Conversations with Bongjun

Cards, tunnels, a rocket ship going backward

Mina Cheon, Umma Rises: Towards Global Peace. 2017, Yves Klein Blue Dip painting, archival digital print on canvas. 30 × 40". Courtesy of the artist and Ethan Cohen Gallery.

In the mid-’90s, when I taught English at a foreign-language high school in Pusan, South Korea, I asked my students to keep English-language journals throughout the semester. When they weren’t writing about the mental agony of being “study machines,” they mourned the conflict between North and South Korea. Korea, they wrote, was a divided heart, and reunification their greatest hope.

At the time I wasn’t particularly interested in Korean politics. Whenever I didn’t have to be at the high school, I was hiking to the top of sun-dappled, bouldery cliffs, reading Korean Zen poetry, or teaching English to two extremely unorthodox Buddhist monks. These monks lived in a temple at the edge of the city located directly behind an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom–themed amusement park. They meditated while the chunga chunga whee zee hee carnival sounds blared around them.

For some reason, the English words the monks most wanted to learn were the sounds animals make in America. When I explained that American cows say moo, one of the monks sagely replied, “Korean cows say eum mae. American cows are much more polite!” In exchange for English animal noises, they would teach me the Korean onomatopoeia for different types of rain: churook churook, or dduk dduk dduk.

After our lessons, we would usually sit on the veranda watching the rain or the moon. Looking back, I spent a lot of my time in Korea looking at the moon. The moon reflected in the water fountains and the little droplets of rainwater, the moon shining on the baby Buddha statues in the treetopsit felt like an all-consuming reality, or one mind pervading all events. I felt lonely most of the time I was in Korea, but it didn’t bother me. The moon endowed everything with a strange, artistic feeling.

Other times, we would go inside and watch Hollywood movies like Forrest Gump and Easy Rider while eating the choco pies and drinking the bottles of Chivas Regal that businessmen had left for Buddha. Sometimes the monks would watch court cases on the Buddhist cable station, but whenever I asked what was happening they would slap the floor and say, “No problem!” They seemed to want to protect me from knowing anything about the country’s political scandals. “You have no attachment to Korea,” one monk always said, “so we are the same!”

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