying Bird Tea House. You might remember this tea house from last year as it isn’t everyday that one goes to a tea house with overpriced delicious tea and flying birds overhead.

After which we walked around, taking refuge in any store actually open, finally making our way to meet a friend in Myeong Dong (a great shopping area) for some traditional spicy chicken, potato and glass noodle dish.

Sunday however was a FANTASTIC success. We had just discovered the week before, and I had told Amy about the cool events I had seen planned.

"I want to go ice skating!" she declared as she glanced through some of the events.

"Ice skating!" I trilled jumping from my seat, "me too, sign me up."

"There's a group going today." she read

"We are totally going to that" I stated resolutely

After a little over an hour on a subway, a stop in KFC for Kyle's new discovery only here in Korea, the shrimp zinger burger, we attempted and failed to find a taxi to take us to our location and instead had to walk through the bitter cold. Before locating the group, we observed many Koreans either in the traditional Korean attire or trying on costumes available to the public in the plaza by the city. Many Koreans braved the cold to fly kites and, ice skate and enjoy the free entertainment.

Ice skating was DIRT cheap.
$1 for skate rentals for an hour
$.50 for gloves if you didn't have them

Granted, the outdoors ice rink was incredibly crowded, but it was outside, bordered by blue Christmas lights which are kept up all winter long.

Kyle struggled a little with the ice skating as he hadn't done it in quite some time. The ice was very rough, our skates as dull as a history teacher and billions of Koreans to avoid hitting, but it was exhilarating.

Next was a walk through the FREE museum about King Sejong and how he created the written Korean language. As we were leaving a surprise traditional Korean concert began and we had the immense pleasure of listening to the music played on instruments designed hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

And our day ended with a traditional and delicious Korean meal which included the ddeok gook soup (rice cake soup), the soup which all Koreans eat at New Years to mark the increasing of their age of one year.
Kyle couldn't get enough of it, and honestly neither could I. The only complaint I have is the lack of desserts in Korean meals. There are plenty of sweets to be found in the supermarkets, but hardly ever at a restaurant. Desserts just aren't the Korean way. Maybe that's why they aren't fat. But man does the lack of sweets make me cranky!

All in all, this Valentines day beats out last years ten fold! Not only was it wonderfully romantic, but we met some new cool folks and had unique Korean experiences. This new year is going to be fantastic.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snow in Korea

Despite my constant moaning about the cold in Korea, I must admit, that I love it when it snows. Being from Texas, there have been VERY few winters in which we have experienced a white Christmas. In fact, San Antonio last got a REAL snow when I was two years old and that wasn't at Christmas time. When I was in college we had a snow onValentines day and the entire campus came out to run around in the white powder falling from the sky. Some people (fraternity boys mostly) even got naked and ran around in front of the tower at UT.

So snow is a novelty to me. And who can say that a fresh fallen snow is not one of the most beautiful sights they have ever seen? I understand many of the states have had enough snow for a life time, and if I had had 50 ft of snow in one winter, I would probably feel the same way, but we haven't, so I still love it. So when we woke up one cold winter morning and large white snowflakes plungged from the evenly gray sky above glittering the pine trees with fairy dust making even the parkinglot seem magical. We took pictures to commemorate the glistening winter scene. I hope you enjoy, and for all those people who are so sick of being burried in snow, I am sorry for undulating you with more pictures.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Young Sik (영식)

by: Kyle
3 weeks ago, I got my first taste of teaching in Korea. In fact, I got my first taste of teaching adults as well. I have to say, I think I’m getting a bit spoiled.

Initially I thought that my inability to speak more than 3 words in Korean would get in the way. It does a little but, not nearly as much as I had expected.

The first group of students were from a local University called Kangwon. Now in Korean society, where you go to college is almost more important than if you go to college at all. I don’t know exactly where Kangwon sits on the scale but it’s not at the top and not at the bottom. Regardless, the students were quite a bit lower level than we expected on average. We had maybe a handful of students out of the 27 that were at a conversational level and 2 that were pushing fluent. The rest fell somewhere in the low intermediate category with a few on either end. We weren’t exactly prepared for what we had in front of us. We had text books that are mediocre at best and a rough idea of what they would be learning in the course of the next 2 weeks.

