I’ve got these memories, from long ago and not too long ago, of just wandering aimlessly the different streets of different cities.
A few years ago I wandered through Boston, looking at various tourist attractions, while I scoped out Harvard as a potential school. I was feeling particularly lonely then, and particularly angry. I wanted to go to school there so badly, but the money just wasn’t there. And I wandered around Boston’s convulsing streets, mesmerized by a transportation nerd’s dreams: electric street cars, buses, wild subway trains like victorian houses, chugging along in dark tunnels under the earth–roads that made no sense, buckling into each other whenever they damn well pleased. There were interesting people everywhere. There was history everywhere. I was wandering through things that I had barely paid attention to in my US History text books. (As I had been more in favor of world history, disdainfully rejecting the focus on American history as elitist and isolationist in my High School years…)
I’m not so angry now. That’s one thing that I was thinking about. As I progress in my studies, I become less angry about things I can’t control.
A year or so before that, I wandered around in Mokpo, the quiet port-city in the very end of South Korea. Rumors had it that Mokpo was a punished city–that the dictatorial government previous to the democracy had some bone to pick with Mokpo–and so it had never really developed the same way that the others had. The result was a glorious difference in the way that the buildings looked, a much desired break from the sameness that was every other Korean city. Sure, there were the sentinel tower apartment rows, white boxes in the sky for miles, but they were far off from the city center. In the center of the city was a mountain, its hiking paths filled with chortling old folks, and surrounding the mountain were homes and buildings in bright colors, haphazardly thrown together, gleaming in the afternoon sun.
The afternoon sun was especially important, because I had only a few brief opportunities to see it during that year. I loved the long shadows and yellow light of the sunset. And it made the whole landscape there gleam. I worked in a windowless room Monday through Friday until 9–so on Saturday and Sunday, when I traveled, usually, was the only time I got to bask in the evening sun. That made this wandering particularly important, then, meandering streets that meandered themselves.
I stopped that evening in a cafe to eat some dinner before returning to the hovel that I was staying in. There was a woman there with her daughter, and they were eating across the way from me. She was positioned to see the television. The daughter wasn’t eating, and her mother was spouts jerky, mostly rude, words at her daughter about why she won’t eat. The daughter stares at her mother in distain, and I figure out why when I see the half empty soju bottle on the table.
I always felt like I saw something I shouldn’t have seen when I looked too close at people in Korea, as if just by virtue of looking too long and too earnestly, I would stumble upon a family secret, a well-kept wound. Perhaps that’s a result of wandering around alone too frequently in a communal culture–you don’t get the practice you need to filter out people’s personal lives. Instead they just glare at you because you don’t have anyone to distract you.