Korea is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you are interested in culture, colonial history, and geopolitical chess games
Having just returned from Korea, I’ve had the unusual opportunity to talk to Koreans, some young, some older, about the current tense situation between the two states on the peninsula. I talked to them about their views of a brighter future, without Donald’s bigger button or Jong-Un’s need for a nuclear arsenal.
As someone who’s been privileged to witness the extremely volatile and unexpectedly rapid German (re-)unification in 1989 and 1990 from up close, it was interesting to spend time to compare notes with my Korean counterparts on how they view the situation on the ground, mere fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the border, or the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, as this heavily militarized (yeah, odd, right) area is called. Alex and I had traveled there during our last visit in 2012. We were able to visit the North Korean tunnels dug to infiltrate (and invade?) the South. We peeked through binoculars at the now-closed village of Kaesong, where North Korean labor produced goods for the Samsungs and LGs in the south. We also saw and shivered at the tall towers on both sides, proudly flying each country’s national flag. Eerie!
The entire border to North Korea is mined territory, literally. Violent incidents always a possibility.
A few weeks ago, a North Korean soldier fled to the south, bullets from his comrades accompanying him on his rabbit-like run across the border where he collapsed. Marked by malnutrition, riddled with worms and bullet holes, the man is expected to make a full recovery in a hospital in Seoul. We know little about life in the North, and even my friends in Seoul could shed little light, other than that there is a powerful elite who lives a very good life, while the rest… well, starve? We don’t really know.
Satellite images show that there is very little electric light at night in North Korea, almost nothing outside the capital of Pyongyang, and from the few accounts we have seen and read, the people north of the border live an existence that very much resembles that of pre-war Korea. But we can’t know for certain.
Korea is an interesting country. While originally Buddhist, Christianity has been playing a major role for over a century as primarily American missionaries have been very active on the peninsula. They still are, and many in the Korean diaspora are deeply religious evangelicals. In the south, that is still the case, and churches of different denominations from Roman Catholic to Mormon stand side-by-side with beautiful Buddhist temples (see photo.)
Colorfully lit prayer bags hanging from a tree in Seoul’s richest and biggest Buddhist temple.
Understanding the North…
As for the North, religion is frowned upon, as in all communist countries, although the Kim family is staging itself more in the tradition of the old Joseon Empire. God-like rulers, rather than simply chairmen of the ruling party. Jong-Un’s grandfather, Il-Sung, is still president, decades after his death. Only a god could really fill those shoes, right? So what if that all crumbled? What if the gods were killed? Or exiled? Japan, in 1945, might hold a clue to how it might affect a people…
When East Germany opened the wall, it was the wealthiest of the Warsaw pact countries. Despite the paper-maché cars with lawn-mower engines they were driving. They were Germans, after all: industrious, hard-working, with little sense of humor or appetite for “living the good life”. They saved their money in bank accounts for a better day, and the unification treaty sweetened (or at least didn’t sour) their dreams. The differences, after having been sundered and apart for forty years (1949-1989) were staggering, but still manageable. Yet only last year did East-Germans achieve full parity in their pensions, and the “Soli”, the extra tax levied to pay for the build-up of the East is still paid. Based on the discussions of the two major parties for a new government for Germany, that is not to change. Keep that in mind as we look at a unified Korea.
