Korea, June 12, 2000
Nothing is as final as death
Now it didn't start in Korea, but that's where the terror gripped me the
most. It started about a week before, when I woke up from a nightmare with
an ice-cold chill down my spine. Then, the next night, watching a video
about JFK Jr's life, the chill came back. I couldn't sleep a wink. I
spent all night trying to get away from the thought, to no avail. It ain't
pretty, it ain't nice, but like taxes, ain't avoidable. Yes, I realized
I will die one day.
Adding insult to injury, it will be one day not too far into the future. I learned this while reading the Economist of all things. There, on page 62, was a writing contest about what the world would look like in 2050. That's when I understood that I'll be lucky to see 2050 (77 is about the American male's life expectancy), which to me is way too soon to have this wonderful thing called life taken from me.
I'm not religious at all, with my rational mind excluding all 'get out of death free cards' of heaven, resurrection, or reincarnation, so death is especially final for me. This cold, hard, inescapable fact is messing with my mind and my stomach in Korea.
When I'm under stress, with a deadline or unpleasant task approaching (and death sure does qualify as both), I can't focus, daydream, or relax and my appetite disappears, replaced by stomach pains and lethargy. This is how I am experiencing Korea, with a heavy mind and sick body, so you'll excuse me if I'm not in the mood to photograph.
My only escape from my thoughts is in the weak Korean nightlife, which does nothing to change my daylight mindset. I keep examining and rejecting different options for immortality. I ain't rich enough to do a Pyramid like the Pharos, I'm not ambitious enough to be a great leader like Lenin, and I can't even be a President like Bill, for I wasn't born in the USA. Bummer. I'll just have to be common-man me.
I guess that leaves the usual avenue for existing beyond death: kids. No, I'm not gonna go back to China and try for 'em now with Jingmei, but I understand the great drive to be a dad that more than one of my friends has expressed in a new human. That, and I need a job. A job to get my mind off such things and back into the wonderful minutiae that makes life so worth living on a daily basis.
The Koreans sure have used the job thing to occupy their time on this planet. Taking the train from Seoul to Pusan, I noticed that Korea is really a working miracle. From a flattened ruin after the North invaded in the 1950's, it's become a uniformly rich country. Unlike many Asian counties, once you leave the capital, the wealth does not disappear. There are new cars, nice homes, and clean streets visible at every turn of the train. If it weren't for the Asian crisis of 1997, this country would be just as expensive for me as Japan, and it definitely has the order I remember from Holland. Everything is planned, ordered, and efficient.
Understandably, the South Koreans would like to keep it this way, so I can rationalize, if not completely accept the heavy police presence in the country. At every metro station exit, and many of the random underground passageway exits, youths in police uniform stand at attention. They're unarmed, but you can tell by the daily riot police drills I saw around town, that they are well trained and well organized.
This is not to say they are oppressive. On the contrary, their presence is very light. My first day in Seoul, I was given a ride by two cops from one full guesthouse to another less crowded one. I also found the kids laughing and joking whenever their commander wasn't around. They wouldn't goof for a photo though, thinking it might be a ruse to get hem in trouble or disgrace the police.
Also, an unusually large number of kids sported crosses around their neck. In Korea, like the Philippines, Christian missionaries were very successful. Maybe too successful, for about 25% of the population is of some Christian faith, an amazingly high percentage for an Asian country. This religious bent gave the country an odd feel, for I saw evangelists at least once a day in Seoul, singing, preaching, or just driving along in a loudspeaker van. Once out of the capitol, each town the train passed sported at least one steeple, if not a full-blown gothic cathedral.
All that religion still hasn't helped my death realization though. In fact, in Pusan, it came back so strong I was crying at an Internet cafe. Some days are better than others.