April 4, 2007
Many times over the last seven months have I felt isolated. The isolation from being in crowds really isn’t unique to this country at all. It is the character of the isolation that is unique. Living in New York, I garnered either no recognition of my person—because of the crush of all different types of people trying to get this point of safety or that destination of segregation—or negative attention—because I was the only white guy living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood and everyone thought I was a cop.
Here—at least in Busan—the unique character of isolation has to with my whiteness—not to mention, my ability to speak English. While the color of my skin was the dead giveaway in Washington Heights of northern Manhattan and caused people to think I was an undercover cop (hiding in plain sight, I guess was the prevailing sentiment if I were to be thought of as a pig in a blanket), here the added dimension of isolation has to do with language. Not only do I stand out like a sore thumb—glowing red when embarrassed or gleaming pinkish-white in the afternoon sun—but I have no ability beyond ordering a beer and directing the cabby when it comes to the language. Back in NYC, I was able to pick up a little of the racism directed toward me; not that I ever did anything about it. Here, however, the level of tolerance is low and the unrestrained foreigner bashing is prevalent.
Paul has had more than his fair share of physical confrontations with Koreans who think he doesn’t understand insults in Korean. I have seen many of these confrontations and I am concerned about the flippant attitude of some Koreans for their lack of discretion. It also troubles me that Paul’s actions of beating Koreans leaves a lasting, negative impression on the beaten Koreans and the ones who see the beatings. Paul is the flipside of this quintessential duality of man. Such hatred and anger boils over in such interactions, yet he is married and dearly loves his Korean wife, So-Yeon, my former co-worker. Such complexity confronts me, the non-committal (in most cases cultural) white man-observer in this country. I am gagged by my own ignorance and bound by others’ intolerance.
The history of Korea lends to this prevailing sentiment, the country being a strategic stepping stone for the expansion of other east Asian countries like Japan, China and has been plundered by European countries, stripped of ancient relics and artifacts by the French. And the presence of the United States here over the last 57 years has not helped Korea form a sense of itself. When a people has to struggle with maintaining their culture and heritage in the face of continual forced outside influence, it is cause for anger, resentment and hatred to all “other” outsiders.
How do we, as members of this or that country maintain a sense of cultural identity? How, in fact, does any individual maintain a sense of Self in the global-commercial homogenization that seems to blur the lines between Western and Eastern ideologies? I am not one to get political. I am simply trying to reflect, to fathom the idea of “individuality” in the face of dualistic way of life: the need to be both individual—which is, in essence, isolating—and the desire to be accepted—which can also have the adverse effects of isolation due to loss of Self and the flexibility of (or inability to form) personal morals and integrity. And will the new generation of Koreans be able to think critically about such issues? Are they already? I am a teacher. It is my job—not to mention, my passion—to combat ignorance. Both that of others and my own.
Having said that, I have had a unique few days here in Busan, this last week of my residence in this city. I am a few days away from moving near what is supposed to be a much more cosmopolitan area, that of Seoul. As for now, though, I am able to roam the streets and mountains at times when most others are at school or work.
On Tuesday, I went out for an excursion, deciding that I should take a bus instead of the subway, thus getting more opportunity to see the city. I hopped the first bus that said Haeundae on it. I immediately felt self-conscious because not only am I a white man not at work like the rest of the whiteys in the hagwons, but I have also made a commitment to wearing shorts all week long.
The weather has turned fine, though the air is still dry and, to the standards of some, “nippy.” But, shorts represent a certain freedom, if only a certain status of bum-dom that I relish to a certain extent. Anyhow, I have developed a certain peripheral eyesight that comes from living in big cities. In NYC, I had peripherals to make sure no one was fucking with my shit or trying to steal it while trying to avoid direct eye contact to maintain the status quo of “ignore me and I will ignore you and that will be best for all involved.” Here, however, the peripheral comes and goes depending on where I am or what I am doing. When at work, I consider myself different in an all-around good way, having a wealth of knowledge about something to share with others, promoting eye-contact in my most teenageresque students while trying like hell to get them beyond the “hello” stage when it comes to encountering English-speakers outside the classroom. When out with the boys, I am admittedly absorbed in talking to people about things that concern me without having to worry about general comprehension of the English language, so I don’t really notice if people stare or if they might be saying rude things.
