Leaving home to find it

I flew home last week, or what I thought was home. As soon as I stepped out of the airport everything appeared as if through a fog, vaguely familiar but somehow different, even foreign. After having spent the past couple of years complaining about, lashing out against and ultimately adjusting to life here in Korea, I found that I no longer felt at home in the city I was born and raised in.

For one thing, drivers in San Francisco have this strange tendency to stop for pedestrians. My first day back, brain addled by sleep deprivation and hours of continuous on-flight movies, I stood frozen when cars stopped at the crosswalk to let me pass. In Seoul there’s no question but that you get the hell out of the way when vehicles approach. I didn’t know what to do, unsure of whether the drivers would gun it as soon as I stepped off the curb.

I think I read somewhere once that San Franciscans were ranked some of the sloppiest dressers among residents of major urban areas. Once upon a time it never would have occurred to me to pay attention to how folks were dressed, but coming from uber-trendy Seoul it’s one of the first things I noticed. People in SF looked like there were walking around in their pajamas.

And the faces. All kinds, all ethnicities. So unlike the never-ending sameness of Korea, that maddening, comforting sense of living in a village/nation where everyone is a variation of the same theme. SF felt fragmented, everyone a stranger who neither shared the same tongue, ate the same food… only occupying the same space. In Korea I am a minority; in SF, everyone is.

That sense of fragmentation seemed to permeate the very air passing through the city, an air straight off the Pacific so clear and crisp like brittle glass that would shatter at the slightest touch. My neighbors of 30 plus years, Korean immigrants who worked their way from the bottom up to secure their piece of the American pie, lost everything in the recent finanical debacle. The father, who barely speaks English, just shook his head in disgust when he told me. “30 years, stupid stupid….” My wife urged them to return to Korea.

When I landed at Incheon International I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiarity around me. I left a place that I’ve always thought of as home, a place where traditions crumble and reform in a continual act of self-creation. I’m not sure now whether it’s home or not, but I wonder whether in the end that’s what it means to be a San Franciscan. Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down so that you can then rebuild them, piece by piece.


Simple curiosity or racism?

I tend to shy away from conversations about race in Korea, just because they tend to be circular and not really go anywhere. Also because more often than not they tend to be in English (or any other language that is not Korean) and thus miss the audience that most needs to be included in the conversation. But recent experiences that coincide with a few blog posts I’ve read and a NYT article have brought me out of my self-imposed silence, and back to the blogosphere.

My family and I spent the weekend with some friends in a small town in Gyeonggi.  Not far away is the town of Ildong, which boasts the only real sulfur hot spring in the province. Being a fan of the public mogyoktang, I decided to take my son there for the afternoon.

As I said I love the sauna, but in Korea it took me some time before I felt completely at ease strutting around in the buck through a crowd of naked Korean men. Partly cause I’m whte, and partly cause I’m blue. Or more precisly, cause I’ve got all kinds of tatoos scattered around my body that never fail to draw unwanted stares.

Anyway, for the first year or two I frequented Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel, or the newer Itaewon Land (five stories of hot tubs, hot rooms and a kiddie playground for parents looking for a reprieve). I figured if there’s anywhere in Korea where an ink covered foreigner can fit in its Itaewon.  It worked well, more or less, and I’ve since gotten over the trauma caused by my first visit to a Korean bathhouse. (That was a nightmare!)

It’s a rainy Sunday in fall, perfect weather for lazing in a tub or sweating it out in the steam room. My 4-year-old son, an experienced patron of the bathhouse in his own right, eases himself into the steaming pool with a loud groan of satisfaction. “Siwonhada…” All the ajjusis stare with mute faces that could either be looks of disgust or simple curiosity. I can never tell.

Soon some of the kids approach, their eyes wide with wonder. Are we the first non-Koreans they’ve ever seen or just the first naked ones? One young boy of about 8 or so starts to follow my son around, pointing at him and barking out, “Can you speak Korean? Let me see,” with an innocent and unknowingly offensive snicker as if my son were some monkey performing tricks.

