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Riding with the King of the Korean Road

December 11, 2011 |  3:15 am

REPORTING FROM BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA -– I met Jang Ji-young, one of the planet’s most extraordinary cabdrivers, at the train station of this coastal city.

My traveling companion, who sat in the front seat, noticed something different about the 59-year-old Korean right away –- not his easy laugh or the fact that he spoke a little English and made friendly eye contact with his passengers in the rear-view mirror.

Not any of that. Jang accelerated and stopped his taxi with his left hand, using a device on the side of the steering wheel -– going forward with a roll of the wrist, pulling back to apply the brakes.

The man who was delivering us to a Buddhist temple in the mountains high above town has been physically disabled since age 2, when he was struck by a terrible fever.

But that has never stopped him from being an outgoing and fearless traveler of the world.

For two years he has driven his taxi all across this nation, which is about the size of Kentucky, 40,000 square miles in all. And Jang -– smiling as he rhythmically moves and breaks his cab with his left hand -– has probably driven most of them.

He told us proudly that he’s 500 of 30,000 cab drivers in this town are physically disabled. Three of South Korea’s main cities, including the capital, Seoul, employ physically disadvantaged cabdrivers -- men and women who no longer have the use of a leg or an arm -– providing them with the motorcycle-like throttle device that enables them to go about their merry ways.

Jang doesn’t have the use of his right leg, which is shriveled and spindly beneath his thick leather brace. He limps on a cane when he’s not behind the wheel. But when he’s in the driver’s seat of his taxi, he’s just like everybody else.

And that makes Jang Ji-young proud.

He’s fought hard to take his place in society. When he was a boy, to show his mettle, Jang dragged himself to school by leaning on a long stick, like a shepherd’s staff. He just wanted to be like the other kids, he explained.

But that wasn’t possible in a nation that has long treated the disabled like damaged goods. Jang got married and raised a son, now in graduate school, doing what he could. He sold gold and fine jewelry. But the 1997 Asian financial crisis ended that endeavor.

“I have to work,” he said. “I have a family.”

He started driving a taxi a few years ago. He’s pleased that the government makes it possible for people like him to do jobs that most customers assume must be done by the able-bodied. "I got in this taxi," he said, "and I never looked back."

But people still treat him differently -– he can’t help that. Finicky customers will bend over backward to apologize once they learn that Jang is disabled, though he doesn’t make a point of telling anyone, unless they ask.

Once, he drove three young teenagers to a wealthy area of Busan. They directed him to a deserted area and ordered him to stop. Jang realized too late what was up, and suddenly feared that the youths might beat and rob him.

Instead, they bolted out the door and ran as fast as they could.

Jang sat in his idling cab, doors ajar, and watched them go. He had lost a fare, but suddenly he couldn’t stop laughing. “I called out to them ‘You don’t have to run! I’m physically disabled! I can’t chase you! You can walk.' ”

Inside his cab, Jang is King of the Korean Road. The four wheels provide him with a mobility he could never achieve with his cane or walker. He described how the travel bug bit hard and how he once went to the United States and was flabbergasted by the size of the place.

“I went to the Grand Canyon,” he said. "When I got to the rim, I just screamed out. I couldn’t help myself.” He also went to Las Vegas (and lost), pumping $100 in quarters into the slot machines.

As he drove along, eyes on the road, Jang began naming all the towns and cities where he’d driven his cab across South Korea. As he spoke, I was reminded of that song “I’ve Been Everywhere” done by Hank Snow and later Johnny Cash. I studied Jang’s face and thought of the wonderful reciting of so many colorful place names:

I've been to Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana, Monterey, Faraday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa, Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa, Tennessee to Chicopee, Spirit Lake, Grand Lake, Devils Lake, Crater Lake, for Pete's sake.

When we got to the temple, Jang eased his taxi through the crowd of worshipers walking up the narrow mountain road.

We paid Jang, bid our quick goodbyes and then jumped out to grab our bags from the truck. That’s when we noticed another extraordinary thing about Jang Ji-young.

Silently, he had opened the driver’s door, slid out his cane and came struggling toward us, limping heavily on his badly shriveled right leg. And then, smiling into my eyes, Jang took my hand and squeezed it hard. Suddenly, I was choked with emotion.

I stood on that mountain road for a bit, waving once, and watched the taxi disappear down the winding road, happy to have shared a few miles with one of the ablest cabdrivers on the planet.

See you down the road, Jang Ji-young.

[I’ve been to] Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado, Larimore, Admore, Haverstraw, Chatanika, Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika, Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City, Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity.


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Photo: Cabdriver Jang Ji-young. Credit: Matt Douma / For The Times