Thor's Korea Diary

Dead or Alive?

@15 September 2001


No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee..

[John Donne, 1572-1631]


When suicide teams from the Middle East decided this week to park several American airliners in the sides of American skyscrapers, it was hard not to wonder how they had become so disconnected from the common weal of humankind. Alas, a little wondering soon yielded the recollection that our connection to the common weal of anyone is pretty fragile. In the end, and at critical moments long before the end, we are always alone.

Our cultures give us rules of attachment, in some cases only to kin, in others extending to those known, and in some cultures there is included a duty of hospitality to strangers. One of the more attractive features of Arabic cultures has long been their practice of hospitality to strangers (perhaps induced originally by common need in unforgiving desert lands).

However, a product of urban cultures is often anomie. We can live shoulder to shoulder with others for decades without acquaintance, and even be fearful of contact. Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to bring such strangers together, and we saw such a phenomenon in New York.

Modern urban culture often adds to the layers of disassociation people sense between their own needs and whom they can actually influence to satisfy those needs. Our psyches have hardly evolved from a very different world. Things were once pretty direct, when you cut your own firewood, and knew every soul in your village from the cradle to the grave. The mysteries of existence were safely in the hands of whatever god you believed in.

Now life is more like negotiating an intricate video game, driven by machinery too complex for you to understand, but also manipulated by unseen human hands to whom you are merely a number. It is scarcely surprising that, treated as a number, we react to the lives of those we haven't met with little empathy. And mass media, notably television, brings us to a constant encounter with those we haven't met. Our vision, but not our visceral nervous system, is flooded with images of people starving, being shot, beaten, having their lives ruined, usually by the agents of this so-called government or that. These unhappy abstractions of suffering men, women and children have become merely electronic wallpaper.

For decades amongst the most vicious sitcoms in this catalogue of human misery has been the collision between the Jewish religious fantasy and the shame/honour/revenge fury of dispossessed Palestinians. This has become a proxy for the hatred and self-hatred welling up from a castrated Arab-Islamic religious fantasy. The agent of that castration, as popularly decoded by Araby, has been America and its hitman, Israel.

The American nemesis, Osama Bin-Laden, has gone a step beyond that limited popular analysis. He believes that the real heart of Araby and Islam, his own homeland, Saudi Arabia, has been neutered by American scheming for generations. He sees that the ruling class has been bought off, that leading Saudis have been seduced into useless playboys by the absence of material wants, that by extortion America ensures Saudi oil production, and that 7,000 American troops (I've seen estimates from 4,000 to 20,000) are stationed in the country to underline that its sovereignty remains compromised. I have no brief for Saudi cultural and religious practices (they contain much which I abhor), but from the logic of his own perspective Bin-Laden has a good argument. Although his parents were Yemeni, Bin-Laden's life has been intimately associated with the ruling Saudi princes, and his attacks on America seem to have grown out of the ultimate rejection by King Fahd of Bin-Laden's growing domestic charisma; (he wanted to lead a Saudi attack on Iraq without involviing the infidel Americans..). 

 In other words the immediate American problem is not  just with the poverty stricken millions of misruled Islamic states. Bin-Laden and his lieutenants have had generally privileged origins in Saudi Arabia and Egypt; (his personality type has some parallels with the younger Mao Tse Tung).The present terrorist problem is not even with Afghanistan (although the foolish Taliban will be an easy sacrifice for a Western public demanding blood).  The problem is with the Saudi mindset in particular, and Arabic understanding in general, seeing America as a roadblock to their aspirations. The solution lies not in supporting reactionary regimes uncritically, but creating conditions in which they have an incentive to evolve into something less pathological. Ironically, my guess is that in the medium term Iranians may be democracy's best friend in the Middle East : a sophisticated people who have been through their own religious revolution and show signs of emerging into something like an Age of Enlightenment. As for the American administration's declared "war on terrorism" ... well, the big objection seems to be to private enterprise terrorism. Fair enough, but let's say so. Most terrorism from time immemorial has been sponsored by the leaders of political states, including America (but mostly less gratuitously in America than some of history's other empires).  Violence by the State on innocents is not about to vanish.

