Man on the Tracks

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Each morning, I leave my bed the way a kid leaves home for the first day of school, miserable, wanting to go back, possibly crying, and I find myself thinking about the night before and the day that lies ahead and mixing the two up into some kind of anxiety-ridden fog.  That was certainly the case on the Wednesday morning I left for Hong Kong.  There were so many things to be worried about.  It was like a buffet of stress.  There was my flight, which I was nervous I’d be late for.  Then there was the idea that I’d be spending six days in Hong Kong and I hadn’t planned a thing.  I had no place to stay, no sense of how much the currency was worth, and no real itinerary of things to do.  And to add to all that, there was a certain girl whose apartment I had just left.  She was still sleeping when I headed down to catch the first subway train.  I thought about how much I liked her, and how I hoped that my side of the bed would still be empty when I got back.

All this is to say, on a day when I should have been excited, I was instead overcome with the enormous realization that nothing about my trip to Hong Kong felt right.  I would be spending six days alone in another country, probably not talking to anyone and going to bed early to escape loneliness.  Part of me wanted to go back to the girl’s apartment and curl up with her.  I sat on a bench down by the subway tracks.  Going back was a bad idea.

I was thinking about her when an older Korean man standing about twenty feet from where I was yelled something out.  He sounded serious.  I had no idea what he yelled, as it was in Korean and, despite living here for almost a year, I have no grasp of the language.  I turned my head, though, as the noise demanded attention.  In doing so, I could barely make out the image of a young man walking down the subway tracks.  Not on the platform I don’t mean, but walking down the tracks themselves.  I looked up at the board to see if the train was close.  It was two stops away.

It was as though every person waiting for the train noticed the young man at the exact same moment, suddenly everyone began shouting and running.  Everyone except me, that is.  I continued to sit there, looking down at the guy on the tracks with mild interest.  Things like this don’t happen, right?  That’s what I asked myself.  Yeah, there was a man on the tracks and the train was coming, but people don’t just get crushed on the subway tracks in front of you.  It didn’t seem possible.  I was sure someone would help him up and he’d walk away fine.  For all the horrible daily events that happen in the world, for each car crash or electrocution or brutal animal attack or mugging, none of it seems to happen in my world.  Secretly, I hoped the train would come and run the man over.  Just to spice things up a bit.

But as I had assumed, nothing really happened.  A subway officer was rushed to the tracks and he went down and helped the man back up onto the platform.  The man didn’t put up any fight.  He did exactly what the officer told him to.  Back up on the platform, he staggered away.  He was obviously drunk.  The subway officer pulled himself up off the tracks and then led the man away.  The shouting and running around ended, and in a few minutes everyone got on the train like nothing had happened.

Taking a seat on the train, I thought about a couple things.  First, no matter how bad I might feel, there’s probably someone around who feels worse.  I might be sitting by the tracks feeling depressed, but there’s someone who feels so bad he jumps down on them, and for that person maybe there’s someone who feels so bad he actually lets the train hit him.  And secondly, I thought about how rare true disaster is.  For all the anxiety, all of the possible catastrophes, nothing much happens really – the man always gets off the tracks before the train comes.  Things have a tendency to be right, even when they feel all wrong.

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Peacocks in Chinatown

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Amy and I were walking through Jeyu Park when I turned to her and said something that some might consider offensive.  “You know what I’d like to be able to do?” I said.  “I’d like to be able to look at an Asian person and say with certainty, ‘That’s a Chinese person.’  Or, ‘That person is Korean.’”

Jeyu Park is at the heart of Korea’s Chinatown, located in Incheon.  In 2002, the South Korean government spent $18 million creating a Chinatown, hoping that it would be a lure for Chinese investors and tourists.  Red lanterns line the streets, restaurants serving chajangmyon (noodles in black bean sauce) are everywhere, and there is even a statue of Confucius given to Korea as a gift from China.  Small shops are ubiquitous, selling glass bird whistles and wooden swords, Chinese fans and large painted pots.

“Do you think Asians can tell each other apart?” I asked Amy.  She said they could, and rather easily.  I looked at the people in the park.  What were the giveaways?  Skin color or shade, the roundness of the face, the shape of the eyes, the length of the nose?  I had no idea.  Then I turned to Amy and asked a question that I would eventually look up on the Internet, and which would spark the idea for this essay, “I wonder how many of the people in Chinatown are actually Chinese?”

