family stories: the broken janggu

Jason started taking classes to learn to play the janggu drum. He was not very rhythmic, and he didn’t speak Korean, but he was fascinated with the jangu drum. He picked up the sticks and he bopped the drum heads and the teacher told him to stop.

by ~FlutterbyKeir

He was holding the sticks incorrectly, his posture was erect when it should have aloof, and he played too heavily. He didn’t understand. He had memorized the beats. What was wrong?

The teacher tried to say, “Be like the lying tiger. Breathe into your center and stare at your instrument impassively.” But Jason didn’t understand.

The teacher tried to say, “Be like the eagle. Spread your wings and fly by flapping back and forth.” But Jason didn’t understand.

The teacher tried to say, “Be like the mosquito. Perch on skin without being noticed and stick in your beat suddenly, and then buzz away.” But Jason didn’t understand, and by the teacher’s hand movements, he thought she was trying to tell him a mosquito had landed on him. He tried to swat around his face and she stopped him, laughed, and shook her head.

She found the pictures on her smartphone. “Like this,” she said in English. “Watch me,” she continued. She played. Jason watched. He tried to imitate his teacher, and still he failed. He asked her, “Can I borrow a practice drum?” He motioned the taking of a drum.

His teacher shook her head, not because she wouldn’t have, just because the janggu drum is too loud to practice in an apartment. Jason’s apartment was very small.

Jason felt embarrassed for asking and his face drooped. He went to the corner where there was a janggu drum broken on both sides. He brought it to the teacher and showed her some money. “Uhl moayo?”: “How much is it?”

She pushed the drum towards him with his money. “Suh-vissuh”: “You can have it.” She told him that he was the drum. He was broken for now, but if he worked on it, he could become better. Jason didn’t understand.

“Ken-cheniyo”, said the teacher: “It’s okay.”

Jason took the janggu drum and went on his way home. He went to the paint store and found some chestnut-tinted stain. He treated the body of the drum in the park, and when it was dried, he looked at his accomplishment. He breathed into his center and out again, looking impassively at the drum. He was the lying tiger!

He then went to the hardware store, bought some strong rope and returned to the park. He looked at the old knot on the drum. He taught himself how to tie the jangu knot. Once he had replaced the old rope, he took his sticks in his hands and sat before the drum. He was now pretending to drum. He stopped when he noticed that he was drumming in the way a bird slowly flaps its wings in its majestic flight. He was the eagle!

He then went to the music shop and bought two new skins. He took them to the park and put them on each end of the drum. It was now time to play. He played subtly and gracefully. He brought the sticks to the skins delicately and then quickly made his beat. He was the mosquito!

Jason was so proud of himself that he did not return home. He ran to the music school. He showed his teacher the drum and she said, “Is it new?” Jason understood. “Aniyo”: “No.” It was the one she had given him. It was beautiful. He sat down and played for her. The teacher could not believe it. From then on, Jason was a valued member of the music school.


family stories: sixteen chungmangi

There were sixteen food stations. The caterer added a special treat to each bag of fried squid pieces: in each bag was one chungmangi.

A chungmangi is the best of all foods. It is so delicious, heaping with gobs of fresh foliage and crispy with golden flakes on the outside; it is the one treat everyone wants.

After finishing the game of Yunori, the group was ready to eat. Every station had a bag of fried squid, each with a chungmangi, many oranges and grapes, cola and orange juice.

The first person to notice the chungmangi in the bag was Han Mayor, who casually commented: “Oh, what a nice surprise, a chungmangi.”

by ~jemlith

But the mayor knew as much as anyone else that if he ate the chungmangi, he would be thought of as a poor leader, savoring the delights of which his people were deprived. So he did not take it. Everyone else at the food station, fearing they would be exalting themselves above the mayor, also left the chungmangi uneaten.

At another food station, there was Park Principal. He noticed the chungmangi and thought: “Ah, a delicious chungmangi. Surely I deserve it!”

But the principal had taught his students about humility and generosity, and a chungmangi was such a rare and expensive delight that he would not be putting his principle into practice. He left it alone. Everyone else at the food station, fearing they would be exalting themselves above the principal, also left the chungmangi uneaten.

At every food station, until the last one, the food station of Shin Director, the chungmangi was not eaten. The director found the chungmangi and thought to himself: “Oh, surely I will be the one to have the chungmangi.”

But every other station had an uneaten chungmangi, and the director had heard the murmurs of the people. No one felt they deserved the chungmangi, and if the director exalted himself above everyone, he would appear to be a tyrant. He did not touch the chungmangi, nor did anyone else at his station.

At the end of the eating period, the mayor, director, principal and teachers all filed out of the food room. Some of them commented on how generous the caterer had been, including such a rare and expensive treat, the chungmangi, in every bag. Many agreed that this caterer was very kind and he should be called upon next time for the food service, although not a single person there had eaten a chungmangi.

The janitor came to clean up the food room, and to his surprise, all of the food had been eaten but sixteen chungmangi. At first he was confused, but then he was elated.

He brought the chungmangi home to his family. When his wife saw the chungmangi in his bag, she swatted him on the head and said,

“You foolish man! Have you spent our savings on sixteen chungmangi?”

“No,” he replied, “I didn’t pay anything for them!”

She swatted him again and said, “You mean you risked our family’s reputation and stole these chungmangi?”

“No,” he replied, “They were left uneaten during the food period!”

Again she swatted him and said, “You expect me to believe that?”

He explained what happened and why he thought the chungmangi were left uneaten. Soon his wife was happy and the family gathered together and ate chungmangi.

The next day, the children each took a chungmangi with them in their lunches because there were many left over. Can you guess what happened when their friends saw them?

Perhaps I will tell you that story another time. Good bye!

travel: samulnori

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

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?