Thursday, May 27, 2010

Korean Politics

Politicking fever has spread across the whole of the Korean peninsula in anticipation of local and provincial elections. If you expect simple public canvassing and advertisement, remember, this is Korea.

The little blue pickup trucks you normally see selling produce on the side of road have been plastered with portraits, slogans, and packed with women wearing white gloves that, backed by K-synth beats, perform synchronized hand dances while singing songs about their candidate. I've also heard remixes of "If you're happy and you know it," "Yankee Doodle," and something that sounded like the "Hokey Pokey,"that replace those ever-so-familiar lyrics with catchy slogans and the candidate's name.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get the vote out.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Lee invited me to the opening ceremony for a campaign in Goryeong, a town in the province to the north of Daegu. The candidate, Jeong Jae Soo, is the father of Mr. Lee's friend, Mr. Jeong. He works at my bank and I went to the driving range with them once.

The event was held at the headquarters. Loads of people showed up, and you could barely move inside. It should be noted that there was free food.
Feeling lonely in sea of Korean dudes...
A modest portrait on the front of the building, complimented by another modest portrait on the side. With a second look, I decided his pose is Fonz-esque: "ay, come on, vote for me, why not, ay!"
Friends and allies gave these flower arrangements as congratulatory gifts. The larger the display, the larger the expected influence? All the Korean guys, presumably business associates, standing around smoking cast an "organized" air over everything if you catch my drift.

A professional entertainment company MC'd the whole shebang and the woman on the mic would periodically shout things to applause. I made a habit of joining the applause. Mr. Lee thought this was really funny, and because I had no idea what I was clapping for it kinda was.
Shortly before we left, the elder Mr. Jeong made the rounds. I got a picture with him. Once we posed, three other professional photographers appeared to snap pictures. I can see the Korean Glen Beck now:

"Jeong is clearly in the back pocket of sneaky Western influences! Unpatriotic trickery, I say! You know, HITLER was from the West!"

I'm pretty used to loud disturbances from the street below my school, but these campaigns have topped all. In the middle of the busy intersection, candidates have been giving introductory speeches. The guy in the video was so loud it sounded like he was in my classroom even from around the corner and four stories up. I was ready to stick my head out the window and give a shake of the fist. Some people stopped to listen, but for the most part everyone just went about their business.

"So glad this soapbox came with a BLASTING P.A.!" Oh yeah, lime green. Totally your color.

Onward marches the parade of democracy!

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Walk in the Backyard

You may recall from the picture I posted of the mountain range behind my apartment. My neighborhood, Dowon-dong, lies on the southwestern outskirts of Daegu. Beyond, you'll only find peaceful mountains and farmed countryside.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a leisurely stroll up the mountain trail turned into a 4.5 hour hike over the entire range to the neighboring district on the other side. It sounds like a haul, but I saw loads of grandpas and grandmas out there. It's the diet of kimchi and daily/weekly hikes that has Koreans healthy as ever.

Thinking there would be some worthy landscapes I brought my camera along. I sure am glad I did.
This is one of the first views on the mountain nearest my apartment. It only takes about 20 or so minutes to get from my door to here. You can pretty much see all of Daegu. Figuring prominently are the high rises, all of which are apartments. 99% of Koreans live in high rises that are 20+ stories. That stat was not at all factually based, but it seems to be the case. My students often ask about my home in America, and are both shocked and full of envy to hear that I live in a house with two stories that is physically separate from my neighbors and that there is a yard with grass and trees.
If you imagine the mountain range as a big "U," I'm near the middle of the bottom here.
Cheong-ryong-san, 2.5km; Ap-san, 8km; Yong-yeong-sa, 3.7km; Bee-seul-san, 9km; Sam-peel-bong, 1.6km.
This being Korea, you would find an arrow drawn in the dirt leading you down the correct path away from the false side path. Splendid.
The nearest mountain range on the other side is where a came from. I've now made it to the right side of the lower part of the "U."
A look back at where I came from.
I soon made it to the summit of Ap-san, the highest peak in the area at over 700 meters. A Korean family I met took the picture for me.
A look back at where I came from, and a landscape that you can pretty much find Korea-wide.
Here, you can see the reservoir at the base of the range. I basically started from where the base of the mountain meets the water on the far side. It looks way far away, and it was.
Hazy mountain tops.
I slowly made my way down from Apsan hoping I wouldn't end up in a town outside of Daegu. One wrong path could have taken me there, but I was careful to stay oriented. Near the bottom of Ap-san, I came to a much needed spring water station. Wow, was it refreshing.
I had a nice chuckle soon after compliments of the distressed drowning boy illustration. It's troubling how disproportional his right eyebrow is. Really.

"Su-yeong-geum-jee." From context, we can guess it means "NO SWIMMING." See, Korean isn't that hard, is it?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hey, Hey, Hae-in-sa

In the U.S., we have Mother's Day and Father's Day, but in Korea, they combine the two and call it "Parent's Day." Three days before Parent's Day is Children's Day, a holiday that gives Korean children lots of candy, money, and computer games. It's a big week for families. Children's Day fell on a Wednesday and I'm neither a parent nor child, so all I got was the day off. Woo hoo hoo!

The weather here in Daegu went from mild spring-like to summer seemingly overnight, so I thought an outdoor adventure would be fun. I asked one of my coworkers, Kyoung Mi if she wanted to join my adventure on our day of freedom. She suggested we visit one of the largest Buddhist temples in Korea, Hae-in-sa Temple (if you've been paying attention, that's He-in temple Temple). It's pronounced "hey-een-sah."
The gate leading in.
I was relieved to see that I was in an approved "photo zone," one that even allows silly bears dressed as people to partake in photography. Wonderful. I was singing my own version of none other than Kenny Loggins "Danger Zone" while I took this.

