Archive for January, 2010

How to Succeed at Languages without Really Trying

by on Saturday, January 30th, 2010

From 1966 to 2006, except for the three years I tried to be a studio potter, I taught foreign languages—either German to Americans or English to Chinese and Koreans. During that time there was one student whose language proficiency was a really remarkable achievement. By the time I met Byoung-ok, he’d made himself bilingual and bicultural. I thought at first that he’d gone to elementary and middle school in the United States–his polite and deferential manner made an American high school seem unlikely. He told me he’d spent only four or five weeks in an English-speaking country. He majored in film, which at Dongguk University was particularly good.

In December 2009, we had this interview about his experience. He said there was no doubt but that his motivation to learn English came to a great extent from his admiration for American culture. He is currently writing subtitles for English-lanugage movies and television shows, and he’s not out of work for very long. The Korean economy may be down, as he says, but people still watch television.

Byoung-ok’s story

My first memory connected with English is of audiotapes my parents bought me when I was in elementary school. One was a tape of children’s songs about farms and animals, and the other a tape by Bonny M. I played them, and I often tried to repeat the words. Then when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, English classes for elementary school students were offered in the basement of our apartment house complex. Like most Korean parents, my mother wanted me to do well in school, and so she enrolled me. The teacher was a Korean, and we had a book which I think was printed by one of the American companies. We had tapes to for listen-and-repeat. We learned the basic expressions and the alphabet. I think I was quite well-prepared when my formal English instruction stared in middle school in 1992. During that time the focus was mostly on grammar. I think that was before the Scholastic Aptitude Test was introduced. There was no listening comprehension or reading comprehension. But I liked learning grammar too because it was still English. My scores were quite good, but I don’t know whether it was because I had talent for learning languages or because I had a head start. Actually, I would say more than half of the kids who started middle school with me already knew the alphabet and basic expressions—how are you doing? fine, thank you—and all that stuff. In the third year of middle school there was a listening comprehension contest in English.  I got very good scores, and my English teacher recommended sending me to a regional competition as a representative of my school. But I was quite shy back then, and I didn’t want to go to places with a lot of people.

In Korea there are a lot of English words—they might actually be Konglish [Korean-English mix]. There’s enough so you can use what you learned almost instantly. Like television ads or the advertisements for cosmetics that you see on the subway, which are half in English, even though they’re it’s written in the Korean alphabet. So I could actually understand them. Then with a lot of the problems for English studies you have a little reading passage and then questions to answer. So it was like reading bits of newspaper articles. I thought it was fun learning about new things. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Starting in either the first or second year of middle school, I went to an institute [a for-profit after-school school] that taught English, Korean and math, a sort of supplementary school. English was mostly grammar. The teacher was quite funny, one of those who act like an entertainer to grab students’ attention—he played, he made jokes. So it was like watching a show, rather than taking a class. It was fun.

The first time I spoke to a foreigner was the first year of high school—not in the regular school, but at the institute, which was called Wonderland because it was mainly for kids. It was a new school opening near our house. On weekends they also had classes for middle and high school students. My mother brought me a brochure.

 “Are you interested in taking this class?”

“Why not?”

I was either fifteen or sixteen, and this was during summer vacation. Now, Korean high schools have classes during the vacation. They’re called supplementary classes, but they’re actually mandatory. So it’s not really a vacation. I don’t know why, but for that one year you had a choice whether to go to summer school or not. So of course I chose not to. I didn’t have a lot to do.

Because it was during vacation, the first class I went to was on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for one hour or two hours. I was really quite frightened. I’d never met a foreigner before—well, actually, a white person. I remember my mother went to check on how I was doing because it was my first experience with a school of that type. My teacher said I was doing really great. My mother was quite surprised, given that I’d never been outside of Korea. After one or two months, I was sent up to a weekend class with students who had experience studying abroad. All the teachers were native speakers.

We didn’t have cable television back then. There was no concept of it in Korea. So the only thing on TV during the daytime was AFKN, the network for the American military stationed in Korea. So I started watching it. During those two months of vacation, I stumbled on a TV show called Friends. When I started watching it I didn’t know it was quite popular in the States. I could understand some of it, because even during middle school I did listening comprehension stuff. I found it quite funny. It was my first experience watching an American sitcom—I mean, other than one on Korean TV with dubbing by Korean actors. I was immediately hooked. “Oh my God, this is funny. I have to watch this.”

Since I was going to those classes, my English was improving daily. So I started watching AFKN intensively. I had the whole week’s schedule in my head. If I couldn’t watch something, I’d record it on my VCR. That also meant I wouldn’t interfere with what my father wanted to watch. Also during that time I started listening to Eagle FM, a radio station for the American Forces in Korea. After I started watching Friends, I branched out to all the other sitcoms on AFKN.

I learned expressions from those shows, and then I would try to use them at my weekend classes, which was quite interesting and exciting. For example, in the movie Clueless, a character referred to the menstrual period as “riding the crimson wave.” Even though I knew what it meant, I asked my female teacher because I wanted to see her reaction.

Another factor was the Internet. Because Friends was huge in the States, there were a lot of fans who would transcribe the show. Since there weren’t any subtitles, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand, especially the jokes and cultural references. So finding these transcripts was like hitting the jackpot. There was one for every single episode from the first to the current one. So I downloaded them, and I had almost all the episodes on tape. If I didn’t understand something, I would look it up in the dictionary. If it was a joke or it wasn’t available in the dictionary, I would ask the teachers on weekends. It was study material for me, even though I didn’t think of it as studying because I was just trying to figure out why they were laughing and I wasn’t—even though I knew that it was canned laughter. The other show I watched intensely was Seinfeld. Now when people ask me how to study English I say, “TV was my best teacher.”

The institute helped quite a bit. I mean, where else do you have the chance to talk to native speakers? The main reason I liked it was that those teachers treated me like a friend, like an individual and a human being. It was very strange in a way to be treated like that by the teachers. None of the Korean teachers I knew did that. In the Korean school that I went to you were treated as a subordinate, like in the military. The teachers were higher-ranking officers, and you were a foot soldier who had to do everything they said. 

Basically, we hung out. They would invite me to their parties and take me along when they went out sightseeing, partly because they could use me as a translator. I installed computer games in their computers [the software directions were probably in Korean], and I would go to their houses. So they became friends, not teachers. I didn’t see any other students doing that, although there were students who spoke English better than I did. I don’t know, maybe it was because I was eager to hang out with them. Back then, 90% of the teachers were from America. They were both men and women in their twenties. The oldest one I knew turned thirty in Korea. At that time most of the teachers were fresh out of college, not professionals, but people who wanted to go abroad for a year or two before starting a real job back home. They were also on vacation. Now things have changed some.

Some of those teachers I still communicate with on Facebook, which I do with none of the other teachers I had. I’m not trying to criticize Korean teachers. It’s probably because they didn’t have any choice. The system is built that way. You have to force the students to get high scores on tests. To me it felt like the sole reason for the existence of the Korean schools was to get good grades and go to good schools—or schools which were well-regarded and highly respected by Koreans.

