Thursday, May 30, 2013

Contemporary Korean Literature

I attended another 'Taste of K-culture' session today. This involved a guided tour of the National museum of Korean Contemporary History, followed by a lecture on Contemporary Korean Literature. 

Krys Lee who delivered the lecture explained that she's a writer, editor and translator (she translates Korean novels and literary works into English). She told us Korean-English literary translation is currently a booming and lucrative industry (Perhaps it's a shame I've given up on Korean classes after all). She explained Korean literature is translated by fellow writers to help retain some of the clarity and beauty, as well as open them up to rest of the world.  

I didn't know the lecture was actually going to be on literature, it was a nice surprise. Krys Lee told us Korea is the only country where writers are predominantly female. She talked about Korea's rapid and dramatic modernization over the last fifty years, and she mentioned the growth of individualism. She described how the sense of individualism has developed over the last 10-15 years. I found this interesting, because I have definitely witnessed more individualism in Korea than I'd expected, or been led to believe I would. Hongdae is a area of Seoul is positively buzzing with expressive individualism. Also, on the subway ride to this particular lecture, I'd noticed two (twenty-something) young men on the train. They both had dyed hair. They also had tattoo's twisting around their lower arms. Their overall appearance had an alternative vibe. The tattoo's were written in English, I couldn't read them properly but I noticed one mentioned 'love'. These young men might not have been Korean, but they both looked and spoke Korean so I assumed they were.

Krys Lee told us contemporary Korean literature explores loneliness, alienation, and more sexual themes than traditional literature. She also talked about Korean's notion of 'stateless beings'. She explained the younger generation sometimes feel less connected to their own society, because they spend a number of years studying or living in other countries, like America. She drew comparisons between people who live outside/or on the margins of society as characterized in 50s and 60s American literature. This reminded me of the Korean film I went to watch in January, called 'stateless things'. The director told us he had been attempting to tackle and document this very same theme. Krys Lee told us 'stateless beings'  is a prevalent theme found in contemporary Korean literature. 

We were given a handout with excerpts from a selection of Korean writers and poets. 
Here is couple I liked. 

"Bare Mountain" - Kim Sun-Woo (translated by Krys Lee).

The thing the world calls making a name for yourself
that I'd thought a false grave,
the bare mountain in Gangwondo that I climbed already knew this.
There I lifted up my top, well, because the wind was refreshing.
At the mountain's peak, there are no verticals,
only hills upon hills covered with pampas grass.
In the wind fluttering from heaven and earth and all sides,
like a soul that's escaped the body,
my collarbone was freed after an eternity of dreaming of nomdic nakedness.
Some kids come down from a tribe of clouds
above my brightening areolas
and jut their young, friendly lips,
and inside the chill of early winter's dry pampa field
unknown to man, I hurl off my last lower garments,
embrace the children of the cloud tribe with to arms
and walked the pampa field's garden of air. Recurring lives 
passed while driving the wind ahead. How light it is, the pampa,
its glittering, scaly flesh fell
into my body like the season's first snow.
The wind's tongue passes below my dizzy hips, 
licks the deep valley , and lifts
the pampas' spores with it's lips
into my body.
That it's possible to have relations with the wind!
Lying down, each has relations with 
another in different postures, the winter grass,
the cocoon and the sunlight that made
the nest hanging on the stems
and the naked bodies of everything having
relations with each other brightening the wind.
Because the wind blew that sometimes ushers in injury, 
the sun's labor pains, like a thousand years ago,
had its legs spread open toward the shade.
I realized the unknown something that had relations
with god from primaeval times, like the sunlight across my hips, 
was naked. While pushing through the dense papa stems
and following the bare mountain's backbone, it flutters over.
Receiving it , my body becomes a shrine.

"The man who sold his shadow" - Kim Young-ha (translated by Dafna Zur).
Here's a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we're young: Where does that starlight come from? It's been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother were born. So just how far is that star from earth? The curiosity of children is insatiable. They'll grab a flash light and aim it at the stars and think. This will get there someday won't it? When I'm dead and my grandchildren are gone, and their grandchildren as well. Whimsical thoughts, of course. Not a chance that light so faint will still be sparkling thousands of light years from now. That's our universe: a place where light much stronger than this vanishes without a trace.

And another childish question: Does a bird in mid-flight have a shadow? How can such a small light thing be burdened by something as clumsy as a shadow? But birds most certainly do have a shadow. Sometimes, just sometimes, when I watch a flock fly by I have a feeling that something dark and black is flitting past. It's subtle enough that you'll miss it if you're not fully concentrating on it. When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that? As usual I haven't the faintest idea. Just wanted to make the point that bird shadows can cover the sun.