None of this occurred to my son, thankfully, who just starts repeating ni hao ma whenever anyone asks him to speak Korean (which he does, fluently for a kid his age). What’s worse is that none of it seemed to occur to the boy’s father either, or to the boy himself. Which makes me want to believe that it was and is simple curiosity and not the kind of hostile racism that I know others experience here. But still…

Do I want my kid growing up in a country where there are basically two main racial categories, Korean and non-Korean? Where his ethnicity and appearance will constantly be a reason to question his place here? Where (what are in my view) anachronistic attitudes about race that get hammered into kids starting at a very young age?

There are a great many things that I appreciate about being in Korea, and more than a few things that I think the U.S. could learn from this place, but when it comes to my kid that question always gives me pause.

Not long ago we were standing outside Itaewon Land sauna when a young African American couple walked past. My son asked in his childishly exuberant voice why they were black. They heard, but kept walking. I thought, “Christ, it’s time to get back to the U.S.”

Korea road trip cont.

Driving south down the expressway towards Busan I ponder the rows and rows of apartment blocks that litter Korea’s skyline. Many of them look like government housing projects back home, and they’re everywhere, like sentries on duty. What are they protecting? The power  of South Korea’s ruling political and business elite, which have so thoroughly defined Korean society for decades that the two are now inseperable.

There’s no competition. A handful of conglomerates decided decades ago what kinds of homes were going to be built and went ahead building them. There were no alternatives, no firms vying for customers with better designs. In a short period of time Koreans found their living spaces defined by these companies and their corrupt heads. Society began to adapt to the new layout. Kindergardens sprang up in these new “communities,” convenience stores, barber shops. This is how most poeple in South Korea live now.

I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with living in these complexes. They are convenient in a lot of ways, and in a country with more people than space it makes sense to build up. The point I’m trying to make – in a round about sort of way- is the enormous might of this select group in shaping Korean society. It’s eerie, and it extends beyond architecture into the realm of media, fashion, entertainment and politics.

Honestly, I don’t know what the majority of people here think about this. Whether they are too busy or preoccupied to consider it. I suspect attitudes likely break down along economic lines, but even that may not be the case. Culture here is in many ways used as a commodity – marketed and sold to ensure that folks not only accept the framework, but support it wholeheartedly. “It’s my culture, and I’m gonna defend it.”

I love being in Korea. I’m thankful for what the country has given me in my time here and have a tremendous amount of respect for its people and history. But I wonder what that culture means when so much of it is defined by these elite circles in order to sustain their hold on power.

Korea more egalitarian ’cause of Japan

Korea c. 1904

Korea c. 1904

An article in the IHT by Norimitsu Onishi about the buraku of Japan and their slow rise out of the traditional depths of Japan’s ancient social hierarchy, a rise — and article — that took inspiration from Obama’s election in the U.S. What caught my attention was a short graf in the middle that referred to Korea’s more egalitarian society, a result, says Onishi, of the wars and invasions that swept the peninsula and Japan’s colonial occupation.

…nearly identical groups of outcasts remain in a few other places in Asia, like Tibet and Nepal, with the same Buddhist background; they have disappeared only in South Korea, not because prejudice vanished, but because decades of colonialism, war and division made it impossible to identify the outcasts there.

As far as I know, it is factually true that the successive wars that erupted in Korea destroyed among other things the family records of thousands born into slavery. Those same people were then freed from their traditional lower status, with some even gaining the ranks of the elite yangban.

Still, the statement did make me pause because it seemed like a casual snub at Korea. But an interesting read nonetheless.

Yakuza sweat it out in Seoul

Yakuza tattoo

Yakuza tattoo

He strutted around like he owned the place. With this bow-legged bounce that would have been comical if it weren’t so damned authentic, like Toshiro Mifune in all those samurai flicks from the 60s. Short, squat and covered in ink, he sat down across from me and started to slap his chest and face, letting out these loud grunts as he began a series of squats in the overheated sauna. We must have made quite a sight, two tattooed foreigners from opposite ends of the globe sweating it out in Seoul.

Tattoos straddle the line between public statement and private sentiment, speaking as much to society as to the wearer. No place brings this out more than in the bathhouse, where one is both extremely public and intensely private. As he continued his routine, I tried to balance the urge to ogle the artwork that adorned his body — so clearly marking him as a member of Japan’s notorious underworld — while trying to look indifferent. Besides not wanting to intrude on the guy’s privacy, I just didn’t think it was safe to pay too close attention to a gangster. No one else there seemed to have that problem.

