Snippets in Korean

오늘은 물리치료사한테 가야 해서 하루 휴가를 내기로 했어요. 이상하게 하루 쉬는 것 가지고 인생이 전부 행복해지는 것 같아요.
이럴 때야말로 인생에 대해 다시 곰곰이 생각해 봐야 하는 건가요? 아니면 이것은 그냥 누구에게나 있을 수 있는 지침?
알 수 없는 공허감. 말할 수 없는 그리움.
그렇게 우리는 하루하루를 살아가는군요. 끝까지… 한도 없이… 정처 없이…
사랑이 있으면서도 사랑을 모르고.
아프고 있으면서도 아프지 않은 척.
우정이 무언지 잊어버리고.
마음이 울적할 땐 덮어버리고.
그저 말없이 사라져 버리는…
우리는 모두 홀로서기를 하고 있습니다.

Which hair dye do you use?

My parents run a small neighborhood pharmacy in a residential neighborhood of Seoul. The neighborhood pharmacies in Korea when I was young were not like the pharmacies in America. It primarily served as the first line of defense against the illness for the neighborhood. Hospitals were only places you went if you were truly sick. This was the time before nationalized healthcare, before the battle between pharmacists and doctors (an outcome which you could have guessed, pharmacists lost).

But I digress. I was trying to say, although the pharmacies were primarily where pharmacists prescribed medicine, they did sell some of the other items you might think to find in normal pharmacies in America, like hair dye.

Why do I mention hair dye? Well, I was just reading an article about how Korean women’s hair transformed economy through wigs (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/women-hair-wigs-south-korea), and it reminded me of how when I was young, my mother was frequently asked by a customer, “What color hair dye do you use? Give me that one.”

My mother has never used a hair dye so you ask why would someone ask that? Because instead of jet black hair that most Koreans are known for, my mother has naturally dark brown hair, which is just slightly wavy, and lots of it. My grandmother on my maternal side was the same way. Long, long dark brown, slightly wavy hair. Both me and my sister have that too. I guess we won the hair lottery since it is heavy, never stops growing (my grandmother had at one point grown it down to her ankle and turned it into a hair ornament for her mother).

I digress again. My mom would sort of smile and recommend a brown hair dye we had on the shelf. I mean, when she first started helping my father out at the pharmacy, she’d tried to explain that it was her natural color, but no one would believe it. So later she’s like, why not? Might as well sell the hair dye.

Why do I bother with this story at all?

First to point out, Korea has always been a society that, as nice as people are, has had a hard time accepting people who are ‌different. And to show how, over the years, we become inured to this push to conform to societal norms, at least outwardly.

Chamberpot

It’s been a while since I blogged. Life… what can I say? And unfortunately, some stories I write in my blog sit a little heavy within me and I sometimes avoid writing. Love and hate relationship, remember? But today, I wanted to write a funny and maybe crass story of my childhood. If you don’t like a bit of bathroom humor, please stop reading now.

So when I was young, despite living in a two-story house with a flushing toilet upstairs (which really was constantly broken), our whole family mostly lived downstairs during the winter. I mean, heating was expensive and, well, families usually slept together in those days. My parents would sleep in another room on the first floor, but grandma, me and my sister would sleep in the slightly bigger room. 

Downstairs rooms did not have a flushing toilet, nor even an attached toilet. Basically, we had 뒷간 (meaning back house, but really means an outhouse with a hole in the ground). So if you wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you’d have to put on some extra clothes, shoes, take a little flashlight and go to this separate structure/room you’d call bathroom. Then you wash your hands as you come back, since the sink is near your room and nowhere near the outhouse.

As a child, I was terrified of falling into the said bathroom, as it was really a giant hole you squat on top of. Especially in the dark, it was even more terrifying since there were many stories of ghosts hanging about in the outhouses. And if you add freezing (-15 C) weather to that, you really didn’t want to go to the bathroom at night. Unfortunately, I always had a tiny bladder.

