Temple Tantrum

2007

*Caution: Do not read if you revere religion or religious groups.

     Yesterday, around noon, twelve from our group accepted a free “Essence of Korea Temple Stay” geared for adoptees only. Since I haven’t seen any Buddhist temples in the states and interested in Eastern philosophy, I lure my twin into this excursion with me.

     Jenette conceals her excitement in a whisper. “We can ask the Buddhists what they think about adoption.” 

When the twelve of us arrive at the sacred Buddhist grounds, we jump off the bus. The temple is parked on a stone platform against the greenery and small background hills. Smiling Korean men in Western suits lead us away from the tiny gravel parking lot toward the meat of the property. Eyeing a few drab-dressed monks up and down who are loitering about and staring back at us, my sister nudges me and smirks, “Maybe we’ll get to wear one of those temple outfits.” Later, when we’re told that we actually do have to don the dowdy brown and grey outfits, she retracts and complains, “Are they fucking serious? I was only kidding.” Then she and the surrounding Korean adoptees laugh out loud.

     The men and women are divided into two groups. Along with the women, I am handed a perfectly folded brown temple garment and instructed to change in a row of square rooms, each fit for two occupants behind bamboo and rice paper doors. My twin and I linger behind the other women single file to our quarters where inside a floor mat for sleeping awaits us, and that’s about all. Slow-moving, we don the sloppy brown uniforms. Jenette and I give each other knowing looks. Since leaving junior high, we intentionally haven’t worn matching outfits due to the humiliation of dressing like twins at church, school, home, and play, much like characters from a dark comedy.

     Jenette and I lag behind the others to a shoe station where we’re supposed to give up our worldly shoes (and our egos) for degrading white rubber slippers. I hesitate before removing black-heeled sandals, and I notice all the other females look a bit queasy. We hand over our shoes to the smiling Korean women, anyway, but some of us hug onto our worldly possessions just for a second longer. Eventually, we’re forced to let go because the temple adherents have solid hands and an agenda to follow. They snatch our shoes as if no big deal and toss them into a cubby hole, having no idea they’ve stripped us of any remaining western pride. 

     Without materialistic shoes, we women adoptees huddle around like clones and clowns. We stare down at the ugly brown outfit and pallid rounded-toe slippers. Then we realize that each slipper is marked at the toe with some sort of Korean writing by a skinny black-tip permanent marker.

     “Looks like little spiders.” One adoptee points out. 

     From a distance, we see the male adoptees across the field toward us. Devoid of any emotion, they return dressed down in light-grey pajama-type outfits, baggy at the crotch and secured at the ankles by Velcro. They make much more believable monks than we, women, do. We, women, resemble camp prisoners more so than anything else. In the same white rubber shoes, men and women wander aimlessly around the grounds waiting for further instructions, attempting to “go with the flow” but feeling every single pebble from under our feet as we stumble to the next thing on the Koreans’ agenda upon arrival. 

     In the gaudy main temple, Jenette and I blend right in with the frumpy, frowning group. We painfully squat into flat square pillows and clumsily copy the prayful motions instructed by the Korean man at the front. The expert monks worship in the middle, right before the three golden Buddhas. The thought growing is that I’m not used to sitting on the floor and that my back, hips, and legs are tiring, and how long is this going to go on? We’re supposed to gracefully emulate the monks’ foreign noise—chants that are written out for us on twelve pages: Gwi ui bul yang jok jon. I take refuge in the Buddha (teacher). Gwi ui bob ejok jon. I take refuge in the Dharma (his teaching). Gwi ui sung jung jung jon. I take refuge in the Sangha (his followers). We enter into a series of semi-bows and full bows, accompanied by a multitude of graceful hand gestures. Then more vows: Jung saeng mu byon so won do. I vow to save all beings. Bon nwae mu jin so won dan. I vow to extinguish all suffering. Bob mun nu lyang so won hak. I vow to learn all Dharma teachings. Bul do mu sang so won song. I vow to attain enlightenment. 

