Sunday, August 06, 2006

Walkin' man...(final)

When I started getting ideas for this post I did not realize how much it would entail. Upon further thought, I realized that I will have to address a few major points: the demographic makeup of Korea, the layout of the city and the overall more discreet culture of Koreans. I'm sure I will hit on all sorts of other subjects, so this might be a long one. Also, it might take several nights to write. I will start with the more scientific aspect of this subject and then I will delve into my own experiences walking through these streets.

First, I will talk about the population of both Seoul and Korea as a whole. Korea has a population of over 48,000,000, half of which reside here in Seoul. Of that population, less than one percent of that is non-Korean. If I compare that to the States where immigrants, minorities and other aliens account for over half of the population, a major difference is already obvious. Does that mean that a multi-cultural society means crime rates rise? Maybe, but I don't think that is the reason why I feel safe to walk down dark alleys here. We all know that racially motivated crimes in the States are not the norm. If that was the case, then "hate crimes" would be occurring at an alarming rate and they're not. They do happen, but most crimes, in my opinion, are committed within a certain proximity from the criminals' home or neighborhood and since, geographically, America is still very segregated, this is why so many crimes happen to the people they do. So, without going into criminological theory, I believe that the homogeneous characteristic of Korea does not have to do with why I feel safe. If it were that, then I would stick out like a sore thumb and be the target for many crimes. However, maybe this aspect of Korean life is the answer to my query. Maybe Koreans are so accustomed to having "their own" people here that it is instilled in them not to hurt each other criminally. Korea has not had the easiest path to get where they are today. They had to really unite for the many wars, invasions, occupations, dictatorships and economic crisises this country has suffered through in the very recent past. It could be that, but I say again, I do not think think the population has anything to do with this. By the way, Itaewon has the highest crime rate in Seoul and if you remember, that is where the highest number of foreigners, specifically Americans, work, live and play.

The layout of the city here is interesting. We all know when in New York City not to go into some areas that are more poverty stricken or that have a reputation of being rough. I live in a very nice area of Seoul luckily, but this city is so huge. It's over 630 square miles. Imagine that for a second. That is huge. I won't see way over half of this city this year and even if I was here for ten years, I doubt I would see half of it. So, with that in mind, there might be some areas that have a higher rate of crime, but that still doesn't really provide a reason. I don't think I'll ever really know. Even in my numerous criminology courses in college I never got the feeling that anyone really knew what makes a person devious. Sure, we can study theory, but a theory can be applied to so many things and if you look at a crime or a community with a specific theory in mind, chances are that it will make sense. Still, one could apply another theory to the same crime and come up with a whole new set of causes. This is the challenge that plagues social science. I said I would write about the culture as I did with the two other topics, but culture is not numbers. It's experience and only by immersing yourself in a culture can one get a true and possibly accurate idea of why it operates the way it does. I have not been here long enough to be able to characterize these beautiful people in a way that makes sense and I am not sure one year will not be enough. Sure, I'll pick up the basics, but culture is ingrained in people, it's not learned that easily. So I will stray now from shallow theorization and tell you how I experience these unique people when I walk on their streets.

Walking here is a real treat. I've walked on all sorts of streets and in all sorts of cities. I've walked in all sorts of climates and on all sorts of terrains, but walking here is different. To experience life on foot is the most natural thing a human can do. An interesting perspective was brought to my attention by Rory Stewart in his wonderful book, The Places in Between. Humans evovled from a lesser species to a bipedal species. This, obviously, is one of the reasons we were so successful as an animal and ultimately why we are still here and in this form. The world was conquered over and over again on foot. The greatest terrestrial explorers in history first experienced their new discovery one step at a time. It is the natural speed for humans, the speed at which we were designed for, the speed that allows us to truly experience all of this amazing world. I must admit, I used to love walking, but as time passed I forgot how nice of a feeling it was to walk. Now, I insist on walking everywhere.

As I mentioned before, I've walked in a lot of places, but there is something about the streets of Asia that captures my soul and bonds me with this place. It is hard to describe, but if any of you have the oppurtunity to travel to Asia, do yourself a favor and buy that plane ticket. I'm going to detail a couple walks I have been on while here. My favorite time to walk here is at night. There are people everywhere just like during the day, but at night, people are out for themselves, not for work or school. I hope you enjoy.

