Today was one of the first totally clear days with no traces of rain that we've had in Seoul all month, so after work I headed to the park to clean up trash. I'm privately calling this clean-up effort "Bridges to Beauty" for the simple reason that my cleaning route weaves back-and-forth between the twenty-seven bridges that span the Han River. Here are some of them so you can get an idea of how much cleaning I have ahead of me.
I started between Banpo Bridge and Hannam Bridge today, but as I now know, it'll take days to clean it all up by my lonesome. Luckily, I have some time and don't really want to bother organizing a large group of people just yet. I have plans for that in the future, but not now. Now is just for me and the land.
I rode my bike there and parked it in a nice little cove between some tall bushes and a line of ginkgoes. Aside from my backpack, all I had with me was a trash bag, some super cool gardening gloves, my sunglasses, tunes in my ears and a nice set of Korean made metallic tongs designed for the very purpose of picking up trash. I was pretty excited to do it also. It was about seven o'clock when I got out there, so I had about an hour of manageable light.
I slowly made my way from one side of the first field to the next. There was a fair amount of trash to collect, but most of it was cigarette butts and plastic bottles. I thought about my own careless behavior when it came to disposal of butts. For years and years I casually and thoughtlessly tossed my butts wherever I was standing without even the slightest concern for where they landed, how long they'd be there or who'd be picking them up. This is payback or karma even and as a Jain, a need to escape this cycle. If I ever smoke again (and just for regular trash also), I will never throw it on the ground again. Picking up old butts with metal tongs in the summer heat isn't all too fun and it's not fair to other people or the earth.
Cleaning the park was great, though. Doing something responsible for the environment is always a worthwhile endeavor and very important for a Jain (Bhogopbhog Pariman Vrata )...
This vow restricts them from unlimited consuming of natural resources...but the real story was in the response that I was getting. As a foreigner in Korea, there is a certain level of expectation that most people have of us. Sometimes they're about non-teachers and others times they're all about us, but in the end, most Koreans see us as temporary "gap-yearers" looking for a good time, curious women and easy cash. Unfair sure, but that's the nature of the Korean beast.
While I was picking up trash, I had my earphones and sunglasses on and was 100% focused on the task at hand while impossibly trying to avoid stepping on insects. After ten or so minutes, I started to feel the long stares. Soon those stares got closer and turned into sporadic rounds of applause from runners and other park-goers. Finally, an older woman who looked to be close to seventy approached me, rested her arm on my shoulder and said "Thank you" in English. After a solid hour of scrounging for trash, I had gotten over a dozen "thank yous" in both Korean and English, a handful of "whys", three helping hands and even an offering of water and chicken. I turned down the chicken.
The response was overwhelming and it made me think of a couple things. One, I was astounded by the outpouring of appreciation and have decided that in August (after the rainy season subsides), I'm going to organize a very small but dedicated group of teachers and Koreans to tackle this project head-on. And two, why was I being thanked for cleaning the earth?
This concept baffles me in many ways. I understand Korean citizens were surprised that, as one of my students put it, "a foreigner would be cleaning something other than his motherland." I get that, but saying thanks to me for cleaning is odd. I did the same thing in the United States in college at Sequoyah Park in Knoxville and not a single soul said a word to me. Is it only because I'm a foreigner and doing something that other foreigners typically don't do or was it shocking for them to see someone who is clearly volunteering their own time to clean? "Thank you" is simply a verbal acknowledgement of appreciation and these Koreans clearly appreciated that I was cleaning up "their" land, but is it really theirs to thank for? Sure, political borders dictate that it is, but shouldn't we be treating the entire earth as ours?
I'm not cleaning the park for gratitude. I'm doing it because I love this earth and all the creatures on it. Beautifying a park is such an easy way to show appreciation for this world and to tell the truth, the thanks that I got certainly did inspire me to do more, so it was not in vain. Imagine if we all thanked each other for cleaning the earth and together, we all mutually felt the satisfaction of helping in some way or another?
I bet we'd have a much cleaner and more beautiful world in which to raise our children.
On a side note, I ended up collecting about 40 liters worth of trash from about two acres of land. It was a win. I have the doctors appointment tomorrow. Wish my blood pressure luck!