Passing Unseen Through Other People’s Lives
Photo by Fion Trieu
Written by Elliott Pak
I’m in love with every stranger, the stranger the better.
-Hozier (Someone New)
I’m reading a book right now, an extremely dense, 600-page book about philosophy, mystery, the metaphysical, and of all things, motorcycle maintenance.
[Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence by Robert M. Pirsig, can’t recommend it enough]
There’s this one curious paragraph in the entire 600-page book, where the narrator takes a break from the mechanically technical yet philosophical verbiage (yes, somehow both) to describe a scene in a diner café rest stop that he witnesses.
“At the top of the plateau at Grangeville, Idaho, we step from the blasting heat into an air-conditioned restaurant. Deep cool inside. While we wait for chocolate malteds I notice a high-schooler sitting at the counter exchanging looks with the girl next to him. She’s gorgeous, and I’m not the only other one who notices it. The girl behind the counter waiting on them is also watching with an anger she thinks no one else sees. Some kind of triangle. We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people’s lives.”
And then they just leave the cafe, back to his main story.
I read that paragraph, and then read on, squinted confusedly, flipped back, and read it maybe four more times.
There was something so beautiful about this one tiny paragraph in a
This theme that amongst any main narrative that is occurring – yours, mine, whoevers – there are countless other storylines happening, interesecting each other. Most likely you are playing a part in countless stories whether they’re important people in your life or complete strangers.
I think about it a lot, about all the storylines I witness when I walk through this foreign country, when I ride the metro, when I eat alone in restaurants and overhear conversations, whether in my native tongue or not.
I realize a huge part of this new awareness is in no small part because, for the first time in my life, I’m living in the middle of a huge, living, breathing, bustling city, rather than the quiet suburbs or sleepy beaches I grew up in.
It’s exciting yet bizarre and surreal. Everyone’s a tightly knit part of each other’s lives while simultaneously kind of just being another inanimate object you pass on the street that you fully never expect to see again.
It’s this weird combination of being constantly stimulated and surrounded by new opportunities and fresh faces while being lulled into this complacency about the people that surround you.
When you snap out of complacency, though – take your eyes off your own problems for a minute and focus elsewhere – you may find real, human narratives developing all around you. You might see something simple. Something emotional. Something funny. Something mysterious, something complex, something deeply buried into layers that you would need to know an entire person’s history to understand.
And then you might realize that people every day are witnessing you going about your story, wondering about you, why you bought this, why you laughed at that, why you’re carrying flowers, why you looked so down today.
A city is a million storylines weaving together and apart seamlessly like a work of art.
Yeah, it can be sensory overload trying to fathom all of the stories unfolding around you –
but I fucking love sensory overload, and I fucking love a good story.
I was made for the city.
The other day I went to have a beer at a lowkey LP bar after a shit day at work, something I’ve always been wary of doing – going out and drinking alone. I was extremely aware of the fact that I was one of those people I used to judge myself – the sketchy looking bar loner. But I sat there, with good music and a cold beer – just watching and listening to the background noise of life happening.
Old men laughing and cheers-ing. Kitchen staff working frantically. A girl crying outside comforted by her friend. Another loner staring straight ahead motionless with an exhausted look on his face and an expensive whiskey in his hand.
Don’t know if it was the loneliness, or the alcohol, or the language I couldn’t fully understand, but I was especially curious about what was happening with each and every one of them. What led them to this point, right now. What led to this happenstance of complete strangers in a huge city to all converge on this little tavern at the exact same time.
Different narratives developing and intersecting all around me.
Wherever you are – that exact situation really couldn’t happen without you or anyone else present. It would be a different storyline, a different painting, a different universe – but it doesn’t matter, because that other story, the one where you’re not present – it didn’t happen.
Really puts things into perspective when you realize how essential you are not only to your own
Wherever you are, any public place – that collection of strangers – whether it’s by chance or on purpose – it’s one in a million that those exact strangers decided to go to the same spot at the exact same time and share this presence together, whether they interact with each other or not.
In other words, in a sense – we’re all damn fucking lucky to be doing whatever we’re doing and witnessing whatever we’re witnessing right now.
