Tuesday morning on the Daegu subway, and the passengers all sit slumped in their respective temporary seats, eyes closed and heads bowed, like opium addicts lost in their nods – consciousness oscillating between a dream world and the present world without any kind of discernment or curiosity about which one might be real. Jaws fall toward chests and bounce back to level with equivalent speed, following the trajectory of a trampoline session, heads hovering momentarily mid-air at the apex of the jump. Narcotics do not swim through the cultural bloodstream of Korea, especially not in conservative Daegu, so any semblance in demeanor to Chinese opium lords lacks actual allegorical weight. The passengers’ anchored buoyancy comes from a different drug, that of labor – mental and physical – and the expression on the profile of the 12-year-old with a Yankees cap sitting three seats to my left is hardly different from that of the blazered old man sitting in the handicap section at the end of the subway car. Downcast. Practiced. Fatalistic. The blazered man’s expression is simply more concrete, and the boy’s is inchoately soft, cement still setting. Or perhaps this is only an illusion of elements – concrete and cement being two separate materials – and the acceptance in the boy’s cement face has already set, like a child’s handprint in the neighborhood sidewalk.
I stand grappling a metal pole for balance, gymnast, tourist, observing from my lofty perspective the natives at a moment of slumberous submission, alone in their solidarity. They are familiar with something I am not – an exhaustion so haunting it eschews personification. Modern Korean work ethic is American capitalism’s frank, refined monster. It stalks the children in the morning, intimidating them through classes of factual memorization at public and private schools, and continues to coerce them well into the evening through the doors of private academies for extra piano, math, and English instruction. Somewhere close to midnight, when the monster has retreated in anticipation of entering the realm of dreams (because the monster is very much ubiquitous), the children transform into adults without any pumpkin coach escort or Torah-reading ceremony. The six days of school each week are no longer a preparation for careers, but careers in themselves. Young employees in pursuit of secondhand dreams. Nightmares to follow.
No one screams. The train is moving underground furiously as it does every day, screeching through the bowels of the city, yet They remain stationary, silent, encapsulated in this sterile plastic terrarium, upbeat childish commercial jingles playing over the speakers, everything rounded, texture of toddler playground equipment, no sharp corners. Don’t let the insane asylum inhabitant spark his imagination. About a decade ago, a suicidal arsonist set fire to one of the Daegu subway trains in protest of faulty medical care or the crippling depression he didn’t ask for. Officials flubbed emergency procedures, the fire spread to other cars, and 200 passengers burned alive behind the sealed doors of their public transport mausoleum. I consider this most times before boarding, scanning the train for other disgruntled, unemployed taxi drivers carrying duffle bags of flammable paint thinner. No one else seems concerned. If fire were to spread like water through the cars, I think they’d let it wash them away in a total cleansing, convergent to self-immolating Tibetan monks in that they have nothing to protest. No voiced quibble with destiny. The sound of silence is a total darkness, a black dirt burial engendered by the brilliant light of an unrelenting flame.
Heads containing stares
Of sleep bob in unison,
Waves on the East Sea.