One evening, my dad was sleeping with us. This is rare since he was a very light sleeper and hated sleeping with others. We were all terrified of waking him up since he got really irritable and angry. Let’s say my bladder was not listening to my fears. It decided that it needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what to do. If I were to try to go outside, which I didn’t want to, I’d wake up my dad who’d get angry, etc.

So my grandmother came to the rescue… Because the bathroom situation was impossible, she always had this thing called Yo-gang (essentially a chamberpot, but it’s shaped like a round pot made of stainless steel). She said I should use Yo-gang quietly since that would be less likely to wake up dad. Since I was also terrified of going outside in the cold and dark, I was quite happy with her solution.

Dad wouldn’t wake up and I wouldn’t have to go outside.

Let me just say I hadn’t considered one problem…
The sound of pee hitting the stainless steel container.

You can probably guess the ending to the story. My dad jumped up from the loud noise, got angry anyway. Then, he got angrier because grandma had me use the chamberpot which, well, modern people wouldn’t use. 

There’s really no moral to the story except to tell you what honestly happened. The Korea of my childhood was not like the Korea of now. Even living in the middle of the capital city of Seoul, our two story modern house still had an outhouse. We had constant shut off of water so had to install a pump system. Our electricity went out rather often. There was really no hot water to speak of. And well, there was that one chamberpot.

Memory of licorice flavored jelly

Several years ago, I asked my dad what he’d like me to bring from the US. It’s a typical thing, when I visit Korea, I typically try to bring items from the US that my parents want. Initially it was because there were many things here that didn’t exist in Korea, but later, it became more for my parents to be able to tell their friends and acquaintances that their daughter brought something. They are very happy when they can pass out small pieces of dark chocolate, candy or coffee direct from the US.

So when he asked me to bring back black jelly that has something like the fragrance of 5 spices, I was thinking…what is that about? My dad tells me often he doesn’t like sweets (even though he does), but I had no idea what black jelly was. Well…I figured out that it is licorice flavored jelly. 

It seemed like a strange request since I think flavors like licorice or root beer are a bit of an acquired taste. If you aren’t exposed to it when you’re a child, you don’t tend to like it. I personally haven’t been so I don’t like either of them. Licorice flavor isn’t a common thing in Korea (at least up until my childhood) so I was wondering how my dad got exposed and was wanting this? So I bought the best licorice flavored jelly, the more high end kind that’s all natural, etc. When I brought this, he looked at it funny, took a bite and said this is not what he’d asked for. 

At this point, I’m perplexed. Was there some other kind of licorice?

He explained why he wanted this jelly. The memory goes back to post war time. After the war, there really wasn’t much to eat, which means dessert or sweets were not even part of the picture. But my dad remembers the American soldiers he’d met. They’d have these small packages of round flat disk fruit jellies (ones that come in different colors and covered with sugar) that come with their food packages. And the soldiers would often hand these out to the kids they meet. These candies were untold treasures to children and they’d savor them. The reason licorice flavor was what my dad wanted most was that it was not a common one in these packages. So it was like a treasure when he’d get one. 

And even now after so many decades past, my dad is still seeking a little piece of sweet memory, which he could only find in the fake licorice fruit jelly, not the real licorice jelly.

Korean Pop (known as Kpop)

When I was growing up, my primary exposure to music was western classical music. I lived in Korea so sure enough, I’d heard Korean traditional music such as 판소리, or old popular Korean music which my parents labeled 뽕짝… and of course there was Korean pop. But Korean pop of my younger days was much different from what people come to know nowadays. What’s currently known as Kpop and super popular in early days were looked down upon by the older generation. My parents were certainly against it, so they didn’t expose me much to it. I’d say my mom especially was quite against any Korean music. So I learned to play the violin, I had no music collection other than classical.

Let’s say Korea is a land where, if you are different, you are essentially pounded down, shunned, hushed. And Kpop of early days was a bit like that, at least from my vantage. But how crazy that I still held that antiquated view all the way until a year ago. Even when everyone around me would ask about Gangnam Style (강남스타일), I had very little touch with the Korean pop and could not speak much to it…other than the criticism of the south of the river area in Seoul (And full honesty, I’m from north of the river and I agree with the underlying critique). It’s a bit sad that I knew more about the latest Latin, Cuban and Arabic singers than the latest Korean sensations.