Starting with my first year in high school, I also started watching movies intensively. Most of the movies I watched were American movies, half from Hollywood and half independent films—those were low-budget, quirky films. One I liked which wasn’t quirky, but one that comes to mind is Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation from his Gen-X trilogy. There was a time when I went to every single movie that was available in theaters. Then there was nothing else available, I watched videos.

I was really into pop songs—like in high school I probably bought between 100 and 200 CDs. And I would say 99% of them are American musicians. So I was immersed in an English-speaking environment.

Because I was watching TV and movies, I was really interested in entertainment magazines like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly. At one time I read a business magazine for the entertainment industry even though I didn’t know half of the business people featured in the articles. Back then we had Tower Records, which had a whole section of magazine stands. The current issues were expensive, but the back issues were very, very cheap. I liked Interview and New York. When I found The New Yorker, I was thrilled. “Oh, this is it!” I’d always heard it mentioned in movies and stuff, like it was regarded as an upbeat, classy magazine for well-educated people who were pompous and pretentious. I bought it, and I thought, “Wow, this is why it’s referred to like that.” Because it rarely had photos, and I couldn’t understand the cartoons, and half of the words in the articles I didn’t understand. I was really frustrated trying to read The New Yorker in high school. But I liked the fiction.

Naturally, from those books of reading problems with excerpts from magazines and news articles, I moved on to reading novels. I think the first ones were The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton and A Time to Kill by John Grisham. Once during a break at school, the English teacher came over and was very surprised that I was reading a novel in English. Once I started reading novels in English, I would never, ever read an English-language novel in Korean. No matter how good the translator is, something’s bound to get lost. Also, when the characters’ names and the setting are American and you’re reading it in Korean, it just feels different.

I learned a lot about American culture because comedy has a lot of cultural references. Movies do too. And also yes, the nighttime talk shows, David Letterman and Jay Leno. There was a time when I would just get news from their monologues because they made fun of all the current events. Oh, really? I didn’t know that was typical American behavior. When I started college as a film major, my father was kind enough to buy me a big projection TV for my room, with a sound system and a VCR. Naturally, as a university student I had more free time than I did in high school, so I watched TV and movies more. I don’t think I missed an episode of a nighttime talk show in 1998 and 1999. At one time I was thinking about becoming a standup comedian. It helped my English a lot because it was real conversation, not like scripted like the sitcoms, and it wasn’t prim and proper English like on the news. It was like real people talking.

Oh, and also Saturday Night Live. That was the show that I would hate to miss. I didn’t know that SNL had become lesss funny during the 90s because that was when I started watching it.  A lot of people who started watching it during the 60s and 70s they said it was the best time for the show, but I didn’t know that so I kept on watching it. I thought it was hilarious.

It all had to stop in 2000 when I went to the military, but thankfully my TOEIC [Test of English for International Communication] score was high enough so I that I was selected as a translator. The first year I was stationed on the American Army post at Yongsan, where I worked in the Korean general’s office. It was more like a regular office job. You know, taking care of the schedule, making sure the general’s office was clean, and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t speak English a lot unless there was something that had to be worked out. The second year I was stationed in Pyeongtaek in the Intel Collection Unit, where they were actually doing ground work. I worked intensively with the American side, and I had daily briefings for the colonel in the mornings. If I hadn’t been selected as a translator I wouldn’t have been able to speak English for two years. So I was fortunate. I learned a lot of military lingo, so when I was watching Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down I understood what they were saying—like the military ranks. Like for example, I know that a captain in the navy is an O-6, the army equivalent of a full-bird colonel, while an army captain in the navy is an O-3. This comes in quite handy even now when I’m writing the subtitles for documentaries on military history. I did a series on that. 

When I was in the military and I had nothing else to do, I read dictionaries. I hadn’t quite reached the Z’s by the end of my service. I found it quite fun. That was probably the first time I realized I really liked English. Not too many people read dictionaries, right? I would find words that I thought I knew, but they had different meanings. Or I’d stumble upon a word I’d heard a lot but didn’t know the meaning of, and I finally understood what it meant. I’d find useful meanings and useful expressions, so that was really fun. I certainly couldn’t have been reading novels or magazines at work because the officers wouldn’t have liked it. But if they saw me reading a dictionary, they’d think I was trying to be a better translator. The Department of Defense put out a military dictionary, which was all about howitzers and tanks and explosives. It was really fun.

It was a shame that I didn’t have more of a chance to hang out with American soldiers. As a KATUSA [Korean Augmentation To the United States Army, a Korean assigned to the US Army] I would have the chance. But I was in the Korean army I lived in the Korean barracks and the Korean army rules applied to me. I couldn’t go out on weekends, and I had to go right back to the barracks after work. However, I did make a friend, and we exchanged emails even when he was sent to Iraq, where he served for two years. The last I heard he was starting college in Miami.

You do have fun sometimes in the Korean army with your fellow soldiers even though you see them every day. But the atmosphere is very different. Because of the rank system, the hierarchy is a lot stricter. You don’t treat each other as friends even though you’re in the same situation since you’ve been dragged into military service. I didn’t meet a single person who wanted to be there. Those people applied to be NCOs or officers. They weren’t in the enlisted section. Being in the Korean military was quite a shock actually, like a culture shock, although I didn’t realize it back then. I missed the environment with the American teachers where everybody treated each other as individuals and friends even though there might be a ten or fifteen-year age difference. When I was in the army I asked my sister to subscribe to some magazines for me. They were shipped over by air, but I had no access to them because the military mail service is different. She’d get them to me so I could still read Premiere and Interview. I even read Gourmet. I didn’t like the food at the mess hall, and it would help me fantasize about food.

During college, I took every available English speaking class for non-majors, and then I ventured into the English department, which is where I met you, thankfully. So I continued taking those classes and continued watching more TV and more movies. In college I started reading The Korea Herald. I was so immersed in English that I was practically living my life in English. Anything I could do in English I would do.

An Irishman’s Culture Shock

by on Sunday, January 24th, 2010

What’s culture shock? When people arrive in a new country, they’re said to go through an adjustment process which might be divided into stages: 1) curiosity and exploration, 2) culture shock, 3) some acceptance of the new culture, 4) rejection of previous ideas and/or their home culture, 5) acculturation and assimilation—fitting in. A person may pass through all five stages or may get stuck in one of the stages and never move beyond it. Here’s an example from a 1992 interview.

Martin was a frequent and favorite dinner partner, a good-looking young man with the Irish pale skin, dark hair and ocean-blue eyes. His eyes grew lively as he spoke in his lilting accent.

Martin’s Story

In 1987 I was teaching Latin in a secondary school in Galway. I was 23 and a bit restless, and the Irish Ministry for Trade and Industry was sending recent university graduates abroad for managerial experience. They told me about a company in Korea looking for somebody to proofread English documents. They got me this job and a round-trip air ticket, and that was it. There was no orientation or anything.

Since I had always wanted to write, I thought I would send back stories on Korea to newspapers and magazines. Ireland was still a very sheltered little island, especially in terms of international affairs. There was no real conception of what Korea was, although at the time Korea had begun to make a name for itself with the Olympics coming in 1988 and with the industrial takeoff.

