The Master

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

I slept soundly my second night at Mr. Kim's museum-like home in the countryside of Cheju Island. In the morning, the gong again signalled my call to breakfast. I joined the others, we ate rice, had our instant coffee with powdered creamer, and some enjoyed smokes. Mr. Kim arose and motioned for me to follow. We headed out to the back "yard" again. But this time, instead of lighting a fire under the rice stalk boiling vat, he lit a fire under two 50-gallon drums. The drums were 3/4 full of water. When the water was bubbling real good, he added some different ingredients to each. He explained that he was experimenting with new ways to make additional colors. In addition to the persimmon juice, he used red earth to make different shades of brown, coal to make black, and much more. It didn't feel like work, but I guess that's the nature of the traditional dyeing business.

We stood around stirring the boiling colored water for a couple hours. I put a white T-Shirt of mine in to see how it might turn out (it came out kind of green except for the armpits where my body oils prevented the dye from taking hold). He smoked and fielded my questions with good humor. He liked talking about the process of dyeing fabric, and about things traditional. He liked watching fire burn. I was uncomfortable calling him Mr. Kim all the time so I asked him what I should call him. He told me to call him "사부" (I had to look it up). He has been "The Master" to me ever since.

He wasn't very forthcoming about his background, but I did manage to pry some high level history. His father was a ship captain in the Mokpo area, teaching at a Mokpo Maritime University; he was now passed on. His mom lived near Cheju City at that time. The Master was in Gwangju in 1980 and saw friends of his killed by the military. Like many others, he blamed the Americans for the massacre, and that shaped his worldview for many years. He once told me that if he had met me 10 years earlier he would have ended me on the spot.

After the Gwangju massacre, he was known to the government for his anti-Americanism and anti-government statements. So he "went to the mountain." He spent 10 years somewhere in the Jiri Mountain area reading, studying at the feet of a mentor, and living life in a more simple way. 10 years. And that is how one gets to become a Master.

The lunch gong pulled us away from the boiling drums and fascinating conversation. We ate and I suggested it was time for me to get back up to Seoul. The Master told me I should stay longer. And so I did.

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