Archive for April, 2007

TDT’s Why We Travel: Reason #1

It continues to baffle me that the structure of our society (at least, U.S. society) is designed in violation of a fundamental principle of human life: that experiences are more valuable than posessions.

I remember talking to my dad not so long ago about the things he regretted doing in his young life. He told me wistfully that he spent so much time and money accumulating stuff – cars, furniture, etc. – and in turn feeling bound to his investments, that he never took to the time to simply get out and see the world. My mom, similarly, felt so bound to her work early in life that she didn’t take the opportunity to follow my dad to Europe while he was there with the air force.

Undoubtedly, my parents have led wonderful lives and still have opportunities ahead – but there will always be that tinge of regret, and I imagine it’s a feeling we all know well.

But this is what we are imbued with every day – that work and things are important, and that we must work to pursue things because these things will make us happy. And despite the movies and greeting cards and novels that tell us opposite, for some reason the majority of us still buy into this idea…literally.

When we travel, we defy this notion that things are important. We pack light, we roam and we spend money and energy on experiences – on delicious dinners in far-flung restaurants, on introspective train rides, and on filled journal pages. We remember forever our days spent with friends, new or old, in unfamiliar places. These are things we can hold even as other elements in our life come and go .

And so we travel, in that sense, to live – to remember that life is a string of experiences, not a conglomeration of posessions now gone.

Closed-mindedness of the American Kind*

A growing Buddhist population in Fort Wayne, Ind. is testing ‘the Neighborliness of a City’, according to an article in The New York Times today – and it appears to be bringing out a special brand of American ugliness:

Then there are the neighbors. On religious holidays, hundreds of Buddhists park on two-lane Sylvia Street, blocking driveways and ripping up yards with their tires. A neighbor, Anna MacDougal, has complained to the police and zoning inspectors, to no avail, she said. At times she has paid tow truck drivers to take cars away.

Temple leaders, acutely aware of the parking problem but oblivious to Americans’ love for grass, converted the front lawn into a parking lot and covered it with gravel.

“I was appalled,” said Donna Davis, 56, a medical assistant who lives next door. “If they want to live here, why can’t they start acting like Americans?”

During the summer, some monks follow the traditional practice of bathing in the backyard (with their robes on, behind a screen).

“I can’t stand them,” said another neighbor, Kelli Lawson, 33, who says she is uncomfortable with many aspects of Buddhist life. “It’s strange to us, so we don’t like it.” […]

[Read the rest on NYT]

Maybe it shouldn’t have, but the forthright ignorance displayed in these quotes shocked me – Respect for lawns aside, the fact that a person could so squarely admit to being averse to anything different or out of the ordinary is just another reminder of how important it is to get educated and expose ourselves to new traditions.

Get out of your box – happy travels!

*Ref: Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Sterilizing Beijing

Construct skyscrapers and irradicate traditional neighborhoods? Check. Revamp the Forbidden City and throw in a Starbucks? Check. Cleaning up the chain-smoking, lugey-hocking, ill-mannered Beijingers…Check?

In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has done a lot – much of it, in my eyes, is negative in the sense that it damages the city’s culture (which is another debate). And a new government PR campaign aimed at cleaning up Beijing’s manners is to me another attempt to sterilize Beijing as a destination for the West – an excerpt from NYT on the new movement:

Citywide campaigns are trying to curb public spitting, discourage public cursing and littering and also promote lining up. There is even a campaign to rectify the often hilariously bad English translations on signs and restaurant menus. Given that Chinese leaders regard the Olympics as a milestone event to showcase China to the world, they obviously do not want to be embarrassed.

“Public awareness of manners needs to be improved,” said Wang Tao, the soft-spoken, exceedingly polite civil servant who has become a local celebrity for his efforts to curb public spitting.


Still, some Communist Party officials have publicly fretted that Beijing may not measure up. One delegate at the country’s annual political meetings in March recommended heavy fines and a public education campaign to curb spitting, cutting ahead in line, smoking and foul language.

“They are stubborn diseases that stain the image of the capital city,” Zi Huayun, the delegate, told the country’s English-language newspaper, China Daily.

[Read the rest on NYT]

While curbing public spitting may not be the most horrible excercise of government power, one has to wonder into what other avenues this “cleaning up” will be applied – for example, will the destitute and homeless be swept under the rug? What about the city’s hodge-podge open air markets? What else will be washed away to fabricate an image of being sleek and modern?