Look down from a helicopter and you see for yourself that flying objects have shadows. The shadow surges and swells under you; it's like a black carpet and it doesn't go away. Shadows latch onto that space between you and the source of light and they never go away. Block out the light, and you end up with a shadow. And I'm always standing between the two.

That timid child, so scared of his own shadow, grew up to become a writer. I write for a living. I get up in the morning, read the paper, prepare breakfast for me, open the window to freshen up the room, play some oldies music. Recently, the old man who moved in next door showed me how to eat green tea over rice. Just pour the boiled tea over a bowl of white rice and eat it with pickled cucumbers or some other mild side-dishes. For spring days when you have no appetite and you're alone, it's the perfect meal. Once I'm done with this simple meal, I pour some hot water into the tea bowl and have another cup. A clean, neat meal, like the offerings of Zen monks to the Buddha. But even on such mornings, things can unsettle me. Like when my college girlfriend was quoted in the paper as saying her college years were lonely and depressing.

..............................................

I dropped Migyong off and was heading home when it occurred to me that it might not be such a bad idea to try and live with her. After all, living together is no big deal. Grab breakfast together in the morning, send her off to work, drink some green tea, write, listen to music, have dinner together when she gets home from work. She'll ask, did you write much today? And I'd show her what I'd done. The two of us might be able to pull it off, live in a stable life, undisturbed and unshaken. Who knows? Who knows? Maybe if I try that kind of nitty-gritty, in your face living, I might develop a shadow of my own. And once I get a dignified shadow, I'll run over to presbytery, smack the back of repulsively handsome Paulo's head, and ask him to baptize our child. Give us a good name, will you? I'll say. Not like "Paulo." And of course I'll pay my respects to Chongshik every year on the anniversary of his death. He did pass away childless. At that very moment, a large bird-shadow passed over my head. I looked up. Strange - a bird's shadow on a moonless night? I flinched again. Thanks to you, my fanciful daydreaming has come to an end.

Listlessly, I peeled off my clothes and crawled into bed. 



Krys Lee told us that we could also find literature from North Korea, written by recent defectors on the  'words without borders' website.

If you would like to meet Krys Lee, she will be doing a book reading/signing at the 'What the Book Bookstore' in Itaewon, on June 16, at 6pm.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The littlest hobos

We had big plans for this little overnight trip out of Seoul, we were going to visit the Boseong tea festival, Gwangju massacre monument and museum, the mysteriously abandoned Gonjiam psychiatric hospital and Yulpo beach. Personally, I was most excited and interested in the Gonjiam psychiatric hospital.

Sirena booked bus tickets for us, and the plan was to get a bus early Friday morning. Unfortunately Okrzyki was late. So, our departure was delayed until midday. I discovered there are some pretty good and cheap clothes shopping around the express bus terminal. Whilst we wandered around and got some food, Okrzyki informed me that we were no longer going to see the Gonjiam psychiatric hospital, because it's in a different Gwangju. Apparently it's in Gyeonggi-do province which is actually nearer Seoul. I was disappointed, but it means there's potentially another future trip there sometime.  


Last weekend, I had travelled on the KTX to Busan. This weekend, we tackled the buses, traffic congestion, and delays. Although, I discovered that if you miss your bus it's pretty easy to switch onto another one, provided there are seats available. When I say relatively easy, bear in mind that Sirena speaks way more Korean than I do, and she successfully managed to switch our tickets on more than one occasion. Thank-you!

We got a plush bus to travel to Gwangju, there are only three seats per row which means they are bigger. I sat on one of the individual seats listening to music, sleeping (it makes travel go faster) and absorbing myself in my own thoughts. Travelling out of Seoul, I found myself gazing out of  window and having those periodic thoughts moments of 'oh my gosh, I really live in Korea'. The drive to Gwangju was very slow, stop, slow, stop, slow. It took hours. Note to self, do not travel to other Korean cities during national holidays. From Gwangju we had to get another bus to the city of Boseong, more slow, stop, slow, but with windier country roads. We finally arrived in Boseong around 9pm. We took at taxi to Yulpo beach, hoping to find somewhere to stay, and then have a dip in the morning before heading to the tea festival. The taxi driver asked us about where we were staying, when we told him we hadn't pre-booked he seemed concerned. He parked on the side of the road and began making calls to try and find us somewhere. The area around Yulpo beach was very quiet and dark, it didn't look very populated and there were very few street lights. Amongst the darkness, I could just about figure out where the sea must lie ahead of us. It turned out this was the only time I would see it during our trip, in the dark. The taxi driver wasn't having much luck, so we decided to head back to the city of Boseong and try to find accommodation there. Although, he warned us everywhere was full because of the festival, we figured we'd find somewhere. 