In the meantime, the world's TV news excitement must go on. Bin Laden's response to his personal banishment from American sponsored Saudi power, asymmetric warfare (as the latest jargon has it) clearly strikes a chord with Arabic public opinion. They can savour the irony that, like Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden was nurtured as a cat's-paw for American policy (the former, the frighten the Saudis, the latter to haunt the Russians). Desperate New Yorkers, leaping to their deaths from the inferno of collapsing skyscrapers may make our First World hearts stand still, yet we should scarcely be surprised that through the looking glass, in the perilous upside-down universe of the West Bank, Riyadh, Baghdad, or for that matter, Kabul, fleeing New Yorkers are also no more than electronic wallpaper.

A change of focus ....

One fascination for me of stepping through the looking glass, and living amid utterly foreign cultures, is the frisson one gets from suddenly being confronted by people who are not electronic wallpaper, but who in a way think that you are. That is, these strangers you are amongst have a picture of the world in their head which you have to struggle to imagine. They act on presuppositions you can only guess at, and come to conclusions which sometimes seem to be bizarre at best, or even quite inhumane. A few days ago I recounted one such incident to a Korean friend, a doctor, who did his best to make sympathetic noises, for he is a Confucian gentleman who would not dream of telling his nutty foreign friend to see a psychiatrist. Here is what happened.

It was the day of rest in Busan for those blessed enough to be on salaries, though not of course for the shopgirls, the bus drivers, the machinists in tiny sweatshops. Being amongst the idle, I had set out to get some essential supplies from an LG hypermarket in Changjon-dong. There was supposed to be an LG bus from my suburb, Bansong-dong, full of housing estate mothers, but it hadn't come. Perhaps the moguls had figured out that big spenders could afford their own wheels. Anyway, after much delay and exasperation, I had found myself late in the afternoon on a subway train out of Onch'onjang.

At this time on Sunday, we all had a seat, though there was little space for more. A kind of torpor hung over the compartment. It was hot, leisurely lunches were still being digested, private thoughts were uninterrupted by the mental chores of workday life. About the carriage was a sprinkling of the elderly, old ladies with obsessively permed hair, and gents with the leathery immobility that comes with thickened arteries and minds pickled in Soju. There were the middle aged, already becoming heavier, burdened with the care of extended families. And there was a leavening of slender youths, immersed in the fluorescent green displays of their mobile phones.

I too was distracted. But suddenly a young woman rolled onto the floor with a thud, and lay inert. She had come from a spot opposite me, and several meters towards the front of the train. I started, but hung on the edge of the seat, unsure of what to do. Clearly something had to be done, yet for a moment I was paralysed by cultural distance and the enclosing silence of having no common language.

I quickly studied her as well as I could from three meters away. She appeared to be breathing, although faintly. There was no sign of spasm. Her eyes were more or less closed. She was a heavy young woman, packaged in tight jeans, with that kind of dewy, honeyed skin which you only see occasionally in Korea. I tried to review the possibilities of her condition. She may have been paralytically drunk. Not unusual for a man, but slightly alarming in a woman. She could be overdosed on some other drug. Also, she might be very, very sick. Yes, something had to be done quickly.

At this moment I looked around the carriage, and a chill went through my body. Of all those passengers, not a single one showed the slightest signal that one of their number had collapsed, and might be in mortal danger. The bodies remained lax, the eyes unfocussed, the woman on the floor invisible to their attention. It was surreal.

