Memoir

Occidental Accidents in The Orient

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A New Yorker’s Memoir of Life And Lessons from Korea And Japan
by Carl Atteniese Jr.
(A Work in Progress)

ONE
Gimpo Airport And En Route to Shinsol dong, Seoul, April, 1996
It was like Bladerunner – dark, rainy-looking…. Okay, it wasn’t rainy the night I arrived, but later I would discover that when it was rainy, it did seem Bladerunner-esque, in that Bladerunner way. And now, with all the different shapes in machinery, corrugated metal, the uniforms on customs and immigration people looking so surreal and authoritative and in the “off-world” way in which the brunette masses strained with apolitically serious countenance, it was like a cleaned-up scene from that story – especially if you had seen the movie and had read the book. The book gives the impression of modernity, until you see the scenery on the screen. And Korea, even just inside the airport, did seem modern. Or, alien.

I suppose you might consider it cheap of me to rely heavily on the narrative and cinematic genius of others, but I have learned from a lifetime of attempting to write prose and narratives of my own that it‘s a good thing to refer the reader to other things s/he knows – when poetic description can actually mislead, creating the wrong imagery. This is because we all have a different image- language- and visceral emotion- base in our memory. I would say “data-base”, but I am tired of the boring and insufficient way in which writers of today associate everything with man-made machines; it may seem creative, but it’s not). I suppose – however – that this way I may leave my story open for a loss of clarity, because there will be people who haven’t seen Bladerunner…. however, in all seriousness that’s what I thought in the moments I experienced Korea for the first time – ‘Bladerunner.’

There was neon everywhere. There were many small alleyways; I didn’t see those in as great a number as I later would, either – especially near the airport or even after twenty minutes into the bus-ride, but they are such a common and defining feature of the landscape in Korea and North Asia in general, that it warrants mentioning. The alleyways are a part of the allure, though from what I have seen in contrast from photographs of alleyways in Europe, alleys in Asia possess a capacity for being quaint that comes with an acquired taste. That is, of course if we are not considering the wooded and cobble-stoned nature of Japanese alleys, such as are found in Kyoto. These are idyllic.

And on all the traffic islands at and near the airport, in Korea there were cabbage plants! later, when Incheon Airport would be founded and begun to be the major air hub for South Korea – and one would have to travel greater distances from Seoul and its environs to reach it, this writer would discover in the long, limousine busride over countryside and dry or wet river beds and near the ocean, that the rice fields extended very close to the airport. I would learn that the Koreans – nor the Japanese – waste no arable land in such a small country covered with mountains. And those cabbage patches were an indication of something else that I would find quite ubiquitous about Korea – and, again, more so about Japan: aesthetics are enormously important.

Nowhere does one see unkempt roadsides littered with car parts from accidents, refuse tossed out windows left to fill a graveyard among overgrown weeds, crabgrass and out-of-control undergrowth. No, the Koreans knew how to keep their spirits up even on the highways and service roads, and how to welcome with pride and respect international travelers.

And Asian people – they were everywhere – course – right? It was Korea after all! But they didn’t look like the types of Asians this type of guy had grown up around: two in number, in his home town (!) – and Chinese in heritage. Yes, I can generally tell the differences in appearance between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other varieties of East Asian peoples. That time I was just learning their physiognomy, however.

The two things that impressed me first, though – beside the fact that I was on the other side of the planet – were the machine guns and the ubiquity of tubing. Then, of course, there were the crazy bus-drivers – but I’ll explore that scare and make you laugh about it, later.

I had never seen machine guns, before – besides on TV. Remember, this was before 9/11 (“Koo Ir-il” as Koreans call it, I would learn). And there they were: two soldiers, dressed in deep navy fatigues, gliding – not ‘walking” – as you’d expect two precision-timed robots set to move in synchronized cadence would, seemingly strolling in slow-motion across the expanse of the reception lobby of “Kimpo” Airport, as it was spelled, then (“Gimpo Hanggong in transliterated Korean).

‘Holy shit,’ I must have thought, ‘’machine guns.’ I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that North and South Korea were still at war, technically – since 1953. I’d undoubtedly read about it in my preparation, before coming, but it wasn’t “realized” in my mind until now. Machine guns had a way of making that clear in a different way that machine guns never had made anything clear to me, before.

The bus ride was a little nutty. The bus squeaked and creaked and groaned and rumbled. The seats were singles and only one row deep from the wall, in some places, causing most of the people to have to stand. I was standing, too, or hanging on and holding on to a loop suspended from a strap, like the ones in the old subway cars of New York – but the loop-handle was exactly like the loops a gymnast grabs on the Still Rings – like the ones I used in class and in intramural exercises in college. And these rings on straps were necessary, because the bus driver drove fast – really fast – and what seemed to be reckless.

There was neon everywhere. There were many small alleys (Well, I didn’t see those in as great a number as I later would, either – especially near the airport or even after twenty minutes into the bus-ride). And on all the traffic islands at the airport, there were cabbage plants dyed purple and left green, too.

Asian people: They were everywhere. Of course – right? It was Korea, after all! But they didn’t look like the types of Asians this type of guy had grown up around ー two in number, in his home town (!) – and Chinese in heritage.

Yes, I can generally tell the differences in appearance between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other varieties of East Asian people’s. At the time of my touchdown in the former Hermit Kingdom, I was just learning their physiognomy, however, so it was strange; they appeared to have square heads and faces.

