Archive for August, 2008

A City Draped in Gray (Updated with Photos)

March on City Hall | Click to view entire set

March on City Hall | Click to view entire set

SEOUL — AS I WRITE THIS thousands of monks and laypeople are converging on city hall. They are unloading from buses that have carried them, along with their signs and banners of protest, from all the corners of the country. Great gray-robed masses make their way across crowded sidewalks, and hung high above the street are PA systems broadcasting dissent in waves of chanting and drums. There is a thrumming energy that emanates beyond the police lines, that sends ripples through the steel and glass.

These people are demanding an apology, they are demanding change. They see the government as isolated from the people, wrapped up in Christianity while a hefty chunk of the country’s faithful adhere to an indigenous brand of Buddhism. Whether their cries of foul are completely legitimate appears difficult to assess, but even some Protestants here admit that the president — a staunch Christian who earlier, as Seoul’s mayor, said he dedicated the city to God — might be throwing around his religious weight.

Dissent Blaster | Jogye Temple

Dissent Blaster | Jogye Temple

UPDATE September 1 — Dissent continued to foam over the weekend. A local paper reported that about 2,000 people joined in a gathering at Jogye Temple, the heart of the Buddhist order that organized last Wednesday’s rallies, which was titled “a service to condemn the Lee Myung-bak administration’s destruction of the Constitution and religious discrimination.” On Saturday, at the same temple, a high-ranking monk attempted to disembowel himself in protest. (He was rushed to the hospital, and his injures were not fatal.)

The force with which these demonstrations have arisen begs the question: Why? Is there good reason for the anger? Speaking in real terms, President Lee has filled his administration with people who attend his own right-leaning church — the now-famous Somang Presbyterian. Major Buddhist sites have been left off of new government maps, while the smallest of churches are given mention. The chief of the National Police Agency, Eo Cheong-soo, appeared on a poster promoting police personnel’s “fasting prayers for the evangelization of all the police.” A presidential secretary reportedly called demonstrators opposed to U.S. beef imports “a host of Satans.”

In terms of the more nebular realm of history, the current uprising is perhaps afforded added momentum due to an anxiety of repeating the past. As blogger Korea Dispatch points out, many of the monks who are participating in the rallies now remember the early 1980s, when then President Chun Doo-hwan mobilized a massive police force to arrest over 150 monks labeled as dissidents. Chun forced the head of the Jogye order to step down, accusing him of “corrupt activities.” Buddhists were beaten and tortured — as many political dissidents were then.

The difference now is that Lee’s brand of religious bias apparently has more to do with a fervent belief in evangelism, rather than a simple greed for power. In this way, the current situation is perhaps even more dangerous. Indeed, we need not look far back for vivid examples of what brutal kinds of things humans can do to each other in the name of God.

In Seattle, of Bicycles and Tree Assassins

photo by miss nikichan

SEOUL — IT WAS A GOOD THING that my life fit neatly into two large neoprene tubs. The apartment left room for little more. When I unfolded my built-in “kitchen” table from the wall, it blocked the entry way. The place had only one sink (in the bathroom) and my stovetop fit inside a small closet. But the floors were hardwood, and the location was prime: 42nd & Brooklyn, two blocks from campus.

About three years ago this September, I was hauling my stuff into this tiny space, picking up the pieces of a life I’d left behind in Seattle and bringing back some of who I’d become in Korea (this would be after my second sojourn in the country), along with a newfound love from Beijing: cycling. My future wife and I had rented old, rattling bicycles from a hotel during our trip there, and spent a day cruising around the city’s famous hutong. We stopped near Qian Hai Lake to eat peaches we’d bought from a local vendor, passed by the Drum Tower and wound up at a nameless tea shop on the west side of the Forbidden City. I felt a sense of freedom and ease that I’d long abandoned for a stick-shift.

One of the first things I’d done when I returned to the States was resurrect my old GT mountain bike from its resting place in my parents’ basement. Some oil and new tires and, behold! — it spins again. Not long after I moved up into my apartment, I could be found humming along the Seattle pavement, rushing unhindered by traffic through the city’s concrete veins.

My favorite route was the Burke-Gilman trail; a 20-some-mile path running from Fremont, through the University District and out along Lake Washington towards the northeastern suburbs of Kenmore and Bothell. For a good chunk of the ride, the trail was shaded by lush trees, a good number of which were deciduous — notably so, as much of the Northwest is wrapped up in firs and evergreens. As summer gave way to fall, I remember rolling over the brown pulp of jilted leaves, defying the fog and seasonal drizzle.