To tell you something about myself, I come from a sheltered, middle-class, conservative Catholic background. In Ireland, they say, we grow up late. I’d never had a girlfriend. So my going off on this adventure was a big deal for everybody that knew me, especially my family. I came out here with as an “experience.” I thought of myself as educated, a bit on the conservative side, but liberal-minded, certainly without racial prejudice. Thinking back, I realize subconsciously I had expected Ireland, just a little bit dressed up with some foreign touches—that people didn’t wear their shoes in the house and that they bow to each other. That’s how naïve I was.

Here everything was so different. For the first six months it was a complete novelty, a sort of Disneyland. I knew people did things differently, but I’d no idea why, and I wasn’t particularly interested in finding out. That made it all the more a Disneyland. I couldn’t accept the fact that people did things other than the way “normal” people like myself did them back home. Following the strictly hierarchical system of the Confucian ethic, which infuses the whole order of Korean society, seemed to me to be a very regimented, unnatural way to live.

For example, I was working in the international affairs department of the company. There was one guy who had been in Europe and knew an awful lot about Germany. When our company received an economic mission from Germany, he was completely cut out, even though he could have been very helpful. He wasn’t working on the German desk at the time, and the guy on the German desk had to do it. You only work in your own place.

There’s also the hierarchical thing. Promotion goes by age rather than ability.  I accept that now, but back then I couldn’t see it at all. I wondered why bright guys had to sit at an assistant manager’s desk for three or four years when the manager knew nothing about what he was doing. There didn’t seem to be any reward for initiative. I had had all these very Western concepts of success drilled into me. To succeed you have to stand out, whereas in Korea it’s not about standing out, it’s about fitting in. It took me years to see that and to accept that. Also, knowing your place removes a lot of pressure. Somebody can be thirty-five years old and be a manager, a pretty lowly position in a company, and know his abilities are better, but he won’t be as frustrated as his Western counterpart might be. You have a certain degree of comfort from knowing your place. It makes life simpler.

I would describe my company as a pretty average Korean company. The organization is all top down. The chairman’s every whim is followed, virtually unquestioningly. That causes chaos in an office. The chairman explains some project, and members of the staff begin to execute it according to their view of what he wants. A couple of weeks later a managing director will happen to talk to the chairman and discover that he misunderstood the chairman’s idea, and the whole thing has to be completely redone.

A couple of years ago, this was a typical situation for me: the head of a European organization would be coming to Korea, and our organization would be hosting a luncheon for him, with the chairman giving a keynote address. The director would tell the manager a speech had to be written along certain lines. Then the manager would give it to an assistant manager, explaining basically what the director wanted, and then the assistant manager would explain it to me. Then the problems would start. None of these people knew what was wanted. The director would have a vague idea, but without specifics. I would write the speech, the assistant manager would take a look at it and say, “Now, Martin, what if we change this and put this idea in here, here and here.” I would do that, and then the assistant manager would have his own ideas. “No, I don’t think this is what the director wanted. I guess he might want a bit of this in it.” I would do that, and then the whole thing would go up to the chairman, who would say, “That’s not what I wanted at all.” That used to happen about twice a week. That’s why people who work in Korean offices have to stay at work until eight or nine o’clock. The amazing thing is that the job does get done eventually, but by God it takes a long time.

It would be unheard of for the chairman to work directly with me. The chairman is in a glass cage. I spent two years fighting this. When I stopped fighting it and started going along with it, then people began to accept the stuff I wrote without making a lot of changes. I got programmed with their style, and they didn’t distrust me as much. Things seemed to fall into place from there. Now I’ve made a niche for myself, I usually work one-to-one with the director, who was the manager above me before both of us were promoted. The stuff we did together was acceptable to the chairman. Now he says something like, “Martin, give us an update of last year’s speech on this.”

I lived with a Korean family for four years. There was an old couple and their youngest son, who was about eighteen years old. The son could accept the fact, though he mightn’t like it, that there was a possibility his parents would choose the woman he would marry. Korean children, even when they’re in their middle age and beyond, will defer to their parents’ authority and will want to please their parents. I found that unacceptable. Filial loyalty was an abstraction to me, and for a long time I couldn’t understand how people could live like that. It’s only recently that I have begun to learn something from concepts like that.

The old couple began to see me as their own son. That began to create certain problems. For example, when I was going out with a girl, they would give me advice, and they would want to meet her. I wasn’t mature enough to know how or when to say no without offending. I knew I was here on quite a long-term basis, and I really liked this family, and they lived a way of life I thought was good. I took their word for it, that I should do this and I should do that.

I began to get along in Korea and to accept things. In my second year, around the time I started to learn the language, I went through this people-pleasing phase. I didn’t want to have anything to do with foreigners or to speak English. I was embarrassed about speaking English, even though my Korean was precious little. I went through this whole Korean kick. Whatever they did in Korea, I thought was right.

I went so far as to accept the Korean view of what they call the “dirty” aspects of Western culture and the view that Western society is “egotistical,” a morally sloppy “me generation.” I know that the government controls what Koreans find out about the West. You don’t get a lot of images of Mother Theresa helping people, but you do get a lot of images of Hollywood stars on drugs. My work involved having to meet Irish businessmen who came out to Korea, briefing them a bit and helping them set up appointments with Korean companies. I found myself resenting their stupid questions, and I began to criticize them severely.

 Anyway, I got on well in the office, and I got promoted. Actually, I became a total ass. Even to the lowliest people in the office, I was being deferential. I found out later that people were laughing behind my back.

Then after two years here I went home on vacation. My parents were quite open-minded, and they asked questions. I talked about Korea all the time I was there. It alienated people, although I wasn’t aware of it. When I was about to leave, my father gently reminded me, “You know, Martin, this is your home.”

Then in the middle of the next year I fell off that Korean high and went down in the other direction completely. I began to ask myself questions like, “What are you doing in Korea? What’s it doing for you?” I woke up to the fact that some Koreans had been trying to influence me, and I became angry with myself for falling for it.

 Here’s a story that helped open my eyes. I was asked to teach English a couple of nights a week to the daughter of a friend of someone in the company. I was invited to dinner at the house of this very respectable Korean family to meet the parents and the daughter. I scrupulously followed every Korean custom. At the dinner table I sat next to the guy who introduced me and not too close to the daughter. Everyone but the daughter was senior to me, and as a “junior,” I was not supposed to initiate conversation. I just responded. In speaking, I threw in all the honorifics [syllables added to verbs to show respect]. In Korea you’re respected for knowing when not to talk, and I often feel more comfortable with just shutting up. But that evening I didn’t enjoy the meal at all.

While I was teaching her, the daughter was the epitome of a modest, shy Korean girl who struggled with English and did all the right things. She carried my bag, and she’d always call me “teacher.” “Oh, we’re going to eat now, Teacher.” I thought she saw me as this Western guy who’d been around a bit.

Then after about six months her parents sent her off to study in Australia, and she came back a different person. She was probably on the same kick I was on, high on Western culture, and she was speaking English like it was second nature. She began to ridicule me. She was much younger than I was—she was nineteen, and I was twenty-five. In Korea you don’t talk down to your “seniors.” She said, “God, Martin, you were so funny the first time you came to our house! You were just like a little Korean boy!”