Korea was split in two, like Germany, at the end of the war, in an American controlled (taking over from colonial Japan) South and the Sino-Soviet controlled North. We are seventy plus years into that separation. Relations between the two neighbors, of one people, are as bad as ever, despite the current Olympia induced romance. It won’t last, or so my Korean friends tell me. South Korea, like Germany, is one of the wealthiest nations of the planet, having risen from the ashes of 1953 like Phoenix. Meanwhile, North Korea is worse off than ever before or so we are led to believe.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper-modern city with more tall buildings than I could count…
Sentiments in the South…
Official doctrine in Seoul is still the dream of unification. That is portrayed in many museums, from the Korean War Memorial to the National Museum or the City Museum. It’s enshrined in the national curriculum and it is the current minister of unification who is handling negotiations with his North Korean counterpart about their Olympic tête-à-tête. However, word on the street is a different one. Seventy years is a long time. Few people from the era are still alive. Even fewer have living relatives on the other side (despite the South’s insistence on always putting family reunions on the table.) The younger generations of Koreans enjoy the fruit of their parents’ and grandparents’ hard labor. South Korea is a wealthy country with good social services, a new smartphone every season, great K-pop music and in terms of fashion. Seoul is definitely the Milan of the East. Rarely have I seen a people so tastefully dressed! Who would give that up? Risk having to sacrifice the latest Samsung gadget to help complete strangers hundreds of miles away?
Also, and I think this is even more important: the younger generations in Korea suffer from similar problems our young do in the West: difficulties finding jobs, a real-estate market out of control. I’ve been told horror stories of thousands of people applying for ten internships where eventually only eight would be hired permanently, of hiring processes lasting months with up to four different aptitude tests. Employers scorning applicants with mere bachelor degrees. Korea has an excellent educational system, but given the stress of staying on top of the pyramid, it is also driving many students to the brink of exhaustion. Kids studying from six am to eleven pm, and some even commit suicide because of it. Tell me, why would they wish to risk competition from millions of people asking even lower wages?
Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.
What the future might hold
Having finally rid itself of the Shanti towns of the post-war era, why would Seoul risk the prospect of hundreds of thousands, millions even, migrant workers coming to town to find their fortune in the brightly lit capital of the South? The prospect of it all frightens the younger generations. Few of them will pay more than lip-service to reunification in public, and will flat out rule that prospect out, for the time being, instead referring to “potentially”, in a “distant future”. They are a smart people, and I agree with that assessment, given what little I (and everyone else) knows about the state of things in the North. Besides, I highly doubt that China is as gullible and naïve as Russia was with regards to the GDR. I doubt that China will allow American troops on its borders. They’re quite thankful for that buffer zone that North Korea puts in between American ground troops and mainland China. I think Beijing is humiliated enough by the mere existence of Taiwan and the Japanese alliance with the U.S.
Oddly, as we’ve recently marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of German reunification, we’ve also seen just how Russia still feels about the de-facto abandonment of promises made as part of the unification process, primarily not making Eastern European countries NATO members or stationing U.S. troops there. Today, there are NATO troops stationed both in the Baltics and Poland, right under Putin’s nose. Mind you, I understand the need for those, given Putin’s saber-rattling of late and his war on Ukraine, but all of this would not have happened (or would it?) if the GDR had remained a separate country. We’ll never know, but the Russians feel betrayed. I doubt that China will make the same mistake.
This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone. And as the city has moved on, so have the younger generations of South Korea, no longer desperately clinging to the concept of a unified peninsula, one Korea.
In less than four weeks, the Olympic torch will arrive in Pyeongchang and the Olympic games will begin with the Koreans entering the stadium together, once again marching under a unified Korean flag (a picture of the peninsula on white background, as most recently in 2010.) I doubt Jong-Un will be there, and I doubt the unified ladies’ hockey team will play for very long. Many fear that the current romance is a veil to allow the North Koreans to further/finish their armed nuclear missiles. They’ve played the South and their need for political gains before. They need to be re-elected, Jong-Un doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll be successful this time, not like they were in the nineties, during the last era of “sunshine policy” of President Kim.