In Boseong we wandered towards the 7-eleven, got some drinks and sat outside to review our plan of action. We noticed there were some other foreigners passing by, so we asked if they had somewhere to stay, but they just confirmed they were looking for somewhere, too. Next, we also decided to walk down the main street to look around. A girl approached us, she said she didn't mean to sound creepy but she wanted to know if we'd found a place for the night. We told her that we hadn't. We all laughed about our little hobo predicament.



She told us a lad in her group was Korean, and that he was calling places and asking people, but there seemed to be nothing. She kindly invited us to join them. We agreed since we figured they might have more chance of success than we did. As is traditional in Korea, we sat outside the 7-eleven making new friends over shots of soju and beer. Some more passing waygook hobo's joined us. I recognised one girl, I told her she looked familiar and asked if she lived in Seoul. It turned out they'd actually been at our orientation last August but were placed in Busan, small world and good memory skills. Our new Korean friend determined that there weren't any jimjilbangs in Boseong that you can sleep at, all the love motels were full, and the only norebang closed at 1am. The only places that seemed be open all night were the 7-eleven and the mini mart. We really were facing an unplanned night of drinking on the streets. Most of us had dressed for the daytime sun. It began to get really cold, the lady from the 7-eleven bought us blankets and jackets. Eventually, we decided to head to the Norebang. Maybe they would take pity on us and let us sleep there?

The norebang in Boseong was pretty basic, but they had a room big enough for all of us. Some of us managed to get some sleep in the Norebang, some of us charged our phones, munched on snacks, drank beer and sang heartily for a couple of hours.


Unfortunately the owners did not take enough pity on us to let us stay all night. We loitered for a long as we felt comfortable without upsetting our hosts too much. 

Next, we headed to a local beer hof. Initially the Korean landlady did not seem to keen to serve us, as she was about to close. Following a conversation I didn't understand, she finally offered to let us stay until 5.30am if we each paid 10000 won. We agreed and paid the money. Her mood dramatically changed, she went into party mode, she proceeded to brings us drinks and make us food. She was very excitable and kept squeezing everyone's cheeks. We enjoyed her hospitality and the warmth of being inside, although in a nice way she did seem a little crazy at times. 

Around 4.30am people began to crash again. There were only small two-seater benches in the hof. I curled up on one as best I could, and used my rucksack as a pillow. When the landlady noticed she rescued a towel and put it under my head, placed a jacket over me and raised my feet onto a stool to make my lying position more comfortable. I think I managed to get about 20mins of broken sleep. When she woke us up at 5.30am, everyone was pretty groggy. Two of the locals from the bar took us back to the bus station. Outside was eerily foggy, which provoked that sense of almost being in some kind of surreal spooky horror movie, we laughed and took some pictures.  


The locals took us back to the bus station. The tea festival didn't open until 9am, so we found ourselves with a few more hours to kill and not much else to do other than sit outside the 7-11 again. Okrzyki suggested a few beers to get us 'slightly buzzed' before heading to the festival. I didn't start drinking quite as early as both of them, sensible, I know. I found it rather reminiscent of being at a music festival, and drinking to help dissipate some of the aches and pains (purely medicinal reasons, obviously). 

On this trip, I had envisioned wearing nice dresses to the tea festival, and having some equally nice pictures taken. These were still in my rucksack, I accepted I wasn't going to get to wear them. Also, there was no psychiatric hosptial exploration, no beach, practically no sleep. I was still wearing the clothes I had travelled in (skank), and now I was going to be 'lightly buzzed' by 9am, in time for the tea festival opening. It was at this point I felt it appropriate to jokingly quote Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon and say 'I'm too old for this sh*t'.

I wasn't particularly looking forward to the tea festival, it wasn't my main reason for coming on this trip. I don't even like tea. I know I'm British and I hate tea, how can that possibly be? I don't know I just do. Although, a few years ago in Japan, I discovered that I can drink green tea, to be fair you can't escape it there. It's generally weaker and more palatable, than normal tea. And, I do quite like green tea ice-cream. 