However, when I am cruising around solo, I often find my intolerances heightened and my peripherals sharpened, noticing Korean habits such as mouth-open gum chewing and shameless staring. At one point of my bus ride, I was driven so crazy by a woman chewing her gum that I got off the bus in haste, thinking I knew where I was and believing I could walk the rest of the way. Not a chance. But wandering certain paths of hasty or flighty decisions is the luxury of the briefly unemployed.
Eventually, I got back on the bus and out to Haeundae, the popular beach area with many hotels, a couple casinos and not much in the way of waves on the ocean. Enduring my hypersensitivity to the stares of some young folks, I sit in the sun for a bit on the cement steps near the sand and watch a developing situation. A Korean man in his mid to late 30s was dressed in all white (including his tennis shoes and rims on his sunglasses) and was passed out on the cement. I have seen some strange stuff in this country, and I just chalk most of it up to my own ignorance. Next thing I know, though, is that a cop has pulled up in his squad car; he took a good minute and a half to wake the man. The Man in White finally wakes (to most everyone’s relief, he is not dead) and a small crowd has gathered. The Man in White finally stands but sways as if there were a gale force wind. Sure. Sure. Been there done that. But I have never passed out in public due to drunkenness at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. This guy was in such bad shape that, by the time he made it to the squad car, he had to sit down again, which he did so heavily. A man near me feels my sentiment and laughs and turns to watch the ships in the distance.
Soon, I decided to walk down toward the Westin Hotel on the cement “boardwalk,” around the point, enduring my own self-consciousness at the staring-curious youngsters on a field trip, the obnoxiousness of older kids who I think should be buried elsewhere, like in a mound of books or a number of private lessons or four back to back lessons at different hagwons. This, however, is generational, not cultural. Kids are mostly curious, and I enjoy that about young minds. But teenagers everywhere are just assholes. And I always assume they are making comments about everyone, regardless of race. They are equal opportunity offenders.
Anyhow, around the point there is a well-constructed wooden walkway that crawls along the rocks. There were a lot of tour groups out that day, this was my first encounter with such tour groups that were, for all ostensive purposes, Korean. Provincial? I couldn’t be sure, but my whiteness and foreignness was keenly felt. I kept my distance and stopped only briefly at a small lighthouse and decided to move on, looking for the mouth of a river that I had earlier seen that I thought had a path along it. To no avail. Came across, instead, a parking lot full of tour busses. I kept hoofing, looking around me for some camera shots, searching for something to wrap my imagination around instead of thinking of uncreative ways to avoid my self-consciousness amidst the natives.
Around me, there were many buildings in various stages of construction, this city seeming to continue to find places to build, Haeundae booming the most of all the neighborhoods here; would be interesting to see it in five years. Anyhow, I eventually find my way, unwittingly, to a subway station. I had been out for a few hours and was not terribly impressed with the hike or the photo opportunities or the culture: not quiet, not scenic, not essentially Korean, respectively.
April 5, 2007
Next day, woke up early to watch the Giants season opener on the internet. I really can’t understand how I spent so much of my time in the past watching games on television; live is really the only way to go. From 530 until 7ish, I watched the Giants get their asses handed to them by Jake Peavy and the Padres. Shutout, they were. But, baseball is this way sometimes. None of this early morning crap, though. And definitely no 3 hours a day watching the games. The last three innings is all I will allow myself.
Anyhow, messed with psycho kitty DuBu, rested some more and did some writing. Finally left the house around two, Eomgwangsan the destination, hiking all the ridges between here and there. I have looked at those looming ridges for seven months across the narrow valley that makes up the Gegeum area, this being my first chance to hike it. The six days of work a week is a grueling schedule for someone with the desire to have adventures when time allows. The first four and a half or five months Rob, Andrew and I were pretty good about seeing sights on that one day off. But as of late there has been prevailing desire to just stay home and relax, something I still intend to do with one of my two days off a week.
If coming from other parts of the city, take the sub to stop 222 (Dong-eui University) and get out exit five and start walking up the hill, parallel the Mt. Sujeong Tunnel road but continue to walk up to the “T” and take a left and the first right and continue walking up the hill. As you walk about twenty minutes straight up, you will come upon Dong-eui University and its series of tree-lined common areas. Here is where I start to feel a little uncomfortable with my hypersensitive peripherals and linguistic wonderings. What is it these kids are saying about me? When all is said and done, who gives a shit? I mean, it’s not as if it’s more than words, not as if they are going to start a fight with me. Nonetheless, self-consciousness is acute and I walk on.
