Archive for May, 2008

Wheels Up…

THE NEXT TIME I POST it will be from Seoul, South Korea. Apologies to you faithful readers for the lack of updates and details, but I’ve been running non-stop trying to pull my travel plans together and roll out. Early tomorrow morning I depart from Chicago O’hare, then I hop through Seattle and jet onward to Incheon International. It’s a new chapter for TDT, and I hope you all will enjoy coming along.

Safe travels.

A Quick Note

Things are pretty frenzied on my end lately, as I scramble to get my life in order before leaving the country — a move which I will post about properly as soon as I get a moment to breathe. In the meantime, thanks for putting up with yet another delay. And I swear, TDT will be daily someday.

Safe travels.

This Week’s Wandering News

  • I’ll lay it out plain: South Korea is pretty touchy when it comes to criticism from outsiders, and the flak the nation has caught recently over such oddball cultural phenomena as the mad cow scare and the Wonder Girls has made for some heated debate in the blogosphere. But criticism seems to be better taken when it is tempered with praise. Expat blogger Roboseyo, who has been living in the country since 2003, posts an insightful and sensitive piece, “The Magic Wand: Five Things I’d Change About Korea” that presents a balanced view of South Korean society’s thrills and ills — via ZenKimchi.
  • For frequent flyers, there is a sea of often conflicting and useless advice on how to avoid jetlag, but the BBC reported this week on a fresh take that seems to make sense — if you can stand starving yourself. According to recent study, going without food on your flight resets your circadian clock and can help you adjust to your new time zone more quickly.
  • Chinese wedding photographer Wang Qiang never planned on capturing a tragedy when he went to a shoot on May 12, but by the end of the session the French missionary church he was using as a background was a pile of rubble. New York Times Blog “The Lede” posts on his stunning perspective of the quake in “Disaster Caught in a Wedding Lens“.
  • It is perhaps the essence of travel blogging: sharing experiences so that others can roam vicariously. Nerd’s Eye View hosts the The Carnival of Cities, with writers taking us on a virtual tour from Portland to Nanjing and everywhere in between.
  • And on the gear front, Rapha Cycling is coming out with some really cool stuff for those who choose to roam on two wheels. Cool Hunting’s review of the 11-liter Fixed Backpack is really tempting me to buy one — with waterproof zippers and a snug pouch for your laptop, it looks like a travel writer’s dream.

And So We Ramble Far From Home

photo by shenxy

AS I READ TODAY about a disturbing bit of news relating to the Sichuan quake, my eyes drifted over to an advert for a new book titled The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. This quickly changed my mood from one of baffled disgust (which I can save for another post) to calm curiosity.

I became even more excited when I noticed that the book was penned by travel writer and journalist Simon Winchester, who wrote a book a while back with a similarly unwieldy title that had resonated with me nonetheless. This new release, I found out, is a biography of famed China scholar Joseph Needham, who invested himself so deeply in the cultural history of the country that he produced 24 volumes and 15,000 pages trying to answer a single question: Why did the West eclipse China?

Still intrigued, I sought out a review on the book (which was released just this month) and came across a piece on Salon by Andrew Leonard, who appears to be a bit of China-head himself. In describing the feeling of kinship he feels with Needham, Leonard pointedly fleshes out the emotions felt by the lot of travelers and expats who find themselves drawn to places far and foreign:

I feel a kinship across the decades with Dr. Needham. I believe I can imagine exactly what it was like for the esteemed biochemist to disembark from “a battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain” in Chongqing in March 1943, and feel instantly, passionately overwhelmed by a culture equal parts alien and entrancing. I believe all the outsiders who have become fascinated with China can relate. There’s a brilliance to the first part of the title of Winchester’s biography — “The Man Who Loved China” (let’s ignore for now the ungainly subtitle, “The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom”) — because even as it implies that this one man may have loved the civilization to an extent greater than the vast majority of the rest of us, the words still strike a chord with anyone who has been bitten by the Asia bug. We all savor that taste — Needham just took it to the next level.

Though I’m wary of the wide brush Leonard uses in the phrase, “the Asia bug,” in a way I can identify with what he’s getting at. People fall in love with foreign nations all over the globe, but the relationships that travelers build with countries on the Asian continent are perhaps all the more vexing and intriguing because it is a region that continues to be widely misunderstood. By that token I can describe my own affinity for Korea, as I am drawn to the nation as much for its endearing qualities as for those which leave me bewildered.

