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Nonfiction

A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart

By Jeon Sungtae
Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Korean author Jeon Sungtae pens a personal essay about trauma and healing, solitude and connection.

Last winter, I reunited with my fifth-grade homeroom teacher. It had been thirty years since I last saw her. She ran the school’s literature club as well, so I’d been under her tutelage for three straight years. She was the one who first planted the dream of becoming a writer in the mind of this country boy who grew up without enough good books to read.

Back then, she used to loan me books and take me to writing contests. Her notes on my daily journal assignments were sometimes longer than my journal entries themselves. She was warm and caring to all of her students. She boiled homemade barley tea to share with us, and for the kids who were too poor to afford lunch, she even brought home-cooked meals. One of my friends had lost his parents and was being raised by his grandmother; she’d pestered our teacher, who was unmarried at the time, to adopt him.

Now my teacher was standing on the threshold of old age. But she still looked as pretty and serene as she had when I’d first seen her through young eyes. She remembered my hometown in far more detail than I did. There was a particular reason for that. She had spent two years as a volunteer on Sorok Island, an infamous leper colony, before getting her first full-time teaching post nearby, at my school. In all, she spent a good ten years in Goheung County. The physical passage of time hadn’t dulled or numbed her memories of those years one bit. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of things had happened on Sorok Island.

She told me how lost she’d felt all through her twenties. Of course, some afflictions of the heart are rooted in historical wounds. Before volunteering on Sorok Island and becoming a schoolteacher, she’d been a college student in Gwangju—right when the Gwangju Massacre took place. As she told me about her experiences, I recalled the way she used to stand sometimes with her back turned to us, as if we’d best not approach her.

You could say this was a new discovery from among my memories of her. But then, doesn’t a certain devotedness sometimes come from the shadows? I realized anew that her passion for teaching bore the mark of an ascetic pushing him- or herself to greater feats of discipline. Back then I was too young to understand that kind of sorrow.

Then she mentioned Deoksansa, a Buddhist temple near the school. Being familiar with the temple myself, I straightened up at her words. Back when she was first posted to our school, she went out wandering near the campus to try to ease her weary, gloomy heart; her steps led her to the temple, where a young nun was living. My teacher said she always felt better after visiting the temple and bowing before the altar. Seasons passed, and yet she and the nun never once spoke. The nun seemed as deeply withdrawn as she was.

One afternoon, they had a heavy snow. My teacher heard a knock at her door and opened it to see the nun standing there, half-frozen. The two women sat down across from each other and just started weeping spontaneously, for no apparent reason.

“Strange, isn’t it? To cry so hard without any idea of what the other person has been through.”

I stayed at the same temple for just over a month during the winter break of my second year in high school. That was about five years after my teacher’s trips to the temple. I had moved out of my parents’ house in order to board closer to my high school in Suncheon.

Between feeling lost as a teenager and suffocating under the pressure of preparing for the college entrance exam, I opted to board at Deoksan Temple instead of going back home or staying behind at the school to take supplemental classes. I headed straight there without really thinking the plan through, and was met by a nun who spoke with a heavy Gyeongsang Province accent and the kitchen helper, a woman with a young daughter who volunteered in the temple kitchen. They told me the temple wasn’t well suited to hosting boarders. I pleaded with them to let me stay anyway. The nun reluctantly agreed, but added that they would keep me fed but I would have to supply my own firewood for the separate quarters where I would be sleeping.

As soon as I unpacked, the kitchen helper handed me a scythe and a firewood carrier. She added that I would have an easier time with it if I used the brushwood from the acacia trees some loggers had discarded next to the temple. Every few days I carried back as much as I could.

My days in the mountain temple started out dull and uncomfortable. It was hard to wake in time for breakfast, which was ready at exactly six in the morning every day, and I couldn’t get used to the temple food. The rice smelled strongly of incense, and the greens were bland. Besides, back home I was more used to eating seaweeds—fried miyeokgwi, seasoned parae, and totnamul, to name a few—than mountain greens. I asked the kitchen helper to go easy on my servings.

