버머사 (Beomeosa Temple)

First, I met John Wayne.

John Wayne, park greeter.

John Wayne, park greeter.


The worshipers in the main hall (대응전 “Deunjeon”) perform this periodic movement wherein they circle their open palms together just over their eyes, then bow with palms still together descending toward their chest until they kneel and touch forehead to the floor (or mat) with hands on either side cupped pointing upward. They lift their hands first as they rise again to standing as if washing ether over the back of their head. Some count long strands of beads.

They chant almost hypnotically. It’s hard not to be just enthralled by the steady rhythm of the wood block and the soft but consuming modulations of the monk mixing with the voices of the worshipers. It reminded me of soft songs in church– there is no bombast to this music, no high-rising passions. One gets lost in this sound, neither quiet nor loud, but so persistent as to become invisible. I cannot help but think this is difference is by design.


  • Writing wishes or prayers on the black roof tiles. I don’t know what ends up happening to the tiles, but the monks sell the patrons opportunities to write on them in chalk, but the tiles remain in the temple.


  • I sat and studied the buildings for an hour. My own kind of meditation, I paid very close attention to the intricate geometries of the painted patterns on the outer temple walls. Nothing like the Celtic or Nordic geometries of Europe, these were far more organic. Less strictly regular and reliant on color and a particular kind of painterly technique to realize them. I made note of the color palate: a deep jungle green, light-blue radiant teal, deep sapphire ocean blue, rich buttercup yellow, dried blood red– almost maroon, soft clay peach, white and black.



  • I could not for the life of me follow how the underside of the roofs laced together. All those pieces of wood meet and fit elegantly and intricately in a geometry I do not understand.
  • The full-life carvings keep the same stylized silhouettes and form of their painted counterparts. They look almost cartoonish.
  • Ivy and wisteria vines grow on and over the outer walls. These walls vanish into the mountain side where rocks and gardens have been placed at the back of the temples to mark the interior of the space. There are no vines or rocks inside the temple. It is a clean, neat, ordered space within, but surrounded so tightly by (an albeit cultivated) Nature that the temple resembles a blossom in the forest: bright colors, regular geometry, cleared space. In this human bloom, the themes of nature play a clear role on every scale of the design– from the paintings on the walls, to the building materials, to the shapes of the structures, to the stories and messages of the temple, to the music and experiences of the worshipers. It all seems to depict human kind and the temple as being irrevocably a product of the universe in a self-aggrandizingly central way but also one that emphasizes peace, harmony and contemplation. This is — to my mind — exemplary of elegance. In all levels of the design of the experience, without knowing but a little bit of context or the language, the visual-musical-spacial-temporal arrangement of the temple and its activities represents the verbal-conceptual philosophy on the nature of Nature and our place in it.


  • I think I would like many things about this lifestyle. Lots of time to study and meditate so as to improve my ability to teach wisdom in addition to content, virtue in addition to codas. It’s a life — as I imagine it — of which the ultimate purpose is to give aid and council to others: to be a place to go in times of need. The idea of maintaining the grounds and the order of the institution upon those grounds while serving to improve or repair its facilities/vision where necessary– there is something both monastic and also camp-like about this. Especially in the ways that the temple’s upkeep, aesthetic and ceremony are a kind of performance art for the visitors from the ritual to the gardening. It’s a designed experience that grows out of a collective vision of a culture of men and women (there are nuns here, too) who have united this performance with their lives. I could love spending the seasons preparing the food, arranging the grounds, studying the history and lore of a culture that I am most intimately a living participant. These monks and nuns and priests participate in not only tradition-for-its-own-sake, but in the process of living as shaped by a history of experiences of which they are inheriting benefactors. In so many ways, that idea reminds me of my most beloved experiences working at PMI, and it’s something I think that industrialized cultures– even Korean culture– have sacrificed for convenience and liberty.
Categories: Cultural Sites, Korea, Travel | Leave a comment

Things I Miss About Korea (part 2)

<<<<<<Part 1

9. Public Exercise Equipment

Public exercise equipment in Ulsan Grand Park overlooking the city and the river.

(Click to enlarge) Public exercise equipment in Ulsan Grand Park overlooking the city and the river.

I just love that it’s everywhere. There are gyms with more involved equipment like weight machines and treadmills, but lots of people just use the public equipment that’s all over in all the public spaces.

My landlord and I used to go running in the hills on Dong-gu’s west ridge and work out on the equipment there.

It was a solid workout using mostly leverage and body weight, and since Koreans sweat so little, the equipment stayed clean.

Lots of fun. Very convenient. Wish I saw this here.


10. Neat ideas you can’t find in America

Korean Moving Trucks:

Elevator buttons that de-select floors when you push them twice.

Universal Key Fob or Transport Cards that can be re-filled with cash at any convenience store on almost every block in the country, and which will pay for buses, trains, subways, ferries, taxis… pretty much everything except for an airplane… just by holding it up to a scanner. **Boop!** And now get on the bus.

11. The Ship Yard

The Hyundai ship yard where major freight ships are built every month. This photo was taken from a rooftop two blocks from my apartment.

The Hyundai ship yard where major freight ships are built every month. This photo was taken from a rooftop two blocks from my apartment.

Hyundai pretty much owns the Ulsan, and Dong-gu* is its seat of power. Living next to the ship yard was an incredible opportunity to meet people who came from all over the world to have their ships built in Korea. I met Korean welders, Turkish engineers, Korean engineers and tutored a woman who worked as a managerial assistant. It was a feast for the eyes and ears, and kept my little out-of-the-way neighborhood interesting. I miss going for a run along its long roads built for colossal machinery. I miss watching the cranes, taller than the tallest buildings in Dong-gu, lift ships out of the water and roll along tracks many city blocks long.

12. Ubiquitous public transportation


Kkotbawai bus terminal in Dong-gu, a block from my apartment. This was where I caught the bus almost every day, everywhere I went.

Kkotbawai bus terminal in Dong-gu, a block from my apartment. This was where I caught the bus almost every day, everywhere I went.

I got very used to not needing to drive anywhere. The cost of using the bus system was less than insurance + inspection + upkeep + gas for my vehicle, and because so many other people relied on it, it was well maintained, clean and convenient. It was also nice being able to read when I moved around. Now that I’m in the States again, I spend a TON of time listening to the radio, wishing I could just sit back with a magazine or book while I careened madly from place to place without safety restraint… elderly Korean women giving me suspicious looks when they weren’t crashing into me during the bus’s 0-60 take off and 60-0 screeching halts.

13. Bowing

An art installation erected by Ulsan University on the bridge across the Taehwagang River (태화강대공).

An art installation erected by Ulsan University on the bridge across the Taehwagang River (태화강대공).

There was something comforting about the commonness of bowing. It would be a very strange thing to do here in the USA, but I still feel inclined to bow to my co-workers when I see them in the halls of my school. When I see an older person, or approach my boss, something feels right about giving a sign of respect… a symbol that acknowledges the power structure that exists in these interactions that our US sensibilities require us to pretend is not there. It sets the stage for what comes next: this is who I am to you, this is who you are to me– let’s be honest about this and respectful of one another.

14. Mountains that shot up into the air without warning

Autumn colors on Sinbulsan, one of the mountain peaks in the Ganji Alps west of Ulsan, and one of Ulsan's actually wonderful "11 wonders."

Autumn colors on Sinbulsan, one of the mountain peaks in the Ganji Alps west of Ulsan, and one of Ulsan’s actually wonderful “11 wonders.”

I have been told, and intend to find out for myself that even in America mountains just jump out of the flat earth and rise many hundreds of meters or more into the sky in rocky, barefaced triangular peaks. I’ve been hiking in the Appalachian Mountains since I can remember, but I’d never seen mountains the way that children draw them until I moved to Korea.

15. Traditional architecture and aesthetic of Buddhist temples, pagodas, etc.

(Click to Enlarge) One of the buildings at Jogyesa Temple, the Beomjongru (Brahma Bell Pavilion), which houses the  four instruments played before morning and evening chanting: the Brahma Bell, Dharma Drum, Cloud Gong and Wooden Fish.

(Click to Enlarge) One of the buildings at Jogyesa Temple, the Beomjongru (Brahma Bell Pavilion), which houses the four instruments played before morning and evening chanting: the Brahma Bell, Dharma Drum, Cloud Gong and Wooden Fish.