So for 2 weeks, our Kangwon kids worked day and night, improving their English little by little. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you work or how long, it’s nearly impossible to see a significant change in your foreign language usage. It’s there for sure, but it’s incredibly hard to see, especially if you come in expecting certain results. We did our best to explain early on that our goal was not to make them into perfect English speakers but to help them take larger strides where they normally take baby steps. I think they got the message.

In such a short time, I have found that the real contribution we English teachers can really make is boosting that confidence. It’s a very tricky business but if you can pull it off, huge walls come tumbling down and the English just starts flowing out of them. I’d say 3 of our students got to that point by the end of the 2 weeks. It was all we could do to get them to take a break from speaking English. That’s an incredibly rewarding thing for an English teacher to have to do, and yes, I think it’s very necessary to stop them. You use another language for too long without a break here and there and it’s like a 3 year old on a sugar high; at some point they crash and lord knows when they’ll wake back up.

So after two weeks of working their butts off, I got a very special thank you that I will never forget. In Korea, given names don’t mean much. Often they are very traditional and are usually passed down through the family but nick names are something different. Most of the younger generation go by their nick names and more often than not, it’s one that is given to them somewhere between high school and college. My advanced class students asked me if I had a Korean name yet. When I told them no, they said I should choose one. When I told them I thought Koreans gave each other nicknames, they said they would give me one the next day but they needed time to discuss it. That alone said to me that this was something worth remembering. The next morning after my final lesson, the 2 highest level students said that they had agreed on a name for me but that it was kind of funny and they weren’t sure I would like it. The name they gave me was (영식) Young Sik (pronounced like sheek). They said the first part of the name was the Korean version of the word young, just like in English because I look very young and for Koreans, I am young. Most teachers are at least in their 30’s. The second part was the one they weren’t sure I would like. Sik is a very traditional name in Korea and is fairly common. Generally, it’s a name that old men have in Korea. The thing is, they said that Sik means something like one who is very wise and respected. I can’t tell you how good that felt to know that my students thought of me as wise and respected. It is truly something that I will always remember.

After having thought about that day for a while, I’ve decided a few things about names. What I call myself has very little meaning in my life. Often, when I feel depressed or when I’m just having a really crappy day, I call myself some pretty unkind names. The thing is, they really don’t hold any meaning for who I really am. But the names that other people call you can have huge and lasting impacts. Young Sik is something I will take back with me that is far more valuable than any souvenir or any photos. It’s more than just a name to me. It represents who it is I am here and for as long as we are in Korea, Young Sik is the man that I will strive to be for all of my students.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

meet up

When you find yourself in a new city, state or even country, after the initial excitement has died down and life placates to the normal hum drum of every day life, loneliness settles itself down in the couch near you. Sometimes loneliness can be welcome next to the buzz of always going, and never catching your breath. At first you and loneliness are buds snuggling under the blankets to watch yet another episode of Prison Break. "I am so glad we are getting to spend this time together." you say to each other.

When Kyle and I first arrived to South Korea, we arrived in our apartment in Yangpyeong, but were asked three days later if we wouldn't mind teaching at their sister school on the other side of Seoul for a month. As an added bonus, they dangled in front of our eyes an enormous carrot "you will be teaching adults" they said pushing us out the door encouragingly. Teaching adults is not a common gig in Korea. Most teachers end up teaching elementary school age children so the prospect of teaching adults was extremely intriguing. We packed our bags, said goodbye to the few teachers we had met in the few days we had lived in Yangpyeong and made our way to Ansan to teach on an island.

We made friends with several of the teachers at the school and were grateful for the companionship, but as their short contracts ended so did our instant friends and activities. Kyle and I can spend a lot of time together, more than most couples can tolerate, but when we are left alone without the companionship of others to at least add a little variety to our monotonous meal we get a little... edgy.. to put it nicely. To put it simply, some couples only need each other for entertainment. Kyle and I, well we are like praying mantises. He would be a headless husband after only a short duration if we are left alone for too long. For those of you who aren't familiar with praying mantises the female bites the head off her mate after they copulate.