Young South Korea is worldly, suave, ironic, and not as gullible as their elders were. I find that hopeful, even if it will make progress on the peninsula slow. Sometimes though, slow is better. It beats a Seoul once again ravaged by artillery batteries from the North. Do you have questions? Comments? My trip to Seoul was primarily to learn about locations and settings from my coming novel, but I couldn’t help but discuss the current political and geopolitical climate with the people I met. To them, my thanks and utmost gratitude for honest and meaningful debates.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Between day and two of my research trip to Seoul, here’s what I’ve learned
Greetings from Seoul, the capital of the ROK, the Republic of Korea, or South Korea as most of us know it. The country’s official name is the very reason (or part of it) why North Korean forces attacked on an early day in 1950: the fact that the United Nations only recognized the southern government as the peninsula’s legitimate government. Eighteen months later, the entire place was up in flames and we saw the first post World War II conflict between the “West” and the communist East, as North Koreans were supported on the ground by China and Russia, while the ROK was supported by the United Nations. The almost unanimous resolution (Russia wasn’t at the table!!!) would be impossible today, as Communist China, not Taiwan, is now considered the legitimate government of all of China. Times change.
Think this is complex? Yeah, it is, and any historian with half a brain would find at least a dozen areas to fill out the gaps I’ve left in this one short paragraph. But how does this all help you understand my research or why does it matter? For one, being here, just seeing these three letters everywhere, ROK reminds me that the very basis of the conflict is still unresolved. Whether it matters practically in any future talks, as they just seem to have begun re the Olympic Games which are about to begin here in less than a month? I don’t know. But I know from the situation in China that any mention of Taiwan and independence causes convulsions in Beijing. I can only imagine how some North Koreans might react to the claim that their dear leader isn’t really a legitimate representative of his people… As a writer, this gives me perspective. I am literally forced to see things from someone else’s perspective.
I couldn’t have done that from a European vantage point, staring at Google Maps. No offense. Yesterday, and I’d like to share some of my findings here, I spent time in the War Museum (or memorial as it is officially called) and in Buk-chon Village. The latter plays a significant role in the novel. Join me for some tidbits?
Just finding some information about this base, this place that so much symbolized the Korean colonialization, first by the Japanese, now by the U.S., is a place that is difficult to get in to. And to get the armed forces to respond to questions a dead end. They do have social media accounts, but their communication is very one-sided.
But luckily, I found Intel I needed about the base in the fifties from the War Museum. And it seems as if Yongsan is about to finally be a closed chapter for the people of Seoul as this prime real estate is to become available for the local government. The U.S. forces are relocated about an hour outside of Seoul in the near future.
The base plays a role in those aspects of the book that take place in the fifties, during the war, and I needed to get them right. With this, I can safely finish certain aspects. So that was a great thing to accomplish.
Another fun detail I found was this pair of standard issue military underwear. For some reason, I mention this in the book, but the look eluded me, despite extensive research on Google (don’t ask…) Finally, I found them.
Very important aspects of the book play out in Bukchon village, an old part of Seoul, or the old downtown. At the War Museum, I was able to both see pictures of old Seoul, because so much was destroyed during the war, not to mention torn down to make way for the modern metropolis that is the South Korean capital. But I did find a lot of inspiration and potential locations. Here are some photos from yesterday:
Seoul, Bukchon Village
Seoul, Bukchon Village
Seoul, Bukchon Village
Beautiful, isn’t it? My guide, Jaekwang, later took me to a local market where we were fascinated by a long queue for something. We stopped, I dutifully got in line (Swedes cannot not queue when we see one) and we ended up with a delicious and cheap (500 Won) dessert made from waffle dough and filled with bean curd:
Food stall at Kwangjang Market, Seoul
Fish Waffles, Kwangjang Market, Seoul
This guy was making his fish waffles non-stop for the whole day. And delicious and warming (it’s around the freezing point here in Seoul) they were. Anyway, it’s almost time for me to head out again. Today we’re going to see Itaewon and other parts of Town. I’ve asked Jaekwang to surprise me and to take me off the beaten track, to show me aspects of Seoul tourists normally wouldn’t see. I’m curious. Tomorrow I have a business meeting, I’ll try to visit more local museums and on Wednesday just wander around, soak up the atmosphere. Come Thursday, I’ll fly home, and I’m sure I’ll have given my brain what it needs to complete the book!
