Posts Tagged 'USA'

Heading WEST: How the New U.S. Program Isn’t As Welcoming to S. Koreans as it Appears

Incheon Airport, Departures Platform. Photo by wZa.

Incheon Airport, Departures Platform. Photo by wZa.

SEOUL — NEWS OF THE UNITED STATES’ plan to allow 5,000 South Koreans annually to work, study and travel independently in the country on 18-month visas buzzed along local wires shortly after the State Dept. issued a media release Monday. But there has been a notable lack of commentary on the announcement here, even from South Korea’s famously controversy-prone ‘netizens.’ The “Reader Opinion” sections are empty, and Web portal Daum’s WEST forum hasn’t seen activity for 10 days.

By the silence, we can perhaps guess there has been a general nod of approval.

But while the WEST (Work, English study, Travel) program may entice loads of South Koreans who are looking for improved language skills and a leg-up in the corporate world, it doesn’t live up to the rhetoric of facilitating “cultural exchange” — due mainly to one binding guideline:

Participants will devote at least 450 classroom hours to structured English language training and coursework focusing on American business practices and business procedures, U.S. corporate culture, and general office management issues.

While I can only interpret vaguely, what I read is this: no art students, no English lit kids, no history majors et al. The U.S. is interested in bringing young Koreans bent on business, finance and management degrees; the rest are on their own.

The stipulation will hardly whittle the number of applicants, but it will certainly influence the dynamic of any cultural interaction; a good number of the Korean nationals that U.S. students have the opportunity to talk with will all be chasing after the same thing. Of course, skilled Korean artists and academics of other disciplines can still be accepted as exchange students directly by their universities, but won’t have the luxury of time for travel and exploration afforded by the new WEST visa, known as J-1.

It may be a futile effort, but I think local institutions should be lobbying for an amendment to the new agreement that allows for more breadth — or, if not, start pushing now for a wider doorway for American students when Seoul draws up its reciprocal program.

Culture for Sale

REAL ESTATE BILLIONAIRE SAM Zell’s reiteration of his willingness to sell the naming rights to Wrigley Field along with the Chicago Cubs baseball team is just another reminder that our culture is up for grabs to the highest bidder. While the field might already bear the name of a corporation, a quote in a Tribune article today hits on why that’s missing the point:

Fans argue the Wrigley gum company could solve the problem and generate goodwill by ponying up to preserve tradition. The company — which has had its name on the stadium since 1927 when it was named for team owner and gummaker William Wrigley Jr. — has no comment, a spokesman said.

Brad Sarna, a sports valuation analyst at Absolute Brand LLC in Milwaukee, thinks the Wrigley company wouldn’t get enough out of a deal.

“I don’t even think of Wrigley gum when I think of Wrigley Field,” he said. And calling it Orbit Stadium, after a Wrigley brand, would defeat the purpose.

What this is really about is tradition, about the memories that we have tied to names, words and places. Yet across our society these ties are shamelessly being severed and rearranged to serve consumerism. Seattle’s old football stadium was simply called the Kingdome; now it’s Qwest Field. I can’t hear the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” without thinking “Hello, Goodbuy.” And as these companies gain by hijacking our culture, we can only stand to lose.

Photo: wrigley field north, by nytejade. chicago.

Uninspired

I FELT LIKE A POLAR bear on melting sea ice. With each pedal of my bicycle the frozen ground beneath me cracked, giving way to slush and muddy water. I bumped along down the trail, jostling with the laws of friction in a battle to keep right-side-up.

I was headed, of all places, to the mall. My vision insurance would be expiring soon and so I had made an appointment with the local Lenscrafters to get a check-up — I had two options for locations, both in malls, so I chose the less dingy of the two.

I arrived, and after searching for a while came upon what appeared to be the only bike rack outside the entire expanse of the shopping center (it was empty, neglected). In the back of the Lenscrafters I filled out some new patient forms, and then was moved between various stations where I got puffs of air shot into my eyeballs and was patiently interrogated: “Number one? Or number two? And number three, or number four?”

Following my exam, I was told that if I wanted new lenses I would have to wait. Had I brought any spare glasses? Sure, with a four year-old prescription. “Great,” the man said to me, “come back in an hour.” And so there I was. Alone, left to wander a blurry, headache-inducing mall.

I tried to stare at my feet as I left the store. It hurt my eyes less.

