Eastern Medicine at a Gangnam Café

By Eugene Lee, ETA ’16-’18

I glance at the time on my phone’s lock screen6:52 p.m.and sigh. My plate is bare, freckled with crumbs from the pineapple tart I devoured an hour ago to stave off my hunger. I glance around and see a tall, pretty girl smiling, her grin half-nestled into her palm as she watches what could be a variety show on her phone. Gold headphones complement her sky blue coat and black stockings, and the scene feels almost like a phone commercial, a sight you just don’t see in the countryside.

Sitting in the corner of the café, I can see everything. I notice that it isn’t just this girl but several people sitting alone, reading or browsing on their phones. I wonder if this is common in the city, in that odd, hanging space between shopping and waiting for a dinner rendezvous. After all, it was tiring just walking through Gangnam, as not only the buildings but the people themselves conducted a sort of electricity that pulsated through you, a rush of intimate chatters, honking horns and wafts of street foods like fishcake, all funneled into streets only about three people wide. I lazily flick through a New Yorker article on my phone, trying to force myself to make use of my newfound free time. I planned to meet a college friend at around 6:30 p.m., but he was never punctual.

I glance out the window down at the street below. Everyone seems to be in a rush, a happy one at that: it’s finally time to unwind and meet friends, celebrate the weekend. A trio of girls walk by in laughter, covering their mouths with the pastel-colored sleeves of their sweaters. A man who was standing restlessly at the corner is pleasantly surprised by a woman who tackles his back. By the look of her polished business outfit, she must have come straight from work. The street has a reddish glow about it, one of the many passages in the maze of restaurants, bars and cafés that sprawl beyond the posh, blue lights of the main road. I readjust myself in my chair, envious of life in the city. Among other things, living in the city would mean living in a realm of possibility. The city is a dark sea of atoms pulsating at night, always on the precipice of collision with another, newer elementa far cry from the insipid countryside. Even if I don’t meet anyone new in this ocean of entropy, the very prospect generates within me anticipatory warmth, a premature satisfaction.

“실례지만, 면접 시간이 있나요?”1

It takes me a second to register that he is talking to me. I look up to see a young man around my age leaning over my table, presumably to look less assuming. He has slightly messy curly hair, circular wire frames and a jumper that hangs loose around his thin frameall in all, a typical young Korean man.

“아, 사실 전 미국에서 왔어요.”2

“Oh, well my English is not so good, but we can switch between English and Korean,” he says with a near-perfect American accent. “Do you have time?”

I glance at my phone again: 7:01 p.m. When I last checked my messages, my friend was just leaving his home for the subway.

“Sure, have a seat. So what’s the question?”

“I’m currently a college student and I research at a Mind Institute nearby. In my spare time I like to survey people and see what they think about their religion and their opinion of…” he pauses to find the right words in English, “meditation and looking for calmness of mind.”

“Sounds interesting and I’ve got some timethe person I’m waiting for is running really late.” The words jump out more enthusiastically than I expect. I had spent the past couple of weeks holed up in my countryside town. I consider myself sociable, but I had grown rusty in simple everyday conversation. I place my phone facedown on the table.

“Oh, but first, you said you were from America? Why are you here in Seoul?”

“Actually, I’m not from Seoul, I teach down in Jeollabuk-do, near Jeonju. Have you heard of Jeongeup?”

He pauses for a moment, mouthing the words to himself. Jeongeup, Jeongeup, Jeongeup.

“No, I don’t think I’ve heard of it… but Jeollabuk-do! That’s very far!” He smiles to assure me he is not trying to be condescending.

“Yeah, I actually took a bus this morning. I’m only here for tonight so I can meet my friend before he goes back to America.”

“Only one night?” he asks, eyes wide in surprise.

“Yeah, but sometimes I come up to Seoul for longer periods of time. I just need to go back to teach.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

He drinks some of his tea and picks up a black pocket notebook I didn’t notice before.

“So what is your religion?” he asks, wasting no time.

“Hmmm…Christian, but I would say I’m in a weird place right now.” I hate that question these days, because words seal abstract thoughts into declarations. It doesn’t help that words sometimes prematurely leap forth, eager to fit snugly into social context.

“Why would you say that?” He takes out a pen in anticipation.

“Well… when I first came to Korea I was a pretty strong Christian, but it’s been hard living down in the countryside and well, you know, a lot of the churches in Korea are a little suspicious.” I hope the last part won’t offend him.

He laughs. “Definitely. No, I understand.” He scribbles a few messy notes in Korean and reads them over. Satisfied, he looks up again. “And how are you doing?”

The question catches me completely off-guard.

“What do you mean ‘how am I doing?’ Like, in general? Or in my religion?”

“In general. Like, life in general.”

“I would say these past few weeks have been hard, teaching and whatnot. Actually, I haven’t seen many friends these past couple of weeks so it’s been a little lonely, but I’ve also gotten to really focus on myself…” I wonder why I am pouring out so many detailsnormally I would be a little more cautious.

“…I would say in general I’m doing all right.” But even as the words come out I begin to reassess them. Am I really doing fine? He nods and takes a few more notes. I notice that a line marked off my section, the two pages split into quarters, each with its own tangle of Korean characters, lines and circles.

