아무렇지도 않게 밤 10시에 서울성곽으로 발을 돌렸다. 굽이굽이 올라가는 산길에는 가로등 하나 켜져 있지 않았지만, 아랑곳하지 않고 이런 저런 얘기를 하며 올라갔다. 말바위에 도착해서는 유난히 차분해 보이는 서울 야경을 긴 시간 말 없이 내려다보았다. 그러다 또 얘기를 나눴다. 남들에게 쉽게 털어놓지 않는 그런 얘기들. 먼 이국 땅에서 외로움과 씨름하다 퓨즈가 나가듯 앞으로의 인생에 대한 기대감이 꺼져버린 얘기, 늘 싸우기만 하던 부모님이 어느 날 다같이 자살할지 11살 딸에게 선택하라 한 얘기 등. 사연 없는 사람 없다지만, 사람 사는 모양은 정말 가지각색인가보다. 그래서 이렇게 타인과 교감을 나누는 게 기적이라 느껴지는 걸지도. 분명 어젯밤의 교감은 오래도록 잊지 못할 그런 순간이었다.
하지만 이런 순간들이 그저 추억이 될 것이란, 미국을 가고 나면 십중팔구 이 사람들은 내 인생을 스쳤던 수많은 사람들 중 몇이 되어버릴 것이란 새삼스런 두려움을 떨쳐버리기란 쉽지 않다. 언제나 이렇게 현재를 공유할 것 같은데. 추억이 되어도, 손 뻗으면 닿을 기억의 표면에 이 순간들이 영원히 머무를 것 같은데. 이 사람들도 이 순간들도 특별한 자극 없이는 꺼내보지도 않을 무의식의 서랍 속에 잠겨 나도 모르는 나의 일부가 되어갈 것이란 게 믿기지가 않는다.
To work hard and achieve what you want is not just an admired way of life, but an imperative in a capitalist society.
The reason I have a hard time following this command is not because I lack the discipline to work hard, but because I don’t really want anything. Or, at least, the things I want I do not genuinely want. Wealth, honor, power, respect… well yeah, it would be nice to have these things. But I’m not moved by an insatiable urge to get as rich and powerful as possible. In fact, not a lot of things move me to desperate action. Hunger may be. Most other things I can just live without, as long as I have my loving family, means to support myself and my family, and a bit of free time to relax.
The way the society makes me feel bad about myself for not wanting enough is scary. When I am satisfied with what I have, the society thinks that I’m a complacent person who will soon lose my competitive edge. When I do not feel the need to be ambitious, the society thinks that I’m a loser who never had the guts to dream big. When I derive more joy from what I currently do and not from the dreams I fervently pursue, the society thinks I am a boring person from whom no enduring lessons can be drawn. The society exploits your insecurity and emptiness to convince you that you cannot be happy the way you are.
But I am. Although I see nothing wrong with pursuing what you want and achieving it, I don’t see a reasonable need to want things that I genuinely do not just because everyone else does. If happiness is what we are after, and not wanting anything is one way to get closer to it, it must also be a justifiable and admirable way of life.
Life went on in Kesennuma, a small port city located about 400 km northeast of Tokyo, as if nothing terrible ever happened. The old lady running a small sushi restaurant continued to offer her guests a convivial smile and politeness typical of the Japanese. A local salt producer, whose business relies on the traditional method of depositing and evaporating sea water in a stove to produce salt, joked about how sympathetic people sent him stacks of bamboo trees without knowing that they would explode in a stove. May be two years was enough time for the Kesennuma community to recover from the blow. Its members look content, if not outright cheerful.
On March 11th, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.03 occurred near the coast of Japan and gave rise to a tsunami that soared as high as 40.5m and traveled as far as 10km inland. Last September, Japan’s National Police Agency confirmed that a total of 15,883 died, 6,143 were injured, and 2,681 went missing as a result of the disaster. It also destroyed or nearly destroyed 1,075,195 buildings. The earthquake is recorded as the most destructive natural disaster ever to occur in Japan and the fifth most powerful earthquake humanity has ever witnessed.
Numbers surprisingly don’t convey much, and I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what had happened until I hiked up the city’s highest point for an overview of post-tsunami Kesennuma. There, I saw a vast emptiness in the place of a lively downtown with a rusty ship at the center. The Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 as it is known affected Kesennuma in the form of a tsunami that towered 10m high. It engulfed the port in an instant and swept everything in its path before coming to rest near the heart of the city. Half an hour was all it took to obliterate one half of the city. As if a hulking surge was not enough of an ordeal, the city was soon ablaze with wildfire that swallowed what little normalcy that remained in Kesennuma. Commercial fishing had been the city’s main industry for generations, and Kesennuma’s port had always been populated with boats of various size and shape. The raging tsunami carried and ripped them apart, causing a massive oil leak that took no time to spread to all corners of the city. Perhaps a factory exploded or an evacuating family left its gas valve unattended, but as soon as the leaking oil found its way into a source of fire, the entire city flared up and burned for four days. When the fire finally died down and the survivors could look around without suffocating from the smoke, all they could see was nothingness that stretched across a former bustling center of activity and a 330-ton ship at the center of it. The tsunami had carried this ship miles inland and left it behind when the surge returned to normal. Two years have passed, but the memories the ship evokes are still so painful that the city decided to remove it permanently just last month.
