SEOUL — RUSH HOUR SUBWAY CARS here are more like subterranean body movers than modes of rapid transit. Even the youngest salary men and women on the early AM trains look as though their sparks are smoldering in the drenching summer humidity. Heavy heads bob sleepily, plugged into devices feeding them music and news. Everyone seems a bit faint.
In my shirt and tie, I attempt mentally to set myself apart as an observer of the collective exhaustion that grips this city’s modern workers, rather than a victim of it. But I too can feel the sitting-down-ness of my job taking its toll — my energy being stolen by hours spent in front of the computer, evaporating with the electric hum.
It isn’t that my work is boring; it’s quite engaging and often stressful. But as synapses fire off and thoughts zip across my humble amount of gray matter, my body enjoys no such kinetic employment. I ride elevators and take subways. And then I sit. And type. And when the day is done and I’m tired of sitting and typing and thinking, I sleep. Lying down.
For someone who used to get by doing jobs that required physical hustle — barista, short order chef, waiter — and who would ride his bike to work and school even on the most unforgiving of Wisconsin days, adjusting to the relative lassitude of this new life has been awkward, unwelcome. And it is not without consequences on my creativity. While my senses are inundated daily by Seoul’s heaving humanness, I feel disconnected from nature — from my own legs and lungs — and perhaps less in touch with my own imagination.
I think I need to climb a mountain. One of the most uniquely beautiful aspects of this city is its lush craggy peaks, which tower far above a skyline of neon and glass. Even the most salty Seoullites recognize the need reconvene with Gaia; old men here head off on weekend hikes, following their calisthenics with cups of rice wine. And citizens of all walks, once they reach the mountain’s top, will often let forth with an unbridled Yaaah-ho! And thus one of the faceless millions makes himself heard.
However cathartic such an ascent may prove, I feel that activity needs to be a more regular part of my life, and of the life of this city. Don’t get me wrong: South Koreans are an active people — by great strides more energetic than their average American counterparts — and Seoul has made vast improvements to be accommodating to pedestrians, if not cyclists. But long workdays and a sprawling metropolis mean the majority of folks are working themselves to the point of mental exhaustion, heading out for drinks and food, and then being carried back to their apartments via one of the many arteries that snake through the city’s underground.
Though there are brave souls out there making the commute on two wheels, I’m hesitant to plunge headlong onto these deathly streets. Those I do see wheeling by are usually straddling beefy mountain bikes; whistles dangle from their mouths ready to shrill should a taxi leap out of line.
Several weeks from now, this city will observe “A Day without Cars” — or more accurately, a day where a few lanes will be closed for a few miles for cyclists to parade back and forth. But at least public transportation will be free until 9 AM. That should liven things up; nothing like a little competition for space to cause some commotion on the train.