Five blocks southeast of the North Gate was a temple called Chogyesa. It was considered to be the main Buddhist temple in all of Korea. And the richest one. Even though it was the richest one, it wasn’t as pretty as bright-coloured Bongeunsa and frankly, it wasn’t as nice-looking as the other temples in the country were. But it had a unique character and had a number of very special qualities of its own. And being located in the old downtown near the palaces and next to a neighborhood known for antique shops and Korean tea-drinking added to its authentic atmosphere.
I found Chogyesa by myself one day in December of 1997 and I found that it was so interesting. Chogyesa was right in the middle of the metropolis, with city buildings and streets close beside it. A wonderful thing about this temple was that monks who lived there were often chanting and hitting rhythmic blocks and this was hear knowd over speakers inside the grounds as you walked around and it could be heard outside of the temple too. There were speakers on buildings out at the sidewalk and people walking by on the street could hear the chanting and block-playing. A colony of monks lived at the temple and you could see one of them sometimes. Chogyesa had a long history that I could feel while I looked at the wooden buildings that really seemed to be old and weathered. This was good because all of Seoul’s Royal Palaces and all of the temples in Korea have been rebuilt in recent years to represent all of their original buildings that were destroyed by fire or by the Japanese hundreds of years ago. Therefore, some of these traditional attractions can look fake if their most recent paint job doesn’t look good.
The 500-year old pine tree that was still growing there in 1997 added to the historical aura of the temple along with the various paintings on the prayer buildings. Chogyesa’s wooden buildings had very elaborate golden statues of the Buddha in them but since I was a visitor and a “foreigner”, I didn’t want to be forward and interrupt anyone’s worship time by entering any structures to take pictures. I heard from the other teachers and read tourist information saying that you should ask permission to take pictures in Korea. Most Korean temples have Temple Stay options for visitors who want to learn about Buddhist traditions from real monks and stay overnight on the grounds for a few days. Those tourists can easily see the inside of prayer buildings, but things were different over twenty years ago.
Unfortunately, Chogyesa has now been completely changed and has garish gold-coloured figures scattered throughout it, like most Korean temples have in them nowadays. When I look at current videos of it I feel sad at the loss of the statue of the lion I liked so much(pictured below) and the paintings of km in Inn birds I saw there in the late 90’s.
Well, I had never imagined what happened next! After I took a picture of this special pine tree, one of the Korean monks appeared and spoke to me! He was so kind and was smiling. He asked if I wanted him to take a picture of me in front of the pine tree. Of course, in my utmost happiness and shock I said yes. After he took the picture I mustered the courage to dare to ask if I could take a picture of HIM in front of it. And he smiled and agreed. I asked him “Do you live here?…” and he said yes, he did live there. And then he had to move on. I can still feel the thrill I had.
Exploring with Sang-Hyun…
After my solo visit to Chogyesa, Sang Hyun and I went there on one of our sight-seeing days together. The weather was better that day then when I had gone alone so the pictures were brighter from the sunshine. I bought a few souvenirs too. This made my memories of that day even better than they would have been without the souvenirs and without Sang Hyun. You see, he explained about my Buddhist purse that I bought, and took me to a Korean Tea House nearby.
That Buddhist purse had a tiny Buddhist Bible inside. You can see how small it is. If you open it, it really has Korean writing, very tiny, inside on the small pages! Sang Hyun put a few coins inside the purse for me. He said this is for ‘good luck’. One of the coins above is ₩500 (500 Won) and I of course loved those particular coins because of the flying crane pictured on them. They were like 50 cents. It’s funny, someone could look at my 3 dollar purse and say, well, so what?, but it has a lot of meaning for me.
We also went to Kyeongbokkung that day and stopped at his workplace that was across the street from the palace.
I didn’t fully realise it that day, but Sang Hyun did me an extra favour by bringing me in a Korean Tea House. Going to a tea house in that neighbourhood near the temple is a tourist attraction now. There are rituals to follow and it was complicated, unbelievably. I do remember we sat together and had a cup of green tea. The cups are very small and you sip it slowly.
A few times it was really unbelievable that Korean babies could see I looked different. I would be on a crowded subway car and a woman would be holding an infant a few months old and that baby would be crying and crying. The infant was inconsolable. When the baby saw me he stopped crying abruptly and stared at me! This happened more than once. I couldn’t believe it. An infant! The babies who did this stared at me and couldn’t take their eyes away from me! Staring and staring and not crying anymore. Everyone on the train noticed, of course. And then THEY stared! The people who told me I shouldn’t go to Korea and said I’d be the only person like me on the subway car had certainly been right. I was the only person who looked like me on the whole train.
This of course made me more painfully aware that I was very different and alone and when it got to me that I missed Canada, I was feeling an alienation that is hard to describe. It’s a wonder I could do what I did, when I look back at it all. Even though I had wonderful Korean friends and loved it I missed reading English or seeing it most of all. There was hardly any English anywhere ever, at all. It gets to you that no one understands how you feel about anything over and over again. I started crying at a park with Sang Hyun once because I saw a few Korean family members laughing and enjoying that park in front of me. He was not wanting me to cry, and didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t help it. By the end of it I missed hearing French too, I remember, as I had studied French for 12 years of my life and my city in Canada was 50% French. Funny, I get annoyed with French while I am in Canada, but everything was so absolutely different and so totally foreign when I lived in Seoul that missing Canada nagged at me more and more once the culture shock had subsided. I did a lot to experience Korea in my five and a half months there though. I would never have chosen to not experience it. There were 2 older foreign English-speaking men I met who lived in apartments on their own and did a few classes for Mr. Kim here and there. They loved Korea and had chosen to permanently live there long-term. One gave himself a Korean name and the other one was from South Africa. I understand those men, but my husband was not legally allowed to work there because his education was different than mine, so I decided to live back in Canada later instead of getting my husband to live there with me. I did strongly consider living there long-term with my husband back then.