I have written about this before, and I’ll write about this again. Buddhist architecture is one of the most visually stimulating experiences I’ve had in Asia. I love the aesthetic and craft of these structures, the symbolism and ritual function of their design. I love how whether in China or Korea, a clear family resemblance stands out, but even in different places in Korea subtle differences highlighted differences in philosophy and resources. Even little pagodas at the tops of mountains bore the characteristics of these traditions, which are older than the current nation and culture. It is the most obvious doorway into the long history at the heart of Korea.


16. Starting work at 9 a.m. and ending it at 5 p.m.


This year, my American school day begins at 7:15 a.m. In Korea, all school days begin at 9 a.m. just like most work. Teachers there say that research shows it’s better for children to sleep in the mornings, and also it’s more convenient for parents to see their kids off to school when they leave for work not before or after. For elementary schools, classes will go until 3:30 or so, depending on the grade. Then teachers will stay until 5 p.m. (and no later!) to grade and make plans.

For secondary schools, students stay later, with the highest grades staying as late as 10-11 p.m. So that’s insane. In Korea, I got into the healthy habit of waking up at 6:15, taking an hour for breakfast and reading. Spending another hour writing, and getting ready to leave. Taking the bus to work, and making it to my desk early. I’d come home by 5:30, make dinner, go out or stay in and enjoy my evening with no take-home work, then go to bed by 10:30-11 p.m. and start again. It was the healthiest my sleep schedule has ever been, and being back in the USA is ruining it.

17. 막걸리 (Makgeolli “magk-goh-li”)

18. The people

Of the things I miss most of all were all the people I met– fellow waygooks and Koreans alike.

Our Fall 2013 EPIK intermediate Korean class with teacher Seong Hee Kim front and center.

Our Fall 2013 EPIK intermediate Korean class with teacher Seong Hee Kim front and center.

Friend and co-worker So Jin and I enjoying Shabu-Shabu

Friend and co-worker So Jin and I enjoying Shabu-Shabu

My friend Dom, whom I met on a bus back from the lantern festival.

My friend Dom, whom I met on a bus back from the lantern festival.

Eun Joung Lee, the kindergarden teacher at Yangji with whom I shared many meals.

Eun Joung Lee, the kindergarden teacher at Yangji with whom I shared many meals.

myself and Brian dressed in traditional hanbok in Daegu.

myself and Brian dressed in traditional hanbok in Daegu.

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Miki Miyako and Jade Choi, husband-and-wife co-owners of Burger Mugger: the best burgers in Ulsan

Miki Miyako and Jade Choi, husband-and-wife co-owners of Burger Mugger: the best burgers in Ulsan

5-6 grade field trip to the Ulsan History Museum, summer English camp 2014

5-6 grade field trip to the Ulsan History Museum, summer English camp 2014

2Lt Josh Beardsley, U.S. Army stationed at Camp Casey and I standing in front of Gyeonghuigung palace in Seoul

2Lt Josh Beardsley, U.S. Army stationed at Camp Casey and I standing in front of Gyeonghuigung palace in Seoul

(clockwise from far left) Jessie Robie, Megan McCraw, Tony Nicholson, Trudy Fegan, Tyson Pennypacker, Allysa Bolzon

(clockwise from far left) Jessie Robie, Megan McCraw, Tony Nicholson, Trudy Fegan, Tyson Pennypacker, Allysa Bolzon

(clockwise from bottom left) Kevin Stofocik, Brian Dutremble, Simon Gemmell, me, Michael Drew, Chasity St.Lewis, Connor Dunn, Emily De Celles, Tamsyn Gemmell, Liz Stopka, Roy Garcia

(clockwise from bottom left) Kevin Stofocik, Brian Dutremble, Simon Gemmell, me, Michael Drew, Chasity St.Lewis, Connor Dunn, Emily De Celles, Tamsyn Gemmell, Liz Stopka, Roy Garcia

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

I am not exactly one to believe in an all powerful purpose for life, and I kind of wander aimlessly (as I believe most of our generation does) somewhere between idealism and nihilism. As a fellow international traveler, I think we can all agree that we don’t really belong to any one place. And it’s fantastic to float freely, un-tethered in the stream with you. Before I go, I at least want to have it known that of those cliches that happen to be true, one of the true ones is that it doesn’t matter what you earn, it doesn’t matter what you do or what you see (or how many times you go to the Jindo sea crossing, because, honestly, it sucked)… It matters who you know and how you know them in the time that you have. And I would like to, at least for myself, but I think I speak for others as well, thank you for the year that I have to make this life one not worth regretting.


*the eastern district of Ulsan, comprising the peninsula between the Taehwagang River and the East Sea (aka “Sea of Japan,” which is not called that in Korea for obvious reasons)

Categories: Korea, Travel | Leave a comment

The Things I Miss About Korea (part 1)

1. Typical Korean Pizza Toppings:

001 pizzaToppings I’ve had include…

  • tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, peperoni, slices of chicken, BBQ sauce, onion, basil and corn
  • BBQ sauce, mozzarella cheese, onion, bacon, wedges of yellow sweet potato, honey mustard drizzled on top and corn
  • BBQ sauce, mozzarella and cheddar cheese, onion, chunks of pumpkin and corn

2. Movie Theaters

2 movie snacks

I found four kinds of popcorn: cheesy garlic, candy, onion, and original. The cheesy garlic was way too sweet and made my fingers grossly sticky. Onion flavor was still weirdly sweet, but the powder brushed off easily. Candy and original were pretty much what we have in the USA.

Fried butter squid and dried fish/crab are as popular as theater snacks as popcorn. Mostly I saw movies with 소진, who hated original-flavored popcorn, but my experience of Korean dining has taught me that she is not the rare Korean avoiding salty food. The squid is most akin to slightly fishy rubber swimming in melted butter.

Apparently, you’re allowed to bring in your own food… I never saw that stated explicitly anywhere, but I also didn’t see it explicitly prohibited either. Lots of people brought in their own snacks for a movie, and ate them in plain sight of theater employees.

4-D Movies. The major theaters in Ulsan (that is 3 out of the 4 theaters in a city of 1.1 million people) had so-called 4-D theaters, which brought interactive seat effects to 3D movies. These theaters only have 68 seats, which move and expel air and sometimes spurt small drops of water during the movie to correspond with the events on the screen. It’s a much smaller theater, also equipped with lights on the walls and ceiling that flash brightly during scenes with explosions or thunder.

Putting aside the distraction of 3D, it’s a really immersing experience. I saw “Planet of the Apes,” in 4-D. Swinging through the trees with the apes and feeling the rain on my face during the opening scene was awesome… even if I couldn’t understand the first 30 minutes while the apes communicated exclusively in sign language, which had been close captioned in Korean only.

Other interesting Korean theater tidbits include…

  • 3-D glasses available outside the theaters in a variety of styles and shapes for the discerning moviegoer. These are not recycled… just thrown away at the end of the movie.
  • The projectionist waits until most of the sold seats are full before starting the movie. That blows my mind. They wait to start a movie if not enough people have showed up on time.
  • Ads running before the main show include ones for plastic surgery, vitamin drinks, phone/tablet games, the movie I came there to watch, vacations to China and Indonesia, colored contact lenses, Google, Naver, Nikon and Canon DSLRs, and cellphones (SO MANY cell phones!)

3. “Koreanisms”


Most people have at least some knowledge of English, especially now that English education is mandatory throughout the country. There are so many English cognates in Korean now that the English spoken there has started picking up its own dialect full of quirky turns of phrase. There were too many uniquely Korean English phrases to list, but my favorites include…

  • “Fighting!” (just like in English): it means “go!” “yay!” [cheer!] “you can do it!” It’s what they yell at you when you’re about to take a big test or serve in volleyball or … do anything where they wish you to succeed. It means “Try hard. I’m rooting for you.”
  • eye shopping = window shopping
  • cooker = chef
  • punctual as the clock = on time
  • saying “dominate” instead of “donate” (Mostly by accident, I think)
  • take a rest (as in, “You don’t look well. Will you go home to take a rest?”)

4. PC 방 (pronounced pea-she-bahng)

3 pc bang

Pretty much everywhere in Korea has a strong wifi connection. The internet is the fastest in the world— far faster than in the States. They also have one of the globe’s most devoted videogame cultures. So, if you’re a young gamer looking to be vaguely social and away from parents, look no farther than your block’s PC방! A dimly lit room full of comfortable chairs, big-screened gaming PCs with “air-con” (Korean for “air conditioning”), headphones and a snack bar awaits you in pretty much every neighborhood. There were 2 within 2 blocks of my apartment in the industrial area in the self-proclaimed boondocks of the city.

