Posts Tagged 'Thoughts'

On Dislocation

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

SEOUL — I WAKE UP AND EVERYTHING is gone. The familiar props have vanished like a set on Broadway, and in their place is a just a big window and the day ahead. There are bare walls; an apartment without memories. Slowly, the inertia of routine animates my limbs into showering, putting on socks. I’m out the door and I press the elevator call button. Night is draining from the sky.

Hours pass.

My legs gyrate awkwardly on an elliptical machine and I wonder who I’ve become. I am not someone who joins health clubs. I see flashes of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. The road is covered in patches of snow and I can see my breath. There’s tall grass on the edge of the the lake. My tires hum.

Pounding techno pulls me from my reverie. My reflection bounces up and down on the window; people on the street below scurry off to somewhere.

Everything about moving here has been harder than I expected. Stripped of the elements that made up what I called life — the time to write, my bicycle, locally grown food, coffee shops and friends — I’ve found myself in an identity funk. I slip back and forth between welcoming this, in hopes that the experience is somehow making me richer, and feeling like I’ve just lost track.

Korea, ironically, has in some ways felt more distant and elusive than I when I was Stateside. I mainly see three places: the apartment, the subway car and the office. What keeps me grounded in the fact that I am actually here is an often acute sense of alienation from my surroundings and occasional bouts of homesickness. What has also escaped me is progress towards finishing a set of personal projects: language fluency, regular posting and an in-depth piece of journalism among them.

I once read that a person can only successfully do 2.5 things during a given period of time. A job counts as one thing, a new marriage another, the saying went. I’ve been testing this theory since I got here, railing against it with inflated ambitions and strict time schedules. Still, the rule has held true. Which is why I find myself squeezing in 40 minutes at the gym on the odd day to keep from becoming totally sedentary, instead of taking the long, daily bike rides I would prefer. And why this blog has fallen into disarray.

All of this, however, is being viewed from a perspective that is too muddled in the daily without respect to the full equation. When I am afforded the presence of mind to observe where I am — both geographically and in life — I feel more satisfied. I notice the how the leaves are changing off in the mountains, the way Seoul’s air seems purer with the crackle of autumn.

What its even more enlivening is when I think about travel. My wife and I recently found a block of time in which to escape, and as soon as we had set the dates we stirred into action. Laptops flew open, clicking over maps and researching phrasebooks. Malaysia has taken our imagination. The idea of waking up in Sarawak and peering out towards the South China Sea sends a cool ripple through me; the unfamiliar once again inspires.

Journal Entries: In These Shoes

Map of Oregon, Vodka Tonic

Map of Oregon state. Seattle, September 2007

SEOUL, Sept. 3 (5:25 AM at our apartment) — I WOKE UP THIS MORNING thinking about the fact that it was almost exactly one year ago today that I was loading up the car and heading down to Portland. I’d just graduated from college and had spent the previous month both in LA visiting friends and up in Seattle riding my bicycle on familiar streets, absorbing all the places I had missed while living in Wisconsin. I was confused as to the direction of my life, but not so concerned as to yet feel anxious. Things, however messy and uncertain, felt free.

It seems funny now to think that on the other side of the world (indeed, as I pen these very words) my parents are driving down in the same direction I myself was headed all those months ago. They’ll stop for breakfast at the Country Cousin, as I did, and watch the fog sweep its misty fingertips over the coastal hills as they drive out along Sunset Highway. Their final stop is Cannon Beach  — also the last leg of my own West Coast journey, as Nick and I came full circle before returning home.

Strangely, I can’t help feeling a bit envious of my parents. Seoul is in its last throes of summer, still hot and cacophonous. I want to take my wife somewhere calm and beautiful, where the air is all seawater and pine.

What I remember most about the trip last September was that it was lended a sense of momentousness, though not by any artificial attempts to make it so. Big things were shifting all around us, and driving south gave Nick and I the escape — the distance — we needed to sort it all out and become ourselves. Those four weeks lasted months and years. I will never forget the sunset at Capitola.

I must admit that I wish I could recapture something from that time, hold it now as I struggle with a new kind of confusion and this adjustment to the working life. It seems painfully ironic that despite being halfway around the globe, my current experience in some ways feel less adventuresome than my time in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective. Either way, I could use a good road trip.

Continue reading ‘Journal Entries: In These Shoes’

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.

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’

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

Bittersweet Memories and a Final Departure

AS THE BREATH OF SPRING slowly rolls over Puget Sound, a sweet, heady fragrance unfurls from budding deciduous leaves and carries on the wind. The smell washes over the Seattle area’s familiar piney scent, and never fails to make me feel nostalgic; an olfactory reminder of the humming anticipation I felt throughout my childhood in those months just before summer.

Standing on the platform outside Seatac International Airport, waiting for my ride, there it was again. Despite the chill in the air, I could sense the seasonal shift. I drank it in, mulling it over and trying to swallow the fact that this would be the last time I would step through the arrivals gate in my hometown for who-knows-how-many years.

On the surface that was a reality I was entirely prepared for, even happy about. After all, I’d been hoping to land a job in Seoul in my field for nearly a year, all the while dreamily sifting through pictures of South Korea on flickr and reminiscing about the months I traveled and studied in the country. But I also wondered how I would feel as I passed the streets where I spent my youth, stealing a few last glimpses of the Northwest, this upper-left corner I’ve come to love so much.

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Perspective: The Food Crisis, from Wisconsin to Cambodia

bags of rice, thailand. photo by IRRI images.

I WISH I’D HAD A TAPE RECORDER. One day the manager at the cafe where I work was lamenting the climbing cost of her weekly groceries, the next she was attempting to justify the higher prices on our soup.

“[Another cafe] is charging five dollars for a cup that’s the same size!” she said, explaining why it was now costing our customers a dollar more for a product that we dump out of a bag. The economic reasoning seemed rather dubious to me, especially juxtaposed against her earlier complaints.

“This is how food prices go up,” I said to her dryly. She shot me a look that seemed to say, Whatever.

It was an illustrative moment. While I can’t pretend to fully understand the complexities of the looming food crisis, amid all the factors that lay out of human control — floods, poor crops, shortages, etc. — the common denominator appears to be human greed. This has manifested itself on a range of levels, from questionable price gouging to grain hoarding.

With recent riots over food prices in Haiti and the IHT reporting that elementary schools in rural Cambodia are being forced to suspend free breakfast programs, it’s obvious that — as ever — the world’s poorest are the first to feel the pinch of this greed. But in some backwards way it’s hopeful that Americans are too; proof that the distance of oceans doesn’t insulate us from everything.

The worrisome aspect of that equation is this: Americans have agency and buying power, whereas citizens of third world nations have little to none. Bloomberg says that hoarding by eager Wall Streeters is already adding to the pain of farmers and consumers.

And so we’re left with a reality that has always existed in some form but has rarely been so plainly presented — unless we check greed and panic in this situation, people will starve and die.

Looking at soaring food costs as an opportunity for capital gains is one-dimensional and shortsighted. Those inching up their prices hoping to make an extra buck are only going to turn around to find their dollars don’t go as far in the aisles of the grocery store. But Statesiders ought to reflect on the fact that on the other side of the world, the consequences are more real; kids going to school with empty bellies, families grinding by on rations bought with $2 a day.

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