A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Old Buildings and Rocks

Compared to Gwangju, Gyeongju felt incredibly small as I stepped out of the bus terminal and began my trip across town.  The terminal was nowhere near the center of town, and for a while I thought the entire city was little more than a series of one story houses and shops.  This made walking around substantially more tiring than in Gwangju.  I couldn't duck into the shade of skyscrapers whenever I got too uncomfortable, and with the still air and beating sun playing a hard game with my gingerly skin I eventually decided to give in and rent a bike.  If I was going to burn, I might as well do it with a cool wind.

The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok
Bicycling through any Korean city (Gyeongju being no exception) is a dangerous affair.  From my perspective, all cars are murderous toward wayward cyclists and all pedestrians are equally suicidal.  They don't teach defensive driving in South Korea.  Drivers are opportunistic and will dive around corners or through red lights as soon as they see an opening.  You never feel safe from traffic on a bicycle and easily become paranoid.  Luckily bike paths run along sidewalks, which creates an entirely different problem.  Pedestrians have no sense of self-preservation.  You will head straight toward a group of children taking up the entire walkway, ringing your bell, and instead of moving out of the way, even slightly, they will all turn their heads toward you, slacken their jaws, and wait for you to crash into them.  Eventually, the bicycle became more of a chore than pleasure.

My first stop was at Cheomseongdae.  You would not think by looking at it, but Cheomseongdae is truly historic scientific landmark.  It is the oldest standing observatory in East Asia, and one of the oldest in the world.  I had initially missed this structure while looking for it because it looks nothing like how anyone in the modern world would expect an observatory to be (I guess it was silly to be looking for a giant telescope).

I didn't get too close to Cheomseongdae.  As I neared the lovely park it rested in, marked by endless fields of yellow flowers and colossal burial mounds (the kind that would put ancient Native Americans to shame), I was blocked by a wave of children crossing the street and marching straight into the park.  I thought it was curious, but wrote them off as the local elementary school taking a field trip.  As I journeyed a little ways farther another busload of children swarmed through my path.  Then there was another, and another, and another.  There was no end to them!  With each passing swarm came a volley of shouts going Hi! Hello! Nice to meet you! and Yo Man!

The Swarm Approaches...
I sought a brief refuge at the nearby museum.  If I had taken anytime to think I would have realized the obvious fact that that is exactly where the epicenter of the children would be, and it was.  The very large museum grounds were covered in kids rushing about, and I do mean rushing.  At least one group had been given a list of ancient relics to find as part of a field trip scavenger hunt and were moving as fast and as recklessly as humanly possible to find them all.  They ran wild, nearly slamming into every ancient artifact and smacking their bodies against the plate glass of every exhibit.  Thankfully, the plate glass cases were secured, but I held my breath in terror every time a little boy ran dangerous close to an exposed statue, and I damn near had to yank a kid out of a model of ancient Gyeongju...  Here I was on vacation...

Every student greeted me in English as soon as they spotted me, and I was hard to miss.  They greeted me until I returned the pleasantries, growing louder and more abrasive with each hello that went unacknowledged.  I think they thought I was being rude not always answering the calls, but sometimes the children were so mocking in tone or yelling from so far away that they were not simply being friendly.  They were obnoxious.  So I began answering their English with French.  It might sound like I was being immature.  I won't deny it.  It must have been extremely confusing for a few kids who noticed my backpack carried the logo of a well-known English-language hagwon on it.

To be fair, the children made the museum proper far more interesting than it would have been otherwise.  Gyeongju is sometimes called "The Museum without Walls" and nothing could be truer.  There are dozens of locations just around the town with historic significance for South Korea, many temples and tombs.  This city had been the capital of Silla, one of the Three Korean Kingdoms and a very prominent one (eventually overtaking the other two) that lasted nearly a thousand years (57 BC to 935 AD).  You can see this former glory in many places within the city and the surrounding area.  But, the displays at the literal museum are mostly as interesting as looking at rocks (and for me there was little explanation about why the very old rocks were so praiseworthy).

Much can be learned from history and there is an incredible need for us to preserve ancient relics for research and understanding.  That said, there are certain things when seen crammed together at a museum are incredibly dull.  Buddha statues are the first to come to mind.  Based on my time at that museum I can only think of three things that were on the minds of the ancient Sillan people: Buddha, Zodiac signs, and women dressing as men.  They constructed Buddhas with the same fervor ancient Europeans amassed art to Christ.

