8 sept 2014
After creatively finding ways to doze in O’Hare airport with 2 suitcases, a backpack, and an ukulele (good thing my Iyengar Yoga training involves the use of props), I boarded the plane and landed in Korea. Immediately greeted by my friend, Jung-In, we took a local bus to her place in Bucheon, a city of 1,000,000 adjacent to Seoul.
She is generously sharing her space with me--a studio apartment across from the university. It’s manageable for 2, Korean-style, with sleeping mats we fold up during the day. The simplicity is reminiscent of India and comforting to me. The location couldn’t be better, since I will be studying Korean for 4 hours/day, 5 days/week at Bucheon University. We are not home together for many hours at a time so we are managing to not bump each other.
Jung-In (Kiara) works afternoons and evenings at a YMCA after-school program, doing enrichment classes with middle and high school kids. We met in Milwaukee, when she was a graduate student in music. I sought her out as a Korean tutor in exchange for home-cooked dinners. We didn’t get very far with the tutoring because we would get engaged in deep, soul-stirring conversations that required English on my part, and we got to be fast friends. She returned to Korea after Milwaukee, and has been re-learning the culture after being gone for 9 years.
As I’ve been bustling about--getting a prepaid phone, learning public transportation, exploring the neighborhood, meeting folks--I totally understand why many folks would never do this. The simplest task is quite daunting without language facility. Right now I am heavily dependent on Jung-In for the most mundane things, like how to use my $10 phone or an ATM. I’m in an incredibly vulnerable and humble position and lots of times feel absolutely ridiculous. For instance, my silly phone was flashing all night, and I couldn’t turn it off so I stuffed it into my backpack. (In the morning, I asked Jung-In, and as a reassurance to my ego, she couldn’t turn it off either!)
Yet this vulnerability and humility is how we grow our souls. I cobble together idiotic, grammatically incorrect, poorly pronounced sentences and questions as I attempt to converse, and although everyone has been super nice, I know they are confused about everything I say, and that they have no idea who I really am. For someone like me who identifies as a writer, wordsmith, language artist, and deep conversationalist, I feel severely handicapped. My main tool has been taken away. So where does that leave me?
Even my body language is culturally inappropriate. Women in Korea keep narrow personal bubbles. Yesterday I found myself at a bus stop with my arm straight out at my side as I leaned into a column. I realized I never see Korean women standing like this. Then I sat down and took my knees and feet wide and let my skirt fall between my knees. That also felt totally un-Korean for a woman. I’m a poor Confucianist. So there is much to learn, perhaps without completely scrapping my American self.
Nevertheless, I feel very welcomed. People address me as “seonsaeng-nim”--teacher--and I truly feel they are happy I am here and want to explore what I have to offer. I’ve already started teaching a beginner’s Iyengar Yoga class in Bucheon and will add 2 more in Seoul beginning later this month, including a teacher’s study group and an intermediate level class.
However, I am really here to be a student, not a teacher. I’m frustrated at my limited Korean, and shocked at my ignorance of Korean history and culture, and I know 4 months is just the tip of the iceberg. Daily, I must remind myself that where I am is just fine, and that any small amount of progress and learning is still growth. I recognize that this will be one of many trips to Korea, and that I have the whole rest of my life to learn and to heal.
Jung-In and I went to Gwanghwa-mun, the central mall where protests and demonstrations are regularly staged, historically and currently, and another day to Seodae-mun Prison, where resisters were captured and tortured and executed, primarily under Japanese occupation, but also used until 1987 under Korean dictatorship. The prison has become our own holocaust museum. I feel I must weep for months to process it all.
Yesterday, we had a small Chuseok (fall harvest moon) celebration with friends near Gimpo in their cozy traditional restaurant, and it was a most extraordinary meal, followed by a walk to a Koryo-era Buddhist temple, and a visit to a park on the Han River. Later Jung-In played flute with their son, Jin-Kyu, her former student at Gandhi School, a talented guitarist. As they riffed off American jazz standards and Korean folk songs, I felt a glimmer of what healing could be. A warm vibration filled the restaurant, overflowing into the street as pedestrians peered through the windows, under the hazy, almost-full moon. Syncopation, improvisation, deep listening, and play are our tools.
I am here. That is enough for now. More to come.