Bathhouses and Buddhist Temples

       The other night, I was wandering back to my room after spending some time in the gym. Disheveled, sweaty and wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt, I looked decidedly unprofessional and probably wasn’t in a position to solidify my status as a teacher and “authority” figure (yes, the quotation marks are necessary). Luckily, two girls chose that moment to pounce out of the woodwork like miniature feral tigers, tugging on my sleeves and eagerly presenting me with Hello Kitty lollypops and other snacks. Laughing and joking with them for a few minutes, it was an endearingly sincere moment and I waved goodbye while echoes of “Goodbye teacher!” reverberated throughout the halls. As I walked back to my room, a mere two floors above the overly-caffeinated and sleep-deprived masses of children racing gleefully throughout the halls (hey, they’re at English camp, I encourage them to go nuts), a vague sense of disquiet crept into the back of my mind. At the risk of sounding like a grouchy curmudgeon, let me emphasize how awesome, polite and respectful these kids are; it’s a delight to teach them and absolutely heartwarming to find yourself surrounded by mobs of little people’s squeaking “Alex teacher!” whenever I leave the enclave of my room or classroom during the work week. At the same time, the lack of differentiation between my personal and professional life can be a bit emotionally exhausting; whether I’m going outside for a drink of water or doing laundry, the kids are a constant presence, and lately I’ve been actively pursuing more ways to push back against feelings of tedium and confinement. Drinking deep from experiential pockets of Korean culture have been therapeutic and necessary, a vehicle for fulfilling my desire to have an adventure that extends beyond the daily oscillations of my job and life at the village.  

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A few weeks ago, several of my colleagues invited me to join them while they relaxed at a jimjibang (sprawling, gender-segregated Korean bathhouses, complete with steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs and massage parlors). Despite my initial hesitance and trepidation (“I have to be completely naked in front of a room full of Koreans gawking at the foreigner sticking out like a sore thumb? This doesn’t fit in with my delicate American sensibilities!”) I decided to take the plunge. Jimjibang’s are ubiquitous, dotting the landscape from the density of Korean’s mega-cities like Seoul and Busan to even the most rural towns and villages. After a five minute interlude of heightened self-consciousness and feelings of exposure (“Shit! Why isn’t anyone wearing a towel in here), any sense of self-awareness dissolved as I entered the steam room, where my eyes began to water thanks to a billowing onslaught of steam and hot air. Drawing in slow, methodical breaths of concentrated humidity while beads of sweat began to trickle across my forehead, I embraced the discomfort of the heat and allowed myself to relax. An hour and a half later, as I walked out the front door, feeling both refreshed and ravenously hungry (thanks to the metric ton of water weight I had lost in the steam room and sauna), I was grateful that I had ignored the nagging threads of unease that were nipping at me a few hours before.

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Although I’m tempted to write a few self-indulgent, long-winded, and obnoxiously tantalizing paragraphs about my love of Korean BBQ (Seriously. It’s a relationship that keeps on giving), I’ll take a break from my gravitation towards food centric writing (sigh….) and share a bit about my limited (yet incredibly rewarding) experiences with Korean Buddhist Temples. Last Sunday, my friend Amanda and I decided to make the trek into the southern foothills of Palgongsan, about 45 minutes from downtown Daegu courtesy of the ridiculously convenient bus system. After stepping out into the center of a network of various trails and signs pointing away from the conglomerate of shops and restaurants at the base of Palgong, we gradually made our way up towards the temple itself. Perfectly aligned with the escalation of my wide-eyed wonder and increasingly intense internal gasps of, “Fuck! That’s so cool,” the progression from the artifice of the tourist center to the gorgeous seclusion and cultural texture of the temple itself was incredible.  Words can’t do it justice, and neither can pictures, but here’s an admittedly halfhearted attempt to recapture the experience, courtesy of my Iphone camera:

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Some remnants of civilization

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Deeper into the abyss

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“You! Shall not! Pass!”

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Main temple hall

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Paper lanterns

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Dat’s one Big Buddha

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Zen shit

As a luminescent harvest moon basked us in a dim, orange glow, stepping around the corner and being confronted by the placidly serene smile of a 50 foot statue of Buddha made a lump well up in the back of my throat. Walking around the statue while the fading sunlight was transmuted into dusk (apologies, I swear I’ll lay off the nauseatingly cheesy romanticism in a few sentences), I felt an incredibly powerful, magnetic connection towards Korea that I hadn’t experienced until that point. Before, my appreciation and experiences have been punctuated by a degree of detachment, and even eating live octopus or seeing a royal palace amongst the chaotic density of Seoul hadn’t instilled a completely sincere sensation of magic or whimsy. Thankfully, I’ll be returning to Gwangha temple this Friday for a templestay: I’ll spend two days living, eating, sleeping, meditating and praying with the monks in an attempt to simulate their lifestyle. I’m really looking forward to it! In the meantime, have some more pictures from our excursion yesterday…

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