Every week while I lived there on Sunday night, I’d go downstairs and over to the next lot where the Han Shin Apartments were to call my husband and then my mother. There was a payphone to use outside. I used a phone card or coins. It was Sunday morning in Atlantic Canada when I called them. I always asked my husband how our 2 cats were. I wrote letters to people back home and their letters took 2 to 4 weeks to arrive. I don’t know how any mail got anywhere, period, as everything was written in English.
Korean people explained that there were many places called Public Bathhouses that you could go into and have a bath or take a sauna. They described the inside and the towels and soap and possible rooms to go in and what everybody did in them. They said the Bathhouses were common and very popular. I would have loved to go and try it but never got a chance. Many, many times a place had a sign with a picture of rising ‘steam’ on it and I think this meant it was one of these baths. Also, they explained there were Places of Rest, where you would go in and pay to take a nap. They said there was even one of these places behind my institute. I had heard that they did this in Japan but didn’t know they did it in Korea too. Seeing everyone asleep on the subway made me think it was a good idea. By the end of it, I was sleeping on the subway too in the afternoons travelling to Aju from Bucheon.
One day Sang Hyun had a special treat in store for me. We got in his little white car and drove and drove. It was a Sunday, I remember. We went north and to the west of Seoul. On and on. And on. We came to a satellite city called Goyang-shi and stopped there and visited someone he knew in one of the apartment buildings there. Then we went further west. We were going to an observatory where you can view North Korea! There is Panmunjom, and it is mentioned and shown on the American news a lot. If you go, it is formal and you may be filmed and no jeans are allowed to be worn. I was wearing my jeans that day. Odusan Observatory is one of several places other than Panmunjom along the North-South border to view North Korea that is never mentioned to westerners.
My pictures of the land of North Korea were faded so I didn’t include any here. But it was interesting what I saw there. Korean people were very somber and serious. They were standing outside and inside, staring sadly towards the North. It was really something. There are families who have been separated since the war and cannot see eachother. A few times both countries (it depends on North Korea) have agreed to let some families meet one more time and they are for example, a 74 year-old son who hasn’t seen his 95 year-old mother for almost 70 years! Then they have to say goodbye again forever. It is extremely sad.
Floral and Fauna…
I did learn a little about what was different in Korea about insects and flowers. In my province in Canada, we suffer with aggressive mosquitoes for over 4 months. By September, there aren’t as many as in summertime and in October there are a few that you don’t notice bothering you and then there are none until the end of May in the coming year. Over there, the mosquitoes were smaller than ours and their bites were smaller too. There were a few inside even in November and December but they seemed ‘stunned’ to me, as they weren’t ferocious like mosquitoes back home. On the subject of flowers, you wouldn’t expect to see any in such a crowded city, but it was common to see real red roses that had been planted along the sidewalks. I swear I even saw a red rose growing in such a way on December first! Where I’m from, gardeners pray their rose bushes will live and most of them do not make it through the winter. Small, tame mosquitoes and red roses in the streets…..seemed pretty good to me!
Not long after I had arrived in Seoul, people told me that it would soon be Chuseok. It’s a week-long national, traditional holiday in October where family members make fancy, beautiful food offerings to their ancestors and relatives who have passed away. There are certain rituals they do that last for 3 days. They dress in their unique (families have their own official colours and patterns, like Scottish tartans) satin-like Hanbeok outfits. This was all done again for a week in January when it was called Solnal. Sometimes you hear of traffic jams in China because of people all driving to their hometowns at the same time for Chinese New Year. This exodus also happens in Korea. It goes on twice a year: once during October for Chuseok, and once sometime in January for Solnal. Some westerners think of the October holiday as Korean Thanksgiving and Solnal as Korean New Year. We teachers had a week off for each holiday. Speaking of holidays, I noticed that they had many, many holidays in Korea because they had such an extremely long history. It was mind-boggling. There was Kids’ Day, Grandparents’ Day, and every kind of ‘Day’ you can imagine, as well as numerous historical days to mark independence from Japan, China or Mongolia. Some holidays remembered battles, or kings and queens, or were special religious days for Buddhists or Christians. One time I looked at one of their calendars and the whole thing was peppered on every page with holidays.
One of the reasons males seem to be preferred over females in a number of ways is because during Chuseok and Solnal, the oldest son must perform the ceremonies at home when they bow to their ancestors and make their offerings. Sail talked about this and said it was stressful and a lot of pressure for him because his father, who would have done a lot of this, had passed away a few years before. He told me it was very traumatic for him to lose his father and see him die of stomach cancer. On an off note, stomach cancer was the leading cause of death in Korea at the time, because of the acid and spice from all the kimchi people eat. The second leading cause of death was a car accident. In Canada, our leading causes of death were heart disease first and the second was cancer in general, I believe, at the time.
The ceremonies they perform at these times are strongly connected to Buddhism, I always thought. At one point in the past they all followed Buddhism or a Shamanistic religion. Ancestors are not supposed to be gone forever and are sleeping or have been reincarnated. Sang Hyun told me his parents who lived on the coast to the south of Seoul were still following Buddhism but he was “no religion” himself. In many of the little restaurants I went in there was a dried fish hanging above a main doorway to ward off bad luck. Buddhists did this. Sang Hyun had a dried fish above one of his doorways in his apartment. He said his mother gave it to him and insisted he put it there, even if he wasn’t going to practice Buddhism. Most Koreans had Buddhist beads or symbols hanging from their rear-view mirror in their cars to protect them from being hurt in an accident, they all told me.
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