     The adherents’ dedication reminds me of my childhood. For Sundays on end, I was required to sit below the preacher’s pulpit, pray before the cross of Jesus, and croon praises behind the second pew on the right side next to the loft where Dad directed the choir. I was a very accepting child, and each service only lasted for about an hour. Here, I may look Korean, but I was truly a distrustful American.

     Next, the adoptees are guided into an evening tea ceremony directed by a male monk who professes his love of the lotus bloom. While he ladles essence into kettles, a Korean student dressed in a pink t-shirt, a short ruffled skirt, and pink fluorescent sunglasses interprets his message. The two drone on and on softly and soothingly, and my mind tries every trick in the book to stay awake, but all I want to do is sleep. 

     “Sip the tea,” the K-Pop gal instructs us as if it were the most sanctified liquid in the world.

And we try.  The atmosphere is strangely reminiscent of Christianity’s baptism—only here at the temple, the “holy” water is taken internally rather than sprinkled over oneself. 

     While the head monk ladles lotus tea into kettles, he tells us a story, revealing that he didn’t fall in love with a woman while in meditation in the mountains. Truth be told, he became obsessed with a lotus bloom because of its beauty and purity, representing humanity’s spiritual state. Late into the night, while I’m partially dozing, he’s still preaching, and I’m catching half of what’s being interpreted by the female student in pink. But I jerk awake, and the adoptees are practically shocked out of their uniforms when the monk confides that the “lotus blooms are like hookers because they only open at night.” Makes me wonder if this is the reason he fell in love with it so. And then my mind shifts to the latest Catholic Church scandal, and I wonder if all clergy from all faiths are obsessed with sex. 

     The night murmurs on and on, and the K-Pop gal takes us to a grassy patch like a mother duckling, and eventually, we run into a white statue of an Asian woman named Quan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. We’re each given a candle to light, and then what follows is a stretched-out candle ceremony led by a soft-spoken female monk who is a bit more believable than the young K-Pop gal. But while the woman tramples the courtyard and sacred grounds, I have no idea what she’s saying or even if it’s in English since I’m the last one in line.

     At its completion, around midnight, the ritual ends full circle at the foot of Quan Yin. I can’t help but compare this exercise with my childhood candle-light services led by our Presbyterian pastor, but now I barely have the patience for such a service. My Christian upbringing groomed me to believe that Quan Yin is no match for Jesus. As a child, I abided with no questions asked. By the time the female monk gives us adults permission to retire, I’m too tired to lift my wrist to even look at the time, but all through the night, I can hear background drums and chant it seems. 

     The next thing I hear is my twin’s voice and it makes me grimace.

     “Janine.” Jenette demands. “Get up.”

     Huh? I roll from stomach to back, and through half-opened eyes, I see my twin hovering over me, still wearing the ugly brown temple uniform. It hangs off her like an oversized potato sack, and it’s just as scratchy. Both hands on hips, she’s looking down at me. “Get. Up.”

     I wince.

     “It's time for breakfast." She says, pissed off. 

     Sometime between the candle ritual and my sister's voice, I hear monks still drumming and chanting on the lawn outside the boxed room.  

     "Time to eat." Jenette's referring to the special breakfast ceremony with the Buddhist monks. Somehow I manage (and I don't know how I did this) to rub open my eyes, roll off the floor mat and stand.

     "Go." My twin sister's anger immediately pisses me off too. Before leaving the room, I search the nearby wall, like a tourist, to make sure my backpack is still near. I then check for my purse and my passport underneath the ugly brown garment, now damp and dragging. I just don't trust the monks or the situation one bit. Distrust has been ingrained in me. Why should I trust foreigners? They're not like the good Christians at home that I was brought up with. 

     When I heard that we were supposed to get up at four, I thought it was a joke. I didn't realize they were serious—completely serious.  I follow my twin out of the room with the others. It's still black outside. Moist warm air from the courtyard wafts in.  My head feels unusually heavy. We women are too tired to look at anything but the ground as we half sleepwalk from the boxed-quarters to wherever we're supposed to go.

