Reviews & Articles
谷底 ∣ Down and Down (a Hong Kong observation on suicide)
at 12:05pm on 18th July 2016
Graffiti, Sai Ying Pun, 2016. Photo: John Batten.
(Please scroll down for English version.)
Down and down
The ‘do not cross’ police line tape, green tarpaulin on the road, two cops standing nearby, and as I walked closer they both looked high into the sky towards the shiny building’s roofline.
In my years living in Hong Kong I had never seen this scene. “Fallen from height,” is probably the official police terminology for a suicide like this. When I asked the building’s security guard what happened, “it’s only an accident” was the too quick reply.
“Only.” That word is too unfeeling, too dismissive; too final.
Later that night, I passed the spot again. A few bricks marked the exact place of landing. There were drying dribbles of water. The ground had a sprinkling of rice and makeshift cardboard barriers had been erected on the roadside fence so, I suppose, anyone inside the building’s pristine lobby did not see the police, ambulance, the arrival of family, incense lit, sadness, despair, and tears.
My other witness at the scene late that night was a small rat edging itself along the road’s gutter; I hopefully imagined it was only interested in the stray grains of rice. It scurried away with my approaching steps.
Next day, all traces of the tragedy and the despair of the man who jumped, a cleaner in the building, had disappeared.
In that same week, I had been reading Korean writer Han Kang award winning’s novel The Vegetarian. It is the story of a quiet, insular young married woman, Yeong-hye, who suddenly announces that she will no longer eat meat. Comprising three sections, the novel tracks Yeong-hye’s awful spiral into psychosis from the point-of-view of her husband, brother-in-law and sister. These individual narratives introduce the social interactions and thoughts that each has and previously felt for Yeong-hye. Through these second-hand observations, Yeong-hye’s mental state is a not-quite-explainable mystery for much of the novel.
Asked why she refused to eat meat, Yeong-hye simply says, “I had a dream.” Yeong-hye’s lucidity and mental balance wavers through interactions with her family and doctors, and the author skillfully only allows the reader a glimpse of Yeong-hye’s mind with a brief recall from her dreams (also italicized in the book): “…But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood….”
Young-hye’s story has many heart-wrenching moments and further unfolds when her sister, In-hye, visits her in the psychiatric hospital where she is being treated to find her doing a headstand. Asked to explain, Yeong-hye simply says she is a tree whose roots sprout from her hands and head. As a vegetarian, she hurts no animal - and as a tree she harms nothing living at all. She refuses to eat, wanting only water: her vegetarianism had critically become a refusal to stay alive.
Yeong-hye is clinically assessed by the hospital doctor as suffering from anorexia nervosa. In-hye, amidst great doubts about Young-hye being force-fed, remembers the recent and distant past and decisions that lead to her sister being in hospital. Would the outcome be different? We are near the crux of the story as In-Hye recalls her sister as a small girl and their childhood, and how Yeong-hye, as the middle sibling, bore the brunt of their father’s terrible anger and violence. Even then, her sister was in despair: she remembered Yeong-hye wanting to run away from home, to run away from it all.
This will be familiar territory for anyone that has suffered similar depression or supported a friend or relative whose life has reached such despair to spin out of control, often with the use of drugs, alcohol or self-violent behaviour.
Adding a layer of understanding to The Vegetarian and coinciding with Father’s Day, I read a survey (Thomson Reuters Datastream, 2013) that South Korean fathers spent an average of five minutes playing and five minutes physically caring for their children every day. In comparison, German fathers spent nearly 40 minutes and American fathers spent nearly 80 minutes a day playing and physically caring for their children.
“Only” ten minutes a day! How do we compare?
This article was first published in Ming Pao Weekly, 2 July 2016.