It’s been years since I had the urban studies class under Soukwan Chan at Concordia university. It was one of the most influential classes of my life. In it, we covered many topics that didn’t have anything to do with the cirriculum– mostly because if the university ever saw on a course syllabus what we were going to do in class, they’d go white with fear of lawsuits.
I heard stories about this teacher. In an experiment about reclaiming public space, students in one of Soukwan’s classes went out on the street and paid the parking meter for a couple of parking spaces– then parked a sofa there. And sat there, and chit chatted all day. People in cars honked and complained to get out of the spaces– the students were told to reply “but we’re paying the meter, so it’s my space.”
In another class, Soukwan was explaining what he thought was the hipocrisy of being a good person by giving money to a charity of your choice. “If you’re a good person, you just give… you don’t chose how or to who, you just do it.”
And so, one day, he gathered his class of 40 students, told them all to put a few dollars in an envelope for a ‘charity’. “Now THIS is what it feels like to truly give something. When you truly give, you don’t judge who deserves to get.” Then he took them on the roof of the university, and threw the envelope over the side.
Students screamed as they saw the envelope, with easily a hundred dollars in it, flutter to the streets of Montreal below where they had no idea who would get it.
I think that one of the most influential classes though was the one about homelessness. It comes back to me because, interestingly enough, now that I’m a teacher as well, globalisation and the economy are the theme of the month’s readings, and I actually had to cover at least one lesson on social services, and another on homelessness.
One of Soukwan’s homeworks for the urban studies class I was in was very different. “Your assignment, folks, is to go and find this homeless person and have lunch with her.”
On wednesday, I had a late dinner with Zanshin after work. After the usual repartie discussing the pros and cons of using bladed weapons against zombies, it was getting a bit late. 15 minutes before midnight. Last trains were midnight, or so I’d been told.
I was about a half dozen long stations away from my own apartment, but if I caught the trains just right it should be okay. So we said our farewells and I was on my way.
“I hope you got your last train, because I just got on my bus and it was the last one,” I got on my cellphone from Zanshin, who was heading back to his place in another direction.
“Im on it now,” I replied. Yeah, train bound for Cheonan. Right on time, I thought, as the doors closed.
Cheonan? Oh fucknuts. I was supposed to be on the train bound for Dangoggae.
Before I could arrive at the next station so I could switch over, I saw the train bound for Dangoggae pass by. The last train.
So there I was, stuck in Seryu. I got out of the subway and was greeted by a side of Korea I’d never yet set foot in. Somewhat deserted looking. Small buildings, no hills. No major restaurants, and since it was late, nothing open– except for bars, karaoke joints, DVD rooms and a few other places that looked rather seedy.
It was different from any place I’d ever been to in Korea because this was the first Korean town where I saw bars over all the windows.
I decided that huh. Maybe this is my chance to give it a shot. Partly because I was too cheap to pay the taxi fare across 6 cities. Partly because I had this welling excitement coming from within me at the prospect of finally being able to do this.
So I decided to try and live on the streets for one night.
The first problem was that I was totally underequipped.
What I had on me:
- The underwear I was wearing
- My socks
- My Timberland outdoor-shoes
- A Helly Hansen LIFA sweatwicker shirt
- A thin shirt
- A wool jacket with a detachable hood
- A scarf
- My biking gloves
- My MEC backpack
- 6 handwritten essays from my Senior 3 class
- My camera
- My watch
- My cellphone and a spare battery
- My wallet, which had 45000 won (about 45 bucks)
And that’s it.
The first issue was that it was already midnight. Korea’s temperature drops like crazy once the sun is gone, and though I was still warm from the subway, I could see my breath in the air. I had to bundle up if I was going to survive. I took out all my clothes and layered it all on. I needed to stay just warm enough that I wouldn’t sweat, so even when I was searching the town for shelter, I made a point not to spend too much energy or to sweat.
At first I decided that I wouldn’t sleep– I would just walk around for about four hours. But frankly, it was getting a bit cold.
I was half heartedly looking for a cheap motel or something to stay at because frankly I hadn’t quite decided yet that I wanted to sleep on these streets.
