Ghetto Playground Liberation

I knew there was a lot of garbage in Korea, I’ve written about the garbage here a thousand times before, it’s even how my book about this place opens up, during my trip to America one of my relatives even commented on how dark and depressing an opening this was—and yet, this morning when I ventured outside into the molasses-thick humidity at the behest of my son (yelling at me to put on his shoes in Toddlerese and then yelling at me while pointing to the door), and went to the deserted and very poor excuse of a playground that we frequent merely because it is close to the apartment, I was still astounded that people anywhere could live like this.

I wanted to take a picture of the trash and start a tumblr blog about the garbage here in the spirit of Blackout Korea, but I hadn’t brought my phone, so you’ll have to just imagine the pseudo-gazebo carpeted with newspapers, beer cans, and cigarette butts; the piles of beer bottles, napkins, and paper cups for instant ramen in the bushes; the cigarette butts and cigarette cartons scattered all over the place, along with the occasional little puddles of drying phlegm. A delightful place to take a child. It’s like this everywhere. People have had little parties for themselves and left the refuse behind.

The same old thoughts returned to me, as I re-acclimated to Korea, having only been here for several hours after two months in far cleaner and toddler-friendly America: if you go inside a Korean car, or a Korean house, everything is spotless, every time, but if you walk outside in Korea, you have no choice but to get used to the garbage. The reverse is true of America, which is usually pretty damn clean on the outside and likewise somewhat cluttered within.

When we first arrived in the rather amazing airport at Incheon and devoured our first real bowls of Korean food in two months I thought that I had to make a special note in my phone to remember an earlier vow I had made, to return to America, and live in Brooklyn, and not get sucked into Korea again. To not get too comfortable here with the food and the people and the places I missed. Even as we drove into rainy Gyeongju, and circled around the river lined with boxy gray cement buildings, I found myself feeling very content. The forests seemed lush and green, the skies were heavy with rain, swarms of cicadas were screaming from the branches of every tree.

But then with the baby and the garbage, while walking along one of the filth-strewn sidestreets to the ghetto playground, I was just, like, what am I doing here? The same thought came to me back when I was finishing college and hanging around Maine, coupled with a kind of desperation: that I must do something before I turn into a boring person who has become complacent with a situation that should be far better than it is. There are things I love about this place, but I think and perhaps even hope that the prophecy told to me by one of my coworkers will come true: I will not always be an English teacher in Korea.

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3 thoughts on “Ghetto Playground Liberation

  1. Tom says:

    I get that there are things you like about living in Korea…but don’t you feel weird about the idea of raising your kid here? Korea isn’t exactly excited about the rash of “multicultural” families cropping up….

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    I feel weird about a lot of things here, and I’m worried that in the near future the constant racism directed toward my family will assume dangerous proportions, particularly if and when the economy collapses. Assuming no one gets hurt, it might be a good thing, to find ourselves in an increasingly fascist culture, if only because it would force us to get the hell out and start our “real” lives in the United States. I wouldn’t be excited at all to be born in conformist, overcrowded, homogenous, and suicidally-miserable, Korea; we’re only here now because we think we’d be desperately overworked if we went to America, but we could be wrong.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I simultaneously identify with this post (I have thought the same thing before, exactly, “I will not get sucked back in”) and worry that purposely noticing the bad in Korea is maybe not the best way to live well, even if it’s being used just as a motivating force to get you out. I think that someday, when you’re back in the U.S. (which I bet you will be at some point) you’ll find yourself missing Korea, and will wish that you had spent your time here thoroughly enjoying all the good. Sidenote – this blog sometimes seems like a wild vacillation between idolizing and demonizing Korea and America as a whole – of course that’s a huge generalization, but you do seem to go through phases where one country or the other is “winning.”

    And maybe that’s not an accurate reflection of how you think, but my larger point is that while the garbage certainly sucks and can seem to be omnipresent, and while it’s important to have goals and try to remember them, it’s also important to be as happy as you can in every moment and see the good and the beauty and remember that there are places without garbage (I was in a spotless park in Centum City just today and I’ve walked through fields and woods in Gyeongju with nary a cigarette carton in sight, I swear) and wonderful things about your adopted and perhaps temporary home.

    Neither place is perfect. Neither place is terrible. I hated Korea for a while when I was living here, too, so I know how that goes. But then Lee reminds me that there were times back in Portland, even, Portland, my beloved city-state, when I was deeply dissatisfied about aspects of living there (no access to swimmable water, having to work low-wage jobs, too many pretentious hipsters, etc.)

    It’s possible to find good and bad everywhere. Of course some places are better than others, but as time moves on I feel like, if possible, it’s always best to make the lemonade. And I swear if you make the lemonade it won’t have to be the same as drinking the Kool-aid and staying here forever. Even as Lee and I grow to love things about Korea and our jobs here, we are plotting a goal to move to Europe within 5-10 years.

    Anyway, sorry if this rambles, but remember to check out those flowers alongside the garbage. Having spent the summer here, I’ve seen plenty more to love about Gyeongju.

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