A friend of mine told me about a website called Adventure Korea. They plan trips and provide a means for foreigners to experience different aspects of Korea. The only downside was that all of their trips although they were intriguing were also very expensive. Kyle and I are on a budget. We aren't notorious for being able to stick to our budgets, but we are at least going to feign an attempt. So we were torn. Stay at home every weekend or spend exuberant amounts of money. (Obviously those weren't our only choices but for arguments sake we will leave it at that.) However a friend introduced us to another site called Kyle likened it to Internet dating but with friends. But I would argue that it is much more and much better than that since I don't really like the idea of Internet dating. People design groups such as reading clubs or hiking clubs and organize events. You can choose to go or choose not to go. Either way, you are likely to meet some like minded people with similar interests. We have signed up for so many groups at this point we are having to set limits on ourselves on how many activities we will allow ourselves to do. It is all very exciting since it lends the opportunity of experiencing a side of Korea that I didn't experience last year. We have only attended on event so far, but we only learned about it seven days ago so expect many more blogs having to do activities on meet up. There are many cultural events that I always wanted to go to and never could find people who would come along. This website is not limited to Korea. On the contrary, it seems to be huge in cities all over the US. If you have been looking for people to go camping with or want to join a book club, you might fight your natural inclination to be wary of all people gathered by the Internet and check it out. I feel like an advertisement, but I really think it is helpful for those looking for an outlook and haven't yet found one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Swing dance- the newest torture

One activity we have been teaching the kids as a theme class is swing dance. Not the flipping or throwing that one might think of when swing dance comes to mind but the most basic moves with a few spins. It is a fun dance, active and sponky, one that all ages can enjoy. Many groups have really enjoyed this activity, however yesterday was a different story. Picture a rusty pair of plyers and teeth strewn about. Yesterday rather than dance instructers we were likened to maniacal dentists pulling teeth.

It started out innocently enough, pairing the males and females into dancing pairs. It should be mentioned that in Korean culture, relations between the different sexes are strained at best, even in the high school level. This behavior, which one might expect from elementary and middle school students in the states, continues in Korea, for what I assume is all of their life. Rooms as if by a magical force are immediatly split by gender into a boy side and a girl side. Cuties, that curious disease only carried by elementary students, which is spread by mere touching, even brushing up against that of the opposite gender, is no longer considered a diseae and even welcomed passed that certain age in adolecense when the opposite sex suddenly inexplicably becomes intriguing. This undisclosed age, never seems to come to fruition in Korea because the sexes just don't mingle. They see each other as seperate speices always carrying cuties. So this innocent pairing was ill-fated from the start.

Four dance moves were displayed by Casey and myself as a demonstration. I have only swing danced a couple of times in my life and do not know the moves, but I am pretty good at following a lead (surprisingly enough). Once we were finished walking them through the steps, the grumbling began. It first appeared as a low mumble slowly cultivating into a near hostile mob. However the true tooth pulling didn't occur until we began the competition. Four teams had to grace the stage with their dancing abilities, showing off their most poetic moves. However, instead of soul dancers we had to push the couples together like opposing magnents while they stood their thinking of ways they could most quickly get off the stage. When each group of four was complete, the audience awarded the teams which would continue to the semi-finals by loud clapping or yelling. At first I thought maybe they were voting for the teams with the most popular people involved, but then it seemed they also voted for the most shy or the least willing group just to further humiliate them. Sometimes teams would attempt to slink off the stage like a low lying snake sliding down the stairs inconspicously to avoid the voting.

I found myself shaking my head throughout the entire process aware of my role as Korean children torturer. With each tug and yank, the process became just as painful for me as it was for them. I didn't relish in their pain, but sadly I did laugh at their akwardness and determined unwillingness to participate. I might as well have been a Chinese torture specialist for all the pain etched into each of their faces. So if anyone asks what Vanessa and Kyle are doing in Korea, you may tell them honestly, "they are torturing Korean children with swing dance lessons."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Only in Korea part 2 (The Golden Beauty)

We decided to purchase a phone. I refused to spend the money on one last year, however this year, I have less access to internet, and feel disconnected from my friends in other parts of the city. It is the best way for us to stay in contact in this massive city.