When the discarded acacia ran out, I had no choice but to hike into the mountains to chop wood. I spent the whole morning gathering firewood and the afternoon crouched in front of the furnace. The fire entranced me; I felt like a child playing with matches. Before I knew it, evening fell and dinner was being served. The moment I sat down to eat, I was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep immediately afterward.

The days grew even more monotonous, but to my surprise, each time I sat in front of the furnace, my heart grew calm. The temple food grew on me, and at last I was asking the kitchen helper to heap my bowl higher. The nun was busy performing a hundred-day prayer ritual, so I mainly saw her at meals. I’d been expecting to receive some words of wisdom or comfort from her, but she had nothing to say to me.

On sunny days, the three of us ate lunch side by side at three small portable tables set up on a narrow side porch. Meals in the temple were quiet. It felt less like eating with others and more like confronting the act of eating itself. It gave me a taste of a solitude that was lonesome and yet fulfilling. I had never before paid so much attention to the act of eating. But I guess that’s what temples are about. Maybe they’re not where you go to listen to lofty thoughts, but rather where you go to face your own soul, which stands taller, grows more distinct, amid the stillness. There, my mind kept returning to the question of the essence of all phenomena.

After I’d been at the temple a couple of weeks, the nun finally glanced over at me and said, “You’ve filled out. Keep eating!” Then she told the kitchen helper to give me some dried toasted rice to snack on. I got very little studying done while I was there.

On my last day, the nun walked me all the way down to the village. I felt like I was walking with an older sister. I said good-bye to her there, the bulk of my journey still ahead of me.

“Hurry off now,” she said. “You’d be surprised how time flies.”

I don’t know if she was the same nun my teacher met, but it was the same place where we both found respite for our restless, troubled hearts. And though I can’t approach all of my meals the same way as I did on that narrow porch, I still sometimes miss those solitary meals.


© Jeon Sungtae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

Last winter, I reunited with my fifth-grade homeroom teacher. It had been thirty years since I last saw her. She ran the school’s literature club as well, so I’d been under her tutelage for three straight years. She was the one who first planted the dream of becoming a writer in the mind of this country boy who grew up without enough good books to read.

Back then, she used to loan me books and take me to writing contests. Her notes on my daily journal assignments were sometimes longer than my journal entries themselves. She was warm and caring to all of her students. She boiled homemade barley tea to share with us, and for the kids who were too poor to afford lunch, she even brought home-cooked meals. One of my friends had lost his parents and was being raised by his grandmother; she’d pestered our teacher, who was unmarried at the time, to adopt him.

Now my teacher was standing on the threshold of old age. But she still looked as pretty and serene as she had when I’d first seen her through young eyes. She remembered my hometown in far more detail than I did. There was a particular reason for that. She had spent two years as a volunteer on Sorok Island, an infamous leper colony, before getting her first full-time teaching post nearby, at my school. In all, she spent a good ten years in Goheung County. The physical passage of time hadn’t dulled or numbed her memories of those years one bit. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of things had happened on Sorok Island.

She told me how lost she’d felt all through her twenties. Of course, some afflictions of the heart are rooted in historical wounds. Before volunteering on Sorok Island and becoming a schoolteacher, she’d been a college student in Gwangju—right when the Gwangju Massacre took place. As she told me about her experiences, I recalled the way she used to stand sometimes with her back turned to us, as if we’d best not approach her.

You could say this was a new discovery from among my memories of her. But then, doesn’t a certain devotedness sometimes come from the shadows? I realized anew that her passion for teaching bore the mark of an ascetic pushing him- or herself to greater feats of discipline. Back then I was too young to understand that kind of sorrow.

Then she mentioned Deoksansa, a Buddhist temple near the school. Being familiar with the temple myself, I straightened up at her words. Back when she was first posted to our school, she went out wandering near the campus to try to ease her weary, gloomy heart; her steps led her to the temple, where a young nun was living. My teacher said she always felt better after visiting the temple and bowing before the altar. Seasons passed, and yet she and the nun never once spoke. The nun seemed as deeply withdrawn as she was.

