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