Zen and the art of autobike riding in Korea

Keys.  I have no more office keys (1), office drawer keys (1), bike lock keys (2), ignition keys (2).  All I have left are two keys to my parents’ (one that won’t unlock any existing doors; one that will).  Who says I’m not sentimental?  Or maybe I am just a symbolist.  Maybe the only difference is that the former works with memory while the latter works with things. Maybe I’ll keep the key to this apartment.  There is a beer key from grad school that’s followed me since 2005 and has been accompanied by the various comings and goings of keys to places I never thought would exist; nor do I know if they exist anymore.  And there’s a wooden Buddhist charm, a symbol of the year of the dragon, my year of birth.  I got that in my first week here in Korea.  I’ll put it all in a box and send it home.  On the other side, I’ll find it again and add more symbols to it: safety, home, new beginnings.  Transport…

My keychain used to be so practical.  It is only the idle mind (and procrastinating body that wants not to spend another day packing) that has time to think about why I still carry these things, about why I don’t just throw them out.  Everything else is gone.  After taking care of the sale of our bikes to a kindhearted Jehovah’s Witness, Mr. Jeon, who happens to be my mechanic, after he drove me all the way across town for paperwork on my bike and lunch (his treat), after he didn’t push Jesus too hard on me (just a little Bible study on the radio), I was able to find out that he needed a computer chair.  I did not even have to join the church.  I had my best day as a salesman (1,500,050 KRW).  As it turns out, Jehovahs are my best customers, accounting for ¼ of my sales.  I’ll never shut the door in their face again.  I’ll just tell them I’m Buddhist.

While Mr. Jeon was no religious salesman, I’ve been accosted by religious salesmen before.  They wanted me to talk like them, see the world like them, act like them.  Swim with them.  And they interrupted my meditation or repast in order to do it.  So, did I get angry?  Of course I did.  I shut doors in faces, kicked people out of my apartment, laughed in and lied to their faces, metaphorically gave them the finger.  Despite my pre-existing conditioning—“If everyone believed what I believe, the world would be much more peaceful.”—I shouldn’t just tell them I’m Buddhist.  I should adopt a Buddhist’s philosophy akin to pop culture’s Zen.

It took many months and many failures to adapt this kind of thinking to driving in Korea.  On one of my first rides with Nic on the back of my autobike Maxine, a bongo (pickup) truck cut me off, forcing me toward the shoulder.  I pulled up beside him, banged on his window, asked him politely, “What the fuck?”, almost dropped Nic and the bike in the process and wrenched my wrist something fierce.  You would think my stupidity and injury and just downright foolish-looking behavior would have set me straight.  For a while, I fought this Eastern driving culture with my American arrogance of “If everyone drove like I drove, the world would be a much more peaceful” and American ideals of “rights” to personal space.  After a few months of too many close calls with all sorts of vehicles that seemed not to hear my little “beep beep”, I upgraded my horn to something slightly smaller than a foghorn.  Who says the size of one’s vehicle must be proportional to the sound of its horn?  Or the penis of the driver, for that matter?

With my big horn, big penis and big middle finger, I was emboldened.  I became more of the cowboy, going between cars, running red lights with skill, going into oncoming lanes that I knew to be clear on my well-memorized routes and timings of traffic lights.  I knew the risks, reminded of them every kilometer by the painted, sterile outlines of car wheels after accidents, a sound, geometric reminder of accidents I never saw.  Always documented by insurers or the participants by an accident number on the pavement.

I also rode over many outlines of shapeless masses—heads popped off? bodies dropped? fetuses ejected?—that were reminders, memorials of the blood and people spilled due to the relatively unprotected, stupid nature of autobike riding in Korea.

In the span of nearly 17,093 kilometers of commuting (a few hundred accounted for in weekend jaunts to the countryside with Paul Dumont, my former partner in crime and only other member of the famed, former Canadicans Autobike Club of Busan), I grew to know the patterns of Korean drivers.  If there’s one stereotype I will boldly reinforce here, it is that Koreans are bad drivers.  However, the best thing about Korean drivers—if I may use generalizations to speak well of a people—is that they are all bad in the same way.  Therefore, it was difficult for this “independent” American to adapt to the group-think of the Korean road.  Americans are so incredibly unique in their bad driving that it makes them that much more unpredictable and dangerous.

But, when you are waiting at a red light here, it is expected that at least two or three cars will run the light that has just turned red for them.  Wait patiently.  Do not honk your mighty penis horn.  Honk that horn just a bit when someone merges just a little too fast into your lane, just to let him know you’re there.  Do not waste effort or time calling him a—to use my father’s words—, “fucking asshole.”  Besides, yelling in your bike helmet with the visor down only proves that you can go deaf by doing so.  Blast that horn as you enter an intersection on your green light and a car comes barreling from a side street to take a right turn; halfway through completing a right turn, he’ll finally slam on the brakes and look left into oncoming traffic (that’s you, you Zen Buddhist autobike rider).  But do not use “the bird.”  Do not drag the natives out of their cars and beat them.   It will do no good; you will not change this driving mentality that seems to say, “I’ll watch out/look out for you if you watch out/look out for me.”  Taking to the fists and fingers is as futile as rationalizing with a native in pidgin Korean or beating a native in fluent English for talking some ignorant shit about you or staring at you because you’re white, black, tall, big-nosed, blonde, redheaded, ugly, attractive, or Russian-hookeresque.  Raging will do nothing but give shame to your people, to your Self.  You are the one who is not adapting to this country where you are a guest, perhaps even an illegally-driving guest who never bothered to get a license.

If you want to get to your office, to your home in one piece, to use those other keys that carry symbolic meaning, you must swim with the fish the way they want you to swim.

One thought on “Zen and the art of autobike riding in Korea

  1. You have captured motorcycle riding here in Korea to a ‘T’. If I can share my little piece of advice in maintaining your sanity while driving in Korea, Busan especially, is to use the ‘Hancock’ method.

    Based on the movie, I find that when driving, I like to give a nice Thumbs Up to some of the drivers and loudly proclaim ‘Good Job!’ in my most sarcastic of all voices. One, it makes me feel better, two it doesn’t really offend anyone (as opposed to using the finger) and Three it makes my commute to work that much more interesting. 1-2 Good jobs and it is a good day. 5 or more and it will certainly be a long day at work.

    Anyways, just thought I would share one of my coping methods with driving here.

    Good luck in your travels.


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