I went up to Seoul to visit my aunt. Korea has a super fast train system based on the French TGV trains, and the trip took me less than 2 hours. Going through the countryside of Korea, I realized that modernization has come at a price. Huge housing blocks have sprouted up like weeds in the cities, clashing with the gently rolling mountains. It makes my eyes ache, and I wish for a second that some care was given to the aesthetics, something I’m used to seeing in European cities that have strict regulations on housing codes and an eye for preservation. You certainly don’t come to Korea to find beautiful city planning.
At the Seoul Station I have a taxi driver from hell. He is one grumpy ah-jo-shee! My aunt has given me instructions on how to get to her apartment, but lacking an actual address I feel at a loss. I try in my pigeon Korean to explain….”Yook-Sam building…uhh, next to..um die nächste wohnung…immer gerade aus..uhh, shit!” Everytime I try to think up how to say something in Korean the german phrase instantly pops in my head. It doesn’t help that he is one major ass that keeps yelling at me. I am realizing that without language you don’t have anything. I feel much more timid and shy than I ever would in the U.S., or even now in Germany for that matter. If someone talked to me like that, older or not, I would eloquently voice my displeasure than get the hell of out the cab. But in Seoul, with no cell phone, no idea of where the hell I was…I just sat back and listened to his abuse then kept asking if I could use his “hand-uh pone-uh” to call my aunt. I guess he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere because he finally just asked for the number.
On the menu that night was the most delicious bo-sam at a country style Korean restaurant and some ket-ko daenjang chigae (fermented soybean paste stew with crab) and soon-dubu (spicy tofu stew.) Bo-sam is really tender pork belly that you eat wrapped with soybean paste, a sliver of fresh garlic, and in this case kimchi. You could also eat it wrapped with a variety of lettuces and greens. My cousin Peter took the train in from Inchon and joined us. He moved from California half a year ago and Korea seems to suit him. He is thriving in a way I never saw in Cali. The fact that the chucklehead, as we lovingly call him, is teaching English and doing well is something that I do indeed chuckle over. I wasn’t even aware he knew the difference between an adverb and adjective! I suspect a new generation of Koreans will grow up peppering their language with a healthy dose of “dude” and “friggin’ awesome.”
We got a drink at a bar next to the restaurant where my cousin shows me some Korean apps for iphone that get me through the next few days. Particularly funny is the World Nomads Korean Plus app. With phrases for every basic situation, there’s also an especially hilarious section on “flirting.” For those of you out there who ever wondered how to tastefully ask if someone has “protection” in Korea, here goes….”Kon-dom isseyo?” Here were some other choice favorites:
That was quick! – Bbahl-laht-neyo
Easy Tiger!! – Salsalhae-jooseyo (although actually that literally means, please do it softly…)
I’m not just saying this because I’m drunk! – Chuihaeson-haneum-mari-ani-eyo
I’m not a stalker, really! – Jeoneum suh-talk-uh jin-cha ani-eyo!
And for all you rock stars out there who want to tell the ladies:
I’m a Rock Star – Jeo-neun Rok-stah ip-ni-da
(what I’m finding very useful- which also does well in germany is to just say the English word at times with a very thick Korean accent, and it works wonders in communication. Where’s the bus stop?- Bus-eu stop-eu odi-seyo?)
The next day my aunt takes me to an amazing restaurant out in a country suburb of Seoul. The name of the place roughly translates into: Squirrel on a mountain in the middle of a valley… Which, is kind of where the restaurant is. It’s an organic bio place that makes the most amazing mook I have ever tasted in my life. Their gochukaru is clearly handground and combined with the spicy mustard greens, spring onions and organically grown mook, my palate is having an intense culinary orgasm. This is some seriously good food.
The restaurant itself is situated next to a lake that overlooks some far off mountains. The grey skies and misty cloud cover creates a romantic atmosphere in the extensive back gardens. Considering the hour long wait for lunch, it’s clear the locals appreciate the extra touch that goes into creating organic, sustainable food.