Our search for the perfect used phone began and ended in the first shop, in the Ansan subway stop. One might say it was love at first sight for its ugliness was matched by no other. The gold plating, and ornate swirls covering its surface only appealed to us more. It was the ultimate bling phone, one that might be either seen in the antique purse of a 90 year old eccentric grandmother or a bona fide gangsta. One that was sure never to grace the American market, making it that much more of a diamond in the rough. We have lovingly nicknamed it “The Golden Beauty,” as those are the words etched in gold next to the “24 carrot gold plated” statement. We are about 99% positive that this claim is a blatant lie, but we love it all the more for its deceitfulness.

Only later did we discover its incredibly cheesy ring tone and alarm options. Watch below for a demonstration. ( you might click to watch the real youtube version because at least on my computer Kyle's face is nearly dissected which is not the case in the real video.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Only in Korea part 1

Washing machine mystery:

It is a mystery what the washing machine buttons mean. Living in a foreign country is always a challenge, but the language barrier is generally the most exciting or most frustrating depending on your perspective. Our method for washing clothes now consists of pressing buttons randomly, hoping that what we have selected does not translate to “shred” in Korean. And of course, washing clothes is made even more entertaining by the lack of dryers. Dryers are a rarity outside of the U.S. So our mode of drying consists of hanging clothes on any and every surface in the house, including the heated floor.

The heated floors:

It is a beautiful thing, heated floors. I find that I prefer it to our method of blowing hot air out of a vent. But we have discovered something of interest happens when the heated floor is left on high while we lay our head to rest at night. The bed, even one that is raised high above the floor, towards the middle of the night, no longer feels like a mattress of cushion, but a bed of fire laden coals. Our first night in our floor- heated apartment, we woke up a blaze. Upon placing our bare feet on the floor, we also ascertained that walking on the wood of a heated floor left too high for too long, might cause burning. It is a mistake we are sure not to make again. This video of Kyle gives you an idea of our love for this heating system.

The voice of God:

It turns out that privacy in Korea is not as important as it is to Westerners. One afternoon, as were lounging in our apartment, the dongs of a harmonious bell graced our ears. I recognized the sound of the beginning of an announcement immediately, for it was the same notes used at our old school. And then the voice spoke. Looking around for the source of God, we discovered a speaker above our television. The intrusive Korean voice spoke for nearly two minutes before relinquishing the microphone, and leaving us in peace. Since then, we have beheld this occurrence at least three more times and each time we search for some way of disconnecting this invasive voice from entering our apartment, and each time we find no means to shut it out. I now have a greater understanding and appreciation of privacy, which is evidently highly undervalued here in Korea.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Monk for a day

For Christmas, my darling hubby gave me a video camera. And with much insisting from our parents to see videos we have conceded. So without further adieu here is our video of our temple stay.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Try it now

So I got a couple of responses from the last post saying that the videos weren't working. I had set it to private on accident so no one but me could view them. oops, that's not helpful for a BLOG! BUT they will now work for EVERYONE, so try again if you tried and got the message " you are not special enough to receive an invite" last time and don't feel like you got left out because only I got an invite. Or try for the first time if you haven't yet attempted to watch them yet. They are hilarious!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

How the stapler saved the day

Korean is an interesting language overflowing with sounds Americans are unaccustomed to hearing in public. It is a pastiche, a hodgepodge of sounds and emotions oscillating from melodic and canorous to whiney to a heated demand all within a few seconds. And certain phrases must be said in these particular schemes for Koreans to understand what is being said. “I’m hungry” for instance has to be accompanied with the whiniest, most annoying voice possible or else, it just doesn’t translate to “I’m hungry.”

Korean culture is an interesting animal, one that requires much time for understanding. Business for example runs, in general, inefficiently, at least in my experience and suggestions are not expected nor are they usually taken. So when it was decided by management that we make a six hour round trip bus ride to the sister school in Yangpyeong so the kids in the Winter Camp could perform on the larger stage with more costumes, that was what we did. They didn’t consider purchasing more costumes for the Ansan campus. No, instead we drove an impracticle amount of time for the silly performances.