One afternoon, they had a heavy snow. My teacher heard a knock at her door and opened it to see the nun standing there, half-frozen. The two women sat down across from each other and just started weeping spontaneously, for no apparent reason.

“Strange, isn’t it? To cry so hard without any idea of what the other person has been through.”

I stayed at the same temple for just over a month during the winter break of my second year in high school. That was about five years after my teacher’s trips to the temple. I had moved out of my parents’ house in order to board closer to my high school in Suncheon.

Between feeling lost as a teenager and suffocating under the pressure of preparing for the college entrance exam, I opted to board at Deoksan Temple instead of going back home or staying behind at the school to take supplemental classes. I headed straight there without really thinking the plan through, and was met by a nun who spoke with a heavy Gyeongsang Province accent and the kitchen helper, a woman with a young daughter who volunteered in the temple kitchen. They told me the temple wasn’t well suited to hosting boarders. I pleaded with them to let me stay anyway. The nun reluctantly agreed, but added that they would keep me fed but I would have to supply my own firewood for the separate quarters where I would be sleeping.

As soon as I unpacked, the kitchen helper handed me a scythe and a firewood carrier. She added that I would have an easier time with it if I used the brushwood from the acacia trees some loggers had discarded next to the temple. Every few days I carried back as much as I could.

My days in the mountain temple started out dull and uncomfortable. It was hard to wake in time for breakfast, which was ready at exactly six in the morning every day, and I couldn’t get used to the temple food. The rice smelled strongly of incense, and the greens were bland. Besides, back home I was more used to eating seaweeds—fried miyeokgwi, seasoned parae, and totnamul, to name a few—than mountain greens. I asked the kitchen helper to go easy on my servings.

When the discarded acacia ran out, I had no choice but to hike into the mountains to chop wood. I spent the whole morning gathering firewood and the afternoon crouched in front of the furnace. The fire entranced me; I felt like a child playing with matches. Before I knew it, evening fell and dinner was being served. The moment I sat down to eat, I was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep immediately afterward.

The days grew even more monotonous, but to my surprise, each time I sat in front of the furnace, my heart grew calm. The temple food grew on me, and at last I was asking the kitchen helper to heap my bowl higher. The nun was busy performing a hundred-day prayer ritual, so I mainly saw her at meals. I’d been expecting to receive some words of wisdom or comfort from her, but she had nothing to say to me.

On sunny days, the three of us ate lunch side by side at three small portable tables set up on a narrow side porch. Meals in the temple were quiet. It felt less like eating with others and more like confronting the act of eating itself. It gave me a taste of a solitude that was lonesome and yet fulfilling. I had never before paid so much attention to the act of eating. But I guess that’s what temples are about. Maybe they’re not where you go to listen to lofty thoughts, but rather where you go to face your own soul, which stands taller, grows more distinct, amid the stillness. There, my mind kept returning to the question of the essence of all phenomena.

After I’d been at the temple a couple of weeks, the nun finally glanced over at me and said, “You’ve filled out. Keep eating!” Then she told the kitchen helper to give me some dried toasted rice to snack on. I got very little studying done while I was there.

On my last day, the nun walked me all the way down to the village. I felt like I was walking with an older sister. I said good-bye to her there, the bulk of my journey still ahead of me.

“Hurry off now,” she said. “You’d be surprised how time flies.”

I don’t know if she was the same nun my teacher met, but it was the same place where we both found respite for our restless, troubled hearts. And though I can’t approach all of my meals the same way as I did on that narrow porch, I still sometimes miss those solitary meals.


© Jeon Sungtae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

Definitions

leper colony: A place where people with leprosy are forced to live together in quarantine.

ascetic: Practicing self-denial and personal or spiritual discipline (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

The Gwangju Massacre: On May 18th of 1980, students and other residents of the southwestern city of Gwangju took to the streets to call for freedom of expression, fair elections, and an end to martial law. The then-leader of South Korea, a military dictator named General Chun Doo-hwan, ordered troops to the city. Over ten days, soldiers clashed with civilians, killing and maiming protesters and bystanders. 

