Thursday, July 21, 2011

Roaming in the gloaming

I went to the Bears' ballgame last evening with my friends Bob, Chris, and Vanessa from work. There we met 'Nother Bob, the former principal of my school, who hired me two years ago, and his wife, who are leaving Korea forever in a few days. I hadn't seen 'Nother Bob since my interview. It was good to say hello again.

The game itself was, much like the Hundred Years' War and the TV show According to Jim, prolonged and unfortunate. But it was a truly lovely evening, with the rare, for a Seoul summer, qualities of bearable temperatures, clear air, and a light breeze. We had a good time. I'm less enamored of Korean baseball than I used to be; the atmosphere is always so frenetic, and it's hard to be involved when you don't know the players... though the Bears' pitcher, Fernando Nieve, actually pitched for the Mets last year. (This game reminded me of why he doesn't pitch for the Mets this year.)

All this has probably not been worth posting, but it reminded me of another game I went to with friends a couple of months ago. The fact that what I'm about to describe has stuck with me that long probably means its worth writing about. And, if not, your money will be cheerfully refunded.

That evening, we had one too many people to take a cab together, so I rode my bike five miles along the Yangjae Cheon (the stream that runs from Gwacheon City to the Han River) to the game and met my friends there. I barely remember the game itself; I'm not even sure whether the Bears or Eagles won. Come to think of it, I'm not sure the visiting team was the Eagles. I'm pretty sure it was a baseball game, though.

But what has come back to mind regularly since that evening is my ride home. At 10 p.m. I set off through the gloaming; there was enough ambient light to see people coming into view from, oh, fifty feet ahead. And even at that hour, there were dozens or hundreds of people making their way along the path. It had been a hot, sticky May day, but late in the evening the air was soft and pleasant.

The first thing that struck me wasn't how many children were out at that hour; I'm used to having preschool kids running around the park across from my apartment at 11:00 at night and sometimes later. What really got my attention was the number of women out running on the Cheon; I probably saw a dozen of them, each of them alone, in my half-hour trip. In the daytime, I doubt that I see one woman running in an hour.

First, I think it's wonderful that this city, whose metropolitan area has more people than New York's, is so safe that women aren't afraid to be out alone, even wearing skimpy outfits, late at night. Granted that there were always people around; it was dark, and you know that bad things can happen quickly. But apparently none of the women was apprehensive at all. I wish we Americans could say the same in our cities.

Then, I have two theories as to why so many more women here run at night than in the day. First, there's the Korean desire for pale skin. It's not that they want to look Caucasian, though there's a huge business in "de-Asaining" eyes through plastic surgery; it's that through Korean history it was a sign of status to have a light complexion, because the lower classes worked in the fields. Skin-lightening cream is very common and many women use umbrellas on sunny days. (Remember that the word "umbrella" comes from the Latin for "shade", not "rain".)

Also, although young Korean women are not modest in their dress-- this is the land of the microskirt-- I believe that many of them don't want to be seen in running clothes. Being all sweaty (sorry, I mean glowing) is considered extremely unladylike, and so is being overtly athletic. Several of the girls in school have said that they don't run because running makes women musclebound. Maybe the runners on the Cheon love to do it, but don't want people to know that.

But (despite the long digression) what I will remember, I think, for a long time is the scene under the bridge, halfway home. There was a man, I can't tell how old, as it was pretty dark, who had a boombox playing background instrumentals as he played the Peruvian Pan flute. I think he was wearing a serape, though perhaps that's my imagination.

Under a concrete bridge is a wonderful place for acoustics. (I frequently see musicians practicing in such places, of which there are many on the Cheon.),  His melodies, accompanied by the soft sounds of the stream, were haunting. I stopped the bike to listen. There was a soft breeze; it was just a lovely evening, and it was good to hear something gentle and melodic after the incessant noise of the crowd at the ballgame.

What I remember, aside from the music itself, is how many people-- walkers, runners, bicyclists, people with dogs, kids on roller blades-- had stopped to listen. Girls rested their heads on their boyfriends' shoulders. A runner jogged in place to listen. A middle-aged American on a bicycle got his monkey mind to stop chattering for a few minutes and was able to just be.

And then the piper was through with that song, people applauded warmly, and it was time to go home.

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