Not being much of a gamer myself anymore, I mostly paid a buck to borrow a PC for a few minutes if I got lost in the city in lieu of buying a smartphone.

5. 노레방 (nor-ray-bahng) AKA: singing rooms

Love Karaoke? No? Well that’s tough! Cause guess what’s the more popular than movies, sports or sobriety…

5 norebang

Also, do not make the mistake of calling this disco-lit, claustrophobic, alcohol-soked, singing-from-a-TV-displayed-lyrics room a “karaoke” room– that’s Japanese! Totally different from the much nicer, Korean disco-lit, claustrophobic, soju-soaked, singing-from-a-TV-displayed-lyrics room known as “norebang.” They have many English songs, but by no means a comprehensive list and the universal book of songs lists all tracks alphabetically by song title, not by artist.

6. The food

The head chef seen here chopping up an enormous tuna's head. In his left hand, he holds the fish's frozen eyeball, which he then cut up and boiled in soju (alcohol)  and served everyone the ensuing thick, salty lumpy mixture -- "for man's vitality," my co-workers explained. The woman on the far right was my principal. The table is set with delicious tuna meat.

The head chef seen here chopping up an enormous tuna’s head. In his left hand, he holds the fish’s frozen eyeball, which he then cut up and boiled in soju (alcohol) and served everyone the ensuing thick, salty lumpy mixture — “for man’s vitality,” my co-workers explained. The woman on the far right was my principal. The table is set with delicious tuna meat.

There was so much good food in Korea, I couldn’t begin to tell you about it all. From Korea-French fusion on mine and Sarah’s anniversary to the traditional tuna dinner to the countless stews and fish dishes… I never ate so much or so happily as I did in Korea, yet somehow came back minus 15 pounds.

Shabu-Shabu: If I had to pick a favorite, this would be it. Take a wok full of oil, and set it over a gas burner set into the table. Chop of veggies and thin slices of meat, let boil and stew in the oil. Remove and wrap in transparent rice tortillas dipped in hot lemon water to make them skin-like. Add sauces and more veggies. Eat. Repeat until the oil/meat/vegetable stew is mostly broth. Add eggs, rice and spices until you have a thick, savory porridge. Clean the wok.

Korean Barbecue (most commonly bulgogi): This one’s no secret. Korean BBQ places are popping up all over the USA, and with good reason. Although, I say if there’s no fire at the center of your table, you’re doing it wrong.

Kimchi: I’ve talked about Kimchi and school lunches before, but I have to reiterate it here. Kimchi is great. It is something that I like, and eating it almost every day for a year has given me cravings these last few months. It is grossly hipster, but I don’t care! I want my spicy rotten cabbage!

Chicken & Hoff: A very popular type of restaurant. Pitcher of beer (hof)? Check. Buckets of fried chicken with dipping sauces? Check. Done. List over. No further explanation required.

7. The food again

My meal at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan

My meal at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan

Really. You have no idea. Always so good. Always so affordable. No tipping in Korea.

Living by the ocean, near a major fish market… everything was always fresh.

It was much less common than over here, but since there’s a fairly sizable Indian and Chinese population living in Korea, foods from those cultures were available, too.

And then there’s Burger Mugger. The BEST burger place in Ulsan.

Oh! And Kimbap! Kimbap, which saved me from starving on bus rides and in airports, in “tak-shi” (taxi cabs) and drowsy near-mornings on the curbside under GS25 or CU convenience stores. Kimbap was always there to fill me up and keep me going– the sandwich of Korean cuisine, the economy version of a sushi roll, that proud staple of eat-on-the-go citizens of the world. I’ll never forget you, kimbap!


8. Korean Pool Halls


I never learned the game very well, but I did like the atmosphere of the pool rooms. (Not the literal atmosphere, which was filled with cigarette smoke, though.)

 Part 2 >>>>>>

Categories: Korea, Travel | Leave a comment

Down the Rabbit Hole

In which the author speaks of many things including himself, things he likes, the lack of emotion in books, and other news

It’s spring break for me, and I have the uncontrollable need to sleep.

This is troubling as a symptom of larger concerns about how I’m spending the hours of my life.

For one thing, I am looking into Roth IRAs and other retirement-related preparations, which gives all my thoughts of the future a woeful and anxious tinge. I would much rather sleep than have to consider the central questions of retirement: how long do I think I’m going to live and what quality of life can/should I decide for that?


So when I’ve not been sleeping, I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole that is The Internet… getting sucked away into its ever-branching trees of thought. Today, I followed this flowchart of distraction:

  • YouTube subscriptions  -> Idea Chanel’s “How Does Steven Universe Expand Our Ideas of Family?
  • The weekly thought-vlog’s viewer-submitted “Tweet of the Week” linked to an article on Nintendo and storytelling in the Paris Review.
  • At the bottom of the article, I was told that “You might also enjoy” another Paris Review column titled intriguingly “Our Books Lack Feelings, and Other News.”
  • …which article turned out to brief five articles from five other sources, nominally “Books are Becoming Less and Less Emotional” on The Wire from The Atlantic.
  • …which was itself an article devoted to briefing this-time-only-four articles, siting PLOS ONE as the origin of the nominal story, except the link led to an article in EurekAlert! (“The Global Source for Science News”) which ended with the disclaimer: “AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.”
  • But at least the EurekAlert! article finally mentioned the lead author in the research study from which all this news was generated, so I was able to Google the original PLOS One research paper, “The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books,” which I read until my brain couldn’t handle the archeo-/anthropological scientific jargon anymore.

All of which might be said to sum up to: yeah, looks like* books in English have grown less focused on emotion in the past century. That’s neat, and I believe it reflects reality.

I am divided about how to view this rabbit hole experience:

  1. On the one hand, it has been such a time investment for so little return. YouTube, generally, has become more like an addiction in recent years. I never realized how much time I spent on it until I returned to America (and socializing regularly) and found out from contrast just how many hours I had grown used to being on the internet following trails like this. Am I ever going to need this information? Almost certainly, no! Does it stack up to my other priorities for life experiences, especially with retirement (and death) being ever more on my mind? Also, no. Then again…
  2. On the two hand, this habit is most commonly where I get my “fun facts to know and share.” This is how I educate myself about world events, science, linguistics, philosophy, etc. My big life-long goal of being a constant learner, a multifaceted reader, or (when I’m feeling conceited) a Renaissance intellectual– these pursuits are well fed by my reading/viewing habits online. No, today’s foray didn’t turn up something moving or life-changing, but there are many other examples where this has improved my life by expanding my mind (one might say education) into realms I otherwise would not have met**. A few dud days are worth the winners***.

Which brings me here.

Because all that time reading, listening and watching have left me and my precious little free time few minutes left over for writing. And why should I anyway? I mean, this whole travelogue is largely for me– not that I’m doing much traveling these days (wait until this summer), and not that I’m keeping up with the traveling I have done. It, like everything between now and when I turn 75 seems hopelessly futile sometimes.

Then again, not.

I don’t know how long I’m going to live, and  have only theoretical control over the quality of that life, but I know what I like and I know how to focus my attention to appreciate what I have.

I like learning about… well… everything.

I like sleeping and dreaming.

I like sharing my thoughts and discoveries, and opening those up to discussion and criticism.

I am lucky to enjoy and desire SO MANY THINGS!**** These desires are mine. They direct my life, to some degree stand outside my control, fill me with the sorrow of onism. In a sense, they are the very referent of what I mean when I name “myself.” Yet paradoxically they are the things, by definition, which I do not have– the things I am not, or at best I am not yet.

And this is one last thing that I enjoy. I enjoy the rabbit hole; I enjoy the ways that idle time-wasting leads me warrenously from article to study to thought to expression and meditation– how I find, without directive, the flow of my mind slanting ever seaward through the forests toward the ocean.

This is itself a kind of travel, and maybe the only kind with which I am truly concerned.

