“I have 5 hours between the end of my lesson and the start of that office party that I don’t really want to go to, but should. If I go home, I know I’ll never go to the party. I guess I’ll go to that new National Hangul Museum!”
I have pretty good ideas when I’m reasoning with myself. Except I never made it to the Hangul Museum.
“Today is a beautiful day. Suppose I just get off one subway stop early, and spend a few minutes by the Han River? What stop is this anyway, National Cemetery?”
By then I was following the signs leading away from the river, towards a brick wall that I couldn’t see anything behind, hoping that it was in fact the cemetery and I wasn’t already lost. I was encouraged by a traffic sign, posted to tell motorists to be silent, since they were driving by a somber place. I was grateful for the sign to help me find my way, but struck by the noise of quickly approaching rush-hour traffic. A taxi satirically laid on his horn right in front of the sign, as if exaggerating his willful disobedience.
I took a picture of the pagoda-covered information at the front, and began using this cemetery map photo by viewing it on my tiny phone screen. iPhone 5. I see why the 6’s got bigger.
I walked slowly, those 5 hours to kill looming over my head. As there were no cars, I walked in the middle of the road. I cleared the initial entry drive and got my first good view of anything cemetery-like… and realized my feet had stopped moving… and I had stopped breathing… and I had stopped hearing… Thank goodness for that wall blocking out the taxi horns.
The orderly rows of stones and their shadows, alternated with pink and white flowers, went on for literally as far as I could see.
I suddenly remembered being a very small child, seeing one of the Great Lakes for the first time, and not being able to see the end. That feeling of awe mixed with a little bit of terror. In the famous words of David After Dentist- Is this going to be forever?
My feet started moving again. Maybe it was the car coming and me realizing I was still in the middle of the street that got me going.
I slowly continued down the road. I began to feel self-concious. I was dressed pretty professionally, because of my lesson and the upcoming office party. Black pants, red and black frilly shirt. I guess no one would think I was dressed disrespectfully. OH NO. What if they think I’m here for a funeral! I began to seek out paths where I was alone.
Eventually, after climbing the mountain of stairs in the center and getting a view of the river, I made it within sight of the far end of the cemetery. Bathroom! Yay. It had been an hour since I left the subway station.
I came out of the bathroom, determined to walk to the very end, instead of just seeing it. There were a few people walking around, enjoying the silence. I think a few of them were just there to exercise in a peaceful place that wasn’t crowded.
But a voice broke into the silence. It was a cemetery guard, saying 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo, hello) to the person in front of me. We both continued walking, and soon it was time to say 안녕하세요 to me. Since people are sometimes shy with me, I like to encourage people who I already know to be friendly. So I said it first. “안녕하세요,” with a slight head nod that I don’t even think about doing anymore. He greeted me also, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see him turning around as I passed. Teacher! He called me. Wait a minute! 선생님! 잠시만요!
I knew he was talking to me (foreigner and teacher are my other names) so I paused a second for him to catch up, and he began to ask the usual where are you from how old are you are you a teacher questions. I fielded all these in Korean, and so he decided to try some harder material. Follow me, follow me, he said, trying out his first English. He led me over to a box, and pulled out a brochure. It was a cemetery guide, with a large map, and information about the famous people buried there. Namely 3 past presidents and their wives. Then, he half pulled/ half pushed me to the start of the path up the hill to see my first presidential grave.
At the top, I opened the flier, and made sure to read about this president and first lady, hidden under a giant stone box that had grass growing on top. I didn’t take a picture because there was another guard there, and I was still a bit self-concious about being respectful. Park Chung-Hee and Yuk Young-Soo, parents of current president Park Geun-Hye.
