Archive for December, 2007

Season: A Journal Entry

SEATTLE, Dec. 25 – IT’S CHRISTMAS DAY AND, unexpectedly, big, wet flakes of snow are falling; not sticking, but turning the sky into a curtain of white, through which I can see the silhouettes of pine trees and the grey, mysterious beginnings of the Sound.

To me – and to all my friends hovering around this point in life – the season is not the same as it once was. I suppose that’s nothing profound, but perhaps my deeper appreciation for spending time with family is. I feel more in touch with the fact that the years – and the Christmases – will come and go without cease until my life reaches its end, and that without significant effort on my part to pause and savor these more important moments, I will just be letting time wash over my oblivious soul.

As so last night, sitting next to the Christmas tree with my parents and the dogs – feeling as warm and happy as ever I have in 23 winters – I breathed in and out slowly, feeling the light and the air as they rose to the eaves, carrying with them a genuine spirit of the all the good times spent in that very room …

This trip I’ve been able to see home with honest eyes; not unsentimental, but also not with forced sentimentality. The streets that once seemed flooded wth memories now only have evaporating oily pools of them – every now and then a splash, and a smattering of the past.

As I walked along the boardwalk yesterday I saw the now vacant community store, the apartment where a friend once lived. In the crisp wind I saw the northwest, the clear waters and a sky unwittingly shifting between silver and blue. I saw the weathered edges of this familiar coast.

photo by Rakka.

Christmas in Baghdad

WHATEVER YOUR FAITH, WHEREVER you are in this world, best wishes to you and yours for the season and in the coming year.

In that spirit, I thought I’d share this – from the International Herald Tribune:

By Damien Cave

BAGHDAD: Inside the beige church guarded by the men with the AK-47s, a choir sang Christmas songs in Arabic. An old woman in black closed her eyes while a girl in a cherry-red dress, with tights and shoes to match, craned her neck toward rows of empty pews near the back.

“Last year it was full,” said Yusef Hanna, a parishioner. “So many people have left — gone up north, or out of the country.”

Sacred Heart Church is not Iraq’s largest or most beleaguered Christian congregation. It is as ordinary as its steeple is squat, in one of Baghdad’s safest neighborhoods, with a small school next door.

But for those who came to Sacred Heart for Mass on Christmas Eve, there seemed to be as much sadness as joy. Despite the improved security across Iraq, which some parishioners cited as cause for hope, the day’s sermon focused on continuing struggles …

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Home, and Empty Space

THE DOOR IS UNLOCKED, but indoors the scene is desolate, changed – bare floor boards and empty space. “Hello?” I call out to a man who is working in the back room, “Is the owner here?” The worker nods, and then catches the attention of someone I cannot see. Moments later a different man greets me – but his face, too, is unfamiliar.

“Oh, I meant someone else,” I say, trailing off. The room I stand in – once filled with plush couches and the comforting scent of traditional Korean baked goods – is deconstructed, and now smells only of drywall. The walls are stripped of the crimson paper that once covered them; between them there is nothing, save for the counter and an old fryer in back.

“What happened to the owner of the bakery?” I ask.

“He closed,” the man replies, “About a month ago.”

A flush of regret. Why didn’t I stop by last time I was in town?

“Did he close because of the new H-Mart?” I ask, referring to the retail temple of Asian foods across the street – both a boon and a curse to the local Korean community. The man gives me a resigned grin and nods. We share an unspoken second of comiseration over what is likely only the latest loss of another mom-and-pop joint – killed by convenience.

“I used to work here several years ago,” I tell him. “Does the old owner still live nearby?”

The man nods, and silence follows. I break it, wishing him a merry Christmas and letting him get back to work – gutting the space where I spent my last summer before college, where I kneaded dough, packed rice cakes, cracked eggs and burned my fingertips dropping donuts into hot oil.

Outside, I pause in the December air long enough to feel a pang of vague and unexpected sadness. I realize that I don’t have my old boss’ phone number, and that I’ve lost touch with anyone who would.

TDT is back home in Seattle for a couple weeks. Posts may be a little thin due to the holidays – best wishes for the season and the New Year to all you readers.

Who Should Be Held Accountable?

An excerpt from an opinion piece I wrote, published in The Korea Times:

ON MARCH 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker struck a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, gashing its hull and sending more than 41,000 kiloliters of oil rushing into the ocean.

At its peak, the slick spread almost 5,000 square kilometers and cast a black, oily pall over vast stretches of once-pristine coastline. It was an environmental disaster of monumental proportions.

In the following months, the United States scrambled to clean up the Alaskan coast while penning a comprehensive policy that would address oil spill prevention and proper procedure in future catastrophes.

The result was the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The OPA not only expanded the federal government’s ability to provide necessary resources and funding to deal with spills ― up to one billion dollars per incident ― it also established the owner of the vessel from which the oil is discharged as the responsible party.

Now, as Korea attempts to clean up the shores of Taean after the worst oil spill in its history, its citizens are asking: What will the central government do to prevent this from happening again? Who will be held accountable for the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who face a loss of their livelihood?

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The Accumulated Madness of Stationary Life

I’VE BEEN BUSY LATELY. It hasn’t been with the “ordinary” business that so often consumes my time and gives me a ready excuse to forego posting (I’ll just come right out and say it – TDT has done a shabby job of being “daily” lately), but instead with something a bit more basic, more necessary, more exciting: I’ve been cleaning out my apartment.