The tea festival was very busy and bustling with activity, at the entrance there were lots of stalls selling their various interesting, and ingenious green tea wares. Here, we indulged in some ice-cream, which was rather nice-uh.

Then we headed towards the fields. I didn't really have any prior expectations, but the swathes of rounded green tea bushes running over the mountains were a pretty impressive sight. 
We walked around, took in the view, took some silly Korean posed type pictures, and ate some raw leaves.

They are definitely worth seeing. Just make sure you book somewhere to stay in advance, especially if you plan to visit during the Boseong tea festival.
Due to lack of time, we also gave up on visiting the Gwangju massacre memorial monument and museum.
Still we managed to do one out of the four, and surprisingly greatly impressed me. Plus, we all had fun, made new friends, and bonded through adversity in the usual way. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Teacher's day

Today was Teacher's day, school finished early and students showed their appreciation with letters, gifts and carnations. Teacher's day is celebrated in Korea on May 15, after King Sejong the Great's birthday (King Sejong is renowned and celebrated for his many scientific and educational achievements, such as the invention of Hangul). 
My carnation
My school arranged for the Teacher's to go hiking for the afternoon, followed by a BBQ dinner. 

We went hiking on Bulam mountain 불암산 , the dramatic "Buddha-Rock Mountain" near Taereung in NE Seoul, and nearby Guri. It is very steep, and from the distance you can see it's distinctive pyramid-shape.

Bulam mountain or "Buddha-rock mountain" takes it's name from the naturally occurring Buddha-like face, which can be found on the mountain. What do you think? Can you see Buddha?
During our hike, we visited two temples, the Buddha-Rock Temple (Bulam-sa) and the Heavenly Treasure Temple (East Cheonbo-sa). 
Bulam-sa temple
My COT's explained the brightly coloured lanterns are hanging for Buddha's birthday celebration this coming weekend. Buddha's birthday is also known as the festival of lanterns. People write wishes on small paper tags, and hang them from the bottom of these lanterns. Between midnight and sunrise, monks collect all the lanterns and burn all the wish tags. 
Bulam-sa temple

Jenny 1 told me that these statues at Buddha rock temple, represent the various animals signs for the Chinese zodiac horoscope. 

She then showed me my animal sign, and pointed to the horse. I have more of an awareness of western astrology, than I do of Chinese astrology. 

So, I searched google and came across the following:-
Earth Horses are able to see situations from all angles and corners. They are relatively easygoing, preferring to determine each pro and con before making a final decision. Earth Horses work hard to accomplish goals they have set and would rather take longer to do an outstanding job than to work shorter and shave a little quality. They have great senses of humor and are extremely adaptable in most instances.

Language teachers (interesting)
Translators
Journalists
Publicists
Bartenders (previously)
Pilots 
Performers
Librarians
Tour operators
Sales representatives
Information technologists".

From Buddha rock temple (Bulam-sa) we walked up a very steep, windy pathway/stairway towards east Cheonbo-sa (Heavenly treasure temple). This temple is on the high east-facing cliff-slope of Cheonbo-san Heavenly Treasure Mountain, to the south of Bulam-san mountain.
The view from Cheonbo-sa
At east Cheonbo-sa's (Dragon-King Shrine) there were various wall carvings to symbolize and honour key deities.

After hiking, we went for a traditional Korean BBQ. 
Jenny 1 & Jenny 2 - my co-teachers, fellow hikers and dining budies

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Experiencing Royal K-Culture

Last month I attended an educational program at the National Palace Museum of Korea, called 'Experiencing Royal Culture'. This program is designed for Non-Korean English teachers to learn more about Joseon Royal culture. 


The program included four evening sessions with hands-on activities, and a Saturday field trip around the Palace. Unfortunately I couldn't attend this month's Palace field trip because I already had other plans, but I hope to be able to attend another session in the near future. 

Schedule &Program
Lecture themes
Activities
Related galley artifacts
Overview of History and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty
Workshop:
Making Eobo Soap
Royal symbols and records
Palatial Residence
Field trip: Visit to
Changdeokgung palace
Changdeokgung palace architecture
Education &Literary Arts of Joseon Royals
Calligraphy Workshop: Drawing a Picture on the fan
Royal education and scholarly culture
King's calligraphy and seals
Food for the Royals
Cooking Workshop:
Royal meals
Sura-sang
Attires for the King and the Queen
Try-on workshop: Royal attire
Queen's Robe
Ornamental hairpins

If you would like to attend these educational sessions, please see the National Palace Museum of Korea for more information. ※ Lectures are delivered in English.