Leonard criticizes Winchester a bit for skirting around Needham’s grand question and instead focusing on the doctor’s patchwork personality. (Needham was “‘an accordion player, and a chain-smoking churchgoer’ and a supporter of gay rights who was a participant in an ‘open’ marriage that allowed him to carry on a wife-approved decades-long affair with the love of his life, a Chinese woman named Lu Gwei-djen,” Leonard says). Though I’ve yet to read the book, I feel that criticism may be missing the point.

Those of us who choose to steep ourselves in cultures foreign to our own do so to outwardly answer questions about our adopted country as much as to simply solve why we are so drawn in the first place. In both cases, the thing we seek is often nebulous — which may be one reason why Needham never really “unlocked” China, as Leonard points out. But my hope is that Winchester’s illustration of the doctor will touch a bit more on the heart of this latter question, and on the mysterious qualities in people that lead them to ramble far from home.

Left Unsaid

A LOST LETTER IS A kind of tragedy. It is a story never told, words and thoughts left unsaid. The other day, as I picked through my piles of stored papers and files in a last-ditch effort to get organized before leaving the country, I came across what appeared to be an empty envelope. But just as I prepared to flick it to the recycle bin, I noticed a folded piece of paper closed inside — a page cut from a magazine.

The article was from my Aunt D, who had sent it with a card sometime last year, though I hadn’t noticed. It was a piece by Sung J. Woo for the ‘Lives’ section of the New York Times magazine. A Korean-American who immigrated with his family when he was very young, Woo writes about the conversations he never started with his father; letters lost in the distance between each other.

Read “Like Father?” at NYT.

U.S. Pushes Japan to Expand Defense Budget (Hello, Military Industrial Complex?)

THE RECENT PUSH FROM U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer for Japan to “consider the benefits of increasing its own defense spending” should be viewed as highly suspect. His suggestion that the nation — whose military forces were restricted to a self-defense role following WWII — invest in new fighter jets with equipment that is compatible with U.S. weapons systems should draw even more scrutiny.

Schieffer, who was an investment buddy with George W. back in 1989 when they and ‘Rusty’ Rose bought the Texas Rangers Baseball Club (ref. State Dept), at best seems more interested in the U.S. defense department’s bottom line rather than in respecting a 1960 agreement which states that both nations will provide mutual support in the event of attack. At worst, Schieffer seems to be looking out for the interests of U.S. weapons manufacturers.

His supposed reasoning? That the Asian nations surrounding Japan are boosting their defense spending. According to the AP article linked above, Schieffer said that China has increased military expenditures by an average of 14.2 percent annually in the last 10 years, while South Korea’s defense budget has grown 73 percent. And that may well be true, but those numbers are out of context. China itself has grown exponentially over the past decade, and South Korea is taking over military operational control from the U.S. in 2012.

If the U.S. is truly interested in Japan bearing more of a load in its own defense, then it needs to consider scaling back its own military presence in the country — a move which many have been calling for in the wake of a sexual abuse case involving a US Marine, only the latest installment in a string of embarrassments. An even better move would be to advocate that all nations in the region curb military spending, taking a proactive approach to averting future tense situations.

This Week’s Wandering News

  • Starting out on the lighter side, People magazine made a terrific racial blunder last week when it featured South Korean pop star Rain and then accompanied the piece with a photo of actor Karl Yune — who also happens to be Asian. Oops. (via Lao-Ocean)
  • Allison Arieff asks why school buildings tend to resemble drab, prison-like institutions on the New York Times By Design blog, and talks about Waldkindergartens: forward-thinking schools in Germany that have replaced the classroom with the forest.
  • Bombings in the ancient Indian city of Jaipur left 63 dead on Tuesday, and caused the local government to enforce a curfew. The Guardian reports that a little-known terrorist group called the Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility, and apparently had the goal of disrupting the local tourism industry.
  • Mark Massara, a pioneer of surfer environmentalism and a defender of California’s coastline, speaks with the New York Times in this watch-worthy video piece, “Planet Us: The Coastal Warrior“.
  • The SF Chronicle reports that protesters donning black hoods and Guantanamo-style jumpsuits turned out at the graduation ceremony of UC-Bekeley’s law school Saturday, demanding that tenured professor John Yoo be fired. Yoo was the chief author of the Bush administration’s nebulous policies on torture

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