The other day I sat across from a young lesbian couple on the Seoul subway.
If I were politically correct, I would drop the adjective “lesbian” and just reference the two women as a couple. But I’m not interested in stripping myself of language - for as Orwell cautioned, once you eliminate language, then there are no thoughts … and we have enslaved ourselves without a government ever raising an army against us.
More to the point, life in Seoul does not compare to New York City or Paris. This is a very conservative society. There were no GayPride parades here to coincide with similar recent celebrations in European capitals.
If Korean Soap Operas, which are wildly popular from Seoul-to-Bangkok, still depict young, straight unmarried couples living together as taboo - then the idea of Gay rights is light years away from acceptance in this part of the Orient.
As an American expatriate in a foreign society, my “otherness” helps sharpen my sense of observation. If I can’t understand the verbal discourse - which I don’t in this case, then I must rely on the nuances of body language to try and understand context. This goes hand-in-hand with street photography in every culture.
The young women from the other day waited with me on the subway platform at Itaewon Station. Itaewon (pronounced in English as ‘Ita-won’) is a neighborhood in Seoul immediately north of the longtime U.S. Army base, originally a base developed by the Japanese during the occupation of Korea in the first-half of the 20th century.
Like any neighborhood near a military base - especially of a foreign force, it is a Free Zone of morals and scruples. Yet for conservative Korean society, what happens in Itaewon, stays in Itaewon - and this is observed rather strictly. The neighborhood is a place to regulate decadence and debauchery for the wayward foreigners … and for the right price anything is possible: trendy bars and restaurants, yet also quack doctors, drugs and Filipina ladyboys.
So to wait for the subway at Itaewon Station with an affectionately hand-holding female couple is no big deal. Yet to step onto the subway and leave the Free Zone is altogether different.
Hand-holding is fairly benign yet has different cultural meanings. Female Korean high school students sometimes hold-hands in public - as a symbol of friendship, and nothing more. The same is true of slightly older Korean women, usually in their mid-to-late 30s.
Once upon a time American teenage couples held hands in public to symbolize they were going steady, but now that’s so lame and a great many enjoy sexting each other with vivid images of specific appendages.
In the Middle East, young adult men frequently hold hands with each other on the streets, yet would never do so with their wives - who usually walk a few steps behind them.
The Seoul subway is one of the best systems in the world, and I’ve been a steady passenger the past two years. In fact, I sold off my car - which is really a nuisance in a city of 20-million people. What I’ve noticed is the respect the older generation still commands in this part of the Orient. Younger Koreans readily give up their seats to the older generation without any prompting. And … if a young couple is a little too affectionate on the subway … a kiss, especially a prolonged one, or the male hand caresses a woman’s soft and shapely derriere, an older Korean man will quietly speak to the couple and the behavior stops immediately - without an attitude. This is very refreshing.
In America, an older passenger offering similar constructive advice would be rebuffed with indelicate language - as much from the female as the male.
In many ways, living in Seoul is like stepping back into America at the tail-end of the Eisenhower Era. Some times this is not so bad. Yet sitting across the subway aisle from the two young women, I was quickly reminded how the invasion of the body snatcher had occurred to me imperceptibly years ago. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. my Southern-born grandmother said: “This change is going too fast.” My mother said: “This change is necessary, but with moderation.” At age 15, I said: “This change is not happening fast enough.”
I looked at the two young women - foreigners both; Chinese, to be precise, and I thought: “Lust at their age is normal, love is even better - and the combination is absolutely intoxicating … better than any other high.
Yet I also thought: “This change in openly same-sex affection is going too fast” … just as my older family member said about the Civil Rights Movement 50-years earlier.
As an American who came of age in the 1960s, I still remember that in my country - to be homosexual was both a mental illness and a crime. It is neither. But the pendulum has swung completely to the other side, and now there is gay marriage in the United States, as well as many other parts of the world.
Of course the majority of the passengers on the subway the other day were Korean. Yet no one admonished the young women for going beyond holding hands and putting their arms around each other affectionately … because they were not Korean.
The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans all have an uneasy relationship with each other because of much unpleasant history. Of the three groups, the Koreans have been on better behavior than both the Chinese and the Japanese.
Yet what matters now is the irrefutable truth of China as a world power with over a billion people, and a lot of them can be founding traveling the world with new wealth. A lot of that money has seduced Korean businesses - who dislike the Chinese yet pander to their wallets. The Koreans are careful not to upset the Chinese - who, in years to come, will inevitably lay claim to this entire peninsula just as they took ovr Tibet in 1950, and just as the country has done with developing artificial islands in the South China Sea. China knows how to play the long game, and everyone knows the American Century of dominating the world stage is nearing the end.
As a street photographer, documenting people in candid moments is my primary motivation. And ideally these moments reflect dignity - though if not, at least the frozen moments gives pause to conditions that reveal a truth.
Watching the two young women display restrained public affection with each other seemed so perfectly natural. My liberal side silently cheered their fierce independence, and yet my old-time conservative Victorian side thought discretion is still the better part of valor. Ying-yang, always in play - the dualities we try to deny yet must juggle as best we can.
What struck me most was the context of the conservative Korean society that is trying desperately to hold fast to centuries-old traditions in the face of outside influences that can no longer be ignored or suppressed. “Can't you hear me knocking?” and on the other side of the door is the Teenage Wasteland, better known as sex, drugs, and an entertainment-soaked Western World.
As Van Morrison sings on Veedon Fleece (1974), “You Don’t Push The River.”
I sat across from the female couple for six subway stops - which is about 12-minutes, biding my time. Of course I had no idea when they might depart, but I had to document them with a photograph without calling attention to myself, the only older white man in the area. This is the adrenaline rush of street photography that has me hooked as much as anything William Burroughs talks about scoring in Naked Lunch. Timing is everything and that’s what heightens the experience.
It was my time to leave Line Six and return home. As the subway slowed, I pulled out my X100F … and as the doors of the carriage opened, I had only seconds to get my act together, frame the composition, pre-focus, hit the shutter and make it off the subway before it was too late … and especially before the two women might have given chase in offense at me for revealing a truth through them.
And the truth is the two young women were just two people gloriously lost in each other in a way that we all want to be lost in another person because that’s such a beautiful reason for living.