The Garbage In New York

To us, because we were traveling, even the trash was beautiful. It was early in the morning on the day we were to return to Korea, and under the orange streetlight outside the taxi window there was a Manhattan curb choked with garbage. It was an Aleph for me, representing everything and nothing, all cities and no cities and just the city of New York, and because I had missed this place (my birthplace!) so much that image took on the most profound significance, and I still remember it as though it is here, now, before my eyes, a year later—all while complaining about the garbage in Korea.

A. talked about this yesterday (after we read and discussed On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer together, in an attempt to undo the damage of her Korean education) and said that as a Korean it was like walking into a movie, to go to New York City and wander around for a couple of days. Sometimes the experience of travel is so intense you photograph everything you see with your eyes, and all the food you eat is exquisite, and you feel like you’re coming to life for the first time in ages.

To live in New York sounds extraordinary to me, but I’m sure it would become normal enough after a few months. Likewise I’m guessing other people think it must be so bizarre to live in Korea, but life here acquires the same grinding slog you would find almost anywhere else—although after two and a half years I still have not gotten used to being pointed or stared at by children and old people. Nonetheless, normalcy snatches the days away. Habits of living accelerate the passage of time; any escape from these patterns, a glance at a pile of leaves glowing in the sunshine, a bird diving into the river and rippling beneath the water, the mountains turning blue beneath a pink sunset, a boy in his white taekwondo suit leaping out of a beeping, roaring minivan—these breaks from the grind wake me up to the astounding perfection of the mind of god, and I start thinking like Liebniz, and not Voltaire. This really is the best of all possible worlds.

Should I stop there? No, now I must reduce things to the absurd.

Why was New York like a movie to A.? Obviously because she had seen the city starring in a lot of movies. To a lot of people here I think New York is America, and I’ve known a few Koreans to express surprise and bewilderment when I tell them that almost every inch of America is wide open country. On the other side of things, from my perspective, I think there is one prime image of Asia (or East Asia) in the American consciousness, or at least in my consciousness: Asians clogging up subways. Mobs of them in the hundreds and the thousands going up escalators, piling onto subways, pouring down hallways in floods…and to travel away from home and step inside that image of modern exoticism is not at all as pleasant as voyaging out to New York City from Korea. On Saturday I was in such a sour mood I actually shoved an ajumma against a stairway wall after she herself shoved me out of her way; I believe it was the first time in my life I have violently acted out against a perfect stranger, and some part of that violence definitely comes from my preconception of Asia: the subway is bad, and ugly, and must be gotten over with. It’s not just the objective shittiness of the subway itself, but the negative image I consumed before I came here already convinced me of the horror of the place. And as a boy I loved trains. My first job preference was to be a conductor.

These two tropes, of New York and the East Asian Subway, are played in different keys. Regardless of the actual beauty of New York—and there are plenty of people who can’t stand the place—Koreans are programmed to believe that it’s a great city, and most will tell you that they really want to go. The image of Asia is more negative, and fits in with one stereotype about Asians, that they are mindlessly hard workers, trudging in and out of existence with little more individuality than a hive of ants (and perhaps the only alternative to this dreariness is leaping over bamboo rooftops). But there is nothing objectively good or bad about the reality from which this image draws its strength, and if the subways were depicted in a more positive light—imagine some sort of ridiculous subway musical, a good comedy, a patriotic song imported from North Korea, what have you—I think it’s possible I might have been programmed or influenced into believing that it is actually a pleasant thing to take the train. I mean, the train gives you a few minutes to listen to music or read a book; I finished two books by Balzac, The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance, and To The Finland Station, reading them almost entirely on the subway, and it can be thrilling to listen to a good song while darting through the crowds. It sucks when people are yapping or shoving, but they’re not always doing that, so sometimes it’s really not that bad.

The clip I posted from Baraka is an exposure of background. There are a few ideas behind the film (most obviously that Western civilization is mindless and destructive), and one of them is a sort of switchup: take the background to all the news clips and movies and TV shows we’ve ever seen, and make it the foreground. Focus on the background instead, and bring the innocent bystanders out of the woodwork—the three schoolgirls at 3:29—and make them confront us, head on, staring at us like we stare at them, from behind the safety of the television screen, for an uncomfortably long period of time, a lengthy break to the rushing about we’ve been getting used to for the last few minutes. This is what I’m talking about. These are the ideas that have programmed me, brought out into the light. Cities likewise become absolutely horrifying here, with the huge endless buildings like living moai statues, rushing about, devouring the landscape, and all the traffic between them is reduced to a factory’s production line—the sound effects suggest a roaring incinerator. Everything is reversed. The subway becomes a work of art, something to focus on, and the city, the centerpiece, the star, of so many great films, is exposed as a concentration camp.

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One thought on “The Garbage In New York

  1. Jennifer says:

    I wonder why it’s the subway which you focus on particulary as the site of modern monstrosity. I actually think the subway is far better and more positive than that oh-so-American of institutions – the highway and the family car. I wish everyone in Busan took the subway or the bus. If they did, the streets themselves would be so much safer and more beautiful, although I guess the subways would either be a lot more numerous or a lot more crowded.

    I love the subway. It is one of the things I enjoy most about living here. I couldn’t afford a car in the States, so the subway is a kind of freedom to me. I can get to the ocean or a mountain temple just by walking a few minutes from my apartment and hopping onto this magical machine. I can read a book, memorize lines, listen to music, or observe people. I ride the subway a total of 1 and a half hours each and every weekday and most weekends at least that often.

    I’ve had a handful of bad experiences on the subway, but no more than in any other public place in Korea. And I’ve made kind of an art/science out of boarding/exiting/getting a seat. I usually stand, however, because I’m big on the giving my seat up for the elderly thing.

    Anyway, I vastly prefer the subway and its relatively light environmental footprint to the standard American style of getting around. Though I do miss my even greener bike commute back in Portland. Still, back in Portland I’d have had to bike all day to get to the ocean…

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