Front row seats to the theatre of life.
This new appreciation has helped me mature some old habits of mine, some of which I thought were integral parts of my personality, or at least things I thought would never change.
Like not being able to eat alone in a restaurant.
I went from never doing it…
to only doing it while listening to music…
to being able to do it as long as I had a book…
to ONCE IN A WHILE exploring new restaurants solo if I was feeling particularly ballsy…
to eventually wondering why I was ever so reliant on other people and distractions to do literally the most basic of necessities in life – eat food.
Seems silly now, something that used to give me so much social anxiety. Turns out food actually tastes better when you’re not distracted by a bright screen and a million notifications. Who’d’ve known.
Another habit I’m doing less is constantly needing to listen to music everywhere I go. Those who know me know if I’m not with you, I’m in my own world, airpods blasting. Nothing wrong with music – but there is an ignorance that comes with shutting all other sounds out.
I’m learning to unplug. I’m learning the sounds of the city, the chatter of strangers, the honking cars, the creeking buildings, the sizzling street food – it’s all its own kind of music, and it’s a damn symphony.
You can’t hear stories if something’s already blocking your ears.
(As I write this I feel that these might just be signs of getting old)
If you unplug, look around, and put yourself in situations that might be a bit outside of comfort – you may find that your life and the stories playing out around you are far more fascinating, far more ridiculous, far more exciting, far more hilarious, far more serindipidous, and far more fucked up than any tv show.
That said – this piece is just a few snippets of people’s lives I’ve had the good fortune of witnessing in Korea.
Hopefully I can convey some of the charm and aesthetic and character this country has. I don’t know most of the people in these stories nor will they probably ever know that a moment they probably deemed insignificant affected and inspired me so much I had to write about it.
Hope you enjoy, and more importantly, I hope it pushes you to take notice of stories unfolding around you as well.
As I walk through this park on a gloomy Sunday, I can’t help but think how much I used to let the weather affect me when I was younger.
The clouds are thick but no one seems to mind here. The park is as packed as you would expect on any Sunday.
An old, unused railroad track runs through the middle of the park.
I watch a small child walk and balance himself on the side of one track while his parents follow closely behind him, clapping and cheering him on. Pure happiness.
He proceeds to eat shit.
They pick him up quickly, but their expressions haven’t changed.
They are still so happy.
There are two main paths to walk on in this part of the park. One concrete, one dirt. I’m walking on the dirt side. There are three young girls up ahead of me, I would guess their ages 6-7.
One of them runs away from the other two, towards me, and stops about 20 meters away. She carefully uses her foot to draw a straight line in the dirt. She realizes it hasn’t left enough of a mark for the other girls to see clearly, so she runs to the side of the path and rips off a long leaf from a plant.
A loan from mother nature.
She carefully places the long leaf directly on top of the mark she made with her foot.
As I approach, I realize what they’re doing. I quickly move off the path, out of their way. One of the girl’s eyes meets mine and she giggles, a small notion of understanding and gratitude.
They’re preparing to race.
It’s a beautiful, warm, loud, and rowdy Saturday night. The sidewalks are buzzing with cheerful banter and obnoxious laughs.
I’m talking merrily myself with two friends as we navigate our way through the hordes of people. The crowd is much more diverse than the normal Korean majority usually found in any other part of Seoul. All of us are Korean though.
Suddenly, I hear a loud “plop” from behind.
An unfamiliar sound. An unnatural sound.
What the hell plops?
In the seconds before I turn to see what it is – so many possibilities come to mind.
Did someone fall?
Maybe someone threw up?
Was someone dumping water?
We turn our heads.
One devastated man, holding the handle of a cake box, mouth open in disbelief, surrounded by on-lookers.
One side of the cake box, open.
One beautiful cake, face down on the ground.
I’m walking back drowsily from another long night with Mr. Soju.
The sky is just beginning to brighten.
A couple is sitting on a bench on the left side of the path ahead of me.
He’s in army uniform.
The clouds are so thick it makes this 3pm almost seem like night.