* (based on huge data set derived from complicated methodology involving language-reading algorithms and the digitized, nearing-universal library of Google Books)
** See The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, (discovered via another YouTube subscription) which — like Lewis Carroll’s wordplay or Douglas Adams’s The Meaning of Liff breathes fresh life into the very idea of words. However, unlike those two, the DOS lyrically explores resonant human experiences and gives them names. The author, John Koenig, has helped me better convey my own inner life. “We give names to things so we can talk about them,” he wrote. “Once there’s a word for an experience, it feels contained somehow– and the container has a handle, which makes it much easier to pass around.”
*** See also, pretty much everything I get from podcasts of various kinds. Most recently, listening to the archives of the wonderful Radiolab, host Jad Abumrad exposed me to a fantastic new universe of music through his profile of composer John Luther Adams. Listening to the Seattle Symphony’s YouTube version of Adams’s unfathomable “Become Ocean,” the website’s recommendations led me to other admirable artists as Takashi Yoshimatsu and Phillip Glass whose music has brought me lasting pleasure and a foothold toward my inward encounters.
**** … to name a few…  be a responsible adult, be involved in the lives of my friends, keep up regular correspondence, capture and create memories with my family, read voraciously from both contemporary and classical sources, be a mentor, create works of art and craft, learn to play music, appreciate the arts, patronize the arts, explore the physical world, build muscle and flexibility, travel, make new friends, try new things, increase my vocabulary, devote serious time to the study of ethics and philosophy, learn more languages, study from every field of learning and share what is worthwhile, write books, write short stories, write a blog, write, succeed as a teacher, achieve professional success, practice mindfulness, minimize injustice/destruction/senselessness insofar as I can…

Categories: America, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

All of the Colors

The crowds of the Holi Hai festival-- February 2014.

The crowds of the Holi Hai festival– February 2014.


My motivations for going to Holi Hai festival back in February in Busan were to get out of my house for once. Despite what you may read here, I spend most weekends doing very little to my own disappointment (although my bank account is happier for it).

As you may already know, Holi is a Hindu tradition most popular in India and Nepal, used for marking the start of spring. It is hosted by Indian people or descendants of Indians living in Korea for anyone who wants to come and celebrate life and culture. When I heard about it, I was attracted to the idea of throwing colors and paint and eating Indian food.

I did not learn about Holi beforehand. I did not know if anyone else I knew would be there, although I did meet a few. Honestly, I didn’t even know there was a significant Indian population living in Korea that weren’t there to teach English. (It’s true! And they put on this festival every year in various cities in part to give them a reason to gather.)

Korea is no melting pot, nor is it exactly trying to be. Fine. Be what you are, I say. But while I watched crowds of Korean beach-goers and kite fliers keep their distance from the color-flinging, music-thumping celebration, I couldn’t also help but notice that within the ringed vacuum left in the cultural distance between Indian celebration and Korean reserve… most of the people under all that paint were Westerners.

So, rather than give you a blow-by-blow about Holi Hai in Korea (which really wasn’t all that spectacular as an event despite the fact that I really enjoyed my day), I’m going to address this recently talked about phenomenon of “Columbusing.” If you don’t make a habit of following my hyperlinks, “Columbusing” is kind of a negative way of describing appropriation of traditional markers of culture by white people who do not share in that culture.

The most common complaints I’ve come across are the recent trend in “hot pies” (which many claim are just empanadas) and the Holi Hai festival. The complaint seems to be not so much that tons of white people love to visit Holi Hai festivals (yep, that’s me; I had a good time) but that they use the color throwing, paint-covering element of the festival in things like color runs.

I am told that this “can feel like theft” to members of a particular culture when Western mainstream people re-brand and re-contextualize symbols of one’s culture. And I can understand how that feels “icky.” It reminds me of how, when I was younger it always seemed like my sister was taking on my activities/interests and finding her way into my circle of friends. It felt like someone else was making my thing less special by doing it and calling it their own.

But I also can see how taking things like the paint throwing or a traditional recipe and giving it a new name and just calling it “new” when it’s only new to you seems to give off this attitude that “We think your things are trendy, but you are not.”

I do wonder, though, what we (somebody?) are expected to do about color runs and “hand pies.” I can’t see anything wrong or dishonest about re-branding a food product and popularizing it. (Not that there is a shortage of white people recommending recipes by the true name.) The USA has a long and cholesterol-ridden history of doing just this, and we’re not the only ones. Korea has certainly taken the hot dog and the pizza (“pe-ja”) and made it their own thing.

So while I sympathize with the feelings of those who grew up eating empanadas and now feel that their culture has been in some way violated, perhaps a focus on the deeper problem would be a more worth-while use of effort.

Instead of getting bogged down in whether or not color runs should acknowledge inspiration to the Holi Hai or attempt to associate their distinct mission and experience with that specific holiday of a culture the event does not purport to belong to … we should maybe ask “Why aren’t Indians and Latinas as trendy as throwing colored paint and eating stuffed bread pastries? . . . and should they be, trendy that is?”

And it’s a question I have neither the insight nor time to go into at this time.

In the meantime, though, trends will come and go. The empanada and the Holi celebration will remain as they have for centuries. When I think about the Holi festival of colors and its themes of celebrating life, encountering new people, mending broken bridges and reveling genuinely without inhibition, I do not find it diminished by using its lovely colors in other contexts or by crowds of outsiders coming to join the fun and maybe finding in it something meaningful in their own way.

The world does not rise and fall on what Westerners find trendy.

Thumbs up for colorful beach fun with friends and Indian food.

Thumbs up for colorful beach fun with friends and Indian food.

Categories: Culture, Korea, Travel | 1 Comment

The Oracle

My guide leads me to the door. She can only show it to me, I must choose to go in. But as I reach for the handle, it slides away, the door has opened for me, and I step into a small apartment I had not expected to see.

When my guide told me that she was taking me to see the Oracle, I was skeptical at first.

Me: “She knows what, everything?”

Mentor: “She would say she knows enough.”

Me: “And she’s never wrong.”

Mentor: “Try not to think of it in terms of right and wrong. She is a guide, Justin. She can help you find the path.”

Me: “She helped you?”

Mentor: “Yes.”

Me: “What did she tell you?”

Mentor: “That I would find a husband.”

She smiled, knowingly as if to say, “You’ll see.” Our vehicle as it drove by the people and buildings. “Hey!” I noted, somewhat amazed at how real everything still looked, “I used to eat there… really good noodles.”

We arrived at the dilapidated building, and walked around to the back entrance. An old ajuma glowered at us in the kindly way beneath her visor, then bowed. As we took off our shoes in the antechamber, I was struck by how… ordinary it all seemed. I was expecting… actually I don’t know what I was expecting. Not this… living room of someone’s aunt.

The Oracle: “I know, you’re an English teacher. Be right with you.”

She was not quite what I was expecting.

She was not quite what I was expecting, was she?



Yes, this is an elaborate joke about The Matrix.

But seriously, this is a parallel experience. I had asked my Korean language teacher about fortune tellers. I had read about Korean fortune tellers online, and talked to another foreigner who’d been to see one. I had this idea in my head of at least the appearance of mysticism, which was just … not … what was the case here.

Let me back up.

I was only sort of roped into going to see a fortune teller (nobody calls them “oracles” that was a flourish of my metaphor). I had heard about how important they are in Korean society, and wanted to see for myself just what exactly held the people in such thrall.

Fortune telling begins at an early age, and continues throughout one’s life. The tradition goes back to ancient beliefs called Saju– the four pillars of destiny.

I’ll admit to making certain cultural assumptions. The presence of internet culture, the latest (or better) technology than the US, modern industry and a liberalizing youth all gave me to think that in the ways Korea was becoming like my own culture, they would also adopt my culture’s skepticism toward mysticism and future-prediction.

My experience is not the only one like this. Some foreigners have gone to see for themselves and been given card readings. There are a variety of tools from sticks to Chinese characters to the I-Ching. Other ex-pats report that newspapers will consult renown fortune tellers during election season to report on the fortune teller’s predictions about a given candidate.

A couple with a young baby visiting a fortuneteller in his  "tent" near Ilsan beach. He's reading out of a set of black books. That's his van with the hatch open behind the stand.

A couple with a young baby visiting a fortuneteller in his “tent” near Ilsan beach. He’s reading out of a set of black books. That’s his van with the hatch open behind the stand.

Some say that people take fortune tellers less seriously, maintaining the traditions (and cost apparently) of shamanism without believing it to be more than a kind of entertainment. Nonetheless, people change their names because of advice fortune tellers give. People decide who to marry and when based on the advice of otherwise known “destiny philosophers.” They take career advice. Fortune tellers occupy a significant and evolving role in the economy. Even Reuters reports that parents widely seek advice about their children’s academic futures, and take the advice very seriously. There is even a “peak season” of fortune telling around December-January.

Whether or not there is power in the dates of one’s birth to alter a person’s future, the fact that Koreans believe in such a power certainly changes their destinies.