Lighting was pretty bad in the area. It was a really run down sort of place, with lots of scrap lumber and metal lying around in barb-frenced yards.
I walked street after street, and my evaluation of the area led me to the conclusion that it’d be very unwise to sleep out in the open anywhere, or even in any of these yards. I’d need to find my way into a building, perhaps climb onto the roof of a small building or something where I could be out of view.
The only place that really looked good at first was the place shown in the photo above, which is a church. Somehow, amid the rest of the town, this place looked pretty clean. However, it was also well lit and had security cameras around it.
Later on in the morning I was getting quite tired of walking around, and it was getting cold. Probably around 10 degrees Celcius. That’s not that bad, but I was sick from a the leftovers of a cold that I’d had since saturday. So I started seriously looking for some shelter.
I found this:
You can barely see it in the picture because there are almost no streetlights on this building. I figure it’s an apartment because though there are no signs, I see bicycles parked inside and locked to the rails. People don’t lock bikes to the rails of businesses, and besides, the doors have numbers. It is the only apartment building whose front door has accidentally been left open (all the other ones either have their doors closed, or have guards).
The inside of the apartment is only moderatly better lit than the streets, and I make my way up stairwell after stairwell. The lights are automatic– they’re motion sensitive and turn on as you walk through a hall, then shut off 15 seconds later. So, if you stop moving, you’re plunged into the darkness again. Have you ever thought what that would be like? Living in 15 second bursts of eyesight?
Having worked in a hospital tells you one trick: usually, if you want some peace and quiet, try to get to the roof. Sure enough, when I went to the top floor of the stairwells, there was a roof access door (locked) and a small storage area (pictured below.)
The floor was cold so I improvised something to lie on with the stuff that was available. I took a small abandonned coffee table and set it on the ground, and used my bag, packed with my sweater, as a pillow. My legs were too long and dangled over the edge, so it was uncomfortable, but it was better than lying directly on the cold marble.
My roomates were a giant water tank, an old mattress (which was too heavy and dusty so I didn’t use that), a picnic table parasol and a bucket of brooms. I used the broom to clean off my ‘bed’ as well as I could. I wrapped my hood and scarf tightly over my face, knowing that in Korea, the mosquitoes are freaking huge, and because I didn’t want to suck in too much of the dust that was everywhere.
I was woken up a little while later by the sound of buzzing in my ear. So there were mosquitos, I thought! I tied my scarft and hood tighter over my face, leaving only enough space for my eyes to see in the event that I was discovered by someone.
I managed to sleep for maybe an hour, I can’t exactly remember. But I remember waking up intermittently.
It was very stressful. Because of the stairwell leading straight to the exit about four floors down, and the marble design of the place, the acoustics were crazy. People would be walking or talking on the streets, just passing by the entrance, and I’d hear them as if they were coming up the stairwell right next to me. Sometimes, a distant car would sound like a fly in my ear, just because of the way the sound waves were channeled. It was near impossible to sleep and I found myself checking my watch often, wondering when the subway would re-open, only to find that only 5 or ten minutes had passed. My ankles were hurting from the angle at which they were lying on the floor in my shoes.
“Tie your laces. Triple knot them,” one of my classmates in Urban Studies had suggested back then. “If someone wants to steal your shoes, at least they’ll have to wake you up first and you’ll have a fighting chance.”
“Keep your valuables in your pockets, and keep your hands in your pockets,” I was told, for exactly the same reason.
It was, thankfully, a lot warmer in the apartment stairwell than in the streets.
I was awoken again at some point by buzzing by one of my ears. Something trying to get through my hood. I flailed around a bit, then I saw the shillouette of something against the dim lights and I managed to smack it hard with my gloved hand.
It wasn’t no mosquito. If it was, I wouldn’t have been able to feel it through my padded glove.
I went down the stairs to turn on to trigger the lights. When they turned on, I rushed back to my ‘nest’ and looked at the wall where I heard the bug’s body slam in the darkness. Turns out it wasn’t a mosquito– it was a hornet, slightly bigger than an inch. I decided at that point that I perhaps shouldn’t stay there, in case any of his friends were around.
