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Friday, March 30, 2012

Lay of The Land


"I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land..."
                                                            Henry David Thoreau

The Korean peninsula is an ocean of undulating mountains, not usually majestic but, like the rest of life here, almost always curiously alluring. In Korea I am child-like and wide-eyed, naked to the possibilities, oblivious to matters of necessity.

I chuckle at the smallest things: how everyone suddenly sports an umbrella at the slightest sign of rain; the way people cup their wrists with their other hand as a sign of respect when giving or receiving items from each other; the ubiquitous, polite calls of “welcome” and “goodbye” heard when entering or leaving almost any establishment.

But I don’t know the exact route here myself. I am an outsider, a “wei-gook-saram,” a foreigner. I navigate by the lay of the land. When I am not lost in thought, I will greet every one I pass by with a genuine “hello” in Korean. There is an almost universal reciprocation that marks each moment in time for me.

On campus young women are usually busy laughing and exchanging gay banter. Embracing couples are now commonplace, where they were once a rarity. Almost everyone seems to be carrying English language books. There is a collective sigh of relief emanating from the students here who have finally made it to college. Most have spent nearly every waking moment of their childhood fixated on studying, getting good grades, cramming, honing some new skill, improving their mathematical prowess, learning a new language. They have survived that test.

I am an observer; a student of life here. The light, the smells, the sounds—they are my guideposts. They dot my landscape. I steer my way by the lay of this land.


7 comments:

  1. This is lovely, Steve. That feeling of being connected yet apart, the essence of the bicultural experience. And the watchfulness oaetna outsider, intently observing others' behavior for the cues that someone who's on the inside of a culture responds to unconsciously.

    I just wrote a piece with a related theme, "Of Longing and Belonging," for a blog I think would interest you: KoreanAmericanStory.org

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    1. Thanks Annie for sharing your reaction. Very much what I was trying to convey. Annie, what was the name of the hospital your dad worked at? I went to Ap San mountain yesterday and the bus transfer let us off at Dong San Hospital-which now includes the name Keimyung as if in a partnership. I took a picture just in case it was where he had worked.
      Warm regards,
      Steve

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  2. That's "the watchfulness of the outsider" ...

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  3. Thank you for bringing Korea to us in each description of wanderings streetwise or cultural specificity. It is enlarging my world, eyes, and heart and makes me smile.

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    1. Greeting Fran.

      So nice to hear from you. Glad to make my eyes, ears and other senses conduits for Korea and in turn, your smiles.
      You do the same for me with your facebook song posts. Just listened to Bob Dylan thanks to you recently,

      Regards,

      Steve

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  4. Yes, Steve, it is Dong San Hospital.
    We stopped there when we visited Daegu in 2009. Much of it was unrecognizable, but there were a few areas where I saw remnants of the structure.

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    1. Anne,

      Change here seems like it's on steroids. Ironic for a country that is so deeply respectful and honorific of its history. Daegu for me is nearly totally unrecognizable.

      But I shouldn't forget I recently took Marsha to my old stomping grounds as a kid in Brooklyn. We went to my synagogue there and there was a hole in the ground and they were putting up an apartment building. The temple was all stone and timeless and I would have thought would have lived on forever. Now, nothing but a deep hole remained, that and deep memories.

      Steve

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