Facing The Korean Wall

tablets on mt osan
A beautiful wall of decorated slates climbing down from Mt Osan, Gurye

“….but it’s such a beautiful wall”.

There was a pause before he spoke and his words were the iron to my wrinkles. I was frustrated. The heat was turned up once more under the pan that is my hagweon and my personal situation here in South Korea.

I recently read an expat Korean blog. The story of how a girl takes her neighbours’ dog for a walk each day while living in the downtown area of her small Korean town. Of course her neighbour happens to be a monk so obviously they sit down and sip delicate green leaf tea (and not the not quite right brown rice version) exchange language lessons and as a result she becomes culturally enlightened in ways I can only dream.

I’ve been in Korea 6 months and yes I eat Korean food, sometimes on the floor and drink the not quite right brown rice green tea, although I am more likely to be found in one of its ca zillion coffee shops. I shop in supermarkets were things move like in a zoo and occasionally get laughed at by an ajumma at the market as I try to buy only 4 onions and not the basket holding 25 as I am only one person eating alone. I can bow and nod my head appropriately and try not to be loud on buses. When I need to get something done like visit the dentist I pluck up the courage and get ready to face the wall. The language barrier. This is my Korean cultural experience and it is one that is being experienced from one side of the wall because I have no helpers to get me get across. Despite the dog girl whose life I have just imagined here with words, I know I am not alone in feeling disconnected with Korea. There are people out there with co-workers and even Korean friends who still feel disconnected but I would like to think that at least a thread of connection can be gained through “helpers” but Aha! I may have found my own little helper. Well at least I think I have a rope to throw over the wall.

We’d just begun a slow climb up Mt Osan to visit Saseongam Temple in Gurye, a little temple that is perched on the side of a small mountain. The conversation being batted backwards and forwards was the common debate, which is better, Japan or South Korea? There is this viewpoint that exists in a swing ball fashion that  Japan is better. The language sounds nicer and the culture is better.

“How is it better?”

“The countryside is beautiful and the culture is richer”

“How is it richer?”

I don’t remember the answer and I still don’t know. How exactly is one culture richer? I will have to go to Japan but I was still left with what to do with my situation in Korea so I continued,

“Isn’t it the same in Japan? The shyness, the rigidness. There is such a wall.”

“….but it’s such a beautiful wall”

There it was. The wall. It stayed with me and when a couple of days later I watched Alain de Boton’s School of Life talk, Art as Therapy I realized what I need to do. I can create my own helper in the form of the culture I can get access to. Words, pictures, film and music. Its all here for anybody to see so I’m beginning to sling my rope across and take up the challenge of a new climb for I do believe that it is a beautiful wall.


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