My phone rang, it was Aaron. He was telling me that we are grilling out on the roof and that the meeting time was 8:30pm. I glanced at my battery operated bedside clock that I purchased before I came here. It was 7:25pm. I gathered my camera, Ipod, put on a shirt and slipped into my sandals and with a big gulp of bottled water, I was out the door. I walk down the stairs slowly as I noticed that the marble floors had just been mopped. The floor shined like new and I hated to leave my print on it, but what can you do? Outside my apartment building were two Korean men smoking a cigarette and arguing. I knew it would be better if I avoided this, so I swiflty walked past them and one to my little road. My road is very small (see webshots) and is lined with apartment buildings. The one across from mine is very nice, a lot nicer than mine, but then again they all drive Saab's, so I guess they earned it. An old woman with a wrinkly face and liver spots came into sight. She was carrying her groceries and, by the looks of her posture, had been carrying them for some time. I gave the customary smile and bow. She returned the bow and the smile. Her grin would cheer up anybody. In the near distance I could hear children laughing and playing on the playground at the park. I stopped for a second when I reached the park to see what was going on there. It was a bit late for that many kids to playing there. It was birthday party. I was happy to see it too. If you remember an earlier post, I mentioned that Koreans usually don't celebrate their birthday. Well, this little boy of maybe nine years certainly did. I quickly spotted him. He was wearing nice clothes and the traditional birthday hat. He was having a great time with his friends. They were playing what I guessed to be freeze tag and he was unfreezing everyone. I mean this kid was fast. I gave him a "happy birthday" to myself and walked down the road.

In front of me stood the infamous watermelon truck. Luckily his recording wasn't playing, so I didn't resent him too much this time. A horn beeped behind me. I turned around to see the source. It was an old KIA truck. Behind the wheel was the fattest Korean person I have ever seen. He had double chins and a mean furrow. His fat arm darted out the window, not to yell or anything, but to knock the cherry off his cigarette. Koreans do not throw their butts on the ground. Instead they do what should be done, they flick the cherry off and place the butt in a trashcan. Wouldn't that be nice if smokers everywhere did this rather than treating the earth as their own personal ashtray. The truck passed and I continue on. A mother with her two young children walked in front of me. The younger one decided to walk into the middle of the street. Of course, my first instict was to grab the child and pull it out of harms way, but I'm not Korean, so I figured it would be best if stayed back and didn't grab this child. I would have felt bad if something happened but nothing did. The mother casually strolled on as if nothing was wrong and the child continued on his quest to the center of the busy street. All the cars did was slow down and carefully manuever around the child. I crossed the street and waited to see what reaction, if any, the mother would have. Finally realizing that her child was not next to here side she reacted.

"Yeogi." she calmy said as she turned back around and continued walking away from the child.

The child galloped ahead and finally caught up. I told you this story not because of the danger the child was in, which was not any really. I told you this because here, everyone walks in the middle of these smaller roads. Everyone walks without any thought or regard for oncoming traffic or anything. My first few days here I would often stop and allow the car, taxi or scooter to pass. Now, I act just as that boy did.

I pressed on. It was a hot evening as it has been every day. I could feel a bead of sweat gathering momentum on my forehead. I wiped it away. I saw a very cosmopolitan looking couple who looked like they just returned from work, exit their nice car. Koreans work a lot. For instance, at my school, they arrive at work close to 7:30am and will not be done until 8:00pm. Yeah, they have more work, but a twelve hour day is hard, but they take it in stride. The mentality is different here. In class today we were discussing our book, Treasure Island. I was talking about wealth and how people become wealthy.

"How do people become wealthy?" I asked the class expecting an answer besides the one I got.

A boy named Rob raised his hand immediatley. I called on him.

"They work very, very hard and save their money." he said with a serious tone in his voice.

Of course you and I know that this is correct, but an eight year old? This is what I'm talking about, they work all the time and whether they like it or not, they will do it. Props to Koreans.