Woman in Man's Clothing (Left); Tricolor Heavenly King (Right)
Buddhism and Christianity can be surprisingly similar.  I've met people and seen (though never opened)  books that took aspects of Buddhism and applied them to the Christian faith.  I'm sure it is very enlightening to pick and choose rituals, but I see far more sinister connections between the two religions.  They both uphold beliefs in ascension from the material world and philosophize about ridding themselves of material things, and yet they both love to show off their beauty and grandeur.  They construct mighty idols to their savior, have an extremely influential religious head, and build gaudy sanctuaries.  And, of course, they are both evangelical.

There were many ancient works on display aside from piles of old Buddhas and cross-dressers.  In one room sits the gold crown worn by the early Sillan ruler Maripgan, who was credited for establishing a genuine hereditary monarchy in the nation (I have to separate myself from my brain to appreciate that achievement).  Other rooms feature ancient treasures dating back to prehistory.  Many of them look like it.  There was a pot shaped like a duck I found entertaining, a heavenly god statue that would be described as "demonic" in appearance by ancient Europeans, and a cup shaped like a warrior on horseback that seemed incredibly impractical but is regarded as a national treasure.

The only problem I had with all these works was, as should be expected, any explanation for their existence was written in Korean.  They wrote the names of every item in English, which just made it worse.  I knew what they were, but I had know idea what that meant.  For a while I stalked a couple monks walking around the museum.  One led the other to each display and with passionate gestures he told lengthy stories about which king owned this and what monks crafted that.  The other man listened with unwavering fascination, never taking his eyes off each work as they were explained to him.  I had no clue what the monks were actually saying, but I loved how they moved about the rooms, carefully and wide-eyed.

One of the largest and grandest artifacts to see was the Seongdeokdaewang-Sinjong, or Divine Bell of King Seongdeok.  The massive instrument rests in the open air, surrounded by hordes of tourists, and is the first thing you notice as you enter the museum grounds.  It is credited as the biggest and nicest bell in all of Korea, and was commissioned by the late King Seongdeok's son, who was also a king and died before it was finished.  The legacy of the son, King Gyeongdeok, can be seen in the stunning Bulguksa Temple.  But so many kings of yesteryear spent all their time constructing monuments to their own glory (and never seeing them completed) it can be comforting to know that some ancient king died in the process of honoring someone other than himself.

Two monks touring the museum
I found in both Gwangju and Gyeongju, a lack of knowledge can turn anything sacred or historically important into little more than old buildings and rocks.  The reason we preserve ancient relics is not so we can look at their splendor, but so we can remember the stories behind them.  These are the stories of our ancestors or the ancestors of others.  By being able to compare the history and art of others to our own we find not only interesting differences, but notable similarities.  For example, the reason so many Buddhas were crafted in Korea is not too different from the reason so many Christs were crafted in Europe.

My favorite aspect of art has never really been in the history (though I do enjoy that) or creator of it, but in the juxtaposition of art, comparing Western to Eastern, modern to ancient, cooperate to religious.  It is all the stranger when you start comparing people to the art around them.  Sometimes old men or monks will walk about sacred objects with reverence and fascination.  They are truly important works in their eyes. Then you will see the graffiti hidden along the back of a shrine or the children running around old statues, not concerned with their historical value, but searching for pieces marked for them as part of a scavenger hunt.  To them, the objects aren't sacred at all, just old buildings and rocks.

Friday, April 27, 2012


About the time I'd changed my pants (all stories should start this way) and fitted a hot dog into my howling stomach at a second rest stop, I came to a momentarily horrible realization.  I never bought a ticket for Gyeongju (경주).  I bought a ticket for Gwangju (광주).  In other words, I was just a symbol off from my destination and by extension very far away.

It might sound silly to get the name of a city so obviously wrong as they "clearly" look nothing alike to us English speakers, but Koreans have always had a difficult time Romanizing their language.  No one's really to blame (to my knowledge) for this problem, but it can cause some confusion.  For example, the horizontal hook letter we see at the beginning of both Gyeongju and Gwangju is Romanized as "g".  It makes a "k" sound...unless it is positioned in between vowels, then it makes a "g" sound.  There is another letter that always makes a "k" sound even between vowels, and there is a symbol that makes a "tensed k" sound (I'm not sure what this means) that is Romanized as "gg" or "kk" depending on who wrote it, where they were born, and whether or not they won a game back in elementary school where they had to guess how many jellybeans were in a jar.

