I first arrived in Korea nearly five years ago. There have been many adjustments along the way, and still more to be made, but I’d never experienced any noticeable amount of culture shock. Actually, I remember being more disappointed than anything about the lack of shock I felt, due to the amount of Westernization and/or modernization there is here. I spent a lot of time seeking out places that gave me a better sense of being a little farther east  than the city seemed to be.

      We landed back in Seoul last Wednesday evening, after five months visiting my home, and by Thursday night I was shaking with shock. We were excited to come back, so it caught me totally off guard. By Friday afternoon, I was miserable, and it was starting to wear on EunBong.  I looked inside to see what the problem was… I was in a place that I would have been happy to come to at any other time. Suwon is an old city, with more character than Seoul, more humble than Bundang, the rich suburb next door I’d spent the previous few years in. The only difference I could find, was that now I came here with a six month old baby. She’ll be crawling soon, so “baby proofing” has been on our minds lately. Walking down the street, I looked around, yellow dust hanging in the sky, cars honking everywhere, hazardous obstacles on the sidewalks where even there you have to look out for cars, and felt like I needed to baby proof an entire country! (well, at least the city, and maybe the province that surrounds it…) 

      My parents’ house we were staying in is down an old logging road in the woods. The cows in the pasture out number the neighbours about 2:1, the geese about 10:1. It’s possible to count on one hand the amount of cars that go by (if you count a few of your knuckles, too!). The air is clean, the sky is blue, the most notable sounds are the wind in the trees, the river after it rains, and my father working in his blacksmith shop. EunBong noticed how even our neighbours and friends felt like family when we said good-by. Our first interactions in Korea was the bus driver at the airport who yelled at EunBong to hurry up while we tried to gather our things with the baby, then the taxi driver who got angry because it took a moment to strap in the car seat. Neither the taxi driver, nor her parents even knew what the car seat was. Her mother wanted to take the baby in her lap in the front seat. I guess I can look back to when Fina was born, and my first urge was to bring her to my home. I guess I wasn’t ready to bring her back to Korea.

      I think the hardest part was our apartment. I known, a cultivated mind could sleep in a palace one night and a horse’s stall the next, and not be moved, but it pained me to bring Fina to the place we’re staying now. The apartment we thought we’d stay in didn’t work out, so we staying in her mom’s extra apartment she uses when her faucet relationship with EunBong’s father is turned off. In parts of Thailand or India, I would have been glad to have a room like this, but there are reasons I don’t bring Fina to either place, yet. There’s no toilet, just a drainage hole in the floor, the sent of the sewer comes wafting out at times that I don’t know the reason for, the light flashes on every couple of minutes (when the switch is off) making it hard to sleep, our bed smells of mildew and chokes me at night, and other things not worth mentioning but over all just make me feel sad that I brought my baby here.

      I know my favorite teahouse in Seoul wasn’t one of the places I took refuge in but it might as well have been, and it was where I felt I needed to go. I wasn’t there for long before the door opened and my friend, ChongGo Sunim, the monk who gave me my precepts, came in. I mentioned before how, in Canada, I realized the value of the third jewel, the Sangha, and ChongGo Sunim helped me greatly. On Saturday, I went back to the teahouse, and no more than a minute later, ChongGo Sunim came in again to get some incense. I went with him the Saturday Sangha, then followed him to visit a hanuisa, Chinese Medicine Doctor. He told me my “Gi” (vital energy) was very low, and to rest for a few days and do something to bring it back up. He stuck a needle in the top of my forearm while I sat and tried to relax. He told me after that my face had a dark overcast, but he could see it fading.

     To make an effort to turn things around, I knew I should start with my mind. With India in mind, I also knew I should be thankful to have such a good house given to me, and tried to make a turning point. I lit some temple incense, plugged the drain with a rag and put a bowl over it. That night I unplugged the light (was it too simple to have realized before?) and as I got into bed, I realized it was the blanket her mom had sewn to the mattress that was mildewy. I was afraid before that it was the walls, so that could easily be removed, and cleaned. As for the outhouse, it didn’t bother me that much anyway. I never associated outhouse and city of over a million people much before (my mind keeps returning to India!)  but Fina’s still in diapers anyway. As for where I am with Fina and my wife, I have no other choice but to let go and trust that we are in a good place. All of our Kammas have brought us here together, not just my own.

      I’ve been waking up an hour before sunrise every morning to make tea. When the first cup is poured, EunBong gets up and joins me. We both fell really warm starting our day like this. Tea usually gave EunBong trouble sleeping, but at 6am, there’s plenty of time for the caffeine to wear off. This morning, after tea, I suggested we do 108 bows together. My thought was that it would help my/our Gi. I tried to keep a focussed, sincere mind. I dedicated my bows to Fina, and that her father will have the means to provide for her as long as she is dependent on me. My thoughts went to Marcus several times, to our time at BongEunSa bowing together, with Joe and Carl. I also thought about all beings that we are interconnected with, and occasionally my mind was quiet. We finished and felt refreshed. I felt a strong buzz through out my body, my legs felt energized. We both said we will do the same again tomorrow, I hope we do!


5 responses »

  1. Oh my goodness Joseph,

    What a post. I can’t remember the last time I read anything so tender, open, painful, honest, true and inspiring.

    I feel like even this comment is out of place, that the only real response can possibly be reverant silence.

    Thank you so much for writing this post and for describing so beautifuly your feelings and journey. I’m so moved.

    And what a simply adorable photo!

    I can’t remember the last time I performed 108 bows, but I’ll do so tonight Joseph and dedicate any merit it brings to you and your family.

    But let me tell you, you are a beacon, a real source of light. I can’t tell you how much your writing, and this incredible post, means to me, and I’m so grateful for it. Thank you.

    May you be safe, well, happy, and free.

    Kwan Seum Bosal
    Kwan Seum Bosal
    Kwan Seum Bosal


  2. I thought it was a great post! Your writing is really, really good. Both you and Marcus are so good at deeply sincere and warm writing.

    Could there be a more beautiful baby picture?!

  3. Hey Joseph, Great post, really enjoyed reading it. Hang in there. I can imagine it must be rough — I remember my times of feeling utterly stuck and frustrated in Korea. I like the comment about our karma bringing us here; it’s a skillful way to look at it.

    I think by lighting incense, meditating, and chanting you can raise the vibes of that place!

    Namu Amitabul.

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