The Neighborhood

25 Oct

My neighborhood is a market.  There are no grandiose arcades with covered ceilings like some of the bigger ones; this is more of a street where all the local businesses congregate.  The market prides itself on a diverse array of offerings, but in truth there’s not much variety.  Businesses are either fruit and vegetable sellers, butchers, tofu and noodle makers, one of a whole host of fried chicken takeaways, phone stores, or hair salons.  Throw in the obligatory taekwondo academy and a couple two-room, top-floor churches and you’ve got a neighborhood that could be in any Korean city.  I do enjoy living here, in a perverted sense; it is dirty Korea at its finest.  There is nothing polished, high-tech, fake, or slickly-marketed about it.  There is only true Korea, how these people get on in their daily lives, lives that most of us would fear and recriminate ourselves for falling into.

Walking through the market, you get a feel for the different characters who inhabit the place.  There is the lazy 20-something guy at the discount mart.  He runs a cash register in theory, but really is glued to his smartphone most of the time.  You immediately gravitate to another register upon noticing this, which only reinforces his perception that he’s not needed.  He doesn’t stay behind the register, though.  He lazily wanders about near his station, bumps into things, takes lots of smoke breaks near the fresh produce outside, and in general keeps a sharp eye out for any work ethic sneaking up on him.  Another guy is like that, down the street a bit.  His haircut is ghastly: buzzed on one half, the long strands flopping over from the other side and forward.  His glasses are those enormous black, square-framed ones popular with both sexes here and which are surely a highly effective form of birth control.  This guy is always smoking, poking away at his own smartphone, while the girls in the butcher shop dutifully set up for the day.  Sometimes he starts up the motorbike to ride a mere hundred yards down the street to another store, smoking a cigarette all the way.

Another staple is the autistic guy who’s perpetually wheeling around on his bike.  I’ve never seen him off of it.  He’s got a half-dozen cable locks of different colors hanging from the handlebars.  He always wears gardening gloves, a collared shirt, and talks to himself most of the time.  He’s young, perhaps just out of high school, and one wonders what, if any, hope there is for him here.  Do his parents turn him out to ride around because they’re working all day?  Or because they don’t want to deal with him, the embarrassing autistic who will do nothing for the family name?

At one of the fried chicken places there’s a young woman who works alongside her father.  She’s a part of that strangely Korean phenomenon, the cute girl working an ordinary service job.  Never in America would you ask a girl behind a convenience store counter for her number, but you’d absolutely consider it in this country.  The girl’s father shows her the ropes of blasting the birds in boiling oil.  One time he had an enormous mug of beer and, after a gulp, shoved it over to her and told her to drink some.  She tried to refuse, but he kept jamming it in her face until she took a drink, all while flipping the frying chickens.

The old vegetable grandmas are a sight and are perhaps the starkest reminder of the roots of this country.  Burnt brown, the lines on their faces deeper than cigarette wrinkles, some of them are in their 70s or 80s.  They squat on the pavement, cabbage, roots, sweet potatos spread out on a blue tarp.  At the end of the day, they’ll put in all in an enormous bundle, drag it aboard the bus, and leave the bundle sitting in a aisle as they head back out to their farm on the outskirts of the city.  They are truly the old lost amongst the new.  They have seen their country go from under Japan’s heel to liberation to war with their brethren to military dictators and now prosperity unfathomable in their youth.  They grew up with wood fires and will die with LEDs.

The most sobering sight in all the market, though, is the cripples.  Harsh word, but here, that’s what they are.  Legs missing, always the legs.  There must be an unbelievable rate of workplace accidents here.  Strangely, I’ve never seen one of them with prosthetics.  Anyone who’s been down a street in Seoul has seen the ones rolling down the sidewalk on a cart, begging, but it’s more bothersome when they’re your neighbor, not even bothering for a handout.  One guy just sits in a wheelchair outside my alleyway somedays, both legs gone, smoking away, a thousand-yard stare in his eyes.