I have seen my town of Gangneung Romanized in so many ways it can be hard to remember how to spell or pronounce it.  I have seen rs where there should not be rs and ls where there should not be ls.  I have probably seen a t or q thrown in for good measure by men who view themselves as particularly learned scholars.  If there is one thing I've learned in South Gorea it is that Romanization doesn't work.  Thankfully, they have their own alphabet, which works just fine.  Unfortunately, I am terrible at reading it...

Welcome to Gwangju!
After the initial shock of reading and rereading my ticket, and thinking to my stupid self, "Is...is...that a place?" and "Maybe it's just misspelled", I came to the conclusion that I was going to a city I knew nothing about and would have to deal with it.  There was a decision to make and there were really just three choices.  One, I could get to the bus station, wherever it was, buy a ticket for Gyeongju and spend the rest of the day riding there.  Two, I could get to the bus station, wherever it was, buy a ticket for Gangneung, give up on the whole adventure, and spend the rest of the day riding home.  Or three, I could spend a night in Gwangju, enjoy something unexpected, and not have to ride buses all day.

It was just as likely that I could enjoy the museums and cafes of Gwangju just as much as those in Gyeongju.  As of writing this, I am seated in the smoking lounge of a very nice cafe with a very nice coffee and a slice of cheesecake.  This being my second meal of the day, I think it is safe to assume relocating the vacation to Gwangju goes well.

Aimlessly wandering through the city, I stumbled into one of Gwangju's memorial parks - a place of lush flora, beautiful structures, and powerful statues of those killed for their ideals.  At the time of visiting, I had no idea what these ideals were.  They were just rocks carved into aesthetically appealing shapes.  In reality those rocks were cut to honor the Gwangju Democratization Movement.

Citizens of Gwangju rose against their government from May 18th to 27th of 1980.  You see, after the civil war Korea was divided into two nations: the oppressive, tyrannical regime in the North and the freely democratic, capitalist tyranny in the South.  One particularly entrepreneurial spirit was Park Chung-hee, who led a coup d''état in 1961.  After his assassination in 1979 by an obviously mad gunman (since he was so beloved he swept his last couple elections unopposed), his governing body behaved like a chicken with its head cut off.

Chun Doo-hwan (right) with friend
In 1980 a hip, new idealist named Chun Doo-hwan swept into office thanks to a popular majority of tanks, helicopters, and guided missiles.  Those of you familiar with Irish history might be interested in the ironic title of his troops: The Republic of Korea Army, which was just as much as a force for good as the Irish Republican Army.  It seems the word "Republic" holds just about as much connection to the actual concept of a republic as communism does with economic equality.  I vote Democrat.

During the early days of Chun's power, those days when it is most important to show just what your new government is going to look like, was a May 18th demonstration by students at the gate of Chonnam National University.  They clashed with government forces, won the day, and moved their protest deeper into the city.  There they were brutalized along with innocent bystanders by military-grade opposition.  The protests did not stop (nor did the violence) until the 27th when troops returned the city to its previously passive state.

The Memorial Park I visited was in honor of those who had been killed during the uprising.  It was dedicated to the brave souls who would not be passive and would not stand idly as their democracy was being forcibly passed from one shyster to another.  The South Korea we live in now has come a long way as a democracy since those days, and it is wrong to say those who were massacred in Gwangju did not have something to do with it.

At the park, I climbed a lengthy set of stairs to a petite shrine surrounded by bamboo.  It was a gorgeous place to rest and observe the city laid out before me.  An old man practicing Tai Chi by the shrine tried to explain to me the significance of the structure, but my ignorance failed him.  I nervously spouted some foreign gibberish as he patiently waited for replies.  Eventually I walked off, letting him return to his exercise in peace, free from my unfortunately inexperienced tongue.  I wish I could have listened to his story.  It is an incentive to learn.

