Author: Jeff Shields

Karaoke With The Monks, Dog Soup and Beyond (1 of 2)

It’s no secret that most university graduates are scared senseless of the possibilities, or lack thereof, they are faced with after they shed their caps and gowns. Most of my friends accepted their fate willingly, as evidenced by moving from domestic beer to imported as soon as they received their first paycheck. I dealt with it in the best way I knew how: I hid in my risk-free environment for an extra two years pretending to “upgrade” so I could apply to grad school.

When that didn’t happen I followed the trend and did what I thought I was supposed to do. I got comfortable at my desk and worked for the faceless tyrant commonly known as “the man.” Soon, I too was drinking imported beer, and while I didn’t mind the freedoms that having more than a depleted student loan’s worth in my bank account allowed I was beginning to loath the way I earned that money.

The need for international travel has always run deep in me and I can admit that until recently I never did anything about it. The wanderings in my early twenties that yielded four Ontarian student cards couldn’t be had in my new professional setting and I needed an escape clause. Attempts at saving were futile and the comfortable appeal of cottage country in July – while drinking domestic beer – kept me close to home during the summers.

I quickly realized that I had to jump ship on the corporate juggernaught and do something to satiate the travel bug or my world would soon become extremely small. Money, though, was still a problem. Thankfully a friend came to my rescue and provided me with a way to gain some valuable world experience and make a little bank to fund any future travels. He pointed me to sunny Kwang-ju in the southwest corner of South Korea and helped me become an English teacher.

The first week in Kwang-ju passed with nary an error and borderline success. I actually arrived on what will become the most important day in Korean history – the meeting of the North and South – and witnessing people crying in the airport terminal was a bit confusing at first. My school was just opening and experienced the requisite amount of growing pains, but it was nice to grow along with it. I got along fairly well with my co-workers and met a lot of friends, but aside from the nightly ping-pong lessons or the booze-fueled “Where are you from?” games with the other foreigners in town I maintained a fairly westernized lifestyle.

I still do in most ways, but after a few weeks I had to experience some of the things that Korea has kept secret for far too long. It was a bit daunting, but a fine blend of stupidity and bravado has taken me this far, and without untoward incident the sky is indeed the limit.

My first stop was Kyong-ju, which is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Spiritual, inspiring and often overwhelming, it was not without its share of hilarity. It was the first blue sky I saw since I arrived, unfettered by the pollution and humidity that prevails in most of South Korea’s urban centres. I love Kwang-ju, don’t get me wrong, but during the summer it stinks as bad as a Lollapalooza port-a-potty on a hot day.

Kyong-ju itself is a monument to the past, with a park dedicated to giant grassy knolls that serve as tombs for many rulers of the Shilla dynasty at the south end and the Pulguksa temple in the nearby mountains. Great. This was my first vacation from teaching and I wanted to get drunk as quickly as possible. In actuality it was my first night at a hostel and I felt challenged by tales of friends’ varied and oft-debauched hostelling experiences. After enduring the “fascist pig from Toronto” tirade I drank until who-knows-when with some Quebecois on the roof. It was fun, but a few hours later I found myself despising my alarm clock and on the hostel-run tour of the region.

You would think that after visiting one of the world’s most beautiful and esteemed monasteries you would be in a state of tranquility. Maximizing the opportunity to reflect upon one’s life – our successes and failures, our loves and losses. Instead, I’m hurtling down a winding mountain road in a mini-van singing “Hey Jude” on the in-car karaoke machine. It seems that our driver, who I’ve dubbed Sensei Rental Car, was a complete psycho whose idea of enlightenment includes the infamous – and long – “Na-na-na” section.

Overall the whole monastic experience was very uplifting, even for someone who drank a 26er of vodka the night before. I was a little taken aback by a monk offering me a breathmint, but hey, I guess everyone cares about hygiene, even those who haven’t spoken in 40 years. It was also nice to have my shaved head rubbed by guys with similar hairstyles. As Sensei said, “They like you…you Canadian monk. You very wise.”