Afterwards, we take a little detour and end up at the top of a different mountain where there is another Buddhist temple. I am starting to realize that all lost paths leading up will eventually take you to a temple. I suppose it’s fitting…getting lost and finding nirvana sometimes feel the same, it’s a plunge into the unknown.
I end my day at a Jjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse). I’m convinced that Jjimjilbangs are the secret weapon that keep Korean women thin. After a few hours of steaming away in hot mineral waters, sitting in a hot sauna, then taking a quick nap on hot salt crystals in the “jjimjilbang” I’ve lost at least a kilo…my pants are feeling much looser. Hallelujah! They were starting to get uncomfortably snug. It’s hard work trying to eat through an entire country’s food culture in one month!
I get a deh-midi (literally its translates into something like “dirt rubbing.” It’s a treatment where a tough old lady in her bra and panties scrubs you down clean with a rough cloth that exfoliates pretty much every layer of dead skin on your entire body. Afterwards you feel as smooth as a baby’s bottom). I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to my deh-midi, if it ain’t rough, it ain’t worth it, but this is one time it might have been worth my while to say “Salsalhae-jooseyo!” A day later, minus an epidermis, I’m covered in tiny bumps and ouch! they hurt!
I spent a horrible night riddled with insomnia. Damn that early evening latte! I knew drinking caffeine so late in the day was a bad idea, but I was pretending to be Korean, where caffeine has no effect on a body already over stimulated from the every day challenges of living in a high pressured society . This time the American side of me won out, and I spent a sleepless night. I am feeling grumpy!
Julian and I decide to do a temple stay and take a quick trip out of Daegu to Gyeongu. At the monument of some famous Korean general from the Shilla dynasty who was the only general to ever successfully beat the Japanese, who’s name I forget, but which I enjoyed taking a picture with…we take a quick break and have some freshly made Pa-jeon and Mook from an old lady selling refreshments from her cart. Pa-jeon is a delicious savory pancake that is made with, in this case, fresh green onions and octopus. (Jeon means pancake, and there are a variety of “jeon”s available. Hobak-jeon (pumpkin pancake), Haemul-jeon (Seafood pancake)…etc. Cut into bite sized pieces, we dipped it into a salty soy sauce garnished with finely chopped green onion and sesame seeds.
Mook, one of my childhood favorites, is a type of gelatin made out of acorns, think… Jell-O- but brown, and savory-not sweet. Served with toasted seaweed and a sauce similar to the one for the Pa-jeon, it’s a unique flavor and texture that people usually either hate or love.
We pass the famous Bulguksa Temple and say- Hello Buddha! This is a temple that I have often seen in many Korean movies and dramas. I’m feeling a little“star-struck” of sorts…omg, this is where jan-dee bows with that guy who likes her secretly in that drama- boys before flowers, omg…I have a blast frolicking around in my dirndl and receiving inquisitive stares from the other visitors.
We finally make our way up to the Golgulsa Temple where we will spend the night. We check in and find out that at $50/night…meditating with monks ain’t no cheap deal. We get some baggy temple clothes to wear during our visit and head up towards the top of the mountain to get a view of the Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. Created during the Silla dynasty, the Buddha is one of the oldest relics still standing in Korea. As we enjoy the fresh breeze from one of the benches placed under the trees, the head monk climbs the path towards us, walking hand in hand with… a little monkey. It’s a truly bizarre scene, but while Julian has nearly lost his lunch, I just watch on with quiet composure while he leads his little charge several times around a small stone tower. A Samuel barber song- “A monk & his cat” starts going through my head, except I exchange the words “Pangar white, Pangar” with “Monkey white, monkey..how happy we are. Alone together monkey & monk.” Granted…unless you’ve never sung the Hermit Songs, while trying to put together a junior year voice recital…this probably makes no sense at all.
