Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cherry Blossoms in Korea

{flower thieves}
{"He loves me. He loves me not. . . . This is gonna take a while."}

Cherry blossom viewing in Korea is met with the same sort of enthusiastic hedonism that I've previously only encountered in American malls on Black Friday morning.

"Please do not pick the cherry blossoms," a woman's voice pathetically pleads over an intercom.

"If you pick the cherry blossoms, we will have nothing for our festival. Enjoy with eyes only," she announces in Korean, English, and Japanese at regular intervals throughout the afternoon.

Meanwhile, young women pull bouquets of white blossoms from the trees, nestle them in their silky black hair, pose coyly for photos. The guys also pick flowers and affix clusters of them to their button holes, or sometimes allow their girlfriends to arrange the flowers on their heads for more photos, this time funny. Some couples walk down the avenue with entire branches of cherry blossoms entwined in their hands. One woman carries what appears to be a small sapling tugged from the earth.

Cherry blossom parties in Seoul are chaotic, noisy, joyful. I estimate there are around 2,000 people at the Yeouido Festival at the same time I'm there, at least 3,000 of which are kids brandishing sticks. (Statistics don't lie, people.)

{monks walking through Yeouido}

I watch as a child rams a young woman in the eye with the stick he is carrying while his mother, right by side his side, looks on. Instead of reprimanding her stick-wielding child before he'd injured someone, the mother waits until after the injury takes place and then apologizes and bows, and the injured young woman, shaking in pain and with her hand covering one eye -- trying to shove the eyeball back into its socket, perhaps -- bows in return.

Rather than be the next victim of the Cyclops effect, as caused by the happy, stick-wielding herds of children, I decide to distance myself from the crowd. Escaping the masses, I pitch myself over the guard rail and tumble a few steps down a small cliff, to a tiny thread of a dirt trail that is partway down the embankment, poised between a highway filled with traffic below and a seemingly endless line of people above. In this middle ground, however, is a singular area of peace.

Another woman, who has also skittered down the embankment, offers to take my photo. She is the only person I see while I'm in this area.

I stick my face inside a cloud of snowy white bloom to see if the blossoms smell. They don't. I emerge with saffron-hued powder that dusts my chin and the tip of my nose. But that's okay -- it gives me that jovial, subtly-clownish air that's always been lacking in my appearance, I decide, hours later, when I finally look in a mirror and realize I spent my entire day thus embellished.

The only other woman leaves the little dirt path. The further I walk along the path, the more narrow it becomes. I crawl back up to the crowds.

There are several bands and other musical acts performing on the cherry tree-lined street in Yeouido, but since the place is so crowded, there is no possible way for the bands to march. So they don't. They stay firmly in place, standing in perfect line formation, and play their instruments this way.

On two separate occasions, attempts are made to lure me into a traditional Korean dance performance -- with a success rate of 50%. I turn down the pumba performer, who breathes the dragonfire known as soju as he leers and invites me to perform with him. No, no, I wave my hands. Too shy.

But when the gold-toothed adjumma in the center of a different musical crowd begins tugging my arm into the midst of musicians and dancers and, taking my hand, swings me round and round closer into the crazy locus of drums and songs, I let her and let myself dissolve into the joyful chaos of it all. At the end of our song, she gives me her gilded smile and pats both my breasts in approval. Or possibly it was a complimentary breast exam. People are very diligent about their health checks here.

The day before, I walked around enjoying the cherry blossoms at Children's Grand Park. !!! I think, as I watch two older ladies pull aside a policeman and dramatically wave their hands in the air, gesticulating excitedly while reporting some sort of crime. I hang back to see what it could possibly be. The park looks so safe.

The policeman leaves the two older women and goes forth somewhat reluctantly. He turns back to them. They toss their arms about in the direction of the guilty party and shout for the policeman to get on with it. So he does his duty, and puffing up his chest with the pride that befits his role in protecting his country, tells a couple on a nearby park bench that they must stop kissing. It's illegal. Or something.

{pagoda at Children's Grand Park}

So, as you can see by the above example, I'm not exactly a rookie when it comes to witnessing matters of criminal activity. Nonetheless, I am very shocked when -- the very next day -- a man runs past me along the cherry-lined path in Yeouido, so quickly and closely to me that the breath of his body ruffles my hair. He flings himself off the cliff without pause. A suicide attempt, I think, horrified, and rush with all the other nearby people to the edge of the embankment. Before the crowd even fully assembles there, however, three policemen come running past and also throw themselves off the cliff. I look down but there are no bodies. It really is rather small, so far as cliffs are concerned, but nonetheless I find it amazing that the entire group of them, criminal and policemen, continue running after flying down it. I quickly lose sight of them and no one can tell me what happened. Therefore, I can only conclude that the criminal in question had kissed a lot of women.

Almost more quickly than the time it took for the running man and three policemen to dive off the cliff, the crowd of onlookers becomes enveloped once more into the task of walking beneath the cherry trees.

A young man jumps up and laughingly grabs hold of a tree branch, shaking it so the white petals loosen and fall all around us.

I reach up then, as well, pull down a sprig of the starry white flowers, and nestle them behind my ear. Life is good, or at least, as always, it's interesting.

{cherry blossoms and blue, blue sky}


  1. Love your cherry blossom pics, Im so sad they're all gone now but happy summer is on its way!

  2. You are a wonderful writer!!! :)