Soon after arriving in Seoul, I looked at a tourist map and found there was a Buddhist temple in Kangnam called Bongeunsa and I really wanted to go see it. I headed out alone one day and took Line 8 to Jamsil and switched to the Green Line and went around 5 stops on it to Samseong-dong. This was where the famous Korean Trade Center is. But since there was no Google Maps to help me and Seoul was so huge and confusing, I went all the way around that immense city block trying to find the temple. I asked a few people where it was. I called it Bong-EUN-sa. No one knew what I was saying and it’s a wonder I came across it at all after going very far out of my way. I realised later it’s because they pronounce it Bon-GEUN-sa! See how tricky and frustrating it can be? Even my pronounciation of the B sound wasn’t right. I think I was supposed to say the B sound with a bit of a P sound simultaneously. I could never do it no matter how I tried.
My first time there, it was a nice sunny morning and it was an exciting area to be in. The temple was set in the bustling city streets but when I was on the grounds, there was no traffic noise, like being on the palace grounds and hearing no sounds of the city. As you walk around a temple’s grounds, you hear the monks chanting and you hear them hitting a special wooden block as they chant. This chanting and the rhythmic, hollow sounds of the wood blocks being “played” is coming out of speakers as you walk around looking at the colourful buildings at Buddhist temples in Korea. It’s so peaceful and beautiful. Worshippers are bowing outside of the main buildings and going inside to pray and meditate. I was so thrilled every time I went there. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was. I went to BonGeunSa at least 4 times while I lived in Korea.
A while ago I watched a video with a recent tour of this temple. It has changed. Some nice parts are gone, and like most other temples now in Korea, they are offering ‘Temple Stays’. A traveller can pay to stay overnight and have classes on Buddhism and eat what the monks eat, among other things. The temples in Korea need the revenue, I know, but they shouldn’t have made these temples overly modern and so brightly painted that they look garish. It’s so good I saw Bongeunsa before they wrecked it.
There is a movie called “Seven Years in Tibet” starring Brad Pitt. In it, the Brad Pitt character had befriended the Dalai Lama in Tibet, and he was building the Buddhists a new temple. There was a huge delay during the building while all the people, who were Buddhists, had to ‘save’ all the worms that had been dug up, and carry them on spoons to safety, because in Buddhism all living things need to be treated well. Even worms! So this white rabbit in the picture above was living at the temple and must have had a good, safe life, I imagine. One morning when I was there, a little flock of sparrows was chirping and flitting about. Birds were enchanted with Korea too, it seemed. I was always so happy such a massive city still had birds and animals in it.
As in the picture above, Korean temples had rows of paper lanterns in the courtyards, hung up. There was a rectangular piece of paper hanging down from each lantern. A person would donate money and write his or her name on that piece of paper to ask Buddha for good fortune. So the coloured lanterns were everywhere. I had never ever heard of such things and had never imagined such sights and sounds.
The finale of the whole temple was a yard with a 30-foot tall statue of Buddha, 2 lion statues and a large stone lantern in it. I had always wanted to see such things. It was incredible to me that I lived near such a place.
The whole area near Kyeongbokkung Palace in North Central Seoul has so many cultural sights. It’s full of tourist areas and relics. The road leading up to the palace, where the North Gate is, has 2 statues right in the middle of the busy road that are of utmost importance to the Korean people. One is of a famous, former general who defeated the Japanese once using extreme cunning and bravery, called General Lee. He is wearing a long suit of armour in the style of a robe. The other statue is a huge gold-coloured likeness of a former king, King Sejong, who created the unique Korean alphabet so his people would have their own language, separate from Chinese. He is sitting in a big chair or throne. These two statues are in the middle of the wide 10-lane road. Near this road, southeast of the statues, you’ll find a two-storey ‘Liberty Bell’ protected in a traditional-style structure that represents the Koreans’ final escape from Japanese rule once and for all. There is a national holiday once a year to celebrate this independence and reflect upon it.
