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Sunday, May 20, 2012

That Beautiful Sound

There was that mesmerizing traditional Korean music concert several weeks ago. The striking colors of the women’s dresses igniting the sounds that filled the air of the outdoor affair.

The clanging of the metal pots and pans of the stall vendors on still nights, tells stories of families, hard work and earnestness. The fried wontons, the rice cakes, the sizzling meat and chicken on grills, the steaming liquids, wafting in and around the blue and white plastic canopies, swell the night so completely.

The Asian birds singing their songs along crowded streets and tree-lined dirt paths. Ah, their sweet melodic chirping gains my attention far too infrequently. My loss.

The voices of the children: happy and excited, going to school, playing, learning how to share, how to survive, and hopefully, how to thrive. Their sounds fill the streets most mornings here.

The cacophony of older women talking excitedly in groups, passing by or stationed under trees in the shade—out of the sun. They have earned their right to speak boldly, passionately, about anything.

No, the most beautiful sound I have heard these past few months came on Saturday. When, having earlier reached for an old friend of mine, I heard that once familiar sound from long ago. That reassuring smack when the cover of a ball relinquishes itself to the pocket of a glove. Ah, that is the single most beautiful, most satisfying sound I have heard here.

                                                     An old friend         

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Between the Lines and Lanes

There are two essential passions in my life these days--drinking my morning coffee and trying to stay alive while crossing the streets of Korea. Both are challenging. Coffee, it seems, isn’t required by the populace here until about 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning--that is the time most coffee shops seem to open. And those painted crosswalks--surely they are not there to protect pedestrians. There is a somewhat confusing and downright frightening cat and mouse game that goes on when crossing Korean streets.

Truth be told, roadways here are in a near-anarchy state. It’s every driver—and therefore every pedestrian, for him or herself.  Signaling is strictly optional. Some drivers literally speed up when turning corners. And fuel is added to the fire by the addition of a lunatic cadre of motorcyclists and scooter drivers who pepper the streets starting at lunchtime and continuing throughout the afternoon and evening. They are the food-delivery madmen of Korea, who drive without conscience; darting recklessly in every direction, often riding on sidewalks, oblivious to anything other than their food delivery destination and their convulsive return trip back to the restaurant. In fact, I hear the haunting drone of their scooter engines as I write this.

There are other contemporary matters here that are quite bedeviling.  In the last few months alone, a number of local high students, four reportedly in just one area apartment complex, have committed suicide. All indications are that these deaths can be attributed to bullying.  A rash of student bullying seems to have swept the country. One story in The Korea Times suggests that some students are harassed because they don’t have “cool gear.” It appears that groups of bullies have taken to wearing The North Face branded clothing—which, given its premium pricing here, is seen as cache by many students.  Victims of these bullies are reportedly wearing less expensive and non-hip brands.

Another phenomenon is the popularity of cosmetic surgery--again, especially amongst young students. Having eyes and noses altered to resemble those of westerners is de rigour in the middle class. Very few people seem to reflect on, or question, this trend. Subway stations in affluent neighborhoods are filled with huge cosmetic surgery ads targeting young Koreans.

These are trends that lie between the lines and the lanes of the new Korea. One can only wonder where the pressures and trappings of success and affluence may take this tiny nation.