The Elderly and the Invalid

Yesterday, as I was on the last subway car heading home after work, a blind man got onto the train. Normally (and by normally, I mean in the US) I don’t pay too much attention to blind people as they pass by with their canes or seeing-eye dogs, but to note a feeling of respect for how they are living their lives without vision and still functioning in society.

Here though, it is slightly different. This is not to say that I have any less respect for the blind or any other impaired demographic in Korea, in fact, I have more. Let me tell you why.

On several ocasions my commute on the subway and the intense “I-am-only-paying-attention-to-my-immediate-surroundings-which-is-strictly-limited-to-three-inches-from-my-nose” feeling you get while riding is disrupted when a blind person (either male or female, usually elderly, but not always) gets onto the train and walks through each car. Sometimes these individuals have canes, but oftentimes they do not. Usually they have a small radio tied around their necks so they are heard – they don’t tend to speak. They hold in front of them either a box or plastic wicker basket to collect donations. So, at first, I am amazed that 1: they can get onto the subway and manage their way through variously crowded cars with nothing to hold onto. They just go. They walk slowly, to let enough people to realize and acknowledge their presence so as to give money. 2: on the one occasion where two (I am guessing a couple, but could be wrong) people got on, that really, this is how these people make a living and how they survive. 3: so many people do not look up, nor take notice of the people in front of them – making noise – in need.

On other occasions, elderly people (usually women) get on and try to sell gum. You can see in their face, if you LOOK, that they have such determination. Like, if they sell just one more box of xyletol, they will be OK. This was the case one day on our way to Insadong (I think). A little old lady got on, and she had to have been pushing 90, and she walked through with her boxes of xyletol. She looked SO hopeful and she smiled so pleasantly. You could tel that she was a nice person, just from her happy demeanour. As I watched (and at the time, I didn’t know what xyletol was, so, no I didn’t buy any) NO ONE looked at her. She help gum near enough to several people that they could have smelled the gum or her. Maybe one person out of the 60 in the car took enough notice to buy a box. I saw her face after that too, she looked ecstatic (as much as a 90-year-old lady can). Right there, on that train, I started to cry. Jason will confirm this. It was a good thing that our stop was coming up.

Sometimes, people will kneel down on the stairs of a subway station entrance and assume the child’s pose. You only see that there is a person and that person will have a box for collecting donations. You never see their face, they don’t even move when money is put into their collection box. Jason says this is a way to sort of protest the “I-am-only-paying-attention-to-my-immediate-surroundings-which-is-strictly-limited-to-three-inches-from-my-nose” mentality that you find running rampant here. These people are in the way, so you HAVE to take notice, or you will fall and hurt yourself.

Once, while we were going to Costco, there was a younger man who had the WORST case of scoliosis I have ever seen (but for the PBS or Discovery Health documentary about these doctors in Africa who were helping little kids by providing free corrective surgery). He was just walking through, a collection box strung around his neck. But, he had the BEST smile. Jason and I usually stand on the subway on short trips, so I was facing Jason at the time. I saw the man out of the corner of my eye, and I thought it strange that he had his head tilted to the side the way he did. He would stand in front of people (who didn’t notice or acknowledge him) for a few seconds, before moving on to the next few people. As he passed, I saw in the reflection on the door’s window, that he was actually physically deformed. I looked up at Jason, because I didn’t want to look, because I didn’t want to cry. But, as I was looking at Jason, Jason smiled, and waved. This caused me to turn and find what Jason was waving at. Sure enough, the man was waving at us, smiling brilliantly. I tried REALLY hard to not cry. I almost did.  

On my way to work, around Gangnam (not just on the way to my office, but around the area in general) there are MANY men who beg on the road. They usually have no legs, while some also have no arms. They play what sounds like 1950’s Korean opera music from a tape recorder attached to a push cart that also holds their donation boxes. Most people don’t even look at them, but some do. These guys inspire me… they are out there no matter the weather, while they can maneuver.

While riding the subway, I was stationed close to the door so I could jump off and not have to push my way through the hoards… at one or two stops before mine, an elderly woman with no legs in a wheel chair was trying to get on. From no where, a young guy (early to mid twenties) just pushes her on. I like to think that people are good and kind here, not that he was moving her out of his way. I almost cried that day too.

Every day, as I walk to the subway near our apartment, I walk through a lovely park. Roughly 3 days a week, if I am on time, I will see an older gentleman walking. He takes a walk from the subway (I know this because I have seen him in the station as well) and -I imagine- around the perimeter of the park; the park is pretty hilly in the interior, but the path around it is flat. There are a lot of older people who walk in this park. I noticed this man more because he seems to be walking as a way to recover from a stroke. As he walks, his arms are bent at 90 degree angles and set out a little ways from his body (for balance), his steps are short, his feet drag – one more than the other seems stronger. And this man has been doing this fairly regularly for the last several MONTHS. Not only that, he was doing it this morning… it was SNOWING this morning with about a two-inch accumulation. He doesn’t make me cry, he makes me feel inspired.

So, back to the blind man I saw on the subway yesterday. Remember how I said that the blind people will have a small radio around their necks? Well this very distinguished looking man had no radio. However, he did have a voice. He sang (in a slightly raspy and cracking voice) some random song in Korean. I was very amazed and totally in awe of that.

**I would love to help and donate. I never have change anymore… I have piggy banks. They get my change. I did make Jason give some of his pocket change to one of the men in Gangnam though. He bowed his head in thanks. I know it’s not nearly enough to make their lives any easier though. But the amount of people here who need to beg for money or sell boxes of gum in order to make a living, is insane. I do know that nuns will meet the people working the subway trains… perhaps they are acting in some sort of rehabilitory capacity. I don’t know.