Yet the survivors have to deal with much more than just painful memories and psychological scars. The tsunami destroyed most means that the community relied on to support itself. Kesennuma’s chief industry had been processing bonito and swordfish. In fact, commercial fishing and associated industries accounted for 85% of local jobs. A significant portion of those jobs evaporated when entire fleets of fishing boats were reduced to mere scraps of junk. Some survivors were lucky enough to have resources to resume business as usual. But soon rumors spread that Kesennuma’s fish products were affected by radioactivity as the nearby Fukushima nuclear reactors were also damaged by the earthquake, and any hopes of the city’s fishing industry regaining its past stature were instantly killed. Non-fishing business suffered as well, because there were no functioning buildings left to accommodate them. Even now, most local businesses are housed in temporary plastic buildings, the kind you normally see at construction sites. The main customers of this struggling economy are volunteer workers who have come to aid in Kesennuma’s reconstruction. The most attractive tourist spots in the area are all tsunami-related: a tree bent by the tsunami whose resultant shape looks like that of a dragon; a high school behind a post-tsunami waste incinerator whose broken windows on the fourth floor are proof to how high the wave soared; and the Plaza Hotel’s salty hot spring that provides guests with a breathtaking view of a city now wiped off the map.
Two years was too short a time for the Kesennumans to move on and casually say that shit happened; the wounds were too fresh and too deep. Then how could they smile? How could they? How and why do they adopt a deceiving facade of a happy, well-functioning community? It took me a while to fully understand the apparent nonchalance and the more subtle happiness that now defines the face of Kesennuma. But then, it all made sense. What choice do they have in the wake of such a tragedy than to constantly reassure themselves, however unconvincingly, that all is well and life would get better? What else can they do if not find comfort in the very warmth they share among themselves and with strangers? They weren’t pretending, they were living their lives the only way they could live. It was heart wrenching even for me to walk past a graveyard where a seven-year-old girl was buried together with her grandparents, on top of whose tombs were placed several bottles of Calpis, a children’s popular beverage that apparently had been the girl’s favorite. I can only imagine what a living hell the past two years must have been to most residents here. And yet, Kesennuma is still a place where an old sushi chef is happy to converse with a Korean one-third his age through clumsy hand gestures and give handmade postcards with a nostalgic image of Kesennuma he himself drew, as a token of gratitude for visiting and listening to his story.
The humanity here is overwhelming. Thank you Kesennuma, and I wish you well.
N is a pimp-turned-activist. A jolly, convivial person by nature, he developed a strong liking for drinking, partying, and women as early as in high school. Years of debauchery got him thinking that he could and should make money out of it, and N started dipping his toes in Tokyo’s prostitution business for a few months. He was a mere broker with no influential contacts until one day, one of Tokyo’s more powerful yakuzas (gangster) recruited N for the simple reason that he was punctual, a quality that is rarely found in a business run by social (and therefore capitalistic) misfits. N’s job title was “manager” and his workplace the yakuza’s brothel, and accordingly his job description included more than just connecting prostitutes with clients. He was entrusted with the task of hiring and training new prostitutes, which involved teaching young rookies how to teasingly undress themselves and rouse the clients (for which he himself graciously played the role of the client), screening less-motivated job applicants by making them perform perverted sexual acts, and most importantly, encouraging these fresh recruits to consider their work as a necessary step to a promising career and not as a job they only reluctantly take for easy money.
By the time N spent a year in the business and trained countless women into dedicated prostitutes, the Great Tohoku Earthquake as it is known wrecked eastern Japan. N became curious what a post-tsunami wreckage looks like, and he traveled to Kesennuma at whim to see for himself. It turned out to be a life-changing experience. After witnessing how the disaster turned an entire city into a massive graveyard, N realized that his life’s mission was not only to aid in Kesennuma’s reconstruction, but also to transform it into a place that would be forever resilient from any future natural disaster. Since his first visit to Kesennuma, N has organized a nationwide volunteer network and attracted more than 8,000 sympathetic souls to this city in less than two years (a feat for which his managerial skills from his previous job helped immensely). Also, N is marketing Kesennuma as a city of romance, taking advantage of the fact that the Japanese word for “lover” was invented in this city. He believes that once Kesennuma replaces commercial fishing with tourism as its main industry, the economic consequences of future natural disasters would be much less devastating.
N says that before Kesennuma, he was a scum with no clear purpose in life. Now he is a responsible, dedicated, and charming member of the city of Kesennuma, whom local residents and visiting volunteers cherish alike. The only vestiges of his old self are the pain in his heart caused by years of irresponsible drinking and the stack of porn magazines hidden in his closet.
Q. What is your dream?
(A) I don’t have a dream.
(B) I’m still looking for my dream.
(C) I want to be an artist (singer, writer, dancer, painter, etc.)
(D) I want to make the world a better place.
(E) I want to be a successful person, i.e. a person that earns enough money and is well-respected throughout society.