That Korean language teacher I mentioned consulted a fortune teller about whether to have a baby with her new husband or invest more in her education and become a professor. She told my class that she was really divided, because she could only afford one, but didn’t know which was more important to her. The fortune teller helped her to decide by advising her to have a baby, which she has since decided to do. She withdrew her applications to universities not long after that.

I asked her to describe the ceremony. She said that one goes into a tent and it’s kind of dark and there is incense. The fortune teller asks about birth dates and times, consults a chart, and begins to channel a spirit. Most of the time, my teacher said, they speak with a squeaky baby voice, because they are channeling the spirit of a person who died in childhood to understand the future.

It all seemed very ceremonial, and I wanted to see for myself what it came out to.

 Back to our story…

The exterior of the apartment where our fortune teller works and lives.

The exterior of the apartment where our fortune teller works and lives.

So the much-anticipated disappointment to this legacy turned out to be a woman in her mid-30s to mid-40s (it’s hard to say with Koreans) dressed in a sparkling over-sized t-shirt that read (in the vein of a recent trend) “Keep Calm and Wish Happy.”

IMAG0410We walked through her living room, complete with couches, coffee table, TV, etc. I could see through an open door into her kitchen, which shared a wall with the bathroom. Her sleeping mat was folded up neatly in a corner next to a potted plant. There were dishes in the sink. She greeted us in jean shorts and ushered us into a little side room with what resembled an alter covered in Buddhist candles and crepe paper hanging lanterns beside a table stacked high with junk food abutting a shelf covered in herbs and roots in jars of liquid. Paintings of the Buddha and of mythological figures and (what I assume were) print-outs of celestial drawings from the internet.

IMAG0412I counted at least 3 달마도 paintings in the apartment.

She didn’t mind that I took videos or pictures. My co-teacher/guide explained that I was curious about the customs and practices. It wasn’t like looking behind the magician’s curtain; she was very upfront about what she was doing and even explained to me a little of what was going on.

So here’s what she did to read my fortune (or, if you’d prefer, philosophize about my destiny):

  • IMAG0411She asked me the time, and date of my birth.
  • She consulted a big black ledger full of charts written in Korean.
  • She wrote down some notes on a piece of scrap paper from a pile of papers with fuzzy or only half-printed documents on the back. All of the paper looked like it came from an office recycle bin, but it was staked very neatly.
  • On another paper, she scattered some of the grains of rice from a nearby bowl (she let me touch these… there was nothing magical about them by either of our observations), sorted them quickly using only a finger or two, then swept them all aside and eventually back into the bowl.
  • And then I asked her questions, she consulted the rice, and told me my future in vague or distant terms.
  • The she did the same for my co-teacher.
  • That was it. She didn’t even light any of the incense.
  • There was some talk early on that maybe the Korean tradition couldn’t predict things that happen to me in America, since in America there are other traditions governing our fates (the zodiac, etc.). This didn’t stop her from making such predictions, however.

The Response:

I (being me) took lots of notes. The Fortune Teller remarked that I looked bored, and I (through translation) explained that I just couldn’t understand Korean well enough. But I really was bored.

My co-teacher was impressed that she knew I was a foreigner teacher before she even talked to me, but that seemed rather obvious: I’d come with someone she already knew was a teacher & I clearly didn’t look like an engineer– what else was I going to be?

This would define the discussion about the fortune teller and all she had to say. She remained convinced that her insight was valid and valuable. I was even further assured that there was nothing more than fancy guesswork and blind advising going on.


Following this, we went back to her apartment for lunch. (Eating out was “too expensive” at 7,000 won after having spent 30,000 a piece for half an hour of fortune telling.) There I complained about some neck pain… the usual kind. She went and got some incense medicine for my neck, telling me that it would help me to relax. I agreed, game for anything as always.

IMAG0419So she stuck a bunch of these things on my neck and lit them on fire. They smelled like cigarettes and left a yellow-orange stain on my skin. She put one on my thumb muscle over the pressure point to help me digest better. I enjoyed watching the smoke pool in my hand like a strange lake of cloud. The stickers on my neck started getting very hot. VERY hot! She quickly took them off once I started to freak out a little– I couldn’t see on the back of my neck not to burn my fingers reaching for them. She assured me that it was an accident… that they are very relaxing if I just say early enough when they are getting hot. Try again? Okay…

IMAG0417That exact same scenario happened again. This time I said when they were warm (and that’s all they were– warm– and a little frightening because of the possibility of getting burned), she deliberated about whether I meant it until I raised my voice a little when they started to burn.

So, no… that did not make my neck feel better.

Looks cool, though.

Categories: Culture, Korea | Leave a comment

I Got a Job!

Big announcement for friends and family!

First, if you haven’t heard, I’m coming back August 23 at 10 p.m.

Second, I got a phone call in the early hours of the morning today from Human Resources in Fairfax County officially offering me a teaching position at Lake Braddock Secondary School. I’ll teach middle school journalism and high school photojournalism starting as soon as I get back on August 25.

I am super excited to have landed this gig. I’ve known it was a strong possibility for a couple of weeks now, and just today heard the words, “You’re hired.”

We won’t sign any contracts until August 25 at least (or possibly a day or two after, depending on whether I can get English test results for a TB test while still in Korea… I think I can).  Signing a contract is the sign for me that a job is actually going to happen, so in my head I am still prepared for the slight possibility that this might all be disappointment and sorrow. Nonetheless, I am assured both by HR and the school administration that (barring the FBI seeking me for things of which I was previously unaware or my not being who I think I am) that “the job is yours,” which is to say mine.

As they say in Korea, “Nice~uh!”

So what does this mean?

The chances of not getting the job are so low at this point that I’m going to act as if they are essentially zero, while acknowledging to myself that they are not. Obviously, I feel confident enough that this is going to happen that I’m telling anyone who cares to listen (which by all accounts is an average of 8 of my friends and family). Woo!

This means I’m going to start looking for places to live somewhere on either side of the beltway between Springfield-Annandale-West Falls Church starting today.

It also means that I may not be around to see many people for the first couple weeks I’m back in town. I’ll be quite busy getting paperwork finalized, moving into a new place (if not that same week then immediately after) etc. etc.

The next steps for me will be completing the online paperwork, getting a TB test done, and getting a letter of recommendation from my current school, and trying to nail down a place to live while on the other side of the world. It’s gonna be a blast.

Fun facts to know and share: My mother graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School. I didn’t know this until after I interviewed. How neat!

Third, in other news, Korean summer vacations are even shorter than winter vacations, and half of it (for me) involves teaching summer camp. I’ll have about 6 days off plus one weekend to do any last travelling and non-working, which I have decided to do in Thailand and Cambodia. Some of you may be hearing about things going on in Bangkok where I’m going to visit for part of the trip, but rest assured that if I really felt I were in danger, I would not go. I’m going to get to see Angkor Wat.

And unlike my trips to China, I am using this travel opportunity as a vacation instead of some sort of exhausting gotta-see-everything tour.

You guys, I’m having a pretty awesome life right now.

I hope you’re all doing well!


Categories: America, Work | 3 Comments

달마도 vs 수맥: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept Korean Traditional Beliefs

So I found myself at a fortune teller one Saturday, which I think happened because I accepted a 달마도 into my home. Ulsan is a very conservative part of the country, I am told. It’s home to a lot of religious and otherwise spiritual practitioners– more than average for the country. Just the other day on a visit to Taewhagang Bamboo Forest, I got into my 4th conversation with English-speaking ministers. I felt really sorry for the guys, dressed in full black suits on a cloudless, humid 31 C day. As with 2 other pairs of Jehova’s Witnesses and the pair of Mormons (who were actually Westerners!), I took their professions of kindness at face value (I see no reason to be rude or dismissive to these people) and had a conversation that went predictably. I get letters in the mail periodically, hand-written in nearly flawless English by churches reaching out (Lutheran and Baptist). It seems like there is a major effort on the part of Christian communities in the area to reach out to the foreigners. Contrary to what all of my grandmothers believed when I first came to the ROK, there are churches all over Korea. You can see their flashing neon lights from km around. But most people in Ulsan are Buddhist, it seems. The Buddhists aren’t really about ministering. I’ve never been invited to a service in a temple or been asked to participate in a ceremony. Instead, I get things like a 달마도.

This is my 달마도. It’s a portrait of the sage whose name is 달마도, painted by and prayed over by a Buddhist monk. I see his portrait all over the place, including magnets stuck to buses near the driver’s seat. I have him hanging on the inside of my apartment door using refrigerator magnets.

