Today was our final day in Gyeongju, and the entire day was spent visiting various cultural sites throughout the city and on the mountains. These visits, to be perfectly honest, feel like a complete blur. The museum, for instance, was interesting, but it is tough to try and follow along with the entire history of a nation without any prior context for the events going on at any given time. Further, the Korean Peninsula has an extremely long history, all of which they attribute to the current nation of Korea. They have great respect for their ancestors, and conflate the current state of Korea as being descendant from the former states of Korea such as Shilla and Goryeo.
This, obviously, is a huge cultural shift from American history. On the one hand, one could argue that America has an even more substantial history than Korea given that the ancestry of America is so widespread and diverse. On the other, I think we often think of American history as beginning when the actual nation was formed, or at the earliest, when the colonies began to pop up on this continent. Americans were not the first people here, but many Americans do not think of Native-American history as being integral to where we are now. Moreover, a substantial piece of our country’s early history is based on a revolution that, in many ways, distanced us from the traditions of our English ancestry. The United States is a young country in the context of the world, and while South Korea is technically younger, they seem to think of themselves as being, in essence, an evolution of the old kingdoms rather than a departure from them.
As for the Buddhist temples we visited, I can not deny their beauty, but I will admit that I feel very uncomfortable touring around religious sites. I feel particularly uneasy participating in the rituals without a true understanding of what is happening; it feels disrespectful. Several of the students in our group bathed the Buddha incorrectly, and while this was out of misunderstanding or ignorance, rather than malice, I am not even vaguely comfortable putting myself in a position where I could make such a mistake. These are holy sites, and while they are brilliant to observe as physical evidence of the Korean culture, I can’t help but feel I should not be treating them in the way that we did, which was as a tourist would.
The gardens we visited were lovely, and the way that they were modeled after Taoism was brilliant. In short, the gardens were built in the style of Taoist paradise: a large body of water with three islands, the isles of the blest. Perhaps this is only coincidence, but I believe the Korean conception of a garden is quite different than the American one. Every “garden” we have been to thus far is full of empty space and pretty fields, rather than masses of flowers, fountains, and so on. To be perfectly truthful, I’m not sure why this is the case; I only know that it catches me off guard every time we walk into another garden.
I only have four more days left in Korea, and to be honest, that time feels appropriate. I miss Southern-style food, and I most definitely miss the people I care about back home. With any luck, these next few days will pass quickly and productively.