I Know Only That I Know Nothing
About Korea. I came to this realization this afternoon as I was walking home with my wife. It was about 3pm and we were walking along Gyenam Big Road (계남 큰길) a main road that cuts right through Bucheon. We had started walking from the pet hospital where Miyoung’s dog Minnie is recovering after having a tumor removed from her leg. While visiting the dog we heard a siren outside, which I gave no thought at the time. we then left and went looking for a toast restaurant. Toast (토스트) is what they call a really good egg sandwich here. Anyway we walked about ten minutes, stopped off at the bank, and went to Nemo Nemo Toast House only to find the door locked. We kept walking another five minutes until we came to the Homever, at which point I noticed that all the cars in the street seemed to have hastily pulled over to the side of the road and parked there. I suddenly noticed that the town was eerily quiet. There were people around but they were all sitting on benches, squatting on the ground or standing around. We kept walking to the big intersection, where I was shocked and sort of disturbed to find that all the cars on the north-south street had also stopped in their tracks and parked where they stood. I was spooked and asked Miyoung what was going on.
She explained to me that it was Minbangwi (민방위) which I somehow immediately understood to mean a civil defense drill. I assumed that this event had been publicized on the news the night before and that I, being incredibly busy with school and work, had missed it. Miyoung went on, however, to explain that she thought I would know all about these civil defense drills since they happen every month.
I was totally speechless. By my reckoning I have lived in Korea for 59 months, and I have never seen anything like this civil defense drill. Actually I once saw a long line of tanks run down the road through extremely residential Sangdong in Bucheon, but I had never seen the entire world grind to a halt in the way it did today right in front of my eyes. I stood at the crosswalk with Miyoung and listened as a second siren rang. In a matter of seconds the cars all started up and they were back to normal. Miyoung and I wound up waiting at the crosswalk another full cycle before being able to cross. I spent that time completely entranced. Korea, a place I thought I knew pretty well, had just managed to completely surprise me. I was shocked, and all I could do was ask stupid questions. ‘You mean to say this happens every month?’ ‘How does everybody know when it is and what to do?’ ‘How come everybody follows the rules? It seems like with everyone frozen you could really make some great times on the roads.’ ‘Do the trains stop too?’
In an instant I was confronted with the immensity of everything I don’t know, and I realized that that which I do know about this country is in fact just a tiny fraction of what there is to know about the place.
That said, most foreigners who live here know only a small fraction of what I know. I’m like the man with one eye in the world of the blind, and I’ve been telling them all that the moon is ten yards above our heads.
The stillness and quiet of the civil defense drill on this bright, clear crisp day in the little mini-city of Bucheon was in a way the perfect awakening to my own ignorance. Imagine an entire country of people that you thought you know suddenly frozen, acting out a monthly ritual that has evaded your notice a staggering 58 times!
While I sure as shooting will continue to express my semi-informed, largely opinion-based take on Korea, I don’t think I’ll be able to muster the cock-sure posturing and self-possessed certainty that I usually use to make my inklings seem like accepted theories and my lazy pseudo-theories seem like gospel truth. Unless I want to get some point across, in which case I will maintain my usual fake surety. Still, I sure wouldn’t take anything I say seriously anymore. After all, I’m the guy who’s been hearing a nationwide claxon-call for preparedness monthly for the last five years and thinking each time that there was a kitten stuck in a tree somewhere.