I see some real, honest-to-God bad shit like that where I live.  This ain’t news on TV or in a glossy National Geographic special.  This is the human price for progress combined with man’s eternal condition, in your face.  This is the dumping ground for the working class and the least fortunate of the petite bourgeois.  These people are on the losing end of the modern system.  They’re pinched for money, with food prices up, kindergartens, hagwons, and taekwondo for the kids, ridiculous sums for phones and other electronics that are ‘must-haves,’ and a culture which demands you look like who you wish people thought you were.

Want examples?  My neighboring apartment building has a pipe that vents waste water into the dying grass between their building and ours; the neighbors across the alley have jury rigged electrical wires running from the roof into their living room window; I’ve killed cockroaches in the street as they crawl across the road from one infested house to another; and my landlord leaves unbound bags of his personal trash outside my door.  Yet someone around me drives a new silver Hyundai Genesis.  He parks it right outside where people just pile their garbage and recycling (because there are no dumpsters) that waits for some grandma to pick through it at 3 a.m. in the hopes of finding a few won worth of scrap.  I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten keyed yet.  The pretension amidst the dirt, trash, cracked concrete, and pollution-blackened bricks is unbelievable.

My neighbor’s backyard sump.

That’s disappointing, but not heinous, though.  There are indeed worse things that take place.  I’ve seen domestic violence cases in the street outside.  The husband was arguing with his wife, screaming at her and shoving her around, right below my window.  In fact, everyone’s windows were open, I’m sure every family around heard it.  No one did or said anything.  Eventually the husband literally drags his wife off to their apartment.  A few days later, I saw a moving van packing up all their stuff.

The worst incident might have been the time my girlfriend and I found a guy, face smashed in, bleeding out of his nose, lying unconscious at the end of my alley in the full-on morning sun.  People just walked past.  When we called the police, the dispatcher chewed out my girlfriend, saying it wasn’t their problem to clean people up.  “He can go to a hospital, you know,” said the dispatcher.  Thankfully a benevolent policeman found out and came by to take care of the poor guy.  The horrific part was that the man had surely been laying there since the night before and yet no one, not even the owners of the cars that had been parked next to him, had done anything.

At times, the absurdity of the neighborhood can be amusing.  My girlfriend and I ran into a crazy woman who’d wandered away from her daughter’s house in the middle of the night.  She kept saying, “No Tae Woo (노태우) is killing my son!  Oh, he’s hitting my son in the face!”  I have no idea what made her think a former president jailed for anti-democratic excesses would have a vendetta against her son.  Maybe it was latent, suppressed fears from all those years ago finally worming their way to the surface.

Walking around, seeing the nice clothes people wear, the fancy electronics they tout, and yet the narrow artifice in which they reside and the unabashedly unfair and at times brutal events around them, reveals a different side to the Korea projected into the world.  The rest of Asia sees Girls Generation, Big Bang, and dramas full of gorgeous, successful people.  I see only stunted lives.  These people are not going to escape this shitty neighborhood.  The boom days of wild growth that lifted up Korea as a whole are done.  They are saddled with debt, so they can’t borrow their way to a better tomorrow.  Progress will be on the margins.  And these poor people will be stuck here, working ten, twelve, maybe fourteen hours a day, six (maybe seven) days a week, fifty-one weeks a year, hoping for a better tomorrow for their kids, but not seeing it pan out.

This is reality.  This is the hard fact that not everyone wins first draw in the lottery of life.  It’s fucking unfair, but it’s how it is.

I will leave this town knowing that fact forever.  Yet none of us can remember merely the bad; we inevitably find some good in every situation, even if it means inflating that good beyond its actual proportion to the bad.  I will always remember the small pleasantries that occurred here and there, in spite of the brokenness: the families strolling about; the hordes of schoolkids, always separated into boys and girls; the laughs and shouting; the music blaring from shopfronts into the street; the neon; the smell of fresh fish; even the reeking bags full of dirty toilet paper, tied up on the corner next to a fruit stand.  This is, through and through, Korea.

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