The shrine and its park felt sacred.  Of course, everything appears sacred when you cannot understand it.  Yet, once you see the childish graffiti scrawled across the backside of the shrine and on every spot where kids can draw a marker unsupervised, you soon realize that nothing is.  But, it was an interesting detour on my way to Gyeongju...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gideon's Coffee

This image comes from maybe the strangest website in the world...
After nearly three months of employment at a South Korean hagwon I have been given the unfortunate pleasure of a one week mandatory vacation in which I am socially obligated to travel somewhere nice and enjoy my time sitting in cafes and wandering museums away from my new home town of Gangneung, where I have yet to explore all of the museums and cafes to my satisfaction.  As a social obligation, I am to travel alone, as I have yet to meet anyone charming enough to desire travel with me, but am still required to return to work after the vacation and discuss my trip with people who will be, no doubt, uninterested in my journeys and who'd rather talk of their own.  They will look down on me, as the recluse I am, if I don't at least have someplace to claim "toured", so I chose to spend a couple days in Gyeongju where my reasonable poverty can be increased among parks, museums, ancient relics, and probably more than a few cafes.

My plan was to catch an early morning bus from my Gangneung terminal to Gyeongju.  Because I cannot be relied upon to display any form of computer literacy or a competent grasp of the Korean language, I spent part of a day riding around town on my bicycle in search of the bus terminal to find the schedule.  It seems likely that I am the only American in the whole of South Korea who needs to travel to the terminal in order to read find out these things in person.  In my twenty-some years of life, I could have learned how to use the internet, but then where is the exercise in that?

My sleep schedule does not recognize "early morning" like it used to.  I tried to sleep at 10pm so I could wake up fresh the next day, but that didn't happen.  I tried to go to bed at 11pm, then 12am, then 1am, and managed to sleep from 2 to 6:44.  My internal alarm clock is a horrible prankster.  I set my (external) alarm clock for a time, any time, and will always wake up about fifteen minutes before it goes off, no matter what time I set it for.

Tired but awake, I set out for the terminal without eating.  I bought a coffee at the station and let it cool on the bus as I slept.  Through a miracle not unlike that of Gideon's, I woke to find myself still tightly gripping the coffee.  My hand and the cup were both perfectly dry, but my pant leg was completely soaked.  If some god had proven anything it was beyond my human understanding.

Soon came an important choice.  At the first pit stop, I could get off the bus to eat and change pants or stay seated and retain my dignity in front of strangers.  The coffee made my choice for me.  What hadn't, through osmosis, entered my pants, I had put down in two gulps trying to savor what little warmth was left in the cup.  It did not sit well.

I became defiant.  Instead of choosing to maintain some petty notion of dignity, I flaunted my stained pants.  I marched to the bathroom, relieved myself, then marched back.  Thanks to this inspiring confidence, I forgot to change pants or eat.  Though, it did not hinder my willingness to smoke a cigarette, which I did so proudly out in the open.  I let that great, brown splotch jut out at every passerby like it was a new fashion and I could tell everyone was jealous of my signature style.

Of course, moments later as the bus pressed on to Gyeongju (or so I thought) the wet leg and aching stomach made me sorry I hadn't traded some of that confidence for a bag of chips or dry pair of pants...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It's Election Day. Let's Dance!

Finally, Spring has come to our beloved Gangneung.  The foliage begins to bloom as rain pours down from the heavens.  The nation finds new life after the long sleep of winter, and what could be more appropriate for the season of rebirth than Parliamentary elections!  With 246 slots to fill and 927 candidates running, it's Election Day!  So let's dance!

(The above video is from the 2008 elections, I believe)

Campaigners in South Korea have been taking to street corners and dancing to blaring music while their candidate stands among them waving and bowing to traffic.  The eccentricity does not end their.  There have been well choreographed  groups of dancers wearing clown wigs and people walking about or dancing in full body, animal costumes (for example, a rabbit suit).  It is the most energetic and absurd election process I have ever witnessed.

After watching the display for a couple of days, I started to wonder who was their target audience.  Dancing in support of one's candidate sounds like a fun way make campaigning less monotonous.  But the clown and animal costumes are things that would be most appealing to children...and children can't vote.  In spite of the cliched nature of "baby kissing," an American politician who actually holds a supporter's baby and gives it a little kiss on the forehead is showing empathy and compassion for youth, but that message is sent specifically to adults.  I'm not sure what message a dancing man in a bunny suit sends the grown-up population.

These people are not advertising a commercial product: SOURCE
Of course, I am thinking too hard about the subject.  It's obviously meant to be a fun and friendly way to "get to know your candidate."  Despite the bells and whistles, politics in South Korea can be just as serious as anywhere else.  The dancers are presumably meant to attract, not distract.  And it can be nice to see politicians showing a lighthearted side.

Though, it can appear a bit silly when everyone running for office has a mob of flash dancers at their disposal.  Oh well, to each their own ridiculous election cycle.