Meet the Author

Writer Jeon Sungtae

“I stood out among the kids in my hometown, as the kid with the yellow eyes.” Listen to Jeon Sungtae talk about his childhood at an event organized by Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea.) 

Meet the Translator

Translator Sora Kim-Russel

Visit Sora Kim-Russell’s website (in English and Korean—the two non-English headings say “Welcome!” and “Nice to meet you!”).

Then, watch an interview clip in which she talks about the nitty-gritty of translating food names. 

Next, read an interview in which she confesses, “I don’t know if I’m a normal translator.” 

Finally, read her best advice for people interested in becoming literary translators.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Korean terms in this story, read aloud by WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson. 


(Listen on Soundcloud.)
A Scholar's Perspective

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Read what Brother Anthony of Taizé writes about the era of this memoir in his introduction to Korean literature:

. . . [U]ntil quite recently, an average Korean’s daily meals—if he or she were lucky enough to have sufficient food— consisted mainly of a heaping bowl of rice, a serving of spicy kimchi made using cabbage or radish, and soup made with soy bean paste.

As soon as spring came, villagers gathered wild plants on hillsides and served them as extra side dishes. For sweet treats, people made rice cakes at home. In the “old days,” meat was almost unknown, except perhaps for special festivals. . . .

From the 1960s to the 1990s, South Korea was controlled by military dictators, former generals who used force to control the population. It was under Park Chung-Hee, from 1961 until he was assassinated in 1979, that Korea began to industrialize and modernize. Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in 1980, brutally suppressed a popular uprising in the southwestern city of Gwangju, resulting in numerous deaths. (A memoir in this unit, Jeon Sungtae’s “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart,” pays tribute to the lasting effects of the “Gwangju Massacre” on a generation of young people.)

Read more in the introduction.

Where's Goheung?

Look at a Google map and photos of Goheung County, where the events of this essay took place.

What Happened in Gwangju?

Student protesters, Gwangju, South Korea. From the May 18th Movement Archives. By Mar del Este, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Jeon Sungtae’s teacher was a college student in Gwangju at the time of the “Massacre.” Find out what happened in this article by Dr. Kallie Szczepanski, published on ThoughtCo.com.

Then, for a personal perspective on Gwangju, listen to a half-hour NPR interview with one of the women protesters

Leaving Sorok Island

The Geogeum Bridge to Sorok Island. Photo by Flickr user Qiao Fan.

After leaving Gwangju, but before coming to his school, Jeon Sungtae’s teacher spent two years volunteering at the leper colony on Sorok Island. Meet the colony’s residents and find out why some of them are afraid to leave in an article about the first-ever bridge between the colony and the mainland.

“The Infamous Suneung”

In the essay, Jeon Sungtae writes about “suffocating under the pressure of preparing for the college entrance exam.” This is the Suneung, described by the BBC as “an eight-hour marathon of back-to-back exams, which not only dictates whether the students will go to university, but can affect their job prospects, income, where they will live and even future relationships.”

Find out how students feel about the exam, and what they eat for luck, in this article from the BBC.

Then, see how you might do on the English portion in a quiz from the Korea Times.

What's School Like in South Korea?

An English teacher with his class in Seosan, South Korea. Photo by Joe Coyle on Flickr.

Find out “what is different between Korean high school and USA high school education” [한국 고등학교와 미국 고등학교 사이 교육의 차이점에 대해 어떻게 생각하십니까?] in a bilingual post on the blog “Ask a Korean!

Then, travel along with English-speaking
educators as they visit Korean schools. (Published by the Asia Society, the article is from 1996, but has been updated.)

Finally, read about reforms and continuing challenges—like students’ “low passion for education”—in another article from the Asia Society.

Background on Korea

Street painting in Seoul, by leifbr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.

New to learning about Korea? Read a short profile of modern Korea from the BBC, or a more detailed, historical profile from the Asia Society.