That was one of the things that set me thinking about what I was doing. I am just coming out of the negative phase that followed. Now I’m trying to discern what’s good for me.

Korea is often called the “Ireland of the Orient.” It’s not a comparison I would carry too far, but certainly I do feel an affinity with Koreans. There are a number of things. One of the big concepts in the Korean way of thinking is han. It’s a feeling of bitterness and frustration at always having been downtrodden, always having been the loser. It’s a very close partner to an inferiority complex.

Both countries have spent time under foreign powers. Korea was liberated from the Japanese in 1945, so the feelings are still quite raw. It’s maybe a healthy suspicion of outsiders. There is this dislike of the British in Ireland, but on the other hand, especially among people from a middle-class Catholic background, there is a reverence as well. A lot of our educational system is British to this day, just as the Korean system is very Japanese. I’m certain that no Korean I know will confess to having any time at all for the Japanese, but quite a lot of people send their daughters and sons to Japan to further their education. A lot of kid’s fashions come from Japan. There is that sort of grudging respect. I’m amazed, even in my own office.

Our company has an employee exchange system with a Japanese company. Before someone goes to Japan for a year, everybody says, “Oh, it’s going to be terrible for you having to leave Korea for a year and live with the Japanese.”

And of course the man who’s going away plays the game and says, “Oh yeah, it’s rough, it’s rough.”

Then they come back. I was at the airport with the boss when one arrived. The boss’s first question to him, literally right after he got off the plane, was “Ilbon-nom ǒtteyo,” or “How are the Japanese bastards?”

The guy said it was all right, he didn’t like the food and the people were hard to get on with. But as it turned out, the trip was an eye-opener for him. He had become a closet Japanophile. To a less marked extent, I see that in virtually every guy in our office who comes back from Japan.

I can only speak for myself, but I think there is a certain Irish “openness.” Now “open” covers an awful lot of bullshit, but basically the hail-fellow-well-met type is someone a lot of Irish people have time for. I would say that, certainly compared to the Japanese, the Koreans are a great and open people. When they meet you, instead of small talk there will be quite personal questions: “what age are you, are you married, do you have a girlfriend?” Irish people don’t conduct themselves like that, but a lot of us have the same sort of curiosity. I don’t know whether that’s Irish or human nature.

Koreans also attach a lot of importance to values which are commonly regarded as being healthy, traditional conservative values. Maybe it’s the Catholic Irishman inside me which says those are pretty good at knitting a society together—like diligence, hard work, respect for other people, which were drilled into me when I was young. I rebelled, but now at the age of twenty-eight, I’m beginning to see that they do count for something.

There was a time when I had got very heavily into the Korean culture, my “going native” phase, and I lost touch with Ireland. I felt that I was throwing myself so deeply into Korea that people in Ireland wouldn’t accept me. I felt I had cut my ties and couldn’t go back. I felt I was trapped in Korea. It’s just been recently, over the past year or so, that I’ve come out of that, and I’m happier with myself. Now I know that I have the choice to live in happily in Ireland, living in Korea is a hell of a lot better. I do know now that I have a choice to live anywhere. That enables me to enjoy Korea more.

Confucian Ways of Life and Death

by on Sunday, January 17th, 2010

In 1988, John and I taught in the same language school. When I observed his class a few days after I arrived in Seoul, he asked the students, “Now, when your father was young, did he have to do a deep bow each morning outside his father’s bedroom door?”

“Well, no, maybe not.”

“But your grandfather did, didn’t he?”

“Yes, of course.”

John had become more a participant in traditional and modern Korean culture than a great many Westerners have. Tradition seemed to hold a particular fascination for him, as it does for many unconventional people. He has carved out a niche for himself that is a place in-between cultures.

John’s Story

I came here in 1972 for Asian Studies. I had spent eight months in Japan, but I didn’t like it. It was so Westernized, and people were not friendly to foreigners. I met some Koreans there, and I seemed to hit it off with them. Part of it is my Irish-American background. Like the Irish, Koreans are loud, they love to read, they love to sing, they love to drink. They’re very emotional, they cry easily and laugh easily, they’re very quick-tempered, maybe even more so than the Irish.

 I came to Korea and liked it immediately. I had to have a visa, so I enrolled in Yonsei University and studied Korean, but I actually learned to speak the language by living in a boarding house with the people, sleeping on the floor on traditional bedding, eating rice and kimchi. It was like a family. Everybody ate around one big table. All the other rooms were full of Korean students, so we’d go to school together, go out drinking together, go on dates together and study together. None of these people could speak English. So for me it was perfect. The hasuk-chip ajumma, the boarding-house auntie, taught me the language. I learned like a Korean child does, starting with simple words like “turn on the light, turn off the light” while somebody flipped the light switch.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet people who were so good and so caring and who shared so much with me. I just kept an open mind and accepted everything exactly like a child would. I also wasn’t afraid to try. I made all kinds of language mistakes, and made a fool out of myself and said bad words when I was supposed to say good words. I got laughed at a lot. People corrected me, but I didn’t care. I just went ahead. I also made a lot of cultural mistakes like crossing my legs, wearing glasses or smoking or wearing glasses in front of elders. Remember, this was 1972. When I got strange looks, I’d always say, “Obviously, I can tell by your expression I’m doing something wrong. So please do me a favor and tell me.”

Deep bows and funerals

 I was very lucky to find a professor who was raised very traditionally and then sent abroad to study. He was expected to be able to function at two opposite poles of the spectrum—in the very modern and the very traditional world. The pressure made him kind of radical. He told me, “If you really want to learn Korean ways, come here two hours early every day and I’ll teach you the way my grandfather taught me.” That meant with a stick in the pure traditional Confucian way. He was just like a father to me, a perfect mentor.

He worked over and over on my traditional deep bow. It took three full days. When you do the deep bow, you face the person, look down at the ground, and very slowly bend your knees. First the left knee touches the ground, then the right, all very slowly, all the movements together in the same rhythm. Then bow very slowly from the waist, bending your head forward all the way down to the ground. Your hands form a triangular shape in front of your forehead, and when you reach the ground your nose fits into the space formed by your hands and thumbs. This is the man’s bow. Women kneel with the hands flat on the ground at the sides and turned away from the body and the chin tucked all the way under so that it touches the breast. The difference is the upper body is erect.

People used to bow right on the street. Now, in order to save their clothes, in public places people stand erect and bow directly from the waist with the hands at the sides. This is just sort of a half bow. Inside most Koreans still have the ondol floor, which you don’t walk on with shoes and which it’s proper to sit on or bow on. [This is a floor heated from below by a network of hot water pipes. On top the floor is covered with linseed oil paper.] If I were coming to visit my friend’s parents, I would say, “Please accept my bow, my greeting.” They would sit in some appropriate place, and I would face them and give the bow.

In Korea if you make a correct first impression this way, it opens all doors. And of course just by being accepted you feel more comfortable, you learn more, you adapt better, and you fit in. Bowing correctly is the mark of a good upbringing. So it helped a lot.

 After I learned the full bow, I learned how to dance and sing the correct songs at a funeral. At the time I thought, “What in the world am I learning this for? This is not going to do me any good.” Until I went to my first funeral.   