Program 1: Overview of History and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty

The first session involved a lecture on the history and culture of the Joseon Dynasty, followed by a small tour of selected pieces in the museum. The Josen dynasty was established in 1392, and lasted 519 years under the reign of 27 kings. The country upheld Confucianism as its political ideal. The Kings regimes supported scholarly studies and bought advances in agriculture, astronomy, medicine, as well as literature and arts.

Bogae - ceiling decoration placed above the throne.
Dragons or phoenixes were drawn to mark the King's divinity and authority. In Korean culture dragon's are protective mythological creatures, who bring good fortune. 
Eobo
The Royal seals, which are stamps that were used in place of signatures. Today most Koreans have personal seals. Companies and government agency's have their own seals as these are deemed more formal, although hand signatures are accepted. 
Eobo
After the museum tour, we had our practical soap making session. This was a little messy, but we did manage to cast soap to take home with us. 
Making royal soap
Program 2: Education & Literary Arts of Joseon Royals



The Confucian-oriented Joseon society held intellectuals and academic learning in high esteem. From infancy the King would study diligently his entire life, as such he earned respect as not only a divine ruler but also an authoritative scholar. Academic achievement, and continuous learning is still highly regarded and respected within Korean society today.

Calligraphy of King Heonjong
Kings studied and produced calligraphy using Chinese characters, hanja. 

Writing materials, the brush, the ink stone, ink stick and paper were precious for Joseon scholars who nicknamed them the 'four friends of study'.


Boxes of bamboo sticks containing questions about Confucian texts, which the King's used to study.


King Sejong the Great (r. 1418-1450) created and implemented several successful advancements within the fields of culture and art. Under King Sejong's guidance, scholars at the royal academy created the Korean alphabet Hangeul, a "proper phonetic system to educate the people."

This book contains a collection of Royal caligraphy.

King Sejong also had an interest in astronomical science. Sundials, water clocks, celestial globes and astronomical maps were produced at his request.


Traditionally Koreans believed the placenta of a newborn baby needed to be carefully preserved to ensure the baby would grow up well and be happy. The placenta of a newborn prince or princess was put in a ceramic jar and buried in a stone chamber. 


Our Royal Calligraphy lesson.


Panbonche is the style that is taught to Korean's in elementary school when they first learn to write. 

During our calligraphy lesson we created our own royal scrolls and fans. 
My fan - fireworks or palm trees
I'm not terribly naturally artistically talented, but I loved, loved, loved the calligraphy session. Even though I was coming down with a cold, I found this extremely relaxing and therapeutic. Unfortunately it was a little rushed because we were running out of time, I really want to do more! It reminded me of being in Art class at school, holing myself up in a corner and happily painting/making a mess. 

My Royal calligraphy

Program 3: Food for the Royals



Cooking class
For our third session we prepared and cooked Royal bibimbap. 


Royal bibimbap is a little bit different/special from the usual bibimbap, which just contains vegetables and fruits. Royal bibimbap included beef mince and fish, although I opted to omit them from mine. I'm seriously considering becoming a vegetarian when I leave Korea. Personally, I've eaten enough meat here to last me a lifetime. 
Par-boil 
I was looking forward to learning how to make bibimbap, I thought it would be easy and something I could prepare at home. It's not difficult per-se, more fiddly and time consuming. We were given handouts with  ingredients and cooking instructions, but I'm afraid I seem to have misplaced it already.

My Royal Bibimbap 
Considering you mix it all together to eat it anyway, and bibimbap only costs 5-6000 won to buy in restaurants, personally I think I'll be continuing to do that. 
My Royal Bibimbap, all mixed up and ready to eat.
Tastes good.
Program 4: Attires for the King and the Queen

The final lecture covered traditional royal attire, including a dress-up session.

Triple pendants of the consort of Imperial Prince Yeong
Women's court ceremonial jacket and blue skirt of the consort of Imperial Prince Yeong.

Great ceremonial robe of of the consort of Imperial Prince Yeong.

Quilted socks for children, Joseon dynasty.

Daily wear for the young Prince.

Ceremonial robe for the young Prince.

Cloisonne enamel royal incense burner.

How to wear the Queen's ceremonial robe.
King and Queen's Royal attire.

When we finished the program, we were presented with beautiful certificates, that were stamped with the Royal seal to commemorate our successful completion, and participation in the course.