My co-worker bought my 달마도 (Tal-ma-do) for me to protect me against the 수맥 (soo-mek) or Evil Water Spirits/Power, which is– she says– the main function of a 달마도. Let me first get into why she felt the need to buy one for me. According to her, “Korean traditional superstition” says that sleeping with your head facing north is an ill-omen because only corpses are laid with their heads facing north. It’s similar to how Koreans avoid writing a living person’s name in red, because red is the color used to write a deceased person’s name. Normally, Koreans face with their heads facing east. (I have been doing this inadvertently since moving my bed in December, which my co-teacher attributes to my natural inclination to align with nature.) However, my co-teacher’s tiny room won’t allow her to orient her bed East-West, so she sleeps with her head facing south. My co-teacher has a number of health concerns. She is a strong believer in “traditional oriental medicine,” and often offers me various root juices and bittersweet teas to console my psychic and physical ails. She has asked me my foot size, birth date (to the hour Korean time), my blood type, etc. I suspect she’s keeping track of my fortunes to anticipate when I will need more or less help. Which is all very kind, in its way. For example, she informed me one day that I am in the middle of a 3-year string of bad luck. When I asked how Koreans end bad luck cycles she said that on Lunar New Year’s they will go to a temple and burn their old underwear and buy all new underwear. So, one day she tells me that she needs to buy a 달마도 to protect her from water power. All flowing water, she says, contains evil water power, which gives people bad health unless the image of the sage 달마도 hangs between the water and the person living in the home. “You should have one!” she tells me. “You live by the ocean.” “Maybe,” I say. “But why do you need one? You don’t live near any water.” “No,” she said, “But it is because of toilet.” She sleeps with her head toward her bathroom door since she’s forced to sleep facing south, and because water flows in her bathroom, evil water power seeps into her while she sleeps. So she ordered two 달마도 portraits by emailing a monk at her regular temple. For the one for me, I learned later, she started a different email account and posed as me, because foreigners get free portraits. While she was doing this on her computer, we talked about traditional superstitions (her word for the beliefs). When we went to visit Ulsan Grand Park a while back, she insisted that we complete a walk along the foot therapy path. Foot therapy (or Reflexology) has a devout following at least in Ulsan, where I see lots of offices advertising the cure for everything from back pain to poor eye sight lies in applying pressure to certain places on the soles of your feet. That’s why in public parks, one finds so many pathways with blocks and rocks and logs– as a kind of generalized reflexology therapy, which only hurts moderately.

One of the longest foot therapy walks I've seen was in China on the Golden Whip trail in the Zhangjiajie National Forest. I have to say, Ulsan's walks are much less comfortable and artistic.

One of the longest foot therapy walks I’ve seen was in China on the Golden Whip trail in the Zhangjiajie National Forest. I have to say, Ulsan’s walks are much less comfortable and artistic.

TV programming often boasts, I am told, about the amazing power of 수맥탐사봉 or L-로드 (“L-rods”), which are just dowsing rods. It is said that they can locate where 수맥 are causing trouble for people. They’re even used to locate unmarked graves!  (To my GSR readers: this is also what Msgr. Brady claims to have done 10,000 times.) Tons of people believe in fortune tellers in Korea, and my co-teachers are both among them. People go to fortune tellers for job advice, relationship advise, and just to find out about their luck. My co-teacher sometimes doubts all these things. She suspects her fortune teller sometimes just reads her reactions to questions, giving answers based on my c0-teacher’s mood. But then she also sees fortune tellers doing amazing things on TV, and her personal fortune teller will surprise her on occasion with an accurate prediction in the “close future” (2-3 months). It gives her assurance that something powerful is happening, even if this doesn’t happen all the time and even if she admits none of the long-term predictions have ever come true. My co-teachers both definitely calls themselves Buddhist, but the sorts of things described here (water power, divining rods, even fortune tellers) are, according to other Buddhist Koreans I’ve spoken to, not really a part of Buddhism. One person I spoke to even went so far as to describe things like hanging a 달마도 as “believing in old gods.” My co-teacher asked me if I believed in fortune tellers and superstitions. I answered that in the USA, calling something a “superstition” kind of implies it is probably not true. We don’t often think of “superstitions” as worth actually putting effort into, except when we do– then we don’t call them superstitions. “Yes,” she said, then, “No. Sometimes. I know it’s not true. But then I see on TV or go to a fortune teller.” And then she tells me all about foreigners on TV who were amazed by fortune tellers, and how I will be too “when” I go. “When?” I ask in that way that means: “What do you mean to imply when you say ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’?” But which she took as: “When can we go?!” “It really works,” she says not a full minute after saying, “I know it’s not true.” And it’s “not expensive” — only $30 for a visit. I’m very curious about all of this. There are two temples very near my school, and most of the teachers who speak English are Buddhist. My co-teachers are far from the only people who consult fortune tellers and who always rub the stones in front of very old Korean Red Pines.

A Buddhist temple near a Korean red pine across the street from Dong-gu fire department.

A Buddhist temple near a Korean red pine across the street from Dong-gu fire department.

I know of at least one teacher at my school who, when the high school seniors were taking their end-of-school University Entrance Exams, spent the entire week sneaking off to the temple to pray. (Her son failed his exam, incidentally.) I have to admit that I am still very curious about how all of this is supposed to work, so when my co-teacher suggested that we go to a fortune teller together, I took her up on the opportunity, which will be the topic of my next post.

Categories: Culture, Korea | Leave a comment

Summing Up

China Travel Blogs:

Word count April 22~June 21 (Not counting blogs about other things in between.)

My Communist Christmas – 2871
The Men and the Wall – 3583
The Deep Well of History – 5118
A Man Named Han – 3485
Three Temples and a Wedding – 3335
Planes, Trains, & Art Museums – 3779

Terracotta Toney & the Missing Wallet – 2259
The Dragon & the Rabbit – 2813
An American in Zhangjiajie – 3920

Total: 31,163 words
(First trip = 22,171 ; Second trip = 8,992)

Average: 3,462.5 words/article
(First = 3,695 ; Second = 2,997)

Avg. Words/day = 510.8


What I’ve found most interesting about my trip to China is how easy it was. When I first bought a car, I walked into a Carmax at 6pm and drove out that night with my current car. I was dumbfounded that it really was that easy… such a big and seemingly daunting thing can just… happen.

And that’s the way I went into visiting China: that it was going to be some great undertaking, but it turned out to be just another trip by plane. From Seoul, it wasn’t even as far on my first trip as my plane ride from Virginia to Chicago more than 10 months ago now.

I’ve been reading a bit about traveling in our times, and it’s got me reflecting on my own vision of travel.

I’ve always valued travel. I have always dreamed of getting to see the other side of the globe, but it really was my inability to find work in the USA that gave me the push to actually go and do it. Life is in no small way the consequence of chaos. My experiences abroad have given me a great deal of insight into that. Having left the comfort and regularity (and predictability) of little Fredericksburg, Va. I found out just how big of a role chaos plays.

Say I hadn’t decided to go solo for my winter trip? Say I hadn’t managed to get an American travel Visa to China? Say I never happened into Han or my wallet hadn’t been stolen in Seoul or any one of the strangers on whose helpfulness I relied hadn’t been around (or turned out to have nefarious intent)… My experiences are largely out of my control.

Say I’d never come to South Korea? Would I still be working my 70+ hour/week job in Fredericksburg? Still thinking about moving a little closer to the city, but reluctant to change for fear I’d upset the predictability of my life?

I can’t say that living without long-term schedules isn’t driving me a little mad. There is only a certain degree of facing chaos to which I can be tolerant. Nonetheless, this experience illustrates for me just how wide my opportunities are: how free I can live should I only choose to. It’s made me revisit those dreams of seeing the world. It’s made me consider in a serious, mature way, what I lose when I think small.

Who knows what that will mean? At the very least in this way (to say nothing of all the other ways I spent a novella describing) travel has me seeing the world through new eyes.

Categories: China | Leave a comment

An American in Zhangjiajie

<– This is part 9/9 in a series on my adventures in China. To read the First click here. 

<– For the previous story, click here.

“When an American comes to Zhangjiajie . . .”

140621-143733 aHer name was Qin Jiao Hui, and she approached me nervously outside the ticket booth for the cable car to the top of Wulingyuan’s most scenic area.

