Friday, March 24, 2006

What's so amazing about enlightenment?

I had the most interesting conversation yet in Korea when I bought my cell phone. Which, by the way, was weeks ago; I can't believe how long it has been that I've meant to write about it. I am so used to life with my "hand phone," as they call them. I can't believe how long I didn't have one here. Now I am eminently reachable!

I'd put it off because of the prohibitive cost of a new mobile phone; most foreigners buy a used one from a departing expat and do pre-paid because you have to pay a big deposit to get on a monthly plan. I ended up buying a used phone from this guy in Busan, which is about an hour and a half and $8 away by bus. I'd been wanting to make another trip there anyway, so one Sunday I took a little afternoon trip and did some sightseeing before and after meeting up with the phone guy. We rendezvoused at the Pusan National University subway stop; PNU is surrounded by a very cool hipster-restaurant-shopping area, so before I met him I wandered.

Pusan is a nice city, and this was the north area getting into the hills, such a great setting. I checked out the big PNU gate and wandered around the campus. What an awesome sensation that was! There's just something about a college campus--even in a foreign country. I love the feel of them. It got me excited about getting back to school again, of course. Soon...

I found this guy's ad for the phone on one of the on-line Korea discussion forums; he's Korean, about 30, very cool, speaks great English and works with foreigners fixing their computers. He was really laid back and friendly. We went to the SK Telecom office together so I could register for my prepaid plan. That was quite kind of him. So after all that, and talking for a bit, and me sending my inaugural text message to the U.S. and receiving a reply (hurrah! I'm texting again!), cell phone dude and I were going to part ways at the subway station.

He asked about my plans for the rest of the afternoon, which consisted of visiting the must-see Buddhist temple Beomeosa. "I'm so curious," he said. "Why do so many foreigners like to go to Buddhist temples?" It was kind of hard to come up with a succint answer. Plus I can really only speak for myself. But we got to talking more and he found out I hadn't had lunch and invited me to join him at his favorite restaurant there in the PNU area. Of course I launched into my litany of issues about vegetarian, no fish either, but on top of that I can't have seaweed...I politely declined mostly because I'm so high maintenance for Koreans when I go out to eat, not because he was creepy or anything. He was really chill and nice. He then surprised me by saying no, come on, we'll procure the vegetarian food; after a bit of arm-twisting I agreed to join him.

We had a delicious stew that they cook at your table in a huge bowl over an open flame. When he asked our server to bring all the ingredients except the meat, she resisted and told him it wouldn't be any good that way, but he persevered. He was surprised and delighted at how tasty it was without the meat. He was like, "I'm going to tell all my friends!"

As I may have mentioned a thousand times here before, the Korean concept of "vegetarian" is generally "yes, we have seafood." He said he'd never really known there were vegetarians until he watched Friends, because of Phoebe's "no food with a face." He asked me lots of questions about why and when I became a vegetarian, and if it makes me feel healthier (yes). I even sort of explained the story of my decision to finally take the plunge at age 16, there in the PETA tent at Lollapalooza, and this guy's English was good enough to understand. He has learned so much English, by the way, largely from watching television shows like Friends and Sex and the City, so he asked me to recommend some other TV shows on DVD for him. That was hard. I'm so not a television viewer. He wanted "shows like Friends" so I suggested Seinfeld and Mad About You; I also think The Simpsons would be good for practicing English. I put in a plug for Lost too, figuring he should have the best new drama.

Anyway, as we were discussing animal advocacy and so on he said most people in Korea never really think about those issues, but the subject of hunting was very interesting to him. There's like zero wildlife in Korea, I swear. He was so curious about hunting. What do people hunt? He asked me. Well, deer, for starters. "Really?" he said. "And then what do they do with it?" I told him they eat it, and maybe hang the head on their wall. He'd seen that before, maybe in some movies. Then I thought -- what else do people hunt? I tried "moose." No idea. I found the word in my Korean-English dictionary, and he said, "Oh, right, that's a really big deer." That was funny. Then birds, of course: ducks, quail. Rabbits. Foxes in England. Um...bears maybe? It was kind of hard to try to think of what people hunt. It's a mystifying world to me too, but nothing like it was to him.

"Is it legal?" he asked. So I explained about hunting licenses, and hunting season, and everyone taking off school and work for the first day of deer season in Utah and ridiculous things like that. Then, and I knew this would freak him out, I told him there are such things as fishing licenses, too.

It was seriously one of the most interesting conversations I've had in Korea. We also talked more about Buddhism because I told him it's hard for us to understand why Buddhist monks can be vegetarian and never harm any living being for their meals but that concept doesn't gel with the general Korean public. He said that's a really good point! Right on, one down, 47,599,999 more Koreans to go. He was still curious about people's interest in visiting Buddhist temples, and I told him I just think it's fascinating to learn the history and see the magnificent settings and feel the peace there.

He was totally hinting that he wanted to come with me to Beomeosa, so I finally invited him along. He was pretty impressed by Lonely Planet's accurate information about where to get the bus to the temple and so forth. I told him any English teachers worth their salt have a copy of Lonely Planet in tow. He'd been to Beomeosa before, but I think it was really interesting for him to see it with a Westerner, and it was interesting for me to see it with him. After we came down from the mountain we walked together to the bus station, where he caught the subway and I headed back to Daegu, now among the ranks of those who can keep my phone conversations to a minimum on the bus for the comfort of my fellow passengers.

My radio here is set to the American Forces Network station. I usually catch a few minutes of news and weather and a pop song or two in the mornings before work; on the weekend mornings I might listen longer. I find it really hilarious that there are shifts in the format on different days. Saturday nights there is crappy hard rock. I envision lots of soldiers sitting around their barracks drinking beer and telling macho stories. On Sundays, though, it becomes Christian and country. Isn't that hysterical? So, just because it's on when I'm usually waking up, I often catch part of a Christian talk show on Sunday mornings.

I don't even know the guy's name. He's pretty cheesy. It's some show that airs in the U.S., but having never listened to Christian radio back home I have no idea. It's not like a Bible-thumping preaching fest; he's kind of folksy and Garrison Keillor-like, and he often has a guest interview. He tells mildly interesting stories sometimes. Often he irritates me; one day, for example, when he was ranting about Hurricane Katrina he said that only Christian organizations were doing anything to respond in the relief effort. He said "those factions" who criticized the government's response should have got down there themselves. Whatever, buddy, Michael Moore and friends, among others, were on the scene tout de suite!

Anyway, the other Sunday as he was giving his testimony of Christ he was driving home his point that Jesus went through suffering and being belittled for our personal benefit. He quoted from the Bible about Jesus' foes spitting in his face. "Think about it," radio man said. "They spit in his face. Has anyone ever actually SPIT in your FACE? Jesus didn't spit back! That was for you."

Prior to coming to Korea the answer would have been no, but now I could honestly say, "Actually, they have spit in my face!" Yes, I talked back to my radio. Oh, how the spit flies all the time here.

"It's a hell of a life, but it's somebody's life, up and down the street all day.
But I wish that you could see me when I'm flying in my dreams,
the way I laugh there way up high,
the way I look when I fly,
the way I laugh,
the way I fly.
Chief got out of the army, Jesus went to live with the poor,
I'm still marching up and down that street,
I don't know what I'm doing that for,
I don't know what I'm doing that for,
I don't know what I'm doing that for."
--- Patty Griffin, 'Chief'

1 comment:

Catherine_G said...

I really love this post. That is all. :D