A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Seollal that ends well

Sorry that was weak.

This was a long weekend because of the Korean lunar New Year Seollal. For millions of Koreans, that means the trek back to your hometown to visit with grandparents and relatives. For us expats it means wandering the significantly less bustling streets, and marveling at the fact that for a short time in Korea, it's difficult to find a place to eat, or things to buy. Don't misunderstand, the crush of progress still rages on, you just have to look a little harder.

On my way down into the subway in Bucheon it was like walking into a tomb. What is usually a busy nest of walkways selling clothes, watches, cell-phones and shoes was now a gallery of horizontal metal sliding doors. Every shop in Korea seems to have the same metal garage-like security door with red, yellow and blue racing stripes across the middle. Forget the tomb comparison— this was more like the hallowed hall of an underground Formula 1 cult.

Anyway, I made my way to Sadang Station to meet Shane, where we embarked on a relatively aimless journey to find some lunch and wander... ah... did I already say aimlessly?

We headed north, across the river and took to the streets. There were still lots of people about, but it was much less manic than your typical Sunday in Seoul. While we were wandering (I have no idea where exactly) we came across a quiet street with a welcoming temple arch which begged investigation.

The grounds consisted of about 6 large buildings, 4 of them temple pavilions, and what looked sort of like a Plexiglas bus shelter, but was full of white candles people were lighting ceremoniously. There was such a wonderful calm to the place. Then I saw this:

There were several of these huge Buddha statues in the main temple, but I didn't want to get too close for a shot since there were lots of people praying inside. In front of the statues there were small wooden bowls full of fruit, and people knelt on grey mats and bowed their heads. It was just completely transfixing. There is something about the majesty of these statues that just sucks me in. Back in September when Edison and Shane and I saw the national treasure "Contemplative Buddha" statue at the National Museum, we just sat and stared at it for close to 10 minutes. I've never been a religious person but there is something about the grandeur of temples and churches and iconography which is just so captivating.

That said, when I first arrived here I was surprised when I saw my first "swastika" on a sign or temple front. It's sometimes hard to remember that it was their symbol first. We're so exposed to the symbol only in Nazi regalia in Western movies and history that you sort of feel uncomfortable just looking at it, even here on display in it's righteous, natural context. I think that's really unfortunate.

This small shrine was dotted with offerings of bottled water, bags of rice, and small Buddha statues which you can't see on the opposite side. In front, people burned sticks of incense on a small pyre. There was some particular significance to this structure, but I can't remember what the plaque in front of it said. It contained the ashes of a significant spiritual leader, but I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember who. I need to start taking notes, I'm getting rusty!

This was the smaller of the 3 pavilions, and the only unpainted one. The only flourish are those gold Chinese letters. It's interesting the way the Chinese alphabet mixes into Korean Buddhist since I suppose many of these temples out-date the written Korean language (hangul). It's sort of like the Latin of Buddhism I guess... Pie Iesu Domine. Dona Eis Requiem *thunk*

"Hey Buddha! Where d'ya keep ya boxes?"

"'round back."


Next stop was Insadong market, which was still bustling with activity. I noticed this interesting motivational message on the side of a building:

"Okay," I was compelled to respond.

We found a awesome restaurant tucked away in an artsy little alley, to finally have that lunch we'd been thinking about all afternoon. It was a neat little three floor building with warm bare wood floors and walls, and cozy booths. It was sort of a cross between a tree-fort and a traditional Korean house. I ordered dukmanduguk (rice cake and dumpling soup) which is a traditional food to eat on Seollal. It was delicious and filling and looked like this:

After lunch, and later coffee and later still beer, Shane and I parted ways and I began the long subway ride home. While I was waiting in Seoul Station, an older gentleman came up to me and offered me his hand. I shook it and politely said hello, and he started speaking in Korean I couldn't understand and kept making a circular gesture with his hands, like making an imaginary globe in the space between our heads. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled to indicate I didn't understand him. He laughed and took my hand to shake again and then pressed it against his cheek for a moment and smiled and walked on his merry way.

I was kind of confused, but I guess he was happy to have me in his country. Or maybe he just like the cut of my jib, whatever he may have perceived that to be. It was nonetheless nicer than a sour look and muttering "Migugin" (American person) with disdain. Not that that happens often...

Let the Year of the Golden Pig properly commence!


Anonymous said...

Hi Sam
I really enjoy your photo segments although your reference to the 'swastika' symbol tweaked a bit of trivia I picked up somewhere. This is actually an ancient religious symbol in Korea. When you look at a real swastika the arms are in reverse and it's usually turned in a diamond shape/angle. Don't worry. I double-checked in google as well. Lynnie

Sam said...

I did know that about the symbol, it's just still the first thing you tend to think when you see it, even when you know it's different. It's just a shame it's been polluted in that way from a symbol of prayer to something tattooed on a skin-heads knuckles in a prison movie...