      "What time is it?" I've been trying to, for I don't know how long, brush away the drumming and chanting on the field. The noise does nothing to soothe my soul but instead gets on my nerves. Since arriving in Korea, we've been on the go non-stop, activated by early morning conference meetings, late nights, and absolutely no time to nap. In my mind, the Essence of Korea trip was supposed to give me time to do nothing but sit and sleep. The thought of constant ongoing rituals and things to do, gets me stirred and agitated.

      "Three forty-five," my sister states.

     But didn't the itinerary say breakfast was at seven?

     The group of female adoptees surrounds us, wobbling along with stepping stones across the grassy courtyard. We head toward the main temple, lured by more drumming and chanting. We probably look like zombies in the mist from a distance, reminiscent of Michael Jackson's 1980s music video, Thriller. A Korean man passes the group of adoptees and smiles. We glare back. 

I would laugh at the thought, but I'm way too tired. This is what I get for wanting to experience a "real" temple stay. On paper, the breakfast ceremony sounded so appealing, so sacred. It was, after all, supposedly used by Buddha himself and then copied by his disciples for thousands of years, I've heard. The ritual could be compared to the Holy Communion reflecting Christ's Last Supper, a ritual in Protestant churches.

     Moving toward the drumming, a noise that tempts us to walk back to bed—just fall back to bed. Instead, my round rubber shoes take me up the stone stairs early this black morning. Before entering the building, I intentionally set them near the steps and even arrange the left shoe upside down so I'd know which pair is mine after the service is over. I notice other adoptees do the same thing: some of the adoptees stuff the rubber shoes with a sock, a female places one under the step, a male flips the right shoe facing down, another adoptee crisscrosses the pair into an X. I wonder if the temple staff is laughing behind our backs at what appears to be western sloppiness, not realizing we're purposely leaving our shoes in chaos so we'll be able to find them on the way out since we can't read the Korean symbol at the slipper's tip. They probably think we're the oddest bunch already.

     The pre-dawn ceremony (Sae-byok-yae-bul) consists of another chant (Da-gae) for offering tea to the Three Jewels (Buddhas). As much as we might want to, none of us can repeat the Korean chant, and our ignorance is probably perceived as blunt disrespect: A gum chong jong su Byon ui gam no da. Bong hon sam bo jon. Now we are offering a sweet-tasting tea from clean and pure water to the Three Jewels. Won su ja bi ae nab su. Please accept it with loving-kindness (bow). Won su ja bi ae nab su. Please accept it with loving-kindness (bow). Won su ja bi ae nab su. Please accept it with loving-kindness (bow). We superficially copy the monks' motions who are whole-heartedly dedicated to following the correct way that supposedly leads to the heavenly mandate or, as they say, enlightenment. This experience reminds me of a childhood crammed with memorizing Bible verses, singing traditional hymnals, and twiddling my thumbs under the pastor's pulpit.

     It seems like we've been bowing, sitting, and standing for hours but it's probably only been a mere twenty minutes. At last, the morning chant is complete, and we're able to stretch and wake up a bit. Now onto breakfast.

As we leave the room, we notice that the temple adherents have flipped the rubber slippers to face outward for our convenience. Now we have no idea which shoe belongs to whom, and we can't read the spider-like writing on each toe. I ended up stuffing my feet into whatever was leftover, which happened to be a size too big on my right and a size too small on my left. In mismatched white rubber slippers, I stagger over the steps hopping and hoping to catch up with the others. Such is the life of a transracial adoptee.

     At the top, we reach an empty multi-purpose room. A Korean man walks around the temple lugging around a giant machine that looks too much like a leaf blower to me, but to the adoptee next to me, the contraption appears to be releasing poisonous pesticides all around the premises, which causes great concern within our group. (I learned later that it's a fog machine, an organic method used to naturally repel mosquitos from the area.) One of the Korean adoptees tries to find someone to protest to before the ritual begins, but the adherents don't understand the problem. According to them, they're treating us with the utmost care and courtesy. But we won't have it. We assume the monks are gathering us up to poison us inside the multi-purpose room as Asian people do to their own people in prison camps everywhere. I don't know if it's a Korean adoptee thing, but we have little faith or trust in the monks or anyone of Asian ethnicity, in fact. No trust at all.

