<I submitted this piece to a writing contest a few months back… I ended up being a runner-up (which effectively means nothing), but I’m proud of this piece, so I thought I’d share it here.>
Another afternoon on the Seoul Metro, and I’m on my way to work. As any Korean person may assume, I’m a teacher taking the train to my academy, another day teaching conversational English to adults. Nothing unusual here.
I’m lost in my thoughts when I detect faint strains of music; it’s coming from a small, cheap radio that hangs around the neck of a blind man, making his way through the subway holding a small basket for donations. He’s slightly pigeon-toed, holding a long white cane, and when the train lurches to the side, he loses his balance for a moment. But he regains balance, and the cane taps on. His cassette player swings slightly back and forth, and the music is nothing more than simple accordion-like tones that spell out a song I can’t identify.
I’m a regular on this subway line, and I’ve come to recognize the other regulars: the stoic, square-faced man; the hunched, long-haired woman who wears a permanent grimace; the button-nosed woman whose slightly parted eyes gaze vacantly upward. Occasionally, another woman comes through, singing gently along with the recorded music that plays from the radio hanging around her neck. Once I gently dropped a few coins into her basket, and she stopped, bowed slightly forward (seemingly to no one), and continued on.
But this person isn’t a regular.
I keep my sweaty hands in the pockets of my jacket; my spare change rolls around through my fingers.
I watch the blind man’s actions with the same look of wonder that many Koreans feel entitled to use when staring at foreigners. If this were taking place in the U.S., there’s no way I would feel bold enough to watch him as closely as I am now. ‘But I’m a waegugin, a foreigner, so I receive a special exemption to unabashedly stare at people, right?’ I ask myself. ‘…Yeah, right.’
I try not to watch too critically as he approaches; even Koreans disregard his presence—they only acknowledge the beggar by slightly shifting to let him shuffle past. Nobody has given him any money yet, and some people seem mildly annoyed that this man would have the poor timing to start begging while they’re on the train. Personal space on the subway is at a precious minimum throughout most of the day on this particular stretch of the subway.
What I’m looking for is a sign, any indication that he’s not, in fact, blind. He keeps his eyes shut as he approaches steadily. His white cane taps along, left to right, right to left.
I remember my students explaining that there are people that beg on the subway who are not really blind. Many of my students admitted to never giving money: “You never know who’s really in need, and who’s faking it.” “My mother told me once that every blind beggar is a liar.” Some of my students are more critical and think that these ‘fakers’ attempt to take advantage of people’s sympathy and charity, and should be ignored. I even heard another creepy story (urban legend, perhaps?) that these blind people work for some gangster boss that they must give all their earnings to.
But really, I think to myself, how much of this is based on even a shred of truth? It seems that the more people I ask about this, the more secondhand information I receive; and if their opinions are this vague and obscured, how can I ever get a straight answer?
With this in mind, I wonder: if they need to resort to faking blindness and peddling for money during an afternoon subway ride, might not they be in need themselves? Do I have the right to evaluate the perceived level of neediness of a subway beggar, based on my superficial once-over? After all, I am an outsider here, who am I to judge anyone else?
This guy looks blind to me. But again, how would I know?
I feel my cheeks blushing as I contemplate giving him my change. Time’s running out; soon he’ll be within perfect arm’s reach for me to drop my coins into his basket. I can’t verify his authenticity based on his stride, his eyes, his posture—nothing. Honestly, I’m not even sure about what to look for. All I know is that he looks legit to me.
So now that that’s been established, now it’s a matter of breaking formation, to be the only person to step forward and deposit my donation. But my arms are frozen in indecision.
His blue plastic bowl finally comes within arm’s reach, and I do nothing.
The man continues his slow march down the subway car, and now I’m looking at the back of the man’s head. I feel a bit of relief now that my moment of hesitancy has been ended for me, and my pathetic discomfort has been alleviated.
Glancing around the subway car, I can see that I’m the only one who felt any shred of apprehension just now. I suppose I should just plug in my headphones and tune out, keep my eyes trained downward, and stay absorbed in something. Maybe it’s better to stay cozily in my own bubble, just like everyone else. Or maybe these feelings just played out in everyone around me, but I was the only person to show evidence of my indecision.
‘Next time I’ll give a little something,’ I tell myself.
Satisfied with this copout of an excuse, I let the train pull me toward work, and I quickly forget the previous moment of mental floundering.