Not many, as it turns out.  Up until 1945, Korea was colonized by Japan, and during that time the majority of the Chinese people living in Korea were ousted by the Japanese.  But even after Korea gained its independence, things didn’t improve at all for Chinese immigrants.  The Korean government passed laws disallowing Chinese residents from owning land, it was made illegal for Chinese restaurants to serve rice, and Chinese people living in Korea were forced to renew their residential permits every three years.  The Chinese population decreased every year, until it bottomed out at about 25,000 for the entire country.  Today, Chinese residents still have restrictions, having to prove financial ability in order to stay in Korea, and having Alien Registration Numbers that deny them access to Korean Internet sites and email accounts.

About one-third of the shops and restaurants in Chinatown are run by actual Chinese people.  The rest are run by Koreans.  I had to read an article from the New York Times to get that figure.  Apparently an Asian person can ascertain such a stat just by looking around at faces.

At the height of Jeyu Park, there is a large clearing where cheap kites are sold for 5,000 Won.  Each kite has a gaudy picture of a peacock on it, and comes with about two miles worth of string wrapped around a plastic handle.  Amy and I bought a kite, took it into the square, and tried our best to fly it.  Our peacock struggled to catch the wind, flapping its one-dimensional wings and falling pitifully to the ground.  An old Asian man laughed at us.  Several others tried to help us.  Finally a woman with a baby on her back succeeded in getting our kite off the ground.  We looked into the air and there it was, our peacock flying proudly in the cloudless sky with the rest of the kites.  It was a sky devoid of real birds, populated only with painted peacocks attached to string. 

Perhaps it was a decent analogy for where we were.  We were in the center of a Chinatown without Chinese people, an ethnic community run by the dominant race, gazing up at a sky filled with fake birds.  Amy let the rest of the string go and our bird soared higher than any of the others.  It was a cool sight to see, our bird flying way up high, looking at us and all the others down below, probably thinking we all looked exactly the same.

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Sleeping in Beijing

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The Chinese airline lady who greeted me when I got off the plane looked concerned.  “Is very cold!” she said.  “Where is jacket?”

“I packed it in my luggage,” I said.  “The Beijing Airport has heat, right?”

The truth of the matter was that my head was refusing to acknowledge that the beautiful weather in Bangkok hadn’t come with me to Beijing. Back in Thailand, my shirt would’ve been more than adequate.  Unfortunately, here in Beijing, where I had an eight-hour overnight layover, my shirt didn’t cut it.  Only ten minutes had passed since I landed, and I was already shivering.

Customs took a second.  I went to my flight gate and tried to curl into a ball.  All I had was the novel “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, which I tried to use as a pillow.  For the first time in my life, I wished I was reading a longer novel.  “A Separate Peace” is less than 200 pages, and while that makes for a nice, quick read, it also makes for a really shitty pillow.  The airport was freezing and I was sleeping on a book.  I felt like a hobo in Antarctica.

An hour passed.  I couldn’t fall asleep and my face was frozen.  “There’s gotta be a heated room somewhere in this airport,” I thought.  “Otherwise, I’m gonna have to wrap my face in toilet paper like a fucking mummy!”  I pictured myself emerging from the bathroom looking like The Invisible Man had he used Charmin Ultra Strong.  I shook my head.  “Am I really this much of a moron?” I wondered.  “Yes you are,” my inner voice quickly answered.

Scouring the place, I found two rooms that were warm: the smoking lounge and the handicapped bathroom.  Since the smoking lounge seemed slightly preferable, I pushed a chair against the wall and tried to get comfortable.  The heavy air in the lounge, rich with the smell of cigarette smoke, was killing me.  Literally.  Yes, I was warm, but I was also contracting emphysema.  It was about as wise as going into the airport’s apron and trying to sleep under a Boeing 737’s exhaust pipe.

There was only one other option: the handicapped bathroom it was.

The handicapped bathroom didn’t smell any better than the smoking lounge, but at least a person can’t get emphysema from the stink of hydrogen sulfide.  My pride now gone, I locked the door and proceeded to wrap my face in toilet paper.  I stared at myself in the mirror.  “What has my life come to?” I asked.  I turned off the light switch so the room was dark, lay down on the floor, shut my eyes, and waited to fall asleep, trying to block out the idea that I might be woken up at any moment by a bladder-infected Chinese dude in a wheelchair.

By the time morning came, I had spent around three hours in the handicapped bathroom.  Never has a man been so happy to get on an airplane.  The plane was warm and there was a friendly Australian girl sitting next to me.  She asked me where I’d been, and I said “Thailand.”  Then she asked me where I was going, and I said “home.”

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