Bicycling on Haunted Streets

“I’ve also come to believe that our streets are haunted by ghosts as well through a sort of past and present collective trauma that remains unresolved.”
bike-haunted.jpg

“I’ve also come to believe that our streets are haunted by ghosts as well through a sort of past and present collective trauma that remains unresolved.”

Photo by Xing Wang/Unplash

The haunting of my family 

I know now that a ghost haunted my family’s dinner table.
Growing up, my mom prepared sumptuous Korean meals
and in response, my siblings and I told her daily that the
meal was masisseoyo (맛있어요). But otherwise, silence
ruled our meals as if an invisible dinner guest bound our tongues.
Or perhaps instead the silence provided for a vacuum that the
ghost filled. Perhaps it was a bit of both. As a result, I have only
bits and scraps of the life stories of my parents and family. This
silence is apparently not uncommon in many immigrant Korean
families as Grace Cho writes in Haunting the Korean Diaspora:

The second [Korean] generation, however,
having grown up in the United States with neither their
parents’ storytelling nor a public discourse about the
Korean War, told a collective oral history in which they
felt affected by some inarticulate presence that had left
its imprint on what seemed to be their normal everyday
lives. One man said that because of his parents’
refusal to talk about their life experiences, their past
acted on his present. “For me,” he said, “it is not the
past. It carries forward into my life. It carries forward
into my sisters’ lives... as a hole.” This experience of
the children of Korean War survivors—having been
haunted by silences that take the form of an “unhappy
wind,” “a hole,” or some other intangible or invisible
force – reflects the notion that an unresolved trauma in
unconsciously passed from one generation to the next.

But now, I am beginning to understand this ghost as a sort of
han (한), a Korean word that is most commonly understood
as collective transgenerational emotion and experience of
unresolved trauma and oppression.

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Haunted streets 

I’ve also come to believe that our streets are haunted by ghosts
as well through a sort of past and present collective trauma
that remains unresolved. That might appear to be an extreme
statement except when you consider the body toll. Since 1899,
more than 3.6 million people in the United States have died
from car crashes, which is greater than the approximate 1.2
million American soldiers who have died in all American wars.
We understand this collective trauma from our fear of the
streets, which almost feels instinctual, but rather it’s learned
and inherited trauma. Enrique Peñalosa observes, “If we tell any
3-year-old child who is barely learning to speak in any city in
the world today, ‘Watch out, a car,’ the child will jump in fright,
and with a very good reason, because there are more than 10,000
children who are killed by cars every year in the world.” [1]

I find it an odd sensation to walk down the middle of
a street usually packed with cars that is closed off to traffic for a
special event. I always feel a simultaneous sense of unburdened
freedom that begins to imagine what streets could be like but
also a guilty uncomfortable feeling of transgressing onto a space
I’m not really supposed to be in. These ghosts act as a burden, a
weight that we can feel. One common way to name our haunting
have been ghost bikes, which are often erected to memorialize
cyclists who have fallen to motor vehicular violence and to
remind us all that cyclists deserve safe travel.

To give a sense of the prevalence of ghosts, Figure
1 is a screenshot from 2011 of the old CrashStat map from
Transportation Alternatives of pedestrian and bicyclists fatalities
and injuries from car crashes 1995–2009 in Midtown
Manhattan.

The ghosts of car-based trauma haunt every street and
corner. We live with past and present trauma in our streets and
often have difficulties talking about it as it is normalized into
everyday life as blameless forgettable “accidents.” But we never
truly forget because the damage is written onto our bodies and
inscribed into our souls as fear.

Han

What is han?[2] As mentioned before, han is an indigenous Korean
word that describes the collective feelings and experiences of
transgenerational trauma. Han is an energy, a force. As such,
han facilitates positive or negative energies. In one way, han
can be channeled into positive social action and collective
movements for justice to resolve oppression. But conversely,
han can be channeled as a highly destructive force because of
the frustration and desire for revenge that can emerge when a
people experience oppression that they do not have the power
to resolve. Han can be experienced on personal and collective
levels but is rooted at the systematic and structural. However,
han has another meaning. The second meaning of han is resolved
collective love, which sits in complementary relationship with
the other meaning of unresolved collective pain. Thus to resolve
collective oppression and trauma, we need to move collectively
toward enacted humanity, empathy and love.