     The Sacred Ritual

     After we're done complaining, the first thing we're told to do is to select, according to our gut feeling, a brown cloth-wrapped package from one of the high back shelves, and then go sit in a row with the parcel on the floor. Some in the group are having trouble deciding which one to choose, as if it really matters, they all look the same to me. I select the one closest to me for no particular reason other than by mere convenience.  It takes a few moments for the enthusiasm--or the anxiety--to settle. At last, like elementary school children, we're all facing the monk cross-legged again, cradling an enclosed bowl in our laps. Within the brown fabric, under the cloth napkin and thick wooden spoon, is a stack of ceramic breakfast bowls. I wonder if the other adoptees are wondering the same thing that I am: how clean are these bowls and utensils? Were they washed with soap, or were they merely rinsed? And how many people before us used them?

     In Korean, the monk tells us what the ritual consists of, and then the pop-star student, back again, interprets his instructions into near-perfect English. The back and forth murmur between her and the monk hypnotizes me into sleepiness again, and the day hasn't even really started yet. The instructions are drawn-out and tedious, especially while waiting for the English translation given to the group of twelve by the pop-star student whose voice is repetitive and boring. From what I gather, this is how the sacred ritual is supposed to go, and the steps are supposed to be done in complete silence:

 

1.     Untie sash and remove from stacking bowls.

2.     Spread the napkin along the tile floor evenly against the sitting mat. 

3.     Place the set of bowls on top.

4.     Untie sash, fold in half, then in half again, and place on the top right knee.

5.     Remove wooden chopsticks and spoon from cloth and place on top.

6.     Remove the first bowl with thumbs, place it in the upper left-hand corner. 

7.     Remove the second bowl with thumbs, place it in the lower right corner.

8.     Remove the third bowl with thumbs, place it in the upper right corner.

9.     Move the fourth and largest bowl to the lower left side.

 

     Through the interpreter, we're told that the monk wants volunteers. A few adoptees raise their hands, including (surprisingly) me. We learn that the volunteers will serve the food: One will dip the rice, one will ladle broth, one will distribute the side dishes, one will pour purified water, and, in the end, one will collect the leftovers. 

Will we make total fools of ourselves and ruin the reputations of Korean adoptees everywhere? (Not that our reputations have ever been good—in the east or in the west).

     The ritual is so elaborate that it's beginning to appear to be more trouble than it's worth. After we're finished eating, we're supposed to scrub the sticky rice clean from the bowls and then use the radish disk or our fingers to rub away the remaining remnants. Then, we're told to pour ladled water from the largest bowl down to the smallest until each bowl has been rinsed When the last bowl is full of filmy water, we're required to drink it, along with parcels of rice, and then—hold on now--eat the radish? Whatever is left, the pop-star tells us, will be poured into a communal pot and then redistributed equally amongst the entire group. 

     WTH? Did I hear that right? The leftovers will be divvied and divided up amongst us? And then all of us will have to drink from a communal pot? 

     This is supposed to teach us to never take more than we need because all will have to suffer the consequences if we do. The adoptees who volunteered to be servers stand and obediently head for the kitchen to fetch the communal pots. 

     Once they're out of sight, my sister objects against the hushed dull setting. For years, the Christian church has used us and look like "saviors" while doing so and now the Buddhists? She's lost her patience. "Can I quit?" 

I can't believe she just said that. We haven't even started the ceremony yet. 

     No one knows what to say, not even the monk. Everyone just stares at my sister.

     The K-Pop-star's mouth gapes open. Her pink J-Lo sunglasses slip down her nose, and she pushes them up with a middle finger.

      "Do we have to do this?" My sister states, "I want to quit."

      "You can't quit." The good adoptee says, the one squished between the monk and the Korean pop-star. She glares at my sister. "It would be disrespectful to the monks." 

     My sister glares back at the adoptee and retorts: "Adoptees ARE disrespectful!" As if it's something to be proud of. 

     All is silent. Now everyone hates me because I'm related to my identical twin sister.

     Jenette stands and marches out. "I can't do this. It's going to take forever."  

     Everyone can hear my sister gripe to the pop-star outside. "I don't want to do this. It's going to take too long. What's the point, anyway?"

     The Korean pop-star softly explains the reasoning behind the ritual, but no one can hear her.

     Yet, just my luck, everyone can hear my loud sister from outside: "Don’t you get it? We’re not used to sitting on the floor—especially for such a long period of time. I’m not going to do this.” 

     The remaining adoptees sit and stare at the wall across from us, waiting for the ceremonial food to be brought in and eavesdropping. Every so often, one of us looks at the clock.

     Eventually, one of the adoptees (a U.S. military guy) arrives back in the multi-purpose room and hilariously bellows: “I come bearing gifts!” He raises two black rice-filled pots for all to see. But no one laughs. We all pretty much ignore him.

Slapped by negative energy, the U.S. military adoptee sets the pots in front of all of us and melts into the lethargic group at the end of the line, suddenly aware of the group’s comatose mood. No one says anything.  

Jenette is still ranting outside to some random person. Last night we learned that the “free” temple stay was conjured up by a university so that they could study adoptees and then possibly connect with international markets. This was not good news to hear late at night with hardly any sleep. Catching on quickly, my sister is blunt:  “I feel so used, and it infuriates me. We’re being analyzed so they can figure out how to market to adoptees and make more money,” she protests. This was the icing off the top of the cake. First we've been used by the Christian church and now the Buddhists? 

     Yet, when the head monk totters by and nods at her to head back into the ceremonial room, she surprisingly complies, not wanting to hurt his feelings. The next thing I know, she’s back down on a deflated pillow and facing the monk again—the same monk who told her that if she took a bad picture of him, he would break her camera.

 

The Ritual Begins:

     The way the U.S. military guy diligently plops rice into each bowl during the ritual makes me quietly chuckle. His mood has completely changed. He has now taken on this task in a totally serious manner. No longer a jokester, he doles out a dollop of rice to each adoptee as if it’s the most revered thing he’s ever been asked to do. He promptly mashes the rice around in the pot but is unable to get the sticky morsels off the wooden spoon. Unable to serve much, he moves onto the next participant and then onto the next, solemnly plopping rice into our bowls.

     The adoptee after him is responsible for dispensing a tasteless mung bean sprout soup (Actually, I think it tastes about the same as my own cooking at home.) into the second bowl. She clumsily decants the clear vegetable broth into my bowl, inadvertently spilling it down the side and onto my hands, and then hastily leaves to serve the next participant. I discreetly use the depressed pillow I’m sitting on as a napkin.

     We slide the tray of red pungent kimchi delicacies down the line, and it scratches the floor loudly, the screech making the monks cringe. During the meal, we’re supposed to be completely silent. I learn later that, according to Buddhist philosophy, noisy eating might stir jealous feelings of the less fortunate. The meal must be eaten humbly and with careful consideration for all other beings. We are also instructed to hold the bowl up over our faces while shoveling rice into our mouths. This hides the fact that we’re chewing. Be discreet. Don’t flaunt. Don’t take too much. Don’t ever take more than you can eat. Eat with your mouth closed and bowl over your face.

     While stuffing big bites of rice and salted, dried seaweed into my mouth, I keep my bowl low to the ground so I can scrutinize the head monk’s every move, impressed by his ease of flaunting the ability to eat modestly.

     The monk whispers into K-Pop’s ear. She, in turn, signals for the next adoptee to spring into action. Everyone turns my way, and for some reason, I suddenly become nervous at the realization that it’s my turn to serve the next part of the ceremony. I gulp and then roll over to my knees to stand, hoping all the while that my fanny purse with passport and Korean coins won’t spill out. 

There’s only one pot left. I hobble over to the monk and grab the giant tea kettle on my way to approaching him first. He raises the brown bowl up to his forehead, and on cue, I pour water into the bowl until he gently shimmies it, which indicates that he has enough. I do the same thing for the Korean pop-star and then for everyone else without causing too much of a stir. I head back to my depressed pillow proud of myself for not making a mess.