Roaming the softly-lit, kiosk-clogged temple of chain-store goods, I felt like I was in a place where time and space were not relevant. The layout of the mall felt eerily familiar. The kids wandering about dressed the same as when I was in high school, only more magnified in their personas. Pre-pubescent girls wore shorter skirts. Hot Topic had somehow become even more ridiculous.

I sat down in a poor excuse for a communal space — overstuffed, mismatching couches and chairs assembled in a square. An old couple sipping drinks from the nearby Gloria Jean’s Coffee shot me disapproving looks. Otherwise, nobody looked at each other.

Everything about the mall — the architecture, the stores, the lighting — felt cheap, replicated, plastic, like the majority of suburban infrastructure consuming our country. I had spent many a bored hour wandering uninspired (and uninspiring) spaces like these in my youth, without a second thought. But now I wondered about the quality of life this afforded. Why were we, the people of United States, allowing ourselves to be sold short?

The words of travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest came to me: “I’m the kind of person who wants to get their funky jewelry from its country of origin, not from some stand in the mall.” I was surrounded by a den of artificiality, of faked expression. I thought about the fact that there were hundreds of similar malls all around the country (many owned by the same company). It seemed evidence enough that we’d lost touch with the value of originality, of experience, of creating environments with character.

As I went to go pick up my glasses, I noticed a sign outside where a new shoe store was about to open. It read:

The shoes you wear say a lot about you. Your style speaks louder than words. You can find it here, shout it out there. Choose your voice and make some noise.”

I laughed, I cringed.

Photo: mall, by Maproom Systems. saginaw, mich.

This Land

IT WAS AN UNEXPECTED TWIST of language. I was explaining to Hanju (in Korean) my concerns about Barack Obama, whom I’d recently seen at a rally, when I used the term uri nara – our country – in reference to the United States.

That might not seem at all strange, except that uri nara is a phrase that is only ever used to talk about Korea. The words are almost symbolic, an expression of solidarity and collectivism, two things rarely if ever associated with American culture. Yet at a time when our nation’s communities seem irreparably disconnected, that was the exact feeling I sought to evoke.

As I stumbled through a politial dialogue in my adopted language, I learned a few new words. Hanju learned a new one as well: rhetoric – by one definition, the art of making persuasive speech. The night before, Obama had spoken about the importance of young people reinvesting in their communities. In his words there were echoes of Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” These ideas resonate with me as I’ve long felt that what ails this country is growing apathy and a general disinterest in our fellow man.

But amid Obama’s talk about changing the culture I was forced to wonder, is it just rhetoric? Uri nara is faced with so many problems, I said to Hanju, that we can’t afford four years of pretty words.

I talk a lot on this blog about wanderlust, about my desire to pick up and get lost in the big world, yet I have to admit to my affection for this land. As travelers it’s easy to lose touch with the romance and wonder of our own nation – to get bogged down by our misanthropic foreign and domestic policies. But every now and then something comes along to remind us of what we have here, and what we lose when we stop caring. How strange that my heart’s ties to the homeland were made plain while speaking the syllables of another tongue.

Photo: sunset over a wheatfield, by jfhatesmustard. eastern washington state.

No Bringing Beer to the US?

ALL HE WANTED WAS to bring back some sweet Czech beer to share with his friends in the US – but blogger Happy Scrappy was sternly denied and informed by airport workers in Prague that it was a “policy of (his) country” not to allow beer through.

I tried to reason with them, but they weren’t having it. “Policy of your country,” they’d keep saying. My country. My country. And oh, State Department: I was ashamed. Ashamed to be American. Ashamed that here I was, in this foreign land that had been so good and welcoming to me, and yet I cannot be more than a representation our silly, unwelcoming laws. I don’t even know what these laws are for. No beer? Really? What’s a terrorist to do, make the pilot drunk?

Read the rest of his hilariously angry letter to the State Department here.

Where We’re From…

AS SOON AS I HEARD the title I reached to turn up the volume. I was listening to a podcast released by Seattle’s KEXP when the DJ announced that the next song was called “Northwestern Girls,” sung by one-man-band and former Brooklynite Say Hi. It was a beautiful track and, despite a lack of much description of the song’s subject in the lyrics, the simple utterance of the syllables north-west seemed to resonate.