Screenshot of CrashStat: Pedestrian & Cyclist Deaths and Injuries in Midtown NYC from 1995-2009. (Source: Transportation Alternatives, 2011)

The DMZ 

To be Korean also means that we are incomplete, as conflict
with North Korea lies in close proximity across a short DMZ
that separates us South Koreans from our families in the North.
Popular in Korea are the stories of modern-day reunions of
family members who had not seen each over several decades.
Not long ago, my uncle was reunited for a short meeting with
his brother after not seeing him in over 40 years. The story of my
hal-meo-ni (할머니 or grandma) haunts me as she was visiting
family in North Korea when the DMZ went up and she was stuck
on the wrong side. She ended up paying a smuggler to take her on
a harrowing trip in a fishing boat along the seacoast back to her
home in South Korea. In an alternate reality, I could have been
North Korean. Not only are we incomplete, but our North Korea
is the shadow part of us but it is also the part that we fear. Our
divided country keeps the ghosts alive and wounds open.

Incomplete streets

We live in incomplete streets. Many of us drive and a few of us
don’t. But because of the way we have structured our society, we
are all dependent in some degree or another on motor vehicles.
For many people, this means that basic needs of daily travel
can only be met by the car because our streets and systems of
travel have been structured and designed to privilege the car. For
others, they may not commute by car, but nearly all of our basic
foods and goods are transported by motor vehicles. We are all
complicit in car culture and its violence.

At the same time, we all get out of our cars at some
point and move as pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, wheelchair
users and so on. We are all multi-modal. We are multiple and
we are simultaneously both the oppressor and the oppressed in
our streets. We embody fear of the street yet we are responsible
ourselves for that fear. Maintaining the false divide between
drivers and non-drivers feeds the ghosts that keep our streets
incomplete. The divide makes it easy for many to blame the
victims of car violence rather than look at how we structure our
streets. Marginalized bodies also bear the disproportionate brunt
of the trauma and pain from incomplete streets.

The first step

About a year and a half ago, Jennifer and I were visiting my
parents in L.A. Early in my visit, my mom asked us urgently if we
would want to see a new Korean film called Ode to My Father.

Sensing this was immensely important to my mom,
we went to the movie in Koreatown with my parents who cried
through much of the movie. This movie was about the dislocation,
separation of families, and trauma experienced by Koreans
during the Korean War where about 10 percent of the population (or 3
million people) died. Afterward, back at home, we spoke with
my parents about the movie. My mom plainly said that the movie
was their story. My dad, who had rarely if ever spoken about his
life in Korea, opened up for the first time about what happened to
him. He was a little boy when the war started and he remembered
running in the forest, barely dodging the North Korean army. His
father and brother were captured and endured forced hard labor
for some time until they were released. Even though forced to
work for the North Koreans, my dad’s family was stigmatized
as a result. It was a time of deep poverty and hunger for both
my dad and mom’s families. This was the first time I ever heard
my parents begin to name the ghosts of han that haunted us.
The first step to resolving han is to name our ghosts and our
collective pain.

The second step 

“Wait, you’re Oriental? But you talk like the rest of us!” exclaimed
the print shop owner over the phone.

I had been chatting with this guy for a few minutes
about a newsletter we wanted to print and had just given him
my name as the person to call back for the estimate. With one
hand tensely gripping the phone and my other hand cradling my
head to stop from screaming, I calmly replied, “Well, I grew up in
California and learned English just like everyone else.”

Doubling down, he replied, “But you don’t have
problems with your Rs and your Ls.”

