합기도 (Hapkido) / 근하신년! (Geunha shinnyeon—Happy New Year!) / 김정일 (Kim Jong-il)

Russell recently requested that I write a shorter entry because mine are epic (as opposed to Sean’s). I can’t do that this time because so much has happened lately that I’ve been putting off writing about, but I’ll keep it in mind for later.

I suppose the reason I haven’t been writing here much lately is that it’s winter. That means that I spend all of my daylight waking hours in the school, and when I’m not teaching a lesson I’m staring at my computer. I get a lot of communication done that way over Facebook, but it also means that when I get back from school, the last thing I want to do is look at a computer screen again. In other seasons I would energize myself a bit by taking a bike ride or looking for a path up a nearby mountain, but in the winter it’s too dark to do any of that stuff. So usually, once I’ve exhausted other ways of occupying myself, such as practicing guitar or trying to do handstands, I end up at the computer anyhow, but without any motivation to do anything besides catatonically work on my endless font. You may have noticed that that list didn’t have writing my story on it. I finished a scene one day a few weeks ago and, for reasons that seemed solid at the time, decided to work on my font instead. Mainly I think I wanted to just get the font completely done, possibly before leaving for vacation. That’s a goal that will take quite a while, and now that I think about it, it’s no reason for me to not write my story every day like I decided I should.

And I have even less excuse than previously because I’ve now started taking hapkido lessons in town. Hapkido is a martial art that’s less popular than its big brother taekwondo, but apparently a lot more useful and less likely to cause serious damage to your body. Taekwondo mainly teaches you how to kick things really hard, and to a certain extent how to punch things really hard. When you look at taekwondo demonstrations, the practitioners’ opponents are usually boards or paving bricks. In hapkido demonstrations, the opponents are humans, which is a clue that hapkido is good for practical purposes and taekwondo is good for showing off. I’ve only taken about five lessons so far, and one of them was the Friday fun lesson, so I’m pretty sure my fighting skills haven’t appreciably improved. But I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it, and if I get good, I’ve seen videos of all the cool things I’ll be able to do. Like, if some guy tries to kick me, I’ll be able to apparently effortlessly push his leg in a different direction to flip him over onto his face and then stand on his arms in a painful way to keep him from getting up. That’s quite a ways in the future, though.

The lessons are held in a 도장 (dojang—which just means the place where lessons are held) just down the hill and two corners away from my place. I first set foot in it last Tuesday or maybe Wednesday, after a dinner when Deanna and I decided that we’d both like to try learning hapkido, because what the heck else were we doing with our evenings? It’s up a creaky wooden staircase on the second floor of a typical Korean building. The floor of the main room is a giant rubber sheet, I don’t know how many inches thick but at least a few. It’s nice and squishy to get banged around on. Because it’s in a typical Korean building, it’s cold. (More about Korean architecture soon.) We came up behind a bunch of people standing and stretching and all facing the same way. The 사부님 (sabunim—the dojang master) noticed us straightaway and led us into the office, a little room off to the side, and Deanna and I managed to communicate that we wanted to take classes, and he managed to communicate that they’re five days a week at 5:30 or 7:00. We watched the 5:30 class we’d just walked in on, which was full of mostly elementary- and middle-school kids; they practiced kicking a paddle, and some other stuff. We stuck around for the 7:00 class, expecting it to be a bit more impressive, and it was, thanks to having a bunch of adults in it. A lot of them were Deanna’s high-school students, who speak pretty good English and were able to explain a few things to us that we’d missed.

We came back the next day, and I learned that I’m terrible at nunchucks. I was a bit discouraged, but I’ve kept coming in, and luckily we’ve learned stuff besides nunchucks, such as rolls, handsprings, kicks, and other neat stuff. There are a few black belts, and they’re pretty damn impressive. Like the one middle-school kid who always plants every handspring perfectly. I usually think of myself as a pretty limber and coordinated person, but the things I’m called on to do in the class pretty generally make me feel like someone who woke up that morning to find that his skeleton has the wrong number of joints. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to work up to a black belt before I leave, but there are always dojangs in the States, and if I only make it a quarter of the way I’ll still have learned a lot. Already I can tell my muscles are becoming stretchier.

But the physical part of the classes is only a fraction of the reason I wanted to go. You may recall that in a recent post I appeared to be pretty disillusioned and frustrated with Korea. By going to hapkido I aim to see if I can fix that. I’m going to have the chance to know some actual Koreans who aren’t my co-teacher and many of whom can’t speak more than a few random words of English. So far I don’t really know the people in the classes as individuals, except that Donghun is good at English and the sabunim has a cute two-year-old daughter who likes to run around and shriek when she’s in the dojang while he’s teaching classes. But I figure that soon I’ll know them as ordinary folks who have likes and dislikes, and homes and families and paychecks to earn, and have preferences on the proper way to party or handle chopsticks.

