30th October 2018
Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
On a beautiful Autumn day when fallen leaves color the earth with hues of dusty orange and crimson, and the skies carry with itself scents of hot coffee brewing, I find myself in the back alleys of Seoul, exploring the secretive neighborhood of Mapo-gu. Emma, Hana, Steven, and Pedro are all with me. We stumble upon a small market with bright oranges – 7 for the price of a dollar (1000 -Cheon- Won). There are apples and carrots and broccoli bunches, almonds and peppers too. I pick some fruits and veggies and head towards our destination: Zapangi, or Vending Machine Cafe.
Quite literally, we find a blank grey wall with a neon pink ‘vending machine’ in front. We see windows, but no door. There is a blank gray wall around the machine. “Wait, I think…” Emma pauses, thoughtfully, and grabs the vending machine by the side. She successfully swings it open. The vending machine was a portal to the cafe, the door!
So, one hour later, here I am, cosied up in a corner in Zapangi, sharing with you stories of today and yesterday, and here you are: maybe in a corner in San Francisco, or by your rainy window in Islamabad, or in the Dragon Hill in Seoul. And this moment of sharing and listening matters, because, as we will see, stories matter.
They can paint and recreate places. They have the power to take the body of a place and roar it to life or become a time capsule to witness how one dark place became brighter and colorful. That is exactly what this story will do: retell the story of the “Bridge of Life” in Seoul.
Trigger Words: Taking one’s life/mention of “suicide”
On Saturday, 27th October 2018, my friends and I walked over the Mapo Bridge in Seoul. Han river crossed beneath it. Sun was shining above it. It had a beautiful skyline, too. The omnipresent Autumn trees were peaking at me from a distance.
My friends and I knowingly smiled at each other. Some grabbed colorful chalk, others grabbed balloons and candy. We blew up balloons and tied them on the handrails, and used chalk to write happy messages and draw flowers and everything nice on the floor deck. Two hours later, we welcomed a group of fun and happy individuals, all dressed up for Halloween: unicorns, zombies, policemen, fairies, warriors, and even a Soju bottle. It was a sight to behold.
The run began with 34 participants walking on the bridge, led by Jay and Kat, the main organizers. They began by walking on the bridge and paused when Jay asked them to. He was telling them something important. I sneaked away from my spot at the checkpost to lean in and hear, but all I could catch were the leftovers of the conversation. There were smiles and laughter in the air, and bubbles wafting from a bubble-gun, too. Everyone seemed quite happy, and although the wind was chilly, an inner warmth was felt by all. The 34 people and the camera crew then continued walking or running together on the bridge. And it looked like any marathon, of course, maybe it could be something out of Scooby Doo with all the zombies running. And the bridge seemed like any ordinary bridge in any big city.
But this bridge was like no other I had walked upon. Sure, it was gray and made of metal. It saw herds of cars on a daily basis, and pedestrians too. But unlike any bridge I’ve been to, it carried thousands of stories left untold. And it had witnessed many angels slip off the edge and into a deep slumber, many humans so devoid of hope that they remained afloat in the emerald waters of Han river below.
Now, whenever I write about Korea, my writing becomes rosy because I truly am happy in my home. But I cannot call it home unless I own it completely – and feeling the pain of the locals is a very important part of being home. That is why I am sharing what I am sharing today.
In Korea, 34 people end their lives every day. Maybe stress, maybe depression, or maybe both cause many humans, including those on Mapo, to give up on life. Mapo Bridge has been a suicide point in Seoul. And it has witnessed tearful humans and dry faced humans, each making the same decision. It did not discriminate between young or old, teachers or students, parents or children, strangers or neighbours. It heard their whispers, their very last thoughts. The wind carries their stories, sometimes blowing it through the whole peninsula, sometimes taking it further to lands far away, so the world over hears the news.
Over time, the government took measures to prevent suicides from occurring. They raised the hand railing of the bridge to at least 10 feet high, making it physically difficult to jump. Artists and citizens gathered to inscribe it with quotes about valuing and cherishing one’s life, and the little joys that can be so meaningful. There are SOS phones along the bridge (emergency hotlines) free of cost for anyone to use any time. There are photographs of children embedded in the railing, too, as a reminder of the loved ones we leave behind. It reminded me of the oft-used last-minute statement: “Think of your children.”
As I write this, I think of my loved ones and myself who have suffered from mental health issues and mood disorders and have been in a place where all seemed too dark. If you have ever felt that way, or know someone who has, read on.
While we may want to, we cannot change how people feel with the click of our fingers. But I think we can always become agents of joy by doing small things that make people smile, even if just once. We can sit down with the humans who are feeling blue and listen to their stories. And maybe, we can create for them an alternative tale: one where they feel warm and good and loved.
That is why my friends and I were at the bridge on Saturday. We wanted to offer a different story to all those present. When Kat and Jay stopped them at the bridge, they explained why there were 34 participants – each to honour the lives lost per day. We were there of course, to restore life to the bridge. We spread confetti, gave out hugs in dinosaur costumes, broke a pinata, and shared goody bags. We wanted everyone to have a great time – and sunshine, friends, and Halloween costumes were the perfect recipe for that. It seemed to work: everyone seemed to have a good time.
We wanted to recreate Mapo Bridge by taking the lifeless gray structure and roaring it alive with colourful balloons and confetti and everything nice. We wanted to create a time capsule – the memory of the event – for anyone to go back to when they felt upset. We wanted to breathe hope in a place that had stolen hope from people, and we did. We made a dark place brighter and colorful. Mapo Bridge, a place where many have cried, heard the music of mirth. So, the next time when someone thinks of the Bridge of Life, or Mapo Bridge, they think of a happy story.
Thank you for listening to my story.
Stella Foundation (Kat & Jay), thank you for giving us a chance to tell this story.
If this story reminded you of yourself or a loved one who is struggling, please remember that there are many resources and people who sincerely care – a friend, a neighbor, a parent – who do want to help. We are all here for you. If you have similar experiences of working with mental health, please share them with me.
All the photographs of the marathon belong to Tae-sung Park, the incredible photograph!
Ninja Turtle’s race to the finish line