My disbelief gave way to outrage, and throwing decorum to the winds, in a loud voice I demanded in English, "SOMEBODY CALL A DOCTOR". Nobody looked at me, but an uneasy twitch rippled through the crowd. They could manage a conspiracy of neglect for the unlucky Korean woman, but a mad foreigner might have to be mollified in other ways. A couple of people fiddled with their mobiles, and a fragile woman of fifty who had been sitting next to the comatose girl, hesitantly retrieved the girl's own mobile from the carriage floor and put in back on the seat as a kind of place marker.

By this time the train was pulling into Changjon-dong, where I had planned to get off. Surely there had to be some way of activating an emergency response. Again, in a loud English voice I said, "SOMEBODY TELL THE DRIVER". Once more the group gave an involuntary twitch as if someone had poked them with a cattle prod. Then a young man broke, and without giving me a glance hurried up the platform.

Still not confident of help, I stood on the platform with my arm raised, close to the train where I knew the driver could see me on his monitor. Presently a loudspeaker squarked a warning to stand back. The lady who had picked up the phone made frantic signals for me to reboard the train. "GET A DOCTOR!" I shouted back as the carriage pulled away. It was like one of those nightmares where your arms and legs flail against an invisible restraint.

Then, snapping out of it, I realized that there was one more option. I bounded down three flights of stares and barged into the office of the astounded station staff. "DEAD LADY, LAST TRAIN, THAT WAY" I barked, reducing my English language to the starkest assault. To their credit, one grabbed a phone to call in an emergency crew, no doubt at a station up the line. Later I realized that with the number of passengers packed into any subway, there must be a steady stream of medical emergencies. They would have to be well-primed to respond.

Ten years ago I was sitting alone in an apartment in Melbourne. I had just resigned a lecturing position at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and had lived through three years of barely suppressed communal hatred following a race-based coup in 1987. The meanness of spirit between ethnic Fijians and ethnic Indians was eating the soul out of the country, and I wanted no part of it. Now, in Melbourne I had enrolled for a part-time Ph.D. and scrabbled to find part-time work. I barely knew a soul, and the future did not look terribly promising.

Then, on that evening, suddenly, something was terribly wrong. I tried to rise from a chair and felt a stab of pain in my chest. I thought I knew the meaning, for my father had died just like that, and at that moment I also knew terror. It was the beginning of the longest journey of my life, across the room to call an ambulance. The journey took twenty minutes, breathing but not daring to breathe, for every movement seemed to tip my heart closer to that final seizure. Fate smiled briefly, the ambulance came, the artery was unblocked, blood flowed again. I had traveled through the eye of a needle.

I savoured life with fresh urgency. But having snuffed the whiff of mortality in a lonely place, I wondered less about why people choose to live in bickering families, to seek out company they can hardly pretend to love, and tolerate social obligations which offer them no joy. Could it be their prayer and gamble that when their moment of personal crisis comes, somebody nearby will care enough to help? Should I too settle for some relationship, seek out a simple, kindly woman who might never share my thoughts but whom secretly, selfishly, I could hope to have there when the next ambulance needed to be called? For a time I wavered, then recoiled ashamed, and arrogant with new strength again plunged on in splendid isolation.

There is a prophetic dream which haunts me now, fragile images of the self embalmed in a block of eternity-glass. The images float, layered above each other, waiting to be called. Just one, I know, will be drawn out as "reality" at that final moment of crisis.

One image of my being flickers uncertainly, for it is no more than electronic wallpaper. At any moment I may vanish with it forever, obliterated by the flick of a switch from an unseen hand. In that image, I will be nuked from the video game without compassion.

In another image, the film curls at the edged with embarrassment, for about it hover uncomprehending friends wringing their hands helplessly... In a third I have paid all the cultural dues, collected the worldly obligations of a family to support, but at this moment am lying desperate on the floor of a railway carriage and not a single passenger is prepared to admit that I need help.

In a fourth diorama I am high on a hillside, looking out to sea, utterly alone in life and without illusions, watching the final obliterating mist move towards me across the grey water.



* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Dead or Alive?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved