04 July 2008

Reflections on the Land of the Morning Calm

I have been trying to figure out how to distill the character of this country and her people in a way that doesn't seem patronizing or somehow cheapened by the expression. This has been on my mind since I got here, but it hasn't yet seemed like the right time to try to put it down. A few things have happened over the last day that have really given me a broader perception of the culture, so I am going to give it a try.

Last night Clayton and I took off to look for some cheap sunglasses and ended up taking a two and a half hour walk. There is a small river that winds through central Busan, running north from between Gwangalli and Haeundae beaches until it gets about even with my neighborhood, which it then turns west and runs behind. It is only about 100 feet wide and strictly channelized, but along the river's banks run wide paved walking paths. Between the walking path and the river on each side is a grassy area about 50 feet wide which a variety of recreational installations occupy at intervals. Wading pools, exercise areas with weights, pull-up bars, etc., a roller blade track, small amphitheaters, sculpture parks, badminton courts, and other facilities line the greensward. The banks of the river are lined with rushes and the rise up to street level is lined with carefully maintained shrubs and flower gardens. Bullfrogs croak from lily padded fish ponds circled by gravel walkways with little teak bridges. At midnight last night there were many people out walking, talking, playing, sitting around in small groups on park benches, holding hands. What does this have to do with the national character, you ask? Everything. This is a vertical city. People live literally on top of each other. I have yet to see a single family residence. I haven't been everywhere here, but it doesn't seem likely that they exist anywhere near the city center. But it is as if there was an unspoken contract that says, "OK, we are going to put five million people in 20 square kilometers; however, we are going to make every effort to do so without sacrificing our quality of life."

Now I know I am a cornfield county country boy living in the big city for the first time and if I were someone else I might reasonably question my standing as a commentator on urban planning and Asian cultural identity, but I have been around a little bit and there are some differences between the urban areas of the U.S. and here. First, the social contract that makes this place special has less to do with municipal forethought and more to do with relationships at the personal level. Clayton was saying tonight that he was sometime annoyed by all of the protocol and posturing that is part of the everyday experience here. When you are handed something, say a receipt at the grocery store, it is considered respectful to accept it with both hands. Likewise, the giver of the item will touch the forearm of the right (giving) hand with the fingers of the left hand. Eye contact is also made at this time. It is impossible to preform this act without acknowledging the presence of the other. It is a recognition in the literal sense, a re-cognition, a re-affirmation of the human element in the hum-drum interactions of day to day life. And, more importantly, this idea of really seeing the people around you carries over to every part of daily life here. It is demonstrated in city's cleanliness. Busan has paid street sweepers, usually older men, who can be seen working early every morning with old-fashioned natural brooms and hand-made tin dustbins. You don't have to see that going on twice to have a new take on the cigarette butt. Garbage in general here is treated differently. If you want a bag for your groceries you have to pay. Special bags are sold by the government for garbage disposal, and they aren't cheap. Koreans throw very little of anything away. At the McDonald's down the street the garbage cans are mini recycling centers. There is a receptacle for straws and lids, one for paper, a bucket for unfinished beverages. I would have no problem eating off the floor of the subway. It is immaculate. It is also apparent in the consideration taken toward strangers. When you get on the bus or subway and there aren't any seats, someone seated will take your bag and hold it, without asking or expecting thanks, so you can hold on to the grab rail. Last night a complete stranger approached me with a bottle of beer, poured me a glass, I poured him one, and we drank. I told him thank you and he trotted off. Another stranger walked three blocks with me and helped me buy a transit card. I could go on and on.

So what about the river path? Why are places important? As I was walking down it last night listening to the sounds of a city laughing and playing I was struck by the thought that this could not happen in many big cities in the U.S. Not at midnight. Not down by the river in a marginal neighborhood (my area is pretty gritty). In my country this area would have been a trash-filled, graffiti-covered hole.

What is so special about this place/people dynamic was made clear to me this afternoon in one of my classes. We were reading a story about a little girl whose family had moved to the city. She missed the farm. She and her father were sitting in the kitchen talking and he listened to her share her feelings and offered to take her and her dog for a walk to the park to make her feel better. On the way her dog got loose and a series of helpful bystanders at the park eventually reunited the girl and her dog. The lesson for the day was on setting, how a story is affected by the place in which it occurs. I asked the kids what the most important room in their house was. I got a variety of answers, but I proposed that the kitchen was the most important place because it was where the family gathered together to eat and talk and listen to each other. The kids bought it. I said that this was what happened in the story. The little girl was upset and her father was there with her and he saw it and he listened and he helped her feel better. If she was upset alone in her bedroom and her father was off somewhere watching TV there would be no story. I then proposed that the park was essentially a kitchen as well, but instead of being the "together place" for a single family, it is serves that purpose for the larger community. The school I teach in is on the edge of a large high rise complex, and the view from my fourth floor classroom is of its courtyard. There are tables under trees, tennis courts, two playgrounds, a small strip of shops, and a croquet court where a group of aunties have it out each afternoon. I asked the kids to get up and we looked out the window at the scene below. People talking, playing, eating, laughing, and most importantly, listening to each other. Just like a kitchen. The kids got the idea and I got verclempt.

Two things, intertwined, make this all possible: people and the places they inhabit. First, people gather in places like these because they are clean and safe and well-appointed. They are clean and safe and well-appointed because people care about them and want them to be nice. They care about these places because they care about each other. They care about each other because they have a clean, safe, well-appointed place to build relationships.

This then is the setting for the stories being told here in Busan. It is a magical place inhabited by people that care. And I am in love with it.