Archive | March, 2010

Hwangsa Breaths

20 Mar

This is the view from my apartment building’s balcony about 6:30 this evening:

Mind you, that’s not a normal twilight.  The sun is still up but its last remaining rays are blotted out by the the yellow dust, or hwangsa as it is called in Korean.  When I emerged from work today, the city had an distinct yellow pallor to it.  The air seemed thick and heavy; I could barely make out a huge church at the top of the hill at the end of the street.  No wonder my throat had been feeling bad the past few days.

The camera, when set on its Intelligent Auto function, actually cuts through the haze surprisingly well, and the exposure comes out much lighter.  I took the first photo on manual to give you a better sense of how it appeared to the eye.  The second photo should show you how many more buildings there are behind that initial row, buildings which I can normally see perfectly but are obscured today by the dust.

What is hwangsa?  It is dust or sand that has blown off of China’s deserts and carries on the wind, reaching Korea and often Japan as well.  China’s northern regions are experiencing desertification on a rapid scale.  Though both the Chinese and South Korean governments have tried to work together to stop the process by planting trees, little seems to stop the process.  So the dust will continue to blow over the Yellow Sea and deposit itself on Korea’s shores, bringing with it all the heavy metals and other pollutants picked up from China’s contaminated atmosphere.

I thought about a comment I had heard from the great French anthropologist Rene Girard.  He said that the necessity of questioning whether it is nature or man who is responsible for impending disaster or doom is what it means to live in truly apocalyptic times.  With every labored, coughing breath, we may find that he was right.


My Neighbors

9 Mar

The residents of my apartment building are a mixed bunch.  Some families with a child or two, maybe with grandma or grandpa hanging around, too.  There was one old fellow whose whole left side was paralyzed by a stroke, yet every day he made it to the elevator, down to the first, and did a couple of laps around the lobby, literally inching along, dragging his limp left leg as best he could.  I just realized he’s gone; I haven’t seen in a few months.  Maybe the old bird passed on.  A sad thought, he was a tenacious one.

But there are also lots of single businessmen in the building as well.  I think that characterizes my immediate neighbors well. I rarely if ever actually see him.  Most contact is auditory.  The man who lives to the left of me was yelling and shouting one day and I heard tables and chairs being knocked around.  Hopefully he wasn’t beating a woman, because it certainly sounded like it.  On New Year’s, there was a raucous party over there.  They had long, heated conversations which tapered off every now and then.  There would be long periods of silence.  Then another energetic  and deafening outburst, perhaps every thirty or forty minutes until almost seven in the morning.  I could just imagine a graveyard of empty soju bottles scattered across a wooden floor strewn with the bodies of hammered Korean men, intertwined and dozing in their high school girl-like slumber party.

My neighbor across the hall is a nice guy.  At least, I guess.  I met him in the elevator when he was drunk.  In typical Korean man fashion, he tried to invite me in to drink beer with him, but I had people to meet.  Poor guy, I thought, he has no one to talk to.  Must be lonely.  Well, I think he had plenty of company last night.  For over thirty minutes he attempted to enter his apartment.  Part of the reason it took so long was because he was so drunk he forgot his electronic door code.  It kept telling him it was the wrong combination.  But his attempts were continually interrupted by long smooches with the prostitute who accompanied him, her giggles seeping under my door and into my tired ears.  Then perhaps he tickled or pinched her and she ran off down the hall with a pouty shout, her heels echoing off the tile floors until, a few minutes later, she came back and he tried to enter the code again, to no avail.  At about 2:27, I heard a triumphal shout from the man and a laugh from the hooker and then went into the apartment, slamming the door and yanking the door handle up to lock it, the handle bouncing up and down from the force.

All around me, less than twenty feet in either direction, are people living out their lives in totally different paths.  And we do not know one another except by our intrusive proclivities.   My neighbors are the drunken businessmen.  Maybe they know me as the damn round-eye playing Mogwai at 3 AM.  We never see each other and never meet and have very little reason to, for the proclivities we do see from others are only the ones that intrude, not the ones that endear.  Proximity does not breed trust.  It merely pushes us to find greater space in non-physical ways.

A Study In Faces

7 Mar

Older Korean men fascinate me.  They are simultaneously my greatest opponents and greatest friends here.  They give you nasty, hostile looks and curse at the loud, impure foreigners.  They will also approach you, assume that you want to be friends, talk to you in English without any fear, and invite you to drink and eat or hike with them (or sometimes they just invite themselves to join you).  They almost all have fascinating faces.  If that’s what you want to see, there is no better place than Seoul Racecourse Park.

Horse racing in the United States is a bit different from Korea.  Not that there is a lack of intensity in either place.  But in America there’s almost always alcohol involved.  It becomes a drinking show as well as entertainment, with some serious bettors on the side.  The races here permit no such frivolity.  The Kentucky Derby might be decadent and depraved, but, in Korea, it’s strictly business.

There is no alcohol allowed, no relaxation or revelry seen.  Instead, crowds of old men stand or squat with racing forms, pouring over them like Byzantine scribes over intricate illuminated texts, making cryptic squiggles on the paper with a black felt tip marker.  There is no laughing or idle conversation. Everyone is completely focused on their form or the electronic screens that display changes in the odds.  They push and shove to get to the betting window before time runs out.  

Race time comes and all the old men pour out onto the balcony to watch the horses spend about a minute sprinting around the track.  They all light cigarettes, perhaps due to the lack of booze.  They need to steady their nerves.  Cigarette ash flurries around your head and covers your coat like a blizzard.  As the horses come around into the home stretch, the roar of voices raises.  The din is never triumphant or excited, just full of sheer agitation and not a little bit of anger.  No cheering as the horses cross the finish line, just disgusted hocks of spit from the throat and a dejected return inside to prepare for the ordeal of the next race.

These guys are not rich but they are dealing in considerable sums of money.  Drew witnessed a man put 80,000 won down on a bet.  Where do they get the money?  Are the wife and kiddies having to knuckle under and eat a little more kimchi and rice instead of more substantial food because daddy blew the rest of the month’s budget on an unlucky Quintella-Place?  But some guys hit it big.  I watched one man collect 1,100,000 won from what appeared to be a single ticket.  That’s almost exactly $1000.  What he must have put on the line to get that payoff must have been considerable.

The day finishes with no grand finale.  The old men, having blown their money, crumple up their vouchers, toss them to the ground, and leave without a word, as grim and serious in their departure as in their calculated betting.  The track is not entertainment or enjoyment, just straightforward gambling, reducing chance to a mechanical process, despite its caprices.  But they’ll be back.