One particularly brisk morning, the orange, angular light of dawn cut through the changing foliage, highlighting the burning colors of the trees. It was absolutely beautiful, so much so that I nearly lost track of where I was going. Despite my pace, I felt frozen for a moment, my thoughts strung up between the technicolor branches.

The memory makes this recent news all the more saddening: someone is killing trees along the Burke-Gilman. The Seattle P-I reports:

Quarter-inch holes spaced about an inch apart were drilled around the tree trunks. Three poplars and two Douglas firs are dead, and two firs are starting to turn brown. The leaves on the poplars turned black, Mead said, indicating a rapid death likely caused by an herbicide.

“They were pretty thorough,” he said of whomever damaged the trees. “It would indicate a professional” did the poisoning.

The deaths of the trees reportedly came after unidentified persons in the neighborhood requested the trees be taken down.

While it may be true that in the grand scheme of things the downing of a few trees is minuscule, what is ultimately more depressing is the attitude this act reflects; the viewing of nature as an obstruction, and a disrespect for public space. It is perhaps a similar mentality that drives urban sprawl, that great plowing of humanity out where the wilderness would be better left to its own devices, the compartmentalizing of land into blocks of private property.

Here in Seoul, as in Beijing, greenspace is a hot commodity — my wife and I stumbled across a patch of grass the other day and took a picture as proof that it actually grows here. Without the luxury of yards, Seoul’s residents enjoy what little nature the city affords by picnicking next to the river or up in the mountains, and savor the few breaths that smell of pine instead of smog. In contrast, it seems that even some among the famously eco-friendly Seattlelites have gotten spoiled; perhaps they ought to go out for a ride, and remember what makes the city what it is.

Roleplay

photo by bweisner

SEOUL — IT ISN’T ALL PAPERWORK and vaccinations. For all the logistical hassle moving abroad entails, the greater struggle is indeed internal. It is grappling to understand one’s role in a society that does not necessarily welcome foreigners or their opinions. It is making rhyme and reason of a decision to leave home. And for the writer, it is connecting with the essence of a place; tapping into the pool of unfamiliar human energy so that it flows in ink and letters.

In his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American,” James Baldwin talks about writing as a process not only of self-discovery, but of comprehending one’s relationship with others. The sticking point, Baldwin argues, lies in our own social concept of ourselves. But travel, the removal of one’s self from ordinary circumstances, is the apollyon of our hindrances.

Having spent much of his later life in Paris, Baldwin draws upon the idea of status in Europe, and observes that he is unencumbered by notions of having to “make it” as a writer — or as anything else — in his adopted home. This is a feeling, he says, which allows him to connect more freely with the people he encounters:

This lack of what may roughly be called social paranoia causes the American writer in Europe to feel — almost certainly for the first time in his life — that he can reach out to everyone, that he is accessible to everyone and open to everything …

The writer is meeting in Europe people who are not American, whose sense of reality is entirely different from his own. They may love or hate or admire or fear or envy this country — they see it, in any case, from another point of view, and this forces the writer to reconsider many things he had always taken for granted. This reassessment, which can be very painful, is also very valuable.

It is true, in as much a metaphorical sense as in very real terms of distance, that the Han is far from the Seine. But despite the wide cultural gap between Europe and East Asia, Baldwin’s words seem to hold as true in Seoul as they do anywhere outside of the borders of the United States. For American writers abroad, it may be that before we can begin to dig under the skin of a new home, we must shake of the constraints and perceptions that bound us in our old one.

We start by abandoning the titles offered by cash-earning occupations, and embracing our role as simple observers on the outside. And slowly the stories of the city arise in whispers and in laughter. And as we scribble away, slowly we too become a part of the narrative.

This Week’s Wandering News

It’s been a long time since This Week’s has run, but in an attempt to — once again — get things into a normal rhythm here at TDT, we’re bringing it back. This week we lead with another disheartening tidbit about fakery at the Olympic Games.

  • Remember the ethnic minorities? They were fake too, says Foreign Policy blog Passport. Linking to a piece printed in Britain’s Telegraph, FP says the boys and girls who supposedly represented China’s 56 ethnic minorities in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics were, in fact, all Han Chinese.
  • Canadian writer-gone-English-teacher Joel McConvey posts a witty piece of booze-laden journalism about expat bars from his corner of the world in Jeju-do, South Korea. He deftly observes that the most memorable foreigner-filled watering holes are those that foster a “sense of limbo, wherein the bar’s palpable detachment from the surrounding geography and the norms of both the society in which it exists and that which it strives to emulate mirrors that of its transient patrons.”
  • Despite food prices being on the rise, people are still Buying into ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ ‘local,’ writes IHT journalist Aline Sullivan. From the under-the-bridge farmers markets to the aisles of Whole Foods, foodies from Orange County to Britain are putting their money where their mouth is.
  • The Head of the House Homeland Security Committee has labeled TSA screener testing ‘a waste’, according to USA Today. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) was reportedly pretty peeved when he found out that no follow-up examinations were being made after personnel failed to discover guns and other contraband that made it through the screening process. “You have a system that’s supposed to strengthen airport security, but you don’t use the results of the tests to do exactly what you’re doing the tests for,” he said. “It’s obviously a waste of money.”
  • And last Sunday, the Independent‘s Gap Year Guide took readers to the scorched New Mexico desert to show them How to be a modern day Mowgli. Or at least, how they can volunteer at a wolf sanctuary, hopefully without getting bitten.

