Archive | October, 2009

Makkeolli Breakfast

31 Oct

Yesterday I went for a brief excursion away from the box city that is Bundang.  I trekked north an hour and a half via subway to Bukhansan National Park, a collection mountains just north of Seoul.  If there is any natural element that is fundamental to understanding Koreans, it is the mountain.  Their whole country consists of hills and peaks of one kind or another.  And climbing them is in their blood.


The path on the way up was lined, at least for first kilometer or two, by huts.  Enterprising (or desperate) merchants sold various foodstuffs, alcohol, walking sticks, outdoor clothing, etc, from ramshackle huts that seemed half-abandoned much of the time.  They had cheap concrete floors, piles of empty soju bottles in the corner, maybe a tarpaulin covering a makeshift patio with rickety tables and chairs.  I thought this place was supposed to be a national park but I guess that has a different connotation here.  After less than a kilometer, the Korean couple in front of me stopped at a bench and the Korean man called for me to sit down.  Wishing to be the hospitable foreigner, I obliged.  We conversed back and forth in broken Korean and sparse English.  I gave him part of one of my chocolate bars.  He and his wife were very thankful.  I awkwardly walked with them for the next kilometer or two, at a pace much slower than the one I wished I was taking.  Still, I didn’t feel like I could abandon them.  The man kept pointing out various sights in English and seemed to enjoy my company for the most part.  He only spoke to his wife perhaps four or five times over the entire journey, something I found curious.  Yet perhaps I should not have, given the propensity of older, more traditional Korean women to remain in the shadow of their husband.  I lost them at one point when I stopped to take a picture.  Marching ahead, I was stopped by a group of Korean men who had left the parking lot at the same time as me.  Instead of charging to the top, as I intended to in good American fashion, they had stopped for a leisurely snack.  The ringleader beckoned me over with an underhanded swing of the fingers.  “Hanguk makkeolli,” he said, as he poured me a tiny paper cup full of carbonated rice wine.  I took it and an apple slice and two slices of kimbap with a hearty “Kamsahapnida.”  So here I was, on the side of a strange trail I had no map for, drinking milky rice liquor with Korean men at little past 9 in the morning.  Such are the regular and bizarre ocurrences of my life.  The men showed little interest in talking to me and seemed to take my offer of more chocolate almost as an obligation.  I thanked them again and we parted ways, a weird, slightly uncomfortable, yet enriching encounter between two very different peoples behind us.  Eventually I caught back up with the old man and his reticent wife.

A walk in the woods.

The trail to the top wound past several temples, each a strange combination of traditional painted-wood architecture along with adjacent cast-concrete modern buildings, with the ubiquitous double-hinged glass doors you will find in every building in this country.  Toward the top, the trail got steeper and I encountered steel cables threaded through posts sunk deep into the rock.  It was the sort of intrusion that most Americans would find abhorrent in any remotely distant area.  We prefer our wilderness as pure as possible.  Yet Korea is a small and heavily populated country and, given the sort of traffic they get, I am not surprised they choose to install helpful handholds along the way.

The final approaches were treacherous, even with the immense rusty cables aiding my grip.  The rocks, though textured to the eye, were slippery under the ball of my foot.  The top was beautiful, although you could see little.  Baekundae looks down on Seoul, theoretically, as well as surrounding mountain ranges.  But in reality you could see little because of the pollution.  I’ve seen smog from the mountains, it’s nothing new to me.  But this was something else entirely.  Visibility here was limited to a matter of miles at best, and that was from almost 900m up over a fairly flat  coastal plain.  Strangely, the photos represent the day much clearer than the naked eye did.  You’re supposed to be able to look right down into Seoul from Baekundae but that was impossible.  The city just wasn’t there.  Still, I stayed for a while, soaking in the natural serenity as much as I could, even with people coming and going noisily about me.

Noisy.  That’s what Koreans are.  Not in a bad way.  I confess I must make a retraction regarding my last post.  My criticism of Koreans I believe was based far, far too much on the limited crowd I regularly encounter in the city.  Once outside the concrete and asphalt, Korean become a different breed.  Perhaps that is the case with any people: their true nature lies somewhere in the countryside, somewhere they can let down their guard and relax, allowing themselves to act human again.  I realized, or perhaps re-recognized, today that Koreans are an energetic people.  At a superficial level, everything seems placid, orderly, harmonious.  People follow rules, seem reserved, do what is required.  But when on their own, away from the strictures of modern life, they are very passionate.  They speak and interact with vigor.  The old men at the top of Baekundae accented their words with such guttural fury that I doubt even the most ardent German could replicate it.  Koreans laugh and poke fun and shouts exclamations at the top of their lungs and don’t care a damn.  They question, probe, and wonder deeply, and seem genuinely interested in the answer.  There is little artifice with them.

Bukhansan Natl Park

I realized today how fortunate I am to be in this country and learning from it.  Though I have only been here a little over four months, experiences like today have shaped me in positive ways that are inexplicable in their scope.  Korea has taught me the power and importance of the heart.  That is the place that Koreans draw their every action.  For them, the mind resides not between the ears.  It resides in the heart, equal to their gut instinct.  It gives them passion, determination, an understanding of their place in the harmony of the universe.  How many times I have wondered why Westerners became entranced with the East.  It is only now that I understand that, at least in terms of Korea, there is a unified and wholesome understanding of life here, one not readily visible but ever-living beneath the surface.