After a spare vegetarian meal of monk food, we head down to the center where we will be doing an evening meditation and Sunmudo martial arts training. Now Sunmudo is amazing. A combination of yoga, qi-gong and some super duper hard core, badass kicks and jumps, I start to feel like I’ve found my center again. I’m seriously considering coming back for a month long stay to train with the monks. The monk divides us into two groups, the newbies and the experienced students. There is one particular little Korean monklet in training who seems to find it fascinating that I know how to stretch. Actually, I’m more limber than his little bad ass. As I observe even more, I realize…while there are several young boys doing the training, there are no girls, and only one French woman and one Korean woman in the entire group of the older students. Once again, my feminist soul starts seething a little…why are there no little girls training here with the monks? Why is little monk-boy giving me such ‘tude! Our instructor, a French semi-monk in training leads us in some kicks. I think I finally catch a gleam of begrudging respect from his eyes as I kick almost as high as him. There is one particular side kick that requires a considerable amount of stamina and strength and I almost manage to hold the pose as long as Frenchie…some of the older Korean dudes from the class inside come out to watch us, and their eyes literally pop out of their head when they watch me do the kicks. It’s kind of funny. I don’t think they’re used to seeing a Korean woman kick ass. A camera pops out, and one of the guys starts circling around me clicking away. I wonder just where those photos will end up…some Korean tabloid revealing the shocking news that high on some mountaintop…yes, there was finally discovered…a woman with muscle. Truth or myth! Haha.
4am a monk circles my building, his Mok-tak beating away. I’m not exactly sure what he’s chanting, but I’m pretty sure its something like….geeeeeet- uuuuup, geeeeeeet-uuuuuup, lazy asses, geeeeeet uuuuuup. I’m uuuuuup everydaaaaaay at 4ammmmm, so geeeeeet your lazy asses uuuuuuuup nooooooow. My roomie and I stumble out of bed and walk up the hill to start our second day at the temple. After a round of chanting, bowing and meditating, we head off to breakfast at 6:30am. We learn a beautiful Buddhist eating ceremony that involves washing out of the 4 eating bowls, silent mindful eating and after the last grain of rice has been consumed, cleaning out the bowls with hot water, then polishing them with a cloth and setting the bowls back inside one another. I love the stillness in which we all eat, and I am amazed afterwards what a difference it makes to concentrate on each bite. I’ve eaten half what I normally would, of completely vegetarian and simple food and feel more satisfied than I have with a meal in a long time. Something to take back with me when my temple stay is over.
After a quick break, we do another round of Sunmudo training. In truth, my thighs are already a little sore from the previous night, but I’m determined to do it! 90 minutes later we finish the training and have a little tea ceremony with the Frenchie. He’s actually been less friendly than I would expect of someone who’s a monk in training, but can only assume that 5 years on a mountaintop with Korean monks would probably drive anyone insane. We ask him some questions about his training, only to find out that..indeed he is NOT a monk in training. He’s there for the martial arts training. As he puts it ”i likes ze principles and ze beliefs of the monks, but zhey are not free, I wants to be free. I wants ze family and to get marry and…use ze penis”… (ok., ok.he didn’t say that last part, but we all knew that’s what he meant.) I have to give him some respect for surviving 5 years of training with a massive language and cultural barrier and no booty either. That’s dedication.
Just when Julian, Anne (my roommate for the Temple stay) and I thought our day was over, we get called back by Frenchie for the final meditation. We have a choice- 108 bows or a mindful hike up the mountain. We all vote for hike, it’s a gorgeous day and I’m not sure my thighs are going to last for any more squatting. Just as we’re about to embark up the path, Frenchie calls out- “and juz be careful of ze snakes. remember when you hear ze rattle…gets out of ze way”. Well, that put an end to that. Anne and I vote against hike, I mean I love a good hike, but rattlesnakes are another thing. Who knew Korea had rattlesnakes? I’m learning something new everyday. Off we go to do 108 bows.
