Saturday, February 25, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Clambering on a Tank

I am slowly venturing here and there from my little home base in Itaewon. Yesterday I got a T-money card, which is good for getting on the subway and buses. Then I took a walk toward an area that is large and green on the map. I thought it might be a park, but it is not. It seems to be a remnant of the US army base that used to be here, now with some museums at the edges. My path took me to the Korean War Memorial. There was a demonstration going on. About thirty people in matching red vests were sitting on mats in orderly rows listening to inspiring songs and speeches. I have no idea what this was about. There were more police than protesters, so I thought of joining just to boost the numbers.  Instead, I walked into the vast area of the War Memorial. It was quite a jumble -- an array of divergent symbols jostled together without creating either grief for those we've lost or the thrill of military might. The giant missile that stood at the opening to the plaza of the Korean War Memorial struck one note. The children clambering around the tanks and planes were an entirely different power move. Several statues of fighting confirmed for me a thought I've had for a long time, which is "don't mess with Koreans." This boy's face, in particular, captured that sense for me.  

And if you shouldn't mess with Koreans, Koreans fighting Koreans is a particularly desperate moment. I am not sure how the two sides will emerge from the impasse of the moment. I did leave the War Memorial even more convinced that they will find a way forward that we cannot imagine from this vantage point. It is the corollary of "don't mess" -- "don't underestimate." 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Reading the Signs

In Korean, there are two forms of the future (that I've learned so far...). One is the definite future -- it will be a holiday tomorrow. The second is the "probable future," that is, all the things that probably will happen, like "I will go to Korea." In Korean this is said, "한극에 간 거예요," meaning it's probable I will go. I personally live in a probable future mentality and this was true long before I got to the probable future in my Korean textbook. With things that will happen in time, I often experience it like the area under the curve which comes up in calculus as an infinite series of steps. We arrive at the answer by integration of the small steps into a single number. In the real world this was most vividly illustrated for me by waiting for 12am, January 1, 2000, and the start of the new millennium. Or would we get stuck in the infinite divisions of time?  I felt like the countdown to my trip was in that space/time trap. Probably I would go, but maybe not.  But then, as Dr. Seuss put it so brilliantly in Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now?, "The time had come, so Marvin went." The time had come and so I went, or came, depending on how you look at it. I got to Korea.  

One description of beginning language learners is that they will have trouble understanding and will make mistakes in speaking. This is certainly what is happening to me as I walk around Itaewon, the Seoul neighborhood where I am staying. People are on the kind side -- put it this way, it's not like trying to speak badly accented French in Paris. One thing about my beginner level of proficiency is that I can tackle signs, and there are lots of them. Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is, by now, nearly as invisible to me as the Latin alphabet. I rarely know what the words mean, but I can say them, at least quietly to myself. And I love the way the signs are written. Korean is composed in syllables, and signs play with syllables in an infinite variety of ways. Having only recently come to appreciate the syllable, I am delighted by this, like a baby with a mobile. 

Which brings me to this encouraging sign I saw on a walk around the neighborhood, happily in English -- "No worries, Br*. It will be fine. D*. Wait. Trust."  

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

K-drama: From the Hermitage to the Hermit Country

Well, while I have not been in a hermitage for the past 3 years, I have not been jetting around the way I used to. And Korea is not the "Hermit Country" anymore, by any means. In fact, on the street where I'll be staying are all kinds of businesses representing the whole world, including a Converse store, Italian Optical, and Global Dentist. But in leaving one place and going to another, I do have a bit of uprooting and reconnecting to do. My spiritual director said that monks who move from one monastery to another have a "transfer of vows." One of the reasons travel is so important is that visiting another place creates connection -- new vows of concern -- with that place. We can read this in Michael Kimmelman's beautiful piece on the earthquake in Turkey, which has killed more than 40,000 at this point. He noted, 

You may rightly ask about the logic of rebuilding time and again in these risky places. The notion comes up around a different threat: climate change. Scientists predict large-scale migrations in the coming years from zones where rising seas, floods, droughts and extreme weather will make life increasingly difficult or impossible. Already, climate change has displaced millions of people around the world.

But logic is not the point.

Cities are only nominally bricks and mortar, after all. To residents they are repositories of a hairbrush and a photograph — collective threads of a social fabric that, over time, weave together a life, a family, a history, a neighborhood, a community. 

Which is to say that I am loosening my connection to my daily life here in New Jersey and settling in Seoul for three months, God willing and the creek don't rise. It will be a lot the same -- morning coffee and reading the Times. But it will also be different in ways that I don't even know yet but am curious to learn. In the heart of catastrophe, we learn how much place means to us, and teaches us both how precious home is and how deeply meaningful it is go to another place and get to meet it as well. At Girl Scout camp, we sang the song, "Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold."