Upon entering Myun Young High School for boys, Ms. Jeong instructs me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of the communal plastic sandals stacked in rows along worn wooden racks. She leads me up the four flights to the teachers’ room where in the stairwell we traverse passed onrushing throngs of greasy, pockmarked boys. Sporadically one bursts “hello,” or “fuck you,” and anonymously giggles onwards in the swarm of disheveled school uniforms. Ms. Jeong pretends to ignore them, while I smile uncertainly and struggle not to catch my suit pants in the back of my slippers.
We enter a large teachers’ room and walk passed a teacher berating two boys. He is purple-faced and screaming down at them inches from their sobbing faces. Walking down the main corridor another student curls on the cracked linoleum floor as two teachers take turns clubbing him with sticks. It reminds me of the Rodney King beating. Neither Ms. Jeong nor the scattered teachers shuffling papers at their desks takes notice. Further down a student lays motionless with his hands on the floor and elbows locked as if about to perform a push-up, but his legs are propped up high behind him in a window’s ledge so his torso is propelled downward at a 45-degree. He struggles not to collapse. A teacher momentarily spins around in his wheeled chair and inspects the boy approvingly.
At the end of the hall a benevolently beaming Mr. Li bows towards us in welcome, introducing himself as Myun Young’s head English teacher.
Sparing any social graces of small talk, he cranes his neck and closes his eyes in sudden deep thought, and then asks in broken, slurred English if you can use the word “homework” as a verb. Trying to match his intensity and sternness, I carefully respond that I don’t think so. And then more definitively I confirm that in fact you cannot. He nods firmly as if the matter is settled. But he again suddenly falls captive to his subconscious, and begins audibly humming with perplexity before finally querying, “Which is better to say, my mother likes to farm or my mother likes farming?” Before I can answer, his train of thought is interrupted by the school bell, and following its command brusquely turns to gather a textbook, cassette recorder and wooden switch. “This is a ‘love stick,’” he burbles, and hands me the items. “If a student is sleeping you hit the hands or the neck.” And he demonstrates with a closed fist in the air the desired force, and smiles.
I follow him and Ms. Jeong into a classroom of 50 or 60 unruly boys, who as we enter scatter towards their desks or lunge awake from deep sleep before all abruptly standing at attention. Mr. Li shouts at a few of them disinterestedly as he walks to the lectern where he continues hollering.
When he introduces me his demeanor softens, his countenance becoming near angelic, which makes him appear only the more maniacal. Mr. Li instructs the group to be seated and open their books.
From atop the platform I gaze across the dim room into the blur of indistinguishable faces. My pulsating nerves replace any desire for the moment to pass, which for days has been percolating with dread. I feel unfamiliarly vulnerable standing on stage in front of a room of strangers and sweating in a suit and slippers, but I finally manage to wobble and blurt out, “Good morning.” In unison a thunderous chorus echoes back my greeting.
Mr. Li observes the students with militant scrutiny and Ms. Jeong cues the cassette.
“Charlie knows those boys swimming in the river,” the tape blares and then continues to crackle in silence.
Ms. Jeong signals the go-ahead for me to repeat this to the class, and so I do. “Charlie knows those boys swimming in the river.” And the group bursts back at me in a garbled refrain. I peer at the open book on the podium and find these words written under Exercise 1, Question 1.
Question 2 reads, “Some of the boys are Charlie’s pupils.” And then through weak tweeters this sentence becomes audible. So I repeat it now too.
“Some of the boys are Charlie’s pupils,” the boys roar back.
Either satisfied or bored, Mr. Li leaves the room and Ms. Jeong dutifully follows. I could not be more relieved. I hit ‘Stop’ on the cassette and return to the front of the room.
“How are you?” I shout with a smile.
“How are you!” they bellow back with broken laughter.
The dank room quickly exudes some levity.
It is surreal and fantastic. With this liberation a compulsion comes over me, and without hesitation I am just compelled to yelp, ”Fuck you!”
Nothing has ever sounded as distinctly beautiful as a packed house screaming ‘Fuck you’ at me. Seventeen years later it still fondly resonates.