Their major project of the winter camp was to write, direct, and perform a play of their choice. The other four classes adapted particular plays such as Mammamia and Romeo and Juliet. Our class however focused on the dancing aspect, a crucial aspect of Korean cultural. The play itself made no sense. There were four princess in a band called A. N. gels. However Sleeping Beauty left the band to get plastic surgery so the manager replaced Sleeping Beauty with her twin brother Sleeping Handsome and dressed him as a girl. Snowhite in particular was ornery with the new band member but of course they fall in love in the end. Another character, Wizard Charming, played by a girl, with absolutely no purpose that I can tell, enters the show at one point. He is also in love with Snowhite, and somehow knows that Sleeping Beauty is actually Sleeping Handsome, but refuses to disclose this information earlier because of his undying love for Snowhite. Snowhite is the love interest of all in this hodgepodge of a play, but shows no kindness to anyone, and doesn’t deserve the attention she receives. In the end, the princesses discover during one of their performances that Sleeping Handsome is in fact a boy. The discovery occurs when his wig is accidentally knocked off in front of their audience during a show. But not to worry, the nail biting is all for naught, for all turns out well in the end. Snowhite and Sleeping handsome become an item, and with a little coaxing from the audience, their union is sealed with a fake kiss. And the fake kiss is crucial as the girl playing Snowhite has a boyfriend watching in the audience.

But I digress from the true story, “how the stapler saved the day.” The costume closet at Yangpyeong, crammed to the brim with racks and racks of time period nylon and other cheap material pieces, was incredibly impressive. The princesses were in luck as there happened to be a Disney costume for all but Thumb-a-lina who chose a white tutu instead. However, my opinion and the girl playing Cinderella’s opinion were not in accordance. In fact our opinions were on opposite playing fields. You see, the costume for Cinderella was long, as in ankle length. In Asian culture, the girls wear the shortest skirts possible, but will RARELY show skin above their chest. And I am not referring to showing cleavage because that would just about NEVER happen, but the area below the neck and above the cleavage line is often covered in baby doll fashion. Think school girl uniform, and you will understand the style better. So it bothered her not that Cinderella’s costume went all the way to her neck in a choker collar fashion, only that her skirt went to her ankles. The events that happened next, I am sad to say, I didn’t catch on video for your viewing entertainment. But your ears, I am sure, will be appreciative that the eardrum exploding hullabaloo that ensued was not captured on tape. For the wailing departing that small Korean mouth might as well have been a tortured demon howling for mercy from excruciatingly painful torture techniques. Her yowls caromed around the small room, swathing it in black anguish generating acute physical unpleasantness reserved for grief stricken funerals and nails on chalk board. Consoling made no dent in the howls, nor did groveling or pleading. Only the promise that she wouldn’t be cursed with having to wear a skirt which might destroy her core being would relinquish the noise. When safety pins were nowhere to be found, the next best option was the stapler Kyle had placed in my bag a day earlier. Upon finding it, before the ear drum exploding event, I had silently cursed myself for not taking it out in Ansan before the trip. Thank goodness, I hadn’t removed it, for that stapler saved the day, and consoled her temper tantrum to a near smile. The skirt was stapled to a shorter length, and everyone lived happily ever after.

The two videos below are of the pre-show events including Cinderella’s skirt being stapled by my co-teacher and their performance, which I highly recommend, as it is exceedingly entertaining.

Part 1

Part 2

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Treacherous Hike

After changing into our monk clothing, we made our way downstairs for our hike. Geared in my many layers to protect myself from the bone chilling cold and hiking boots, I felt confident this would be the highlight of our stay at the temple despite the record setting frigid temperature. How very wrong this prediction turned out to be.

A white toy tiger was held up to my ear as we waited by the office for our guide. “Listen to this” said a random laughing monk. The white tiger key chain growled a truculent growl. I laughed. Who was this silly monk I thought?

“Let me introduce myself.” He started. “I am….(I can’t remember his name, but he was the head Monk of the temple) “And this is my boyfriend.” He said laughingly pointing to another smaller Vietnamese monk. The smaller monk laughed and said, “Are you sure I’m not your girlfriend.” He said continuing the joke.