We make a new friend- Anne who joins us for our next adventure. A day at the beach in Gampo, where we all end up spending the night at a Minbak after skipping stones on the beach, sleeping-me, copious amounts of drinking, ingesting of fresh raw fish- hwe, more sleeping-me ,while Julian and Anne run around on the beach taking photos in the middle of the night. Minbak’s are kind of like b&b’s without the second b and infinitely simpler. It’s a relatively empty room equipped with blankets, pillows and bathroom. We rented a room from a woman who had a semi-shady establishment overlooking the beach. In true Korean style, we all slept on the floor. Actually, I did most of the sleeping; on the beach, in the car, in the middle of the card game. It was a good thing Anne came along or Julian would have been seriously bored watching my tired bones try to catch up on weeks of sleep deprivation at various inappropriate hours.
The next day all of our bodies were screaming from the two days of hardcore training. If I thought a squat and pee was hard before….squat and pee after having done some intense bow trainings as well as 3 hours of kicking, lunging, stretching, was something akin to torture. As luck would have it, every single f-in toilet I would encounter in the next 2 days would be of the squat and pee variety. Aigoo chamna…Happy Birthday Buddha!
Julian and I go back to the temple to catch the celebration and Sunmudo demontration in honor of the Buddha’s Birthday. The whole country is on holiday, as in apparent in the traffic we encounter when driving back to Golgulsa after dropping Anne off at the bus station in Gyeongu. We make it back up to the mountaintop just in time as the Sunmudo demonstration is starting. I watch in awe as the head monk leads the others in a beautiful presentation of the form. It reminds me of Ana Forrest, my yoga teacher/mentor. The intent concentration and presence in his eyes as he gracefully flows from move to move. There are some more presentations of different Sunmudo forms before the day melts into a surreal chain of events.
Happy Birthday Buddha! And what better way to celebrate than to bring out 13 year old girls, scantily clad, and belly dancing to some very loud pop music? Seriously…am I in Korea? I look around me as I watch old men and woman smile and clap their hands to the music, a few foreigners doing the temple stay are trying to conceal their drool, while reminding themselves…they’re only 13, they’re only 13. I scan the crowd trying to figure out just where their parents might be. I mean, for f-sakes, my mother would throw a hissy fit every time my strap from my Playtex, nearly A training bra slipped under my very baggy short sleeve t-shirt (something that would never have happened if she would’ve just acquiesced that at a “nearly A” I just didn’t need to wear the fucker) and here were girls bare midriff, bikini top, and seductively undulating their hips in moves they just are too young to have already mastered! To add to the bizarro…the little monklet boys then proceeded to do a magic show accompanied by the loud strains of the James Bond movie theme, afterwards which they did a choreographed dance with some other of the Sunmudo boys to a k-pop song called “Poppy” (a song sung and danced by a cutesy girl band…the boys imitated all their moves..) Happy Birthday Buddha!
Its become very apparent that the Korea I’ve heard about, from stories my mother and father told me, is not the Korea that exists today. I wonder if immigrant populations that resettle in a new land cling more staunchly to old school principles and beliefs. The Korea they knew and reminisce about is a Korea that disappeared years ago with the fast and rapid development that has made Korea one of the strongest economies today. It’s clear that on some level, while still remaining patriarchal (its impossible to throw away a history based on Confucious principles in a mere 20 years), the new generation is allowed certain freedoms that I certainly never was. I can only laugh when I think that wearing anything more than a few inches above the knee was taboo for me, when I see these girls today wearing skirts so short, they need to clutch their asses when walking up the stairs to avoid a complete- I see London, I see France-situation. More curious is the fact that while- who wears short shorts? They wear short shorts…any hint of cleavage or bare shoulders is strictly forbidden. I can watch groups of girls walk by in skirts all but exposing their asses, but the fact that I am wearing a shirt cut low enough to catch an almost glimpse at my not so incredible cleavage will cause heads to turn so fast, they give themselves whiplash. Wonder what would happen if I exposed a tiny bit of my black lacy bra as well?
