Bunkers and Lanterns: a sketch of history and culture

The following has been stated before, but it bears repeating:

A Street Commander is one who is defined by his own terms.  The essential characteristics of a Street Commander, though, are as follows:  1.) sense enough to know when it is time to go on solo excursions for the purposes of adventure and/or meditation, 2.) sense enough to have a sense of direction (never eat shredded wheat), 3.) sense enough to know that these excursions can and must be made without any plans later in the day (or night) that might impinge guilt or obligation, 4.) sense enough to dress smartly and comfortably, bringing along essentials so anything beyond the absolute minimum amount of money is required, 5.) sense enough to know his limits and to push those limits—physically, emotionally, spiritually—to extremities never before discovered or rarely visited, and 6.) as per the tenet set forth in guideline #5, sense enough to keep an open mind.

With the knowledge that it was time for a solo excursion, I packed my things and hopped a sub out to the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul.  True to the idea of Street Commanding, I knew next to nothing of my destination, barring a few sketchy details about the UN landing there at some point in the Korean conflict of the 1950s.  I thought that the Incheon landing happened late in the war but, as it turns out, it was in the early stages of the conflict that Mac Arthur’s forces landed there three months after the initial commencement of hostilities; a week later, Seoul was liberated for the first of four times during the war.  As it turns out, so much happened in the first six months of the war that it is difficult to sum it up here.  I am in the process of digesting the history of it and to research maps. 

History’s physical aspects are much easier to grasp when you live in the country where the history occurred.  The city I used to live in—Pusan—was an important location in the war; for six weeks, at one point early in the war, the US-UN-ROK forces were pushed back but maintained a perimeter as the final stronghold.  The holding of Pusan allowed preparations before the Incheon landing in September of 1950, 100 miles behind enemy lines on the west coast of the peninsula.  (http://www.korean-war.com/)

Anyhow, to get a real perspective of the conflict, one must go to certain areas of the country, as the modernization of South Korea leaves very little remnants in major urban areas.  In Pusan, on a hike a couple months back, I encountered some old weed-infested trenches at the top of a peak and on a Gwanaksan hike last Sunday , I came across some barb-wired openings to mountainside bunkers that faced north to Seoul.

The point here is that these bunkers and trenches are given little if any designation with informational placards; they just sit unused, ghostly and fascinating in their mere existence.  One is led to imagine what happened at this particular site or that.  Who was stationed here?  How many times did this position change hands?  What was it like to fight such extreme uphill battles against fortified positions?  Who fought here?  Who died here?  Given further research and interviewing of the right people, there is sure to be even further perspective given to these historical but seemingly neglected sites.

With a brief tour of Incheon and a perspective given by a vista point called Mt. Wolmi, one gets a true feeling for the massiveness and, therefore, the importance of this port.  Just as Pusan had its importance for establishing and maintaining the flow of troops and materiel into the conflict in the early days of the war, so too did Incheon.  And today, the two large ports just as important in other ways for this 12th largest economy: both Pusan and Incheon are major ports for the export and import of international goods.  I guess that’s why people fight wars: to get their share.

And, just as Pusan, it is massive, and it hums with the activity of industry.  The main point of entry into the country is just west across the water (on the inland of Jung-gu) at Incheon International Airport, the construction of a 12.5 km bridge (Incheon Grand Bridge) south of my vantage, the 3rd Incheon Bridge to the north, and the massive port surrounding me in the more immediate north-east-south.

Before the short climb to the top of Wolmi (what used to be a small island and was the focal point of the Marine landing in September 1950), I walked along the boardwalk area where there are many restaurants with huge bay windows from which to look out over the water.  Being a Saturday and the day before a celebration of Buddha’s birthday, the parents were out in full force with their kids, engaging in larger numbers than usual (due to Buddha’s birthday celebrations, I am guessing) in arts and crafts in the perfect breezy weather of the ocean side. 

After encountering a couple unused bunkers, a tribute to an uprising against the Communist influence on one of the islands off Incheon and well-maintained flower gardens amidst the more natural foliage, I made it to the top of the small mountain.  There is one space-age looking observation deck and two outdoor observation areas.  I preferred the simplicity of the outdoor areas; besides, it afforded better picture-taking of simple curves and shadows and lines in the waning afternoon.  Couples. Families.  Sunset.

An older man, maybe in his later forties, came up to talk to me, “Where you from?” the standard introduction.  Shortly thereafter, he begins to tell me his personal philosophy about family, religion and what country he thinks is the best.  I haven’t quite figured out how to handle these situations, the ones with proud Koreans telling me how great their country is.  It makes me a little uncomfortable that someone can just come up to you and start speaking as if I asked them, “What is your view on religion?  Family?  International affairs?”  He just began to share, and it began to sound more like he was proselytizing not only his view that each person is a god (which I found interesting since I, too, have thought along these lines for many years), but also about the importance of family, about how Korea is “Number One.” 