I spent what I thought was a respectful amount of time looking at the grass, and as I turned around, I saw my little guard friend hurrying up the path. I should wait, I thought. Sure enough, he wanted to tell me all about Korea’s short-term dictator err i mean, 5th to 9th President, as the brochure stated. (He was president from 1963-1979, I guess they counted it as 4 terms.) Politics aside, I think the guard was just proud of his job and the importance of the person he guarded. He walked me back down the hill, chatting the whole time, putting sentences together with both English and Korean words. “Are you married?” He wanted to know. When he found out that I was dating a Korean, he wanted to know where my boyfriend was! Come back with your boyfriend in the fall, he said. The trees are beautiful.
He paused his constant jabber, and I initiated my first sentence since he started my interview. I said, “Here is the middle of the city, but so quiet. I like it.” Low level Korean. 🙂 He looked at me, and said, in English, “I saw you first time, good feeling. I have gooooood feeling.” He repeated himself in Korean, to make sure I had understood. He used the words 눈치 (noon chi) and 분위기(boon ee gi). 눈치 is difficult to translate exactly, but in this situation I think we could call it a 6th sense. 분위기 is feeling from the atmosphere, so he had a good 6th sense from the atmosphere that I was a good person. All I could do was smile, give a half-bow, and say thank you. What is the protocol for when the atmosphere is giving out compliments?
At the bottom of the hill, my guide pointed me in the direction of the next president, so I would be sure not to miss it. I saw him eyeing a group of walkers, and when they paused, gazing up in the direction of the grave, he beelined over to make his sale to the next customers. How great to be so proud of something, so good at your job!
It was at this point in my adventure that my office party got cancelled, but I wasn’t done yet. I saw the other two presidents, Rhee Syng-Man, (leader of the independence campaign against Japan and 1st President), his wife, Austrian Franziska Donner, and Kim Dae-Jung (15th President, long time National Assembly seat holder, and Nobel Peace Prize winner). Their guards were also friendly and made sure I knew where I was going, but not quite as jovial as my first friend.
I was really glad for his care. I wouldn’t have gotten a map, or information about the presidents buried there. I knew there were presidential graves, but with my tiny map I was having trouble finding them. His smile and his insistence to talk with me made me feel less like a face in the crowd. Someone who didn’t give up when my words weren’t in perfect order. Someone who was generous with his time, his knowledge, and his kind soul.
고맙습니다, 국립서울현충원 경비 아저씨.
To return to the subway station, I had to walk past all the individual graves once more. As I later researched, the cemetery reached capacity in the early 1970’s. The cemetery was reserved for veterans, including those who fought the Japanese before the Korean War. The Korean War, of course, though there is also the United Nations Cemetery in Busan- the only UN maintained cemetery in the world- where there are 2,300 graves, specifically from the Korean War, since Busan was the only city not captured by the North. In Seoul’s National Cemetery, there are also some graves from conflicts elsewhere, including the Vietnam War. Monuments also abound, remembering anyone from unidentified and missing soliders to artillerymen and military officers.
As I was walking, I saw some fresh flowers of different colors. Not the standard white and pink. These new colors disrupted the pattern, but I was glad to see them. Chuseok, the major Korean holiday set to give thanks to your ancestors, was a few short months ago. On this day, traditions include visiting graves, cleaning them, leaving flowers. I thought about the soldiers who don’t have anybody. Maybe their families ended up in the North, or maybe their families didn’t make it.
War is always a terrible thing. If you’re like me and haven’t lived through a major war, visit the past by going to the cemetery and stretching your memory beyond your birth.
I don’t think they see a lot of foreigners at the cemetery, but it’s a great place to hear the quiet in the middle of Seoul. I think I’ll be returning soon with my boyfriend to check out the fall colors! And if you go, look up my friend, who is one of two guards next to Park Chung-Hee’s grave, and ask him for some information. He’s good at it.
Take subway line 9 to DongJak (동작), exit #2 or #4. It’s free, and open from 6:00-6:00. Look for special events on Memorial Day, June 6th, or volunteer to do cleanup work in the summer.
Find out more: National Tourism Organization