After the celebration ends, Julian & I decide to head back to Daegu early to avoid the heavy traffic. We make it home in record time on the tollway. Interesting fact- according to Julian, Pak Chung-Hee, president of South Korea in the 70’s visited Germany and was extremely impressed with the autobahn system that Hitler developed. He decided to build his own autobahn running from Seoul to Busan, despite heavy protest about misappropriation of funds, (there weren’t enough cars to really justify this road) which was largely responsible for the economic growth that spurred Korea on to the powerhouse it is today because it allowed the rapid transport of goods between Seoul and Busan- a major port in Korea. I guess it was an – if you build it, it will come situation. Supposedly, when you ask a Korean about Hitler, they say…Hitler- he built good roads. So this “good road” landed us back in Daegu in record time, and we made plans to meet some more of Julian’s friends for dinner and drinking.
The Hobak-jeon place Julian tried to take us to in downtown Daegu was closed, due to the holiday. As it turned out, a lot of places were closed that night, but we found our way to a small country style restaurant where we were served a fantastic fish-zzim. What kind of fish, I couldn’t really tell, but it was just the right blend of spicy, salty, and savory. There was a particularly good assortment of banchans that I liked, including a zucchini-jeon. I had my first taste of Makgeolli, a rice wine that can be drunk either alone or mixed with 7-up, or as Koreans call it- ci-dah! Makgeolli kind of reminds me of Federweisser. They are both young fermented beverages that go down easily and can really get you drunk. 2 bottles later, we headed off to a wine bar and its when I realized that, every night in Korea is a night for drinking.
As my cousin Peter calls it. Korea is a land of functional alcoholics.
In the past week I have seen more alcohol consumed on a daily basis by the people I’ve been with than I’ve normally seen on any night out in Berlin. Koreans, and the foreigners who end up living here, can seriously drink! I think it’s fair to say that in 5 days I’ve had more alcohol than I’ve consumed in the past 3 months. After the wine bar we go to yet another bar where we are joined by another friend of Julian’s and her boyfriend. The wine is making me daring, and I challenge Julian and one of the Korean guys to a beer chugging contest. The loser buys all the drinks. Now, let me just preface this by saying…this is a contest I have never lost. I prided myself during my college years for outdrinking anyone that came my way. Maybe not in quanitity (I’ve always been a cheap date ; ) ) but in speed. Flashback- Brussels, my friend Barbara and I, on our backpacking trip were at some bar surrounded by noisy American frat boys, a challenge was thrown down, 2 glass boots of beer were brought out, the frat boy left covered in shame. So imagine my surprise when Julian beats me by a full second. Damn! 4 years in Korea has given him some serious skills. I’m out of practice. A rematch is demanded…this time I have to admit my defeat…but at least I beat the Korean dude. haha.
2 cups of Makgeolli, 4 glasses of wine, 2.5 beers later, I’m surprised that I’m still standing and that i haven’t yet gone to the bathroom to spew. Maybe Korea is rubbing off on me, but that’s about 6 drinks more than I can normally handle on any given night.
I’m experiencing that pleasant sensation people like to call- drunk. so this is what that feels like. I normally have 2 beers and stop, or have another beer and end up losing my lunch then falling asleep. Maybe its the Makgeolli, maybe my body just actually responds to rice based alcohol better? If I cared to be a hardcore alcoholic, I would explore this new world of Makgeolli and Soju, but I’m secretly glad that I’ll be heading up to Seoul in the morning where I can take a break from drinking for a few days while visiting my aunt. In my drunken state I exchange some brash words with one of Julian’s friends we bump into on our way to finding a taxi. It’s a good thing that no one would ever hit a woman here and that he was also equally drunk and that we both knew we were talking out of our asses…dear lord. It’s time to take a break.