[VIEWPOINT]Collisions and directions

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[VIEWPOINT]Collisions and directions

It happened when I went to Taiwan for the first time. Whenever I walked up stairs, I was in the way of others. I kept to the left, while they kept to the right. It took a long time for me to adjust, to keep to the right. When I went to Japan, I kept to the left again. But in Japan, the driver’s seat was in the opposite place from ours. My heart sank with a start every time I saw cars turning left suddenly when I expected them to turn right. In Taiwan, where the driver’s seat is on the left like ours, pedestrians keep to the right, while in Japan, where the seat is on the right, people keep to the left. In Korea, where the seat is on the left, we keep to the left. Who is right and who is wrong? Or, could this be a matter of right or wrong? I came to wonder this when keeping to the left became a rule in our country.
When the Channel Tunnel was opened to connect England and France under the Straits of Dover, I heard that the two countries’ different directions of driving with the driver’s seat on the opposite side caused problems. Driving on the right was correct in one country, while driving on the left was correct in the other. If they clung to their own ways, the tunnel would have ended up a place of accidents from collisions.
I felt confused whenever I walked up and down stairs at school for a few years. When I walk up the stairs to the left of the corridor, students come down to the right and block me. Wondering if I made a mistake, I examine my direction to find out that I was indeed walking on the left. At first, I thought it might be because of the narrow corridor. Upon closer examination, it was not necessarily so. Just see the emphasis on keeping to the left by drawing complicated arrows on the floor of subway stations, we can see that people do not keep to the left spontaneously. It is a common daily scene for people going up and down stairs at the stations to be entangled in the middle of the left and the right. The collapse of the “keeping left” rule seems to symbolize the confusion of values in our society. In my present thinking, I am confused about whether my keeping to the left is truly the right direction.
It is indeed tiresome to think this way whenever I go up stairs. I hate to bother others with my mistakes. I am also uncomfortable at seeing young people who do not yield the way, standing before me with a blank look as if asking why I block them while I keep to the left, thinking it correct. They call it nonsensical, although I act on my common sense. A matter of a natural thing here becomes a matter of the impossible there. When I have believed that I should not do so, they threaten me that I should do so. Not knowing which direction to follow, I look at others every time I go through a corridor.
In his book “Yumyeongyeong,” meaning “the faint shadow of dream,” Jangjo from the Qing Dynasty said: “East, west, north and south has a fixed direction, but front, back, left and right has no fixed direction.” This is an exhilarating expression. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. The North Star always shines in the northern sky. It is true here and so it is there. It is always so and will be forever. This kind of thing is the truth.
But it is not the same with front, back, left and right. Left and right when faced forward reverses when turned around. The front to me can be the back to a person in front of me. In the mirror, I am in the opposite direction of me. Front, back, left and right changes their positions from time to time according to the direction I stand. They are relative and changeable. The problem occurs when we think front, back, left and right to be east, west, north and south. It would be also troublesome to regard east, west, north and south as front, back, left and right. Might I not have lived, then, thinking front, back, left and right to be east, west, north and south? On the contrary, have I not mistaken east, west, north and south for front, back, left and right?
A boy from the Yuan Dynasty went to the land of Handan to learn the gallant walk of the people in the Chou Dynasty. He tried to learn but could not master their gait. When he had no choice but to return to his home town, he then forgot the way he walked before. Not knowing either this or that way, he had to crawl back to his home town. I recall these days this Chinese story about the boy who tried to learn a new gait, only to end up forgetting his own.

* The writer is a professor of Korean literature at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Chung Min

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