I grooved to the song a bit more than perhaps I would have if it had been named, say, Southwestern Girls, not because of some nostalgic or romantic reason (my fiancee is, in fact, a Midwestern girl) but because of something that is more subtly ingrained in the hearts of statesiders – regionalism.

The US is a big country. We may be tricked into thinking the nation is monocultural because of the homogenizing effects of mass media and nationwide chains, but deep down we feel the differences in texture, in speech, in values and in thoughts. I didn’t really notice this until – duh – I left the Northwest.

At my study abroad program in Korea I was not only thrown into the mix with Koreans, Dutch, Australians and Chinese, but also with Americans hailing from all corners of the country. Even as we acknowledged the vast differences in culture between our nations, we statesiders began to take note of the differences between our home cities.

Kids from the east coast commented on the relaxed manner of those from Southern California, while Northern Californians piled on criticisms of LA. Northwesterners got the dubious reputation of being “granola,” Midwesterners got called out for their flat pronunciation of words like “bag” and “Chicago,” and there was at least one terrible mix-up over slang terms (On the west coast to “kick it” means to hang out, in New Jersey to “kick it” means to have sex).

While this expression of regionalism was more playful than anything else, it was at least partly responsible for the bonding of new friends and even the creation of small cliques – where we were from became the common denominator.

The strange thing is that as soon as we returned home all notions of regionalism seemed to evaporate. Walking the streets of downtown Seattle I felt no immediate sense of connection to the people I passed, nor any inclination to give friendly acknowledgement – despite the fact that we all lived in the same community.

Of course we can’t expect to bond with every person in our home city simply by the virtue of cohabiting a few square miles; yet the idea that we might warmly greet a stranger from our hometown while traveling some foreign road but coldly pass the same person on a normal day warrants some reflection. We are not as disconnected as we think.

Photo: seattle dreams by Slightlynorth.

Portland Notebook: The Barley Mill

I HAD A HANKERING – I wanted meat, and I wanted beer. But a simple burger joint would not do; I also craved atmosphere, a dark pub corner where I could hunker down over a hearty ale and dive into a book, or a place to sit back and feel the currents of Portland’s Southeast side. Belly grumbling and mind determined, I straddled my bicycle and set out into the streets.

I cruised over to Bellmont; at first I found only a rowdy sports pub, but I hopefully explored the sidestreets. Delightedly I stepped into an apparently quiet, candlelit spot only to find a couple pounding shots at the mostly-deserted bar, hooting and cheering after each drink they threw back. This wasn’t it.

I wheeled back to Hawthorne Boulevard. I paused at several spots, and even stopped to ask a couple dining al fresco at a pizza joint for a recommendation. They pointed me towards a restaurant down the street that looked a little too fancy for my mood, but I thanked them anyway and meandered in that direction. Standing on the sidewalk and feeling the onset of hunger pains I considered settling. But then I saw it, a corner bar with red neon light oozing from its windows; my thirsty soul had an inkling, and I followed my intuition beyond the doors of The Barley Mill Pub.

Hung on the walls was decor paying tribute to the Grateful Dead; the interior was cozy, all wood with dim lighting. I took a booth seat and looked at the menu to find that my search had been well worth it; there were burgers galore and local microbrews on tap. I ordered a burger with Canadian bacon and local Tillamook cheese and a pint of the “Terminator” stout. I sat back for a moment, feeling victorious, and then cracked open my book to dive into the dark world of Frederic Prokosh’s Asia.

The burger was phenomenal, the beer both rich and quenching. The atmosphere of the moment felt as thick and finely crafted as the brew I sipped.

After sitting for a while, a friendly couple named Danny and Daria – both with dreadlocks flowing from their heads – came up and asked me about what I was reading (Daria said she’s always looking for book recommendations). We learned snippets of each others’ stories, and as they moved to leave I said out of habit, “Well, maybe I’ll see you around.”

But I was just a traveler passing through; Danny lived in Portland, and Daria was about to catch a plane to Florida that night. And so she replied with an honest smile, “No, you probably won’t.” I reflected on her words for a moment as they walked out the door; the pub was just a juncture, a venue for the random occurrences of life, from which we would all eventually depart. Then I burrowed back into my book, turning page after page, my head swimming in the night.

Edited: 01.15.2008

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Recaps from the Road:
This is a snapshot from TDT’s Tour de Cascadia.


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