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Such Small Moments

by Min Byeonghun Translated by Sunnie Chae March 6, 2024

“When will you rest?”

 

I’m asked this quite often these days. Well, when will I rest? I’ve been teaching more college courses since last year, and on off-lecture days, I work at a bookshop. I spend three weekdays on campus, two at the shop. On weekends, I write and catch up on chores. The potted plant I’d recently received as a gift withered from neglect. It was a birthday gift . . . During busy spells, I don’t take a single day off. Sudden free time makes me anxious as I wonder if I’ve forgotten to do anything. I believe I’m in control of my time and tasks, but lately, they’ve been nipping at my heels.

    I enjoy the reading and writing—even the other related tasks can’t be separated from the life I wish to live. But now I know. I’m beat. It took me long enough to see it. Reading is no longer a pastime but an extension of work. Sometimes, I suspect that I’m deceiving myself, conforming to assigned roles instead of working with self-agency.

    After lecturing at the college located a four-hour round trip away, I muse on the subway ride home. I want to distance myself from this life. I want to go someplace far away. Maybe that’s why. Traveling is my only pause. The only bright spot in my busy routine comes with choosing a city and making plans to visit. Every day, I scour the internet for flights and accommodations. No matter if the trip falls through. Imagining is enough to pull me slightly beyond my quotidian force field.

 

    I recently traveled to Tokyo. I looked forward to one thing—staying open to chance. To empty myself of thoughts triggered by controlled situations, embracing chance sensations instead. The beauty of travel lies in those moments that let you shed routine-hardened senses. But they now seem harder to cast off. For one, there’s my smartphone . . . It keeps information at my fingertips, but at times, I long to leave it in a drawer as I voyage away. Wanting to at least leave my laptop behind, I stayed up late working the night before the trip. I finalized my students’ grades and pre-ordered books for the bookshop. I double-checked everything to preempt work-related texts and calls. Later, I walked through customs, imagining the impossible: Could I have traveled without my phone?

    Tokyo was the fifth Japanese city I visited. I had put it off, making the belated journey after seeing Fukuoka, Nagoya, Okinawa, and Kyoto. (I always used the Korean pronunciation “Donggyeong” for “Tōkyō,” getting teased for an old-fashioned habit supposedly betraying my gukmin-hakgyo-era upbringing.)[1] Outside the window the sun was setting as I took the Narita Express to Shinagawa Station. I overheard several non-Japanese languages—Chinese, English, and French. The eager voices chattered while I dozed off. The late-night work had taken its toll, it seemed. I arrived at my lodgings barely awake.

 

    I was struck by the sheer number of people in Tokyo. The Shibuya Crossing and Akihabara Electric Town were inundated with pedestrians, and all the restaurants I stumbled on had long lines as if according to script. Like a scene from The Truman Show. Awed by the crowds, I stared and wondered where they came from. Instead of relaxing, I grew tenser than usual, even wishing to return straight home.

    I mulled over my previous trips. Does the fleeting getaway from familiar routines and settings lead to any rest? Am I not being my own taskmaster, utterly exhausted as I trudge back to the hotel and collapse into sleep? Outside the window, the Tokyo Tower gleamed in the distance with several metro lines passing by in the background. Thoughts crossed my mind, one after another. Being too intent on rest, I was hardly enjoying my trip. Rest by compulsion. The pressure of time and tasks had been replaced by my coercive self pushing me across the sea.

 

    Until age nineteen, I grew up in the countryside. The hillside village had only three buses a day going into town. Looking back, the place had enjoyed clear boundaries of rest. Seasons and weather separated work from repose—as an entirely “natural” consequence. For instance, farmers would leave the fields and head home at sunset, and once the cold winter set in, they would allow their bodies enough rest for the coming year. Nature affected the on-off switch of daily activities, and those rhythms set the pace for managing life.

    On days without work, Father looked after plants and animals. His time was divided almost equally between work and care. Even on off days, he rose at dawn. He built a chicken coop in a corner of the warehouse, and when two farm dogs had puppies at the same time, he cared for nearly twenty pups. Father was delighted when I was given a jujube sapling for helping at a friend’s orchard. The friend’s father said it would take time for the sapling to bear fruit in our yard. Our family took turns looking after the sapling. Whoever had time watered it and kept the base free of weeds. As the seasons passed, we gathered around on holidays and spoke about the tree. Within three years, it bore fruit.