We introduced ourselves, and then headed out on our tour of the mountain. These silly monks were our first introduction to the monk-hood and I breathed a sigh of relief that they were so relaxed and goofy even.

At the ornate wooden bridge, the white tiger monk suggested we take a photo. We had debated whether to take our cameras. “Will they say, the hike is about the experience and not to concern yourself with photos?” We had pondered. In the end, we decided to take the camera regardless.

Our first clue that this hike would not be like others was a glimpse of what looked like clear glass beneath our feet covering the ground. But it wasn’t glass, I might of even been glad had it been, for most likely anything was better than ICE on a steep mountain side. The ice seemed to have implanted itself into the ground, sprouting roots, taking hold of every dirt molecule. It was my first experience seeing frozen solid ground. I had read about it in books, but I had never seen, let alone climbed a mountain on it first hand.

Our hiking boots, purchased in Italy, which are wonderfully light and perfect for gravel and rocks, proved to not handle icy ground well. In fact, one might say, that they are more appropriately ice skates when contacted with ice. One of the monks generously lent me his hiking stick, which I gratefully took. Towards the top, the ice lessoned long enough for us to enjoy the extraordinary view of Seoul in its concrete glory surrounded by nature. It was probably the best view of Seoul that I have ever witnessed. A sea of concrete buildings squashed together in a scene of ultimate “civilization” without a spec of green in between to destroy the urban-ness. Surrounded by trees and mountains, breathing the mountain air, it was a spectacular arena, but it reminded me that no matter where you are in Korea, the urban sprawl is nearby.

Our trip to the bottom, however made me think twice about the intelligence of climbing an icy mountain. Had I known the hike we were going on was a labyrinth of ice, I probably would have opted not to go on the treacherous mountain slip and slide. It is a wonder that we didn’t slip and plummet to our deaths. On a particularly steep section, I fell and was miraculously caught by a tree branch. It felt at times as if we were playing the game “lava” as we did when we were children, trying only to step on rocks to avoid the “lava.” However this game was real, and the “lava” was slippery ice.

Near the bottom, our friend Garret made the ultimate faux-pa, saying, “It is a wonder no one has actually fallen.” One more superstitious might credit my fall to his lack of knocking on wood. Whatever the case, not two minutes later, I was on my behind, nursing scratched hands and a sore tailbone. As luck would have it however, the section of my demise was flat, and served as a safe place for an ineluctable tumble.

The monks seemed unfazed by the ice, hiking in shoes that looked to be house shoes, jetting to the top and bottom as if attempting to win a race without any fear of plunging to their death. While I trembled in my MC Hammer monk pants and what I thought were well equipped HIKING BOOTS afraid for my life. We made it to the temple alive thank the good Lord, but I won’t be making that mistake again. Hiking is out of the question in South Korea until there is a serious turn in the weather.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


Meditative stream of consciousness:

Ok, we can do this. I can do this. Left leg up in the lotus position. Which way do my hands go again? Left over right or right over left? Let’s go with right over left because it is the opposite of my legs. Back straight. He said there should be a curve in my back, almost as if my back was pushing my belly button out. Ouch. That’s gonna be a hard position to keep for an hour. My back is not used to being so straight.

Ok, off to a good start. I am in the proper meditation stance. Clear the mind. Clear my mind. Stop thinking. Focus on the Hwa-du; “Mount Sumeru”

A student asked Venerable Master Yun-Men (d.949)

Not even a thought has arisen, is there still a sin or not?

Master said;

Mount Sumeru!

When thought arises, sin also arises. If no thought arises, there should be no kind of sin or error. But why did the Master say that sin, that is, error, is as big as Mount Sumeru?

According to string theory there are multiple universes. So many in fact, that our universe has been compared to a tiny spec of sand in the Ganges River. Mount Sumeru is the name for all of the universes combined at least in Buddism.

Does it mean I’m stupid if I don’t understand the question? He said not to focus on the word sin, sin in this instance is more like mistake.