As I trudge slowly up a steep hill, I see a long line forming around the wall.
What is this line for?
I start to pass the end of the line. Still it’s going. I have to round the corner to see what it’s for. I get more and more curious with each person I pass.
WHAT IS IT FOR?
SHOULD I BE WAITING IN THIS LINE?
Curiosity peaking, I finally round the corner:
A small hole in the wall restaurant, one Ajumma furiously cooking dumplings in about 7 different pots. I stop to watch her operate like a machine between the many pots with fluffy clouds of steam rising from them. I turn to look back at the line wrapped around the corner.
“She’s working as hard as she can!” I want to tell the impatient, hungry line.
I walk past the small restaurant a few buildings ahead and up onto my friends rooftop, where they are already deep into a round of King’s Cup. I go to admire the view. Just below, I have a perfect view of the dumpling shop and the line wrapped around the wall.
As I look on, a heavy drop of water smacks me in the face. And another. And another.
This storm is coming on fast.
It’s going to be pouring in a minute.
But not a single person is deterred from the line.
Must be good dumplings.
In the park, three healthy, fat cats reside.
Mostly, they are very friendly. More nonchalant actually. They will allow the curious humans to touch them, as long as they are gentle, as long as they are sweet, especially if they have food.
One young woman seems to be a regular acquaintance of the cats – she walks over as if they are old friends. She pulls out two small plastic bowls, a plastic Ziploc filled with food, and strategically pours equal amounts in both bowls. Two of the round felines lazily walk over, meow it up, rub against her, then start munching the generous offering.
The other one is too sleepy to come.
They meow, and they eat, and she watches with a smile.
I’m sitting 10 feet away, writing and prepping for work, listening to music.
Onlookers walk by and smile and point and whisper to their significant others. I’m sitting on the grass with my back to a wall, close enough to the scene to be included as part of the show for the passerby.
Two small, brave, curious children, one boy and one girl, are planning there route to pet the kitties. They walk very close to me – their minds much too focused on the felines to bother noticing me.
They walk slowly over, then a little bit too fast, then slow, then too fast again. The cats bounce up and gracefully step away from them, about 10 feet.
The kind lady is telling them something. I can’t hear because my music is too loud in my ears.
She lifts up one finger.
The children do the same.
She motions to walk very slowly to them.
The children nod their understanding.
And they sneak, sneak, closer, almost there…
One finger on the cat.
The cat turns his head and meows.
Outside, between two elementary schools, waits the cotton candy man every single day.
Attached to his motorbike on the back is a big platform of holders that can carry about 25 clouds of cotton candy, blue and pink. Floating from his bike are 5 more bubbles of cotton candy, these ones filled with helium so that they float like balloons from the bike.
Every day I see him trading the fluffy balls of sugar for small coins and dollars with excited kids and their mothers. Every day I see him with the biggest smile on his face.
One day, I arrive down the path between the two elementary schools just as he is revving his engine up.
He slowly takes off the opposite way.
Behind him lies one big, forgotten fluff of pink cotton candy in a plastic bag, wrapped up with yellow lace. He was taking off. He dropped it and didn’t notice.
I contemplated what I was going to do. It’s just one cotton candy. It was an exceptionally hot day. I’m in full business casual with a heavy bag with all my work stuff. Also I sweat a lot.
But I couldn’t help remembering his smile and laugh.
I hold my bag down and start running after him. I snag the candy as I run, run past a few kids, run past a few moms, run past a few trees.
He doesn’t hear me. His bike is too loud.
I keep running. Hate coming into class all sweaty.
He finally stops at an upcoming small intersection and I run to tap him on the shoulder.
“You dropped this.” I use more motions than English. Too sweaty to conjure up the right Korean words.
He looks down at the fluff, then back at me.
“Keep it!” He says in Korean with a smile.
“No, no, really, take it!” I push it forward towards him.
I don’t eat sweets. A big ball of sugar isn’t appealing to me.
He pushes it back to me with a genuine smile. You can’t really deny elders here more than once.
And he slowly rolls away, and I’m left standing there. I could feel a couple moms’ eyes on the back of my head who watched the entire scene.