Well, that all changed. I’m not sure what prompted me to get into my roots in this area, so to speak, but somehow I started listening to BTS (https://ibighit.com/bts/eng/) and, well, I became an ARMY (that’s what BTS calls their fan). I’m not sure how I became a fan. Maybe it was their song Life Goes On (beautiful lyric) and the impact of pandemic, or maybe it was the way they’re portrayed…honest, caring, true to themselves. 

And maybe my sudden liking of Kpop is more of my liking for this particular band? I have no clue. It could also be that I am now in the middle of my life and looking to reconnect with some parts of my history that I tried to ignore.

As an immigrant, you can’t help but shun just a little bit of your own culture. To assimilate, you push aside everything and try to fit in and move ahead in life. Now that I’ve done all of that, I realized how much of Korean identity I have pushed away. And with this little bit of touch with Korea that has become so global and has run away without me in it, I feel like I am back at the end of the train of Korean identity that’s spreading across the globe.

So what am I doing now? I’m in a Bangtang Academy (https://bangtanacademy.carrd.co/#about) of Korean language learners (yes, there’s an entire discord server of people devoted to learning Korean), leading/guiding a class on Korean culture and conversing with others in Korean, definitely learning so much in the process. In this way perhaps I am connecting to a little piece of my I’d forgotten.

End Of Life

Today, I want to talk about the end of life. Yes, it’s a morbid topic, but it’s what has been swirling in my head as my parents are aging and I am having difficulty talking about it with them because of the cultural divide. So in my family at least and many of the others I’ve observed in Korea, we don’t talk about death. Nothing about end of life can even be brought up because that means you wish your parents to die or something. I’ve been exposed to the importance of end-of-life wishes, care, etc. here in the U.S. so needless to say, I’m incredibly frustrated by this lack of communication.

Normally I’d research why this practice of death as a taboo topic has come about, but at the moment, my frustration blocks me from objectively looking at this. So what do I do? I remembered a fun little folk story that has taught many children in Korea about the importance of elders.

Let me see if I remember the story. The gist is like this.

In an ancient time, there was this thing called Goreyo-Jang. Basically, if a person got too old and frail and couldn’t contribute to the society, they were given a burial so to speak. Old people were rounded up, taken to a cave in the forest somewhere, given some amount of food and left there. They were too frail to come back to their home, so they were literally buried.

There was a high-level official who had an old and frail mother. He loved her so much that he couldn’t bear to do Goreyo-Jang even though he had to. So he hid his mother in the house and spoke to no one about it. Well, this was a time of weakened Korea so a strong neighboring kingdom (guess which one) gave an ultimatum to the king. If he can solve three difficult riddles, then the country would be left alone for its cleverness. If not, the king would have to pay a large sum of money or be prepared to go to a war.

I don’t remember all three riddles, but one of them was that they were given a marble with a hole through it, except the hole was not a straight path but twisted. No one could figure this riddle out except for this high official’s mother, who was old and wise. So when it comes out that he’s been hiding his mother from following the law, the king abolished Goreyo-Jang instead of punishing him. 

Moral of the story I guess is respect your elders. 

And what has this to do with end of life? I have no idea. I just needed distraction from frustration. 🙂

Mother’s Poem

My mother has always been a poet. Constantly scribbling, yet unable to spread her wings most of her life due to life’s obligations. I’d love to introduce you to one of her creations here. I only hope I was able to do justice in translating it.

비내리는 날의 일기 ㅡ 소귀골(牛耳洞)을 걸으며…  
– 수목원

옛목간통으로 가는 
골목길은 
멀고도 가깝다는 
표현이 맞겠습니다

돌아오는 소귀골
(牛耳洞)엔
장맛비가 억수로 
골목 어귀를 채우고,

비에 젖어 즐거운 듯
가지를 흔들어대던
굵은둥치 호두나무가 
나를 보고 반가워
가을을 기다린다고
얘기를 나누잡니다.

