Archive for February, 2008

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.

Dining Alone in the International District

IN THE SUMMER OF 2003, my friends and I often took jaunts up to Seattle’s International District – it was a colorful escape from the humdrum suburb where we grew up, and had an indefineable grittiness that I was fascinated by. Walking the streets brought a range of unfamiliar sights: Roasted ducks hanging by their necks in restaurant windows. A shop selling candy and cigarettes – nothing else. Leering elderly Chinese men. A bamboo garden, perched atop a hill on the edge of the neighborhood, where we would sit and while away the afternoon in the sun.

The area has captured the affection of many Seattlites, and the way to their hearts has often been through their stomachs. In a recent article for The Stranger, Angela Garbes tells of her romance with the neighborhood and its eateries, including cockroaches and all. While I can’t necessarily vouch for her restaurant picks (she covers a lot of territory I left unexplored), her story of dining solo in the ID is definitely worth a read.

Photo: international district at night, by P.J.S.

Korea’s #1 National Treasure Burns

SOUTH KOREA’S GREAT SOUTH GATE, a 600-year-old landmark that had weathered invasions and war to become the icon of the nation’s capital, burned to its foundation last night.

The gate, known commonly as Namdaemun but officially named Sungnyemun, was at the center of a bustling commercial district and near one of Seoul’s most famous open-air markets. The cause of the fire is still being investigated, though the Korean media most recently reported that authorities are focusing on the possibility of arson. Two lighters were found on the scene.

News sources and bloggers in Korea report that the feeling in Seoul is one of deep loss and outrage – the word “heartsick” has come up more than once. Having seen and been awed by Namdaemun many times during my stay in Korea, I feel pangs of sadness myself.

Echoing the words of The Marmot, who has posted a beautiful photo memorial to Sungnyemun, though the gate may be rebuilt, the face of Seoul has been forever profoundly changed.

An article by Choe Sang-Hun for the IHT tells more about the fire and the gate’s historical significance, and a photoset by pwalk offers stunning images from the scene.

UPDATE: Yonhap news reports that police have arrested and are investigating 70-year-old Chae Mo as the sole arson suspect. Eyewitnesses have said that a man around age 60 matching Chae’s appearance climbed a ladder up into the gate moments before the fire started. Authorities suspect that if the cause of the Namdaemun fire was indeed arson, whoever is responsible was also behind the arson incident at Ch’anggyeong palace two years ago. (Link, in Korean)

UPDATE: Via The Marmot, Chae has apparently admitted to setting Sungnyemun alight – saying it was motivated by a personal land dispute issue – and has apologized to both the Korean people and his family. Words fail me.

Photo: the face of Korea collapses, by hojusaram.

A Bicycle, $1.50, and the Greatest Afternoon

IT WAS SHAPING UP to be a disappointing morning. I stumbled sleepily from bed and into the kitchen, knocking over the recycle bin along the way and littering a blizzard of hole punches onto the carpet. Sitting on the floor and trying to gather them into a pile, I grumbled to myself about how all I wanted was some juice…

Things got a little better when I noticed a note that my fiancee had left me, telling me I was her “hottie from hottingham.” I had the day off from work and so the hours were all mine – I just had no idea where to begin. For a checklist-making man like myself, this was a very bad thing.

In the back of my mind I knew there were things that needed done: research for articles I wanted to write, studying Korean, blogging, emails. I started by doing none of that and browsing pictures on flickr instead, sipping coffee and being jealous of a friend’s recent trip to Berlin. Then came the inevitable waves of restlessness. By the time I sat down to do a bit of study my work ethic had crumbled, and after scribbling a few sentences of Korean all I wanted to do was sit in bed and eat cookies. I took a shower.

I was a mess of procrastination. I did laundry. I washed dishes. I downloaded music. I checked my email at least ten times. It was coming up on 12:30 and I hadn’t done a damn thing worth doing, and I was suddenly reminded of what co-worker had said to me the previous night: “It’s ironic that we spend all our time at work wishing we were doing something else, and then when we have our own time we just end up taking a nap.” I was like a dog spinning circles trying to find the perfect spot to lay down – only I never found it. I got back in bed, and wished for a do-over.