For a quick trip through 2,000 years of Korean history, watch the video “All Korean kingdoms explained in less than 5 minutes.”

More from the Author and Translator

Writer Jeon Sungtae

Read a short story from Jeon Sungtae, also translated by Sora Kim-Russell: “Wolves,” about a Korean circus owner obsessed with hunting down a black wolf. The story was published in The White Review.

More from the Translator

A page from “Tell Me Where to Go” by Kim Han-min, co-translated by Jamie Chang and Sora Kim-Russell.

Read other translations by Sora Kim-Russell, also published in Words Without Borders:

  • An excerpt from the novel I’ll Be Right There, which also discusses life in the wake of the Gwangju uprising. (To get a sense of the whole novel, read a review in the New York Times)
  • The dystopian graphic fiction Tell Me Where to Go, co-translated with Jamie Chang, who also worked on Wizard Bakery.

From “How to Translate Titles” by Sora Kim-Russell (story) and Yerong (artwork). Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

Finally, look through a short comic about what it’s like to translate a book title. Sora Kim-Russell wrote the story and artist Yerong drew the cartoons. You might also like this comic about “wild times” in a translation workshop by the same writer-illustrator pair.

Korean Brewing, Cooking, and Poem-Writing

“[W]hen I was little, Korean tea was our water alternative at our home.” Find out how to brew barley tea, just as Jeon Sungtae’s teacher did for her students, on My Korean Kitchen. Then, read a poem by Emily Jungmin Yoon about drinking tea. Do you see the wordplay with the Korean word “cha” for tea?  “Chada” can mean “it’s tea” and many other things!

Next, find out how to make seasoned parae. Also known as “green laver,” parae is one of the seaweeds Jeon Sungtae missed when he first came to the temple.

Finally, learn how to use totnamul, another one of the seaweeds Jeon Sungtae missed, in a popular Korean dish.

Test-Taking: From Baltimore to Tokyo

“[T]esting—from pre-exam anxiety to post-exam euphoria—is something that oddly enough, seems to unite us all.” See whether you agree: look through an Atlantic photo gallery of students taking tests in South Korea, the U.S., and many other parts of the world.

Is a Temple Stay for You?

A Korean temple similar to the one described in “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart”

Are you interested in staying at a Korean temple, as Jeon Sungtae did while getting ready for his college entrance exams? Find out more about this experience in this article.

Solitude in Poetry

For more writing about loneliness and solitude, check out this collection from the Poetry Foundation.

More on the Gwangju Uprising

Watch the trailer of the Korean film A Taxi Driver.

Listen to the song the Gwangju protesters sang, which remains “beloved” today. 

Find out how this song “has become synonymous with the very concept of democracy itself” from translator and scholar Susan Hwang (whose translations you’ll find elsewhere in this collection!).

For even more on Gwangju and its continuing impact: 

  • Listen to a BBC story on an art show commemorating the uprising, and look at artists’ work on the exhibition website
  • Read an excerpt from a short story by Park Sol-moe, translated by Sarah Lyo
  • Read the novel Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith.
  • Check out this YA graphic memoir about college students fighting for democracy in the aftermath of Gwangju.
Other Uprisings and Their Aftermath

Nine years after Gwangju, a similar military massacre of civilian protesters took place in China’s Tiananmen Square. For personal accounts of the events at Tiananmen, read an interview with the artist Wu Wenjian or this graphic novel excerpt by Chinese activist Lun Zhang.

From the series “Eternal Sorrow,” by Wu Wenjian.

Then, learn more about the history of student-led protests in Asia, and why they say the “streets of Hong Kong are looking a lot like South Korea in the 1980s.”

Contemporary Protests and K-Pop

Find out the connection between K-pop and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in articles from Teen Vogue and the L.A. Times. Then, read “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally,” from the New York Times

Know Korean? Want to Learn?

Even native Koreans often can’t understand each others’ dialect. Different dialects of Korean will not only use different intonations/pronunciations, but also entirely different words. Watch the video below and listen for the differences.