The two things that impressed me most at first, though – beside the fact that I was on the other side of the planet – were the machine guns and the ubiquity of tubing.

I had never seen machine guns, before – except on Television. Remember, this was before 9/11 (“Koo Ir-il” as Koreans call it, I would learn).

And there they were: two soldiers, dressed in deep navy fatigues, gliding – not ‘walking” – as you’d expect two precision-timed robots would, set to move in synchronized cadence ーseemingly strolling in slow-motion across the expanse of the reception lobby of “Kimpo” Airport, as it was spelled, then (“Gimpo Hanggong” in transliterated Korean).

‘Holy shit,’ I must have thought, ‘’machine guns!’ I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that North and South Korea were still at war, technically – since 1953. I’d undoubtedly read about it in my preparation, before coming, but it wasn’t “realized” in my mind until now. Machine guns had a way of making that clear in the different way that machine guns never had made anything clear to me, before.

The bus ride was a little nutty. The bus squeaked and creaked and groaned and rumbled ー and moved very fast. The seats were singles and only one row deep from the wall, in some places, causing most of the people to have to stand. I was standing, too, or hanging on and holding on to a loop suspended from a strap, like the ones in the old subway cars of New York – but the loop-handle was exactly like the loops a gymnast grabs on the Still Rings – like the ones I used in class and in intramural exercises in college. That struck me as mildly humorous. And these rings on straps were necessary, because the bus driver drove a bit recklessly, too. There would be no “transit surfing’ here ー doing a balancing act as I had on buses and subways in New York ー for fun. That would land one in the hospital, or at least on the floor ー or someone’s lap.

In the darkness out the bus window, through the reflections of ourselves inside, I saw angels and demons: the ghosts of dreams and nightmares calling out their portents: ‘You’re so far from home! What are you doing here?’ The adventure you are on is like endless dawns, drawing you into horizons of opportunity!’ No, into darkness, you are disappearing!’ Then you focus on your own dark pupils, then you half-countenance in the glass, reflecting back at you in your twenty-nine year-old face. The mirror of people around you. The traffic in lights and shapes of cars — all silver and white, and soap-shaped, outside. And little trucks that could fit in your bedroom, back home in New York. ‘I’m in Asia…’ The people around me look serious. But it feels safe…. We roll on into the dark, making turns in traffic circles. Boxy buildings and neon lights grow in number the deeper we dive. The bus creeks. The angels and demons quiet. ‘This is my journey’, I tell them in my consciousness. And besides, I am meeting my best friend.

 

We arrived at Adam’s in Shinsol dong at night. I looked intently at everything I could make out in the dark. And so far, despite Seoul’s looking like a land out of science fiction, or some dystopian future, the hodge-podge and dilapidated nature of many structures also made it look like its war-torn past, in my mind.

There were these huge white and oddly mint-green and cement apartment buildings in rows. They had huge numbers on them. I immediately thought of the moon bases I drew as a kid, the ideas for which came from depictions in books about space travel. I’d emblazoned the buildings in my pictures with the same large numbers – like the ones in the books.

As we walked through a large cukdesac parking lot surrounded by these big, terraced abodes (in which the terraces were really outdoor hallways on each floor with a waist-high wall), I started to see in some ways, how Koreans lived differently from how we do in the West. I thought to myself, ‘It must be cold after one climbs the stairs or gets out of the elevator, walking down those open air halls to reach his apartment.’ But it did look cool to me that one could see out over the town from the hall. But I also wondered if any kids had ever fallen off those terraced halls. Korea seemed a bit less concerned with safety. I saw some precarious stair cases along the sides of houses that led to rooves; doors on second floors that opened mysteriously onto sheer drops to the earth below. And having been a draftsman had taken architecture in high school, I noticed risers on stair-cases and curbs along sidewalks that were different heights! ‘I’ll have to watch where I am walking!’

A chilly, breezy, spring wind enveloped me, and on it I sensed an eery and exciting feeling. I had arrived in a realm that was so far from home, on the other side of the planet, and which seemed so different that it was a bit creepy to realize it had an ancient history as a completely different world formerly unbeknownst to me. All the lives in this place that had come and gone might as well have been ants under a rock, until I had gotten here. It was this feeling of gross ignorance which in the beginning made me want to know as much as I could about this place, I think. Like a person waking up a thousand years in the future, from cryogenic suspension-like Woody Allen in Sleeper (!), you feel like even the buttons on your new clothes might require an explanation.

When I was growing up a mutual friend of Adam’ and mine from our home town, also called Adam, had once said to me something like, ‘Look at another person walking by and realize that he has an entire life as intricate and complex as yours, and you don’t know anything about it, and you probably never will. Doesn’t’ that make you stop and think?’ So I thought, ‘yeah, that’s profound’, and ‘there are hundreds of guys like that within a square mile of us. But this was an entirely different culture, in Asia. I didn’t know the half of it what I didn’t know!

And when you realize this is only one other country out of many you haven’t been to, you understand how little you know about the world, regardless of what you might have learned in school, read in books, seen on TV, or heard on the radio…until you travel, and for  long, long time.

And I had arrived,  in what would prove to be a culture I would come to think of as the opposite of my own, yet, no magic was going to suddenly enlighten me about this place and all its mysteries. Little did I know how much I would have to suffer before I really learned about this place, deeply. One thing you do realize after not too long in Korea;  very little on the surface reveals what is really going on inside.

To Be Continued…

Lessons from Korea And Japan