After 15 minutes of breathing deeply and seeking my inner calm, I came to a realization. In doing each of my menial chores I had been seeking an escape from my restlessness. Before each activity I had convinced myself that it was utterly necessary to finish it before starting my day, and meanwhile the hours had slithered by. What I really needed was to do something simply for the sake of doing – something I could throw myself into for my own enjoyment. Taking the advice of a recent commenter, I did what few would think to do in the days following a torrential snowfall; I went for a spin on my bicycle.

In the middle of my third Wisconsin winter my enthusiasm for riding had been dwindling; slushy streets and below-zero windchills meant I only hopped on my bike when necessary, and it was rarely a joyful event. But with cycling being my only source of exercise this also meant I had become a bit sloth-like, with fitful cabin fever. And so determined to again feel the wind on my face and the the joy of gliding over the streets, I set out.

For the first mile or so I pedaled uneasily over the snow, nearly biffing it as I rounded a corner and hit a chunk of ice. Internally I fought with myself over whether this was really a good idea – my legs continued to spin through sheer unconscious will, like passing prayer beads between my fingers.

I was headed around the lake, a familiar 12-mile route through Madison’s suburbs – an easy cruise in the summertime, now made interesting by gaping potholes and unrideable stretches of heavy snow. Within the first mile my shoes were soaked through, but I welcomed the stimulation, the invigorating cold and racing pulse. It was my tiny adventure, my personal escape. I felt giddy as I careered down slippery hills, conquering the abandoned streets.

As I rode, threads of blue were woven into the sky’s patchwork grey – there was even a smattering of sunshine. Having almost completed my circumnavigation, I paused at an empty park that was covered in knee-high snow – it caked onto the cuffs of my pants as I trudged through, my feet now partially numb. I noticed sled tracks spilling down the nearby hill and suddenly wished for my old plastic toboggan.

Cruising back into downtown I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. Stopping into a neighborhood market the first thing that caught my eye was the pastry case, and I began to salivate over the seductive glaze of the apple fritters. I bought one for myself, and a plain glazed to take home for my fiancee – the fact that any bakery purchase came with a free cup of coffee sealed the deal, and for $1.50 I was a happy man.

I stepped outside, inhaling my sweet lunch and warming up with slurps of coffee. Though I’d left my list of tasks untouched, the afternoon had been properly siezed – and I felt content with that. Sensation tingled back into my toes, and I hopped back up on the saddle to pedal the rest of the way home.

Photo: lake monona, by click-see. madison.

‘Rambo’ Does Little For Burma

SYLVESTER STALLONE THINKS HE’S helping the people of Burma by playing the part of the vengeful warrior in his latest Rambo film. He’s even challenged the Burmese junta through the media. Sly recently told Reuters: “I’m only hoping that the Burmese military, because they take such incredible offence to this, would call it lies and scurrilous propaganda. Why don’t you invite me over? – Let me take a tour of your country without someone pointing a gun at my head and we’ll show you where all the bodies are buried…”

While that may be some well-intentioned bravado, it’s still bravado. The fact that some Burmese are apparently using the movie – in which Stallone is depicted killing Burmese soldiers and rescuing a village from genocide – as a rallying point to rail against the government doesn’t make the film any more valuable. It is, after all, a violent fantasy designed to bring Americans to the box office. Though I’ll admit to not having seen the film (and having no plans whatsoever to do so), I’ll bet you that John Rambo does little to address social change after he’s through slicing open soldiers’ heads.

The reality is that Stallone would’ve jumped on any political bandwagon tied to his film. Rambo could just as easily have decided to bludgeon Janjaweed militiamen in Darfur, or hack the Taliban to bits in rural Pakistan – neither scenario would make the actor qualified to represent a movement. This shtick is old hat: just another famous person who’s done nothing of real merit groping for a more worldly self-image.

