Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei all have one very particular thing in common. The lights. At sunset, the horizon comes alive like an electronic giant, a mountain of neon and fervor, skyscrapers and taxicabs. The beauty of the lights rival the sunset, chasing it away each night with a circuitry of distraction. And oh how the lights move. They fill the black sky with an eerie glow, as if the whole city were on fire. There is a life that only lives at night, it flows through the city, pumping through the subway tunnels like blood through a vein.
The city can be dark at times. But men fill their nights with lights, as if to admonish the darkness.
In the listlessness of the city, life seems to find its way into the lifeless, like a worm digging through an apple.
I was riding a crowded subway in Seoul one night. Clinging to the passenger bars overhead, I looked around me. People stared past each other, as if nothing existed. Their bodies swayed with each surge and stop of the subway car. Occasionally, they glanced up to check if they had reached their destination. The door slid open at each stop, pouring in a new crowd of weary faces. A monotonous voice announced each stop in three different languages, prompting people to shuffle to the door. By the door was an old Korean man. He looked like he was someone’s grandfather, and wore a thin scowl that said he had been in the city for too long. He looked my way, and we made eye contact. I wondered what burden he carried in his mind.
We reached the main station, and the door slid open as it had at every station. People pushed their way in before taking their place in a seat or grasping a handlebar to balance themselves against the movement of the car. No one seemed to notice that a single white butterfly had fluttered in through the door. I watched with amazement as the fragile creature tumbled past the shoulders and heads, weaving through the cluttered mix of arms and knees, and came to settle on the old man’s shoe. The white butterfly stuck to the shoe stubbornly, slowly batting its wings as if to stretch itself out after a long and turbulent flight. The man leaned forward and looked over his knees, noticing the butterfly. A smile crept over his face as he saw how delicate the creature was, and that it chose to rest on his shoe. He slowly slid his foot back under the seat to harbor it from the other passengers who were stomping their way into the car, oblivious of this small creature that had come in as a stowaway. Still bearing the massive grin, he looked up to see if anyone else had noticed his new companion. I smiled as he saw me watching the butterfly, and as I looked around with him, I saw a girl seated across from him smiling as well. We were all strangers, but without speaking a single word, we spoke with smiles and agreed that this moment was good. In the bleakness of the ordinary, life had struggled through the tunnels and doors and found us, buried deep below the earth and steel, and brought light and vigor to our day.
The butterfly rested on the old man’s foot, motionless until we reached another stop. The man saw that it was his stop, and gently stood. He carefully walked to the door, keeping his leg stiff to not bother the unblemished creature. He walked out. Everyone else continued staring at the walls, withdrawn into their thoughts. But those of us who saw the butterfly in that moment had felt the faint touch of life within the lifeless, and for those mere minutes, our hearts tingled with an electricity that flowed through the city.
People tell me that the city is an easy place to get lost, where you drown in the sea of faces. But sometimes, it is only deep within this city that you can be found, and brought back to life.