In another video, Billy, a non-native speaker of Korean, gives his impression of the differences between Korean dialects. He begins talking about the Gyeongsang-do dialect (spoken in the region where the essay is set) at 2:02.

Finally, find out how to say “dialect” in Korean in this article

Read Korean? “A Meal of Solitude . . . ” appears in a collection of Korean essays on encounters with temple food. You can find copies in your local library using WorldCat

More Stories of Solitude**

Literature on WWB:

  • Injeolmi Rice Cakes: This poem depicts another Korean country boy’s series of “solitary meals.”
  • Things Elude Me: From Egyptian poet Iman Mersal, this lyric poem depicts a solitary return to a former apartment and its memories.
  • Prison Memoirs: Wang Dan, a student leader of the Tiananmen Square Uprising, recalls solitary confinement.
  • Cavities and Kindness: A romance between an imaginative trans woman and a conventional-minded, workaholic man. They finally break up (over a meal of ramen), but we also see why they connected so strongly.

Literature Elsewhere:

The cover of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, from publisher Gibbs Smith.

  • Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, describing one man’s retreat from society
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, by Yevgeniya Ginzburg, a Russian writer who describes the sometimes humanizing, sometimes terrifying experiences of solitary confinement.  

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Unlikely Connections**

Literature on WWB:

  • From Iran: Ney Boulevard: In a Parisian café, we witness a friendship between a man and woman whose only similarity may be that they are both immigrants from Iran.
  • The Cleric and I: A personal essay detailing the bond between a secular journalist and a Muslim cleric.
  • A love poem entitled Connection
  • From Japan: Stance Dots: A Japanese story about an encounter between an elderly bowling-alley owner and a young couple, just as he is about to close the alley for good.
  • When My Wife Was a Shiitake: In this story, also from Japan, a widower comes to better understand his departed wife through cooking.

Film and Literature Elsewhere:

  • Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, with its depiction of the bond between Ishmael and Queequeg;
  • Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, about the connections—and differences of circumstance—between a runaway boy and a runaway slave
  • E. M. Forster’s Howards End, with its exhortation to “only connect”
  • Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, Ma’am”
  • The 1985 film The Breakfast Club

**For Teaching Idea 2

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

Last winter, I reunited with my fifth-grade homeroom teacher. It had been thirty years since I last saw her. She ran the school’s literature club as well, so I’d been under her tutelage for three straight years. She was the one who first planted the dream of becoming a writer in the mind of this country boy who grew up without enough good books to read.

Back then, she used to loan me books and take me to writing contests. Her notes on my daily journal assignments were sometimes longer than my journal entries themselves. She was warm and caring to all of her students. She boiled homemade barley tea to share with us, and for the kids who were too poor to afford lunch, she even brought home-cooked meals. One of my friends had lost his parents and was being raised by his grandmother; she’d pestered our teacher, who was unmarried at the time, to adopt him.

Now my teacher was standing on the threshold of old age. But she still looked as pretty and serene as she had when I’d first seen her through young eyes. She remembered my hometown in far more detail than I did. There was a particular reason for that. She had spent two years as a volunteer on Sorok Island, an infamous leper colony, before getting her first full-time teaching post nearby, at my school. In all, she spent a good ten years in Goheung County. The physical passage of time hadn’t dulled or numbed her memories of those years one bit. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of things had happened on Sorok Island.

She told me how lost she’d felt all through her twenties. Of course, some afflictions of the heart are rooted in historical wounds. Before volunteering on Sorok Island and becoming a schoolteacher, she’d been a college student in Gwangju—right when the Gwangju Massacre took place. As she told me about her experiences, I recalled the way she used to stand sometimes with her back turned to us, as if we’d best not approach her.

You could say this was a new discovery from among my memories of her. But then, doesn’t a certain devotedness sometimes come from the shadows? I realized anew that her passion for teaching bore the mark of an ascetic pushing him- or herself to greater feats of discipline. Back then I was too young to understand that kind of sorrow.

