Thor's Korea Diary

Free Spirits On The Road to Unmoon Valley
[photos linked below to this text]

@13 October 2001

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When we left the surgery and walked across a car park a few minutes earlier, the dentist had suddenly diminished. The hovering dental nurses, the shiny equipment, the clear status of a professional in charge of his closed world ... now seemed remote. I saw a nondescript man in early middle age, his cloth jacket unfashionably rumpled, who might have been going home from another mindless shift in the factory. Only the foreigner with him gave some hint that routine was somehow being broken.

Easy Rider, let the roads make us free. In 1969 Peter Fonda defined a version of the American dream (and its sordid pitfalls) on his Harley Davidson, but he was trading on an archetypal passion . Every road, we sense, can be an escape. It can lead us forth, well mostly men, on journeys to unknown ends. As Tolkien's Frodo notices in The Lord of the Rings (also a curiously male world), the humblest path by your door always leads to another greater path and then to that road which will take you to the ends of civilization and into the heart of Mordor (empire of evil) itself. Home is a place to return to when the long trek is over, a haven for the rewards of comfort, warmth and security. Fellowship though belongs to danger and the road. Stripped of his distant vision and the dust on his shoes, a man around the house is a petty, querulous creature without a story to tell....

These thoughts crossed my mind as the dentist's car sped out of town. Gradually I pieced together his picture, from the stumbling English answers to my half understood questions. The insight should have come sooner, but I realized later (we always realize these things later) that I had talked too much of Australia and other worlds that he knew and cared little about. The key was the car, and the padlock on his heart was a Korea that I scarcely knew.

A generation ago Korea was a desperate place. Three generations and two generations ago it was a desperate place. You could say that for five centuries or more Koreans have not been at peace in their hearts. Today South Koreans know a kind of public peace. That is, their land wears at least the outer garments of democracy. Their world has shifted from wretched shanty towns to twenty-five story apartment blocks where the electricity mostly works, television expresses the cultural homeland, and food comes plastic-wrapped from the supermarket. The cycle of this ersatz world is complete for the coming generation who have spent their entire childhood being irradiated in video parlours. These gilded youths would probably collapse if you put a shovel in their hands and told them to dig a ditch. True to the hyperbole of video wars though, they parody hardship without a blush in pseudo-torn jeans and heroic poses.

Now my dentist had all the trinkets of the new plastic-wrapped modernity. He could bask in respect, job security and the support of a regulation nuclear family. But he had a dissonance of memories too, a knowledge of growing up in the extended family of a poor farmer, and a nagging uneasiness that the new reality just might be as fragile as the twin WTC towers in New York, which had melted like ice cream cones in the harsh summer sunlight. The car was his way to touch base with the bony mountains and deep valleys far from the city's rush. Yet as the day wore on I began to wonder if this too was a synthetic solution to a deeper hunger.

The yearning seems widespread. For example, Korean cities are full of muscle-bound four-wheel drive vehicles, monuments to testosterone that rarely make it past the urban limits, but which bellow the suppressed warrior-adventurer dreams of their owners; (my homeland, Australia, bulges with the same delusions). The fact is that in South Korea you can scramble up scraggy hills behind every town, but it's damned hard to find a patch of wilderness that isn't around the corner from some very modern settlement. In even the remotest places you are lucky to walk for fifteen minutes without bumping into other human bodies. And the path to elsewhere, wherever you may be, is an obstacle race of toll booths. (To drive from Busan to Seoul and back, I'm told, will set you back a cool 120,000 won, including 40,000 won in toll booths. A bus fare is only around 40% of that).

My trip had begun unexpectedly. Three weeks ago a double crown, scarcely a year old from China, had dropped out of my mouth at breakfast. A quick trip to a nearby hospital, where there was much chortling over inferior Chinese standards. I've managed to avoid dentists for most of my adult life, but in the last couple of Asian years half my social life has seemed to revolve around them. So my friendly Korean dentist said "no problem"; the damage would be about W40,000. This seemed a modest amount for a place like Korea, until back at the college my departmental secretary had an apologetic message to pass on. Language confusion again; he'd actually meant W400,000. Ouch.