     By the time I’m done, everyone has finished the last step of the ritual, which is to pour the water from the largest bowl in descending order to the smallest, rinsing out remnants as we go, and then using the radish disc to scrub out each bowl, to at least sipping the remaining filmy water. Ideally, nothing should be left; and as a consequence, nothing needs to be poured into the communal pot for all of us to divide. If no contents need to be poured into the communal pot, then that means that no one has selfishly asked for too much, and we’ve perfected the ritual. However, if the communal pot gets filled, then that is considered “sinful.”

     By the time I sit, everyone else has already finished the rinsing of the bowls, the remaining step of the ritual. On the other hand, my bowl still runneth over with rice, mung bean broth, kimchi, and radishes—and I really don't have the appetite to eat it. This means that everyone will have to eat and drink my leftovers. The thought worries me.

The Korean pop-star instructs me to pour my leftovers into the pot. The other adoptees will then be required to slurp up my scraps, and I don’t like the sound of that.

      “They have to drink my leftovers?” I ask to make sure that what I'm thinking is true and I won't accept the idea.

The Korean pop-star nods. 

     “My leftovers go into that pot?” I point to the shiny chrome bucket in front of everyone. “But why?” I ask, still in disbelief. It’s unfair to them, and it can’t be sanitary. 

     The Korean pop-star repeats my question to the monk who says something in Korean... Then she nods at me.

     “It’s part of the ceremony,” The Korean pop-star says. With a middle finger, she pushes J-Lo glasses back onto her nose.

     “But why?” I just can’t comprehend the importance of such an act. “What’s the point?”

     The doting adoptee looks toward the head monk, who frowns at me. They think I’m trying to be funny, but I’m totally serious. 

     Looking into my bowl, I notice fat rice morsels, yellow radish discs, kimchi, seaweed, and mung beans float in a salted broth, and the thought that others will have to feed off of my meal makes me feel guilty and repulsed. “What if I have a lot leftover?” 

     The Korean pop-star and the monk exchange knowing glances. 

     “It has to be poured into the communal pot because it’s part of the ritual.”

     “But what if my bowl is full?”

     The Korean pop-star says. “You have to pour it into the communal pot. Everyone must drink it.”

     I can feel my sister’s eyes on me. 

     “But I don’t want everyone to drink it.” Now, I am even surprised over the way I’m acting. 

The doting adoptee angrily stares at me. I can sense that I’m ruining this revered formal procedure for her. I’m displaying a blunt disrespect toward the Buddhists' holy ritual, and they think I’m a clown for not faithfully following along. (It’s probably comparable to a “foreigner” refusing to drink the “blood of Christ” during communion after concluding the idea as ludicrous. Rarely has anyone had the audacity to question the disciples.) At this moment, making everyone drink my leftovers just does not seem right or fair. 

     “The monk wants to see your bowl.” The Korean pop-star tells me. Everyone watches me clumsily get up from the pillow, waddle toward him, and lower my bowl for him to peek inside.

     He nods and grunts. The adoptees behind me snicker even though I seriously do not intend to be rude.

     By the time I’m back on my pillow, the Korean pop-star gives me further directions. “Pour the rest of the contents into the pot. And the others will not have to drink your remains.”

     I abide, immediately jumping up to dump the leftover sludge. The slop makes a sick slapping sound when it hits the bottom of the pot. While doing so, the K-Pop gal goes on to confide, according to the monks, that it has been the Russian students who were the most impressive of all the groups who’ve ever practiced this ritual.

     Insulted, the group of us adoptees grumble and mumble amongst ourselves.

     At last, the ceremony is almost over. Using just our thumbs as tongs, we’re supposed to hook them to the sides of each bowl and quietly stack each one inside each other, wrap our wooden eating utensils into the linen cloth, secure the brown sash around the top, making a compact package, and gently fold the white stained napkin to the top for the next group of tourists. But because we adoptees are sloppier than most tourists, we’re instructed to wash out our bowls.

     A temple adherent tosses a plastic tub brimming with bright pink sponges in the middle of our group. Like school children, we immediately comply, and there is a quandary of diligent activity. Along with everyone else, I find back my bowl, unwrap the cloth, pour the soap into it, scrub and rinse.

     We become fully American again, our voices are loud; embellished by a ton of rambunctious talking and laughter.

     After we break into noise, chaos erupts: Kaboom! Crash! Bang!