There were numerous places and things over there which seemed to all have the same name, but that wasn’t necessarily the case at all. The English teachers pronounced ‘Sejong’ from my Sejong Institute class with a soft ‘o’, as in the way we would pronounce the o in the word ‘wrong’. Really, one of the businessmen staying at my institute in Karak-dong told me once very sternly, you have to pronounce Sejong with a hard ‘o’, as in the word ‘bone’. Some people and places called Sejong could have different ways of pronouncing the ‘e’, or the ‘o’ or sometimes the even the consonants. It does seem to me that the “Sejong Institute” where I taught the government ministers had the same pronounciation as the King Sejong in this case, with a hard “O”.
I must mention one morning when I emerged above ground in downtown central Seoul from the subway, I was stunned by the great ‘looming’ northern mountain that is behind King Sejong in the photo above. Not only was it’s size so impressive, but the morning sun was colouring the patches of granite on it a soft, pinkish-gold colour. I was taken aback by it, it was so striking. How could a mountain that was so far away seem so immense when there were hundreds of buildings between me and that mountain, I remember wondering to myself. That particular mountain is called Bukaksan, not to be confused with the group of mountains behind it further to the North, called the Bukhansan Mountains. ‘Buk’ is ‘north’. Many places are confusing, as the names seem similar to foreigners.
A tall brown brick building near the General Lee statue is the Kyobo Life Insurance Building. It’s in my photo of General Lee above. The Kyobo Building had the biggest bookstore in Korea in the bottom of it when I lived in Seoul. I went in once, and bought a bird guide in Korean and some New Year’s cards with artwork on them, like Korean folk art of cranes and deer and peach trees. There were no English books except study guides. Their ‘New Year’s’ wasn’t the same as Western New Year’s traditions, as it is related to their own unique holiday about it, and the date is never January first.
One time I walked around the North Central area of Seoul east of Kyeongbokkung Palace and going northward. The whole area was so interesting. I almost made it to the official Korean Presidential House but I got creeped out because this area was heavily guarded more and more as I walked, so I turned around to return home after a while. The reason for so much security is that not long before that time, a group of North Korean assassins was found very close to the Korean president. They had almost gotten to him. I did see some wonderful things that day.
Japan and China…..
The Japanese built a few large colonial-style buildings in Seoul when they ruled over Korea in the early 1900’s. These buildings are not liked by Korean people. Japan invaded and pillaged Korea and ruled over them many times over the past centuries. They captured artists and potential workers in Korea and brought them to Japan to do artwork and to do hard labour. Probably they took other groups like writers and musicians and scientists. When I read the news from over there in the last 22 years, there are many articles about disputes they have with Japan all the time. They argue still now over certain remote Korean (Japanese?) Islands. Each country is bound and determined these islands belong to them. There are Japanese school textbooks with incorrect and biased history statements about what went on between Korea and Japan through the years. Korea is always upset over this. The forced labour where captured Korean citizens built things that benefited Japan for years while the workers got no pay has been in the news from Korea a lot lately in 2019 and Koreans want restitution for it. The ‘Comfort women’ are the saddest of all. Hundreds of Korean girls were captured by the Japanese government during the Second World war and taken far away to camps where they had to sexually service Japanese soldiers while Japan battled its western enemies. The stories those poor old women tell/told are horrendous. It is going on and on and will never be really settled, it seems. There are other ongoing disputes as well, like boats being in the wrong waters and the proposed disposal of nuclear waste by Japan to be dumped in the water between the two countries .
One of the first talks I had with the businessmen at Votra was about how expensive Japan is. The man explaining told me that if you take a plane from Korea to Tokyo, Japan, your taxi to your hotel in Tokyo from the airport will cost more than your plane ticket from Korea to Japan! Many Canadians for years tell me “I would really love to go to Japan….” I say it’s not very cost feasible because everything in Japan costs 5 times more than it does in Canada. When I was in Japan in 1999, a drink that would cost a dollar in Canada cost $5 in Japan, and so on.
