Monday, May 19, 2014

A Normal Weekday Morning Commute in Seoul

As I lay here on my bed, looking out the window of my 13th floor apartment at all the cars riding along on the highway, and at all the lights of the city, I sit here wondering what to write.  Recently, I've felt the urge to write more, almost as if someone important, whom I don't know, is reading.  To that person, whoever you are, Hello.  Thanks for reading.  God bless you.

I am fairly entrenched into a routine here.  I have friends.  Everyday, I wake up, get ready for work, walk out the door of my apartment, wait for the elevator, step in when the door opens, sit and wait for a few seconds for it to touch down on the first floor.  Sometimes, it stops on it's way down at a floor in between mine and the first, and someone steps in.  Sometimes the face is familiar, but most of the time, it isn't.  If it's an attractive lady, and she is flirty, sometimes I say something to break the ice.  But most of the time, I sit silently, stand tall, and stare straight ahead at the closed door, and so does the other person, as the elevator descends.

I step out of the elevator, and walk into the lobby to greet the security guard, before walking out the door front door of the building.  He knows everybody that lives in the building.  Every resident knows him, and greets him also, just like I do.

I step out of the front door near the busy road that runs a few yards away.  The sound of traffic dominates, including the hum of cars, and the roar of busses.  I have to turn my headphones up rather loud in order to hear my music and podcasts clearly over it.

I walk a few feet to the bus stop to wait once again.  In my year of living here at this particular place, I've never seen the same person more than once at this particular bus stop, and I am pretty good at recognizing faces, even those of people I don't know personally.  Seoul is a big city, and so is my neighborhood.

Some days, I have to wait longer than others.  When the bus comes, I see usually the second familiar face of the day, and usually, it's the last until I arrive at work, and that being the bus driver.  There are around five to ten different buses that run along that route.  I know the faces of each driver, and they know the faces of many of the regulars.  They know mine, at least.  The kinder ones smile upon seeing me, and say "hello," and "welcome" in Korean.  I like it when they do that.

I normally sit alone in my seat, sometimes I have to stand when it's crowded, as my music or podcast plays through my white Apple headphones.  (To see my taste in music, and to get an idea of what is played in the mornings, check out my Twitter feed on the right side of this page.  There are always links to stuff I like.  As far as podcasts, I really enjoy The Rich Eisen Podcast, The Fighter and the Kid, In the NO, and The MMA Hour.  Sometimes I like Bill Simmons, and I always listen to Zack Lowe and Jalen Rose on Grantland.)

The bus that I take takes me to the subway station.

Korean bus drivers have absolutely zero consideration for the passengers.  They slam on the breaks extremely hard at bus stops and stop lights, sometimes throwing people.  They hit the accelerator just as hard.  They are terrible at shifting gears, and working the clutch smoothly.  The bus ride to the subway station is always rough, but the music and podcasts make it more pleasant.

After the bus driver slams on the breaks at my stop, I exit the bus, and begin weaving through the people at the crowded bus stop near the subway station.  I continue weaving through people as I walk along the crowded sidewalk that is lined with cafes on one side, and twenty-four-hour street food tents.  Because most of it is fried, and because it's rather unhealthy, I never eat the street food, even though sometimes I am interested in how it tastes.  If I'm craving fried food, I'll eat something better, so I am always able to talk myself out of stopping and trying it.

Koreans walk really slowly.  At least to me, they do, so I find myself weaving through them whenever I am walking anywhere in the city.  This is especially true during my morning commute.  It's refreshing whenever a Korean is walking at least at the same pace as I am in front of me.

As I enter the entrance to the subway, I climb down a rather long set of stairs, and weave through an underground market full of vendors setting up for the day.  In this particular subway station, in the mornings, I seem to be going against the morning traffic, because a lot more people are getting off of the train, and walking in the opposite direction through the underground market, some of them in a rush and running, many of them being ladies in skirts and high heels.  I'm really impressed at their ability to run in them without tripping, or even stumbling.

Sometimes there are so many people who are walking in the opposite direction that it feels and looks like I am walking against wave after wave of a high tide of Korean people.

My station is one where numerous people exit the train in the mornings, and few enter, so there is almost always a seat available upon entering.  When the train stops at the next station, the train suddenly becomes packed with people, as the people who are standing have to squeeze to make room, and it remains that way for the duration of my thirty minute subway trip.

When I exit the train, it's like a tale of two subway stops.  I leave my neighborhood full of business people, and young professionals who are in a hurry, and the train takes me to the neighborhood where I teach, where the sidewalks seem full of Korean mothers slowly and leisurely pushing baby carriages in a sea of high-end high rise apartments.