I was already exhausted, having spent all day walking around inside the Yellow Dragon Cave and the previous day nearly running up and down and all around the pillars of Zhangjiajie’s National Forest. My crazed exhilaration at getting to see only a bit of these natural wonders had started to take its toll on my body, and on this, my second day in the area, I was beginning to regret wearing such heavy boots.

Jiao Hui wanted to talk to me about my trip. She was embarrassed about her English ability, which I found to be more understandable than some people who have wanted to talk to me in English this year, but which she refused not to accept as true. She asked me about what I’d seen so far, and my last trip to Beijing and to China. I saw that she was taking notes and being followed by a slightly older man and woman with a nice video camera. “You’re a reporter?” I asked her. “Yes, how did you know that?”

She’s only been a reporter for a month. She studied English and journalism in college, and got a job at a local TV station in Zhangjiajie, although confided to me that it made her nervous all the time that she would miss deadline or not find something worth reporting on. She had been sent by her producers into the park today to get a story about the visitors. I told her about the Korean holiday weekend, which was why every single other person at the cable car station was Korean (in matching hiking suits and women’s visors despite the lack of sunshine). I asked her, “What is your story?”  right after mentioning Children’s Day and Buddha’s Birthday… trying to hint that maybe the holiday weekend and influx of Koreans might be an interesting topic.

“Really? Thank you!” she said in response to my question. “Yes, okay. I will tell them [her co-workers] we will go with you.” So the story was going to be about me, apparently. Sure, why not?

But she had forgotten their press passes at the station, so the park employees wouldn’t let them go into the park with me. So instead we stood near the line up to the cable car and talked and did an interview.

The man with Jiao Hui, I surmised, had come along to make sure that she was keeping up with the station’s standards. He didn’t speak any English, and so suggested questions for me through her. He told her to ask me to compare Zhangjiajie to Beijing (Nature vs. Culture), told her to ask follow-up questions to get me to explain more about my trip and occupation. They were surprised that I had taught journalism, and Jiao Hui wanted to know all about the press in the USA, which was difficult to explain through the narrow gaps between the language and culture barrier. The man made sure she had me write down my name, double checked that she understood what I was saying (I’m not sure how they planned to do the translation), insisted that she get footage of me doing something other than looking and talking directly into the camera (standing in line, handing my ticket to the cable car employee).

IMAG0090I was in no small way embarrassed by all of this as Korean tourists turned and stared at the white guy getting interviewed for TV just because he showed up to a world-famous tourist attraction. But who am I to argue with a woman trying to do her job?

We parted ways when I got into the cable car with two Korean couples (with whom I was able to speak in Korean, which I was much more excited about than they were I think). On my way up the mountain, I realized that I should have told her about how difficult it is for an American to get a travel visa to China, which is why I was traveling alone instead of with some of my fellow Western friends in living in Korea. Oh well.

I had asked her after the interview was all over what her story was going to be about. I couldn’t imagine I’d said anything news worthy. Certainly being a foreign tourist wasn’t very novel– after all, we were surrounded by them. She told me that the name of her story would be:

“When an American comes to Zhangjiajie, it is like when a boy meets a girl.”

Fair enough.  I did come off as being very enamored of the place, and let me tell you why.


Zhangjiajie National Forest


A brief introduction to Z. World Geological Park

On the bus to the National Forest the day before I became news in Zhangjiajie, the city fell away as I rode into the mountains for the first time. In many ways, as I write this now, I am still there.

The hills are covered in irrigation channels, tiered red-pained ceremonial gates and garden plots filling every spare space. There are shrines where smoke rises and blends with the mist.

IMAG0318Men wearing conical hats and traditional shirts tend to crops (I presume rice) in terraced, flooded platform rows themselves levied with earthen mounds. Most fields are full of old stalks standing out in the strangely green or transparent brown water.

Mist crawls over everything. It’s overcast today, my first full day in Zhangjiajie. The verdant world under the ambient clouds seeping down out of the air contains trees I’ve never seen before. I recognize and don’t palms, pines, bamboo, shrub, maple, laurel. Or think I do.

Birds, too are strangely beautiful and only somewhat familiar. One is black, blue and white like a Korean magpie, but smaller with an elongated, smooth form. Another is big, milky-grey like a quail except with a tail more than the length of its body that has black and white rings. It also has bright orange feet and beak. In the forest, I saw many signs warning me not to feed the monkeys. I also got to see the monkeys.

I’m unable to get enough light for what I’d call decent pictures, plus the water accumulating on my camera complicates things. Visibility into the distance is very limited. I curse the weather.

IMAG0134But the mist and cloud to add a great deal to the scenery. On post cards and in promotional pictures, there is always a bit of cloud drifting between the pillars that helps to lend perspective to the grandness of the scale, adds to the scenic beauty and keeps the rock-and-tree layers from jumbling all together into a solid mess of detail. It is the same now, here, as I climb through monkey-infested forest up the pillars and look out over the world.

IMAG0367I am blown away by the vistas. The scope of this place defies my eyes to take it all in at once. The roaring water is calming as it makes its way down the mountains. In the cloudy sky these greens are reds of plant and rock look so much more green and red than any I’ve seen before. But this might be an illusion– I am, after all, paying close attention just now. I am overwhelmed by the sensations as I try to take them all in. I am trying to hold this place in my head as an accumulation of detail. When I close my eyes to practice picturing the scene for future times, I envision a composite of the pillars distant, near, to my left and right and the trees far below in the valley under the grey-white sky as clouds drift statuesque yet fluid over and between the towers of rock. I open my eyes and it all comes snapping into concrete focus again– so much more refined and narrow in actual line-of-sight than the complex simulation I have constructed in my mind’s eye.

Layers of rock representing unimaginable time in roughly horizontal strata have been carved out and exposed in nearly vertical towers that overlap each other with sheared, smoothed, roughly vertical edges. As I walk along the valley’s floor, looking up through the thin arboreal lattice of the canopy where birds and monkeys leap in the branches, I see these lines join and slide over each other in an optical dance among billowing mist like an illusion of alien geometries or a Song dynasty landscape painting.

IMAG0356Everywhere I am unable to relegate the smell of water and the sound of birds to mere background noise. The mist is almost metallic with water and dissolving stone.

Dark, wet bark of trees drinking heavily and growing massive as their roots twist over the dark red-brown earth like a tangle of pythons that hang off the cliff walls. And these trunks are covered in blue-green moss and lichen, the bark knotted like boils in the stream below the water of which is a rushing cloud green that grows more vibrant as it crashes over plant and rock, feeding and eroding all at once. The stream is so green it’s almost blue again. Waterfalls and trickles off the pillars feed into it, adding a cloudiness that begins to resemble liquid cobalt: its color changing fluidly between rippled waves, steel grey crest, sea green channel, crystal blue shallows over rust orange and moss-green rocks and sand. The soil is so wet, that the precise shore of the stream is difficult to find even while looking right at it.

In all I managed to cover the Golden Whip Trail and the Six Wonders Pavilion overlook. They say about the Six Wonders Pavilion that if you don’t see it, you shouldn’t have bothered coming to Zhangjiajie. True enough! It’s a difficult climb to the top, but the view is out of this world, especially with the fog. I found a placard that described the area’s climate:

IMAG0350“Huangshizhai belongs to the subtropical mountain plain monsoon humid climate. The light and heat are sufficient. The rainfall is abundant. Because of the high surrounding vegetation coverage, air humidity and the influences of factors such as landform, the climate here is complicated and diversified. Tourists here are easily to see the cloud embracing the mountains, fog flowing like sea and the elegant spectacle that flog flying into the hole. All of them make this fairyland pleasant.”

The shrine for General Xiao Rongchang, 1918-2010

The shrine for General Xiao Rongchang, 1918-2010

I saw fossils in the stone used to make the stairways leading up and everywhere. (Based only on my experience, there are no major tourist trails that aren’t stone walkways in China.)

On the Golden Whip trail next to Golden Whip Creek, I saw the shrine for General Xiao Rongchang, who among other very interesting and distinguished things, had participated in the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” before achieving his ultimate rank. There is also a statue of him at the main gate to the park. He was apparently fundamental in preserving the National Forest, having fought in it for the Communist Party during one of the many wars in his record.

It was starting to get late by the time I made to the bus stop that would eventually lead me back to the city. The shops were closing down for the night, as people packed up their stands and hiked out of the mountain to the terminal that went to Wulingyuan. I went with them, taking a lucky bus to Zhangjiajie that happened to be making last calls just as I was walking by.


