Monday, December 17, 2007

2nd email from Korea

Following up on the first email I had sent, here is the second. I've not been back in New York for just over two weeks, but I'm still working with these to try to put them together for something else. I still have a couple to write, even. But here's it is:


Seoul was not like Inchon. The places we went were all shopping districts, so I'm not sure how they fit in with the rest of the city. Soon, we'll probably undertake a more thorough exploration of the city, perhaps after the memorial service at Hwa Gye Sa.

Everything seemed really chaotic, but I didn't notice anything that could have been residential. All of the buildings looked to have businesses on every floor. At least, they had signs on every floor, often in Hangul (the Korean language) and English. Sometimes, understandably flawed English; sometimes truly mangled. A lot of Koreans speak (or at least read, or at least have spent years learning but are afraid to actually use) English, so it's not quite like those Chinese character tattoos so many Americans have that don't mean what they're supposed to. People understand this mangled English, and treat it as normal. None of the individual signs were brightly lit or outrageously ostentatious, but it was otherwise a lot like Times Square.

It's a place that grew up overnight economically, from the Korean war becoming, from what apaneem says, the tenth largest economy in the world (I checked Wikipedia - 13th largest GDP in 2006) despite being pretty small. One intersection had what seemed to have been at least seven crosswalks going in all directions. Several stores were off the main road on alleys. Chogye Sa, the Temple we went to visit was right in the middle of everything.

Most Korean temples are pretty deep in the mountains. The monks fled during the Japanese occupation so that they could continue to practice without interference while the Japanese were remaking the Korean orders to be like Japanese Buddhism. In Japan, monks can marry and even manage to hold down full-time jobs. Seung Sahn, actually, had a lot to do with returning Korean Buddhism to the more austere version in Korea before the occupation. (Though the Buddhism he introduced to the West was remarkably liberal, and most of our Zen Masters are lay people. He understood both "form is emptiness" and "form is form" very clearly.) But Chogye Sa was right in the middle of everything. Not glaringly so, as if the rest had been consciously built in relation to it, but haphazardly so, and we had a bit of trouble finding it.

On the way, we saw a monk, chanting, banging a moktak - a percussion instrument used in Buddhism - with a sign around his neck. Soo told me he was protesting the involvement of Christian churches in the upcoming elections. The leading candidate (for now, anyway, as there's a major scandal going on with stock-price fixing) is Christian, and the churches are pushing for him because of his religion. He's also very conservative. Btw, the 5 of the world's 10 largest megachurches are in South Korea, according to a recent article in the Economist.

[Editorial note: The election is in just a few days now. To follow the election, the Hankyoreh newspaper publishes in English and online from a center-left perspective. Today, a story about to the scandal is subtitled, "True or not, new evidence is unlikely to change outcome of election." It appears the conservative Lee still has a strong lead in the polls.]

We also saw about 4 people who were homeless or panhandlers. A surprisingly small number to me, but (even aside from the social prohibition against such obvious displays of need that I imagine exist) I can't seem to figure out where everyone comes from. It's a huge place, with tons of people, but many of the residential/shopping/business districts are so completely separated, it never really feels densely populated (for the tourist, maybe) except during rush hour. Two had heads bowed so they didn't show their faces. The other two lay face down on the sidewalk.

The Temple itself is gorgeous. There are three huge Buddha's on the front alter, in slightly different poses. The side alters would have been impressive in any temple I'd already seen. There were an incredible number of lotus lanterns (like these). The tags hanging down have prayers written on them. At this time of year, they're all from parents praying their children do well on college entrance exams.

After the temple, we ate a an Italian restaurant in a nearby area. (I'm already very familiar with Korean food, so I didn't feel like I was failing to take in the culture by not eating rice and kimchi three times a day.) Most of the food was reasonably authentic Italian, except they put peanuts in all the cream sauces. Shopping was fun. One souvenir store, though, I couldn't get the staff to stop following me around. I was assured by my companions that they were just trying to be helpful and not concerned about me stealing anything. Along with the huge number of signs, I took it to be a place unembarassed by crass commercialism. I stayed with someone who lives in an apartment complex called "i want." Even if someone couldn't read the English because of the way it's stylized, there's a Korean transliteration.

Maybe naive would be a better word than crass, but still the effect was remarkable. This seems to be what happens when a country grows rich quickly. Perhaps in 10 or 15 years, the nascent anti-consumerist and environmental movements will have a strong effect.

Next message I'll try to write about Soo's family some and the restaurants. Most of them speak some Enlgish, but are too embarrased to try to use it with me. Turns out, apaneem, who hasn't even hinted at knowing English, has a degree in English literature. He reads the extremely conservative Korean Herald (though not chart-breakingly, Rupert Murdoch-style blindly conservative) and lately, perhaps for me, has been buyng the English version. When I asked Soo about some Hangul written on it, apparently notes on a few words, she told me it was his handwriting. I've yet to raise the question to him to try to figure what that's all about. Maybe he doesn't think he can speak English; maybe he refuses to speak English with me while I'm supposed to be taking in Korean culture. Everyone else is being encouraged to speak English with me so they can learn. So I don't know. But more in the next message.

Still enjoying it.

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