I looked out the window to see the run-down buildings of my town. Storefronts with boarded up windows and paint, which must have been from the 60’s, peeling off. A Billboard sign so old and stripped of its vinyl that it’s no longer possible to see its original advertisement. An abandoned church, liquor store, various trinket shops in that order. Along with the occasional homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk or standing at the intersection asking for change. I really wonder how this town used to look like in its heyday. Fittingly, I passed a mural not too long ago that wrote “1977 All American City”. 1977 was most likely the city’s peak and now after decades of slow decline has made it a shadow of its former self.
The bus stops to pick up an old couple. Both of them in wheelchairs. I look at my phone to change the song, Awoo – Lim Kim. A K-pop song that most people probably haven’t heard of. A song that wasn’t even that popular in South Korea at the time. But it’s special to me. It was the first song I heard that got me into Korean music. It also reminds me of summer 2015, the summer I studied abroad in Korea. The bus continues onwards. Looking up to see the clear blue sky I start to remember again.
It was a hot day, but then again, it’s always a hot day there. Not because of high temperatures, but because the humidity is usually around 80 to 90 percent. Standing inside the cool, air-conditioned bus, once those doors opened, the heat felt like a punch to the face. I start sweating the instant I got out of the bus. Walking the main road that leads to the center of the shopping district, I start to see some sights that have become familiar to me. The towering Myeong-Dong Cathedral. A sight that perplexed me the first time I saw it. In a city so modern, an antiquated church has stood as a reminder of Korea’s past. A church that would have eclipsed any building here in my town is dwarfed by the nearby office buildings. Just visible above these buildings, but if you were walking a block or two away, you might not even notice it. It was no doubt a very beautiful church. A church that would have better been built in a town in Mexico or Spain. If I saw it there, I wouldn’t have given much thought to it. But here, it drew me in. I went up the long stairway that led to its doors.
The doors were wide open as if the church was waiting for me with its arms open. There were a few people inside taking pictures of the altar, a depiction of the Madonna and Child with the 12 disciples to the left and right of her. On the pews were a few people scattered throughout praying. While I’m not a religious man, I sat down and closed my eyes in solidarity. No thoughts ran through my mind. I could not think of a prayer to ask God. I just sat, enjoying the near-silent ambient noise. Only the soft sounds of the occasional cough, whisper or footsteps were heard, along the low hum of the outside world beyond this cathedral. An eternity must have passed before I decided to open my eyes again. It was an eternity well-spent meditating in this holy building as if I was waiting to see God.
When I opened my eyes though, I was not in the Cathedral anymore but back on the bus staring at a small plaza. A barber shop, a liquor store, a taco shop and a hookah lounge were some of the businesses that I noticed before the bus continued on its journey. I still had some time until I reached the end of the line. I didn’t get on this bus for any particular reason, only because it kills times compared to sitting in my bedroom. Staring outside again, I focused on the blurred shapes that passed by. Rows of trees, buildings and cars transformed into indistinguishable shapes separated by their colors. These shapes though began to fade, and soon enough I was back in Myeong-Dong.
This time in the middle of the shopping center. Tourists of all kinds were all around me. Some were hurrying as if they realized that they will miss a bus or train. Some walking at a leisurely pace, taking in the scenery of the tall buildings with storewide banners that contain the biggest Korean stars advertising clothes or makeup. Nearly every other store is a makeup shop with an employee outside giving free samples. You’d think to yourself that you could just grab the sample and keep walking, but as soon as you get near them, the employee would grab you and drag into the store whether or not you are even interested in whatever it is they are selling. I looked around the plaza some more. There must have been thousands of people walking around, happily talking to their friends and family, holding shopping bags filled with the latest fashion items from the biggest stores, occasionally eating an ice cream cone or holding a cup of coffee. Men and women in business attire walking towards the various restaurants to eat a quick lunch before going back to work. I saw a small group of people holding signs that said something in Korean. What it said I do not know, the only thing I could make out are devil horns on one side and Jesus Christ on another sign. It’s safe to say that they wanted people to repent their sins. Hardly anyone payed attention to them though. Everyone was just moving in one direction or another.
I stood near the center of this four-way intersection and I just gazed at the crowds. The cacophony of sound would have been hard to bear if it was my first time there. People talking and laughing, employees yelling in order to get you to notice their products, cars passing by and the sound of trucks backing up, along with different k-pop songs playing at each store can be rough if you’re not used to it. But now it just all blends together to make white noise as if I had tuned to a radio station that only played noise and held the radio up to my ear. Although many people would find this type of atmosphere, being in the middle of a large crowd of shoppers, unpleasant, I found it exhilarating. I felt like I was a part of the crowd, a part of the energy that filled this entire district, a part of the rush to get to the nearest store, restaurant, café etc.
I knew then I wouldn’t be able to experience this back in my town. A town where the only thing I would hear would be the cars passing, the homeless asking for change or the sound of sirens coming from a cop or an ambulance. Thinking of that brought me right back to reality. I saw a calmer image outside. The occasional mom and pop store would pop up but for the most part it was empty outside. Only shrubs and tall grass, along with a rare tree every now and then dotted this stretch of land. While I enjoy the busy life of always moving, I enjoy these moments of serenity and calm. We were still moving heading close to the final destination before the bus inevitably turns around and repeats its route.