The Dog-Eared End of Summer

photo by wildpianist

SEOUL — TODAY WAS THE FIRST day we kept the windows of our apartment open for longer than 20 minutes. In months past, the air has been so swamp-like and offending that inviting it into our tiny space has brought only sweat and noise. But a holiday weekend and a drizzling rain have purged this city’s breath. It is quieter, clearer; cool and fresh. Swatches of blue are dabbed in patches above foggy distant peaks. Maybe, just maybe, fall is coming.

It is no doubt obvious to a handful of faithful readers that my bid to rise daily at five AM and bang out a post has, so far, failed. I seem incapable of adhering to such a schedule, and working the night shift more frequently lately has not helped. Thursday night I finished up my tasks around 1 AM  (along with a can of Cass and an order of ddukbokki) and then proceeded to flit through a wasteland of late-nite television. Dramas from four years ago. Old American movies. I fell asleep.

Friday my wife and I spent the majority of the day reading in bed. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to plop down in front of a glowing screen. The feel of the book’s pages and the smell of pulp and ink cradled me in a world far from wires and deadlines. A good novel is like a journey gone right: both wrench us from the humdrum perspective of the daily grind, and leave us standing with a subtly fresh perspective on life. We take something with us. We leave something behind.

Symbolically, the book that I’ve just finished will be passed onto another friend living here, an East Coast native who is now Seattle-bound. If all goes according to plan, he should then pass it back to its original owner — completing a literary cycle formed of happy accident — in time for its pages to taste the Northwest winter.

August (Far Away from Puget Sound)

photo by Marketian

Heavy drops began to tumble down like
thick Virginia morning dew somersaulting off blades of grass,
and under the milky sun I
trotted towards the nearest mart
and picked out a royal blue umbrella.

When I stepped out from under
the store’s sagging awning
the rain let up
and I laughed and thought about
how long I’ve been away from Seattle.

Hello, 5 AM

I’ve had trouble knowing when I’ve done enough in a day, unless I’ve worked myself to exhaustion. What bothers me most is that I try to measure accomplishment against time. It feels cliche, but I wonder, would I criticize a tree for how often it blooms?
Paul Madonna, All Over Coffee

SEOUL — I REMEMBER ONCE LISTENING to an interview with David Sedaris in which the author said he rose at four o’clock nearly every morning to write. At the time, the idea clashed terribly with my understanding of what it meant to be an artist. Didn’t men and women of the pen simply write when the moment struck them, when they were so filled with beautiful and hilarious dreams that the ink simply spilled forth onto the page? It was perhaps too naive a notion for someone in their late teens, but my pool of literary knowledge had until that point been heavily informed by the likes of Kerouac. Nursing my ambitions with the beat legend’s unhinged poetry, I was convinced that if I simply got out there, the writing would come eventually — perhaps in one sweaty, chemically-fueled marathon session in front of a typewriter.

How things have changed.

It wasn’t until I really began writing myself that I began to grasp the amount of commitment the craft requires. The hours spent hovering, fingers above keys, when nothing seems to inspire. The days wrestling with distraction, as the occupied mind struggles to find adequate room for new stories and angles. And the antidotal self-discipline; that wolfsbane that gives life to wisps of ideas. When I began keeping this blog, demanding of myself and that I post every day and failing amid a hastening schedule, it was made more fully understood that simply waiting for the moment would not suffice.

With all of this in mind, I rose today at five o’clock and began stringing together the words for this very post — and I plan to do this with near daily frequency. Though the hour reflects perhaps less dedication than the humorist who most recently gave us When You Are Engulfed in Flames, I’m hoping it will be sufficient in breaking through this dry spell. Since coming to Seoul I have experienced the meaning of “There aren’t enough hours in the day,” and realized that even when there are, it seems I have hardly the energy to fill them. I’m hoping the morning light will give me the sharpness I need to keep this all going.


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