     All the adoptees flash around to find that the good adoptee has accidentally stepped into a tray of kimchi side dishes. Red chili sauces spill onto the tan floor tiles, leaving a pungent smell and a bright stain. She then steps out of the mess, leaving a red trail with bare feet. All of us scramble to clean the mess, not realizing we’re spreading the rancid red chili paste around the floor with the white ceremonial cloths—the only towels available.

     We leave the area, feeling more nonKorean than ever. On the way out, we fumble around, trying to locate the same pair of slippers we arrived in. 

     Onto the next ritual, my sister snickers when she tells me the latest blunder made by the Buddhist clergy. “The monks inadvertently woke the guys up at three in the morning, instead of four, like they were supposed to.”

The adoptees mingle inside what feels like a holding cell and wait for instructions. “What are we going to do now?” Jenette asks the monk.

     “Pray.”

     “I don’t want to pray.” My sister blatantly says.

     Meanwhile, I along with the rest of the group, obediently gather around and down onto flat pillows. 

     “How long are we going to be doing this?” My sister asks.

     “Two hours.” The monk sits next to the bowl of a lotus bath, ready to ladle tea into cups and ruminate on the lotus flower. 

     “Why can’t we ask questions about Buddhism? Maybe we can have a discussion group of some sort.” My sister ponders aloud,       

     “I want to know what Buddhists think about adoption.”

     I, too, wonder if adoptees have the support of Buddhists. Since there is a long history of Buddhists being persecuted by non-Buddhists, I wonder if they understand that children—children who could have been potential Buddhists—have been missing for the last 50 years since the American farming couple took the lead to set-up S. Korea’s Child Protection System. International adoption has become a covert and conveniently "nice" way to wipe out Buddhism. Do Buddhists know this? And do they care?  Or did they copy the evangelical farming couple's proselytizing idealism—the way the Protestants copied and competed with the  Catholics for children from Europe to the Americas since the 1850s and such?

     By the time we’re all seated and silent, Jenette proceeds into a series of questions that have to do with international adoption. She wants to know how Buddhists feel about the organized effort of processing children overseas, whether they believe any changes need to be made, how they feel about separated families, and do they believe this activity is right? Some of the other adoptees, I notice, are interested in his answer as well.

     Jenette’s curiosity, however, is lost in translation when we hear through the Korean pop-star that the head monk answers, “Only comedians ask so many questions.” 

     I want to counter that only "authorities" avoid questions—especially when they don’t have the answers, but I keep that thought to myself. How does he expect to “wake us up” when he’s still in the dark about the situation?

     The monk gives us a bunch of shoulds to follow. He tells us that in Korean tradition, the child should carry the parents on his or her back, a sign of consideration for the parents. In the adoptee’s case, we’re given two sets of parents. Only seeing the superficial images of our lives, he tells us we should honor both of them. His comment enrages me. What gives him the right to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. What if the two sets of parents hate each other? What if they force us to choose between them?      What if all four parents disagree and dishonor each other? What if they fail to get along? What if one set of parents think they're better than the other? What if neither had respect for us in the first place? 

     While the head monk expands on what we should and should not do (as if we’re still children), I visualize wearing my Korean parents and my adoptive parents on my back. The four of them drag me down with their baggage. The idea that children being solely responsible to honor and respect their parents angers me. It’s the parents’ responsibility to honor their children in the first place. If the parents have earned it, then children would most likely honor their parents in return. For every action, there is a reaction.

     The monk’s instructions are interrupted by a mini Buddhist chant emitted into the solemn space. The monk searches himself as if looking for a pack of cigarettes or a lighter, and we eventually learn that the noise is coming from his back pajama-like pocket. 

The monk flips open his cell and takes the call, interrupting his very own ceremony. “An-nyung haseyo. An-nyunghee zoomoo syut-suyo. . . . Zal zee-naemneeda. Daedanhee gomabseumneeda. Dangseeneun udduseyo.” Hello. Good morning. . . . I’m okay. Thanks. And you?

     While we wait for the monk, the adoptee next to me discreetly snaps a photo of him and then whispers, “I’ll email it to you.”