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
A new year: as dark as the outlook seems, from a political point of view, we have it within us to affect positive change
Happy New Year! We’ve all safely arrived in 2018 and I wish you the very best for this year. May it bring you, your family and loved ones happiness, prosperity and your dreams come true. I know this to be a hollow statement, for the most part, something we say countless times in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve and in the days after, but I actually mean it. I bear very few people ill will, and they most certainly aren’t reading my blog. LOL And I don’t wish anyone physical harm, but a lesson in humility wouldn’t be a bad thing…
Funchal, as it presented itself just minutes before New Years and the huge fireworks
My husband, my son and I attended a great New Year’s Eve dinner with a stunning viewing of the Funchal fireworks last night, and at some point during the long dinner, we began to talk about our wishes and – cliché – intentions for the new year. I honestly don’t have any, which doesn’t mean that I’m completely happy with my life.
I don’t really believe in “drink less” or “hit the gym more often” type goals. I began to hit the gym in March last year, and it’s done wonders for me, and yes, I’ll keep that up, New Years or no New Years. But if you feel strongly about setting a goal for this year, make sure it’s a good one, and with that I mean – a smart goal – which means Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-related. No management lesson here, but you can read up if you like.
As for my own goals, they’re less dependent on the fact that it’s a new year per se, rather than my publishing schedule. I try to get two books out per year, and work on Martin is well underway, and I’ll be traveling to Korea soon for my research trip. Enough said about that. After Martin, I’ll try to finish my second short story collection, which is yet untitled. I’ve decided to focus on the letters of the alphabet and first names, writing stories about all kinds of people. I’ve already written a few, e.g. Clara (which was published in the recent Beaten Track anthology Never Too Late) and yeah, Martin, along with Paul and another one. And I’ve had ideas for two more these past days, but plenty of letters left in the alphabet. I’ll be reaching out to readers shortly with a request for names and one (1) additional word to set the creative juices in motion.
While Martin is scheduled for a late spring release, probably May, I hope to have the short story collection out come GRL in October, either before or after the event, but if you intend to travel to Virginia, I am sure you’ll be able to get it there… Enough for today. I need to feed my family and then we’ll head out for some fresh air and a walk, to get the vapors of last night’s freely flowing booze out of our systems. Not that I drank much, but I still woke with a headache.
Be well, and talk soon. As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a first great week of the year.
Soon, I’ll fly to Korea to do research for my coming novel…
Merry Christmas! I wish you and your family all the very best on this auspicious day. On to today’s topic: I know what you’re thinking: “a great excuse for a vacation…”, “he probably chooses topics based on where he wants to travel…” I wish it were like that, or that easy. And honestly? I couldn’t give a flying fuck what others think, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to fly to Korea for four days, just days after I return from vacation with my family. But, deadlines and the need for the research to be done, don’t give me much choice. I’ve read too many books where the author hadn’t done their research properly, and I just need my books to be factually accurate. Let me try to explain why:
I’ve been to Korea before, on business and on a private trip with my husband. A beautiful country and very friendly people.
I’m currently writing Martin, a novel about a man in his eighties, living alone in a retirement home in upstate New York. What started out as a project for an anthology of older LGBT characters grew. Martin had things to talk about, and his story grew. Back when I began, a looong time ago, on June 3rd to be exact, it was supposed to be a short story, and I honestly don’t remember why he had this love story in his youth, and why my brain concocted up this thing about him being drafted into the Korean War. Remember, this was June. I booked the flight to Seoul two days ago.
As the story developed, and as Martin told me more about himself, particularly this week, as he was talking about his time in Korea to friends over dinner, I realized there are a great many things I need to know to describe them, what Seoul looked like in the fifties, where people would meet, what the American military bases looked like, where G.I.s would eat etc. Lots of things I have no idea about. Sure, there’s the easy way out, avoidance, just to ignore certain details, improvise others, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t do that. I’ve read too many books where the author hadn’t done even the most basic research.
