Thursday, June 20, 2013

Just say neh

I think my favorite word in any language is "내". It's transliterated into English as "neh", and its sound is in between that and "nay".

It is so very, very useful! It means "yes", sort of, but maybe a fuller translation would be "I agree with what you said." It is just used all the time, since the Korean language lets a lot of things be implied by context. It can mean, "I heard you" or "That's true" or "Well... okay, then." It's good for everything from "I swear it's the truth!" to "uh huh..."

It's especially cool walking into a mom-n-pop store or a traditional market:

host: "Welcome."
me: "Yes, hello."
host: "Yes, hello."
me: "Yes."

and, later:

host: "Thank you."
me: "Yes. Goodbye" (the "goodbye" that means "I'm leaving.")
host: "Yes, goodbye." (the "goodbye" that means "I'm staying here.")
me: "Yes."

It's such a relief, when dealing with a language that is so complex that it has different "goodbyes" depending on who's leaving, and two completely different sets of numbers, and seven layers of word endings depending on the relationship between the speakers, to have something so simple and versatile.


The tricky part, for a Westerner, is that Koreans will say "neh" when we would say "no" to a negative question:

me: "Didn't you do your homework?"
student: "Yes." (I didn't.)

...which takes some getting used to, but, if you think about it, makes sense.

I find myself using "neh" all the time, even with English speakers who live here. It will take a while to get over it; I spent some time in another South, dangling off the eastern side of another continent, and I still love saying "y'all".

I just got back from Costco, where the checkout lines are interminable. The Korean man in front of me had a moderately full cart. He saw me with my lone item, a bag of frozen ravioli, and asked (in English): "Just one?"

I said "neh". And he motioned for me to go in front of him.

In Korean, the word for "information" is "안내", which may or may not stand for "no yes". Maybe I'll stop at an 안내 booth and ask, "Doesn't "안내" come from 'no yes'?"

The answer will probably be "neh". (It doesn't.)

Just say "neh" to language.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Empty stomach, full day

Many of my friends have, one time or another, gone on a "Templestay". This is the program that immerses its visitors in a day and a half of life in a Buddhist temple. Never having been that hot on sleeping on the floor and being awakened 'way before dawn to squat cross-legged and gimpy-kneed (and caffeine-free) on a different floor to meditate, instead I tried the "Templelife" program, a 2-1/2-hour sojourn at Bonguensa. (I posted about my first visit to Bongeunsa on 9/30/10, in case you inexplicably haven't memorized the contents of my 386 previous blog posts.)

Most Korean temple complexes are expansive and set in the quiet of rural mountains, where they were driven by the government's anti-Buddhist campaigns centuries ago. Bongeunsa, despite the fact that it's the locus of Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism, is a pocket-sized complex right in the midst of the richest neighborhood in Korea: down the street, past the Jaguar and BMW dealers, you can see the Olympic Stadium; right across the street from the temple is the biggest underground mall in Asia and Seoul's World Trade Center, where the G-20 meetings were held last year.
21st-century Korea, in one photo.

The lady at the ticket booth was very friendly and spoke excellent English, other than telling me that a ticket cost 14,000 dollars. (I didn't want to go in that badly.) It's actually 14,000 Won, or about 13 bucks. There were enough foreign visitors that we were split into two groups of a dozen people each.

Our guide, a very pleasant ajumma (middle-aged lady) with good English skills, took us on a 15-minute tour and explained the temple's history and Buddhist traditions.
(White is for mourning.)

(Red is for funsies.)

After being taught the correct way to bow (knees, forearms, and forehead touch the ground), we laid down mats in the main temple building and sat before the three gold-toned Buddha statues. Then it was on to a tea ceremony, then (paper) lotus flower construction, followed by a brief meditation, led by a young monk...

... which would have been better if, among the two dozen Westerners and the-oh-so-earnest monk, all meditating together in an absolutely silent room, somebody hadn't chosen that time to make his 59-year-old, empty gut sing all kinds of gurgly, twangy melodies (and, believe it or not, harmonies). Echoes, too. It would have been funny in a movie; in real life, I tried to become one with the floor.

Well, Buddha would have laughed; Buddha's my homeboy.
Say hello to my little friends.

Then, finally, each of us was given a surprise present: a Buddhist prayer bracelet. It matches the one I bought at Donghwasa, outside Daegu, and have worn for four years as a reminder to be peaceful.
I could wear one on each wrist, but then how would I take the photo?

So, down to it: I enjoyed my brief stay, though I was glad I hadn't done the overnight. My opinions of Buddhism were reinforced: first, the worship end of things is goofy. I don't believe that hideous, snarling guardians painted on the wall scare evil spirits away; I don't believe that your karma determines whether you will return as a ghost, an animal, a human, or a demon; I don't believe in touching my forehead to the ground in front of a golden statue of a guy who said not to worship him. (I did it--I don't like to be rude--but I don't believe in it.)

But, also, there was a great feeling of serenity at Bongeunsa, as I always get at the temples in Korea. I still hold with the things I've learned from Buddhist philosophy: compassion for all, detachment, living in the now. Holding them in my mind and heart has made me more peaceful and less troubled. 

For me, Buddhism as a way of thinking is priceless because it sees the world as it is, including all the pain and loss that we can't avoid, and teaches us how to look at it a different way and to be happy, not in some promised postmortem future, but every day. 

