Friday, May 11, 2012

20 Minutes

When I first lived in Korea I barely really lived in it at all. I stayed in my apartment trading the international financial markets, and when I ventured out – largely at the weekend on chaperoned trips – I felt more like a visiting alien, although to be fair that was the official classification the Korean government gave me; I still have the Alien Registration Card to prove it.

Recognising that living in Korea conventionally meant actually trying to live in it, I took the opportunity to do some writing for the local English-language radio station and appear on their shows, and later I got a part-time programming job so I started spending a lot of my life really out there, on the move.

One day I was on the move back from the radio station when the subway train stopped in a station and stayed there. Announcements were made by the driver in Korean so I had no idea what was happening. Ten minutes passed, and during one announcement, I held my phone up to the speaker in the carriage for my wife to listen to the explanation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’d been a suicide at the next station ahead of us.

Right now, screen doors are being installed at most – if not eventually all – of Busan’s subway stations ‘for your comfort and convenience’, by which I’m pretty sure they actually mean “to stop you throwing yourself off the platform into the path of an oncoming train”, which I understand happens quite a lot.

I don’t know if these suicides are planned, because it’s occurred to me in recent years that climbing up to the top of a building requires effort, but throwing yourself out in front of a train can be one of those spur of the moment decisions that mark a final act of rebellion amid Korea’s claustrophobic social conformity, although evidently placing doors on the platform to enforce a further level of social conformity is going to solve this problem.

After twenty minutes most people had left the train, but I didn’t want to venture up to the surface and try and deal with a Korean taxi-driver, so I took my chances and waited with the five other people who remained, pondering the unanswerable question of who this person was, why they’d chosen to end their life by being hit by a subway train at 8.25pm on a Wednesday evening, and whether inconveniencing the many thousands of people who had found themselves stuck in the subway system was what they wanted from their final act in this world.

I also wondered how long it took to clear a badly mangled body from the subway tracks. I imagined it would be quite a long time. Apart from the mess, surely the police would want to ensure there was no foul play? Twenty minutes is all it takes as it turns out. Because all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. The procedures for scraping humans off the subway tracks in Korea is well practised, and the local authorities are the Formula 1 pit crews of suicide clean-ups, which is a rather depressing realisation.

As someone who has struggled on and off with depression for a long time but is determined to see life through to its bitter end, I’m not sure I would be the best person to try and talk a suicidal Korean out of their intended course of action. But when I walked down the subway steps to the platform of one of the many trains I was catching one Thursday recently, I momentarily checked myself on discovering a youth around the age of 18 sat at the bottom sobbing uncontrollably. The new screen doors are not yet functional and his proximity three meters away from the fast end of the platform instantly concerned me.

Of course, because of the language barrier there was almost certainly nothing meaningful I could say to him, and even if I could, it might have only made him feel worse about himself that he’d embarrassed himself in front of a foreigner.

Part of me just wanted to tell him to stop using an umbrella in the rain, which is what all Koreans do but I generally don’t. This marks me out as quite possibly mentally ill in the eyes of most Koreans who fail to see their own collected psychoses which are simply called ‘society’ here, but to live life is to endure a lifetime of emotional pain far greater than the minor discomfort of getting a little wet. If you can’t feel the rain on your head and stare up in the sky and see the wonder in it falling towards you, reminding you that you are alive against the odds and for the briefest of moments in this Universe, then how can you cope with anything else? Umbrellas are a great evil foisted upon society, quite possibly as part of a secret plot by the psychiatric industry.

Becoming a father turned out to be a strange experience for me. I often look at my son wondering about his future and consider that as he is now, I once was, and as I am now, he may become. The circle of life goes on with many of the same scenes but different players. How will my story end? How will my son’s if he doesn’t live to see the Singularity? That mangled body on the tracks was someone’s baby once, and after all the joy and difficulties their parents must have experienced this is what it came down to.

That day, our twenty minutes came to an end, the blood of someone’s child was cleaned off the Busan subway tracks, and the rest of us inevitably resumed our journeys to our own eventual destinations.


F5Waeg said...

Is it weird to say I enjoyed reading this? Cynicism and melancholy seems to be passing around the waegosphere lately. But then, it usually is in spring when I get hit with my own bout.

And I also sometimes don't use an umbrella.

Sublunari said...

I also enjoyed reading this, and I'm glad that you're seeming to write a bit more often. I moved out of Busan about eight months ago, switching to the city of Gyeongju, and I have to say that so far it seems to be one of the better decisions I've made in my short life, mostly because this city has no subway, isn't nearly as crowded, and has lots of easily accessible wide-open green spaces.

But the first point is what really makes all the difference. I wrote a lot about the subway when I lived there because I think it was the most depressing thing about that extremely depressing city. The walls, the lights, the machines, the endless voice recordings, the people---everything reeked of unhappiness, and I'm not surprised at all that the bleakness of that place sometimes proves to be the straw that breaks the camels' back, in the case of all those poor people who throw themselves under the trains. I'm not sure if they'll ever be able to suicide-proof all the buildings, though, which means that you're going to have to spend more time keeping an eye on the sky than you're used to, since the really dedicated suicides won't have many other alternatives---I think my wife knew someone who died after being struck by a suicide who threw himself off of a tall building here.

Anonymous said...

I wear glasses and so find naked rain to be physically unbearable. I therefore am rather enamoured of umbrellas, although like you i abhorr their use. My main complaint against them, however, is that they look stupid.

Mike said...

I commend you all for challenging the Korean umbrella convention. We should start a group and call it the Association of F-class Umbrella-haters in Korea. Actually, I can see we're going to have to work on that name a bit.

The question of Gyeongju versus Busan is an interesting one. I might need to live somewhere eventually with a slower pace of life. It's no wonder all those Koreans are leaving the cities and becoming farmers.

I don't know to what extent my subterranean existence is getting to me, but the incessant train jingles may be slowly driving me insane. It's as though every district has its own mini-hallyu thing going on.

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