“Well, you look good,” he says, looking up.

“Good?”

“Yeah, I mean, you look happy.” A smile spreads across my face like a sigh of relief.

“So you would say you’re happy, overall. Just out of curiosity, have you ever practiced meditation or anything like that?”

I pause for a moment, reconsidering how much I want to share.

“Formally, I did maybe two times with a counselor when I was really stressed out in college. But these days I’ve been looking for more pockets of time to leave free for a kind of meditation. I’ve been trying to look at my phone less these days.”

“What did you think when you tried it in college?”

“It was nice. I think people should try it and not look at it as a strange Buddhist thing.”

As he jots down more notes I add, “I think there’s an unnecessary stigma around Eastern medicine… and that kind of relates to why I’ve been a little shaky with my Christian background.”

“Hmm, could you talk a little more about that?”

“So I just traveled to Japan a couple weeks ago, and there I was impressed by Shintoism. It was never something I had taken seriously before, but when I was actually there and surrounded by all of the beautiful scenery and quietness I couldn’t help but kind of understand why Shintoism exists.” Again, I’m surprised at how much I feel I need to unloadperhaps these experiences yearn to turn into words that declare their existence. “One of the best memories I have is going to a hot spring up in the mountains of Kyoto. It was outdoors and the snow came down in flurries; until that point I didn’t know snow could fall like that. It was completely silentso silent I could hear my heartbeat. My friend broke the silence for a moment and said quietly, ‘They write poetry about this stuff.’”

“Wow, so going to Japan really made you question your Christian background?”

“Kind of. But I think it was more that it made me realize that these Eastern religions aren’t some voodoo but that there really is something to them.”

He has a lot to jot down. As he writes, I give him a question: “So where do you study?”

“Korea University,” he replies without looking up. When he does, his wears a nervous expression. It’s likely that the prestige of his school has impacted previous interviews. But I shared quite a bit, and now it’s his turn.

“And you just go around asking random people about meditation? Is it for a class?”

“No, I just do it in my free time.”

“In cafés? Don’t you think it’s a little weird to go up to random people?”

He takes a beat to think back on previous interactions.

“I do. At first it was really uncomfortable and lots of people rejected me, but you would be surprised. Once you get past the initial barrier, people do open up.”

It isn’t hard to imagine him coming up to an older woman reading a magazine alone in the middle of a café, asking that question: How are you doing?

“And what do they usually say?”

“Obviously, there are a lot of Christians in Korea, so some of them don’t want to go further in depth about meditation, but I’m also just interested in how people live their lives. Are they happy? If not, why? What do they try to do to make themselves happy?”

I can’t help but feel a little envious. Here is someone who is entering those spaces, ones that we let close because we lose ourselves in the beauty of romanticized interactions that, if acted upon, would shatter into rocky, awkward introductions. In many ways he starts to seem more mature than I am.

“Well actually, I’ve got to go now, but would you ever be interested in coming to the institute? I promise it’s not a cult or anything like that.”

“I’m not in Seoul that often, but if I find time I think I’d be interested to see what you do there. What’s your phone number?”

He types it into my phone and after exchanging names, I add (Mind) next to his contact information.

“Thanks so much, maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”

“Thanks, you too.”

We shake hands and he departs downstairs, back into the electric crowd of atoms that, despite all of their potential, may collide once and never meet again. I look around. The woman watching her phone has long since left, and most of the seats have been replaced by new people. The overall chatter is a bit louder than beforeI glance at my phone: 7:21 p.m. Though he has only been gone for a few minutes, it feels almost like it never happened.

“Hey man, long time no see!” A familiar face greets me and he pats my back. “How’s it going? You want to grab dinner? I bet you’re hungry. Sorry I made you wait.”

“No problem. It’s good to see you! But yeah, I’m pretty hungry, let’s go.”

I gather my belongings, give him a hug, and we head downstairs. The air is a little colder than it was before, and there are more people to maneuver around. A group of five boys slap each other on the backs as they smoke, laughing at some joke, and I hold my breath as we pass by. A couple slowly strolls along, in an entirely different tempo from the allegro propelling everyone to their evening arrangements. They hold hands and look at the lights above: the flickering white and blue karaoke signs, the dense, musky yellow that sets the backdrop for a bar and the constant, underlying red that permeates the streets. It’s amazing how all of these people, crammed in these narrow alleys, manage to keep moving without running into each other. I feel myself move between people without even thinkingonly when I notice it does it become a little laborious, like when you catch yourself breathing. Suddenly I am no longer at one with the crowd, the sea that continues to push and pull underneath those city lights. For the briefest of moments, I feel an urge to pull someone onto the little cement island I find myself washed upon. It is as though my interviewer has dissolved into nothing but a single question, one that begs to be released. What if I pulled someone aside, out of the constant lull of the crowds, and asked:

How are you doing? Are you happy?

Eugene Lee is a 2016-2017 ETA at Baeyoung High School in Jeongeup, Jeollabuk-do.

  1.  Sillyejiman, myeonjeop shigani itnayo? Excuse me, do you have time for an interview?
  2.  Ah, sashil jeon migukeseo wasseoyo, Ah, actually I’m from America.