We squeezed in a Saturday morning for fitting, just before the Chusok holiday, and when I arrived there seemed to be a certain expectation in the air. The dental technician, from an independent company, had come bearing Chusok gifts, and stayed to see his handiwork fitted to the foreign patient. He was a tense young man with hollow cheeks, whom, you could see, desperately wished he could finish the job himself, but was forced to watch the dentist hack at his masterpiece. There was a lot of hacking to do. It was way too large. As the minutes ticked away, the tension became palpable. "Have you heard of VIP syndrome?", the dentist asked at last, his brow beaded with sweat. Sly flattery? No, good grief, their wasn't an ounce of guile in his makeup. I really was sitting on some imaginary pedestal as an exotic foreign professor. Teeth though are great levelers, and my crowded collection were all too unobliging.

The drama lasted for two hours until in an amazing, cathartic moment, the dentist got down on his knees and begged my forgiveness for his terrible mistake. An impassive face, I decided, was the best Confucian response to this development. So I said nothing. Another cast would have to be taken, he said (yuk!), but for my forbearance and loss of time there would be a substantial discount. Hmm. Humiliation hung heavy in the atmosphere; Korean honour was impugned. The dental technician had shrunk visibly.

First thing on a Wednesday morning I came for the second fitting. This time there were no onlookers to shame the professional. The dentist was relaxed, and joked a little as he picked up the glittering gold alloy re-caste and placed it in my mouth. It fitted easily, too easily. He said nothing, but for five minutes maintained a pretense of checking for pressure contacts. Then, choking slightly, he spluttered what we had both known immediately : it was way too small. Mortified by his earlier error, the technician had overcompensated with caution. "The communication with my technician is not always good", said the dentist with a kind of ominous calm. He retreated to a backroom, and I caught snatches of a long, savage telephone conversation.

Three times lucky say the ancients. Another Saturday morning to test that theory, and for once it worked. Gold crown number three fitted perfectly. As I sat there with my jaw clamped while the glue set, the dentist began to ask circumspectly if I had seen much of Korea. I would have liked to say that all my plans for touring this summer had been wrecked by a smashed knee, that I hadn't been able to run for five months and was going stir crazy. But not wanting another crown to drop out, I kept my jaw properly locked. Besides, it was easy to guess that the enquiry was driven by other agendas.

Medicos in both Korea and China have a collective obsession with the English language. English is the code for prestige, for advancement, even for professional competence. Western medical textbooks are largely published in English; (this surprises me, given the size of the local Asian populations, and the speed with which, say, computer programming manuals morph into other languages). Doctors are generally good language students, having been basically selected for their aptitude to memorize lists of information (as opposed to analytic or other abilities). But language learning is a bottomless pit.

By the time an East Asian doctor or dentist graduates, he can certainly fight his way through an English medical text book, but he is also aware of a yawning communication chasm, of an inability to talk with professional dignity in international conferences, or even to hold a sensible conversation with foreign colleagues over breakfast. Thus there arises an insatiable hunger for "English practice" whenever a native English speaker comes within reach. (The situation is exacerbated in Korea by byzantine immigration laws which forbid foreigners, on pain of expulsion, from offering any paid private coaching - yet turn a blind eye to tens of thousands of miserably exploited Third World "illegal workers").

So I guessed, correctly, that my friendly dentist, had some kind of hospitality bargain in mind. Would I by any chance be interested in visiting some temples and country areas in Korea, which really had many beautiful scenes ? Well, why not. The dentist, in his own way, seemed a decent man, and I definitely wanted any available opportunity not only to travel in Korea, but to make contact with intelligent Koreans. This latter wasn't terribly easy in the outer suburban vocational college where I taught with a bunch of other foreigners. The students were pleasant enough, but mostly not enthusiasts for discussing anything in a deep and meaningful way, whatever the language.

The quick and obvious way to talk to strangers in a strange town is to head for the nearest bar. That's also time honoured Korean style, and you won't get far into any collection of Korean stories or poems without meeting two characters sharing a bottle of wine. I don't mind a drink or two (in moderation), but learned long ago that what sounds wise, important or funny when you're sozzled generally turns out to be pretty silly in the cold light of day. Must it be be the sacred or the profane? Historically, many of the outsiders who have gone on to develop close relationships with Koreans have dealt through the fellowship of religious belief. As author of the iconoclastic The Atheist's Catechism, that was hardly an option for me.; (few people anywhere relish having their ideologies challenged. A great pity). Thus my life with the locals in this Korean adventure has tended to revolve around small talk, and gone hungry for the kind of fierce debate which I cherish.

