A lazy Sunday here in the Sassang district of Busan, South Korea. Flipping through the seventeen channels hoping for good English-language movies, instead watching two or three English-language bad movies, reading the first chapters of A Tale of Two Cities. The sky overcast, not giving much motivation for an introspective hike the summit of some nearby peak. The previous day was spent running around near Gwangan Beach to different co-workers’ apartments to get a feel for what I want to live in over the next two years. Currently, I stay in this large three-bedroom aparte near the university. Often I find myself going to the western-facing window to look out across the Nakdong River valley for a partial view of the mountains on the far side that sprout up out of that plain with no foothills. The haze in the mornings is not sickening like it was up in Seoul; a good breeze off the river and the nearby ocean have dissipated by mid-afternoon on most days to reveal all the splendor that is this vast area of rich farmland.
As I entered my third bad movie of the day, the sun finally emerged, taunting me on my day of leisure, mocking me for having not the sack push through a mild fatigue. And then I hear the flat sound of one object hitting another. Two years ago (when I first came here), in a previous apartment near a busy intersection in another part of town, I became quickly familiar with the sound of metal crunching on metal, seeing the aftermath of many car accidents as I looked down from my tenth floor window. Once I was on ground level and happened upon an accident only seconds after a speeding food delivery man on a motorcycle had been smacked to the pavement in that intersection. From the distance of my lofty apartment window, my experience was always diluted. However, in the case of the motorcycle man who lay in semi-conscious writhing pain, a sickening feeling came over me. In another instance in Seomyeon (downtown Busan) back in the spring, I was visiting Paul and we were having a few beers, sitting at a window that overlooked a busy street. I glanced outside one moment and then looked back out not a minute later to find a man lying in the street after being hit by a taxi, one shoe twenty yards from him. He was alive and, after a half hour of not being moved, he was finally taken away, minus one shoe, minus his ability to walk on shattered legs. Once, when I was a ten year old on the way to soccer practice with father, a motorcyclist ran a red light going the opposite direction of me, slammed into a car pulling out from a parking lot. I saw—but probably only imagined—a brief second of him flying through the air and landing on his back in spine-shattering collision with the pavement. I never knew if that man died; my father told me not to look and we drove off to practice.
In all these instances I was mere moments and short distances from witnessing the actual event. In all these instances, I was one of the many helpless bystanders whose minds and hearts are pulled in many different directions. To help is to face the ultimate fear of being near death when it takes over the injured body. To stand there gawking is to be helpless because you don’t have the training to help these unfortunate souls. To walk away shaking your head and glancing back at the carnage is to have that incredibly selfish thought, “Better him than me.” All of this concocts a wickedly hot feeling in the belly, unable to get images—imagined or real—out of the mind. Like anything traumatic, the reel of these images and sounds is played again and again, taking away the appetite, inducing nausea. And empathy is a strange bedfellow to selfishness. Disgust that these things happened to anyone is superseded by the disgust at having that wicked thought go through your mind.
So today, as I got up from the couch to see the severity of the accident on the street below, I could see nothing of twisted metal or gawking bystanders. In the far end of the parking lot, four boys played with a ball, in the elevated playground a mother turned her child on the merry-go-round, the street off to my left went about as usual. Then I saw a man running down the drive to the security office. I followed his path in reverse to find an old man on his back, twisted, unmoving, his shoes ten yards from him. Then I knew I was seeing my first dead body, the man having fallen, been pushed, or leapt to his demise from the building just perpendicular to mine. That sickening imagination—the sound is replayed and distorted in my mind even now, two hours after, the sound resembling a large brown paper bag being popped in that loud, hollow way—that sickening selfishness, that sickening sadness overtook me as it slowly registered that it was not metal crunching on metal, that injured people would not one day walk again, that I was spared by only a few moments from seeing this man plummet in front of my gaze over the pastoral delta valley of Busan, that there was only one survivor of this collision: the Earth into which this man liquefied his insides As blood trickled from beneath the man, the various people —rubber-neckers, security, paramedics, police, detectives, photographers—came and went, the woman still turned her child in the merry-go-round, the boys still played. I went to the window at intervals to see what was unfolding. There were no screams of horror of sadness over this man. Only hovering people, flashbulbs of the investigator’s camera, a white sheet stained in red.
I just looked out, twilight has set in, the day is over, the body gone. Has this man left an impression on anyone’s life while he was alive? Perhaps that is why he died: to leave an impression on the living, to show that we must be honest with ourselves in saying that empathy and sympathy are not the same thing; that empathy and selfishness closely exist; that the sorrow we feel for the misfortune of others has the variables of time, distance and imagination: the sorrow we feel for our loved ones’ misfortunes is much different than the sorrow we feel for that of strangers. Then we think, given the chance, would we unflinchingly put ourselves in the place of a friend or family member who has suffered some calamity? The sorrow, the empathy we feel for those unknown people—those who fly through intersections, over hoods of cars, off the tops of buildings, starve in famines, burn in airplane crashes—this empathy is distorted by its far remove from our lives, it is twisted by the thought, “Better them than me.”