Posts Tagged 'Life'

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 AMĀ  (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.

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.

Dislocated

SEOUL – IT IS THE RAINY SEASON. Great boulders of dewy grey roll over this city’s ceiling of haze, occasionally tumbling into each other with a thunderous crack, spilling their insides. The rain is like foamy tap water wrung from a kitchen sponge. It lathers the oily streets, douses the hurried citizens.

In the heart of this steamy metropolis, I can’t escape the feeling that I am floating. This city barrages the senses; even claiming the space behind your eyes is a battle. Seoul is marching, protesting, yelling, hustling — it is a crush of humanness. The blurry pace of it all is enough to make the traveler feel fractured and distracted; these symptoms of disorientation are only heightened with something as heavy and wonderful as marriage tipping the horizon.

Yes, by the time that carton of milk in your fridge goes sour, I will be a married man. The closer I come to the wedding date, the more I find it impossible for my mind to settle; I’m constantly buzzing, aware of the fact that my fiance is 10,000 miles away and that the clock is ticking down. I check my watch as if my flight might take off any minute. My body zips along the Seoul underground, my head bobs somewhere along the shores of Lake Monona.

I sweat. Or is it just that I’ve been walking through clouds?

This is the main reason — or at least, the best reason — that the frequency of my posts here has slowed to a trickle. Every time a sit down to write, I feel some force pulling me from my chair. I’ve been loath to stay in the apartment in the evenings; the aloof solitude of this tiny dwelling gives me more opportunities to mull over these feelings of dislocation: Here it is, this home I have made. Where is my other half?

—————

Posts may continue to be a bit thin for a little while longer here at TDT. I leave for Madison for my wedding next weekend, and my fiance and I have just over a week to tear down our old apartment, visit with friends and family, get married, pack up and jet back to Seoul together. Thanks for bearing with me. Safe travels.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Missing Home

photo by michael-kay.

Somewhere in the archives of the crudest instinct is recorded the truth that it is better to be endangered and free than captive and comfortable.
Tom Robbins, Another Road Side Attraction

AFTER MORE THAN FOUR years of living back in the U.S. — the majority of which I spent carving out a new life in Madison — I don’t know why I expected leaving to be easy. I suppose some part of me bought into the myth that “real travelers don’t get homesick.” And while I had carefully tried to mentally prepare myself for the fact that the experience in Seoul this time around would be much different from my previous adventure, nothing but a direct dose of this new world could make me fully appreciate the changes not only in the cityscape, but in myself as well.

Readers have no doubt noticed my prolonged absence from the keyboard here, as well as my divergence from the semi-normal format of analyzing world news and issues to dwell upon some common themes about life here in Seoul. I’ve realized that before I can begin to move forward with business as usual — here, or in any part of my life — I must take some time to let the dust settle.

I came here in a whirlwind: the day I left (a Saturday), my fiancee and I drove out of Madison by 3:30 AM. I departed Chicago at 8 that morning, stopped over to see my folks in Seattle around 11 and by 2 that afternoon had taken off over the Pacific. Many blurry hours later, I was eating kalbi for dinner in a Seoul suburb…on a Sunday. The physical and mental effects of that journey have convinced me that human beings were never meant to travel at such speeds.

At first when I arrived — indeed, as evidenced in a previous post — I was under the illusion that I had stepped back into my old shoes, so to speak. I remembered the streets, the food sat well and I met with good friends. It was only after moving into a dingy one-room back near the university I attended in 2004 that the changes became more palpable. Surrounding me were restaurants and alleyways full of memories but vacant of familiar faces. I noticed a good amount of non-Koreans walking around, no doubt here to attend the very program in which I had once been enrolled, and seeing them reminded me of how distant that time was. I walked around campus and caught a whiff of the reminiscence I had anticipated, but mostly just felt out of place. It wasn’t where I belonged any more.

Continue reading ‘There’s Nothing Wrong with Missing Home’

…And a New Direction

AS I SLOWLY EASE IN TO a new life here in Seoul and struggle to muster the energy to write, I’ve been forced to ponder the direction this blog will take. When TDT first began, there was hardly a method to the madness — things have shaped up a bit more recently, but it still lacks a proper form. And I suppose I like it that way.

What I mean to say is that, while there will no doubt be a lot more posts offering personal anecdotes and meditations on my life here, I have firmly decided that this will not become a “Korea blog.” Opinions and ideas about the nation are already in abundance on the internets (coherency is another issue entirely) and so I would point readers looking for expat perspectives on Korea to more consistent sources; the Metropolitician, The Marmot’s Hole and The Grand Narrative, to name a few.

If I want anything to change on this blog, I would like to more clearly focus it in the direction of capturing cosmopolitan culture and philosophy; writings for the “citizens of the world,” so to speak. Even in my short couple weeks here in Seoul I’ve managed to encounter people with unbelievable backgrounds; globe-hoppers and polyglots whose roots transverse borders. More than travel itself, what seems to be at the core of this community is awareness — of world issues, of their role in them, and of the damaging effects of a limited perspective.

And of course, I’m always working to make the blog truly “daily,” a goal I’m afraid I won’t be able to quite deliver on until things calm down a bit more — not to say I won’t be trying.

For now, safe journeys, and keep reading.

The Next Page

IT’S HARD TO KNOW WHERE TO BEGIN. I realize that many readers are in the dark about the changes that have taken place behind the scenes at TDT, and I’ll admit that the nebulousness of my narrative has largely been due to my own fragmented mind. The timeline of recent events seems like a trainwreck, one piled on top of the other, without a clear beginning or end.

So I’ll start with the obvious: I’m back in Korea. After a harried several weeks involving interviews, tests, visa problems, wedding planning, vaccinations and way too much driving back and forth to Chicago, I arrived in Seoul on the night of Sunday, June 1 — jetlagged and reeling — only to start my new job as an editor bright and early Monday morning. It was rough, but well worth it.

For several days I stayed with friends of mine (whom, incidentally, I met in Wisconsin) in a southern suburb called Bundang — a good twenty miles or so from my office. I’m afraid I can’t fully communicate how bizarre it felt be so quickly transported between my bicycle-pace lifestyle in Madison to the crush of the morning commute in Seoul. It was as if I had jumped into someone else’s reality, like the scenes of my life had been shuffled with the script of some unfamiliar play.

Indeed, it makes sense that my return to Korea should feel momentous. But as I walk the streets of my old neighborhood — however much they may have changed — on a lot of levels my life doesn’t seem so different. I meet with old friends, and we pick up where we left off. I sit down at a restaurant, have some soju and pork, and it all feels natural…like I never left.

Over drinks last night with my friend Ben — who, like me, studied here for a year in ’04-05 but returned to Seoul just a little over a year ago after a stint back in the US — he assured me that the sense of change would come, but gradually. That process seems to have already started; today I returned to a cafe that once was delightfully low-key only to find that it had conformed to the cush, tacky style that is so commonly found at coffee shops throughout this city. As I sat on a big, fluffy couch and looked around the room, I felt as though all the memories I had accumulated there were suddenly even more distant, like photographs beginning to show their age.

Beyond the superficial alterations — the new Sinchon Station shopping center, the disappearance of the Synnara record store, and the inexplicable popularity of Detroit Tigers baseball hats — the biggest difference comes with my purpose in being here. I came back to Seoul to work, to pursue writing and to live; things that I could do anywhere, really. But I chose to be here because I love it. It feels good to drop ink on a fresh page, wrapped up in a city that is always humming forward.

Edited on 2008-06-08

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.


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