Sunday, January 16, 2011

as i have a mere 3 weeks remaining in korea, i've found myself overly introspective lately. a lot of things have happened this year & i have changed and grown and developed so much as a person. i truly believe that korea was an absolutely necessary chapter of my life. unfortunately, not all of the changes have been positive & i've really disgusted myself with some of the findings turned up by this 'introspection' time. some events from the past couple of weeks have really stuck with perhaps the best way to explain what i mean would be to share a few stories...

some simple "background" before story #1. koreans LOVE alcohol. i've never seen anything like it. drinking is absolutely expected of you & sometimes a resistance to alcohol can even threaten your job. it's THAT intense. as if i'm not "weird" enough to koreans, you should see their faces when i tell them i prefer sprite over soju. it's like i just landed here from mars.

last week, i was walking home with some friends after dinner. it was early - maybe 9pm - but the night was already bitter cold with windchills definitely below zero. the real crappy thing about korea during winter is that roads & sidewalks remain largely uncleared & unsalted, so they're enormously dangerous. there's ice everywhere and people falling left and right. as i'm walking along with my friends, i notice one of them isn't with us anymore. i look back & see him helping an older korean man to his feet after falling victim to the korean sidewalks of death. the man steadies himself and my friend jogs to catch up with us. i make a comment to him about how the guy looks a little wobbly on his feet & he replies "yeah, he's really drunk." as he says this, we look back to see that the man has fallen again. (i'm telling you - these sidewalks are ridiculous!) my friend and i walk back to help the guy up & my friend notices that the man's knee is pretty banged up. we think he might have seriously hurt himself on the first fall. so i start talking to this korean man in his late 50s, early 60s: "sir, where are you going? can i call you a taxi? are you ok? maybe you should go to the hospital..." despite the early hour, this dude is seriously wasted. he has no concept of the fact that i'm even speaking to him. i try again. instead of answering me, he slips & lands hard on the sidewalk. AGAIN. as we help him up, i repeat my questions. again, he is completely ignorant of anything happening around him. this happens a countless number of times & my friend keeps scraping the guy off the ice. our other friends are ahead of us impatiently waiting & freezing their butts off. "come on!" they yell "there's nothing else you can do to help him. you keep talking to him in korean and he won't respond. it's his own fault that he's so drunk" my friend keeps hanging on to the guy & i keep begging him to tell me where he's going so i can call him a taxi. but he just stumbles along, completely ignorant of the world around him. finally we reach my building & the man pauses at a bus stop. "what should we do?" my friend and i ask each other. "i don't know" my friend says "he won't answer you about calling a taxi, and we have no idea where he's even going" after much debate, and our friends yelling at us "come's freezing!" i try one more time. the man remains unresponsive. i tell him "please go carefully" and enter my building to rest in my warm apartment...completely unsure of what will become of the man or whether or not he will be able to make it safely to his own home.


background to story #2: koreans are very private people. if you're walking along the sidewalk, you don't ever smile or nod at someone you don't know. you mind your own business & keep to yourself. you don't bother others and they don't bother you. in addition, koreans are overwhelmingly concerned about how they appear to others & are extremely critical of those with disabilities or abnormalities. i never felt it necessary to try to hide my malformed thumbs before this year, but even my korean family has asked me numerous times - "don't you want plastic surgery to fix them?" i don't fault them for this as it is totally a culture thing & a widely accepted thought by most korean people.

i had a pretty stressful weekend recently & was really exhausted from a severe lack of sleep. i took an early subway from my parents' house in seoul to get home early to my place in cheonan to rest for the evening. a few stops after i get on & claim my seat, this tall, lanky korean kid boards my subway car. he's maybe a couple years older than me but obviously not "normal"...particularly by korean standards. he takes a seat in the row across from me & shivers violently from the cold outside. he sips on his chocolate milk and flails his arms - partially from the cold, partially from the nervous energy emanating from his body. he is so antsy - everyone stares at him. he shakes his legs and waves his arms - disturbing his obviously annoyed seatmates. they stand up and move to other cars to find new seats where they can ride quietly & undisturbed. i am surprised to see that the lanky kid isn't riding with a guardian. i wonder if someone might be looking for him, unaware that he has boarded the subway alone. after a few stops, my exhaustion gets the best of me & i fall asleep. after a few minutes, i am jolted awake. i hear a ruckus and open my eyes. the lanky kid is on his feet standing in front of a pretty, young, korean girl. he's not hurting her but definitely invading her personal bubble. he pokes his finger at her face and book & is really causing a scene in the subway car. an older man is sitting next to the girl and grabs the lanky kid's arm. "stop it!" he yells "go sit down!" obviously unaware of social boundaries, the kid's fascination shifts from the girl to the older man and he starts poking at his face. the man gets angrier and angrier and stands up to get at eye level with the lanky kid. he starts yelling at him. "what's wrong with you? what are you? stop touching me. sit down!" the lanky kid looks a little scared but his curiosity gets the best of him & he keeps poking the now infuriated ahjussi. the older man grabs him by the collar and the entire subway car waits with baited breath. the man rears back a fist and i start praying harder and harder for some divine intervention. the man's own conscience gets the best of him, and he pushes the lanky kid away and returns to his seat. the kid stumbles around the subway car and out of my line of sight. i fall back asleep. i wake up when i hear more yelling. this time, the kid has crossed an older korean woman and her 30-some year old son. her son is a big guy and he's totally pissed off. he starts screaming at the kid - repeating the same things that the first guy had yelled. he pushes the kid hard and everyone gasps. he presses him against the subway door and gets in his face. "don't touch me again. do you want to die?" this time, the lanky kid seems to sense that he's in actual danger and cowers. i breathe a sigh of relief as the kid manages to refrain from poking the guy again & the man's wife intervenes to cool down her infuriated husband. a stateside advocate for students with disabilities...what was my role in this entire situation? i sat on my butt. listened to my ipod. dozed in and out of sleep.

this brings me to the question - who AM i?! i never would have stood for such injustice had story #2 taken place in america. i would have been the first one up in the older man's face - "whats wrong with HIM? what's wrong with YOU?! this kid obviously isn't aware of social norms so back off, old man. cut him some slack. he's not hurting anyone." but since this story took place in korea, my response was totally different. apathy. "fly under the radar. don't speak unless spoken to. koreans already think you're weird enough. keep your head down and your nose clean." when the man reared his fist back, what did i do? i turned my head the other way & breathed a sigh of relief when the situation resolved itself.

what did i do to help in situation #1? i continued on to my warm home and slept like a baby in my comfortable bed. i have no idea if that guy got to a hospital. or to his house. or if he froze to death that night on the street. "i tried to help" i tell myself "it's his own fault that he was too drunk to comprehend anything that i was saying. i even spoke to him in korean!" but those excuses are ridiculous and i know it. and now i'm haunted by that night and i'll never know what became of that man.

blame it on culture. blame it on my own selfish pride. blame it on the cold weather. blame it on my stressful week & exhaustion. no matter how you look at it, my actions, or lack thereof, were wrong. i never would have stood for such injustice in the states. i am ashamed of the way my thinking has changed in one short year. i desperately need to re-evaluate.

may i see these situations as learning opportunities.
may i never again sit idly by as the weak are treated injustly.
may my cowardice never again get the best of me.
may these experiences always haunt me.
and may their memory always spur me to action.
may i become a better person than the person i am now.


Post a Comment