Sunday, January 23, 2011

In the bleak midwinter the title of an apparently traditional English song I'd never heard till Katherine Jenkins, an incredibly beautiful, incredibly Welsh opera singer with an incredible voice, sang it to a CGI shark that was lying on a sidewalk in the Doctor Who Christmas episode.

If you have to ask why a gorgeous opera singer was singing this song to a shark on a sidewalk, you clearly lack the proper appreciation for Doctor Who.

At any rate, this winter has been the coldest in Seoul in thirty years, with wind chills down around 0 Fahrenheit overnight. The winter climate here is much like Upstate New York's, cold and windy, but with a bit more sun and a lot less snow. I've been reduced to, too often, going from nine hours in school to fifteen hours at home (with occasional bouts of tedium on the health club's treadmills), with not nearly enough outdoors time.

On days when the wind hasn't been too punishing, I've bundled up a few times and taken walks, and I never skip hashing on Saturdays. There, dressing in enough layers makes the cold bearable, so long as I keep moving. Fortunately, recently the group's gotten smart and sometimes the after-run socials have been held at the Bless U bar in Itaewon rather than having us all shivering outside like the Poor Little Matchgirl. Sometimes.


...this entry is going to take a 180-degree turn here, one I hadn't planned when I started (I meant to write pretty words about the snow on my run along the Yangjae Cheon today). But this keeps nudging at me:


Seoul, as Daegu did, has a class of beggars called "seal men". They have withered or useless legs (from polio or other causes) and propel themselves, belly-down, on little wooden carts, their faces inches from the sidewalk. Their legs are wrapped in inner-tube-like rubber, so they look like half-man, half-seal creatures. Apparently they get a tiny stipend from the government but have to beg to try to get enough money for food and housing. And times are hard; the economy here is in much better shape than in much of the world, but there is a recession going on, and their income has shrunk.

They invariably have a tinny sound system playing music and little plastic trays like drive-in French-fry containers on their carts. The trays usually have a few coins on them. Meanwhile, their faces are at the level of people's shins and car exhausts, down by the cigarette butts. They really can't look up. I've read, though this could be wrong, that the rubber wrapping is because they can't take bathroom breaks all day.

Two years ago, I read on an expat's blog that the police say that these poor men are generally mentally handicapped and are essentially slaves for organized crime, getting dropped off from a bus that goes all over the city each day, then picked up at night. So I've turned my head, feeling vile, and just walked by, even though I almost always give to beggars at subway stations; I can use my money more than the Korean Mafia can. But I just read a newspaper profile of one of these men, who (it said) may lose his meager apartment because the donations have dried up. It mentioned nothing about crime or human trafficking.

So now I don't know what to do: throw my money away to line the pockets of criminals? Or forget everything I say I believe about compassion and walk away from the lowest, most helpless people I've ever come into contact with? the bleak midwinter, which exists not only due to the weather.

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