나의 로망은
기다리는 작은 기쁨, 
기다리고 있는 소망,
가을 기다림으로 해
여름더위를 이겨내는
작은 열매를 보는 거,

그렇게 소소해서도
마음이 충만해짐을
갖는 순간입니다..

Diary on a rainy day – Walking Soguigol street
– Soo Mok Won

So close yet so far
Is how I would describe the twisted backstreets
that leads to the old bath house

As I walk through Soguigol street,
torrential rain fills the mouth of its alley

The thick old walnut tree waves its arms
with the joy of soaking summer rain
It is delighted to see me
And urges me to chat about the coming of the fall

My inner romance is in
A tiny joy of waiting
A tiny hope of longing
And seeing the tiny seed of overcoming the summer heat
Through waiting for the fallAlthough perhaps it might be trifling,
The moment fills my heart with fullness.

Lunar New Year, Seollal (설날)

Lunar new year is often associated in my mind with the middle of winter vacation, the streets full of snow or frozen over. And after over a month of rest from the end of the school year, you start to realize that you really need to make some giant progress on your school work in anticipation of going back in a month or so. As a side note, at least when I was going to elementary school, Korean school year was based on the calendar year. This means you start your school year in early spring and end the school year towards the end of the year. You get a long winter break because it gets very cold in Korea. That doesn’t mean you don’t have homework. You actually have tons as you prepare for the new grade.

Some of the interesting things about the new year in Korea:

Rice Cake
by Sulkkun
Rice Cake Soup
by stuart_spivack (a flickr user)
  • We celebrate both new year’s day. One that’s the normal calendar year and the lunar year. We call the normal one, 신정 and the lunar new year, 구정. When I was young, the government or people, whichever, couldn’t really make up their mind on which one was more important. People sometimes got extra days off for the regular new year for some years and other times, got extra days off for the lunar new year. Definitely confusing although as a school child, you were on vacation so it really didn’t matter.
  • With the start of the near year (old and new), you age a year. So even if your birthday hasn’t passed, you are older. And well, since you are already a year old when you are born, sometimes the Korean age is 2 years older than what you expect. So we always have to be very specific when you are asking someone how old they are because they might be 2 years older by the U.S. standard.
  • This extra age gain is associated with a specific traditional new year’s dish. Yes, there’s always food of some kind in Korean tradition. The most prominent dish associated with the New Year is the rice cake soup, 떡국 (literally translates to rice take soup). This is not the puffed rice thing that most people associate with rice cake. It is sort of rice bread you shape into a long rod and chop it into thin slices. Then you use the beef bone broth, add a bunch of garnishes. It is one of my many favorite and nostalgic dishes.
  • Money giving custom. Like in other parts of Asia, we also do have money giving customs, but this is mostly for older parents and grandparents giving small amounts of money to younger children. Basically, a lot of parents dress up their kids in traditional Korean attire and take them to their parents. The children will wish the parents and grandparents to have a lot of luck that year (새해 복 많이 받으세요). In exchange, the parents and grandparents give children a little bit of cash. Obviously once you are a teenager, this no longer happens. And on top of that, the dressing in traditional costumes don’t usually happen either. Most people don’t wear traditional costumes other than during special events so purchasing them for kids is not really cost effective. There are rental services though.
  • Traditional Korean game,Yut Nori  (윳놀이). It’s a game with 4 pieces of wooden rod (carved) and a square piece of paper or fabric. Basically you throw the wood and move around the board based on what you get (like dice). I won’t bore you with specific rules. If you are really interested, you can search on the internet!

Parachute Undergarment

As I am a totally lazy information consumer, I do information consumption via email, basically in the form of email digests of news, science, history, medicine…whatever I can subscribe to. Well, mostly you can guess that the news is about nowadays. But occasionally, I do find some snippets of interesting factoids of history, science, etc. that I have never known and sometimes it connects with my Korean background.

And that’s what I found a few days ago…

It was a story about how World War II soldiers carried hidden silk maps so they could aid in escape as scraps of cloth could be easily hidden.