Heyyyy-eeeen-saaa's a photo zone! photo zone!
Suave...note the UMass tee. I'm also wearing Australian flag sandals I bought for 3,000won in Busan. Boosh.
Kyoung Mi and I. At least I'm considered tall somewhere in the world.
This was my third temple visit in Korea, and what stood out about this one was the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of 81,258 wooden printing blocks that together, form the world's oldest and most intact Buddhist canon in Chinese script. The blocks are over 1,200 years old. Holy guacamole.
The "TK" earned Hae-in-sa recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site, something Bulgoksa also received and an honor they're very proud of here in Korea.

Unfortunately, the "TK" storage area lies outside of the photo zone! photo zone! Luckily, the guard was totally snoozing so I managed to snap pictures. He woke up eventually and yelled at me, but they can't really get angry with naive foreigners.
Find enlightenment, drink mountain water from ladles, walk through mazes, man temples are where it's at. You are supposed to walk through the maze while praying to Buddha and making wishes. If done properly, the wishes will come true.Beautiful.
The level of detail is amazing. I really love the vibrant colors, and here, I'm a total sucker for Asian landscape paintings.
Another holiday is coming up on May 21st, Buddha's Birthday, so the temple was specially decorated in preparation. Some decorative flower lanterns. I bet they look cool at night...
We set up here for lunch. After walking all those hills and steps, it was a welcome rest. Kyoung Mi packed an awesome picnic!
My lunch. If you look closely, it is meant to look like Bart Simpson. Very cute Kyoung Mi.
Afterward, we went to a creek to make Zen rock statues. I thank Buddha for allowing my rock statue to stand.
Kyoung Mi puts my rock skills to shame. Her wish is totally going to come true.

In visiting Buddhist temples and being amongst monks and devoted pilgrims of the faith, I've felt out of place. It's an unfamiliar environment, adding a deep and spiritual element to the peculiarities I experience every day. I want to give Buddha props. I find Buddhism to be an extremely peaceful and tolerant religion, but I worry about doing it wrong.

This would actually be against the very nature of Buddhist teaching I learned about through Mr. Lee. He bought me "Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake," the Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn.
Seung Sahn was a well known Korean monk that moved to the U.S. and taught at the Cambridge Zen Center in Massachusetts. This brings up an odd connection, because I've been there before, not seeking Enlightenment, but on a bed bug job. In one of the more ironic experiences of my exterminating career, I went three times, called to service by Buddhists, even though the Buddha taught that no living thing should be killed. This goes for the smallest of the earth's creatures, for as a venerable monk once asked: "don't they value their lives just as dearly as you and I do?"

The reality is that bedbugs are awful, maybe the worst pest you can have. I remember having to play pest control professional and psychologist calming people down that had them or thought they did, so I'm not judging, Cambridge Zen Center.

Anyway, Seung Sahn taught that there is no correct manner of practice, it is all about the state of mind you keep. He dismissed the need to have any correct manner, so long as you keep a clean and clear mind. An anecdote about a monk that performed the wrong chants for a particular Buddhist service ends with the moral that the content and tradition isn't important, it is the feeling behind the action. He admitted you can be chanting "Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola," and so long as you do this with respect, conviction, and Zen concentration, you are practicing properly.

You won't find me chanting "Coca-Cola" in a temple anytime soon, but I think Seung Sahn's teaching should ease the self-consciousness I feel visiting these sites.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rafting, ROK Style

A few weekends ago, a group of the Daegu crew met with others in Seoul to embark on yet another super-way-gook-een outdoor adventure: rafting the Donggang River.
"Dong" translates to east and "gang" translates to river, so, like you so often see in Korean English, we have another redundant name, the Eastriver River.

Other examples: Donghwasa Temple, "sa" means temple, thus Donghwatemple Temple; Apsan mountain, "san" means get the idea; the list goes on, and around and around.

From Seoul, we chartered our own bus and rode about 2 hours east to our starting point, 30km (18.5 miles) from our ending point. The whole tour promised to run five hours, so we were in for a full day of it.
Man, my arms got sore. We filled three boats with nine people in each. Above, our boat. The procedure called for us to row together with our Korean guide in back saying 1! 2! during our upstroke and us to respond in chorus 3! 4! with our downstroke. We made some variations of this (an hour in the numbers 1,2,3, and 4 were already getting a bit tired) like "kimchi!" "soju!"

Our guide also tried "USA!" "Washington!" Though the latter never caught on because I was one of only two Americans in the boat. The Canadians started going on about Bush and...ugh...

That passed once everyone started to get colder and hungrier and turned the focus from critiques of neo-conservatism to the plight of our immediate situation.
Compared with the water in Busan, it was CHILLY, but this wasn't surprising for recently thawed mountain water. The "rapids" were few and far between. I'd say around 5% of the river we passed through would be considered "rapids," the rest was pretty calm. This called for a lot of paddling, sometimes into the wind. The first half of the day got tough, but there were many bottles of soju floating around at lunch that lifted spirits significantly.
We had just finished the last of our post-lunch stop soju ration of 3 bottles. Enthusiasm at an all time high.

The highlight of the day was a stop we had on an isolated beach around a bend.
Credit to Tim for the wonderfully panoramic view. My apologies these images are all low-res, I took them from Facebook.

From the beach stop, we encountered some beautifully serene landscapes:
A virgin beach lies undisturbed by soju-fueled hooligans, at least for today.
Setting off into the great beyond...