When the road “T’s” again, go left and then switch back right; you’ll come upon a baseball diamond. Here is where I come upon the Busan Giants practicing. I don’t watch much, my desire to get to places sparsely populated by young people urging me on. I come upon a semi-paved road and walk up it, feeling a sense of excitement as my prediction of some hike across the ridge seems to be coming true. I hike on the semi-paved road for about ten or fifteen minutes, coming upon some baseball players who must hike some for conditioning. Soon, though, I encounter only older people. I stop a few times, taking the first of 130 pictures for the day, the white blossoms on the trees that line the road are reflecting the sunlight and attract my experimentations with the camera.
As with all main roads of hiking in this country, there are labyrinths of less-traveled paths that wander off. I kept my eye on the peak of my destination as I ventured up one of these paths, almost instantaneously finding a peace not found on that main road, blasting music from the university common area seeming to be gobbled up by my turning a bend and hugging the mountain and being among the trees. My ears became relieved, silence so strange that I was nearly at the point of madness. The muscles in my ears used to the tenseness of city noise. All I heard at that point was the muted hum of the city as I look across the valley to Baekyangsan, a mountain peak which I have hiked not three months previous. I was able to point to my old apartment. I stood and absorbed it in the shadow of the ridge, protected from any wind that there might be. Most importantly, I was protected from and most certainly astounded by—as I have often been in the mountains of this city—the relative ease at which I can escape the grinding noise of city life.
Eventually I resumed my ascent, now almost straight up, finally coming upon the backbone of the ridge. There was still hiking to do as I followed the backbone up to the first peak. Before that, though, I began to notice that the blossoms on the trees were predominantly purple. The sun was coming over the crest of the mountain in just such a way that I had to take a number of pictures. As I gradually made my way along the ridge, I stopped a number of times to look at the panorama. I saw most areas of the city and all the peaks I have hiked over the past seven months here. This ridge seems to be the most central. To the northwest, you can see Deokpo-dong, the Nakdong River and the airport beyond. To the north, the aforementioned Baekyangsan, to the northeast is the Dongnae area and further east is Jangsan (the tallest peak in Busan that, like the Eomgwangsan hike, is not for the faint of heart, lungs or spirit); directly east and in the far distance, one can see the Gwagan Bridge; closer to the east is downtown (Seomyeon) and to the southeast is Busan Main port. As you continue to turn to the south, you can see the south port to the right of Tejongdae (Yeongdo-gu) and all the container ships just waiting for their turn to dock and unload their goods in the world’s fourth largest port.
As I mentioned before, I have gazed upon this ridge from my apartment window for the last seven months, not truly understanding what lay beyond it. I once woke in the middle of the night and heard the horns of a ship. I never before and never again heard this because of the traffic racket that engulfs Gegeum. But, as I ascended the final tallest peak Eomgwangsan, I hear the sound of a ship horn again. Immediately, I am reminded of what I had thought of that night back in my apartment as I tried to get back to sleep: my grandmother. She has visited me twice since I have been in this country and again she visited me briefly on that ridge, she being available to my own spirit when I am on a journey of solitary nature. I walked on, smiling at the burn in my legs as I ascend the final peak, 504 meters above sea level.
The wind picks up on the windward side of the ridge and is with me the entire way down the other side. I pick my way down a well-kept path made of small logs that create a series of steps. Eventually, I come upon a cement stairway and take it into another university campus, that of Dong-A. I found a Kim-Bap Nada restaurant and had a hot meal of duen-jong je-gey, a small bowl of boiling soup, veggies, tofu, mushrooms and a little bit of shellfish with a side of bap (rice). By far, my favorite cheap meal here. But it is not a quick meal, because the soup stays extremely hot in its stone bowl.
As I sat and ate, I thought of my company on the mountain: old people, most other people being at work Wednesday afternoon. If crowds are not your thing, get on any mountain day hike in this city during the week. I tend to like the older generation much better because, for the most part, they seem less threatened by my mere existence. I exchanged a number of pleasantries with other hikers on my way up and down the mountain. This has done my soul well. This hike did as much good for my spirit as the muted sounds did for my ears.