Man in white hanbok and funeral hat

Man in white hanbok and funeral hat

Woman in white hanbok and headscarf

Woman in white hanbok and headscarf

A Korean man is buried in the place of his ancestors. A wife is part of her husband’s family and submits to her husband’s relatives’ wishes regarding the burial. The funeral starts in his home village, at the home of the relatives, with a big table of food and drink, many flower arrangements and a picture of the departed draped in black. Then the procession moves out to the countryside, to the site of the burial mound, with several stops for food and drink on the way, perhaps accidentally leaving a trail of flowers. Smaller funerals might be transported with cars and pickups, larger funerals in chartered buses. Unless the family is Christian, the burial is a Confucian rite, like ceremonies honoring the ancestors, in which only the men take part.

Samnung Tombs. Those for ordinary people are a lot smaller.

Samnung Tombs. Those for ordinary people are a lot smaller.

Making the funeral mound is part of the ritual. Someone will say a line of the chant, and then everybody repeats it. The chant accompanies the rhythmic packing of the earth to form the burial mound. The words are about the meaning of life and death, not really religious, but very philosophical. The dance is shamanistic. The practical purpose of the dance, which is done with a stick in your hand, is to pack the earth over the body or over the coffin. You hold the stick in your right hand, and as your foot comes down, you strike the earth with the stick. You repeat this over and over, going round and round in a circle. All the men form a circle, and you just go around and around over the person’s grave. That’s how these beautiful little mounds are formed. They don’t wash away because they’re so compact and tight from having been trampled. Layer by layer the dirt is put on, and the dance continues on for an hour or more until that phase of the mound-building is finished. After the mound has been made, it’s like an Irish wake. People get drunk and cry and talk about what a great guy he was, while the family is upset and crying. After a few months, more dirt is added to the mound.

The traditional funeral clothing is made from ramie, or hemp cloth. They used to wear a full hemp outfit, but now they’ll wear a hemp hat shaped like an upside down paper grocery bag. They’ll also wear a little patch of hemp cloth on the lapel for a week or so. The first son used to have to build a straw house and live by his father’s grave for three years. Of course nobody does that now, not even in the country.   


Traditionally in a Confucian society boys and girls have to be separated from the age of seven—separate education, separate entertainment and socializing. There is still little chance for boys and girls to get together in Korean society. On the other hand, when they get into high school, it’s considered necessary for young men and women to learn how to socialize and to prepare for marriage or business or any other situation where the opposite sex might be involved.

The standard remedy for this is the “meeting”—they use the English word—a gathering set up for blind dates. There are different kinds, but the purpose of all of them is to learn to socialize with the opposite sex, not to find a marriage partner. Everybody’s very uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter whether you like the person you’re paired with or not, you have to be polite.

There are various ways used to pick a partner, like drawing numbers out of a hat. If you pick number 23, your partner is the other person with 23. You may be assigned a name. If you’re Romeo, you have to find Juliet, or if you’re Mark Anthony, you have to find Cleopatra. One modern version is for the men to take a personal object and put it on the table—a lighter or a ballpoint pen. The women are watching closely so they can pick up the object left by the man they want. Sometimes there’s a mad dash for one particular ballpoint pen. I’m laughing because I’ve seen that happen. Then everybody’s embarrassed, especially the girls. Of course, the owner of the pen feels great, but the rest of the guys feel like getting up and leaving. Sometimes the girls will look at all the guys and get into a huddle and say, “I want that one, OK, you take that one…” It’s obvious what they’re doing.

“Meetings” are usually very popular with the college freshmen, but after their first year students never go. I’m amazed that the system still exists because everybody talks about how stupid it is. There are more social opportunities here now than there used to be, various clubs and organizations at schools. You can go to an institute ostensibly to learn English or to operate a computer but actually to meet girls.

Interestingly enough, the girls seem more modern than the guys. No Korean woman will ever admit to this, but some girls go to discos to meet men. They put themselves in a situation where they can be asked to dance, where they can save face and not look easy. The difference from Westerners in singles bars is that they’re not looking for a lover or a sex partner or even a future marriage partner. They’re looking for a friend, a nice boy to go to the movies with or walk through the park with. They’re still rather innocent about it. Guys will go to a disco, sometimes to pick up girls but more often just to have a good time and drink with their buddies. If the guys ask the girls to dance, it’ll be, “Oh, oh, look at these terrible guys asking us to dance. You think we should? Well, OK, just one.” So it’s all very funny.        

Young people are getting bolder under what is perceived as Western influence, but it would still be very unusual to just pick someone up. You have the “face” involved. Even if a girl has been watching a guy and has been hoping he would come over and try to pick her up, if it does happen, she’s still obliged to act shocked and refuse because she would look too loose or low-class if she didn’t.

 In 1972, when I first came, nobody had a car. If we were walking somewhere my date would automatically set out three steps behind me. It shocked the hell out of me. I thought, “This is really being subservient. Talk about sexism, this is ridiculous.” But it was explained to me that this had nothing to do with me personally and that this was a face-saving device to present the image of not really being on a date, but just going to the same place as someone else. Walking side-by-side with the man was considered too forward. If she had walked with me it would have been considered insulting to both of us. Of course, male ego aside, it’s uncomfortable to have a conversation with your head turned over your shoulder to the person walking behind you.

 I was dating some girls at Ewha, the top women’s university, and they would tell me right up-front, “We can have a date, but when we’re out on the street we have to pretend we don’t know each other. Someone might see me walking around with a foreigner and think I’m a prostitute or a loose woman.”

So we’d meet at a coffee shop and then say, “Let’s have dinner. Where should we eat?” She’d leave first, and then I’d meet her there. All that has changed now. You never see women walking behind men, and women have decided either they’re willing to date foreigners or they’re not.

When we got to the restaurant, there would be lots of personal questions. Because of the Confucian hierarchy, Koreans are constantly asking questions to help them place the other person’s social status. They will not let up. And they don’t see anything wrong with it. That’s the major sticking point in conversations between Westerners and Koreans. You’re expected to fire questions back at them. If you don’t, they assume you’re not interested in them, you don’t like them and you don’t care about them. Sometimes they’ll say, “Did I do something wrong?”  Particularly if you’re speaking in English because they’re unsure of what’s going on. My tactic was to do what everybody else did.  


 In the West, dating has its serious side in that it assumes the eventual goal is to find a marriage partner. Here dating and marriage are distinct, but nowadays it’s possible that if you continue meeting a person, you exchange phone numbers and you go out on dates, it may lead to marriage, particularly among the ordinary people. They tend to use a matchmaker only in case of an emergency—if they have a single child over twenty-five with no potential partner in sight. Among the more privileged people, dating is just going out and having a good time. There’s a separate ritual for finding a marriage partner.

This ritual is called the matsǒn, or meeting to arrange a marriage, which typically happens on Saturdays and Sundays in the early afternoon. The formalities usually take place in a hotel coffee shop because it can’t be too low-class or cheap, but you also don’t want to spend too much money. The preliminary arrangements have been made by a matchmaker or a relative, someone who knows both families, who goes to the house with different pictures and explains who this person is, what his background is, what school he graduated from, what his father does, all of that. Then both sets of parents and the son and daughter show up, all dressed up. They may have never seen each other before.