Actually, it’s been less like cleaning, and more like dredging – raking out the dirt of stationary life. Closer, perhaps, to the Korean word daechongso (대청소) which in context is akin to our “spring cleaning,” but literally means “great cleaning.” Indeed, a great cleaning it has been.

If my sudden passion for organization seems strange, allow me to explain: it isn’t the cleaning, per se, but rather what the cleaning is in preparation for – the two most significant moves of my life.

In a couple weeks, I will move in with my fiancee. In several months, I will move across the Pacific, back to Korea. And so now I am paring down my belongings, tossing into boxes the books, clothes, and random items that I no longer use; Goodwill is their destination. I hold the ambitious goal of ultimately whittling down all my possessions so that they will fit into a solitary backpack.

(And a very large duffle bag.)

Travelers often wax poetic about the sense of freedom they feel owning little – what is less written about is the harried, ridiculous process of cleaning house. In the past few days I have thrown out punctured tubes for bicycle tires, syllabi from classes I took my junior year, nubby art erasers that somehow made it here from high school, phone bills from long ago (I paid those, right?), floppy disks, and a Jamiroquai CD.

The most painful item to give up was the ratty pair shoes I wore when I was in China – they were bright green Adidas Dragons, and because of their history I nicknamed them “the Jade Dragons.” Those soles had walked a good chunk of the Great Wall, and had pedaled me around Beijing. As I stood over the trashcan internally debating, I thought, “but what am I gonna do…carry these around forever?” Keep the memory but lose the material; I tossed them.

I’m still in the midst of doing the craigslist thing, trying to sublet my place so I won’t be paying out the wahoo for a room I don’t live in (I’m also throwing in a couch and coffee table…and whatever else I can leave in the cupboards without the new resident noticing). A gaggle of belongings are still waiting to be sorted through, though I’m leaning more and more towards throwing it all away and then just seeing what I miss.

…Or perhaps just getting another duffle bag.

(Updated 12.25.2007)

As Long as You Ride It….

YESTERDAY MARKED THE INAUGURAL run of the South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle, opening a 1.3 mile track in the downtown area for public use. The completion of the streetcar is the first in a string of several projects to give the traffic-choked Seattle area better transportation alternatives.

Prior to completion, the streetcar picked up the unfortunate (if logical) name, the South Lake Union Trolley – or S.L.U.T. A neighborhood coffee shop began printing t-shirts reading “Ride the S.L.U.T.,” which have been selling out. It’s unlikely that Mayor Greg Nickels was too thrilled about the acronym, though he concedes that it’s here to stay. “I don’t care what you call it,” he said, “as long as you ride it.” (P.I.)

On the more serious end, the trolley has gotten flak from the local cycling community, which argues that the embedded metal tracks are hazardous. From experience riding in the area, and in Portland and San Francisco – where tracks are much more ubiquitous – a little extra caution near the rails and you should be fine. Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club has pushed for future trolly tracks to take either inside lanes or the median, so riders don’t get pinched – I wholeheartedly agree.

Amid all the hubbub about the streetcar being a new viable transporation alternative, it’s also worth pointing out that the track could easily be walked from start to finish – one has to wonder how much this will really affect traffic conditions.

But the new trolley system should be looked at within its greater context; when the area’s light rail system is completed in 2009, travelers will be able to step off a plane at Seatac and be zipped from the southern suburbs to north downtown without setting foot inside a car or bus. As the Seattle area grows as both a city and tourist destination, this is a step in the right direction towards cutting carbon emissions and creating a better quality of life.

Learn more about the Seattle Streetcar.

Double Standard

ROUGHLY HALF OF SOUTH Korean undergraduates lack English speaking proficiency, according to a recent survey conducted at a Korean university. While the extrapolations made from the survey data are questionable (the results of one university are not necessarily representative of the whole), the normative conclusion drawn from the outcome – that Koreans must study even harder – is indicative of a huge international double standard, and of a global societal ill.

English has become the “international language” – there’s no way around this. But too often have native English speakers taken this as their ticket out of learning a foreign tongue, while millions of students the world over are left to struggle with a daunting and seemingly lawless mess of English grammar and idioms. Though recent surveys show that enrollment in foreign language classes is up at American universities, I would bet a hefty sum that American proficiency in a foreign language is dismally lower than 50 percent (recent immigrants excluded). Even outside the U.S. there are problems; a recent Guardian article reports that British schools are ignoring language learning targets.

The other problem is that as university students in other parts of the world focus on their English-language education, they often lose sight of the importance of using their native tongue effectively; a Korean friend of mine said to me in a recent conversation that he’s noticed many of his friends pepper their speech with Internet slang and Konglish (Koreanized English), and give him blank stares when he uses more high-level vocabulary.

The drive to learn English has also likely limited Koreans’ options in taking up other languages – such as French, Chinese or Arabic – that English-speakers freely pursue. Americans, after their mandatory year of a foreign language at university, either opt out or continue if they have a passion for it; the rest of the world chokes down English because not doing so would threaten their chance at a successful life.

To call this an inevitable reality of globalization is a cop-out; this is a glaring disparity that must be addressed by making responsible changes to the educational systems on both sides.

(Updated 12.13.2007)

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