Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.
Love is stronger than hate.
“Why is she pushing me? Why does she push me?”
“Excuse me, what did you just say? What did you say to me?”
A mother and her daughter are on their feet in Pizza Express. I’m behind a mirrored column, and I crane my neck around it to see what the commotion is about. A man is seated, swearing at the woman in an improvised, loose hijab.
“You’re a fucking militant!’ he spits at her.
“Hey!” I’m out of my seat, around the column and up to the steps that they are on. Yelling. Staff rushing in to separate the man from the women, who he is pointing at angrily and threatening with his size. My boyfriend is between me and him, but I can see I’m taller than he is.
“Did you hear what he just said to us?” The daughter asks me.
“Yes, I did. I heard it.”
“Why do they tell me to fuck off back to my own country?” the mother is asking me.
Me: “You fucking arsehole! You shouldn’t be saying things like that!”
He looks at me, angry. A police officer steps in and flashes his badge.
All of the above happened at Pizza Express, on 18 January 2014. I was enjoying dinner after working on my Syntax exam for about seven hours, just talking with my boyfriend and making some boring remark about how good the gorgonzola was with bacon. I found out how I react to racism in my immediate vicinity. By yelling, apparently.
I’m a new arrival to London. The city is everything a city should be: powerful, influential, populous, multicultural. London manages to be simultaneously modern and ancient, to reach back into the times so long ago that we can’t even truly pin down where it’s name comes from. The river Thames breathes the ancient into the city, even as a Waterloo Sunset slips below the horizon and casts its rosy glow on all the newness of the skyline. I pretend that I am a red blood cell in the rush hour crush at Holborn station, surging along arterially with my million closest friends.
I often say that if aliens come, London should be humanity’s representative city.
I wasn’t born into city life. I grew up in a town of fewer than 20,000 people on the plains of the Front Range in Colorado. The only traffic jam to speak of was the daily rush of teenagers (inexplicably in their own private cars….such waste!) on the single road into my high school. We have Rush Minute, not Rush Hour. There is very little racial, religious, or linguistic variation in my hometown. Put it this way: at my high school they teach a ‘diversity’ class to make sure that we aren’t closeted in our cocoon of white, middle-class suburbia too thoroughly. Limited success.
London is all that my hometown is not. There are more than 100 languages spoken in almost every borough of the city, with more than 1.7 of its residents being non-native English speakers. It is an international economic powerhouse. It drives migration both into and out of the country. It draws hundreds of thousands of new residents like me each year. Most religions of the world are represented in large numbers. The immigrant communities of London are huge and powerful, and the process of post-colonial integration is ongoing.
Some have reacted badly to this. Papers run sensationalist headlines about immigrants, migrants, Muslims, and the NHS almost daily. A survey last summer showed that this media pressure is not harmless; people in the UK mis-estimate numbers of immigrants by orders of magnitude. The English Defence League and British National Party continue to push their anti-immigrant agendas, despite recent losses and reorganisations. People use racist slurs a lot more commonly than I’ve ever experienced in my tiny hometown in the US.
Now, I had overheard the odd wrong-headed comment in London before. Some lady ran a red light and the older women said, “Those immigrants just don’t know how to drive.” I walked out of the station to go to a West Ham match and heard some drunk jerks yelling slurs at no one in particular. I’ve heard people on the Tube complaining about a woman in a niqaab, albeit quietly. I got asked by my boyfriend’s grandfather if I am “colour prejudiced.” All that is problematic, but it’s less in-your-face than my Pizza Express Racist.
He was a middle-aged, white, balding man. His wife was fairly tiny, and if I hadn’t been so angry with her actions I’d have been impressed that she dared take on a much larger woman. The woman and her daughter were at the table next to them, and I had seen them asking a couple questions about the menu to the waitstaff. As the mirrored column was in my way I couldn’t see or hear everything until voices were raised. I assume that the close quarters made it possible for the racist couple to overhear a discussion about which pizzas were Halal (permitted under Islamic traditions…a concern in a restaurant with so much bacon-y goodness).