Seoul is only a few miles from the border to the North, and the conflict is omnipresent. To see the giant flag poles of the two opposing nations is chilling…
Gone are the days where I could just make up a city (The Opera House) where a novel could take place. Even Jonathan’s Hope, playing out in an imaginary mid-western city, needed to become more ‘real’ in the sequels, hence anchoring the story in Chicago. For Willem of the Tafel, research was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, because I didn’t have to travel to Cape Town because it doesn’t matter what the city looks like now since the novel plays out five-hundred years into the future. Difficult because I had to do a lot of math, trying to compute how long it would take to sail or walk places without modern technology, difficult because I had to try to use documents from the seventies about nuclear fallout to try and assess what warheads a century into the future could do.
Should is a huge city, but despite its modernity, there are still neighborhoods with old buildings and architecture.
A turning point in research
Last year, writing Last Winter’s Snow, I had to take a completely different take on research. I was writing about a culture I didn’t know (the Sami), a landscape I hadn’t seen in person. Hence my trip up north in January and then again in August (a pure pleasure trip with my family, as I’d loved it so much up there.) I take my writing extremely serious, and I feel I must do my characters justice. I simply feel that I have no choice: either I write great books or I might as well not write at all…
Is it financially viable to do all this? No, of course not. I have no grants to help me, and no sales I make will ever compensate for the cost of a week in Korea. This isn’t about money either. It’s about credibility, about being able to deliver a book into the hands of my readers that I can be proud of, a book where readers can learn about what the world looked like, maybe learn about another culture, other people. Besides, and this is my other take: should my books ever become a success, isn’t it better to have written a factually accurate book than being trashed for errors?
Just a couple of hours outside Seoul you’ll find great natural beauty. Actually, you don’t even have to leave the city. But this lake is about a two-hour drive from Seoul.
“But most people wouldn’t know the difference…” I hear the objection from you, and true enough, the same is true for editing, proofreading and what not. Most people read books so fast these days, they don’t seem to care about such details. However, all it takes is one person who’s knowledgeable enough to notice something to get a bad review. Get a bad review for lack of proofing, lack of editing, bad research etc., and readers quickly get a pretty comprehensive picture of a crap book… Not sure that makes sense. I’m a bit of a quality freak. I work with great people, from Natasha Snow for my covers, Debbie McGowan who’s an amazing editor, and Beaten Track Publishing for proofing and publishing a high-quality novel. Bite me!
Planning my research
I’m currently planning my days in Seoul, trying to find a guide to help me around, as I don’t speak Korean, trying to find all the places where I need to go to find the pictures and information I need for my book, not to mention the inspiration for scenes I haven’t even written yet. I have a couple of weeks to get ready, and then a couple more to finish work on the novel which is scheduled for a spring release.
What is your working process? How do you do research? How do you handle things you can’t find online or in a local library? Alas, I need to get going. I’m writing this post ahead of time, as we’re leaving for our vacation tonight.
If you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great final week of the year and all the very best for 2018.
Our Christmas tradition: for thirty-four years now, the Hirschi family has (mostly) foregone Christmas presents
…and much of the stress associated with the Holidays, I might add. Christmas is one of the most traditional holidays we have in the western world. It’s a time when families gather, presents are exchanged, food is eaten in copious amounts and stress is permeating every aspect of it. You read Facebook posts of stressed mothers who don’t bake (enough), people who are stressed because they don’t have a family to celebrate with and people who are stressed because they can’t seem to find the right gift. In 1983, my parents introduce da new Christmas tradition in our family: travel.
Christmas tradition premiere: we traveled back to where I had spent the summer and visited my amazing host family in St. Malo, Brittany. From left: my mother, me, my host mom (from behind) and my host dad.