I playfully raise the ‘love stick’ as to strike, and the animated boys relax in the hilarity.
This is my first time in Asia, and I have been in Kangnung only two days, and this is the first class I have ever taught.
Struggling with each step to stay upright between the high boulders, I soon realize there is no easy path out. I am now well out of sight of the funeral, if in fact that’s what it even is. But I eventually wedge my way to an overlook between several of the jagged rocks and peer down upon the gathering. From this vantage point I see the dirt clearing and road approaching from afar. And on the landing there are about half a dozen men in plain clothes seated in a circle, including the two who stole the cameras. Behind them an open-pit fire blazes. Closest to where the boulders begin to ascend a large stone slab cuts into the mountainside, which was not before visible from the ground below.
The smooth stone is where the body must lie, where the monk slices open the deceased and eagles descend to tear off shreds of the caucus before returning skyward.
Still crouched and peaking out, I am startled and lose my footing when with full force a brown eagle swoons upon me. Its wingspan seems enormous, maybe four or five feet as it suddenly materializes from above. But thankfully sensing I am not prey, within a claw’s reach of my head it abruptly banks at ninety degrees and perches atop a nearby rock.
It is only now I notice the mountainside is covered with eagles. There must be a thousand of them. With the occasional exception of one hopping to reposition itself, in meditative stillness they occupy nearly every stony crest, a camouflaged breathing feature in the landscape.
Completely overwhelmed, I do not move. An accidental intruder in their nest, I have to settle myself in for the duration.
Over the next several hours, clusters of mourners sporadically arrive by both foot and SUV. No one stays long. They acknowledge the circle of hosts and then one by one approach the stone and kneel in prayer for a few moments.
Crouched low and propped against a high rock, I am able to achieve partial shade while maintaining a full view of the processions. The eagles watch too.
Then three monks approach the site. They are quite a distance away, and it takes them a good half hour to get to the mountain. Upon their reaching the foot of the cliff, the eagles begin to rouse and quiver.
If by telepathic command, all of the eagles then simultaneously rise in majestic flight.
They soon flap and swerve in gigantic circles overhead, around and around, whipping themselves into formation and darkening the overhead sky and sun.
The monks reach the mourners but walk passed them directly to the stone and begin to conduct a series of bows and prayers.
Finally they rise and pause in completion.
As if choreographed to their movement, the circling flock of eagles converges, and like taking form on a potters wheel, an upward spiraling cone emerges. The monks steadily exit. Departing to their cue, the now hive of birds accelerates towards the sun, and with the monks, eventually waning into the Himalayan horizon.
In July 1998 attending a sky burial in Lhasa was off limits to foreigners, Han Chinese and government officials. At a downtown café I meet three Chinese tourists, the two women of whom are better dressed for the mall than stone streets at perilous altitudes. I skeptically accept the offer to join them in their quest to glimpse the ritual, leery that their handbags and heels don’t make them the most stealth of folk.
A half hour later we approach the ceremonial site, which is a vast pebbled expanse. Beyond this and to the left is a hill of boulders, and on the right the rocks partially plateau. There are a few people gathered around a bonfire, they are too far to make them out or what they were doing, but I guess this is part of the ceremony. A dry dirt road from the right slowly rises to them from the hazy distance, and I barely discern two or three others approaching the incline by foot.
As we stroll closer I instinctively meander toward the back of the group and lower my head, perhaps more aware than they that we are exposed in plain sight. One of the women bursts with the observation of bones scattered amid the rocks around us. And I start noticing them too though they are more like shards and really not identifiable.
The women then start snapping photographs. Two men from the raised expanse have already barreled down the gravel slope, the first one within moments away before we can react. And once he reaches us, without a word he forcibly confiscates the cameras before hurrying back. His companion is stopped and watching purposefully from the near distance. They then nonchalantly return to their party.
My three Chinese companions go back in the direction from which we came to complain. They don’t stand a chance. Continuing my nonplussed swagger, I saunter off toward the boulders thinking that there is another way out from around the left.