I always hope that I’m not a pushover or a coward when it comes to my beliefs. I am acutely aware of how my own background (ethnically, financially, culturally) is a distinct advantage as an immigrant in the UK. The kinds of remarks that couple levelled at those two women, one of whom was born and raised here, are unlikely to be aimed at me. Even though I’ve lived here fewer than six months. I worried that if I ran into the rare situation of real racism, I would be too afraid to speak up. Racists are scary people, and I’m on unfamiliar ground. In the US, confronting someone about something as stupid as texting in a movie can result in weapons being drawn and death or injury. Would I let fear keep me from speaking out if I saw something truly wrong happening right in front of me?
When the time came, I didn’t have time to think about all of that. I was out of my seat and calling a perfect stranger an arsehole before my rational brain could even catch up. It was all over so fast that I was back in my seat with fork and knife in hand before I processed what had just happened. The police officer talked to the couple and texted his on-duty colleagues just in case. The mother and daughter left. I finished my pizza (with bacon). A guy came up to congratulate (?) the racist for his actions. We left.
I love London. I love being an immigrant to the UK. I know that this incident is very rare, and not at all representative of the attitudes of most people in the city. I feel badly that the mother and her daughter left, not the racist couple. I just wanted them to see they had a witness on their side. I found out that when I witness something that doesn’t sit well with me, I’m not one to sit on my hands and hope that the offender shuts up. I may regret my choice of words later, but I am not a quiet bystander.
I yelled at a racist in Pizza Express, and I’d do it again.
I awoke on Friday morning to a vicious stomach virus. Eighteen trips to the bathroom later (seriously) I went to work. I struggled through the hours, sitting in a chair for all of my lessons and struggling to keep my students’ attention. I couldn’t eat a thing, nor keep down even water, for the whole day.
And I’d planned a templestay for this weekend.
In Korea, many temples run programs where lay people can stay overnight and participate in the monastic lifestyle. I found a temple with a program I liked and sent an email a few days before my planned arrival. 50,000 KRW ($44) offered three meals, lodging overnight, and the temple program of teaching and experiencing traditional Buddhism in Korea.
Suffice it to say that I was pretty empty physically by the time I made it to the Geumsunsa temple. I walked up to the temple through a cave for prayer, which was built into the mountainside and had a stream running around the stairs and through the cavern. When I finally came up through the foundations of the temple, I found myself near the bell pavilion, sweaty from the walk up the mountain and the long trip from Suwon.
I walked into the temple, and was immediately greeted by the staff. They were so kind-natured and laughed when we discovered that they’d planned on me being a man! It didn’t matter much except for room assignment, since I ended up wearing a men’s large temple uniform due to my totally not petite and feminine size.
My roommate wanted to take my picture more properly, but my camera’s battery died just then. It was fine. I wasn’t there to be a tourist anyway. I turned off my cell phone and resigned myself to a few precious hours apart from the modern world.
We met our monk, and did the first three of many full prostrating bows in the weekend. He gave us a tour of the whole temple, from top to bottom. It was 5:00 PM and I still hadn’t eaten anything since Thursday night. I felt so ill, likely from low blood sugar. It was awful trying to be respectful while trying not to double over with nausea. Luckily we had a lot of downtime and I got to go lay down in the room almost right away.
Just before our meeting about the sutras we would be chanting, an orange and white kitty appeared in the temple courtyard. He was yowling at the tops of his lungs, a tom cat a bit gone to seed. He was a fitting apparition since we’d just been talking about mountain guardian spirits who ran with tigers in the old times.
I broke my 24-hour fast with vegetarian temple food with vegetables gathered from the mountain, and I settled into silence. I was happy not to be tied to my phone. One of the reasons that I never get a smart phone while I’m abroad is that the connection to everything (meaningful and meaningless) is too tempting, and draws me away from the experiences at hand.
The chanting ceremony was mesmerizing and felt very connected to greater things somehow. It sounded a lot like this, but much quieter and simpler as there were only three monks at our temple. It struck me that I’d never attended a non-Christian religious service, much less participated in one. Yet it felt familiar. White candles lit on the altars, frescoes on the walls, and the familiar “Church Smell” of incense and a little bit of mildew. I got the chanting stuck in my head.
Finally, it was time for the climax of the stay: 108 bows. Yes, one hundred and eight. All the way to the ground and back up again, using almost solely leg strength and willpower.