My college education is perhaps one of the greatest tools ever bestowed upon me.  Furman University, and the handful of professors I studied under class after class, crafted my mind into a sharp tool.  I know how to assess a situation, to tear it apart, separate the good from the bad, understand nuance and subtlety.  I can research, I can reason, I can argue and stand my ground in the face of well-founded opposition.  I feel completely capable of handling any intellectual challenge thrown across my path.  Yet it is only now that I have come to understand a fundamental failing in the liberal arts education and the system of thought that has built it.  For the well-rounded liberal arts graduate, the world seems to have unlimited possibilities.  Only the boundaries of your mind can restrain you.  Yet what few recognize are the limits imposed upon one’s mind, and one’s self in general, by the liberal arts.  For such a school emphasizes reason above all.  We must criticize, we must analyze, we must always ask questions.  But there is a moral failing in that criticizing and analyzing and questioning becomes an end, not the means to Truth.  One must doubt, question, and believe in as little as humanly possible because of that mandate, the mandate of Reason.  It is what I was trained, for four long, long years, to believe was right.  Yet now I recognize the folly in its ends.  We drive men toward rationality, to believe only in what their minds can teach them.  That is the modern, Western way.  Be it a priori or empirical, we must judge everything by ideas and information, by the measurable and quantifiable.  Yet if our minds can ascertain nothing, and we are incapable of discovering Truth, what good is that?  I have experienced such a quandary over and over, which, if one is not careful, can turn a wise person into a solipsist.  I am fortunate that I have survived with my values and beliefs, for whatever reason.  Others are not so lucky.  I see my peers walking about, healthy, successful, and confident, yet a complete and utter vacuum when it comes to any scrap of meaning within themselves.  These are the people who will run our world in the years to come; they are the future corporate leaders, lawyers, bureaucrats, and academics.  And reason, in the form of the infinite and perpetual Socratic question, has turned them into amoral beings, hardly recognizable when compared to humans from any other century.

Yet Korea has saved me from that.  I came here knowing that it would shape me in many shapes.  But I never expected this way.  Koreans have shown me the inalienability of the heart from the mind.  In the modern West there is forever the debate over objective truth, how elusive it is, how no one ever lives up to it, how utterly broken and despicable we are until such an ideal is attained.  Korea has cast such sophomoric notions out of my mind.  We cannot be objective because there is no separating emotions from reason in the first place.  That is what we don’t want to acknowledge in our critique of the failure of objectivity.  The mind is utterly and intractably tied to the body and the spirit.  We may try to be objective, to approximate such an ideal as best we can.  Yet there is something deeper and more wholesome that does and, in the Korean mind, should drive us.  It is that sense of heart, that grasp of emotion, a sense of place within the universe, whatever it may be.  It is a contentedness and acceptance of where and who one is, and a desire to do right by whatever inexplicable virtues and motives drive a man.  Naturally, the rationalist will poo-poo such notions as foolish and illogical.  But then again he is defining things in utterly different ways and rather hypocritically, too.  He is unwilling to admit that his values are definable in emotional terms while he simultaneously subjects emotion to rational evaluation.  I doubt that he, the complete believer in what is reasonable, material, and definable, is nearly as happy as the Koreans I have met who carry such enthusiastic spirit within them.

And isn’t happiness what we seek?  As an American, I find such instruction from a foreign people not degrading but uplifting.  Koreans have a great yet tragic history, one spattered in blood and strife.  Yet through it has survived a sense of self, of community, and of that ill-defined yet powerful connection to the world about them.  They understand at a gut level what happiness must be.  They can be materialistic, they can be status-obsessed, just as we are.  Yet that is tempered at a basic level by a deep and abiding sense of heart and emotion, one that ties them to other people and the world around them.  As America becomes more fractured, more affluent, more distant from its past self, it would do us well to learn from Koreans.  Our nation is rapidly becoming one of pretense, artifice, and incomprehensible complexity.  If we are to remain a free and noble people at a political and societal level, as well as (perhaps more importantly) at a personal level,  we should reflect upon our ‘pursuit of happiness.’  The ideal is a pursuit, a chase, not something that can necessarily be achieved.  Yet it is what we seek.  Happiness is a simple virtue, an emotion of contentedness and sense of place.  It is not something that we can measure by census or income or ideology.  Reason holds no power over it.  This is what we have forgotten in the last forty or fifty years, as we have used our minds and our reason to build more and more complex systems which will never give us what our most basic document says we need as human beings.

I hiked down from Baekundae with a strange sense of belonging.  Suddenly I felt no longer a stranger in this country.  People may stare at me and they may make fun of my pronunciation.  But I know in my heart the sort of people they are — their actions tell me.  I see it in the freely-given cup of makkeolli on the mountainside, in the energetic “Hello!” passing on the street, in the young man lounging with his girl on a mat in the woods, talking endlessly, both of them gazing at the changing leaves and thinking only of what they mean to each other.    The universe has purpose here in Korea; we all have a place, a role — it is merely ours to find it.