Beijing ought to improve on its own terms, and for the purpose of improving the lives of all people of Beijing – not to simply put on a show for the West.

(Edited: 04/21/2007)

Madison Koreans Wary in Tragedy’s Wake

Here’s an excerpt from a story that came out today in The Capital Times today, written by yours truly:

Fearing a backlash in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Korean students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are retreating from their normal campus lives.

Some Korean freshmen in student housing here have, for example, taken down their name tags from their dormitory doors out of fear of racially charged retaliation, according to Chai Sun Chang, president of UW-Madison’s Korean-American Student Association.

While Chang feels such fears are unfounded, he says that the worries of his peers are getting to him.

“Such an incident happens, and they’re scared that they might be treated like Middle Easterners after 9/11,” Chang said of his friends who are Korean students. “They’ve seen the past experiences, and it’s part guilt and part fear, I think, that they might not be accepted as before.” […]

[Read the rest on TCT]

The Ramifications of SK’s Apologies

I’m getting increasingly concerned that the media’s identification of Cho Seung-Hui as “South Korean,” combined with the apologies of South Koreans in America and the South Korean government, will lead to a public conclusion that Cho’s deranged mind and violence were products of Korean society – essentially letting America (and its virtually nonexistent gun-control laws) off the hook.

NYT Blogger Mike Nizza’s post tonight, pointing out similarities between the video Cho sent to NBC and the South Korean Film Old Boy, won’t do much to help.

But there are two key things to remember here: 1) Cho spent his developmental years in the U.S., arriving here in ’92 when he was only eight, and 2) The apologies offered by South Koreans are taken out of cultural context. Korean society is collectivistic, based on the central notion of “we”-ism or jibdanjueui. And so these apologies come as an expression of sorrow that such violence came from one of the parts of the whole, a fellow “South Korean,” rather than as an admittance of fault.

Just my two cents for tonight – it’s been a long day.

(Edited: 04/19/2007)

The VT Shooting: A Korean Perspective

The tablet reads: “The Freedom to Bear Arms”

Illustration by Bae Kye-Kyoo of The Korea Times.

Getting Shook

MADISON, 2:07 P.M. – ‘Virginia Tech Shooting Kills at Least 31,’ the news is so fresh it’s not even in ink. As it flashes on my screen, I shudder, and attempt in vain to comprehend the absolute madness of this violence, the depth of this loss.

But sitting here in the library, more than 1000 miles away from Blacksburg and the echoes of gunshots, I seem to be the only person visibly shaken by the events, holding my head in my hands. Everyone else is routinely clacking away on their keyboards, as they would on any other day. Perhaps they haven’t seen the news – or maybe they have, but it’s “just another school shooting.”

For me, today’s violence feels very personal. Everyone who went to college in my family went to Virginia Tech – I was the one who broke the line. Even though I’ve never been out to see the campus, the idea of the university stirs in me a certain nostalgia and respect. I did a project in the eighth grade about the history of VT and how it was connected to my family. I wanted to be a Hokie back then, though my life has taken a very different direction.

And so as the horrific details continue to trickle out, I can’t help but wonder, “What if I had been a Hokie? What if I had been on that campus today? What if it were my parents having to cope with my death?”

The problem with living in a society plagued by violence is that from birth we begin to be desensitized, necessarily developing a hard carapace that keeps us from being bleeding hearts every time another person is senselessly killed. This is the only reason we can breathe, let alone eat, night after night as we watch the news – watch as violence ravages Darfur, or as the hatred boils over in bombs and body parts in Iraq.

But then it hits home. And for some of us, this is when the hard exterior shatters, and something within bleeds with empathy. We hold back tears as we talk with relatives at how unbelievable it is, how senseless it is, how we simply can’t understand.

And frankly, I don’t understand either – I don’t understand why in this civilized society we are so prone to violence, or why tragedies on such a massive scale are allowed to continue because we’re so goddamned concerned about our right to own guns. Certainly, eight years after Columbine and over five school-shootings later, you would think we would act.

But we don’t. We get shook up, and for a moment we question everything – but then we just shake it off.

(Edited: 04/19/2007)

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