Posts Tagged 'Thoughts'

A Recipe for Fluency (Hopefully)

PUSH-UPS, CRUNCHES, COFFEE, TRANSLATION — it’s all a part of the new morning regimen. By 7 am I’m sitting sleepily in front my laptop, arms sore as the screen glows with headlines from Yonhap. A notebook on my desk and pen in hand, I scribble down unfamiliar Korean vocabulary.

I flip quickly between browser tabs; article, dictionary, article.

And I think to myself: I should have been doing this for years. I’m struggling now because I’ve let my second language get rusty — let myself be overwhelmed by daily demands and excuses. This is the great re-focusing, a test of self-discipline.

(Silently, I worry if it’s sustainable.)

A great daunting mass of foreign words has stood between my actual language abilities and true fluency for some time. The grammar, the basics, even the colloquialisms feel well ingrained by now — but I’m still drowning in an ocean of vocabulary. What I don’t know could (and does) fill a book.

So this is my recipe for fluency, I hope:

Read one Korean-language news article — aloud, twice. List every word I don’t know, then look it up. Listen to one Korean-language news broadcast — twice. Identify names, numbers and unknown words. Make flash cards for all new words. Take a break. Review flash cards. Speak as much Korean as I can (even to myself). Go to work. Eat. Blog. Sleep. Repeat.

As my anticipation for moving abroad grows, it’s all I can do to resist regretting the time I didn’t spend working towards this goal. Willpower takes time to forge, I tell myself, and learning the intimacies of any language is a process that takes years. And so I keep on keepin’ on, sewing meaning to sounds, sounds to letters — sticking words in my head and hoping that they’ll stay.

Tourists, Vietnam & the Disconnect

photo by besar bears.

RICHARD BERNSTEIN PULLED INTO Danang harbor on a cruise ship and disembarked to find the lives of locals interrupted in a frenzy of opportunists looking to capitalize on the tourism crush. A few miles south, pristine China Beach was actively being chiseled out by developers of posh hotels.

In his recent piece for the International Herald Tribune, Bernstein observes that Vietnamese towns like Danang are swiftly going the way of Tuscany Villas, pushing aside real life for the sake of nostalgic kitsch that can be sold to the wealthy. Which, he observes, the people of Vietnam should have every right to do — with one major caveat:

What is sad about it nonetheless is the contrast between the wealth of the visitors and the poverty of the country they are visiting. This is one of those countries where the arrival of a tour bus occasions the appearance of hordes of touts, cyclo drivers, would-be tour guides, sellers of T-shirts and ink paintings of women in flowing ao dais and straw conical hats. These are the economic opportunists who aren’t shareholders in the Hyatt or Raffles but who jockey and jostle to have a modest portion of the tourist trade.

Bernstein also points out a disconnect that exists beyond economy, one that lies in our experience. He questions whether travelers to much-exoticized Southeast Asian nations ever really come in contact with the culture and history of those places, or if we’re just touring an “ersatz jungle”.

Is our interest in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam purely elemental — sun, beach, nature — or are we curious about the people and their lives? It’s a question worth reflecting on before making your next journey.

Seoul Notebook: Days Spent at the Coffee Shop

THINKING BACK, I WAS probably first drawn to Coffee Flanel because of its ridiculous sign. It read: “Flanel than ever before.” By then I was accustomed to the butchered, overwrought English phrasing that was plastered all over Seoul, but that line had a quirky ring to it that made me stop and grin.

It was August. I had just trekked all over the campus that was to be my home for the next year and was disgustingly sweaty; the idea of AC and an iced drink sounded fantastic. I climbed a stairway up to the second story to find the cafe’s glass door. Inside it was brightly-lit and cleanly decorated with dark wood and white tile.

The barista greeted me, and after I paid for my drink she pointed to the pastry case and asked me to choose something. I paused for a second before politely explaining that I just wanted the coffee. She smiled. “It’s service,” she said, meaning that it was on the house. I decided on a cookie (a gingersnap, if I recall), and she gave me two. This was surely my new favorite place.

As the months passed, Flanel’s four walls witnessed my life’s changes. When I first came there I brought only the company of my journal, in which I chronicled awkward episodes of culture shock and loneliness. But as time went by I became less like a foreigner and more like a regular. Months later, a girl from school (now my fiancee) and I would go there every afternoon — supposedly to do homework, but mostly just to talk, procrastinate, and eat cookies.

The coffee at Flanel, like most places in Korea, wasn’t great. But the cafe offered something more subtle and ultimately more important: atmosphere. At coffeehouses around the world, intimately personal narratives intersect with burbling public life. We go to these places for introspection, for inspiration, for study, for meetings with old friends or new business contacts. If the atmosphere is right, as we sit and sip our drinks, we become part of something larger — pieces of our conversation seep into the walls and shiver out into the chatter of the city.

Four years later, Flanel is still a fixture in my memory. When I head back to Seoul it will be one of the first places I go after throwing down my bags — if it’s still there, that is. But either way it will not be the same place that it was. Even if I sat in the same seat with the same journal, different words would come to my pen.


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.

‘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.

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.

Knowing Who Your Friends Are

WE ARE A MOBILE GENERATION. We uproot. We move west, we move east, we move across the ocean. And as we settle into our new environs we are faced with that eternal human challenge – making good friends.

The difficulty here, especially after leaving the cushy confines of the academic world, is not only in meeting people but in determining if they are your kind of people. People you could have coffee with. People who will pick up the phone. People who will be honest. During the cold winter months in a new place it’s more valuable than ever to have someone at your back, who you can chat with face to face.

I know a little something about this; I’ve relocated several times and, facing the alternative of being an isolated introvert, have thrust myself out into the fray. Today I sat down with The Harbinger (aka my friend Soren), who recently moved to Chicago. Over a hearty vegetarian meal at Earwax in Wicker Park, we discussed the difficulties of getting connected, the finer points of what it means to be a friend, and about how easy it is to fall back on old ties.

Comparing our experiences, Soren and I identified a common issue in meeting people – as disconnected individuals in a new place we have little to offer but ourselves. Approaching a new scene or group of people it becomes somewhat tempting to embellish the facts; for example, if we connect with people through a shared interest in riding bicycles then we might assume the persona of a “biker.” But we are complex human beings, and friendship is more than just fulfilling a role.

Moving to a new place on your own is a little like doing gymnastics without a spotter; it builds confidence, but falling into hard times is especially rough. Investing time and energy in friendships without knowing whether these people will hold you up when it counts can be hard – but it’s necessary.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge is to overcome the urge just to continually fall back on friends back home. There’s nothing wrong with old friends, but playing it safe this way can keep you from the best of experiences; case in point – Soren was just some guy from Minnesota to me two years ago. Now he’s among my close friends, someone I will stay in touch with even as we move in different directions.

No matter where you go in this world, the most cherished memories come from interactions with people, whether you’re in New York City or Normal, Illinois. A chic urban cafe is just an empty building without conversation percolating between its walls. When we travel or move, what we’re really looking for is change of scene. If we can’t connect to our new community, then what’s the point? The key is keeping honest, and then just getting out into the thick of it.

Photo: wintry mixed, by johnnyalive. chicago.

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