Then all six of them sit down and start asking each other very personal questions. “Where’s your hometown—what school did you go to—what does your father do—what are your hobbies—how many children are there in the family—what is your religion—what about the other children?’

Sometimes it will get into things like “Has your daughter ever had a boyfriend—does she now—what do you think about sex before marriage?” That’s very forward, but it’s considered the modern approach. Earlier people couldn’t ask about sex. ‘What type of a husband are you looking for–what type of a son-in-law are you looking for—what do you think a son-in-law’s duties are—what do you think a daughter-in-law’s duties are?” They ask about anything on their minds which they feel will affect not only the future marriage partner, but also his or her family.

 Marriage is really considered a union of two families, not two people. The traditional way was for the two sets of parents to make the decision, but the modern way is to give both of the young people veto power. Then after the group discussion is completed, the parents leave or the two young people get up and go to another table in the same coffee shop and sit down and talk to each other. Their table is supposed to be out of earshot, and preferably out of sight of the parents. The parents will continue with whatever they want to talk about without the children present, and

the children will try—although it’s very uncomfortable—to get to know each other. They may go out for a date, probably on the same day.

Now there’s another little twist to this. Many times the girl or the boy or both will have a friend show up and sit at another table, preferably at a table near the group meeting, observing in order to give an opinion later. Often the parents know their children’s friends, but they pretend not to recognize them. Later the boy will ask his friend, ‘How does she look—what do youthink about her manners—does she seem innocent to you—interesting?” By the same token the girlfriend, who is sitting at another table, will be asked, “Does he look intelligent—does he look like an idiot—do you think he’d be a good husband?”

It’s fascinating to watch, much more interesting to watch than to describe. Everybody’s so uncomfortable, especially the young people. They’re supposed to sit there with their heads down and make furtive glances at each other and not interrupt their parents. Even when they get off on their own, they’re still uncomfortable.”Now—I’d say that after all these years, I’ve become a Korean ajǒssi [middle-aged man], and I’ve grown more cynical and less tolerant than when I arrived. But as you say, between two cultures, that’s what I am. It affects your whole life.

A Winter Walk up Gyoungju’s South Mountain

by on Monday, January 11th, 2010

Korea/map/Kyoungju/CarolDussereGyoungju–also spelled Gyǒngjuu, Gyeongju, Kyǒngu, Kyongju and Kyoungju–is the seat of the ancient Shilla (Silla) dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). Because so many of the sights worth seeing are outdoors, the town is also referred to as the “museum without walls.” It’s by far my favorite vacation spot in South Korea.  I’ll probably do two or three little photo essays on it. This is the first.

A guardian statue at Bulkuksa

A guardian statue at Bulkuksa

Anapji Pond

Anapji Pond

A burial mound in Tumuli Park

A burial mound in Tumuli Park

Bulguksa Gate

Bulguksa Gate

At least it isn’t raining.

You sit on the bus watching town and countryside pass by. When you let your eyelids droop, you can almost feel your body sink into the quilts on your heated floor back at the Hanjin Yǒgwan. Hot water pipes under the floor, what a cozy way to heat a room. 

The start of the trail

The start of the trail

Gyoungju has been wet and gray for over a week. Each day you’ve set yourself two sight-seeing tasks, accomplished them, and tried one new restaurant. There is no lack of things to see. Mr. Kwon, your host at the inn, is an expert on the local sights, and he provides all guests with maps of the town and its environs. You’ve been to the beautiful Bulguksa, or Bulguk Temple, and the lovely grotto further on. You’ve seen the pond where many precious relics were discovered and visited Tumuli Park, which holds the burial mounds of kings.  Each day you’ve returned gratefully to mindless lethargy on the heated floor. Perhaps you give yourself Korean vocabulary homework which you fail to do, perhaps not.

For your hike through the Namsan, the sacred South Mountain dotted with Buddha statues and reliefs, you’ve been waiting for a clear, sunshiny day. But it seems pointless to put it off any longer.  

The guidebook has maps of the mountain showing paths around the Buddhist temples, pagodas and rock sculptures scattered over the landscape. What seems to be the best trail begins in the west with three royal tombs, snakes eastward near a stream, past carved images, and climbs upward to a hermitage. Then it follows the saddle and the mountain skyway down to a village in the south.     

You figure the bus is getting close. You stand up and begin working your way toward the front of the bus, holding onto the top of one seat after another. When you reached the driver, I you say, “Samnung. Samnung,” the location of the three tombs.  He yells something that contains a familiar word. What is it? Kitario. Right. Kitario. “Wait.” He’s telling you to wait. After a few minutes he stops, opens the door and yells something. He points at a trail to the left.  

Samnung Tombs

Samnung Tombs

Another view of the tombs

Another view of the tombs

The leafy ground is wet under your boots. There’s a sort of entrance to the trail and some houses. Not far from the road you come to the burial ground of the tenth-century kings named Park. The huge tombs are covered with closely-cropped, dead grass and set against a backdrop of dark evergreens and a few leafless skeletons. Behind is a gray-blue mountain peak partly obscured by mist. 

The trail lies along one side of a shallow creek bed, then merges with it, then splits from it again. Walking is easy but rather slow over sandy dirt, then slippery-wet leaves and needles. Then creek stones. Then up steps formed by dirt and shallow tree roots. 

A royal tomb seen from the Namsan

A royal tomb seen from the Namsan

The sun appears through the clouds. You turn and see the distant blue-gray peaks and then look down at a royal tomb. For a very brief moment, sunlight turns the wheat-colored grass to bright gold, transforming the burial mound into a morning sun rising over the curve of the hill.

 “Here comes the sun.” The song rings in your ears, so you sing it out to the mountainside.

k kyoungju namsan 6k kyoungju namsan 5







The first seated Buddha was headless, a single granite boulder placed casually near the trail. What remains of him is the torso, the tops of arms and legs, the incised lines to show the folds of his robe.

Buddha on Pedestal

Buddha on Pedestal

Farther on is another statue. The left hand rests palm-up on the lap, while the right hand is placed palm-down over the right knee. You sit beside the pedestal and check the guidebook. It says the position of the hands calls the earth to witness the Buddha’s right to enlighten humanity. The face with the half-closed eyes shows a mind directed inward, indifferent to both the mud stains on its surface and the view of the valley below. 

k kyoungju namsan 9Detachment. Maybe you tell yourself that’s what you need. You sit down on a dry rock surface nearby, pull your water bottle from your backpack and let your mind wander down the trail and off to the distant hills. This solitary place is good for meditation or reflection on whatever you wanted to leave behind.  

View from the Namsan

View from the Namsan

Then you get up and look for the best way up the trail, over rocks, over dirt-and-tree-root steps, around trees and the muddy slide-marks of previous climbers. You are unable to find many of the items listed in the guidebook, which you suspect are obvious only to someone who knows exactly where to look.

