This post really has very little to do with Korea, except as an example of what I’m going to talk about and for the fact that its inspiration happened while I was there. I wasn’t even really in Korea, at that – I was layingover in Incheon Airport outside Seoul.
Plus, I like the vintagey, beat-up-cracked-paint flag image and thought it looked nice there right there at the top of the page.
Anyway, I was in Incheon Airport, wandering aimless and tired through one of the food courts when I saw a man that made me think about history and my place in it. Or lack thereof.
He was a Korean guy, probably in his late 50s, well-built, handsome and healthy-looking, wearing a nondescript, light gray military-type cap – one of those floppy things with a short bill – a long-sleeve red shirt under a quilted, gray, down vest, and squareish bifocals. His arms were crossed loosely over his chest and he was leaned back in his booth with his legs stretched out under the table in front of him, totally at ease. He was looking at me, smiling, and he looked like a man who would be at ease anywhere, under any circumstances.
Something about that imperturbability, his obvious physical strength and good posture even in his reclination, his confidence – he didn’t look away when I saw that he was watching me – and probably to a certain extent that hat, made me think he’d been a career soldier. Before my imagination could go spiraling off too far into BourneLegacyLand, historical perspective tripped a switch and my thoughts were shunted onto another line, and his life, his 30-year military career flashed before my eyes.
Imagine what this guy would’ve seen in fifty-some-odd years. When he was born in the late-1950s, a few years after the Korean war, his country was worse off financially than countries in West Africa, and today it has the 15th largest GDP in the world. And as a soldier stationed on the 38th parallel working his way up to captain, maybe even as high as colonel, he would have seen some shit, boy. Espionage, assassinations and acts of terrorism, nuclear threats, isolated clashes and full-on battles, abductions, exchanges and escapes. He’d’ve known every American and Brit that mattered, and every Russian and Cuban that he wasn’t supposed to. History would have played out at the base of his watchtower – at his very feet! – and he would have taken part in it, maybe even had a hand in steering some of it.
And now, in the aftermath of that exciting career, while grabbing a beer before heading to Sydney or LA or Monaco or wherever, he sees me, a funny-looking 30-year-old American with a traveler’s backpack looking like an overgrown kid on a field trip, and smiles.
Not a smile you’d give someone, as a greeting or a show of friendliness, and definitely not a come-on. He was smiling to himself about me, it seemed, or at me, like you do at a kid straining to help his mom carry stuff into the house that’s too heavy for him, as if I were playacting as a man, and it was amusing.
(Let’s inject a little reality at this point – he probably didn’t see me and was smiling at some pretty girl behind me.)
And I realized, right in the middle of that food court, that compared to a Korean soldier, compared to a lot of people, really, even here in the US, I’m kind of outside history. I’m swept along by it, obviously – I live in a volatile time in a country that has its hands in a whole lot of that volatility. But I’m not so much IN it as pulled along in its wake. I may report on its effects on the human condition, via fiction, and if the gods deem me worthy maybe someday a few people will read those dispatches from my literary foxhole, but they’re going to be way after the fact – I mean, Tobias Wolff said it takes him 25 years to “catch up to places I’ve been.” And I may try to stick some band-aids on some of the lighter wounds history has inflicted as it’s torn through time, by volunteering and helping out my fellow man where and when I can, but I’m not doing much to ward off history. I’m not affecting anything. I’m not really all that involved in anything, at least to the extent that a man who’s spent his life in the Korean Army is.
This wasn’t any kind of life-changing realization, whereupon I made some sort of resolution to change my ways and change my place in the world and become a global doer. It wasn’t any kind of surprise either, and I’m not upset or disappointed – it’s not like I was under the delusion that I WAS having some impact, or even that I was aspiring to have some, or that I suddenly realized I wanted to be a mover and a shaker and a framer and a founder. I know some people who are doing such things and some who want very badly to be doing such things and hope with all their hoping power to do such things in the future. I don’t put too much value on either approach – move and shake, if that’s your thing, or don’t move and don’t shake. Go do whatever floats your long-tail boat. History and the world are big enough for all of us.
