When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in Haeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.
The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the water had drained from the intersection back to the sea, but the sustained battering had shredded the esplanade that had recently been built along the sea wall. Heavy paving stones lay scattered all over the road and had rendered it impassable to the street-hugging sedans and sports cars common in that part of town.
A group of about thirty men and women had formed a line and were passing large stones off the street hand to hand and stacking them on what remained of the walkway. I wandered around and photographed the carnage, but soon began to feel guilty that my neighbors were doing all the work while I was farting around, so I started picking up stones and adding them to the stacks that were rising by the curb.
I struck up a conversation with a Malaysian fellow named Alex who was doing the same thing. It turns out he lives in the building across from mine and had been watching the storm like me from his window. We chatted and joked about finally getting some exercise as we lugged dozens of the heavy stones off the road.
About fifteen minutes later a middle-aged Korean man from the cleanup crew approached us with an incredulous look on his face. “Wow! Thank you so much for your help!”
Why is he making a big deal about me? I thought. Everybody else was working too, most of them harder than I was. Just as I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed at being singled out for praise when there were thirty other people doing the same thing, he informed me that my assembled ‘neighbors’ were in fact Haeundae district workers who had been dispatched to clear the road. Dressed in plain clothes, they were probably office workers who had been hastily conscripted into an emergency road crew, and they had arrived there so quickly after the storm that both Alex and I assumed they were locals who had spontaneously pitched in to get the traffic moving again.
This revelation made me feel a bit silly for a moment, but I was kind of enjoying it, talking and getting to know my neighbor. We kept working, now joining the line and passing the big stones hand to hand. A man came around and gave us a pair of white work gloves. After the largest stones had been moved they handed out shovels to pick up the smaller ones. After fifteen minutes of that, the job was done, and a woman handed out bottles of water and Choco pies. A man from the work crew asked me for my mailing address. I gave it to him, had a second Choco Pie, and went home feeling good about having gotten out of the house that day.
With our neighborhood back in order, the storm was already receding from my mind when a piece of mail arrived for me the next day: a thank-you card from the Haeundae District Office.
That was nice, I thought.
The day after that, I got a call from Alex. He said a reporter from the Haeundae district newspaper had called him and asked if she could interview us.
“I don’t know.”
We met her the next day in Alex’s apartment. As we sat around the table sipping coffee, she asked us why we decided to help clear stones off the road.
I told her the truth: I wrongly assumed that the people clearing the street were my neighbors, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing anything to help. What I didn’t tell her was that if I had known they were working for the city, I would have just taken some photos and left. I thought the implication was certainly there, but if she asked me directly I was prepared to spell it out for her: I wouldn’t have helped.
She didn’t ask. Her next question was, “In your hometown, do you help when there are disasters?” and it was instantly clear to me that she had not come all the way over here to interview some schmuck who volunteers because he doesn’t know any better; she was here to write about an exemplary citizen, a paragon of civic virtue. I smiled.
“Not really,” I said. I wanted to give her something but I was drawing a blank. There haven’t been any real disasters in suburban New York since the eradication of the natives in the 17th century.
“The worst thing that happens is sometimes we get a lot of snow, like a blizzard. Sometimes I’ve helped people dig their cars out of the snow or clear their sidewalk or their driveway so they can get out. Things like that.”
She was nodding and scribbling down the exotic details of shoveling a Westchester driveway, while noting well the implications it carries for – dare I say freedom? – in a part of the world that has effectively no public transportation. Much of this detail would find its way into her finished piece, a moving tale of two foreigners who spring to action in times of crisis to keep their hometowns safe, the traffic flowing, and their neighborhoods beautiful.
As she was leaving, she thanked us again on behalf of Haeundae District. I told her the Choco Pies had been payment enough, and she laughed.
I wasn’t joking.
A few days later Alex called again. “The mayor would like to meet us,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
There was no saying no, so a few days later I found myself standing in the office of the Haeundae district mayor, a portly fellow in a dark suit shadowed by an entourage of six other men in dark suits. The reporter who had interviewed us snapped photos as the mayor thanked us, shook our hands, and awarded each of us a plaque that read:
Thank you very much for voluntarily participating in the Typhoon Sanba recovery efforts in Haeundae Marine City. Your invaluable service has greatly inspired and motivated us to develop Haeundae into a global city. We sincerely appreciate and admire your selfless dedication.
After posing for an official photo in front of a backdrop panorama of Haeundae Beach, we sat with the mayor and his entourage around a large table and sipped excellent tea while we recounted our story. As we spoke, a large TV monitor behind us was displaying a slideshow. I wasn’t aware of having been photographed that day, but someone had shot at least two dozen photos, which now played in a loop for the mayor, showing Alex and me in various action poses: picking up stones, passing them off, carrying them away, and laying them in stacks. The staff guys watched the slideshow, nodding and murmuring. When one photo showed me carrying three stones at a time, they murmured a little louder.
There wasn’t much of a story to tell, so the reporter helped flesh it out with the other nuggets she had gathered, informing the mayor of my former career of digging my countrymen out of deep snow. I took the opportunity to thank the mayor and his staff for responding so quickly to the storm. It really was fast, and it occurred to me that if it had taken longer, I wouldn’t be having tea and chatting with him right now. The reporter didn’t mention the part about us not knowing that the cleanup crew were city workers, nor did I. There just didn’t seem to be any point in bringing it up and spoiling the party.
Besides, it wasn’t as if they were using me to support a war I didn’t believe in or a product I knew to be harmful. Perhaps there were ulterior political motives – who knows? – but on the surface they seemed merely to be looking to tell an inspiring if slightly fabricated story that might guilt-trip a few nouveau riche types into being slightly more civic-minded. If that was the worst of it, I could live with that.
When the time came to leave, the mayor again took my hand and said, “Remember me!” Was that the point of all this – to make allies among the foreign community so that we’d go home and tell our wives and friends what a swell fellow he was, or maybe even to encourage us to vote for him myself if I ever got around to applying for the permanent residency visa? Or maybe this is just how you say goodbye to people when you’re the district boss – a way of reminding the faithful that someday they may be called upon to return the favor.
Whatever the case, I assured the mayor that I would indeed remember him. We said goodbye, and with my plaque tucked under my arm, I found my way outside.
In front of the building, Alex and I joked about being local heroes. “The next time they call will be to give us a parade and keys to the city,” I said, but that call of course never came. It also turned out to be the last time I saw Alex. He went back to his high-flying IT job, and I walked home along the beach quietly re-assuming my humble alter-ego: teacher, husband, and proud resident of the coming global city.