I feel stupid. Ah, I’ll just give it to my kids, they’ll appreciate it.
I walk the remaining couple blocks to work, up three flights of stairs, into my classroom, where two girls had already arrived to class 50 minutes early.
Hate it when the kids get here this early.
They’re talking animatedly in Korean. These particular girls never god damn stop talking.
I flip on the aircon.
They continue talking.
“Hey, you guys want cotton candy?”
Interrupted a second time, they both look over at me, then the candy, then each other, then me, then each other.
God damn it.
Changyecheon stream – a beautiful, man-made river that runs through the middle of many tall buildings in a business district.
It’s a perfect, albeit hot summer afternoon. It’s crowded and loud and joyful. Kids run across the stones that dot the river, screaming as they chase their friends. Parents look happily on.
Young adults sit on the steps enjoying wine and soju.
Couples walk arm in arm alongside the river.
Old Ajushis have their pants rolled up, feet in the river, drinking beers and talking merrily with their loud, booming laughs.
Old Ajummas are taking selfies and laughing hysterically.
Almost seems like something’s in the water. Some infectious power of youth and happiness that drugs everyone that come into contact with it.
I take off my shoes and step into the water. It’s bitingly crisp and refreshing.
The city lights dance and reflect off the Han River.
We’re laying on the grass, surrounded by hundreds of other picnic-ers with their blankets and tents and snacks and chicken and beer and wine and soju.
Laughter, yells and music all blend together into the night.
It’s lively, but she just lies on the grass, eyes fixed on the sky, deep in thought.
Sitting in a half inside, half outside café in the middle of Hongdae.
The hottest summer in Korean history has finally passed and Korea’s world-renowned beautiful autumn has finally begun.
In uniform with Seoul’s reputation for beautiul cafes, it has an absolutely gorgeous aesthetic throughout the inside with art hanging everywhere, random clutter hanging about that somehow adds to the beauty. Out on the porch where I sit, trees, vines, flowers hanging from every direction of every color. From where I sit, I see green, orange, blue, purple, a faint red.
At some tables inside are groups of friends, laughing, talking vividly.
At some tables are couples enjoying the beautiful
At some tables are people sitting alone, just taking it all in.
Outside, I sit facing the interior. The glass wall has been opened up exposing the inside to the fresh autumn air.
To my left is a girl, headphones in, mixing colors and painting a picture of something, an old coke bottle I think. She has six different pieces in front of her.
To my right is another girl, a large drawing pad in front of her as she sketches. Her nose is very close to the pad.
It’s loud in the cafe, but my eyes are immediately drawn to a corner of the room where a group of three people are sitting. All of them are using hand motions to each other animatedly.
Funny how the loudest scene I see in this busy cafe is sign language.
I can’t pull my eyes away from these people signing so vivaciously. Their hands and fingers moving so quickly and decisively, the emotions they portrayed on their faces – yet not a sound made.
The older man just made a funny joke and the woman is dying of laughter now.
The third man had his phone propped up on the table as he Facetimed another man signing from the other side.
Deaf or not, they were the most lively people in the cafe.
In the back of Changdeokgung Palace, deep from the entrance, around the corner from the secret lake, surrounded by trees as high as you can see, is one bench, far away from the hordes of selfie-taking tourists.
It’s a medley of colors, from green to red to orange to yellow. Colors I used to think only existed in the movies.
In the bench sits an elderly couple. He’s sitting on the left, her on the right.
In his left hand is a folded newspaper. In her right hand is a book.
His right arm is wrapped around her body, and her left hand rests on his knee.
I’m standing there looking up with my mouth gaped open like the tourist I am, trying to find the perfect angle to take pictures, but they don’t seem to notice that I’m there.
Just silenty reading.
I’m on the rooftop of a quiet, hip wine bar. I sit with my back to the wall, my feet up on the chair in front of me. I’m scrolling through photos on my camera as I edit them on my laptop.
To my right, over the edge of the building is the bustling neighborhood of Insa-dong. Both tourists and locals alike are wandering the streets filled with trinket stores and restaurants and cafes.
