As I’ve recently mentioned, I’m saving my protests-related observations for an article, but Matt has a great post up here. And I say that not just because he links to my comments, either. Gusts of Popular Feeling is one of those kinds of sites I’d aspire to run something like if I wasn’t just so completely worn out with/by/about Korea these days. This post has been, in part, inspired indirectly by things he and Joe Mondello have had to say of late, for their interest, engagement, and apparent happiness here. The contrast has shocked me into reflection, and the reflection has been hard, but necessary, I suppose.
And on reflection, I think I can only say what I need to say obliquely, maybe because it’s mostly feelings and not things I can declare or argue about or whatever. But this is where I am in my relationship with Korea, muddle and all…
Clouds drift in, and you look up to see whether they mean a light rainstorm or just early dusk. The mountain has gone quiet, and you’re almost alone, except for the guy walking his little yappy dog. The older men and women who hike this mountain almost always leave by this time, when there’s enough time to get to the top and down again before sunrise, but only just enough time if you don’t rest. From the same spot you always stop at, you can see the high-rises in the distance: dingy-white, all monstrously identical, monolithic, a nightmare born of artless robot architects; but the sight is familiar and anchoring at the same time, a sign of being where you are. A strange and distant comfort. You’re not so far from the world of human beings, no matter how far you have climbed.
That’s where you’re going back to, now, on your way back down the mountain. Going back down is always harder than up. Your muscles strain, but that’s not the hardest part.
You near the bottom of the mountain but you have to stop before you’re back down to concrete. Down there, along the street, it’s not like up here on the mountain. The flashing neon, the blaring music. Always the blaring music. You take out your MP3 player, plug the earphones into your ears. You will listen to something that is yours, something that you want to hear.
An old woman is sitting near the bottom of the mountain. She looks at your shoes and exclaims something, marveling at the way your toes are separate in them. It’s what everyone does. You just try to smile and pretend you’re not tired of it. Of random people stopping in the street to stare, as if wearing different shoes were so very strange. You try to pretend to yourself that it didn’t get old weeks ago, and say goodbye to her in her language, and go down the remaining hillside, down to the streets of what one of your students once called, unreservedly, a slum.
There are so many people. Always so many people, and inside the restaurants they are eating the same things people eat in those restaurants every day. The fridges full of small green bottles glow, and they talk in loud voices, laughing, protesting, interjecting. They will still be talking like that long after you are gone from this city. The fridges will still be glowing through green glass for so long, though not forever. The green glass will disappear someday. The people will eat other things, that these people cannot imagine, just as they now eat things that the people who were here before could not have imagined.
You wonder if someone could sit on the concrete and wait for it, for the green glass bottles to disappear. For the neon lights to wink out, and the music to stop blasting. If that was all he did, just sit there and wait, holding his life in and expending nothing, just waiting to see the shifting slip of the world, would he live long enough to see the day come? The day when people walking in streets like these will smile into faces they have never seen before?
Things can shift in an instant.
Rain can suddenly burst on a sunny afternoon, sending the college kids on the sidewalk skidding close to one another, fumbling for their umbrellas or unneeded newspapers and laughing as the first droplets fall, as they hurry to the train station. This, too, can come of dark clouds, the giggling and clacking of heels on concrete, of couples suddenly arm in arm, defended from the elements by wire and fine cloth.
But it is difficult, to sit in the place where you are, here on the endless concrete, wondering about the place you want to be instead. Wondering whether it really exists, whether you’d be sitting on the concrete there too. It is hard, and you cannot make dark clouds turn to rain by looking at them, by hoping or wishing. When they do come down to you as rain, as often as not, you end up soaked. When the place you want to be is this place, and not this place, at the same time, where are you? Where should you be?
Waiting doesn’t make that day come any sooner. The bottles are still green, they still clank against the steel tabletops, the mountain still crests off into the gathering dark, naked of people, exposed to the descending torrent of rain. But neither does pushing make the day come any sooner. It comes, or it comes not at all. The people eat what they eat. They want what they want, and they pick their battles by a logic that can baffle or confound anyone like you. You’ve been here long enough to know you’re not part of any grand picture of theirs.
But who is? Not these people. They’re not in their own grand picture, either; nobody alive now is. They’re here like you, to eat what they eat, and drink what they drink, and move on. Just like you, almost. Maybe.
And they love it, the same smell of the grilling meat that makes your mouth water, too. You lean forward, listening, but the words are too far away, the unopened mouths far too distant. Alone on that sidewalk, you feel it, the world sliding forward through time all around you. Time, what’s left of it. Time. There is only so much, then it’s done, and it’s someone else’s sidewalk, someone else’s table and meat, someone else’s mountain and clouds and world.
And you leave this sidewalk where it is, and walk home thinking, “The mountain’s just not enough. Not anymore.” It feels almost like a vow or a promise, except there’s no force behind it. You’re not a world, you don’t spin through the dark powered by gravity. You are not relentless. You’re just tired of sitting on the sidewalk, waiting. That’s all.
There’s no grand plan, no great narrative. No calling of horses, no trumpets sounding, no air tickets or train sirens ringing through the quiet of the mountainside after the rain. No decisions for now. Nothing more than the rain puddling in between the bricks of the sidewalk, nothing more than your toe banged against one of them unevenly set in its place.
A sidewalk brick, unevenly set down there, somehow shifted out of its place. Nothing more, yet. Nothing more.