Wednesday, May 30, 2007

city spaces and spacing out

I feel like May has been one long, panting sprint to some moving finish line. Deadlines, commitments, birthdays, read this write that plan this fix that. The weather has been warm for a month and I haven't taken out the summer clothes yet -- I know it will be a whole day project, involving complete upheaval of our already-messy apartment, much dust, more lego pieces missing, and agonizing over what to throw away. I need to keep throwing away, paring down our lives and our selves before moving again. A little every month. So my kids have been running around in clothes that are way too tight and short, and I'm sweating through the weather in jeans and long-sleeve shirts. We're on the cusp of the mass migration of ex-pats back to the U.S. as well, so I need to fit in all my social engagements -- just as important as all the others.
Me: Can you watch the kids on thursday? We're having mom's night out.
KC: Didn't you just have mom's night out last week?
Me: That was a different set of moms.
KC: geez, how many sets are there?
Me: How many rounds of golf have you played lately?
KC: ...OK, I'll watch the kids.

But... I'm really enjoying my life right now. People to meet, stacks of things to read, articles to write, kids growing like weeds, sword-fighting right and left.

I've been writing/thinking a lot about space lately, though not to any sense of completion. I am discovering that I am a very very slow writer. As usual, I went through a bunch of drafts on themes related to city spaces, trying to find some central tie to pull them all together. Short for time, I posted something short on printculture, intending to come back to the topic. But we've decided to take a breather over there, which will allow me to catch up a little on my other commitments...

Anyway, here are some discarded parts of a post on reading space that I haven't pulled together... but I like these paragraphs.

My apartment door slams behind me and I hear the beep of the automatic lock as my feet find their rhythm along the stained tile floor of the hall. I sidle past my neighbor’s open door, inhaling the steam from cooking rice. Open on one side, the hall is actually a long balcony framed by trees (and attracting mosquitos) which do not block out the shrieks of traffic and excitement from the playground below. Down I go through the shaded stairwell, my body dispersing the lingering cigarette smoke, past ads for private lessons and a public service notice advising people not to send their kids to buy cigarettes for them. I cut through the playground to get to the main road, saying “hi,” to the children there -- I’ve taught many of them at one point or another. Stepping over the short fence I pause to shake the sand out of my shoes. Before crossing over the entrance to the parking lot I peer around all the illegally parked cars, half on and half off the sidewalk, leaning into the street as if listening for some secret tale only pavement can tell. A scooter zips by me; the driver carries a metal box full of take-out Chinese in one hand (probably jajangmyun), weaving through pedestrians and traffic with his cellphone squeezed between his ear and shoulder.

I enter the streams of people along the main sidewalk. Although my size, shape, dress, and coloring don’t set me apart from anyone else, my walk marks me as an American -- long stride, fast pace, ain’t nothin’ gonna slow me down. Being aware of one’s space is a skill city dwellers need to have, but some never acquire it -- a kind of spatial tone deafness. Those are the people clogging up the sidewalk or weaving so it is impossible to pass. But movement in Seoul has a vocabulary of its own -- a gentle push or nudge to one side is a perfectly acceptable way of regulating space hogs. Even while seeming oblivious to others’ spatial needs (some people, I suspect, hog the sidewalk on purpose) one must be vigilant for sudden scooters and other threats.

Scooter drivers are the grand masters of city space: able to find holes in the crowded sidewalks and having an intimate knowledge of the fastest flight plan through apartment blocks, heavy traffic, rivers, and other obstacles. They seem to obey no laws -- man-made or physical. Having mastered the timing of traffic signals, they fly across the intersection between the time one light turns red and the next turns green, balancing delicate cargo, cellphone, and umbrella, leaving the street to take to the sidewalk, sand, or other rideable space. If they are the grand masters, though, I am a grasshopper, still learning how to read city spaces, overwhelmed by the signeage, stumbling over cracks in the pavement, distracted by the bombardment of light, color, sound, and smell.

I look down at my feet. The pavement is a palimpsest of city life, mottled by different shades of asphalt patches, small puddles of spit, vomit decomposing in the sun, a discarded ice cream wrapper, and police markings from the last scooter accident: “head,” “legs,” “motorcycle.” In a walking city, the quality of curbs marks the status of the neighborhood -- the more uneven and weedy, the poorer the district.


and more:


It took me two years to get used to living in Seoul, to reach the state where small parts of daily life become invisible, to relax my grip and my constant apprehension. Two years to feel like I wasn’t drowning in the overwhelming unfamiliarity of the city. And now I find myself at the point where I take things for granted to the extent that I forget that they are unusual; or I know that they are unusual but can’t explain why. But some switch has been thrown in my mind as I think about leaving, and I can stand back and try to catalogue my life here while I still have the opportunity.

There’s something about the way we navigate and read city spaces here which I can’t quite get at. Part of it is the grammar of movement -- the way you have to visually parse the space differently as you drive, walk, and park. You anticipate and plot the trajectories of other objects (cars, scooters, pedestrians) as you move; you communicate your presence through honks, blinking hazard lights, gentle pushes. The hazard light is its own little genre here. Cut in front of someone and use it to say, “hey, thanks for letting me in and sorry about that.” -- like the wave of a hand in the U.S. If the traffic slows suddenly it means, “look out! Slow down immediately! Something’s going on up ahead!” In the garages of big department stores, blinking hazards mean “trying to park” rather than “trying to exit,” aiding the legions of parking lot assistants to direct the cars properly. Pulled over on the side of the road it means, “Yes I know I am parked illegally but I don’t really give a damn, just get over it and go around.”

2 comments:

Helena said...

I've been a walker and a passenger in Korea, but never a driver. That would be scary.

Livia said...

Thanks for writing this.