To my left is a perfect view of a quiet sun setting over the mountain.
A band plays music below on the street.
On this rooftop, there is a couple near me. From their accent, I gather they are German. From the few words I catch, they are really enjoying their trip to Korea.
On the other end of the rooftop are four ladies, enjoying wine and a large charcuterie board filled with meats and cheeses. They laugh, and they talk, and they laugh, and they talk. From the few words I can understand in korean, I put together that one of them just broke up with their boyfriend.
And he’s an “idiot.”
And he’s not very “handsome.”
I take a break from my camera and walk over to the wall on my left to take in the last rays before the sun disappears behind the mountain.
I didn’t know it was possible for nature as beautiful as this to meld so seamlessly with a bustling city.
I wonder where the not-handsome idiot is now, and if he knows there are four ladies, eating cheese, saying mean things about him.
Standing with my back to the wall in the metro. We are in the very front car of what I would estimate to be about 10 cars connected to each other.
My airpods are blasting, and I’m just watching the people smushed together in the seats, along the walls. I’d say about 70 percent of the people are on their phones. A quarter of them sleeping. It seems I’m actually in the minority looking up and around.
It’s getting cold outside, so I’m wearing a jacket, over a sweatshirt, over a shirt. I’m also wearing my backpack with my laptop, a few books, my leather travel notebook, a highlighter, and a pen. A rare free day of exploration and writing.
About 20 feet away from me is a father sleeping, his cute baby daughter sitting on his lap, and a stressed looking wife to his right. She is holding many bags, stopping a stroller, and looking for something with urgency.
The little girl is waggling her legs. Almost looks like she’s testing them, like she just realized she could do it.
She’s good at it, good enough to fling her right shoe off into the middle of the walkway.
I smile. Cute.
Pops doesn’t notice. He’s sleeping.
Mom doesn’t notice. Still searching the bags.
My smile fades. Surely one of the 20 people located nearer to the family than me noticed, but not one person moves.
They just stay on their phones. Or they pretend they don’t see. Or maybe they saw, but don’t want to lose their spot. Or maybe they really didn’t see and I’m being cynical.
I push myself off the wall I’m leaning on and walk the 20 feet over, bend over, and pick up the little Adidas shoe lying on its side.
even this baby has cooler shoes than me…
I turn and hand the shoe to the mom. She’s surprised, caught off guard, and thanks me kindly. I smile and bow a bit.
Good timing, as the train is stopping at my stop, and I step off the metro into the crowd as I inhale the crisp winter air.
I turn for one last glimpse as the doors close to see the little girl dropped her shoe again.
The train speeds away.
It’s a cold night. Autumn dropped its last leaf days ago and winter is fully upon us. I’m huddled under a street food tent along with five other people. We six are standing around what I can only describe as a standing bar set-up, as the Ajumma stands behind the bar, dishing out different treats.
I order different fried objects smothered in a hot, red sauce as I sip the complementary soup out of a little Dixie cup. I’m alone, but I try to carry some conversation with the friendly Ajumma that I pass every day on my way home – a conversation I mostly support with many head bows and smiles. She understands I can’t speak Korean well, asks where I am from, and leaves me in peace to eat without forcing myself.
To my right is a young college couple talking spiritedly. They are eating rice cakes smothered in the red sauce (tteokboki) and laughing together, hitting each other, flirting with each other. She’s very polite whenever the Ajumma speaks to her. When they leave, they bow politely with smiles ear to ear.
To their right is another couple – but they are in complete silence. They too are eating tteokboki. The girl looks pissed. The boy’s facial expression is a mixture of guilt and annoyance. The tteokboki is very good, but I get the feeling they can’t enjoy it’s taste.
Lastly, to their right and directly across from me is an older gentleman with long, scraggly hair. His clothes are a bit worn, and seems to be a little drunk. Nevertheless, he seems like a friendly man. Every few minutes he carries a bit of conversation with the Ajumma. He paid exact change in coins. As he finishes his food, he raises his soup cup to me with a gentle nod and a crooked smile.
I smile, nod, and raise my cup back to him.