Returning, Remembering

5 Jun

Monday, I was walking through Namdaemun Market.  It can feel touristy at times when packs of foreigners come wandering through, eyes wide in confused terror when an ajumma starts trying to lure them into their store in guttural Korean.  Even though, as person who wields a Alien Registration Card, I prefer not to think of myself as one of them, I have come to accept that I am indeed not much higher on the list in the locals’ eyes.  Their ancestors have civilized this place for about 4000 years, which makes my time here about the equivalent of a geologic second.

But there was one pair that stood out beyond others.  They were not expats.  That was obvious enough from the camera bag and general amazement with which they gazed upon the chaos.  They were father and son, I realized, and they were here for one purpose.  They had not been lured to Korea’s shores as newcomers by the glossy and sensuous photographs of the government’s tourist campaign.  The father was too old to be traveling.  The skin sagged beneath his eyes and chin. He moved very slowly and stiffly, reactions delayed, his head and eyes searching languidly about.  Only one reason could have gotten a man of his age and condition to come to Korea.  It was because it was not his first time here.  Last time he must have held an M1 Garand in his hands.

It was Memorial Day in America and here he was, seeing the place where he had served, 60 years on.  The last time he had been here, things were simpler, both at home and in Korea.  He had been in his youth, too, better able to take on the difficulties and challenges of the world.  But now he was older and everything had changed.  Perhaps he recognized the faces and some of the smells, but the sights surely baffled him.  Who where these plasticized pop stars adorning posters in the shop front?  What about the racks and racks of acid wash jeans, hoodies with ink-splatter designs, and knock-off soccer jerseys?  He had seen changes in his own country but those had been more gradual.  Perhaps he had rued them but accepted them grudgingly.  But how could he come back to this land and expect to know it?  The contrast between the two was too great.   He was paralyzed not by the immense excitement of choice but by the perishing of any sense of familiarity.

Was this what he had fought for?  That is a question that echoes in many veteran’s minds, even about their own country. But had he given part of his youth and the lives of his friends for all this?  A consumer paradise of slick sameness, appearance glossing over substance, where if you stopped a passerby and asked about the North, they might shrug and call them brothers?  Was it good for him to see this place and understand what it had become, a busy land of square pegs in square holes, consuming, growing, and getting rich without a thought to the cost?  Or would he rather have remembered Korea as a poor, torn country that had nowhere else to look for salvation except to his country in the prime of its might?

His son guided him about, walking next to the old man, pointing down some arcades:  “Dad, let’s go there.”  His son could not have known the things his father saw.  But he knew he had to marshal his father carefully through this jungle, one beyond the understanding of the old breed.  I turned away for a minute and then lost sight of them in the masses, who did not know their story and passed them by without a glance.

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