Motorcycle Diaries of Zhangjiajie

It was well past dark when I got back to the bus terminal in the main city after my visit to the National Forest. The driver of the bus back decided not to go all the way to the station since I was the last one on board, and he made me get off a couple of kilometers away from the only place where I knew to catch a bus back to my hostel. (Jerk.) By the time I got there, I’d just missed the last bus. A man on a little motorcycle pulled up to me while I stood looking at my cheat-sheet of Chinese phrases and a map trying to decide what to do next. We didn’t have a lot of language in common. With the help of a semi-bilingual stranger who happened to be walking by he made it clear that he’d give me a ride to my hostel for free.

The grocery store where I got all my food this trip.

The grocery store where I got all my food this trip.

How kind! And helpful! I had thought I’d have to walk, but on the ride, I realized that if I’d tried to, I wouldn’t have made it back until morning.

I haven’t gotten to ride on a motorcycle that actually got up to full speed and moved through traffic. I didn’t have a helmet for one thing. For another, people drive like maniacs in China (Korea, too). There’s very little regard for right of way– it’s all about who can get there first without dying. Pedestrians just walk out into the road in a game of human Frogger. Nobody seems nearly as worried about it as I do, so I’ve yet to make a scene.

But it turned out to be really fun! I loved getting to slide between stopped cars, and feel the wind around me as we rode. In China they don’t drive on the sidewalks the way they do in Korea, though. We pulled up next to one of the over-laden motor bikes. The man driving had two women sitting on the back seat and a very short man sitting on the foot panel between his legs. The short man spoke good English and offered me and the motorcycle driver some “Love” packets. These turned out to be some kind of vegetable pod that people chew like tobacco in China. I saw them on sale all over after this. It made me feel light-headed and then a little queasy.

The pagoda erected at the Wulingyuan entrance to the park

The pagoda erected at the Wulingyuan entrance to the park

Two days later, while I was trying to find a bus to take me to the airport, nearly broke, a man on a motorcycle asked me if I wanted to go to the airport. In my limited Chinese, I asked how much. Having the 10 yuan to spare, I climbed on the back of his bike and went winding through the back streets and alleys, weaving between pedestrians, buses and cars– often against the flow of traffic. I’ve gotten used to just climbing into vehicles with strangers and hoping I get to where I’m going, but it still made me nervous when he made a sudden left turn into a maze-like set of sub-streets none of which were paved. Walled in on all sides by fences and the back walls of buildings, we wound our way through the blocks of the city. He used his horn liberally rounding every turn, even though it was early enough in the morning that I’m sure he woke up half the town.

An especially lovely pavilion in the National Forest

An especially lovely pavilion in the National Forest

All at once the claustrophobic alleyway would open up to reveal a field taken over by grass, garbage and piles of destroyed buildings. Then the open space would collapse around us again and without warning we were squeezing by twisted iron gates and bicycles on gravel turns that looked deceptively like dead ends from the back seat of a motorcycle. And just as suddenly we were on the highway going 80 km/hour. I felt pretty nervous about that. Unbidden thoughts about what a tiny seat adjustment would mean with respect to the pavement rushing all around me in the open air. Without wanting to, I found myself imagining all number of gruesome falls and skids at a speed that made possible the otherwise-difficult understanding that my flesh would act like cheese against an automatic grater should I hit that asphalt.

At the airport, there was some confusion about the payment. I needed change for a 50 yuan bill (I would end up spending exactly all of the money I had left by the end of the day), and that led to a lot of confusing fingers and gestures and expressions. Eventually we got it all sorted, but I can’t help but feel sad about how pleasant and nice it had been before this somewhat sour exchange. I thanked him, and turned into the tiny 5-gate airport.

Having made a little video for my friends in Goshen, I was still wearing full class B scout uniform. What everyone thought was strange, though, were my socks of all things! I changed in the restroom before boarding the plane.


Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area


At the first overlook into the valley, a Chinese couple finishing their day asked to take their picture with me. Later down the path, I asked them why all over the forest I saw sticks propped up under and between gaps in the rock. Through a series of hand motions, I gathered that it was a superstition that the rock would fall, and by placing sticks there it was like telling the rock that you don’t want it to fall. I’m not really sure, but it seemed strange and harmless.

Up at the top of the Scenic and Historic Interest Area, the world is utterly unreal. The trees and pillars like chimneys the size of small skyscrapers all stand below me in the carved out valley that runs through the plateau atop which stands the Wulingyuan mountain range.

The canyon and the pillars are covered in forest. That’s what’s most remarkable! The trees that cling precipitously to every salient rock surface they can and drink up the sun and moisture of the clouds.

The temptation to jump– to feel the rush of all that space that is too big for my vision, too surrounding for my imagination to accurately ideate– felt disconcertingly strong.

The temptation to climb, however, could not be overcome.

I ended up taking the last car down and caught the last bus with the park managers– having climbed up and down and all around and through over-grown pathways where only locals traveled at some distance, gathering firewood many dozens of meters below the plateau’s edge among the feet of the pillars.

The jump

The jump

I found a little side-path that wasn’t strictly closed off, but also wasn’t marked in any way. It lead down into the valley a ways to the base of the nearer pillars where it branched off and in all directions. I found little boxes and the signs that once this had been a main route– no stone tile walkways, but stones placed in the earth like stairs. Most of the paths were dirt, however, if they weren’t overrun with grasses and shrubs.

I climbed a few of the smaller pillars until I felt unsafe, and then climbed down again. Others were large enough and embedded into the hillside that I could make my way up to un-fenced vantage points. I used tree roots and hand-sized rock ledges to make my way along flat outcroppings on the valley side of the thicker pillars to vantages that asked me to look as much up at the dangling forest as down at the sea of trees. I did everything I could, wide-eyed and smiling, to burn the image of those massive columns into my memory.

IMAG0146At the top of one of the pillars I realized I was only a little ways lower than the edge of the valley wall– I’d climbed almost entirely back out of the valley along a different route. There was no connection, however, to the valley wall from where I was. A tiny forest obscured it from view, but walking to the other side of the pillar, I saw there was a significant distance between me and my way back, so I had to climb down again. But not before I scared a bunch of tourists who could see me from one of the overlooks across the rift by jumping between mine and the smaller, nearby pillar (a gap of about a meter).

For a long time, I just sat in my private little vantage looking out over the world that was quickly losing light. I recalled trips to Viewing Rock in Goshen, of trying to breathe so that I held that wind in my lungs– to keep those summer days in my memory. I knew it wouldn’t stick with me. Even now, I’m starting to forget all of this, which is why I am so wordy about it. Whether or not you get anything out of reading these things (and I hope you do), I’ve written this for some future me. I am trying to catch wind in a bottle, to hold on to the feeling of being there, legs dangling into that canyon, the scale of the rent Earth yawning all around me as the sky turned dusky and blue. The wonders of the world! There I was looking out on the one of the wonders of the world. Can you blame me for wanting to hold on to that?


At the airport in Shanghai, I exchanged my RMB for KRW (100 yuan for 13,000 won), and got a well-needed lunch with the remainder. Eventually I transferred successfully to my flight to Busan, which took our plane into the airspace over Jeju Island.

From 30,000 feet, the clouds covered the peak of Hallasan just as they had when I attempted to scale it with Sarah back in January. I had become so familiar with the aerial map during that trip that I easily recognized Seogwipo by its the shape of its river mouth. Then, as the plane rounded the south and eastern shore of the oval-shaped volcanic island, I got to see — clear as day — Seongsan Ilchulbong: the Sunrise peak. The 5 pm sun cast deep shadows down the volcanic bowl, making it the starkest landmark visible on the island. I could see along its crater’s edge the place where Sarah and I had stood and looked out over the island on our last day in Jeju.

Jeju’s many lakes shone hot like mirrors in the golden light of the evening. The city all along the edge of the island resembled a circuit board or solar array that ringed the volcanic pyramid rising up into the clouds, which parted at the last minute. Just as we were turning away toward Busan, I finally got to see the summit of Hallasan. Lined up directly with Seongsan Ilchulbong in my line of sight, the tallest mountain in Korea became the only landmark I could still see of the island as it became obscured by the immensity of air between us and then the shifting angle of the plane.

I made it home with only pocket change to spare and enough time to get a decent night’s sleep before work the next day. I’d managed to turn a 4-day weekend into an experience of a lifetime with no shortage of wonder or adventure.

And it won’t be the last! (Speaking of Jeju Island… it’s about time I put into writing all the things I got to see there…)

Summing up my trip to China –>

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