Tag Archives: life

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.


Only Work

27 Apr

“Everyone in my generation wants to enjoy their life.  But not old Koreans.  The only thing they know is how to work.”

Driving idly through a tiny village, the comment instantly seemed the most insightful thing I’d heard in weeks.  Looking at the farmhouses a mere meter away from the open passenger window, I knew she was right.  Here we were, out looking for peace and solace, looking to smell magnolias and see bees again.  And there they were, 65 or 70 years old, still hoeing rows, planting cabbage, draining paddocks.  They had faces like jerky from spending every last day out in the sun.   There were no young faces, only old ones.  Their homes and outbuildings were spruced up with fresh white paint, perhaps even aluminum siding and a yard walled in with that ubiquitous lime-green fencing.  But they were old souls themselves.

They only know how to work.  The poverty of early- and mid-century Korea left them little choice if they were to survive.  Feeding an ever-more affluent yet crowded nation keeps them at it.

The only pity I felt for them, though, was that their families had moved on, probably to the bright city lights a couple of valleys away.  To toil is one thing, but to toil alone in your old age is another.  Yet, despite that, despite the fact that they knew only work, I felt not only respect but affirmation for their position.  They could fill every hour, every day with useful acts.  They had not the leisure that she and I did, as we passed through the village and up the mountain to hike.  But weren’t we in search of what they already had, a tranquil place to do something useful with ourselves?

Ah, but the difference was that our effort was an escape, an anodyne for a day.  Theirs was an act of living.  They needed no delineation between work and play, because play could take them no place more desirable.

*          *          *

In a real, practical, earthly sense, yes, they are the better ones.  A hard life, but a true one.  I have swung a hammer, picked fruit, cut trees to make ends meet, and have no illusions about what such an existence entails.  Could I make a life like theirs?  Doubtful. I don’t have that strength or temperament, for better or worse.  I am too ensconced in the complexities of the world.  The necessities of life demand it.

That necessity of living, that is the issue.  The food in our mouths, the clothes on our backs demand we adapt ourselves in some way.  Be we creatures of artifice or nature, we work and order ourselves to get what we need.  And we lose something for it.

Life, as Frederic Bastiat pointed out, demands that one’s person, property, and liberty be secure.  Life cannot be had even if two exist and one does not.  The struggles of our world are frequently over who shall control these things.  If we are to live freely, then certainly they must be our own.

But even if we have all three, even if our political and social liberty is perfected, our own ultimate liberty cannot be.  Even a hard-working, simple-living man who is spiritually and bodily whole and independent, who has not sacrificed himself for soulless modern life, is not free.  Existence demands his toil.  His life is more natural and rewarding than ours, but it is toil nonetheless.  He is still bound.

No matter the system, no matter the promises made by our betters, no matter the good we may find and champion, it all falls short.  We all wish to wander at whim, doing as we feel without concern for need.  Free as a bird, as the wind, bound by nothing, needing nothing, that is one of man’s deepest desires.  The lack of that freedom stings him more than anything on this earth, perhaps even more than lost love.

My armpits suddenly itched.  Ah, it was where my imitation wings had split out.  The wings that I had no longer; the deleted phantasms of hope and ambition flashed in my mind like the flipping pages of a pocket dictionary.

I stopped my pace and wanted to shout.

Wings, spread out again!

Fly.  Fly.  Fly.  Let me fly once more.

Let me fly once more.

– Yi Sang

Korea: Life in Pictures

6 Sep
Bundang Skyline.
Bundang Skyline.

Everywhere you turn here, the sky will be scraped by an immense high-rise.  It will have a ridiculous name, wholly un-Korean: Royal Palace, Pantheon, Zenith, Pavilion, Paragon, Park View.  All are built by a massive corporation: SK, Samsung, We’ve, LG, or Doosan.  They are the future of humanity, where everyone is packed in close, separated by tiny walls, yet a million miles away from understanding their neighbors.  Food and education are in the building or close by.  The very small makes up the very big and grand.

The Future.
The Future.

I captioned this photo because I thought the architecture represented something sleek and modern, with no shred of the past.  In retrospect, the pair of CCTV cameras furtively peering into our lives more aptly captures the title.  Which begs the question, if big cities make us just one in a faceless, teeming mass, what of individual interest is there for the camera to look at?

Surprise splash.
Surprise splash.

Goaded by her friends, this schoolgirl walked out into the middle of the fountain, expecting that the water wouldn’t hit her when it came on.  Obviously she was wrong.

Directions for ajoshi.
Directions for ajoshi.

The younger man holds his left hand to his chest as a form of respect.  This comes from the days when men wore a hanbok, which had a long sleeve that needed to be pulled back to hand something to another person.

Annyeong, jamae . . .
Annyeong, jamae . . .

There’s something quite precocious about lots of Korean children.  They’re well-behaved and seem to act like miniature adults at times, seemingly perfectly at home and competent in the world about them.  Not a lot of screaming and tantrums like American kids.

Goin' to the temple, gonna get married.
Goin’ to the temple, gonna get married.

In the midst of the modern throng, two people take the time to follow the old ways.  They will be married but it’s not just a union of convenience.  No, it is the continuation of an ancient pact.  They are not ashamed of it, nor do they think it is backwards.  The past has given them purpose for moving forward.

Timeless couple.
Timeless couple.

History moves on out there, in the world.  Nations are crumbling, tyrants are rising, great deeds are done, horrible wrongs committed.  People die cruelly and pointlessly, grand ideas are found hollow, wars rage, famines linger.  We are all a part of history; it will inevitably touch us someday, somehow, in some way, big or little.  But we still carry on, still build lives for ourselves.  Maybe it’s the divine spark within, guiding us on our unique path.  Maybe it’s the innate cheekiness of human beings, that spirit which raises a middle finger to the grimness of the world and pushes us to do great things, take great leaps.  People get married, even if times are tough.  Others buy a motorcycle and ignore sane advice.  Still others cast aside stability and convention to take a job that thrills them.  Or is the right thing to do.  We live, in spite of the darkness out there.

Old men always talk furiously to each other.
Old men always talk furiously to each other.

Wherever you go in Korea, there will be old men sitting around, looking at things.  They seem to be waiting on something but what it is, I’ll never know.  They talk heatedly with each other or play chess or nap on a bench in the humid shade.  You can see the story of rough years worn into the deep lines on their faces.  These old guys have seen a lot.  They are tough bastards.

Trees, roof.

Dragon banner.

In between the cracks we can find the past.  Even if it’s not our own, we can appreciate it.  We can understand and smile, being glad to remember and think back.  For despite all the bad of the past, never can we deny the good that once was.  And that we wish could be again.

With each day, Korea opens wider and deeper for me.  Answers only leave more questions.  So down I go, into the rabbit hole, waiting to see when and where I’ll come out.

Enter the dragon.
Enter the dragon.