With regards to feelings about other countries, a businessman who was staying at my institute told me not long after I first arrived there what Korea thought about China. He said the Chinese army had a million soldiers at that time. He told me that China was going to be a very strong force soon and also that China would soon have so many soldiers that they could be a strong enemy of anyone, let alone Korea. They were wary of China, not in the same way Canadians are, as they thought of them as a physical threat. Most Canadians, on the other hand, think more of China as oppressing and controlling their people and committing human rights violations (I do not think about this in the same way as many Canadians do, however). Those businessmen were so interesting and they taught me a lot. On a side note, they told me they don’t like to eat with Chinese people because “the Chinese” have bad table manners. They pick their bowl of soup up and drink out of it, the Korean men said. I would never have had any experience knowing who from where eats what way at all. I found it was hilarious to listen to these impressions of their neighbours. One time a 63 year-old man who was half-Japanese was harassing me and wanted to sleep with me. A couple of Korean businessmen said, “It’s because he is half-Japanese”, very matter-of-factedly when I told them about my problem. Even more interesting to me was when a businessman explained you can tell the difference between a Korean person and a Japanese person by their teeth!!! He said the Japanese have crooked, bad teeth, because they eat too much seafood (!), but the Koreans have nicer teeth.
They all said they could easily tell instantly who was Korean, who was Chinese or who was Japanese. I can’t tell easily at all. Also, everyone over there was in awe of my eyelids! Many of the women would say to me immediately, “I love your eyelids!!!” and I heard “your eyelids are beautiful!” a number of times from Korean women. Korean women loved western women’s eyes because we have distinctive eyelids, and they don’t. I remember I would chuckle to myself all the time about it, thinking about all those years I hated my thighs, or my hair colour or my nose, and I had never thought about how I have “striking eyelids” at all! I would have given my eye teeth to look like a Korean woman instead of the way I always looked, even if I did have good eyelids.
I had forgotten about this, but the whole time I lived there almost every Korean person would ask, “How old are you?” when they first met me. I met so, so many people over there and as soon as they met me they would ask my age. Many times it was the first thing they would say to me! I couldn’t believe it, because in my culture it’s extremely forward to do that. Especially to a woman or a stranger. I came to realise that it’s because their society is strict about many, many rules. One steadfast rule in Korean society is that if someone is older than you, you must address them a certain way. If the person is younger than you are, you address them in a different way than if they’re older. Your bow will be different when you greet them if the person is older, than if they are younger than you. They didn’t have to say things a certain way to me or bow a certain way when they’d greet me but perhaps they always asked this when they met anyone, then. They were just so accustomed to asking.
Even their birthdays are complicated. It’s unreal. They told me in the west, like in Canada, a person’s age begins as soon as he’s born. In Korea, traditionally a baby’s age can begin at conception, so that adds 9 months to a person’s age over there. Additionally, and this was fascinating, a person can be just born and will already be considered 2 years old because of other factors, like the month of birth. So I said I was 28 years old, which I was. If one of them told me he was 30 years old, he very well could be 28 or 29 in his ‘Canadian age’. I had never imagined there was a ‘Korean age’ that was calculated differently from someone’s ‘Canadian age’. Nothing was the same as in Canada there.
Insadong is a popular tourist area not far southeast of the North Gate and Kyeongbokkung Palace. There are antique shops everywhere. I looked in one shop but I never had much money and knew I wasn’t allowed to take most antiques out of the country, so I never bought anything there. In the picture above, there are 2 replicas for sale of some ancient statues that have been found on an island in the south, Cheju Do. The ancient Korean people created statues like this and they were found all over that island.
How old are you? I had forgotten about that! and the second most asked question “Are you married?”
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Oh yes! I’m glad someone else knows what I mean. I’m trying to get time to read your posts about your memoirs of Korea….
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