So I was glad I went.


I cut through the aforementioned COEX Mall to the subway, and here's a surreal and ironic juxtaposition for you, after the aura of gentleness at the temple: in the courtyard stood the star of the new American TV show Hannibal (as in Lecter), which hadn't even shown in the US yet. He was signing autographs and having pictures taken with the shoppers and his assistants, who were wearing butchers' aprons stained with--I hope--fake blood.

Buddha and the world's most famous fictional serial killer? I call that a full day.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cavemen snort

It's really nice when something you've been bumbling about with for a long while finally begins to click into place. This week, I've had that nice feeling with two aspects of my life here

The first is the Korean language. I've been in the RoK for nearly five years now; I learned hangul, the alphabet, within a few weeks, for which I take no credit--it's brilliantly designed, unlike ours, which kind of fell into place over hundreds of years, with sounds from a score of languages. (Try explaining to a Korean child why the c in center is pronounced utterly differently from the c in carrot or the one in cherry.) In Korean, will always be la. (Or ra, since there's no difference betweeen l and r, and it sounds almost like n... but, however hard it is for us to pronounce, it's always the same.)

I learned some stock phrases within a few months; I can say "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry", and I could understand a Korean saying it, if any of them ever did. (Koreans are very warm and polite to people they consider to be in their social or business circle, respectively, not so much to "outsiders".)

But actually having a vague idea of how verbs are conjugated or how parts of a sentence go together? That's new. Say "syntax" and I would have thought you were talking about paying extra for cigarettes or liquor...

 ...nah, soju's nasty; drink maekju (beer).

Till now. I've been going to the weekly Korean class with Qinjie for a while, and I still feel like an idiot when I'm there... I'm slow to pick it up, and there's so very much to learn. I will probably never understand a fast-paced conversation on TV or between people near me on the street. But I'm beginning to see how the pieces fit: 집애가요 (jip eh ga yo)--"home"/grammar marker for "place"/present tense of "go"-- means "I'm going home," or, in context, "He's on his way home" or, with a rising inflection, "Are you going home?" And I can say "I'm going to the park" and "Are you coming home?" (Not that I have any use for that one.)

It's like, say, an anagram contest where finally, finally, you see that Ithaca spells A cat! Hi! or Seoul is the same as louse (no slur intended; I'm happy to live here), or Steve Cornman spells Cavemen Snort.

(Okay, it's not very much like that, but it does allow me to use Cavemen snort as my headline. And, as Captain Mal Reynolds on my second-favorite science fiction show, Firefly, said, "That's not nothin'.")

And now for something not completely different...

I began running 43 years ago, and have been running very regularly since 1999. When I read the delightful book Born to Run last year, it changed my outlook and technique. But it took till this week for the full message to come through.

Born to Run is anthropology, kinesthetics, topography, marketing study, and biography all at once, all wrapped in the fascinating story of a secret ultramarathon. It's about a hidden tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico whose members of all ages routinely run dozens of miles at a time, their feet protected only by homemade sandals made from discarded tires or old strips of leather. this.

The first time I read it, it made me a convert to minimalist (that is, near-barefoot) running. Briefly: our bodies were designed by uncounted years of evolution to be runners; we survived for millennia by chasing prey, which (as quadrupeds only cool off by panting, and nothing can sprint and pant simultaneously) would eventually collapse from the heat, while we, able to cool off by sweating, kept going. We ran with our feet under our torsos, landing on the balls of our feet, using out bent knees to cushion the shock. But 40 years ago, with the development of padded running shoe with thick, built-up heels, we began running by sticking the front leg forward and landing on the heel, which left the knee unable to absorb the heavy impact. Thus: injuries.

So I done got me some flat, minimally padded shoes, just enough to protect from pebbles and broken glass... this...

, and started running "barefoot". It feels more natural and more connected to the earth, and I no longer get injured, through up to 20 miles at a time of marathon training, a full marathon, all on hard surfaces, and all... those... hashes, on concrete and up and down the rocky hountain trails of Korea. All while hunting the elusive tofubeast.

I'm a convert. Once you go flat, you never go back.

But it was just this week, after my third reading of the book, that the rest of the lesson finally got through: the purpose of running is to run. It's being alive, experiencing the world. For all these years, as much as I've gotten from running, it's usually been a chore, something to control weight or reach a time goal or win a medal or feel virtuous about. Now I've started just being out and moving and feeling alive. It's being in the moment, as our Buddhist neighbors would say.

And yesterday at dusk, on an hour's run along the creek, out away from the city, the physical aspect came together after all this time. Without conscious effort, I found my feet rotating under me like a bicyclist's, with small, quick steps, pushing forward smoothly rather than moving up and down like pistons. I told my cross-country kids for years that every running motion that isn't straight forward (such as swinging the arms across the body or bouncing up and down) is a waste of energy, but this is the first time I've ever run so straight and so smoothly.

Don't get me wrong: I still move at a glacial pace by athletes' standards... the winner of last year's Joongang Marathon was in the air, headed back to Kenya, before I finished. But I cut a minute per mile off my usual pace and felt fresher. And smoother and lighter and... well, gooder.

Okay, I've gone on and on and on. So I'll make the conclusion short and sweet. It's nice to see at last that life doesn't always have to be such a struggle. Let the cavemen snort; I don't care.