As I enter my school at 11:00am, the school day is in full swing for the children and other teachers.  I suddenly see familiar faces again.  I see children playing in the soccer field in front of my school, and the P.E. teachers organizing them.  I walk into my school, and I see some of my students wandering the hallways.  I walk up the stairs to my room on the 4th floor.  I take a right, and see the kind and attractive 4th grade teachers teaching their classes across the hall from my classroom.  I briefly enter my classroom to drop off my things, turn on the lights, and power on the computer.  Then as I exit, I make my way to my co-teacher's class room down the hall to check in, and receive a quick briefing before preparing for the day.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Land of the Rising Sun

The thing that I really like about Japan, and find most fascinating is it’s inherent calmness, and sense of order.  The people here really seem to show a proper sense of restraint.  They show a keen understanding and implementation of self control when in public.  For example, it is rare to see someone shout, speak boisterously, or show strong emotions in public.  It is also rare to see a sudden burst of laughter among a group of people.  Japanese people seem to wait in line much more than Koreans and Americans are willing to do, and they do so rather patiently.    

They seem to not be in quite as much of a hurry as Korean people, but it definitely isn't motivated by a relaxed attitude.  The calmness here seems to come from a certain etiquette where it seems important to keep oneself composed, in order to maintain ones’ sense of dignity, and it is something that is practiced for the betterment of society, as a whole.  

The people here seem to realize that they are a component of something larger, or greater than the individual.  Korean society has a similar mentality, but it’s manifested in a much different way than Japan.  

I am not saying that this is a universal truth, and applies to every single person, but I find that here in Japan, society and the group seem to be more highly valued, where in America, the individual to usually takes precedence.    

It is fascinating to see, to witness, and to experience.  There are places here in Tokyo that are absolutely overflowing with people, but it isn’t overwhelming like it is at other places, and the crowds aren’t as tiresome as they are in other large cities.  Whenever I told people in Seoul that I need a vacation, they would respond with, “Where do you plan on going?”

“I really want to go to Tokyo.”  

“Really?!  It’s even bigger than Seoul.  And you want to go there to recharge?!”  

After having the same conversation a few times with different people, I began to doubt my desire and my intuition, and I began to think about going to a place like the Philippines, or Thailand.  

I am glad that I followed my strongest desire and greatest interest, despite hearing people advise against it, because this trip has been exactly what I needed.  I feel refreshed, and rejuvenated.  As a person like me who has no attachment to this society, I am able to find rest in the inherent tranquility, and in the fact that I am seeing and experiencing something different.  

I would tend to think that if I were a part of the society here, and if I knew the ins and outs of the etiquette, I would probably be less able to relax, but being detached, and yet still able to observe, and to a small degree, experience the way of life has been perfect for me, and my condition.  

I sit here in a cafe on Ginza Street here in Tokyo on a Spring Sunday afternoon among a large crowd of people, but not overwhelmingly large, with everyone dressed in their spring apparel  (And Japanese women, much like Korean women, are extremely well-dressed.), while walking calmly and quietly in public.  It has been beautiful to witness, and every place that I have visited here has been that way.

The fact is, upon returning to Korea, if I were to tell my Korean students about the trip, most of them would have absolutely no interest in hearing about it.  I would go as far as saying that they would probably have some rather unkind things to say about my experiences.  

It isn’t a baseless prediction, because that very thing happened the last time I attempted to share with my students from one of my previous schools about a visit to Kyoto and Osaka, upon returning.  Those feelings that they possess do not come from nowhere.  They don’t develop these feelings themselves.  They have to be learned, and acquired from another source.  They come from their parents and grandparents, and the ill-will that Korean society, as a whole, has towards Japanese society.  Although those feelings are justified, because of the dark history between the two nations, they are not right.  

Despite those feelings, I’m quite sure that if a Japanese person were hurting, or in need of help on the streets of Seoul, that a Korean would be there to help them, but nonetheless, the feelings are rather strong.

The ill-will felt by Koreans towards Japan does not change my opinion that Japan has a beautiful culture, language, and a fascinating way of life.  It was a great vacation.  It was eye-opening, enlightening, inspiring, fascinating, and beautiful.  I hope to return for another visit. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Upon Landing in Tokyo

My first day in Tokyo has been eye opening.  It is such a fascinating place, and the Japanese are such fascinating people.  

Just like my previous visit to Japan, the moment I got off the plane, and made it through customs, I came to a stunning realization that I am no longer in Korea, and I immediately felt like an outsider.  This time, I expected it, but sometimes, when things are so different than what you are accustomed to, expectation doesn’t adequately prepare you for what you experience.  

During the flight, I was rather tense, because it was to land at 11pm, and I researched the subway system to learn that the last train at the airport departed at 11:50.  I did not feel like trying to get a bus, because of the price, and my lack of knowledge of Tokyo.  I knew that determining the correct bus to take, while working through a language barrier would be difficult.   And neither did I feel like taking a taxi, which on top of all that I mentioned about taking a bus,  would have been extremely expensive, a lot more so than in Korea.  By far, the easiest directions that I received were via the subway, and even that was a little daunting.

Before leaving, I seriously asked my christian friends to pray for me while traveling.  I felt like it would take a miracle for me to make it through customs on time (first world problems). 