Somehow I managed to laugh it off on the phone and
get off the phone as soon as possible. I went over to my coworkers,
three white women named Alice, Lucy, and Olga to tell them this
amusing anecdote even though I was reeling inside. Instead of
laughing, they were appalled and told me in no uncertain terms
that we should not give him our business. I tried to say it was
OK, but they insisted. Their reaction stunned me in many
ways. This was hardly the first time something like this had ever
happened to me, but up to this moment, every time I had tried to
express my pain to white people, I was told it wasn’t that big of a
deal. I had grown accustomed to making light of such events and
making jokes out of them as a way to tell these stories to whites
without enduring a clear rejection of my pain and to fulfill a role
of assuaging white discomfort even as I bled inside. But this time
was different, as Alice, Lucy, and Olga heard, recognized and
validated my experience of pain. I felt loved.

The second step to resolving han is to have our
communities acknowledge and validate our oppressions.
We can name many of our oppressions (such as Black Lives Matter or
Crash not Accident), but we often fight over and protest the lack
of the basic recognition of collective wrongs and trauma.

To conclude my story, ironically, when we met with
another print shop guy, he had trouble with my name (“Do”
pronounced like “doe”) to which he replied, “Well, in English,
we pronounce your name as ‘doo.’” I started to wonder if there
was something wrong with all the old white print shop guys in
Washington, D.C.

The third step 

In 2012, when I first started biking to midtown Manhattan from
Queens, I encountered a dilemma that basically, there was no
easy, legal way to get to 2nd Avenue on a bike. The fastest, most direct
way to get to 2nd Avenue is to cut underneath the Queensboro Bridge
on 1st Avenue and head up on 59th Street and hook up with 2nd Avenue.
The problem for cyclists however is that we have to ride on the
sidewalk on 1st Avenue as it was a one-way in the opposite direction,
and then ride against traffic on 59th Street for about half a block.
You can see this in a YouTube video [3] from my bike commute in
2012 in this stretch. As seen in Figure 2, the alternatives were to
ride a long way around (Route 3) or to go a bit less out of your
way (Route 2) but encounter dangerous traffic conditions on this
stretch of 2nd Avenue where cars merge onto the Queensboro Bridge.
Like many cyclists, I chose to go the easiest and quickest Route
1 because I could safely and slowly get across on the sidewalk
and there was often little oncoming traffic on the part of 59th Street
where I would bike the wrong way. It wasn’t legal, but it wasn’t
unsafe either as you can see in the video.

Three options to bike from the Queensboro Bridge to 2nd Avenue towards downtown. 

Riding on the sidewalk and going a bit the wrong way
on the street was something I always felt bad and guilty about
even as it was safe. There was always a part of me that lived in
the fear that the police could at any time issue me summonses
and tickets. I wasn’t a bad person as I was making the best choice
given bad choices, but I could at any moment be marked as a
bad person by the police. At the very least, I was certainly often
judged as a bad person by pedestrians and drivers. I can’t even
imagine what it must feel like to be a food delivery cyclist making
a countless number of these kinds of decisions every day while
physically exhausted and trying to get food delivered quickly.
But then in 2013, the city fixed the problem for cyclists
by putting in a connecting bike lane on 1st Ave and a contra-
flow bike lane on second half of 59th Street. The first time I rode the
connecting bike lanes to 2nd Avenue, it felt like a minor miracle, my
feelings of badness and guilt evaporated. This is the third step in
resolving han: The community must change structure to resolve
collective pain. Han cannot be resolved by individual action (like
wearing a helmet) or simply recognizing the systematic problems.
Not only did the city name and acknowledge our pain, but the city
altered the actual structure of the street to resolve the collective
problem. You can see this in a YouTube video [4] I took in 2016 of the
connecting infrastructure.

Essentially, one day I was doing something illegal albeit
harmless and safe, and then the next day, my illegal behavior
was codified into legal behavior through a small but meaningful
change in infrastructure. This was an act of love by the city
towards the cyclists in pain. Han is resolved only through love.
This also speaks to the idea that legality is often more about
power than it is about preventing harm.

