Thursday, November 18, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? Sounds


When I arrived in Songtan, which was to be my home during that first year in Korea, the temperature was hot, oppressively hot, and muggy, though neither hotter nor muggier than my home in Charleston, South Carolina would probably be without air conditioning. My apartment, like most places off-base, was not air-conditioned.  Sounds, mostly unfamiliar sounds, rang through open windows.  The shriek of jets and the thump-thump of helicopters reverberated in the air above Osan AFB only a few blocks away. Shrill sirens announced tests of emergency sound systems. Taps and anthems were blurred and muffled in the dense air. In trees and grasses, insects whirred and tittered.  From the streets and houses behind my apartment, voices and animal sounds penetrated into my not-quite-private space.

And then there were the cicadas, which seemed louder and more insistent than Charleston cicadas. A particularly loud colony inhabited a poplar tree outside the Education Center on base. It was almost deafening to walk beneath that tree when I first went there to introduce myself to the staff at the University of Maryland office, and to pick up the keys to a very cheap old car I had bought with another faculty member. For two or three days, the cicadas screeched and scolded every time I walked under that tree.  Then a cold snap hit and the tree was silent. A few mornings later, the cicadas were again strumming their fierce trills, so I knew that the weather had warmed.  However, a cold spell so early in autumn suggested that rumors of frigid Korean winters were probably not idle.

Of course, another unfamiliar sound heard through the windows and on the streets was the Korean language. Its guttural exclamations rang through the Songtan alleyways, and a gentler version was exchanged between people on Osan Air Base (mostly women) who performed much of the service work--secretaries in offices, bank tellers, food servers at the Taco Bell or Antonio's Pizza, check-out clerks at the commissary and base exchange, agents in the on-base travel office.  When Koreans spoke to each other on base, they spoke Korean; when they addressed customers (mostly military personel), they spoke English with variable success.

Behind my apartment building were two houses whose roofs were on a level with my balcony. When the frosted glass door was open to let in whatever sullen breeze might stir, I could see across the garden patches to kim-chi pots and clothes lines dotting the flat roofs.  In one of those buildings lived a family in which the father shouted a lot. Of course, I couldn't understand what he was saying--it often sounded simply like grunts that varied in pitch. Sometimes a woman would yell back, sometimes there was wailing, sometimes I could hear a child cry or a dog bark.  

One day, I watched a man on his roof strike a woman (I assumed it was his wife).  And another night, I awoke to sounds of yelling and thumping and wailing that lasted for half an hour or so.  I had trouble going back to sleep, thinking about that not-so-distant drama and another woman's helplessness - as well as my own.

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