So here’s a related story about my grandmother. Unfortunately now that I’m starting to tell the story, the silk map for escaping is not at all related to what I’m about to tell you, but it still reminded me of the story my grandmother told me so you’ll just have to bear with me.

After escaping Seoul, my grandmother and her children (my mother and her sisters) landed in Busan, the last stop on the train (for how they got there, read my blog entry on Last Train out of Seoul). As you can imagine, all they had were whatever it was they carried with them, some clothes, paper money (which was useless by this time), and numerous gold and silver rings that traveled with my grandmother. My maternal grandmother’s household was rather rich so she had thought to bring all jewelry she had with her. And in those days, many people collected gold and silver rings as preserving wealth.

Jumeok-bap by CCkorea Seoul

My grandmother tells me that for a while, she literally exchanged a silver or gold ring, an item of great value for a single roll of Gim-bap (Rice with vegetable and maybe some meat wrapped with seaweed) or Jumeok-bap (Just seasoned rice shaped into a ball). She had been lucky since most people who had escaped from Seoul were not even able to get that much.

Gim-bap by ayustety (a flickr user)

As my grandmother was quite enterprising, she soon started the business of selling whatever she could so she could support her children. One of the items that she sold happens to be women’s undergarments made out of parachute cloth. I never thought about it, but I suppose numerous soldiers during the war time were air dropped into the war zone. I assume the parachutes were discarded and the soldier went toward wherever they needed to. My grandmother harvested many of these parachutes. They were made out of extremely durable Nylon fabric that apparently made several lovely undergarments she could sell for a great profit.

I sometimes wonder how she thought to do that…considering when she first got married, she couldn’t even properly make clothes for her husband and mother-in-law, which was custom in those days. But that is another snippet for another time.

Religion Part 2 – Buddhism

Bulguksa, one of the most beautiful temples of Korea

Before I start, I want to make sure to stress that I have never been a Buddhist nor do I have any deep scholarly knowledge of Buddhism. I share with you what little I know that I have been exposed to and my perceptions of Buddhism that got from exploring many temples, both within and outside Korea.

Hallways of Bulguksa

So Buddhism in Korea…As I said in the religion part 1  post, Buddhism is one of the primary religions in Korea. If one has spent any amount of time in Korea, it is hard not to be exposed to Buddhism. As someone who has always loved temples (and I’m equally partial to cathedrals and mosques), I have been inside my share of many Buddhist temples around the world (all over southeast Asia, Butan, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc.) and I have to say that Korean temples are quite different from many others I visited, at least in one aspect — there are no god statues  inside the temples. 

Temple protectors

It sounds strange that you would find gods inside Buddhist temples as Buddhism isn’t really a religion, is it? It is a way of life, not belief in some supernatural. Well, the vast majority (I should say almost all) of the temples I have entered outside Korea have local gods inside the temple alongside Buddha. The only god-ish thing you will find in Korean temples are four protection figures (of north, south, east, west) as you enter the temple. I heard that Korean Buddhism is not like others in that those who adopted felt there was some kind of inconsistency and sought to correct it. I have no idea what they are nor how Korean Buddhism is specifically different, but it is. 

Temples are usually on top of the mountains

Historically speaking, Buddhism came to Korea through the northern kingdom of Goguryeo (~4th century) during the three kingdoms era (I keep thinking four in my head since there were four actually). This makes sense since most influences seem to propagate from the mainland through the peninsula then to the islands. Yet, there is another strange little story of Buddhism appearing in Korea even before then. 

Gaya iron horse armour

There is that fourth kingdom of Gaya (Geumguan Gaya so called), that was a formidable kingdom, but mysteriously unknown that had existed southwest of Korean peninsula. Gaya had more advanced iron weapons, and were known to be great seafarers. It is said that one of their great kings married a princess from India and she had brought Buddhism to Korea even before it came through from the north. Many point to some of the very faintly remaining historical texts and some interesting motifs in temples of the south to support this hypothesis; yet, there is no solid proof of this assertion.

Gaya mini crown

Personally, I would like to believe this story. A beautiful princess who crossed the sea to marry a king of strange land…could it have ended in a love story that also started Buddhism in Korea?

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