Saturday, May 23, 2009

Whistle Man

Korea is always a noisy place. When you have 42 million people crammed into a country that is smaller than Canada's smallest province, the concept of "noise bylaw" doesn't really apply. This fact confronted me at 7AM this morning when construction workers began to jackhammer the road outside my apartment. Right now the truck that sells popcorn on my street corner is blasting some pop of the musical variety. You simply learn to live with it or tune it out after a while.

My friends Tom and Bonnie live on the ninth story of a typical Korean high rise apartment building that overlooks a busy intersection. I've grown accustomed to hearing the sounds of car horns, shouting, and other traffic noises when I go over there.

Last night, a bunch of us went over for worship. As we were singing, I noticed that there seemed to be more horns than normal. Aside from that, the shrill sound of a whistle kept piercing the night. At first I just assumed that one of the stop lights was out and somebody was directing traffic, but the whistling became more frequent and more insistent.

"Ugh, it's Whistle Man again!" Bonnie exclaimed.

We were all intrigued. "Whistle Man?"

Tom and Bonnie explained it to us. I'll let the video they posted on their own blog speak for itself:

Our friend Stephanie, who also lives in the building, has been intrigued by the Whistle Man for some time. "I have a theory," she said. "The Whistle Man was married, and his wife was hit by a bus. Now he tries to stop buses in an attempt to keep the same thing from happening to anyone else."

"That would make a great Korean drama," laughed Darrick.

We gathered at their window and watched Whistle Man. Tom and Bonnie's video was shot in the daytime, but it was night now and Whistle Man was running around in the darkness. Some of the buses got too close for comfort because they hadn't expected to see him. One bus stopped and the driver started yelling at him. I began to feel anxious, watching him. He looked like an ajoshi, a Korean middle-aged man, who had drunk one soju too many and lost his sanity along with his sobriety.

When we finished watching him and started to worship, I found it hard to concentrate on the songs because I just kept thinking about him running around down there.

Stephanie seemed to feel the same way. "I'm going to go down there and talk to him," she said.

"What are you going to say?" asked Darrick.

"조심하세요. It means 'Take care'. Somebody has to say something to him, and Koreans aren't going to do it."

She was right. Koreans' general response to anybody exhibiting signs of mental illness is to alternately to ignore them or laugh at them. In Korea, mental illness is a fate more shameful than death.

Of course, foreigners are exempt from many of the strictures of Korean culture. That freedom does come with a sense of obligation, however, because sometimes you are the only one who can do things that Korean culture prevents Koreans themselves from doing.

Such as attempting to intervene with Whistle Man.

"I'll go with you," I volunteered.

Suwon is fairly cosmopolitan and foreigners aren't as unusual here as they are in other parts of Korea, but we still weren't sure how Whistle Man would feel about being approached by two foreigners late at night. We stopped at a small convenience store to buy him an ice cream cone in the hopes of soothing him if we made him nervous. The store owner was standing on the sidewalk watching Whistle Man and laughing at him.

As we walked towards the median, we could hear our friends yelling encouragement from the ninth floor window. "Here," Stephanie said, "you'd better talk to him. Your Korean is better than mine. I'll give him the ice cream."

"Okay," I said. I ran through the word in my head, adapting it to the polite form to use to someone older than myself. (The Korean language is heavily hierarchical according to age - using the wrong verb ending is extremely rude.) Suddenly I was really nervous. We walked closer and I called out, "Ajoshi, ajoshi!" He didn't turn around. I wondered if he didn't hear me or if he was just ignoring me. "Ajoshi, ajoshi!"

We walked right up to him and he turned to face us. I was startled. For one thing, he was not the ajoshi he had appeared to be from Tom and Bonnie's window. He was young, younger than me, no more than twenty-five. He was definitely not drunk. I could tell from the shape of his face that he had some form of mental retardation. He did not seem fazed by our presence at all. He cocked his head, looking at us as if he saw us, yes, but we were just utterly irrelevant.

"조심합니다," I said. ("Be careful.") It was ridiculous to be using the formal honourific form to him when he was younger than me, but my mind stalled and I couldn't think of the correct way.

Stephanie handed him the ice cream, which he accepted with the bow of his head and then went back to his cart as if we didn't exist.

"Be careful!" I yelled again in Korean.

Whistle Man looked back at me and nodded once, then kept walking. I knew that, the second he stopped looking at us, we vanished from his mind. By the time the elevator took us back up to Tom and Bonnie's apartment, Whistle Man was gone.

I don't know if he left because of us, and I imagine that he'll be back on the median whistling away again before long. But I'm glad at least there was no more traffic-related danger for him last night.

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