I feel like people have an idea of a “right” dream, as if all other dreams are somehow “wrong.” Not only in Korea, which is undoubtedly a very judgmental society, but also in the United States. If you’re asked this question and answer anything besides (E), then you will get the “oh, here’s another person who has no idea what the real world is like” face more often than not.
Since when did one’s dream become a barometer of one’s success-orientedness, and therefore of one’s fitness in a success-driven society? Since when did one’s dream become synonymous with lucrative career plan?
I was moving my body to music without any preconceived notion of how I should react to it. I wasn’t really dancing; or at least, I wasn’t trying to dance. I was just playing, experimenting with my body and expressing the music as I heard it. Then I noticed that my teacher was watching me with amusement. After some observation, he told me that my dance looked natural.
I do much better when I don’t try. Not that I’m a genius who excels without putting in the effort. I’m talking about my state of mind when I do something. I just do better when I am not self-conscious, whether it be dancing, singing, writing, flirting, or whatever. Once I try too hard, I thereby introduce an element of artificiality that interrupts the natural flow of things. I become awkward.
I guess this is what mastery is about: to be able to perform naturally and effortlessly at will. To be so immersed in one’s craft that one has no time even to be self-conscious. To become a child at play, who explores her surroundings and herself with intense curiosity and fun, when one chooses.
If mastery is what I think it is, man, it must be awesome to be a master of anything.
My first time giving flowers to a girl.
People see me holding a bundle of flowers, and they immediately think of me as a romantic lover who’s planning to surprise his loved one. A picturesque scene for them, perhaps. And I find myself giving in to their expectations and playing that role.
Playing that role? Am I not trying to surprise someone with those flowers? Am I not anticipating a happy, loving smile in return? Yes I am, but there is still a subtle divide between who I really am and who I appear to be. I cannot help but feel that the image of a romantic lover, the one we so often see in movies and with which people associate me, is just a facade I’m adopting, in part because the occasion demands, and in part because people expect me to.
But I am not that romantic lover. May be it’s the lack of the desperateness in me which precisely makes those images romantic. I don’t know. I’m just not the person people imagine me to be. I’m something else.
I’m trying to maintain that divide between who I am and who I appear to be, even while adopting the image of a romantic lover, because I know all too well that the moment you try to identify yourself with an image, the moment you try to deceive yourself and be an image that you’re actually not, the image immediately loses all vivacity and spontaneity. Only awkward, unnatural pretense remains.
But then I realize there might be an overlap between who you are and who you appear to be, albeit not in the way we expect them to overlap. The longer she fails to answer my calls and the more my surprise plan looks like it’s going to be unsuccessful, the more I become agitated and restless. Perhaps somewhere in that agitation lies hints of a romantic lover wanting to surprise his loved one with roses and violets?
I guess things are often just different from what we expect them to be.
Silent, deserted streets. Neon signs flickering afar. Cold and piercing wind that scalpels through my limbs. Occasional shrieks from drunk people.
The icy floor of a small, dusty corner. Lifeless buildings, dying stores. Expressionless mannequins, welcoming and yet repelling. Shutters down, all connections lost.
Passers-by are lost in a rerun of the presidential debate, which enfolds them in an illusion of togetherness-in-present. But apathy prevails, and they walk on towards nothingness, sick of pretending to care about something they just don’t.
A tragic beauty that stinks of humanness. All too human, all too human.
Once I realized that what I wanted to do was also what I feared to do, it became what I had to do to face my fears and affirm myself.
I asked my class of six 7th graders, five boys and one girl, to write an essay on the topic “what would you do if you had one day left to live?” I just wanted to see what was important in their lives.
Four of the five boys answered that they would first go to school and kill their teachers. Some chose to go further and finish off the teachers at their 학원s too (which includes me, by the way). All of them would go back home after the bloodbath, relax on their couches, and reward themselves for the hard day’s work by playing video games until their last moments. The other boy, not as angry as the others, listed 24 things he wanted to do during his last 24 hours. The list included visiting old friends and saying goodbyes, praying at his church, and of course bombing his 학원 and his school. The girl, apparently interpreting the topic to mean that someone would come and kill her on her last day, decided to spend as much time with her loved ones on the day before her last. After that, she would commit suicide before anyone has a chance to kill her.
These kids wrote their essays together, so I’m sure they did not end up with these berserk scenarios separately. And probably none of them would take his/her own essay seriously. Nonetheless, my first reaction to these essays was of course “what the fuck is wrong with these kids?” But no, after I learned how their parents drive them to multiple 학원s everyday even on weekends, how they’re exposed to cutthroat competition as early as in elementary school, how exhausted, jaded, and bored they are at their lives, and how their only joy and comfort is to lose themselves in violent video games and stupid tv shows, I realized I was asking the wrong question.
What the fuck is wrong with Korea? Whatever justification this society uses to force children into an “education” that drives out all the fun in learning and messes up their minds, there is something very wrong with it. What these kids go through now will probably determine how they shape Korea when they grow up, and honestly, things look pretty grim. Is a bit of air to breathe too much to ask for?