Tuesday, April 20, 2010
There was a celebration this week at my university. And like all celebrations there were speeches and flowers, gifts, and photographers... and bowing. A lot of bowing.
When one chooses to live abroad, in a land where the language is foreign, one must choose to either be very arrogant and self-centered or to embrace ambiguity. One, in this instance being moi. My choice? Ambiguity.
First, we learn all the I am's ... Je suis, Yo soy, Nanin imnida. We communicate about ourselves and who we are (I'm a student, I'm a woman, I'm a daughter) first and then we learn the things that attach to us. Where is the train / bathroom / bank? Quiero pasta fagioli, dos coronetos, mul chusayo. "I" am the center of the communications universe.
And this is where many people end their learning. Honestly, I don't know how to say "what's your name," "what did you do last night," "is that a picture of your family" or any of the other things that one picks up living abroad. Korean is proving to be quite a challenge. But a few words here and there are making it into my lexicon. The other day, I learned "haksang" (student). I drew a picture of birds and pointed to a group of high school girls who were chirping and flitting about like birds, and the ladies in the shop taught me the word. But I digress.
Back to the ceremony. A room like the UN, there were headphones for interpretation (channel 1 for English), and men sat at attention in dark suits, their ties sparkling under the lights. Koreans have the most gloriously beautiful ties. Truly, they sparkle. Anyway, ambiguity. A woman dressed in Buddhist prayer garb was given an award, a metal placed around her neck, and she put her hands in prayer position as she bowed first to the school's president, to the other people on the stage, and then to us, the audience. "Who is she?" I whisper to the man next to me (sparkly tie). He tells me she is not attached to the university except that she gave a huge endowment to the law school. There is another man who also receives an award. He runs one of the largest newspapers in the country. He speaks with humor and a glint in his eye, and it doesn't take language to feel his charm. She is peace, he is charm . I have no idea what they said.
But this I know - they were both happy even if their joy was shown in different ways. A smile is a smile as long as it reaches the eyes. Calm is calm no matter whether it comes from meditation or laughter.
Ambiguity has taught me (there it is) about people. We are all the same - we all want to belong, we all want to be appreciated, we all want to feel safe. And we all want to feel joy.
May you be one with the ambiguity around you.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
"You are showing me a whole new part of Seoul," she tells me. "I am Korean. I'm suppoesd to introduce you to my country." She smiled when she said it, and I think she meant it. I don't believe she was offended. She had directed people here and there in the past but hadn't experienced it herself. I was reminded of "saber" and "conocer" in Spanish. To have information, to have experience. Both meaning "to know". My friend had never been to the galleries that are my regular haunt. I was thrilled to show her something, to give something back after all the times she had helped me since my very first full day in Korea. She studies Shakespeare and talks of the Oedipal Complex of Hamlet, and tells me about her favorite poetry. At that first meeting I hoped she would become my friend. Yes, I think she will be my friend. It is a process, but it is also just a great pleasure to talk with another woman, one with similar interests.
One of our first stops is a back door with a black cape at the entrance, closing off the sun. As we clomp down the steps, we see our own image and I wonder aloud if it is an interactive exhibit. And it is. There are etchings and photographs but what captures our attention is an electronic drumset. As my friend sits down, she plays a beat and the words come out with each tap "money", "nothing", "passion". "Passion, passion, passion," she taps. The artist comes to us and shows that changes can be made to the pattern, and as I sit down, she puts on laughter. Each thump of a drum is accompanied by a giggle, a chortle, a guffaw. And before I realize it, the studio is filled with the sounds of joy. It is not clear where the recording ends and our own laughter begins. How glorious! How beautiful! We thank her for bringing such happiness to our day, and move along, stopping here and there to admire handmade hats and ceramic cups and the smell of hot cinnamon filled waffles.
A shiny black building appears, and I say "Oh we must go in!" and she tells me that when she walks by she thinks it must be expensive. Oh no, it is free - I have been there several times. I am so excited to show her this place! We start at the top of the Insa Arts Center, the fifth floor, and make our way down. There are paintings of trucks and highways, landscapes and some modern art that well....um.... anyway.... At some point we walk into a room that takes my breath away. Wooden tablets, a single line and ripples of waves in brown and tan and chestnut and walnut - every hue of brown imaginable. She reaches out and touches the wood - she touches something in every exhibit - and smiles in her mischievous way.
His words flow through her, the artist talking of cutting then bonding the pieces of wood together, shaping, chiseling. His hands move as he talks, his passion evident. I understand him. Even without all the words, I can feel his love for the grain and the swirls, his pleasure in finding the most beautiful pieces, sanding them down. "A single raindrop" he says in English, and "ripples" I reply. He smiles and says "yes". The two of us in synch for that one moment. He signs a pamphlet for me, writing that he will not forget our meeting, and I leave him with my turqouise pen so he can sign for others. I am certain others will want his autograph. I am deeply touched by his work. My grandfather was a carpenter, you see. Wood calls to me in some odd way. But I digress.
There is a woman who lived in the USA, her husband studying at the university where I taught a year or two ago. She talks of the war in Iraq and how the photos had touched her, traumatized her. Her drawings are black and white, drippings of blood red here and there. I choose to see the harmony of a song, the taking of light and shadow and making a harmonious study of life. We smile and talk of the interconnectedness of nature and people. I tell her of Walden's Pond and Thoreau. She talks of her art showing the oneness of humanity despite our differences. We shake hands and bow and end with a kiss to each other's cheek. The oneness of humanity right there in our saying goodbye.
We talk with several artists, my friend and I. A painter who made the most sensitive paintings of flower bouquets, the colors bursting out, dot dot dot of magenta and buttercup and royal blue. "It must be a woman," I whisper. "No man is sensitive enough to make these paintings." A flier on the wall shows the artist's photograph, and I turn and there he is in a tan zip up jacket you might buy at Lands' End or Eddie Bauer, his hair cut close to his scalp, a regular Joe that blends into the crowd except for the twinkle in his eye. Oh my prejudice. Foolish girl. The artist does not speak English but for a few words, and I am the same with Hangul. My friend, though, speaks both. She is not quite fluent, but almost, almost. This quiet, unassuming man has the depth to show flowers so beautiful you can smell them, hear the bees buzzing about. He takes us to the central painting (You can see it in the link. There is a woman in profile, flowers to her back and a great open white space in front of her and chunks of color at the top of the painting.), the one the rest of his paintings spring from, and he explains of how the water dries in this spot, changing the color of the fabric in a way that can not be controlled. This is the space of G*d, he tells us, and the place where paint is controlled by him is the space of people. What a man. He explains his paintings as so many of the artists have done, and we leave with a deeper understanding. I am half in love with him as we walk away.
How can I lure you to come with me some time? To meet my friend. Come see the art of Korea, meet the people. Perhaps you too will be touched by passion, perhaps a mirror will be held up of your prejudice, and perhaps, just perhaps, a slight woman humming with the power of two languages will show you the togetherness of us all.