Is that Kyle’s stomach growling. Wow, it is so loud. I wonder if anyone else heard it?

My eyes are getting heavy. I wonder how long I have been sitting here already. Stop it. Focus. Mount Sumeru, Mount Sumeru, Mount Sumeru.

What just happened? Did I nod off for a second. Focus Vanessa focus. It’s just so hard to focus when all I want to do is sleep though. That hike this afternoon was really hard. It’s nap time. How do these monks sit here for an entire hour?

Wow, I’m impressed with Kyle. Normally he is so fidgety. He hasn’t exactly stopped, but he is more still than normal. There is his stomach rumbling again.

Clear my mind. I know, I will repeat the words in the Hwa-du. Maybe I will focus better that way. Hwa-du, Hwa-du, hwa-du, hwa-du.

How much longer? I’ve got to move my legs.

Hwa-du, hwa-du.

The lady next to me has one leg laying out straight. It must be okay. One leg out. Oh so much better. It is harder to sit up like this. Back straight Vanessa.

Mount Sumeru. Mount Sumeru. Mount Sumeru. Mount Sumeru. Clear my mind of thoughts. Mount Sumeru, Mount Sumeru.

I hope dinner is better than lunch. Lunch wasn’t bad, just VERY KOREAN. Focus!!

A student. A student. Concentrate on saying the words with my breathing. A student. A student.

How do the monks sit like this for an entire hour. What am I doing wrong? The master said if you are focused one hour feels like five minutes. If you aren’t focused it can feel like five years. I guess I am in the second category.

Ahh. What was that loud clapping noise. Is the torture over? Everyone seems to be stretching. That feels so good. Now we’re standing up. And walking in a circle. I like this part. (glancing at the clock) We have an entire hour more. It’s okay. I think I am getting better. I can do it. I can meditate. Let’s just hope I don’t start snoring this time though.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Temple Stay: Seoul International Zen Center

Vanessa and I along with our co-workers/friends, Katie and Garret, took an amazing journey 3 days ago into the heart of Korea, metaphysically speaking. Geographically we were in the North of Seoul, pretty close to the “oh so scary” border. To be honest, I don’t even know the name of the town but the destination was the Seoul International Zen Temple. The goal; to spend 24 hours living as the monks do.

It all began at the suggestion of our friend Katie. She told us one day as we were all sitting down to lunch in the school cafeteria that she was considering doing a temple stay. Temple stays are quite common around here and Vanessa had a few friends that had done one and found it an unique experience so we were game from the get go. Our other friend Garret was down too but the other 2 weren’t quite as hyped on the idea so they sat this one out. It’s certainly not for everyone.

To be honest, it wasn’t what I had expected. I thought we would be spending a few days doing some 30 minute meditation sessions here and there and maybe tending to a garden and just kind of touring the temple. I was not prepared for the 4 sets of 2 hour meditation, (especially not the 3 am one) or the 108 full body bows we ATTEMPTED to do. My legs are still hurting. None the less, it was an experience I will truly never forget. Here’s a quick run down of the our time at the temple.

Wed. 8:00 am. Met at Sub station to get to our destination by 10:30. (Public transportation will you get you anywhere, but not quickly)

10:45am. Arrived at Temple. Looks BEA Utiful. Got confusing instructions about what floor to go to but with some persistence, found the right person to talk with.

11:ish am. Changed into our hammertime pj uniforms and ate a surprisingly tasty vegetarian meal in the zen cafeteria.

Noonish Mountain hike with Zen Master and 2 other monks. Great view and hilarious monks. Off to a good start. Expected Mr. Miagi style serious monks and got a super smily, fun loving monk who laughed out loud and loudly at his own corny jokes Buddhisatva. Off to a very good start.

2:00 pm. Meditation round one. 50 minutes of contemplating this Hwan Du (Buddhist proverb);

“A student asked Venerable Master Yun Men, “Not even a thought has arisen, is there still a sin or not?” Master replied, “Mt. Sumeru!” When thought arises sin also arises. If not a thought arises there should be no kind of sin or error. But why did the master say that sin, that is error, is as big as Mt. Sumeru?”