And as a bonus, I’m planning on learning Korean as much as possible during this part of the day. Sean has just recently directed me to an outstanding blog, www.fluentin3months.com, which told me something that I already had an inkling of, but had been resisting, probably because I believed my super linguistics powers made it irrelevant. That is that if you want to learn a language, the single most important thing is to speak it with actual people as much as you possibly can. I won’t be able to use it at school, at least not until I’m back in the good books, because my co-teacher has decided that I’m interested only in learning Korean and I couldn’t care less about teaching children good English. Plus she would always switch back to English anyhow. So I’m just going to have to start making a lot of Korean friends here, and refusing to use English even when it would make everything more convenient. (This is a strategy that the Fluent in 3 Months blogger recommends.) The hapkido class will be the beginning of that. So far I haven’t been on my mission of experiencing the culture and language for real long enough to reassess any of my opinions about Korea in an organized way, but I’ll be sure to let you know once I do. I can’t see it being anything but eye-opening.

I was going to talk about architecture. They build here as though they were building for a tropical climate. The walls are single thicknesses of concrete with plaster on either side to make them look smooth. At the dojang the door to the outside is an unusually decent one but is always left open, and the door at the top of the stairs is at least kept closed, but in typical Korean architectural style they don’t even pretend they’re trying to make it airtight. At my school this peculiarity is visible on a much larger scale. The main part of the school is arranged as a hallway with doors to the classrooms on one wall and windows to the outside on the other wall. So, essentially, it’s the South Campus loggia at Grinnell. (That blew my mind when I realized it. I figured out that where I work is the same as Main 2nd—and on this loggia, Quad is still a functioning dining hall, the school cafeteria.) There’s a main entrance halfway down and various other entrances along it and at the ends, and most of them are about as airtight as a fruit crate. Not that it matters, because they’re kept open half the time anyhow. I’ve tried to figure out why this is, and what I’ve found online suggests that it’s to get rid of “bad air”. It goes on to say that the traditional Korean floor heating used to be achieved by means of burning coal, and fumes tended to accumulate inside, so they needed to open the windows and doors occasionally in order to not die. Now there’s no coal involved, but they keep doing it anyhow. It does help to keep the mold down, at least, by drying out the air. The walls are so cold here that water condenses on them like on a cold glass of lemonade, and then mold grows all over them. To keep it away you need a dehumidifier or you can just open the doors occasionally. Neither would be necessary if they built to last. I can’t see most of the buildings in this town lasting much more than 20 years from now, and even 10 is probably pushing it for a lot of them. Some are actively crumbling. When Korea’s GDP soared, the best way to show it was to build a whole bunch of new buildings, but they did it as quick as possible and as cheap as possible, and within not too long they’re going to reap the consequences. (Actually, they reap an annual crop already when they get their winter heating bills.)

I went out yesterday on a photo safari because it occurred to me that after being here for over four months, I still have yet to post any pictures of what this town looks like besides a panorama that hardly gives any idea of it, and I had recently become preoccupied with the hilarious inadequacy of the buildings surrounding me. (I’ll post the pictures in another entry this week once I’ve had a chance to take a few indoors at my school.) It made me take a closer look at some things; for example, I discovered that Mido Mart was once a bowling alley. I eventually wandered up the hill across town that leads to the soldiers’ temple (the one I went to a month or so ago where I talked to the soldiers). To my surprise, there were a bunch of olive-drab canvas tents set up in the upper parking lot, and five banners in five colors strung overhead from the trees on one side of the lot to the shelter housing the temple’s bell on the other side of the lot. The steps up to the bell had been covered with a red carpet, and there were decorations in the bushes on the edges. On one of them I saw “2012년” and realized it was for the new year, since today was December 31. The soldiers were having some kind of New Year’s ceremony, I supposed—Koreans are big on ceremonies; almost any big meeting or conference is bracketed by an opening and a closing ceremony. I was walking down the hill, content with having approximately figured it out, when some soldiers came out of the temple and called my name. Tae-eun, the one with the best English, explained to me that at 12:00 there would be some hundreds of people there, and they would strike the bell 33 times for the new year, and they would eat tteokguk and generally have a real Korean-style new year. Then he invited me to come up and hit the bell tonight. The decision was instant and obvious—this would be where I would begin 2012.

So after eating a lot of food and drinking a bit too much beer and whisky with Ben, Russell, and Sean, I ducked out of the dakgalbi restaurant at 11:20 and climbed up the hill. Offputtingly, there was a military policeman standing at the top of the steps up to the parking lot, facing away from me, but I asked if it was okay to pass and he said it was. The hundreds of people were all soldiers, all dressed in their camo and huddling around the electric heaters that had been set up inside the big canvas tents. Tae-eun found me and explained a little bit about what would happen, and told me that the five-color banners (osaekcheon) have been around for probably a thousand years, and then, because this was the same day that I had read that blog, I went around and talked to a bunch of people in Korean. They tended to talk to me in English in response, but I kept up the Korean, mostly. I met some random soldiers, including a woman soldier and a lieutenant colonel (he knew the English for his rank), and also a clerical Buddhist (but I’m not sure if he’s a monk—I just know he had cool gray robes). I wandered around speaking weird Korean until I noticed that everyone was now facing toward the bell. So I did likewise, and a voice came over a loudspeaker from somewhere and announced that there would be a countdown (kaunteudaun in Korean, so I could tell) and that the monk in charge of the temple would ring the bell first, and that it would be rung 33 times. I was proud of myself for deciphering it.