I haven’t yet mentioned the more the obvious criticisms. For one, the Buddhist monks who successfully led massive protests back in September did so with a spirit of non-violence, a central tenet of their philosophy and the Burmese way of life. Rambo’s antics resemble more closely the cruelty of Myanmar’s regime. Another point: media studies show that watching violence may cause more violent behavior, but more often it allows for catharsis. In other words, the frustrations of the Burmese people are temporarily (and uselessly) relieved by watching Rambo empty pounds of lead into soldiers’ bodies, though no change is effected.

When it comes down to it, Stallone is an actor. He’s invested himself in the Burma issue insofar as it took to play a character in a movie, and now he wants to be a hero in the real world? Burma already has it’s heroes in Aung San Suu Kyi, the leaders of the Democratic Party for a New Society, and all the unnamed individuals who’ve scraped tirelessly and given their lives to create a better nation.

Photo: free Burma! by PePandora.

Grim New Year’s Prospects for Taean

ALMOST EXACTLY TWO MONTHS after a devastating oil spill blackened South Korea’s western coast, the city of Taean is struggling amid tanking tourism and fishing industries. The emergency subsidies its citizens were promised have either been insufficient or never arrived, reports The Korea Times. The cleanup crews have left, and national attention has been diverted towards massive governmental changes being made by president-elect Lee Myung-bak. As Lunar New Year approaches – a usually bustling season for restaurants, fisherman and other business in Taean – the city is quiet.

The situation is, sadly, unsurprising. As prosecutors build cases against the owners of the vessels involved in the spill, the South Korean government shirks its responsibilities – neglecting the well-being of its people, and blithely paving the way for tragedies of this nature to occur again. This is reactionary policy at its best, and a sterling example of the national government’s historic lack of foresight.

Photo: daecheon beach on the west coast of korea, by Paul Lawley-Jones. 2006.

Snowdrift (A Writer’s Winter)

SNOWFLAKES SPUTTERED ON DRAFTS of air like meagre handfulls of confetti wearily tossed at a birthday party. The romance of winter’s silence was wearing thin on me; already the season had been peppered with bitter seconds of convulsing restlessness, and I’d just barely slogged through January.

From the window of my apartment I looked out into bleakness, frustrated in my search for words and longing to travel. My two white tormentors: the empty page and the snow-covered ground – both inhibiting me from something, I felt.

I’d been mulling over the idea of an escape, maybe down to El Paso to visit my grandfather, or out to see a friend in New York – it would still be cold there, but would at least provide a change of scenery. Yet I had this inkling that my restlessness would follow me, that perhaps it was tied up with my frame of mind.

So the day trembled on. I went out to go pick up sandwiches from a nearby coffee shop, and as I returned home the sun began to shimmer through the clouds. But I could feel its cheapness, it’s lack of warmth; it brought no hope for spring.

Intermittently in my attempts to write I scoured the Internet for music that might inspire me. I rattled through album reviews and thirty-second samples, yet nothing caught me. I stared back at the blank screen. It was the defeat of something undeclared – I didn’t know what I was trying to express, only that I was failing at it.

Later my fiancee and I went to catch a movie. The film was heartbreaking – a true story about the former editor of French Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who lost all control of his body save his left eye after a massive stroke. Yet Bauby maintained the full capacity of his mind, and through a system of blinking not only learned to speak but was able to write a book, sharing his imagination and his experience.

As we left the theater, my own frustrations settled into the larger perspective.

That night we waded through slushy streets to join friends for dinner and drinks. As we sipped on pints, a friend who’s had his share of confusing moments and stalled plans expressed to me new ambition – he was pouring himself into creative projects, attempting to leave something of himself in this city before heading to California.

Though we each owned to exhaustion with the cold, I could feel that he was breaking through to something; a driving energy to change his environment, a restlessness converted into action. He was juicing his time here as I was biding it, hoping for this dreary season to close.

As I walked to work the next day my thoughts were drawn out into the quiet morning air – they flitted like easy brushstrokes, soaking the empty streets in their color.

Photo: prairie in winter, by pawpaw67. madison.

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