I’ve done yoga since my early teens and I’ve been working on my meditation here in Korea, but little prepared me for how hard the bows were. The temple staff had given us a hand out about the meaning of the bows beforehand, and I felt that it connected in some amazing ways. Each bow is in repentance, gratitude, or a vow to strive to be a better person. Some are particularly poignant in the 21st Century.“I prostrate in repentance from having taken for granted all who have provided my sustenance.” “I prostrate in repentance to all those whom I have harmed through fits of anger.” “I prostrate in repentance for having disregarded our home, the Earth.” “I prostrate in repentance for having discriminations based on absolute rights and wrongs.” “I prostrate with gratitude for having come to see the beauty of this world.” “I prostrate with gratitude for having come to see that love is the greatest power of all.” “I prostrate as a vow to refrain from saying harmful things.” “I prostrate as a vow to be positive in everything I do.” “I prostrate as a prayer for an end to all wars.” “I prostrate as a prayer that all beings may live in peace.”
It normally takes the monks fifteen minutes to do 108 bows, but for those of us who were doing it for the first time, it took about thirty. It was very interesting to watch my emotions and thoughts wander past as I bowed and struggled. At first, I was super-committed. I was ujjayi breathing it up in the Buddha Hall. But then my right knee started to hurt. Then my left foot, from compensating. Then my right foot, from compensating for compensating.
At two points in the bows, I lost my balance standing up and nearly toppled out the open door behind me.
There was a moment around 80 bows that I felt alive and connected and present. It was short-lived, since negative thoughts began intruding and I got angry until I finally caught myself thinking, “This is stupid.” That was the second to last bow.
But it wasn’t stupid. It was tough, but it wasn’t stupid. It pushed me, which is what contemplation and repentance are supposed to do. The little halo of sweat on my kneeling pad was evidence of how many times my forehead had touched the ground. It was clearly visible by the end.
After stretching our legs, we began meditating. In Zen meditation, one focuses on great questions to be answered and contemplates them deeply. The questions sound a bit like riddles, and ours for the night was, “A bird was placed in an expensive vase as a tiny bird, and grew and grew until it cannot get out. You cannot break the vase, because it is so expensive. How do you get the bird out?”
As I settled into meditation, I found my answers quickly. Put the bird on a diet, keeping him alive but making him lose weight until he can come out of the vase. Or, break the vase. No object could be worth as much as the life of a living being. Besides, one could always put the vase back together. One can’t resurrect the bird.
To be continued…
Today was a beautiful, cold, crystalline day in Seoul. The wind blew through the buildings and played with my hair, reminding me of the strong winds of Patagonia. It was one of those days where my hands felt frozen to my camera. The day began with the quick train to Seoul, and to the Seodaemun prison. This was a facility that was in use from 1908-1987, and housed those who dared to stand up to Japanese colonial rule. As with any site of human atrocity, there is no way of knowing how many were killed in the prison. Estimates range from 70 to over 3000. Ryu Gwan-sun was eighteen years old when her entire family was killed for being suspected of supporting Korean independence. She was hold at the prison and tortured to death in 1920. This picture, hidden to one side in a room with nothing of real interest in it, caught my eye. Many Koreans gathered in the prison yard bearing their nation’s flag, and the looks on their faces show the happiness and pride in their nation. Maybe it’s because I’m also from a country that fought for its independence, but this picture made me all choked up. However many were killed and tortured in this prison, the spirit they worked and died for lived on. Then we went to climb the mountain across the street, home to one of the most important shamanistic shrines in Korea.
Women climb this mountain to pray with prostrations for children at the rock at the top of these stairs. I took a moment and removed my shoes and bag, and climbed up onto the platform. A flock of pigeons landed noisily on the rock, seeking the rice left in offering there. I closed my eyes, and heard the wind rush around my head. The women next to me we prostrating themselves, imploring the four directions for aid. I thought of those who had been held and died in the prison below.
The sun shifted in the puffy clouds and illuminated my eyelids, bright red. I immediately felt more as peace.
The whole of Seoul stretched out below us. It reminded me forcefully of Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago de Chile, one year ago. Buildings in a valley, as far as the eye can see.
I’d missed nature so much. There are an awful lot of days that I don’t even touch unpaved ground here. The rocks and trees called to me.
Then it was back down to the city for Moroccan food.
Just another day in South Korea.