I received a tip from a good friend of mine, Greg, an experienced traveller, who explained, when in a hurry to be somewhere upon landing, request a seat in the front of the plane, which is what I did, which resulted in the pretty Korean lady working the check-in for Asiana Airlines informing me with a smile that that is where I would be sitting.  

Through all the tense feelings, I was able to receive a window seat, and I was taken aback by how enormous Haneda Airport was.  What stood out was an enormous neon sign on the building that read, “Tokyo International Airport.”  The building itself looked massive under the night sky, and what also stood out was through the windows on it, and through the dim lights that shined through them, there was a certain calmness in how the small silhouettes of the people were moving.  The airport certainly reflected the personality of the nation it represented.  I had a moment of calmness as I was observing it through the window of the plane, as we were taxing to the terminal.

The plane was fifteen minutes late landing, apparently because it was a busy day for the airline industry in Japan.  At that point, I felt like there was no way I would get through, but I was going to try anyway, because miracles do happen.  I had friends who said prayers for me, after all.  The Japanese friends that I made on the plane also urged me to go as fast as possible as we said our goodbyes, and they made a way for me to be one of the first people out of the plane, but to make matters worse, I had to take a shuttle bus to customs, and I ended up sitting next to them, after thinking I would have been far ahead of them.  

Customs was excruciatingly slow, as always, but as I always do, I completely filled out my customs and entrance cards on the plane, and a Japanese official checking them noticed that I did, so he directed me to an express line.  My bag was one of the first out of baggage check, and I made it through rather quickly.  Still, I was thinking there would be no way that I would be able to hop on the train on time.

I noticed that the tracks were rather close to the exit at customs, and that people were racing to them, so I began to do the same.  I noticed a nice-looking older Japanese couple enter an elevator to the tracks, so I quickly jumped in with them.  As soon as the door opened, there was the train.  I thought, “Thank God.  I made it.”  

The Tokyo subway system is a lot more complex than that of Seoul, and the guest house was rather far from the airport, so still I was tense.  The moment I entered the train, I was hit rather hard by the fact that I was an outsider in an extremely unfamiliar place.  I know absolutely exactly two words of Japanese, and that is “Konichiwa, (hello)” and “Arigato Kojaimas (Thank you very much).”   I can read absolutely zero Japanese, and I know very little about the culture, so when I entered a train filled with Japanese people with no Koreans in sight, I realized that I was the only westerner around, so the intense feelings grew.  

But during that subway ride, which was above ground, I was immediately taken aback by the neighborhoods that were visible.  I saw houses which were really close to each other with dimly lit lights on streets that looked uniquely Japanese, even at eleven o'clock at night.  I was able to make out a graveyard in the dark, and if you’ve never seen one, they are rather different and interesting, and they have a certain beauty to them.  And once again, I noticed a certain calmness and serenity in the dim lights of the houses, and neighborhoods, to a greater degree than that of the airport.  

My only thought was to make sure I was going the right way, and in a trip that had two transfers, I was really worried about taking the right train, which at the second transfer, I failed to do.  I immediately realized it after the first stop, so I immediately exited.  After doing so, I realized I exited the last train of the evening.  I refused to pay the high cab fare to get where I had to go, so that was out of the question. I quickly decided to take my chances, and walk away from the subway station until I found a hotel to stay at for the evening.  Needless to say, the tense feelings didn’t go away.  

I didn’t have to walk far until I found a hotel that was beyond what I had expected, better than any of the places I reserved, and wasn’t that much more expensive.  I really believe those prayers helped. 

Again, I stated that I am a total outsider here, and I have embraced it.  The only time I’ve ever felt this way in my life was during my previous visit to Japan.

In America, we have chosen a particular word to coin an entire group of people who have black hair, white skin, and small eyes who are either from east Asia, or are descendants of people from there.  We call them “Asian.”  Sure the Japanese, Koreans, and the Chinese are “Asian,” but I am starting to dislike that moniker, because the only things that are remotely similar about Korean, Japanese, and even Chinese cultures are some of their physical features, and the fact that they use chopsticks.  

Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese, among all of the other cultures that are are associated with the moniker are so vastly different, that they are each races in and of themselves.  And even among what is seemingly similar, they have minor nuances that make them totally different.  I propose that people should stop saying, "I'm Asian," and go back to saying, "I'm Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Veitnamese/etc."  White people may not understand the differences in the cultures, but that doesn't matter, because that doesn't change the fact that they each is vastly different from the other.  

More on that in a later post, but my point is that Korean and Japanese culture are totally different.  And the even bigger point is when I came to Japan for the first time over a year ago, I thought I could identify with Japanese people in the same way I sort of do in Korea, because I had the American mindset that we are all “Asian,” but that is not at all the case.  For me, being there is like being a dog in a world full of cats.  The cultures are totally different, and I have absolutely no basis of identification with them. 

With that being said, I am excited to be here.  I am blessed, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the next post, which should be soon.  Here’s to a great stay in Tokyo, and stay tuned for more.