    In the summer, villagers sat by the stream to escape the heat, and in winter, they swept the snow at dawn, exchanging greetings. Together, we worked and rested. The city, where I could work anytime, pressured me to work all the time. The sleepless, insomniac city disrupted my sleep.

 

    Outside central Tokyo lies a neighborhood called Kichijoji. I chose that quieter place for the last day of my trip and woke up early to catch the train. I watched the tall buildings through the window gradually give way to single-story houses. Having boarded an express train bypassing Kichijoji, I got off at the next stop, Mitaka Station. I decided to walk the extra distance. The paths were quiet, and cyclists passed by now and then. I saw locals walking their dogs and reading newspapers in the park. Aside from my travel companion, no other tourists were in sight. My edginess eased. We spotted a used bookshop on the way and stepped inside. The front counter was empty, and even as we browsed, no one arrived. My friend chose several story books in the children’s section while I reached for pocket-sized paperbacks. We had made our selections by the time the apparent owner emerged, adjusting his glasses. He took his time tallying the prices on a calculator. Once the books were in our backpacks, we left the shop.

    As we neared the small goods and vintage shops of Nakamichi Shopping Street, I saw several places leisurely opening for the day. No rush, no hurry. At a playground with a stately elm, a child squealed and skipped around. My friend and I bought donuts and ate them on a bench. The child left while we sat in the sunlight. A chilly breeze rustled the tree. Perhaps it was for these moments that I traveled. Small moments, an hour or even ten minutes at most. And for the places where those times gathered.

    Tokyo had plenty of old cafés that seemed to stand still in time. I walked in the door, finding the streetside bustle fading like a distant memory. Shown to a table, I was served a hot towel and a glass of water. My eyes ran over the posters and faded patches of wallpaper as other customers came and went. Some of them were reading, some were waving at others and joining them, some gestured at each other mid-chatter, and some peered gravely at their phones. I ordered the “morning set,” a Japanese café staple, and sipped on a cup of their “blend coffee.” Ambient jazz melodies and hazy indoor air. Now that I’ve left Tokyo, I remember the place as a cozy nook overlaid with small scenes.

 

    “Did you rest well?”

 

    My travel companion and I asked each other on our return flight. In my daily life, I make different attempts to rest well or empty myself. At the end of those mostly failed attempts, I look to the next try with quasi-resigned hope. One does their best at work, but can they do their best to rest? In his book The End of Work, the American economist Jeremy Rifkin predicts that more free time and less working time will establish new lifestyle modes in the place of traditional culture.[2]  This points to the possibility of surplus time encompassing time for leisure or self-enrichment—in short, the possibility of rest.

    When asked, “What do you do to rest?” most people say, “Nothing,” but that’s easier said than done. To do so, one must do nothing at all. I recall doing the following to rest:

    1. Gaming. I once spent a fortnight shut in at home, gaming. I buried myself in the game without going out to see anyone or stopping to work. With my PlayStation plugged into the TV, I barely budged from the armchair. My daily routine went sideways, but my mind was somehow refreshed.

    2. Watching TV dramas. When a minor surgery kept me homebound for a month, I binge-watched drama series. My friends had recommended several shows. I’ve been hooked ever since, and now I have several OTT subscriptions.

    3. Sleeping. I used to get my sleep in one stretch. But with intervals of sleeping and eating, sleeping again and eating . . . the slight regret over time spent asleep is now compensated by the sense of being recharged.

As one would expect, resting bears on the question of how to spend non-working time. Free time will only increase in the long run. Not working as much as others used to make me an anomaly, but now I seem to go against the norm by not taking proper rest.

    I recently took up table tennis. In part for the exercise, but I also longed for physical learning. While writing my manuscript, I made a few resolutions. First, to separate work from rest. To work with greater focus and switch off to relax. Next, to ward off emptiness and ennui by seeking out new interests. To find occasions, not necessarily big or grand, that move my soul. Finally, to embrace the surplus nature of unproductive time. Doing nothing may be a challenge, but I can still free myself of guilt. These are my only wishes as I embark on 2024.

 

Translated by Sunnie Chae

 

 

[1] Translator’s note: the term gukmin hakgyo [elementary school], a remnant of the colonial era, was changed to chodeung hakgyo by the Education Act Amendment Act No. 5069 in December 1995.

 

[2] Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (New York: A Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Book, 1995), 221.

 

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