We were going to Unmoon Valley, which sounded in the English transliteration like a place needing some warp-drive spaceship to reach. Lacking any map reference (even now), I have only a vague idea of its coordinates, but we started out on an expressway leading to Seoul, then slipped east somewhere in the vicinity of Ulsan. The expressway part was monotonous enough to plug with a question and answer game. The dentist had moved from Seoul a few years before, and in the beginning hated Busan. The people had seemed abrupt, inarticulate and inhospitable, but now he had come to understand that their intentions were mostly good under the bluff exterior. Besides, from Busan it was much easier to escape into the great outdoors than from Seoul.

Gradually it emerged that he was a regular churchgoer, and that this created an essential social and spiritual locus in his life. At 38 he had largely given up the rush for prestige graduate study in America (a de rigeur ambition for any young Korean dentist), and talked vaguely of a plan to do dental-cum-missionary work in Mongolia in his fifties, a way to pay back God for his good fortune. I'm sure the Mongolians would welcome a bit of free dentistry, but they might no be so thrilled about being saved. Still, who knows? It's not a place I'd willingly choose to spend the winter in.

Off the intercity speed track at last, our road began to wind in a series of hairpin bends into the mountains. It was still a very respectable road, carefully contoured with nice kerb and guttering. None of those fingernail clinging tracks you find the highlands of Third World countries. Apparently though, in winter's depths, even the best modern engineering couldn't save the road from becoming a sled run of impassable ice and snow. Today the sky was the purest pale blue, and a balmy breeze ruffled the mountain trees. Already the deciduous leaf cover was a subtle patchwork of green, brown and gold, with splashes of red Japanese maple. In a couple of weeks, my host said, there would be many visitors to admire the autumn forests in all their glory.

We paused on a ridge where a small collection of makeshift stalls announced quick dining and produce for sale. There were basins of persimmons, and small cobs of strange looking purple corn. By one of the eating places a running hose ran water into a plastic basin with a dipper for thirsty travelers. Probably it was trapped from a stream somewhere; (these dippers and plastic basins are ubiquitous, unlovely, but very practical). The dentist talked casually to a wizened old lady selling persimmons, and very soon I had my own free sample to try. It was very ripe! This small collection of humanity was not there at random, for the mountain fell away steeply below, and framed by other peaks the panorama of a broad river valley wound lazily into the haze. I dragged out my Sony Mavica digital camera, and tried for the world's next great photograph. Shooting with this thing in clear daylight is pot luck: the so-called LCD screen viewer becomes invisible, but this time it came out O.K..

Once over the mountain pass our road began to follow a valley floor, not wide enough in the upper reaches for serious farming, but rather pretty with a trickle of river running through a generous ribbon of grey pebblestones. Here and there, rudely out of harmony with the scenery, low platforms nailed over with yellow linoleum were tumbled up against the bank. Flotsam? No, evidently they were rented out by enterprising locals to city slickers who came for picnics at autumn leaf viewing time. At one place on the far bank a more artfully rustic structure announced itself as a restaurant.

We sped on, and soon came to what I took to be a small town. I asked my host how people in these more out of the way places actually made a living these days. He muttered something about tourism and collecting medicinal plants from the mountains. Soon though I suspected that old fashioned enterprise called highway robbery. As we entered the town a gent slouched into the middle of the road, waving down our car, and my driver wordlessly handed over a few thousand won. Parking fees, he explained. We didn't park, but within three hundred meters came to another barrier. This seemed a slightly more credible wallet clipping exercise, for it turned out to be the tree-lined driveway into Unmoon Monastery.

To the left of the driveway were neat rows of cabbages, trellises of green peppers, and a little further on a mixed orchard. The fields were tended by monks in pale grey uniforms (an asceticism in stark contrast to the gold and purple cowls you see in more southern parts of East Asia). The monks seemed, well, kind of fragile, and looking a little more closely at the shaven heads I realized that they were all women. With the disappearance of a woman's crowning glory, you suddenly become aware of how much our gender responses are cued by cultural beacons: hair, makeup, fingernails, jewelry, dress .... But it is all relative; (in cultures where women are muffled from head to toe, men go bananas over a flash of pretty ankle).

