Tag Archives: hiking

Alien by Choice

4 Feb

I hiked Inwangsan the other day.  It was a surprisingly quiet mountain, considering how close it is to the downtown regions of Seoul.  I thought that surely it would be swarmed with middle-aged power hikers elbowing everyone else in their blitz to the top.  But I saw perhaps only a few dozen people all day.  One of them stopped me on the trail and struck up a conversation.  When a Korean stops you to speak in English, you know it’ll either be funny, perhaps even endearing, or annoying, bordering on creepy.  But you’re almost always guaranteed to get a story out of them.

“Hi, my name’s Kim.  Are you from the US?”

I found out why Kim was interested.  The thin-haired Korean showed me his green card.  Been in the States since ’82, but never naturalized.  I didn’t ask him why, because he kept talking a mile a minute about living up and down the West Coast.  He kept asking me if there were mountains like Inwangsan in America.  By that, he explained, he meant with lots of rocks.  I told him there were, but he didn’t seem to believe me.  “There aren’t any on the West Coast.”  Well, I would have thought that 30 years in the US would have taught him that there’s just about every landform imaginable.  I insisted there were, but he didn’t seem to have heard me and kept saying, “Ah, but there’s no paths like this.”

He kept repeating over and over that he’d grown up here.  But it took a few minutes before it was that he meant here, right next to Inwangsan.  “I lived here for 13 years,” said Kim.  “I used to walk up part of the mountain when I was a kid.”

He pointed down the mountain toward the construction barricades visible in the picture below.  “That was my apartment building. The Ogin-dong (옥인동) Apartments.  They tore it down now, the Korean government did.  I grew up there.”

“Do you know how much they cost?  The apartments, do you know how much they cost?  Ah . . . ah . . . ah, in 1970 . . . two thousand dollars.  Yes, two thousand dollars to own a 500 square foot apartment.  The smallest kind.”

He rambled on about something else as the sun continued dropping and the temperature along with it.  He somehow made it back to his point.  “Two thousand dollars in 1970.  And the Korean government is reclaiming the land.  It’s very valuable.  Now they pay . . . for the 500 foot apartments, you know, the small ones . . . three hundred thousand dollars!  Three hundred thousand . . . oh, that’s a lot of money.”

He then rambled on about random places he’d been around America, his glass tinting business, his Korean friends and family back in America, his father’s disaster in an ice storm.  Kim even came back to the topic of the mountain, asking the same questions again.  He kept talking on and on, but I listened anyway.  He was one of the fellows who either doesn’t know when to end a conversation, is lonely and starved for conversation, or might be a tad on the mentally unstable side.  Perhaps a slight touch of all three.

“I’m thinking about moving back here,” he said.  “The economy in America is pppffffffffffttttttttt.”

Eventually, we parted ways and he directed me the right way to get down, headed toward Gwanghwamun.

I’m thinking about moving back here.  His words stuck in my head as I descended Inwangsan.  How quickly things can change.  His parents probably struggled to escape poor ’60s Korea and were thankful to do so.  That’s the Korean Dream in large part — getting the hell out of your own country, while not assimilating too much into another culture so as to become a ‘bad’ Korean.

Kim had never naturalized himself in the States, even after 30 years, and now, when he looks at the hand the world deals him these days, he thinks about doing what perhaps his parents had fantasies of but never truly expected — going back to Korea.  And now Kim’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen looks like a smart move to him.  He’s still got the Korean passport; though his whole frame of reference is the United States, he lucked out on how he played this hand and can move back to Korea with ease, where the economy is good, the crime is less, and the people walk everywhere, as Kim pointed out.

But is it his home?  After all, his parents, brother, friends still live in America.  He wants to come back to what is nominally his homeland, but after being away since he was 13, how much does he really identify with it?  All he knows is his perception that America is pppfffffffffftttttttt, as half-formed as his notions of American geology, and his feeling that somehow this place, Korea, is the future.

What kind of future, with whom, for what end — well, those things didn’t seem to weigh on him.  I wanted to castigate him in some regard, but after some thought, I couldn’t.  After all, am I, or others like me, that much different?   I jumped to the other side of the world for a job, for adventure, to just get away in a certain sense.  My time has been a couple years, his longer.  At some point, perhaps arbitrary, one makes the shift from being a temporary interloper like myself to a permanent exile of one’s own choice.  But are our ends, our methods that much different?  Aren’t we both gaming the system?  Kim is not really that much different from me and my English ability which I did not work for and my passport which I did not earn but grants me the freedom to jump about and be respected anywhere I go.

Searching for the 마을 bus, I found the construction barricades and the spot where Kim’s old apartment building had once stood.  There will surely be a new, taller, sleeker one in its place, crammed with more people than before.  I wonder, what will those who grow up there be like?  Will they end up like Kim and me?  Biding their time with one eye on the look out for the next leap to be made, never existing fully in a single reality, but always guessing, planning, trying to game the system to jump to the one that looks better, only to find themselves doing so again?

Perhaps this is a necessity for survival in this modern, globalized world.  Perhaps we cannot fault ourselves for the ways and views set within us, recognized only once beyond the point of altering them entirely.  But that does not strip away the harsh fact that, as long as we act like this, we are homeless people.  Us as homeless does not mean we are without land, state, plenty, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.  Rather, it is the fact that none of those things coalesce into a larger whole, a home.

Pity us not, though, for it is our choice.  We love the journey, the change too much.


Hope for Korean Beer

30 Oct

Mungyeong Saejae is yet another example of a beautiful piece of Korea’s fascinating and demanding past ruined by the ajumma/ajeossi weekend tour bus crowd, hordes of neon-clothed boomers showing up by the thousands, if not tens of thousands, to shove and elbow their way down a path whose ancient ruggedness has been ruined by the perpetual urge to park-ify anything remotely challenging with flat, wide paths, drainage ditches, and vendors and advertising running all the way up into the forest.  How incredible it is to consider the long treks porters made up the old Yeongnam Daero with their 지게 A-frames, up the narrow valleys and over the surprisingly formidable mountains into Chungcheong, and how impossible it is to envison the road’s past importance amongst all those crowds.

However, even a despiser of progress as recalcitrant as myself couldn’t be upset with one of the many vendors hawking their wares outside the first gate.  They sold Mungyeong Omija Beer, and only W2500 per pint at that.

Actually, it’s omija (오미자) and apple together, both of which the Mungyeong area is well known for.  I will go out on a limb and say right now that this is the best beer I’ve had in Korea, period, either domestic (both name-brand and craft-brewed) or imported.  The omija lends a tart edge to it and the apple a tad of sweetness, making the taste very well rounded, especially for the fall weather.  But even beyond the fruit addition, the beer had good body to it.  I was, quite frankly, shocked at the quality.  Most craft brewers in the States would be well satisfied to have this beer as a part of their lineup, and for Korea to produce a beer of that quality is damn impressive.

If you’re in the Mungyeong area, find all the 문경 오미자사과 생맥주 that you can and drink it up.  The contact numbers are obvious in the above picture; it would be great to keep this fledgling experiment in brewing going, as the addition of the omija is a very Korean twist, it supports the local farmers, and the quality should be an example to the rest of the brewers here of what they should be striving for.

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.