Wednesday, October 24, 2007

temples and guns

This past weekend I was in Gyeongju on the mainland for my program’s fall conference. We spent the first few days in a hotel, eating a lot of imported American food and sitting through workshops on teaching, cultural adjustment, and some new English technology program we’re supposed to tell our schools to buy (I’m not planning on it). The last day, though, was reserved for sightseeing. We left the hotel, crammed on two buses, and took in seven or so different tourist sights over the course of five hours. A bad memory and a jam-packed day means that I can’t honestly recall the names of most of the places we went.

One place that stands out, though, is Bulguksa— a famous Buddhist temple whose large compound is a mixture of stone pagodas, brightly colored wooden halls, and traditional gardens. We had an hour to explore. Towards the back of the compound I found a long building whose sign read “The Hall of No Words.” Despite however long one might study, the sign informed me, no one will ever be able to describe the true majesty or wisdom of Buddha’s teachings with words. I found myself nodding while I read the sign—having spent three months surrounded by people whose language I understand about 5% of, I was all for a Wordless Hall. I slipped off my shoes and stepped in.

Inside was bright, chilly and quiet. Save for the staff member at the door, the Wordless Hall was empty. Two open doorways facing the sun ensured that the room was well-lit, but the wooden floor itself was almost icy. I padded around in my socks, taking in the bright turquoise and red designs on the rafters, the gold statues of Buddha and friends sitting serenely with eyes closed, the narrow white and gold candles lit in their honor, the neat stack of square silk pillows to kneel on, the scent—a mix of cedar, incense, and October coldness. I have no inklings towards Buddhism. In that moment of happened-upon solitude, though, in a place of such age and beauty, I considered that life as a monk (well, a nun for me) wouldn’t be too bad.

Later that evening, in sharp contrast to my temple moment, I shot a gun. It was not something I planned on doing in Korea or really anywhere, but I ran into a program friend that evening in the hotel lobby. “What are you up to tonight Liz?” he asked. I admitted that I wasn’t sure. “We’re going to shoot glocks if you want to come,” he said. In the moment I couldn’t think of a real reason not to; I have done so many random things for the first time in Korea that I figured I might as well add “shoot a glock” (also, I thought, learn what “glock” actually means) to the list. 15 minutes later I was at the front desk of a shooting range with five guys from my language class at orientation negotiating bullet prices in a bad mix of Korean and English with the man at the counter. 25 minutes later I was in a small room listening to a man explaining to me in very fast Korean where to put my feet and how to tilt the gun when shooting. 30 minutes later all of the reasons to not shoot a glock that I couldn’t come up with in the hotel lobby came flooding: I am in Korea and though I don’t imagine it’s complicated, I cannot understand the safety instructions. I was baptized in a Mennonite church. I am a staunch advocate of gun control. I don’t even like violent video games. Things that kill people should not be used recreationally. Guns, in general, are bad and I am a hypocrite if I shoot one.

Somehow, though, my curiosity edged out over my ideals. 35 minutes later I put on the headphones, the man adjusted my legs, and I fired. I shot a hole through the very corner of the paper in front of me, quite far from the target. The bullet shell clanked to the floor. I shot three more times. The last shot I aimed properly through the viewfinder and hit the target, miraculously, in the center. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I made the owner high-five me.

In the gun range lobby, the man took me and herded me (it’s common in general here for people to just move you around when they want you to go somewhere) to the corner and started taking things off the wall. “You! Cowboy!” he exclaimed, as he pulled off a cowboy hat off the wall and stuffed it on my head. He draped a cartridge belt over my shoulders and stuffed two plastic guns in my hands in what I now understood to be the picture corner. My language class friends joined me and the elderly lady I think was the range bookkeeper was coaxed into the group as well. “One, two, three!” we counted in Korean and the gun range owner snapped a bazaar picture on a very bazaar day.

ps-- shout-out to Paul, Amber, and my mom for sending mail!


Casey said...

Visiting Buddhist temples and shooting glocks. That's badass. Sounds like, despite the language difficulties and inconveniences, you're having a pretty good time.

mom said...

So, where's the bazaar picture??

Anonymous said...

hahaha liz i cant believe you shot a gun! wow, i am in shock and laughing about a photograph of you as a cowboy- that is so "america" apparently in the eyes of the world. LOL
i want to stand in a buddist temple.

Sara K said...

I want to see the picture, but I don't. What I've imagined is hilarious.