I’d spent the previous two weeks in a few parts of Thailand, and I was feeling pretty good – about life, about the world, about myself – in that bittersweet end-of-an-adventure way, when you wish you’d planned a longer trip but since you didn’t and you’re heading home anyway, you’re pretty happy about it. Part of me wants to be a perpetual, professional adventurer, a travel journalist extraordinaire, another Paul Theroux, and these two-week adventures both get me going and set me to wondering about my life. The only problem with getting out to see bits and pieces of the world is the awareness doing so engenders of just how massive and wonderful the world really is, and how much more of it there is than the tiny corners you toil toil toil away to make the money to take the modest trip to see. You run into other travelers from all over the globe, and as one of their favorite topics of conversation is where they’ve been and where else they want to go, by the time you’re wrapping up your holiday, you have a mental list of about twelve-dozen places you need to see in the next year and no idea how you’re going to get to one of them.
I’d just finished Chuck Palanhiuk’s Invisible Monsters, and reading CP always puts me in kind of a funky mood w/r/t to the unwieldiness of modern existence, and IM is no letdown in that respect. And I’d just started Midnight’s Children ahead of the April US release of Deepa Mehta’s film version. The two books probably helped set the stage for this kind of thinking, especially Midnight’s Children, which is narrated by a guy born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the date of India’s independence from British colonial rule – and whose life both reflects and is inextricably intertwined with the development of the newly independent India. The guy’s whole life is a historical moment. He’s in it, all the time. (The movie’s been getting only so-so reviews so far, but Rushdie wrote the screenplay and apparently likes the movie. I think this is the third time in as many posts I’ve mentioned Rushdie. I’ll knock it off.)
It was on top off all this, the traveling and the reading, that I was struck by a vision or a version of a single man’s improbable but possible history. I guess it was the magnitude of it that made an impression, the surreality of this particular confrontation with the profundity of my anonymity and smallness in comparison with the immensity of history. It was a visceral feeling, like I used to have in a recurring childhood nightmare of swimming happily along underwater only to suddenly discern, rising towards me from the murkier depths, the shadowed enormity of a blue whale – the same feeling I’ve had on the dock at the base of an aircraft carrier or cargo ship, craning my neck to see some sky and keep my hyperventilation at bay.
I’ve been thinking since that encounter what to make of the whole thing, and I suppose there are some takeaways, or could be some. I could become involved in history, or at least try to get an up-closer view, find a place on a campaign or go to work for an NGO. I could employ one of the well-known tactics for fighting discontent – shrink my scale and focus on doing good, local work – and by that rubric, the argument could be made that I am doing something for some people, or am part of something being done for people, through my job at work, helping to lay the foundation for a more water-wise Ventura County. I could assume that someday, if or when I go back to teaching, that I’ll have a positive effect on the minds of the next generation, which maybe sounds kind of presumptuous but isn’t that far-fetched – there are half a dozen men and women I could name at a moment’s notice, teachers I think about really quite often, who’ve played a significant role in the placement of various yellow bricks in my life’s road. Subscribing to the Great Man Theory (I don’t), I could think about how few people really are involved in history, and take solace in being one of the innumerable, ultimately insignificant Drifters In The Wake of History – a tactic I employ pretty often for a lot of different things.
But for the most part, after these last couple days thinking about that Korean guy (or using the image of him to think about myself, I suppose), I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want any big lessons. It put my angst and anxiety and ego in momentary check, and sometimes that’s as much as a person can ask for. Imagining that man’s life for a few moments and mulling over it since has been fun, and it gave me something to write about.
Anyway, that’s what I thought about on my way home from Thailand.
What I did in Thailand will likely be the subject of the next several posts, but I want to sort my photos first, and by doing so my thoughts. Come back soon and check it all out. Better yet, subscribe to or follow At The Wellhead and let me (or this fancy site, actually) tell you when something new is up.