I turned onto a different street. One block ahead of me was an open-air market. The umbrellas and little stands always give them away. They sell all sorts of things there: meat, fish, vegetables, juices, fruits and so many other that I'll just have to write a post on what one can get at a Korean market. They're wild. I left the apartment district of the area with my last turn and now I was heading into the restaurant and bar district. The vertical and colorful signs on the highrises dominated my view. Hundreds of signs, all saying things that I'm slowly learning how to read were attached to every business. Usually when I walk I look forward or down, but this time I was looking up a the beauty of this city. How are signs beautiful? I don't know, but there's something majestic about them. Maybe it's because I still can't believe that I actually moved to Korea. This was a hard thing for me. I had to say bye to family and friends for a year. I had to leave knowing that I wouldn't be there with flowers for Kristin when my niece is born. I had say good bye to a sister who has been so great to me my whole life. She has always been right there with me on everything and I am so lucky that she is my sister. To all of you reading, if you do not have a sister, I am sorry. You are missing out on bond that nothing can compare to. If you do have a sister, call her, tell her that she's great. Love ya sis...

Back to it. While I was looking up in amazment at these signs I kicked something. I looked down and there was an old woman with all of her crops laid out on a small legless table. I felt really bad. How did I not see her? In fact, there was a row of old women selling their crops. I felt stupid and pretty bad. I looked at her tired sun-withered face and knew I had to do something for her. I pointed to some vegetable that I'm still not sure of its identity.

"Igeoseul eolmamnikka (How much is that)?" I said in embarassingly broken Korean.

She said something I couldn't begin to understand. I panicked for a second and then just handed her 2000 won. She smiled and handed a vegetable to me. I smiled back and accepted it with two hands (that's proper in Korea). I later threw it away. Nothing against the unknown vegetable, but my mother always taught me not to buy unidentifed food from old Korean women on the sidewalk. I continued my trek.

I looked in the windows of the restaurants as I passed by them. I didn't slow down from my increasing pace, which was being fueled by my craving for chicken and Korean beer, or anything. I just caught little glimpses of what was going on inside. Some of the places had the shoe holder thing that you must put your shoes in when you enter. A lot of places require the shoe thing, but those are only the places that have the short tables and are more traditional. I have not gone to one yet, but hope to very soon. I saw bars with the televisions playing movies. The two that I could identify were Good Morning Vietnam and some Jackie Chan movie. I laughed to myself when I saw both of those. What choices for an Asian bar. I turned off the main road and with that turn I was a Rhett's.

We had a fun night, but it was coming to an end and it was time for me to walk home. Dave and Ben opted for the cab ride home.

"You riding George?" they asked.

"No way man, I'm walkin' it." I reponded.

I turned away and headed down the hill. On one side of the steep road there was a group of men and women that were very raucus. They were wrestling around and laughing and carrying on just like anybody does, but again, this was a Tuesday at 3:00am. I walked passed them. I approached the mainroad and was greeted by the familiar site of several taxi's waiting for a customer. On the side of the grey taxi read: FREE TRANSLATION. This means that you can get in there and say "Free Translation" and they will give you a phone that connects you to a translator who will be able to understand where you need to go. They will then tell the driver and you're on your way. It's convient, but I have not yet used it. The drivers here are always dressed very nicely. In fact, the picture they have of themselves in the taxi that tells the passengers the drivers' credentials is very formal. They are wearing nice suits and have a very dignified look on their face. It's classic. I guessed the site of a foreigner suggested to the driver that I would be in need of a ride. He looked at me and then rushed from the relaxed position he was sitting in outside of the car to the front seat. I turned down the road. He got back out of the car, lit a cigarette and resumed waiting.

The road was lined with ginko trees that were well above forty feet. They're beautiful trees. Most of the stores had closed by now, but it looked like they kept their lights on all night. I passed a sunglass store, shoe stores, designer clothing stores and a pet store sporting two kittens. It reminded me of my old college cat, Snipes. Aunt Snipes would love Korea, but then again she was a refined alley cat, so she'd like it anywhere. She was a great cat. Ahead of me I saw a couple of cafe's that were still open. They had their doors open and old orange tables on the sidewalk. I could see two older men sitting and drinking outside. They were were wearing suits too. I wondered what they did for a living that allows them to dress like this and go out drinking all night. The increasingly familiar smell of a Korean cigarette crept into my nose. It smelled like burning trash.

