I was waiting to be picked up just outside Seoul. A driver from an important establishment finally appeared. His name was Mr Kim. Short (as most Koreans are), thickset (as most are not) and with a constitution on constant high alert. He was hopping up and down, apologizing profusely for being late, saying a thousand words with the help of only a handful of English ones. He called me “professor.”
I assured him and reassured him that all is fine. We have time left. So we drove off. He asked for permission to take off his jacket. Of course Mr. Kim, of course. He then asked me whether he could drive faster. Oh, yes, of course. Waiting at a traffic light, a car bumped into us at the back. It was one of those important looking black eastern sedans, smashing our bumper and giving a jolt to my neck. The anxious Mr. Kim was now a bit beside himself. In between asking me whether I was OK a number of times, he was running around the vehicles talking in overdrive Korean to the sleepish businessman who was clearly quite embarrassed. They exchanged details and I thought we would be moving on, but Mr. Kim, with something wild in his childlike eyes thought it better to phone the police. In spite of my assurances to the contrary, he believed that I was seriously injured.
So with a big brouhaha the police and ambulance came. I fended off the ambulance personnel, but we had to follow the police to the nearest police station. Another driver was called in to take me to the performing venue, but we got lost in the maverick traffic of Seoul and the event was postponed.
The next day, I met Mr. Kim again at a function. With his short legs and radiant face, he rushed towards me to again apologize in all the English vocabulary he could muster. To me he seemed like a sensitive, good, almost naive person, overly nervous about pleasing others – peculiar, but nothing extraordinary in such a cordial culture. He would fetch me again the following day, hoping that all will go smoothly this time.
He came in a van along with three important ladies from the (unnamed) establishment – just to make sure that I will reach my destination. Mr Kim seemed more composed. We reached a highway and after a while, Mr Kim took a turn off, and then drove the opposite direction. I fell into conversation with the ladies. After almost an hour of driving I noticed that we were back, just around the corner from our starting point. Quite alarmed, I pointed it out to the ladies, who started interrogating Mr Kim. He did not respond, except for a vague reassurance that he knows where to go. I thought it strange that he brushed over an obvious and grievous mistake so nonchalantly.
Back on the highway again, strange things started to happen. Mr Kim would suddenly drive faster inviting admonitions from the ladies, or he would hoot and flash at other drivers at the slightest provocation. Then he would burst out laughing as if he knew something that nobody else knew. When he deliberately tried to push another vehicle from the road, he was forced to pull off and stop by the ladies. The leading lady then took him aside in an earnest dressing-down. He took it all rather bluntly, as if refusing to acknowledge the effect of his behaviour. The leading lady then walked on to seek help from another car parked off the highway. I stared in front of me.
Then I heard: “Look! Mr Kim is in the middle of the highway!” And there he was, walking straight up into the oncoming traffic. Little man in his baggy suit, swinging a water bottle threateningly at the first car approaching, and not hesitating one moment. As the car stopped in front of him, he went up to the driver’s door, pulled it open and dragged the driver out. The driver was a young man, quite strongly built. This is trouble, I thought, thinking of my own experience with a road raged skin head.
Mr Kim, clearly beyond his normal controls, now abused this young man verbally, ran around and around his car, slamming against windows and swinging his fists. I took action. Got out of the van, went up to Mr. Kim and tried to calm him down. As he was trying like a fixed-eye bull terrier to tear off the young man’s pants, I grabbed him by his steeled shoulders, shouting, “Mr Kim!! Mr Kim!!,” but to no avail.
I will never forget his eyes. He was raged, yes, but with a searing sense of imminent doom. Nothing else existed but his fixation on an arbitrary man, selected to be sacrificed for his own failure.
Now this arbitrary man (who during the course of being fisted and pants-plucked was talking quite calmly on his cell phone to the police) did not entertain Mr. Kim’s performance for too long. Shortly after I gave up on breaking the spell, he simply hooked Mr. Kim with one muscled whoosh, and there he lied like a dead man on the side of the road. This was too much for the other two ladies, who now rushed to get him back to life. He did respond after a while, but first rolled around on the ground in fits, before coming to his feet. By now, yet again, another driver arrived to save the situation (I still needed to perform!). He was Korean too, and more refined so. He went straight to Mr. Kim and started to talk to him.
And now I saw one of the most beautiful things ever. Driver 2 would talk, and Mr. Kim would awake from his shattered state, building up excitement again, aiming straight for the arbitrary man. But driver 2 would clinch him with his arm and slap him repeatedly in the face, until he calms down. Then he would still hold him, caressing him like a child, a long loved brother. Then Mr. Kim would regain his rage again, would again be slapped, again be caressed, until he broke down and cried like a baby. He was put back in the van, not allowed to drive. He appeared vacant, as if left of all spirit.
I made it in time, still. But I was left astounded by the intimate display of an all-so human pattern: that of the refusal to acknowledge failure, seeking out any victim to serve as substitute for punishment. Call it psychosis (that’s easy enough), call it the cowardice inherent to a faith of redemption, but what I saw was a man with an extraordinary keenness to follow the best of his social code. And so became exemplary of the worst (remember the brawl that broke out in South Korea’s parliament?)
Acknowledge failure. Mr Kim brought that back to me sharply. I too have my issues around it.