Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pennisular perspectives: 240 hours of pondering percieved paradox OR why do I think so impoverishedly about cities?

Greetings from the land of the morning calm. I bring you this special addition of Sojourning the Subcontinent, from Busan, South Korea! So long subcontinent, hello peninsula! I haven't written publicly for sometime; it's nice to stretch the old vocabulary and wax poetic openly again. Before we begin, I must admit, this is a long entry. May the sharing of stories bring us closer to the divine.

10 days ago, I arrived in the second largest metropolis, and grand port city, of the Republic of Korea, to visit my dear friend Mitchell and his love, Katherine. My trip to Busan (which is also known as Pusan, the spellings of which I will oscillate, unannounced and without qualification) was, not unlike my journey from Delhi to Toronto earlier this fall, a convoluted and lengthy process. I traveled from Kingston to Toronto the night of February 25, staying for a discount rate in the Hilton Airport Hotel thanks to On the morning of the 26th, I awoke at 4am bound for my transoceanic travels which took me first to Newark, New Jersey (3 hour layover), then Tokyo, Japan (3 hour layover), next to Seoul, South Korea (10 hour layover), finally to Busan, South Korea. In sum, I traveled for 39 hours - or 53 including the time change, arriving at 8:00am, Korean Standard Time on the 28th. I suppose I'm still young enough to suffer the maelstrom that is continuous travel for almost two days in order to ensure cheap air tickets; round trip Toronto - Busan for $1250.00 is hard to beat!

In a week and a half, I have, to name but a few magical moments: traversed the mountains which surround the city; meandered the subway system en- route to true expatriate exploration (including tourist hot spots such as Hyandai Beach, Pusan National University, and the many bars serving soju, a chemically enhanced liquor consumed in unhealthy quantities by Korean business men and foreigners, alike); watched a Sonic Boom game - the Busanese national basketball team (likely a separate post to come on this experience); and toured estuaries and other natural spaces on the western periphery of the city, courtesy of the Busan eco tour. 

Most of my time, however, has been spent on the 6th floor of the Banda Bora Skyscraper complex- my current residence. This 500 square foot, multi-roomed, yet open concept apartment boasts light hardwood floors, a beautiful glass shower, and most strikingly, wall to wall to wall, windows! I usually sit at the dinning room table peering down to the daily occurrences of Minam (the particular enclave where the building is situated). This perspective, coupled with insightful comments from Mitch and Kat, and married to a seemingly intrinsic proclivity for reflection, have lead me to ponder the paradoxes of Korean society; or more fairly, the perceived paradoxes. Let me explain.

Visually, the urban environments of South Korea, in this case Busan, are/is highly developed and deeply technological. That is, the streets are filled with modern cars, the infrastructure is fortuitous with -for example- a highly advanced and very accessible (physically and financially) public transit systems, and the high-rises which purposefully penetrate the Pusanese sky are accessorized with a multitude of neon and other gas filled signs. The lights and sounds are analogous to a perpetual, though perhaps less intensive, Time Square in New York City. However, the illuminated city and its blinking billboards and ticking traffic does not give way to a culture of urbanity, or at least not in the way I traditional conceptualize such densely populated locales.

In my mind's eye the city -especially a port city- is an ethnically diverse, politically liberal, moderately unsafe, and generally licentious setting. (To be sure, I am not equating any of the said descriptions with one another, nor am I claiming that all cities fit this categorization; indeed, my lived-experience, including numerous courses in my undergraduate on urban environments, teach me otherwise). Yet, left unchallenged, I would still perceive the city to be home to activists, lesbians, Hispanics, and drug dealers. (Again, I am not suggesting an entrenched relationship between any of these people groups, nor am a using them as pejorative qualifiers). Nonetheless, in Korea things are different. The urban fabric speaks not the language of my (mis)conceptions, but of a reserved and conservative populous; a group of people who generally avoid public displays of affection and deny that homosexuality exists in their country. Paradox number one - perceived paradox number one - metropolitan Koreans do not meet the standard I think of when I think of urban paradigms.