I was listening to my Ipod as I frequently do when I walk. The song was Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel. I decided that it was time to play a little air guitar. I rocked it pretty hard. I then decided that singing would also be a good idea. I laughed at the image of myself. I laughed because there were Koreans seeing me do this. I knew that I would eventually write about it and the thought of you guys trying to picture it made me laugh again. Never did I think that I would be in Seoul, peacefully walking down the ginko and highrise lined road playing air guitar and blissfully singing Peter Gabriel.

I had to cross the major road and there were only two ways to do this since there was no crosswalk at this street. I could walk all the way up another street and then cut back or I could walk down the steep stairs to the subway and walk under the busy street. Without hesitation, I decended to the subway. The subway stops running at 1:00 am and after that you have to take a taxi. There were two older women mopping the floor. They looked at me and with a puzzled look on their face said something I couldn't understand. They started waving their hands around and I knew they were being friendly, I just couldn't figure out what they were trying to convey to me. I just looked at them as I walked past and kept pointing in the direction I was going. I was almost out when the freshly mopped floor got the best of me. I fell, but it was more like I was doing the splits and when I split too far, I tipped over and landed on my side. The older women saw this and, without hesitation, ran over to me while risking the same fate. They were pro's and glided over the slick floor. I had made it to my feet by then, but they still gave me a pat on the back and a handful of smiles.

"Floor is very slippery" one of them said.

"Yeah, I guess so." I said with a snicker.

They waved me on and made sure I was on the steps and on my way out of danger before they got back to their task. I assumed they were telling me that the floor was slippery the whole time. It was worth it though. I got to see the kindess of these people first hand. You might be saying to yourself that any decent person would help in that situation. That might be true, but how true is it in a big city subway terminal at 3:00am? I climbed up the stairs and decided it was time for a new song.

I searched through my Ipod library. I cruised through AC/DC, Ah ha, Al Green, Allman Brothers, America, Beach Boys, Beatles, Big Brother and the Holding company, Billy Joel, Billy Ocean, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and then I spotted my selection: Bob Seger. I knew what song I needed. It's a song that I hold so dear to my heart. It is probably the song that my college friends and I listened to more than any other. I selected it and the guitar started playing. I sat there for a second and waited for the lyrics to start.

I was a little too tall, could've used a few pounds
Tight pants, points, hardly renowned
She was a black haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sitting way up high
Way up firm and high

The drums picked up and I walked to the beat. The guitar in hand. The song is Night Moves by the way.

Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my '60 Chevy
Workin' on mysteries without any clues

Workin' on our night moves
Tryin' to make some front page drive-in news
Workin' on our night moves
In the summertime, in the sweet summertime

I sang along with it, bellowing out the the lyrics like I had a decent voice.

"In the summetime, in the sweet summertime" I sang.

We weren't in love, oh no, far from it
We weren't searching for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young and restless and bored
Living by the sword

And we'd steal away every chance we could
To the backroom, the alley, the trusty woods
I used her she used me, but neither one cared
We were getting our share

Workin' on our night moves
Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues
Workin' on our night moves

And it was summer time, sweet summer time summer time

And oh, the wonder
Felt the lightning
And we waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off, I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain't it funny how the night moves
When you just don't seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in.

The song continued and I didn't miss a beat. I wasn't walking alone during that song. I was walking with a wealth of memories of some of the greatest people I have ever met. I was walking with them and they were walking right along side of me, singing, playing, dancing and reminding me what is important and truly priceless in this world.

The song ended and I realized that I had a small audience. They didn't follow me or anything, I'm no Pied Piper, but the people I walked by would smile, laugh, and one guy even humored me with a series of clapping. It was really interesting that they were that amused to see a foreigner singing on the sidewalk. Don't think that I was acting like a wine-o either. I wasn't staggering, just loving life. I usually don't do that sort thing in public, but the moment was there and I felt like it was the best thing to do. That reasoning of course sounds like the reasoning of a wine-o, so let's just get back to the walk.

I turned from the mainroad and chuckled a little when I realized I was in the same spot that the vegetable incident occured. What was that vegetable anyways? From here it was a straight shot. I past the dog resaurant (that's right... dog), past the Starbucks, past the CCR bar, and while walking past a local elementary school, I saw a bunch of flashlights that were moving in all directions on the soccer field. I moved closer to the fence to get a better look. There was about eight or so people playing soccer. It was 3:15am on a weekday and these guys were playing soccer. I watched for a couple minutes and wanted to take a picture, but decided that the flash probably wouldn't win me any friends. I walked on and arrived at the park near my place. There were three groups of older men playing some sort of card game. They were laughing and having a grand old time. I watched them as I walked to my building, but didn't want to stop. After all, it was three in the morning...