When you think you have the answer, you probably don’t. If you do, then you will know but don’t talk to anyone about it! It’s the Buddhist way.

4:00 pm. Work time. Sweep the halls and rooms.

4:30 pm. Dinnertime comes early here! Same food as lunch pretty much. Tasty, but we Americans are a little spoiled with our variety methinks. Van is definitely fed up with the rice and weird veggies at this point. I have to admit, the fermented grass sprouts are a little to perky.

5:00 pm. Tea ceremony with Zen Master. This was quite nice. He gave us some very expensive tea from Taiwan and taught us the proper way to meditate and bow. A little awkward at first but fun all the same and just what we had come for.

6:00 pm. Evening Chants. The chanting hall was gorgeous. Traditional Korean Buddhism doesn’t focus on the statues but loves them as decorations. Zen Master wasn’t much into them but he seemed to appreciate traditions for what they are. This was the highlight of the trip for me. We got print outs of the chants for us to try to go along with it. I’m not sure how well we did with the words but the rhythm and melody was easy to keep up with and almost hypnotic. The monk leading the chants was no Liberaci but the sounds were so foreign and evocative, the experience was almost mystical. You almost couldn’t help but feel you were being transported to another time and place entirely. This for me was the true heart of Korea. Our little window into Zen. A little taste of Nirvana.

6:30 pm. Meditation round two. 2 and 1/2 hours more of focusing on the Hwan Du. My mind is extremely difficult to quite down I discovered.

9:00 pm. Break time.

9:20 pm. Lights out. Slept like a baby. Van, not so much.

Thurs. Morning

3:00 am. Rise and shine for the START of the day (in the middle of the night!) and prepare for round three.

3:20 am. Round 3 Meditation. Slightly shorter round this time. Still no answer has arisen for the Hwan Du though. Concentration was surprisingly good this time however. To be honest, I did a lot of looking around during the last couple meditation rounds. These monks are incredible. How they stay so still and so focused for so long is just beyond me. Clearly I’m not as Zen as I thought I was.

4:10 am. 108 Bows. Full body bows for about 20 minutes. Give that one a try sometime. I got to 66. I think I did the most of the 4 of us. These monks are not only in peak mental condition, they’re in incredible physical shape as well!

4:30 am. Morning Chants. Again, just mesmerizing.

5:00 Meditation round four. SERIOUSLY AGAIN!? I cheated this time around. Took our translation sheets for the chants with me this time just so I could have something new to think about. Say what you will about how un-monkish I was. I did it for the sake of my sanity.

5:50 am. Breakfast. Thank Buddha. Different mushrooms this time. Other than that, pretty much the same as yesterday’ lunch and dinner.

9:00 am. Optional meditation round five. Van and I opted out of that one. We were a little Zenned out at that point. Katie and Garret apparently had a little bit more they needed to meditate over I guess. Props to them for doing it. Buddha rewarded them for it too. They got to have cheesecake with the monks afterwards to celebrate the first day of Spring in the solar calendar.

10:30 am. One last tea time with Zen Master. Talked a little about Buddhism, if we want to join the community which is filled with many different religious types including Christians and told us we were more than welcome to email him to check our answers to the Hwan Du. Also, if we wanted to skype with him, he gives lectures Tuesdays and Thursdays. Coolest monk I’ve ever met. But thank goodness we went when we did and not last week. For some insane reason only understood by the monks, they didn’t sleep all last week, choosing to meditate in place of sleep. Seven and a half hours of meditation was more than enough meditating for me; I don’t think we would have been able to handle extra meditation and no sleep on top of everything else.

All in all, this was truly an experience of a lifetime. Van and I have seen a lot of the world and we’ve done some amazing things but this was definitely one of those rare moments in life that leaves you knowing the impact of it will far exceed the 24 hours we spent there. I have a new found respect for those shiny headed loonies up there in the mountains. Perhaps they aren’t as crazy as I always took them to be. I’ve always thought it was a bit of a cop out to run off into the hills and spend your days sitting on cushy little pillows thinking the time away, waiting for the chaos to pass. Now I feel that maybe Zen Master has it right. How can you still the chaos without, never having faced the chaos within?