Friday, May 11, 2012

Six Degrees of Separation

I wrote this piece last year, and am posting it here in honor of Steve Cross, an old friend from high school...


There is a bike path across the road from my apartment building.  I often ride it, smiling and nodding and anyanghasayo-ing the people who pass me.  There is always something to see – the people walking across the reflexology stones, the children running for butterflies with nets outstretched ala Inspector Gadget, the half a dozen dogs chasing each other and nothing at all.  It is where the people of my neighborhood fill their time.

Frequently I pedaled past a small offshoot, wondering where it led.  Yesterday I found out.  Along one side was a creek that flowed into the larger Tancheon River, on the other was a black rock wall with a trickling water fountain.  Arcing around it were a dozen spotlights.  I would see it in the dark I decided and tonight I did – it must be beautiful I thought.  Tonight I trekked down and around and found, sadly, no lights.  But it had beckoned me, and in pursuing, I found something else.  Life is what happens when we are making other plans.  So true.

At the bend in the path there is a bridge.   On six lanes above, cars fly past on their way to and from Seoul.  Tonight it had become a noray-bridge – a singing bridge.  Lights and an amplifier had been set up.  And there was a lone man with karaoke machine and saxophone playing songs of longing into the night.  All around, small town snapshots were visible – young lovers nuzzling by the river, teenagers trying too hard to be too cool, women talking about the things women talk about, the men arguing about whatever men argue about through a haze of blue smoke.

Neon lights winked through the swaying trees as the people clapped their hands on this Thanksgiving evening, Chuseok it is called.  I was about to leave when an old familiar song tapped me on the shoulder and took me home, to small town USA.  Stand By Your Man wafted through the night air in Bundang, South Korea.  I admit that I sang along.  Perhaps I was the only one there who knew the words, and I marveled even as my mind was halfway around the world in my hometown, Greenfield Ohio, and my friend Steve and his friend Georgette.  Why you might ask?  She’s not just any Georgette.  She’s the daughter of Tammy Wynnette, and that was her mother’s signature song.

Country music has always been a part of my life, but I never thought to find it under a bridge in South Korea, a lone man and a saxophone transporting me through the air to the place I grew up in.  Thank you, Tammy Wynnette.  Thank you for taking me home from so far away.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Nothing Happens

It was one of those kind of evenings. Cinco de Mayo 2012. I was working at home and decided to join a friend at a festival downtown somewhere. I hadn’t had lunch, and my watch read *eep* 5 p.m. Damn. A couple of soft tacos and a bottle of water would be it. By the time we made it to Itaewon and the 12 step program, I realized – with a little nudging from my oh-so-insistent personal trainer – that I’d not exercised yet. You don’t get a day off from exercising was his message to me. Damn. My 12 step program includes not just abstaining from the thing that I’m addicted to, but filling the emptiness daily by taking care of myself through meditation, exercise, sleep, water, etc. I’d attended a meeting that morning (en EspaƱol no less), so I decided to skip the evening meeting so I could actively work *my* program. I’d meet them after for dinner and conversation.

I walked up the road – what is the name of it? Hamilton Hotel Road? Itaewon Main Road? I have no idea… but any expat in Seoul will know what you mean if you call it either one of these. I decided to follow my feet wherever they took me and explore. I got lost in that I don’t know exactly where I am, but I can see a landmark, so it’s all good kind of way. On quiet back streets, I bowed to the people I saw and looked around – chickens hanging in windows, pots of sage and impatiens and aloe sitting outside rundown buildings. I climbed hills so steep they become stair steps. As I got closer to the main road again, the scenery changed – an international market, no-pork restaurants, prayer rug store and Asalaam alaikum greetings.

Soon I realized it was just about time to meet up with my friends, so I hurried down the road, twilight turning to darkness, and worked my way through chain smoking businessmen, Stepford-wife styled women, gaggles of soldiers. Crossing the tiniest street, I saw a woman pushing a man in his wheelchair. From his wheelchair, the man was pushing their suitcase. That is, they were trying to do this, trying to move through the crowd on the bumpy brick sidewalk. It was the lip of the curb that stopped them. It rose a good two inches above the sidewalk proper.

Can I help you? I asked them. Helping trumps meeting people for dinner I think. They gratefully said yes and we walked along, her still pushing him, me pushing their (heavy) suitcase, until we found our way to their hotel. Do you live here? Yes, for four years. Are you visiting? Yes, we are Dutch. Oh welcome to Korea! Have you been traveling a lot? Yes we just came from North Korea. *blink blink* Really? Is anyone not fascinated with North Korea? These nice Dutch people have movies. They were in the north YESTERDAY.  Whoa!

We exchanged numbers and names and phone numbers (my cell, their hotel). We’re having lunch on Tuesday. Perhaps one of the Muslim places I discovered? No matter. X and Y have promised to share their videos. I’ve promised to share my adopted city.

Nothing simply happens.

(Photo - my time teaching in Oregon.  One of the Saudi students put this on my head.  "You are Muslim in your heart" he said to me.  No disrespect is intended)

I met with the lovely X and Y.  The discussion was fascinating.  They had brought propaganda from No. Korea with them.  Here's what I feel I can publish safely:  The No. Korean factories they saw were shut down for maintenance when they were there.  They were not permitted to watch some young girls practicing for a dance performance.  They weren't permitted alone at any point.  When they started speaking Dutch, their driver was changed within a very short time.  All the propaganda had very fat leaders talking to gaunt workers.  The two folks who met with me were really lovely people.  They did not say anything bad about North Korea.  They talked about how confusing it was at times.  But that is normal for cultural differences, no?