I wandered a bit for a little while longer, playing the Push Push II game on my cellphone, taking pictures of the streets to stay busy. At some point, around 4 am, I thought to myself– only an hour more and I can be on my way home. Only an hour more and I can get back on that train.
But I was exhausted. My little adventure had burned a lot of energy from the cold, and, frankly, the stress of constantly waking up at any voices I ever heard. And even if I did get on that train, I’d arrive home exhausted and unrefreshed, and I’d have to work in the afternoon. So I aborted my little forray in homelessness 1 hour before my goal was to be reached. I once again scored the town and eventually managed to find a motel to spend the night. From about 4:30 am until 12:30PM the next day, I slept there. When I awoke the next day, I got cleaned up and went to work.
…it was an interesting experience. Although the place was kind of creepy, I don’t think it was particularly dangerous. This isn’t the kind of experiement that I’d try in New York or Montreal, that’s for sure– even in a town with barred windows, Korea is still a relatively safe place. It was, however, interesting to see what it’d be like to resign oneself to the idea of no personal shelter during the lull of the night.
So, how was it?
I can say that it isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. I don’t know why but I guess the whole experience was somewhat cheating– as I said, the backalleys of a slightly rural Korean town are different from a North American ghetto. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that the fact that it was a foreign country makes up for some of the challenge, since at this point I’m not even quite sure how to say “police” or “ambulance” in Korean.
When I think about it now, the whole issue of personal belongings comes to the foreground. You need things to keep you warm. You need things that are practical and which are versitile.
Do poor, homeless people really have nothing? Or do they chose not to have nothing? To ask the question that Bono posed at a 2005 UN summit meeting about the future of aparteid, “What is all that you can’t leave behind”?
Throughout the night I thought of one thing that I missed– people. Talking to people. As isolated as one can feel in the middle of a foreign country, in the daytime and security of one’s home town one still has familiar places and people to turn to . Even if not for interaction, then at least for a mental anchor.
Being in the middle of the night and trying to stay awake while everyone sleeps is a surreal experience. It’s as if the streets are a graveyard– though nobody is around to disturb, you don’t want to raise your voice, you muffle your cough in your sleeve because you don’t want to wake anyone. When drunk people passed by me in their harmless saunters, I found myself actually trying to blend in the shadows and waiting for them to pass by me. First rule of latenight streets– if you are going to let yourself be noticed, look more threatening than the threats, either by body language, or by keeping yourself in a position that has superior tactical advantages; high ground, obstacles shielding you, etc. If you have gloves, keep them on so that you don’t tear your knuckles on peoples teeth, which is a mistake I made when I was younger. Leave as little skin exposed as possible. Walk with purpose, but make it known that you’re not so set on getting where you have to to go that you aren’t aware of the presence of others. Keep your bag and shoes strapped on tight so if you need to run, you can without worrying about dropping anything. Tie off all loose things that people can grab. Keep your legs and, especially, your ankles warm, so that you’re ready to sprint.
Your senses are a lot sharper in the middle of an empty area. Perhaps in the crowds of daytime, one takes it forgranted– the idea is that no one will try anything bad in public. But when you’re isolate, then threat detection becomes more and more important. In large part, it is because any bad people out there don’t have to worry about witnesses, and and on top of that, if you run into one, their selection of targets is extremely limited.
While I was sleeping in the stairwell, one time I was awoken by the sound of shouting followed by what sounded like a beer bottle exploding against the wall. It was followed by cursing and the sound of hard rubber soles racing down the street.
That morning, as I slept, it was one of the best rests that I had all year.
… I’m really happy that though I am an english teacher, I have the permission to take my lessons wherever I want. It’s not that, as some people beleive, I’m preaching my ideas. I mean, I am. But my job is to give them perspectives.
When i really think about it, being stranded out in Seryu was an opportunity to become a better teacher. Sure, I didn’t stay out as long as I could have… and yeah, I chickened out only a little while before my goal was up. But there’s a lot of things that were learned out there that night…
I had, for example, no idea that I could be driven to the brink of madness by simple boredom. No, it wasn’t the fear of the voices in the streets– it wasn’t the waking up constantly. It was, rather, that being awake meant being bored, so exhaustion was just that much more annoying.
…Go home and hug your pillow tonight folks.
Have a good night!