Then she mentioned Deoksansa, a Buddhist temple near the school. Being familiar with the temple myself, I straightened up at her words. Back when she was first posted to our school, she went out wandering near the campus to try to ease her weary, gloomy heart; her steps led her to the temple, where a young nun was living. My teacher said she always felt better after visiting the temple and bowing before the altar. Seasons passed, and yet she and the nun never once spoke. The nun seemed as deeply withdrawn as she was.

One afternoon, they had a heavy snow. My teacher heard a knock at her door and opened it to see the nun standing there, half-frozen. The two women sat down across from each other and just started weeping spontaneously, for no apparent reason.

“Strange, isn’t it? To cry so hard without any idea of what the other person has been through.”

I stayed at the same temple for just over a month during the winter break of my second year in high school. That was about five years after my teacher’s trips to the temple. I had moved out of my parents’ house in order to board closer to my high school in Suncheon.

Between feeling lost as a teenager and suffocating under the pressure of preparing for the college entrance exam, I opted to board at Deoksan Temple instead of going back home or staying behind at the school to take supplemental classes. I headed straight there without really thinking the plan through, and was met by a nun who spoke with a heavy Gyeongsang Province accent and the kitchen helper, a woman with a young daughter who volunteered in the temple kitchen. They told me the temple wasn’t well suited to hosting boarders. I pleaded with them to let me stay anyway. The nun reluctantly agreed, but added that they would keep me fed but I would have to supply my own firewood for the separate quarters where I would be sleeping.

As soon as I unpacked, the kitchen helper handed me a scythe and a firewood carrier. She added that I would have an easier time with it if I used the brushwood from the acacia trees some loggers had discarded next to the temple. Every few days I carried back as much as I could.

My days in the mountain temple started out dull and uncomfortable. It was hard to wake in time for breakfast, which was ready at exactly six in the morning every day, and I couldn’t get used to the temple food. The rice smelled strongly of incense, and the greens were bland. Besides, back home I was more used to eating seaweeds—fried miyeokgwi, seasoned parae, and totnamul, to name a few—than mountain greens. I asked the kitchen helper to go easy on my servings.

When the discarded acacia ran out, I had no choice but to hike into the mountains to chop wood. I spent the whole morning gathering firewood and the afternoon crouched in front of the furnace. The fire entranced me; I felt like a child playing with matches. Before I knew it, evening fell and dinner was being served. The moment I sat down to eat, I was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep immediately afterward.

The days grew even more monotonous, but to my surprise, each time I sat in front of the furnace, my heart grew calm. The temple food grew on me, and at last I was asking the kitchen helper to heap my bowl higher. The nun was busy performing a hundred-day prayer ritual, so I mainly saw her at meals. I’d been expecting to receive some words of wisdom or comfort from her, but she had nothing to say to me.

On sunny days, the three of us ate lunch side by side at three small portable tables set up on a narrow side porch. Meals in the temple were quiet. It felt less like eating with others and more like confronting the act of eating itself. It gave me a taste of a solitude that was lonesome and yet fulfilling. I had never before paid so much attention to the act of eating. But I guess that’s what temples are about. Maybe they’re not where you go to listen to lofty thoughts, but rather where you go to face your own soul, which stands taller, grows more distinct, amid the stillness. There, my mind kept returning to the question of the essence of all phenomena.

After I’d been at the temple a couple of weeks, the nun finally glanced over at me and said, “You’ve filled out. Keep eating!” Then she told the kitchen helper to give me some dried toasted rice to snack on. I got very little studying done while I was there.

On my last day, the nun walked me all the way down to the village. I felt like I was walking with an older sister. I said good-bye to her there, the bulk of my journey still ahead of me.

“Hurry off now,” she said. “You’d be surprised how time flies.”

I don’t know if she was the same nun my teacher met, but it was the same place where we both found respite for our restless, troubled hearts. And though I can’t approach all of my meals the same way as I did on that narrow porch, I still sometimes miss those solitary meals.


© Jeon Sungtae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

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