It is a trip I’ll never forget. My brother (thirteen then) and I had spent the summer of 83 in France, studying French. He had been in Sète, in the South of France, while I had ended up in St. Malo, in Brittany (a stunningly beautiful place btw!)
That year, my parents suggested we leave the Engadine, St. Moritz and the glitz and glam of the world’s oldest winter sports resort town to do something else: a few days in Paris followed by a few days in St. Malo. I don’t recall why that suggestion came. Was it some sort of envy of our summer trip and the memories? Was it a health issue? My dad had been forced to take an emergency vacation in the fall of 82 to avoid an imminent heart attack (or so his doctors claimed.)
So it began…
We loved it so much that we did it again, in Sète, the next year. Me with my parents back in 1984.
In any case, we agreed that we – henceforth – would forego Christmas presents and that we’d spend that money on a trip instead. Neither my brother nor I argued the point. It was far too exciting to go places, and both he and I had loved every trip we’d taken abroad, usually in May, for spring break. We never looked back.
After St. Malo in 1983, we ended up in Sète in 1984, (I was in the U.S. in 1985/6), London in 1987 (where we watched the musical Chess), and after a while, we added sunshine and warmth to our trips. My parents live in a place that while sunny, it also sees snow every month of the year, and winters are painfully long (October to April.) At some point, we began to travel to Thailand and we’ve spent the past few years traveling to the Florida Keys (2013), the Caribbean (2014), Bali (2015), and the Caribbean (2016) again.
No tradition without exceptions…
Sometimes, traditions need to be broken to stay alive. In 2012, mom was too ravaged from her dementia to travel, and instead, we visited her. It was to be her final Christmas, celebrated the way we used to when I was a kid. If you’re interested in how we celebrated when I was a child? Read my Christmas Tale, a short story depicting this Swiss-style celebration.
This year, we split up, for the first time since my mom passed away. There have always been years where one or several parts of the family spent their vacations separately, and there have been years where we stayed home, for various reasons, partially because both my brother and I are married and we have partners and their respective families to consider as well. And there have been exceptions to the rule, as e.g. 2012, when my mother celebrated her final Christmas (which we obviously didn’t realize), but she was far gone in her dementia to travel. We’d still been to Thailand the year before, in 2011.
My brother and his husband decided early one to celebrate one year with his in-laws and one year with us. My husband’s family was never much to celebrate with (loooong story), so we never really had that conundrum. This year is “our” year and my dad is flying to Mexico to be with them, as my brother and his husband recently moved back to Mexico.
Alex and I decided not to join them. Instead, we’ve booked a small cottage on the island of Madeira for a quiet couple of weeks on that green paradise. Just the three of us. We haven’t had that in quite a while. The birth of our son also meant that we had to re-adjust our traditions a bit. Rather than completely foregoing Christmas, we don’t want Sascha to miss out, and so we celebrate with him, shlepping Christmas presents to the farthest corners of the world, and back…
Next year, Christmas 2018, we’ll fly to Cape Town for the Holidays… I can’t wait to visit Willem’s hometown.
Our son’s birth meant changes were necessary…
And we’ve kinda, sorta, given up on our no gifts Christmas tradition, at least a little bit. Every now and then, a small gift for Alex may find its way under the tree, and vice versa. It’s not so much an expectation, but rather a pleasant surprise. And it makes sense, particularly as Sascha is curious about what we’re up to, what Santa does etc.
We still travel though, and our son is an avid traveler, and believe it or not, we already know where we’re heading to next year: Cape Town. Personally, I can’t wait, because that city has been on my bucket list ever since I wrote Willem of the Tafel a couple of years ago.
How do you celebrate the Holidays?
Does your family (do you) have any special Christmas tradition? Something out of the ordinary? Let’s share! I can highly recommend traveling. It’s very soothing and you really do escape all the stress of cooking, Christmas shopping and what not. LOL
If you like my reviews, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend and enjoy the fourth Advent week.