I'm perfectly happy to walk through a supermarket and study the customers like zoo exhibits, but it always embarrasses me a bit to intrude on places like this monastery as a nonbeliever, with no excuse beyond being a tourist in search of the safely exotic. The tens of millions of tourists who feed the world's largest industry though have, on the whole, no such qualms, so that monks, "ethnic" minorities and craftsmen seem to have adapted to this self-indulgent cavalcade, and even find it an essential subsidy for keeping on with the things they really value. As we entered the monastery compound, a prayer session in a large open pavilion had just ended, and grey-clad nuns were streaming away to other duties. "Is it OK to photograph this?", I asked, somewhat abashed. The dentist looked perplexed. I repeated, rephrasing, but the enquiry seemed alien to his world. Shrugging, I set up the tripod, but within seconds a diminutive nun had signaled me away. I was almost relieved.

The collection of temples, pavilions and walks which make up Unmoon Monastery. are kept in exemplary condition. On such a brief acquaintance, I don't know what the monks, or rather nuns, specialize in besides self-sufficiency, but there is a sense of ordered purpose about it. The buildings are pretty enough, in the general style of temples and swoopy roofs. Although the settlement is very old, most of the existing construction is certainly more recent. Some wooden temples in Japan are exquisitely reconstructed every hundred years by dedicated tradesmen, but I have heard nothing yet of a similar tradition in Korea. As with other Buddhist temples I've seen in Korea, the panels under the eaves are crowded with painted designs and figures on a lime green ground, all curves and wriggles, a busy clutter which strikes me as a concession to Chinese influence, and in strange contrast with the spare grey clothing of the devotees. My host observed that Korean Buddhism is also flavoured with an exuberant dose of the much older shamanism -- devils, spirits and similar sprites, cleverly disguised as counterpoints for the saintly boddhisavatas. Such is the way of popular religion the world over. The panalopy and rich brocade of church culture in the Christian world is made of the same stuff. And like those dioramas for the Stations of the Cross in Christian grottos, or the frescoes on a Hindu temple, Buddhist enclaves like this wordlessly instruct even heathen visitors in the ancient tales of their heroes, often with large and colourful murals.

We had, as it were, come to the end of the road. If Unmoon Monastery. was a haven, then maybe it was our own dwellings which cowered in the sulfurous hell of Mordor. My friend wasn't even sure which road led back to the new Korea of expressways and toll booths, but the lady in a petrol station gave us a few quick, weary directions. More dumb tourists. The dentist bought a packet of chocolate fudge biscuits and some soft drink to mollify her.

Between biscuit crumbs I was instructed that Korea was perhaps 30% Christian, 30% nonbelievers and the rest a restless mixture of Buddhists, ancestor worshippers and whatever, none of the preceding categories excluding any of the others. Busan though was different. Maybe 80% Buddhist he thought, and there seemed to be a hint of disapproval in his voice. Some guides I read before coming to this country talked a little disparagingly of the monotony of monocultures. I have yet to find a so-called unitary culture though: every one of them on close inspection turns out to be as crazed by fault lines of difference as an ancient vase, and ready to crumble into shards at the blow of a few sharp words.

Korean drivers, my friend asserted, were fiends for road rage. Then there were Korean pilots who liked to fly planes into the ground, and Korean bus drivers dedicated to throwing even the sturdiest passengers headlong down the aisles of their vehicles. All this suppressed rage. Well, pent up fury is no Korean monopoly, but back on the motorway, national-character-guessing seemed a reasonable way to pass the time.

Korean families, my dentist thought, had something to do with the prevailing inner unhappiness. In a generation they had undergone rapid downsizing, from extended groups of three generations and many children, to small nuclear units with a couple of kids, and granny parked in some nameless home for the aging. Then there had been the trauma of industrialization itself in his own lifetime, the Korean war with partition and three million dead, the cultural genocide of Japanese occupation before that, and the disintegrating neo-Confucian world of Yi Chosun before that. Yech! What a brew. Could it be that those nuns with their shaven heads and prayers had it right after all? What we all needed was a little meditation, a limpid spirit, and a nice cup of tea.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Free Spirits on the Road to Unmoon Valley?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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