Once Jean said...

I'll be interested in this one -- the safety one -- when you get to it. By the way, Carole and I had dinner last night with an active duty surgeon who spent a year In Seoul. He loved it and said he would go back in a minute. He also spent a lot of time last year with Saddam Hussein In Iraq as his attending physician. He has some interesting insights on SH.

As for the Koreans, he said they are the Irish of Asia -- friendly, cheerful, outgoing, and ready to burst into song at the drop of a hat.

mom said...

I will be anxious to read this one too. Loved the watermelon man story and enjoyed the pillow salesman pic. I want to see more pix of people too, please. Can we make requests?

Also forgot to tell you how happy I was that Rhett appointed you the morning opening guy along with him. Does it feel kind of like your camp counseling days at Time to Rise Camp at Ensworth?

Joyce said...

I am so glad your Mom is so smart - it's rubbed off, I know that now! I looked at that truck tail-end for the longest time and couldn't figure out what I was looking at -or what all those colorful things were. Now I know. I wonder if their watermelons taste like ours - Louis and I just finished one - UMM - GOOD. Joyce

Romeiser said...

Uncle John,

I would love for you to email me the details of that evening with the surgeon. Particularly, about Saddam. What an oppurtunity!

Romeiser said...

Mom, please make requests if you want to know anything or see a picture of anything or anybody.

krsitin said...

I look forward to reading about what you see as you walk about the city each day or night. DO be careful, though, there are still bizarre people out there. Hey, you're living in a town Iwhere it's perfectly acceptable for well-to-do gentlemen to be drinking and gambling under bridges each evening...that makes me think you still need to be careful walking home at night....interesting culture! Hey, if you play your cards right, maybe in a few months, you'll have climbed so high up that Korean social ladder, you'll have the honors of joinging the gentlemen under the bridge- ha!

Mom said...

May I request more pictures of you?? How about you and your kiddos, you and your desk at work, you and Rhett or you and the cranky lunch lady??? ;)

Kristin said...

I'll be interested to hear more about your observations of the people, culture, habits..... It is fascinating to speculate what makes a people act the way they/we do but it's so often just that....mere speculation.





Oncle Jean said...

Touché, George, on the short teaching day and "plenty of time to write." Where do the kids go when they leave your school? Are they fiinished for the day? Seems like an early day.

As for Saddam, he expressed a great interest to my friend in the fate of his fig trees, which he had planted and maintained around the presidential palace. There is much more. His English is pretty good, said the friend.

mom said...

Enjoyed that descriptive evening walk! You caught me completely off guard with your thoughts about your sister..these entries are not supposed to make you cry, are they? Very sweet! Also glad you remembered my lessons taught about old Korean women selling vegies on the street. Keep the stories coming!

Kristin said...

I guess I missed that lesson Mom taught on not buying veggies from old Korean women on the sidewalk. She must haev known I wouldn't ever even THINK of doing something like that! ;)

I LOVE reading your entries...I think this has been my favorite thus far. It sounds like the Koreans are really amazing people and Seoul seems to be somewhat of a fairytale land. I've never heard of a city that "never sleeps" that is as safe as you're depicting Seoul to be. Let's hope you're right.

I'm glad you've been able to amuse the Koreans with your seem to take that charm with you wherever you go. You are just a fun guy GWEE! In fact, I heard "The Boss" on the radio this a.m. on the way to work and started laughing just thinking about his video ("Dancing in the Dark)we watched over and over again for laughs just a month ago or so. Talk about incredible dance moves- that guy's got it down pat- ha! Amazing what will get us going!

mom said...

I think it seems you are grabbing this life in Korea with "Gusto" the old beer commercial said.

Another great entry. The nighttime life there really amazes me.

As I write this from New Orleans...wish I could go out there and walk the streets and
report! That did not sound too good, did it? Anyway, the crime here is high so better not.

Stay safe and you do make our days with these reports.

Romeiser said...

Uncle John,

The kindergarteners go home at 1:20. It is a little early I guess.