PS: Are you following the Rainbow Advent Calendar? If not, the stories are still up there for you to read, and new ones are published every day… My story will be published on Christmas Eve… 😉
Seeing things through a different lens is humbling and makes you grateful for your own life
Having just come back from a convention, I spent a lot of time with people from all walks of life: rich, poor, young, old, various gender and sexualities etc. And I spent time with my friend Tracy, who’s confined to a wheelchair. It taught me a lot. I’m an empath, and I take great pride in understanding where people come from, what they feel and their emotional state of mind. Normally, I can tell someone’s mood before they do (or as they approach me, not having said a word). However, it’s a different animal to understand how someone’s life is, the obstacles they face etc. A couple of years ago I had an eye-opening experience with my friend Claudine and the shocking level of racism in the U.S. when we were on vacation together. It’s one thing to “read” about or intellectually “understand” racism, but it’s another thing entirely when you witness is face-to-face.
Tracy and I at the recent convention.
Last week, with Tracy, I faced the challenges people with disability face in our society, every day. Tracy suffers from cerebral palsy, and usually sits in a wheelchair, as walking on her own has become increasingly difficult. Through her, I experienced just how difficult it is, still, to this day, to get around and be an active part of society when you’re stuck in a chair.
One of the first things I noticed was her outlook or perspective. Literally being at the height of everyone else’s hips, Tracy sees more ass than anyone ever should. To make a conversation in a group possible, the circle needs to widen considerably to allow for a comfortable angle for everyone to see each other. Normally, when chatting in a small group, we tend to stand huddled relatively close together, but for someone in a wheelchair to fit in, that circle needs to widen, which is uncustomary for the “abled” participants. I had never really noticed this before, but as I pushed her chair toward several groups of people (I’ll get back to the reasons why I pushed the chair) I instinctively began to view the world through her eyes, and that was one of the first things I noticed. Needless to say, people also don’t see her coming, not from behind (duh…) but often not even from the front, as their eyes just aren’t focused three feet down.
A hallway from hell… Can you imagine having to push yourself up and down this corridor even once or twice? But several times per day? Yes, it makes for a more quiet environment, but for a wheelchair, this is awful. Why not use to walls to absorb sound instead? Photo: Helen Shaw
The second thing I noticed was how badly we construct things for wheelchairs. Your typical American sidewalks with those creases between concrete blocks make it difficult, almost impossible, for a chair to pass over, the small wheels in the front easily get stuck, and believe me, it’s not easy to push them forward or to do so yourself if you’re alone in the chair. And to lift the chair and push across on the back wheels? Yeah, had it not been for a person actually sitting in it, and the handles of the chair provide no leverage effect to push down, making it virtually impossible. All we could do was for Tracy to stand up, push the chair forward a few inches and try again. Imagine someone who can’t get up at all?
Carpets… Our hotel was full of carpets, everywhere. To push a wheelchair over carpets, or for Tracy to push herself? Not easy and very, very tiring. And when you have to do this ten, fifteen times a day, down long corridors? Wow. We tried to help as much as we could, but why don’t architects consider this shit?
Worst of all though were the non-accessible sidewalks in the parking lot. Yes, the hotel has handicap parking, but what if you are with someone who’s not allowed to park there? Every threshold at that parking lot was 6 inches high, and every time, Tracy had to stand up, take a couple of painful steps to make way for the chair to come up, sit down, start all over at the next threshold, up, down, up, down. All in all, we had to do that about six times. Makes you wonder how this is even possible in 2017.
Having to live like this every day? People bumping into you everywhere because they don’t expect you, don’t see you, all the obstacles, elevator doors crushing into you and what not… I appreciate the patience Tracy and others in her situation have. Yes, they have no choice, but we as a society could make things a little bit easier for them. It’s not rocket science, after all. Have you had any experiences with friends, or yourself?
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