The hermitage

The hermitage

The steep trail leads to a ramshackle hermitage, where no one seemed to be at home, then up again to an enormous rock tabletop.  Three sides were open to a spectacular view of the valley. As you step toward it, you discover a metal altar and then a relief twenty feet high and fifteen feet wide, cut into the gray and brown cliff wall. Shallow lines form the body and the robe, but the head protrudes from the rock. His facial expression seemed non‑judgmental, slightly amused, maybe even a little puzzled. The statue, you’ve read, is the second largest in the Namsan region, facing east to catch the first rays of the sun. It represents Miruk, the Future Buddha, who will one day appear with new teachings for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

The Future Buddha

The Future Buddha

The Future Bddha

The Future Bddha

You pull off the windbreaker you’ve worn over your sweatshirt, throw yourself down and stretch out on your back below the Buddha. A breeze plays over your sweaty face and neck. All the tension in your body seems to gush out your fingertips and toes. You feel yourself expanding over the mountaintop, over the valley and then dissolving into space.Korea/Gyeongju/Namsan/view/CarolDussere



A Monk’s Tale

by on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

You are sitting on a porch near the meditation hall of a Buddhist monastery on Hong Kong’s outlying island of Lantao. It is February, 1986. Around you are grassy hills, and two islands lie light blue in the distance. It is difficult to imagine anything more peaceful. The man sitting beside you is a Chan [Zen] Buddhist monk, a soft-spoken Englishman with a strong Cockney accent. He is dressed in traditional monk’s garb, a long tunic with Chinese fasteners and baggy trousers pulled tight at the bottom. The sleeves aren’t long enough to cover the heavy covering of paisley tattoos on his wrist and lower arms, which come from the very different life he led before he became a monk. Paul’s head has been shaved, and his hair had grown out again to about a centimeter long. On his scalp you see four rows of small, round, deep scars, the results of burns made during his ordination. His eyes are very serene.

Paul’s story

I’ve been interested in Buddhism since I was twenty or so. I’m thirty now. In London we used to sit in meditation for a couple of minutes at the end of karate lessons, and my interest grew over the years. Almost three years ago I came to Hong Kong to enter a Buddhist monastery. I had read about a Chinese master, Xu Yun, whose teaching I like very much. I came to Hong Kong on the off-chance of meeting someone like him.

I liked the first master I met, but when the others encouraged me to choose him as my master I said I’d wait to see if I had an affinity with him. When I did ask him, he told me something he deliberately hadn’t mentioned before, that he was the disciple of the monk whose teachings had brought me here.

When I first came the abbot said I should start wearing robes now and find out if  I liked it. I kept tripping over them at first. These are just old-fashioned Chinese clothes, with loose trousers so you can fold your legs comfortably. The kasa, the descendant of the Indian monk’s robe, which was like a patchwork sheet worn over the left shoulder, is now reserved for ceremonies and formal talks. It’s worn over the tunic and pants and maybe a padded jacket.

I’ve found I have only minor annoyances here. For example, the Chinese think it’s abnormal that in summer when it’s hot I never wear shoes.

“Why do you not wear shoes?”

“It’s too hot.”

I keep a damp cloth by my bed so I can wipe my feet before I go to bed, and I’m quite happy with that. But generally, Chinese footwear habits are easy to adjust to because people wear shoes in and out of doors. In Japan and Korea, you take your shoes off before you go inside. The floors are immaculate, so you have to be very conscious of keeping your feet and socks clean. You don’t notice that so much here.

Chinese monks don’t have communal baths like people in Korea and Japan. They wash individually, and it’s very rare that you’ll see a monk with very little clothes on—in his underwear, for instance. Even in Hong Kong the monks scold if I take my shirt off to have a wash before the visitors and nuns leave. They say, “Someone might see you through the window.” They get upset by that. So I’ve had to change some of my attitudes to create harmony.

The hardest thing for me was learning to use chopsticks with my right hand. If I used them with my left when I sat in the row of monks, they would get all caught up with the chopsticks of the man on my left, so I had to learn. Everyone was laughing at me. For about three months I kept dropping everything. I just couldn’t control them. But I’ve got it now.

The Chinese are easy to get along with. They’re gentle in their ways, and they seem to really like you to be here, whereas the Japanese and the Koreans don’t like foreigners very much. Also, in Korea and Japan you must do everything as part of the group. The Chinese allow you to center on yourself and forget others. They seem to have a slightly different focus.

The Chinese have all this ceremony, which many of them admit is too long and too complicated. But they do things that create an ideal atmosphere to make the mind still and tranquil. The clouds of incense are beautiful in the morning mist. Inside the temple it’s dark because they don’t have any windows. You sometimes see rows of candles on metal trays, and the light on them is quite remarkable. Many of the old temples have a peculiar atmosphere around them. If you’re the least bit perceptive, you’ll feel it as soon as you walk in the door.

You pick up something similar around the Chinese monks, particularly the older ones, just by watching them move. They’re so natural, they just flow. In fact, in Chinese ordination they tell you to walk like the wind, stand like a pine tree, sit like a bough and lie on your right side like a bow, the posture the Buddha used when he died. With a lot of older monks it’s not necessary to ask them questions, you can learn about inner stillness just by watching. The most important things I learned from my master I experienced when we went on a walk and no words were said.

 A typical day in the monastery

Depending on the temple, between 3:00 and 4:00 you hear someone going around with a wooden gong and chanting. That’s the signal to get up and have a wash and clean your teeth. A half hour later there’s the morning chanting. It’s about an hour. Then half an hour after that, there’s breakfast.

In mainland China there’s a lot more physical work—gardening, growing vegetables, and some of the monasteries have rice fields. A lot of monks work on rebuilding temples. Some monks study sutras [discourses or sermons] all day, some chant various ceremonies, some work as office clerks, some as cooks. They work until lunchtime. Buddhists always eat the main meal before noon. They have a short chant before and after the meal and maybe walk back to the main hall chanting the Buddha’s name.

In the afternoon people do their individual jobs until the evening ceremony, which in Hong Kong is usually at half past three unless the temple has a lot of visitors. The evening meal is never formal like breakfast or lunch. A lot of monks don’t eat in the evenings. If there’s a meditation hall in the temple, there’ll be formal meditation. In most temples now in China, evening is the time for the chanting for people’s ancestors. Generally people go to bed about nine. In our temple we have an extra chanting at half past seven of The Diamond Sutra.

The trip to the Chinese mainland

A farmhouse on Putoushan Island

A farmhouse on Putoushan Island

The abbot and a large group from our temple went to Putuoshan, or Putuo Mountain, on an island near Shanghai dedicated to Guanyin [the female Bodhisattva of Compassion, who plays a role similar to that of the Virgin Mary.] Some ladies from Hong Kong were donating a statue to Guanyin, so we all went there for the unveiling ceremony. It’s really a nice place. During the Cultural Revolution, the monks were made to disrobe, and the temple buildings were used to store grain. The buildings weren’t damaged, only the statues. The atmosphere there is just like stepping back in time a thousand years. It’s incredible. Some of the monks look like they’ve been there a thousand years as well.

A couple of us went to the Six Patriarch’s Temple in Canton to see the body of Hui Neng, the author of the Diamond Sutra, who’s been preserved for over a thousand years. I’ve heard of a Westerner who was ordained in that temple last year. He may have been the first Westerner ordained in mainland China. It would have been impossible at the time I went through.

workers rebuilding the temple on Putuoshan

workers rebuilding the temple on Putuoshan

Then we went to some other temples in Guandong Province out in the mountains, straight up like a Chinese painting. But a painting or a photograph could never do it justice. You have to go there and see it for yourself. My master and another monk have poured a lot of money into Yunmen Monastery. I liked it there, and I liked the abbot. They’re working on a meditation all which will be finished in about six months.

