The Singular Joy of Being Invisible

Inwangsan Route

On strange streets, far far away, no one can see you at all.

My university campus was crawling with causes and vigorous young people supporting or decrying them, as most university campuses are. It was impossible to walk anywhere between St. George and Bay without being accosted by earnestness, without being molested by ideology. Everywhere there were plights to be consternated over, things to be enraged at, passions to fill your heart and empty your wallet.

Have you heard about the oil sands, and what various parties want to do to them? Did you know that a politician once said a thing? How about those abortions, and the current number of them, which was not very satisfying? I couldn’t emerge from a subway station without leaflets appearing in my hand as though through sorcery—eager, deeply-feeling youths who didn’t shave would somehow slip their pamphlets and brochures into my unwilling grasp at a rate that astounded my senses and resistance.  Periodically they would invade classes, make heart-felt announcements to lecture halls full of people, their voices quavering with yearning, with emotion, with fire. Cartoon hearts pumped ludicrously in their chests, bounded out through their rib cages and their fashionable cardigans, exploded outward for everyone to see.

As a commuter the number of things I gave a shit about was perilously low. Rush-hour buses and subways drained absolutely all ability I had to care about much of anything, and being 18 siphoned off any remaining ardour. I had assignments and readings and plans to succeed, and combined with two hours of daily rides through busy underground public transit, I simply didn’t have it in me to care. My apathy was deep and oceanic and incomprehensible to the impassioned philanthropists, to the fledgling Marxists and the proto-demagogues and the neophyte neocons. There was a black hole where my fervour organ should have been, and to them I seemed like an abomination from a far-off dimension, betentacled and terrifying and outside of the realm of understanding. They looked upon me and despaired, as I did to them.

I dreamt of donning a great silvery cloak, of casting myself invisible, of evading these encounters completely. The iciness of my insouciance clashed against fiery zeal, and I could feel wind and flames every time I aimed my dead-eyed, zestless gaze upon a placard or sandwich board or poster or screaming face-hole. I grew weary of their judgment, of being seen as a monster for aiming my meagre amount of capital and knowledge towards learning and occasional servings of beer. Wasn’t there somewhere I could go where everyone would just assume me incapable of caring, would pass me by? Was there somewhere I could live where my apathy was assumed, and where I would never have to take and immediately discard a carefully folded informational pamphlet informing me on the various horrors befalling all of the woodland creatures?

I remember the first time I passed through a mall in Korea, slipping by the numerous staffers tasked with corralling the populace into stores and information booths, with gaining awareness for products and charities. I steeled myself, as I often did, prepared to clench my mouth into a fist of intransigence, readied my expression to one that resembled a sour pickle. I outstretched my hand, preparing for the glossy paper to be slipped into it, for my fingers to tense and crush it and bring it to my teeth to rend the fibres apart in an oral shredder. I salivated, preparing to mulch.

An error, a delay. The dead-eyed young woman in white stiletto boots charged with hawking cell phones ignored me. Music blared around her and she swayed languidly around an array of iPhones and Samsungs, coupons and advertisements betwixt her talons. With every sweep of her gaze, her eyes slipped over my humanity, registering my volume as negative space, moved on in search of the next warm body.

I stopped fully, enraptured by this insane and intoxicating phenomenon. I stepped backwards, watching her movements carefully. Strangers passed between us, accepting her advertisements and her interventions on behalf of commerce. But she never really acknowledged my existence. She knew I was there, in some abstract sense, but she couldn’t process me, couldn’t fathom trying to engage me. In the following days and years, all the people out on the street soliciting solicited all but me.

The reasons were myriad: my then lack of Korean, my utter foreignness, the unlikelihood that I was in the market to buy a new Galaxy or vote for Park Geunhye. Accosting me with information or inviting me with great deals could, after all, lead to the horror of an English-language interaction, and no one forced to stand in a cold alley and prattle on about cellphone cases deserved that kind of sadistic punishment.

The logic, to me, was moot: all I cared for was that I was functionally invisible. I wasn’t a blip on any radar, I wasn’t a heat signal, I attracted no one’s attention.

A world around me exploded into view. I rushed through crowded shops and markets, bolted up escalators and in and out of subway stations. All along bar streets, hawkers and touts screamed at passersby, stalked young couples, handed cards and glossy A4 pages at everyone, everyone, everyone. “Jagerbombs!” they screamed, directly into your cochlea. Except me. I glided through these streets as though on a gilded cloud, a trusty low-flying cumulonimbus that made it so I never touched the wretched, business card-fettered ground.

Everywhere I went I was gloriously, blissfully ignored, sometimes even avoided. Once or twice, as though to test the strength of the magical barriers currently haloing around me in an ecstatic aura, I approached a person handing out leaflets and stared them in the eye. I stretched out my open hand, palm trembling and ready, face accepting and hopeful. He was handing out fliers for a night club, a smear of acid green text dripping across the front. My approach was a physical rupture in his psyche, a walking streak of cognitive dissonance, a shadow across his retina. With reluctance he handed me a flier, and in his eyes I saw madness, like I was from beyond the dark side of the universe.

I have never really read a flier or a pamphlet, have never done anything with them other than had to find a nearby trashbin to remove them from my person. In moving across the planet, my magnetic polarity inverted—suddenly it became impossible for me to even accept papers from strangers, even if I wanted them. I was invisible, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

4 thoughts on “The Singular Joy of Being Invisible

  1. Interesting observation and oddly not the same as my experience in Japan. Here I am awkwardly visible and everything is hoisted on me. Usually with no english at all. It is assumed that I know Japanese even though my skill is mediocre at best. It’s in my hometown that I am invisible. I liked it. I want to be invisible again. Thanks for sharing!

  2. At my university there was a daily battery of students lined up the road to school trying to get you to sign up for things. When I walked by it was usually like, attack – attack – attack – skip – attack…

    Occasionally somebody did try to recruit me, even pushing their stuff in Japanese. I liked to reward their egalitarianism by completely ignoring them.

    • The few times I was ever approached by someone in the street in Korea trying to sell me something entirely in Korean, I was touched. I loved that they respected me, thought it was worth a shot, assumed I might speak Korean, and went for it. I think immediately said no thanks and sauntered away, because I don’t want anymore cell phones.

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