samulnori and other adventures

Posted: November 28, 2011 in stories

The last three weeks have been filled with fun. Let’s review.

It all started when my co-worker asked me to come over for dinner with her family. I went and we had a great time, eating and talking. I met a new teacher from another school and we watched kun-heung’s video of his students doing Nanta! and Heung Bu Nol Bu. Nanta!, you can Google. Like a Korean stew, it contains little bits of everything: music (percussive), dance, martial arts, audience participation, and FOOD! The way these students did it, though, they used some traditional Korean instruments, including a two-sided drum called a janggu (pictured below).

by *hattori-hanzo-2010 http://www.deviantart.com

Heung Bu Nol Bu is a Korean folk tale about two brothers. Heung Bu is poor, and Nol Bu is wealthy. Heung Bu saves a bird from a snake in his garden one day. He binds the bird’s broken leg and is rewarded with a magic seed. The seed grows into a great gourd with treasure inside. Seeking to replicate the experiment, Nol Bu breaks a bird’s leg and ties it together, hoping for the same magic seed. The bird instead gives him a seed for a gourd filled with demons.

The next day, we went together to see a play with my co-worker’s extended family. Her sister had written and acted in this play about three brothers who meet their ends and exact revenge on the evil queen who killed them. It’s a kid’s play. The second play we saw was the tale of Oneri, who searches everywhere for her parents. The small theater was packed! The costumes were bright and beautiful, and I got my picture taken with the cast! I slept in Daejon that night after a game of pool with kun-heung and chagun-heung. The next day, the family made us a wonderful breakfast and I set out by train to Seoul to meet with my friends from St. Louis, Baltimore and Houston.

The next Friday, our samulnori team performed. We had been practicing for months, and it all came down to two performances at the Jinpo elementary school festival. I was one of the janggu players. At the previous practice, my teacher asked me, “do you think you played well?” I answered, “No. At first I did not miss a beat. The second time, I started making mistakes. The third time my arms were so tired I could barely play.” She told me: “Did you notice? You are playing too hard. You need to relax more.” Story of my life!

We ate delicious food after the performance. It consisted of some nice seafood and galbi in a kind of spicy broth with many vegetables.

After that, I went to the house of my “Korean family”. There I had a second dinner. It was so tasty that I told them, “My stomach is saying ha-ji-mah! ha-ji-mah!(translation: stop! stop!) but my mouth is saying mah-shi-tah! mah-shi-ta!(translation: delicious! delicious!) They all had a good laugh about that.

For Saturday and Sunday, I  just wrote. It was nice. I finished a contest (see previous post) but I don’t want to lose momentum. Now that my life is matching my previous aspirations, reading and writing have become easier and more interesting for me.

On Wednesday, our teachers went on a road trip to the temple in Gochang. On the ride up, my co-worker told me, “on field trips, the teachers become like students.” And they did!

We hiked up to the temple in the cold and passed a very important bridge. Around the temple there are Camillia trees, big bushy trees with perennial dark green leaves and red flowers that bloom either in spring, autumn or winter. We saw some chu-baek (autumn bloomers). In the middle of the temple there is a persimmons tree that, I was told, is “only for the bird’s snack.” There are some very large golden Buddhas inside, and incredible old paintings on the walls, mostly of dragons. It was explained to me that the Buddhists originated the term “samulnori”, and the sitting style of playing these instruments is very new. The traditional Korean style is to march or stand while others dance with head ribbons.

This weekend I went to a murder mystery theater show put on by a chapter of the world’s largest African-American sorority. It was a held at the military base in Ichon. The show was ridiculously funny. I didn’t know murder mystery was supposed to be so funny, or so interactive! The setting was a high school reunion, so the entire audience became grads of 1991. As soon as we came in the door, we were greeted by enthusiastic people pretending to be in our grad class. Lots of “What have you been up to?” Our table didn’t choose the right killer because the secret clue was “Elizabeth Taylor” and I must confess I don’t think about her too often.

This brings us to Saturday night. I went to the jimjilbang (sauna and hot tub house) with a couple friends and met an interesting fellow, a former Marine, who was sort of hiding from the Western world here. He had a handful of years left of his career and was looking to find a home in Asia, either in Japan or Korea.

One aspect of Korea he liked was the “respect for authority” that seems to be missing in the States. I wonder about these things. Is the respect for authority enforced heavily, or does it come naturally? Is there really more obedience in Korea than in the US?

Given the cultural activities I have participated in, I wonder: what cultural activities would someone participate in if they went to the US? Do they have enough community-mindedness and local culture to keep their citizenry occupied? I feel that the sense of united community here helps to generate respect. I wonder if our Western communities are too divided.

Many foreigners I know choose not to participate in the Korean culture. They want to do what they did back in America: go to the bar, get drunk, flirt, go home alone, and pass out, every weekend without fail. I’m not saying this is what all foreigners do, or even that there’s anything wrong with it. I appreciate the warmth of a good buzz.

I just found that the ritual got a little monotonous after doing it only a few times. It didn’t take long until I really wanted to see what this place was all about. As soon as I opened my mind to it, I have had weeks filled with experiences and adventures, taking me all around this country and discovering new sensory pleasures!

I used to think of this as a job. Now it has become my life. All of a sudden I want to travel, and I don’t care how many photographs are taken. I want to get lost to find myself! (clichés unite!) I want to taste the delicious fruits and feel the soothing rain!

That brings us to last night. I met with Kristina, and Jay, who has spent some time in Australia (so her English is quite good). We went to a place called “All-American Diner” where I ate vegetables heated up from the freezer (crinkle-cut carrots! Yay! I felt like I was in America!) and drank water. We talked for a while and then we helped decorate their Christmas tree. I was fortunate enough to put the “Merry Christmas” in the branches. It was so American! Do the Americans only celebrate Christmas? I’m not sure what it’s like in the melting pot. Anyway. It was a quick ride back to Gunsan and a restful, dream-filled sleep.

I feel like a child, seeing things for the first time with a brand new set of eyes. I realize now that I could not be forced to enter a beautiful world. I had to see it for myself. I wonder… how could I show you?

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