This was in 1984, and many monks who had hidden out during the Cultural Revolution were coming back from the hills. They think some monks may still be out there, waiting a bit longer to come down. Or maybe they’ve decided not to come back at all.

I’ve heard there’s conflict between the state and the temples on the mainland, but I didn’t see any. Because I’m a Westerner, they put on a good show for me. But I think many of the initial difficulties have been resolved. Before, many Chinese were afraid or ashamed to admit they had any interest in Buddhism, but now it’s like a cork held under water for so long it’s popped up. Even powerful people in the government come from families which have been Buddhists for thousands of years. You can’t destroy it. I spoke to people who admitted to me that during the Cultural Revolution they kept reciting sutras and doing meditation and devotional chanting, but in secret. I suspect quite a lot of people did. The abbot of Putuoshan said that during the Cultural Revolution he kept on doing internal practice, Zen practice. So he kept going, but he never talked about it, and there was no outward sign.

There are still problems with the sutras. We had a letter recently from a place in mainland China where they had so few sutras they were copying them by hand. During the Cultural Revolution, religious books of all types were burned. People hid them, but few survived. Nobody could take any in, either. They were confiscated at customs. But the ban was lifted about six months ago. The abbot told one of my dharma brothers [fellow monks] to post some to China.

We met quite a few monks who were over forty or fifty and then young ones twenty or twenty-five and novices a good deal younger. There’s a generation gap between the old monks and the young ones because of the Cultural Revolution, and also a cultural gap because the young monks don’t have any experience of life without communism. My master said that some of Buddhism will inevitably be lost, but with five or six really good teachers in China they stand a chance of keeping the heart of Buddhism going.

Living conditions are very simple in mainland temples. You just wash from a bowl or bucket, though some have cold showers. Everything’s cooked in woks over open fires. Most temples have electricity and telephones now, but hardly any have television or radio. Some of the monks read newspapers. I’ve seen a lot of monks in China who don’t have much money. It’s not good for monks to have a lot of money because that can distract them from their original purpose, especially the younger ones.

With the Chinese the food’s good. They’re strict vegetarians who can’t eat meat under any circumstances. Most of them keep this rule, and most of them never drink alcohol, whereas in Japan there’s quite a bit of drinking in the monasteries, with parties after periods of intensive meditation. In China the monks have no holidays. They practice every day, nonstop, like a gentle stream running down a hill. I feel I have more affinity with this style of practice.

Traditionally in Chinese culture, temples have been considered a worthwhile place to visit. It’s good in many ways, because tourist have a chance to look at temple life. Most people find temples very serene and still, and often they feel encouraged to ask about the teaching. People go there because they’ve got problems to solve or doubts to clear up or for instruction so they can make their lives more peaceful and purposeful. They often stay a few days.

People come into the monastery for a multitude of different reasons. You’ll find every type of person you’d find outside—from a first-class saint to a rock-bottom sinner, totally unrepentant. Some people can’t understand why such sinners live in temples or why they’re even allowed to live in them. But the whole idea of the temple is to help these people, and it’s the very best thing for them, really, where others can set shining examples and help them cultivate their minds. Lots of people come in because they’re very sincere and believe in Buddhism. Some people who are academically inclined like to study sutras, and it’s an ideal setting for that. Some have a very devotional attitude. Some come in with very little understanding of Buddhism. Often they change, and their understanding matures. A lot of nuns, the younger ones, come in because they’ve had boyfriend trouble. Yes, some people do come in to have an easier life. This has been true since the Buddha’s time, I think. In mainland China ninety-nine percent of the young ones are peasants who could have had a very hard life outside, doing nothing but manual work. But in the Chinese tradition monks can’t marry, so they have to choose a life of celibacy.

Paul’s ordination

In China most people stay in for life, so you have to work very hard to get ordination. They’ll often give you a task they see is going to be difficult for you, just to see if you’ll go through with it. You also have to learn a lot of different monk’s customs—the way to put on robes, the way to walk, the way to sleep, the way to eat. We have a particular sutra to chant while putting on or taking off the formal robes, for instance. It takes time to learn these things. You have to spend many hours kneeling on the hard ground begging for the precepts. You have to do many hours of bowing every night, calling the Buddha’s name.

My probation period lasted eighteen months. I was ordained fifteen months ago. Right before ordination most people get ill, so the monastery has a doctor there a lot. Even if you really want to go through with it, the subconscious fights against it. It still wants to be free, and there are things it doesn’t want to give up. It’s a trick of the ego, if you like. In my case it was terrible constipation. The laxatives the doctor gave me didn’t work. But when I really got into bowing with sincerity of mind, the constipation stopped. It was as though all the bad karma passed through me, and I felt much better.

The ordination ceremony is a sort of repentance for all the bad deeds you’ve done in this life and in former lives. Now you’ll put them down, you won’t repeat them. During the ceremony, the monks transmit what they call “precepts substance,” the substance of the concepts of Buddha, which gives you direction in your meditation. When I went up on the platform I was confused because the ceremony was not at all like what I’d expected. It was very noisy, and there was no meditation, and there were many things I didn’t like. I had a lot of bad thoughts, and then all of a sudden I realized I hadn’t got this precepts substance. Whatever it was, I had missed it. So I turned my awareness back on myself, and I thought, “Well, what is it?”

All of a sudden my false thinking just stopped. I had no thought at all. My mind was pure and clean. This is what is supposed to happen. You get a break in the clouds so clear you can see the moon—or you perceive your own nature. So I just floated off the platform. The translator picked up on the change immediately. Afterwards, he said, “Don’t look so sad. That’s good. How do you feel?” I knew I felt the same as my dharma-brother who had come off the platform first—from the look in his eyes. He also hadn’t wanted to talk to anybody.

When your head is burned, it’s as though the precepts are burned right through you. It’s done early in the morning. Because you’re burned on the head, the poison from the burn goes right through your bloodstream, and you feel very dizzy and groggy. The burn goes right down to the skull. After they’ve done the burns, they’ll help you to stand. You go down the temple steps into a courtyard full of laypeople cheering and very happy and saying you have the Buddha’s ear and they are really proud. You walk through the crowd and hold up your robe, and people fill it with presents and stuff money into your pockets, and you end up in front of the statue of Huito, the Guardian of the Dharma, and you bow before him. You realize that now you have his job.

During the three weeks before your ordination, you’ve been locked up in the monastery, but now you’re free to out and walk over the island, and you walk because if you go to sleep the poison in your blood can damage your eyes. So you walk all day to avoid going to sleep. By evening the poison has worn off, and you feel much better. You feel as if you’re walking two feet off the ground. You feel really high.

Ordination ceremonies vary so much from country to country that only if you go through a Chinese ceremony will you know about it, or if you hear about it from someone who has. I’m really very fortunate. Not many Westerners have had the privilege—not many Westerners at all.