This story also speaks to the power of privilege to resolve
han. While a number of working cyclists like the immigrant food
delivery workers I have written about have benefited from this
bike infrastructure, the process to do so was driven by the more
privileged cyclists who commute into midtown Manhattan
for white-collar jobs (or academia in my case) on this route.
Historically, communities of color have often been ignored
when they have asked for street safety improvements. In one
case I read about in Melissa Checker’s Polluted Promises, a city
built a highway right in between two black communities. The
communities asked for a safe way to cross the highway with a
crosswalk and a signal light. Instead the city put in guardrails.
The walls that divide and the lack of power to resolve the anguish
of han are key features in how han is experienced and traverses
generations.

Freeing the ghost 

“I have bad news. Your baby has no heartbeat on the ultrasound,”
the doctor solemnly pronounced. Jennifer’s sharp gasps and sobs
violently pierced my body stunned by disbelief. That same day,
my dad went into surgery to remove a life-threatening tumor
in his stomach. A few hours after we found out about our lost
baby, my sister called to happily tell me about the tremendously
successful surgery with my dad in stable recovery. I choked and
sobbed out the news about my dead son and did so again when
she put my mom on the phone. My mom responded resignedly,
“One good thing, one bad thing.” I wonder if this response is a
side effect from our collective Korean han. We would tell my dad
a few days later into his recovery and in his devastation at the
news, he sobbed and asked why God would spare his life and
not that of our baby boy. I tried to assuage him that his health was
not connected to the death of my child, but the tears still fell and
we all still struggle with feelings of shame and guilt that have no
rational basis. Perhaps this is also a residue of han, how easily we
can blame ourselves for circumstances beyond our control. All
Jennifer and I can do is to hold each other tightly and whisper
that we’ll get through this together.

About 36 hours later, after an induced labor, Jennifer
gave birth to our stillborn boy of 20 weeks into the pregnancy. We
named him Rohan, a Sanskrit name, which means “ascending”
and also “healing.” We had been thinking about boy names with
the syllable of han and Rohan just stuck with us. It also sounds
like “rowan”, which is another common name for mountain-ash,
a tree that often shows up in mythology as a symbol of protection.
As sweet, tiny Rohan lay still in Jennifer’s arms and then mine
after the delivery, I felt the echoes of grief from my ancestors
before me in a brutal Japanese colonial occupation that sought to
erase Korean language and culture, the genocide experienced in
the Korean war, and the division of a country (and thus countless
families) by more powerful foreign countries. Our family has
struggled in silence about these traumas and griefs that haunt
us and many others of the Korean diaspora. Zora Neale Hurston
once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say
you enjoyed it.” I think this applies not only to the physical body,
but that there can be a kind of murder of your soul through silent
suffering (or being forcibly silenced). I write about my personal
and our collective grief and trauma as act of love. In this way, I
am naming the ghost of Rohan, not so that he’ll haunt me, but so
that I can set his ghost free as never forgotten and always loved.

Riding into my han

When I bike to the Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan from
where I live in Queens, I have to cross and climb the Queensboro
Bridge. This climb involves something like 130 feet within a half-
mile and on hot muggy summer days, I’m breathing and sweating
hard as I pedal. With every leg pump, the N subway train thunders
along parallel to me for a moment before disappearing under the
river. With each pedal, the East River flows quietly below and
while the skyscrapers of Manhattan loom ahead. With each
revolution, I’m breathing hard from both East River air on my
right and the exhaust of the idling car traffic to my left depending
on which way the wind blows. As I struggle and reach the crest
of the bridge, I wipe aside the salty streams pouring down my
face as my legs burn with something that belongs in the space
between pain and joy.

This essay is excerpted from Bikequity: Money, Class, & Bicycling, featuring the work of 16 authors and artists, edited by Elly Blue. Published with permission of Microcosm Publishing, microcosm.pub/bikequity

Footnotes:

1 Peñalosa, Enrique, “Why buses represent democracy in action” (TED Talk, 2013)

2 Chang-Hee Son. Haan of minjung theology and han of han philosophy (University Press of America, 2000).

www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSrH0-jvxwY

youtube.com/watch?v=vSrNtXTkeaw