Thursday, November 6, 2014

One Foot in Front of the Other

I'll begin by quoting again this passage from Shin Kyung-Sook's novel I'll Be Right There, which I wrote about here.
I made the right decision to learn about the city by walking around it.  Walking made me think more and focus on the world around me.  Moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, reminded me of reading a book.  I came across wooded paths and narrow market alleyways where people who were strangers to me shared conversations, asked one another for help, and called out to one another.  I took in both people and scenery.
This uncannily describes my peregrinations around Seoul for the past three and a half weeks.  I've spent a lot of time on buses and subway trains, of course, which are also full of people.  But more than during past visits I've walked around.  The autumn weather has been more comfortable for walking than the stifling, humid summer weather of my past visits, and I'm not worried about getting lost, as I used to be.  Which doesn't mean I can't get lost -- even born Seoulites do -- but I know that if I walk for a few blocks in almost any direction I'll come to a subway station, and from there I can get back to some place I know.

One of the benefits of my exploration has been interactions with people, despite my nearly non-existent Korean.  (I feel guilty, ashamed, and frustrated for not having worked on learning more.  I've resolved to do something about that.)  The easiest of these interactions is giving up one's seat to other people on the subway.  There are, as in other cities around the world, seats reserved in each car for the elderly, the infirm, and pregnant women, but they fill up, and people freely offer their seats elsewhere in the cars.  Even when I was a few years younger than I am, people offered me their seats, and though I sometimes resisted, if I was tired enough I would accept.  Soon I got into the spirit of it, and I had enough basic vocabulary to play the game.  "Sir [or Ma'am], sit!  Yes, sit!*  No no, I'm fine!  I'm only going to the next station!"  If someone older than I got on, I'd be on my feet (just as the others would), offering a space to them.

Now, for about the past week, this hadn't been happening.  There weren't any opportunities to play the game on the trains I was on while I was on them; no other seniors offered me a seat or needed one while I was there, there were enough seats for those of us who were riding.  But today it was different.  I was reading in my seat when an older heterosexual couple got on, and there was only one seat so I gave mine; I had to insist, but after one refusal the seat was accepted.  At the next stop a seat opened up opposite to where I'd been, so I sat -- but at the next stop I gave that seat to a young mother carrying her toddler son, and another seat opened up for a halmoni (grandmother) next to her.  We all beamed and nodded and thanked each other happily.  As we moved to the end of the line where I was bound, more seats opened up and the game was over for this ride; the young mother spoke to me, and her son was looking at me.  I said hello to him, and she said hello for him -- he was too young to speak, and probably wouldn't have spoken even if he were a year or two older, children are shy sometimes.  But then she was giving him some dry cereal to nibble on, and he held it out to me.  I thanked him but didn't accept it, not being sure I should.  He gave it to his mother instead.  And then it was my stop.

I've long wanted to live in Korea, and this trip has confirmed and strengthened that wish.  I think I could live comfortably here, and I think I'm going to take more serious steps toward doing so.  Of course, I must learn to have conversations in Korean.  If I could do that now, there would have been conversations on the train today, not just thank yous and head bows.  And those conversations must be in Korean, so that I'm the one who has to work harder to express himself.  (This is how I feel about conversations in Spanish with my Mexican friends.  They get to correct my Spanish, and they do.)  Still, those are better than nothing.  Today made me think of Andrew Ti's fury at Americans who'd use the few words of Chinese they know, because (he assumed) they hope to be told "THANK YOU FOR BEING ONE OF US."  Of course the same gesture can mean wildly different things depending on the person who uses it, but his interpretation made no sense to me two years ago and it still doesn't.  We are already "one of us."  The task and obligation is to make the connections that follow from that: to learn more of the other's language and culture, and interact on that basis.

Something more about that.  Today as I was crossing the street to the subway station in the district where I've been staying, a middle-aged man who was riding his bicycle in the opposite direction called out happily to me in English, "Hello, sir!"  I replied happily, "Hello, sir!"  "Nice to meet you!" he called as he rode past, and I replied in kind.  I'd have spoken in Korean to him if there'd been time, but he was gone.  I'd like to ask Andrew Ti about that.  Did this man use his few words of English in hopes I'd tell him "THANK YOU FOR BEING ONE OF US"?  I doubt it. Should I despise him for a racist shitbag who had no reason for tossing out his pitiful store of English at me?  (I just looked at Ti's tumblr for the first time in over a year.  It's gone way downhill, and Ti's become a rote Obamabot.  Kinda sad.)

This doesn't mean I think I can "be Korean." If I move here, gain fluency in Korean, even become a Korean citizen and adopt a Korean name (as a few Westerners have done), I'll still be an old white man from the United States.  Korea is still too 'racially' homogeneous to have many Caucasian Koreans, but I suspect that will change in the next generation or two, and then there will be black and South Asian and white Koreans, just as there are black and white and South Asian and East Asian Americans.  Belonging is complex, but I feel like an outsider in the US too, so being an outsider in another country won't be that different; belonging is something you make happen, in concert with the people you encounter and live among.

*Although manners and politeness as well as deference to the old are important in Korean culture, they aren't always expressed in the language as they would be in American English.  So one doesn't say "please" when inviting a senior to sit.  I've noticed that Korean (and Japanese) movies often put American-style politeness into the subtitles.  A child's answer to his parent may be translated as "Yes, father," when the original language has only "Yes" or a grunt, which can be transliterated as "Eung."  Manners are, remember, a social construction.