The easiest way to turn someone off to your cause is to put your views in terms as if they were absolutely true.  Now, I have no way of knowing if this man was trying to convert me to some new faith or to make me Korean but, after thinking about it on the train ride home, I came to a conclusion that there is a certain amount of tact that I now know is absent in Korean culture. It’s not as if they are trying to be rude, but the importance of status is so much more overt here.  For instance, if you are like me—thirty, unmarried and without child—the students will give a look and a brief query as to why.  This can be quite jarring to western standards, since it is our way to look the other way or not to ask certain questions (the proverbial elephant in the room).  Also, westerners have a certain idea of territory and boundaries when it comes to personal space (Koreans will touch you when, by our standards, it is most inappropriate) and personal ideals (the over-arching theme of this people who have been colonized and brutalized throughout history is one of pride in a long, rich cultural history and of overcoming adversity and then establishing rapid modernization and its accompanying wealth).  I also have to apply the filter of the language barrier: Maybe there is no other way for this man to say in his good but still limited English that, of all the countries he knows of, Korea is “number one.”  So, this man whom I found initially irksome, I have concluded was simply an ambassador for his country, trying to make interesting conversation and expressing his pride in his country.

The next day, I went with Jed and Randel into Seoul to meet up with Ryan and his lady friend at the Lantern Festival, a celebration of Buddha’s birthday that included a street festival with arts, crafts, dancing, contortionists, traditional children’s fitness exercises.  Eventually, we were made comfortable by a middle aged woman and sat on the floor at the Jogyesa Temple for a brief education on the three Buddhas in front of us: the one in the middle is the earthly manifestation of Buddha, the one on the right for health, the one on the left for those who have reached Buddahood. 

And, in my time here in Korea, I have yet to see as many foreigners at one time: all the hagwon teachers were out; I even ran into my replacement at my old job from down in Pusan.  But, in addition to the long stream of lantern-carrying Korean Buddhist monks that streamed into the temple later that day, there was a large contingent of Buddhists from other countries.  Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam.  The parade—with thousands of lanterns, thousands of thousands of people and hundreds of ornate floats of dragons and Buddhas all made of brightly colored paper and lit by lights from within—was massive, ran for over two hours.  It is good to see that Buddhism can still survive, if only culturally, in the most Christian country in East and Southeast Asia.  Finally, I had to head home as the parade’s end was still not in sight.

On Thursday last, it was the official birthday of Buddha.  This afforded me an opportunity to do a little sight seeing.  Seoul is a city full of palaces.  While these palaces are probably not the originals (the Japanese surely destroyed as much as they could during their occupation), the grounds on which they are built are still genuine, the re-creation of authenticity convincing enough.  A rainy day—scratch that, a day of absolute piss—was unable to deter me and my companions for the day. 

I met up with Janine, her mother, Joanne, and Janine’s brother, Michael.  As we toured the site and the adjacent folk museum, Michael and I talked of travels and exchanged sarcastic remarks (usually at the expense of Janine) while Joanne and I talked of teaching.  As far as people go, Michael is among the most genuine. And as far as mothers go, well, Joanne was top notch, taking a great interest in her daughter and the friends she has accrued.  We were later joined by Dan, a Korean-Canadian who will likely be my bowling competitor in the months to come.

To round out the week, I visited with Jenie on Saturday after spending the day finishing up my first round of grades at the new job.  On Sunday, Ryan, Louis and I hiked the crowded mountain of Gwanak.  I’ve never seen so many people on a mountain before, the weekend crowd made the hike difficult at times, having to skirt around people who were going at a different pace, waiting in a line to get down a tricky rock embankment.  However, as on other hikes I have been on, we were accompanied by the chants of Buddhist monks and the good spirits of the people.  Once we reached the summit on that sunny yet smoggy day, observing the masses of people amidst the radio towers, an observatory and a couple bunkers that made me feel like I was on some sort of Star Wars planet, we sat with a group of young university students and shared a bowl of dong-dong ju and some ice-cakeys (popsicles) and talked about hiking and camping and university life and girls. 

Though the complexities of this country and its social issues can, at times, be frustrating if not confounding, the communal aspect of so many things here (i.e. eating, drinking, hiking) gives a sense of surrogacy, whether from the other foreigners encountered here or from the Koreans themselves.  This idea of family is comforting so far from home.

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