This is an essay I published in Arirang, the American Women's Club of Korea magazine.
My son Aiden is very picky about his shoes. From a young age he cultivated a fine and mysterious sense of what shoes are fit to adorn his feet and which ones he won't wear. Soon after we arrived in Seoul he chose white leather sneakers, which amused my in-laws to no end, a cross between the traditional white-colored백구두 that people in the countryside wear, and 70s throwback sneakers with flat bottoms.
He has a right to be picky about his shoes, I suppose (though he outgrows them quickly); we spend so much time walking around the city that the shoes seem part of his body. Unlike the car-obsessed U.S., Seoul is a walking city, and it is through walking that we have discovered and explored Korea. We moved here from Michigan – a Midwestern state filled with open spaces where a little boy can "run really fast! OK? OK!" and wide, clear skies empty of buildings. But in America the price of space is time spent behind the wheel. And though I loved to drive – loved to have time to think and listen to music, knowing Aiden was safe and secured in the back– in the car Aiden watched his world go by from his climate controlled cage.
Americans walk an average of less than 75 miles a year – which works out to around 350 yards a day – literally the distance between bed and bathroom, couch and refrigerator, door and car. In Ann Arbor we used to take Aiden to the zoo and see 7-year olds pushed around in strollers, unable to walk for a few hours on their own. We hear of 2-year olds showing signs of heart disease, and see adults who start exercise programs plagued by the years of childhood immobility and little muscle base. My husband and I vowed that our children would grow up walking, and decided not to take the stroller when we moved to Korea.
At first the transition to walking was hard. Aiden's three-year-old legs were unaccustomed to serving as his primary means of transportation and I had just come off several weeks of rest after surgery. Jet-lagged, awed and open-mouthed, on occasion lost, and busy with the tasks of moving to a foreign country, we strolled and skipped and strided around Seoul so that by spring, walking defined the rhythm of our new lives.
Everyday we walked to Aiden's grandparents' apartment in the morning, and then he walked with his Grandpa to school. In the afternoon I picked him up to walk home, or sometimes to the grocery store, or the doctor, or the subway, or wherever it is we had to go. Our 10-minute walk from school to home usually took us an hour. Aiden figured out all the various permutations through the apartments to the river, and insisted on taking only the "back secret ways" winding behind apartment blocks, finding quiet and secluded spaces, discovering dark scary tunnels and secret gardens. There are rules in these spaces: “Shh, mommy, you have to be quiet and whisper here! You have to talk really loudly here! You have to jump over this hole. You can only walk on the red tiles!” Aiden found a fantasy world in the city terrain, a labyrinth of spaces to explore, control, conquer, be master of, be concealed in, be small and afraid in – all while holding my hand.
I remember that first spring – the smell of it in the air, how we optimistically replaced his winter coat with spring coat and several layers of fleece, how we stopped to breathe in the air and inspect the buds forming on the trees. Aiden triumphantly declared, "mommy, this one is an evergreen" – in truth, by summer I didn’t know the difference between an evergreen and not, but spring makes naturalists of us all. He rubbed his jacket along the rough texture of a brick wall as we stealthily rounded a building. He delighted in telling me what things are made of – brick, cement, barbed wire, dirt. We pee-yooed! at the smell of car exhaust, and turned our noses to the smell of the river. We stopped to listen to the water gurgling and tricking (in my effort to endow him with a rich English vocabulary, I repeated "listen to the water gurgle and babble!" over and over) until the sound was drowned out by two big military helicopters. We talked about littering, stopped to examine a praying mantis and help it get unstuck from the rubber path. Walking across the bridge one day the sight of two men replacing a streetlamp with a cherry-picker captured our attention and we spent a good 20 minutes watching them. We peered in open manholes and saw the workers cozy in their nests of wires and pipes underneath the earth. Summer came and Aiden stripped to his underwear and to play with the other children in the small rock pools by the river, next to retired men who soaking their feet after a day of hiking. A good sturdy branch provided a powerful tool for warding off enemies, for tapping on manholes and cracks, a souvenir worth keeping in our collection by the apartment door along with cool rocks. The uncool rocks were thrown into the river to make satisfyingly big splashes. We stopped to watch people exercise, then precariously walked the balance beam made by the edge of the sidewalk, and climbed the embankment to become the king of the world and examine our shadows. Seoul became a world of senses, where we both controlled the pace, where we could stop and examine a small ladybug or the crane constructing a skyscraper for a second or for an hour.
Now we’re approaching our second spring in Seoul, baby Max has joined us on our walks, and Aiden no longer holds my hand, instead running ahead of me to brave the crosswalks by himself or to seek out playmates. The weather has suddenly turned cold again, so as we set out this morning I thought only about hurrying Aiden to school and getting back in time for Max’s nap. Walking by the river Aiden suddenly pulled me aside to examine the trees: “Look, Mommy! Buds!” So immersed in our now routine life I had not noticed winter slipping away, nor realized that I had stopped savoring the rhythm of our secret world. Rummaging through our closet to pull out the spring clothes I come upon Aiden’s old white shoes, still in pristine condition – he outgrew them so fast – and I realized suddenly how quickly we have grown into our lives here. For that one stolen season the smug and jaded adult strode around the city like a child, openmouthed in wonder, overwhelmed by new sights, smells, and sounds. For one spring I was able to walk in Aiden’s shoes, and now we’ve both grown up.