Tag Archives: smells

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.

(Ol)factory Recall

24 Jun

What will stay with me the most from this place, I already know, long after sights and events have faded into soft focus, are the smells.  To a Westerner, they are completely and utterly unfamiliar and overpowering.  I’m used to the smell of woods, wet grass, the earthy aroma of decomposing leaves.  Or if I’m in town, the reek of car fumes and asphalt on a hot day.  But here in Korea, just walking down the street you come across odors that can make the unprepared almost gasp for air.  What the hell is that smell?

I really can’t put my finger on it.  Sometimes it’s definitely a pork or red pepper smell, if you’re passing a restaurant.  But sometimes on random streets you’ll get a whiff of something sour.  Maybe like ginger or soy or some other kind of potent herb mixed with something rotten, maybe kimchi.  That would explain the fermented and vinegar stench.  Kimchi tastes great, but when it’s been saturating the pores of the man on the metro next to you for the last fifty years, mixed with sweat and trapped inside his polyester suit, it’s like a punch straight up the sinuses into your cerebellum.

I got to experience this for quite a few hours yesterday as I traveled from Bundang into Seoul and back.  I took the subway the entire way in, learning on the fly how to transit lines.  Thankfully, the stops are listed in English.  My brain synapses haven’t quite figured out how to pick up on the sight and sound of the Korean language yet.

For some reason, I expected Seoul to be like a lot of other famous cities, replete with lots of historic districts stretching back centuries.  But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, once emerging into the daylight from the metro station, that it was so new and sleek, a capitalist boom town if there ever was one.  After all, the city was leveled during the Korean War by the U.S. Army and Marines trying to break through and cut off North Korean soldiers further south on the peninsula.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything interesting to see.  Namdaemun Market certainly fulfilled that for me.

Namdaemun market
Namdaemun market

What would you like to buy?  A knock-off Coach handbag?  Ginseng root preserved in a jar?  Fresh eels?  Floor tiles?  Baby clothes?  T-shirts with inane English sayings?  A Barack Obama mask?  Talk about consumer choice.  You can find just about anything there short of a rocket launcher.  It’s absolutely jammed with people shoulder-to-shoulder.  A man with no legs crawls along the ground begging for money.  Vendors with heavy carts full of vegetables somehow worm their way through narrow spaces.  Some vendors hawk their wares, others chat with the fellow in the stand next door, many are content just to sit in the shade and wait for you to take an interest in whatever they sell, be it fresh octopus or cut-rate camera equipment.  And such people seemed perfectly content doing what they did, even if their tiny little stand was existing on the smallest of profit margins.  In modern America, most would look down on such a job with disdain, feeling that spending one’s entire existence working hard selling petty wares was an unworthy use of one’s life.  We would think that it indicated a lack of ambition or skill or desire to advance one’s station in the world.  But not here.  For the rest of the day, I began to think about such matters.

From there I journeyed to Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace
Deoksugung Palace

This is the actual palace, where official court was held.  There are many other buildings in the complex, such as sleeping and workers’ quarters.  Lots of people wandered about, seeming to enjoy the pastoral peacefulness of the shady trees more than the historical value of the buildings.

While I sat on a bench replacing something in my backpack, a pair of Korean girls approached me and one, in halting English, asked if she could take my picture.  She said it was for “homework.”  Finding this situation delightfully hilarious, I naturally agreed.  She had me pose a couple of different ways, once looking off in the distance for a profile picture, the others involving me pretending to walk with my backpack on.  She was very appreciative.

But why me?  There were plenty of other people about with whom it would have been easier to communicate.  Did she want to practice her English a little?  Maybe, although we didn’t talk much.  Am I some sort of freak show to them, with my pale skin and scruffy beard?

On my hour and thirty minute subway ride home, I tried to find some order in my observations of that day.  What I came to realize was that it was certainly impossible for me to truly understand why the Koreans acted one way or another, why they valued certain things, and why everything was the way it was here.  Like how a man in the subway will not rise to offer a woman his seat.  But he will offer to hold her bag in his lap for her.

I think at the root of this matter is that Korea is an ancient society and a Confucian one.  Their whole concept of self and its relationship to the whole is fundamentally different, for it is about harmony, about one’s place in the world, within the established order, and not deviating from it.  Short of being inside a Korean’s head, I really don’t think that Westerners can fully grasp the significance of this.  We in the West have a fundamentally different understanding of ideas, of objects and their relation to us and to others.  We are Greek, whether we like it or not, believers in logic, ideals, in the primacy of the way an individual conceives of and approaches Truth.  We argue and debate, trying to extract what we can define as Right and Correct from that clash.  Here in Korea, they do not think like that.  How do they think? . . . well, I have even less of a clue now.

This makes they world I see daily more and more byzantine.  Because Korea has learned to mimic the externals of the West without adopting the internals.  Sure, they have cars, high-rises, computers, all the trappings that define a modern, Western existence.  They vote in elections and read newspapers.  They even go to church.  But when someone says that Korea is a Westernized country, I think that only looks at a superficial reality, what can be easily counted and simply repeated.  I personally think that they have mastered the motions without necessarily possessing the capacity or method of thought that brought those motions to fruition in the West.

And I wonder in particular how much language plays a role in this matter, particularly, because English is a dynamic, amorphous beast, always changing and adding.  I look at the churches near my flat and at the evangelical preachers on TV and wonder how their conception of the Gospels is structured and directed by any inherent limitations to the Korean language.  We in West already have enough trouble as it is trying to come to scriptural conclusions because of the difficulty of going from Greek to English, and we already incorporate Greek into our language and way of thought.  How does someone understand the New Testament when it has gone from Greek to English to Korean?  What changes along away?

For now, I have no answers.  The lid has been popped off of this little world and I’m beginning to get a look down inside.