Paradox number two: so called 'conservative' and 'reserved' tendencies of Koreans do not apply to drinking. In the words of Mitch, "It is not uncommon to see a full grown man wasted out of his mind at 3:00pm". True say, bro-sef. To avoid a pedantic explication as to why I believe conservatism and cultures of reservations to include attitudes of sobriety (if I was even able to craft a cross-cultural analysis of such an arduous scope) please allow to make a general, if only unfounded, assertion: it seems paradoxical for this culture to so often get drunk based on other ways of being which I would have believed to be opposed to such behaviour. The drunkenness though, may be easily (simplistically?) accounted for based on the high levels of pressure placed on members of society with respects to maintaining a certain image/degree of success. 

Paradox number three: safety without personified agents of security/safety in the city. Busan, and according to a number of individuals I have spoken with, Korea at large, is very safe. This opinion is bolstered in my view every time I see children playing at night, women running down a dark path by the water, and is further evidenced by the 'feeling' of the city. Perhaps this safety is due the-ever present, even Panoptic, eye of "big brother" - that's right, friends, Busan is CCTV heaven. Whether or not the perpetual eye of whom ever views the countless hours of closed circuit television, if anyone does at all, is to account for the safety is not for me to say - though I am sure it is a contributor. What I can say however, is that police presence is scarce, and when one does encounter an officer of the law, they are not armed. No, no, no. They have arms! Just no guns. In fact, Korea is to my understanding, a gun-less society:  no guns for cops,  no guns for the military personnel who patrol around the public squares, no gun for you in your handbag. I think that this is a poignant lesson to other 'developed' nations (to use problematic terminology). Nevertheless, it is noted as a paradox because there is a common discourse in the 'west' which argues for investing the power of violence (or potential violence) in the hands of the few to ensure violence is circumvented en mass. On the contrary, my experience in Busan says we can have safe, highly/densely populated environs, without arming anyone!

The final paradox to be noted conforms to the pattern of the ones before it; it is not in and of itself paradoxical, but rather seems to be based on my experience, and commonly held beliefs by a significant number of individuals. Paradox number four: one can access nature within 10 minutes of being in the downtown core. As mentioned previously, Busan is beautifully surrounded by mountains. Busan sits nestled in the valleys below. These mountains have been, unlike their North American counterparts, left to their 'natural' state; no homes on the hills, no development destroys the astounding conifers which bend like an Emily Carr painting. As such, one can quickly escape the sometimes frantic comings and goings of life in the valley by taking a brief taxi, bus, subway, or bipedal locomotive trip to the many peaks which peacefully wait to provide what nature does best, a quantum of solace. Perhaps the North American planning market could trade suburban sentiments for mountainous moments now and again?

The perception of paradox pondered in Busan transcends the ways in which I make sense of Korean culture in the context of the city. The perception of paradox pondered in Pusan transcends the ways in which I make sense of urban frameworks. Indeed, paradoxical perspectives apparently emanate from the very essence of my being. I have once again come to understand the ways in which I am a person of contradiction; striving to live in certain ways, hoping to bring to fruition spirit-lead love in the world, but on the contrary, often perpetuating self-focused, comfortable and placating realities which serve to resist the realm of God. Simply, I often choose my ways over God's. Thinking of Paul's words to Timothy, I know I don't save myself by works and need to rest in the Grace apportioned to me (everyone) before the time, but I also know that I need to be responsive when the dove dances lightly in my heart, calling me to share the Gospel, or pray with friends, or drink one glass less of soju.

These contradictions run deep in my life, yes, and if I'm not mistaken, in yours too. Yet amazingly a still soft voice echos in my head "my Grace is sufficient for you" - a Grace which stems from love; a love that does not betray, dismay, or enslave, a love that sets us free. This love, stemming from Jesus, reminds me to get up, try again and know that despite the frustration I feel from (borrowing again from Paul) doing what I don't want to do, I am being changed, moved, and transformed to places of responsiveness, to places of Kindgom carrying. But I can't do it alone! I need God's help of course, but as light bearers, I also need you to ask me "did you follow the Spirit today". I crave your accountability. So for those of you who believe this enterprise to be beneficial, I invite you, now and always, to ask me how my everyday realities are responsive to, or in denial of, being a Spirit-lead Christ follower. May we together move towards God.

Thanks for reading, folks. For now, God Bless,