The countdown started: ship… gu… pal… chil… yuk… o… sa… sam… i… il. Instead of a zero, they were silent, and then the monk, together with a few other people, swung a big log, covered in white cloth and hanging from the rafters of the bell shelter, and rang the bell three times slowly. Everyone clapped. They walked down the stairs and another group of people went up. They rang the bell three more times to applause, and went down, and this pattern repeated. After a few groups had gone, Tae-eun found me and in a hurry told me we were up next. Someone handed me white gloves and I stood with Tae-eun and the other soldiers I had met before at the temple. Some people came down, and we went up. I hadn’t been so close to the bell before. It’s huge, easily big enough to hide in if you could hover above the ground a little ways, and with thick metal that makes it probably heavier than many modestly sized cars. One of the soldiers counted down from three and we swung the log into it as hard as we could, and it rang out loud enough for the whole town to hear. Two more times we hit it, and then I walked down with them, satisfied that for once in my life I’d properly rung in the new year.

But that wasn’t all. Next to the temple, some people pulled out a bunch of paper lanterns. They were shaped like square hot air balloons. The bottom sides were circular and opened to the inside of the balloon, and had a bit of something suspended in the circle by wires. The bit of something was lit on fire, and the hot air expanded inside the balloon and blew it up. Then the people holding one of the balloons let it go, and it floated up into the sky, glowing red and drifting with meditative serenity. The rest followed, slowly riding the wind together like a company of airborne pilgrims. I discovered that people had written their wishes for the new year on the lanterns, and I found one that hadn’t been sent skyward yet and scribbled my wish on it. Everyone watched them gradually disappear.

Then we were invited inside to have tteokguk. Each year Koreans eat a bowl of this soup in order to eat up a new year and become one year older in Korean age reckoning. I sat with some people I didn’t know, including a high school freshman from Seoul (who got frustrated at my unclear Korean when he knew he could communicate better in his pretty good English) and a woman soldier. A middle-aged man made a speech about the new year, which I understood hardly any of, though I picked out the words “tong-il” (reunification) and I think “Kim Jong-il”. He finished and it was time to complete 2011. Tteokguk is made with rice cakes (tteok) and in this case kimchi dumplings. It was delicious. I talked with the people around me and generally felt pretty content about things.

People finished eating and got up and left. I talked to the soldiers who lived there, and they said that for most of them it was the first time doing this traiditional celebration. They had seen bells rung for the new year before, but where they’d been, only important people like the mayor got the chance to ring. And it was their first time lighting sky lanterns. I guess that’s evidence that I was on to something when I said the old traditions are more alive out here in the sticks. I could get used to a celebration like that every year.

The man making the speech was one of the first people I’ve heard talk about Kim Jong-il without being asked by me. Not that that’s a fair measure, because I’m sure people are talking about it all the time here, and I just haven’t been able to tell. But from what I can tell, it’s not a tremendous concern in the day-to-day lives of people here, even though we’re a day hike away from the DMZ and this is a town built around the huge numbers of soldiers stationed nearby. I haven’t heard the issue broached in the dojang. On the day he died, I asked Amanda’s co-teacher what was next. She just said, “I don’t know.” It sounded like she didn’t know because she hadn’t really considered it, not because she thought that trying to predict would be impossible—though almost everything in this part of the post is subject to the disclaimer that I could be completely misreading everything.

The military has been put on high alert, though I’m told that that’s just a formality. All of us English teachers have read lots of articles about what’s going to happen from here, and of course predictions are difficult with as much secrecy as surrounds this situation, but it appears that for a while, nothing is going to continue happening, and then about a month after the death, something or other might happen, but no one knows what or exactly when, or even if it actually will. Kim Jong-eun might decide to attack, or the state might undergo some serious turmoil, or they might ask a favor of China, or something. It basically boils down to, We’ll just have to wait and see. And meanwhile people are going about their business about as they always have. There doesn’t seem to be much worry on the faces at the market or in the kids at school. So I’m content to relax here and watch history unfold at unusually close range. I’m keeping a wise eye out, but I don’t fear much for my safety, and I have the added benefit that at the crucial one-month mark, I’ll be about halfway through my trip to Southeast Asia, so I’ll be able to see from afar if there’s anything dangerous going on.

I’ll keep you posted, hopefully more often here than I’ve been doing.

File under: other cultures, friends · Places: Korea, North Korea

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WOW! Your most interesting blog ever. What a great experience. Your blog made my day and the day after and the day……….. G.Pa.




I wouldn't worry about the new kid on the block. He went to school in Switzerland and was a huge Michael Jordan fan. If there is anything to worry about it would be a power struggle, as I am sure this kid doesn't have a clue. Anywho, you're at the mercy of an information chaing that releases little or no information. If there is anything to worry about, by the time you start worrying, "it" will have already happened.


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