As far as I understand, members of the Yakuza are not allowed into bathhouses in Japan, so I imagine it must be nice for them to come to Korea, where they can at least enjoy a few hours of sweat-soaked relaxation. But while tattoos are slowly gaining acceptance here, for many they still carry the stigma of criminality. As he stepped out from the sauna and into the main bathing room all heads turned, following him as he made his way to the cold tub to submerge himself with a loud sigh that echoed through the room. Then they turned to me, and for the next hour their eyes went back and forth from Mr. Mafia to freaky foreigner. As if there were a connection.

The best falafel in town



You’d never guess. It’s not New York, Tel aviv or Cairo.

Years ago I was travelling in the north of Thailand and found myself in the city of Chiang Mai. For those who’ve never been, Chiang Mai is everything that Bangkok is not. There I met a young Israeli, a former soldier and Sephardic Jew whose parents had immigrated to Israel from Morrocco. He invited me to join him for a meal at a little hole-in-the-wall called Mama’s Falafel.

The key to a good falafel sandwich is the pita bread. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I thought pita meant the stale, cardboard like dics you found in plastic bags on store shelves. Not so at Mama’s. The owner, an Israeli woman who married a Thai and settled in Chiang Mai, imports  all her ingredients and hand makes everything, especially the pita. Soft, warm and spongy to soak up all the spicy sauces, as my friend said, “You are lucky to find falafel like this in Israel.”

Over the meal, which included a cup of Turkish coffee so strong it set my eyeballs to quivering, he described what it felt like to lead a group of young soldiers through hostile territory. The tension, fear. I don’t recall his name, but I remember the intensity in his voice, his dark complexion revealing his Semitic roots. Then he began to talk about racism in Israel.

He said he was from the southern regions, where many of the residents were in fact Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. He told me about how many of the Ashkanazi Israelis, those of European ancestry, looked down on their Sephardic cousins as culturally inferior, more Arab than Israeli. Blatant discrimnation is what he said.

An editorial in the New York Times by Benny Morris explains the fear that is building among Israelis about the future of their state. Demographics and geography are stacked against them, while a growing number of Arab Israelis are increasingly rejecting their nationality in favor of their Arab identity. Their Arab bretheren.

This heightened insecurity is, Morris explains, a key factor behind the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza. But what Morris doesn’t explain is the reason for the dissafection felt by scores of Arab Israelis. Why are so many of them rejecting their Israeli identity? I’ve never been to Israel, but judging from my conversation I’d venture that what my companion described has something to do with it.

Missiles, money and ribeye steak

Seoul Outback

Seoul Outback

New Year’s eve. As Israeli missiles begin to fall on Gaza, my family and I are at the Outback Steakhouse in southern Seoul waiting for a table.

It’s my first time here and the first steak I’ve eaten in about twenty years. Despite the recession, the place is packed and we stand alongside a number of others waiting for a table. I notice in the corner a young muslim family, the wife covered with only her eyes showing, the father smiling down at his young daughter playing under his feet.

We are foreigners, them and I. Even my wife, who is Korean, stands somewhat apart as she pushes my son to play with the young girl, named for a rare deer native to Saudi Arabia. Always the outgoing one, my wife begins to chat it up with the young girl. She’s five, speaks a smattering of Korean, Arabic and English she’s picked up from TV. We begin to talk, an unlikely conversation that leaves much unsaid.

“Where are you from,” I venture.

“Saudi Arabia, and you?”

“San Francisco… the U.S.”

OK. I can hear the synapses firing as all the stored up information gets pulled up. Politics, religion, identity.

“I’m sorry for all the shit my country has done to the Islamic world,” I want to say. “Terrible what’s happening in Gaza. My tax dollars at work.” I wonder what they’re thinking.

“How do you like Korea,” my wife asks, no hint of  internal dialogue behind her smile. She’s a traveler and loves meeting people.

“Korea is a good place. It is safe, people are friendly. Life here is good,” the father says. The wife is silent but her eyes speak volumes.

I’m always curious when I see another foreigner in Korea. Granted there are plenty of us, more and more all the time. But Korea is by no means LA when it comes to ethnic diversity and so I can’t help but wonder what brings people here.

I once asked the onwer of a local Indian restaurant that question. “The money,” he said matter of factly. So much for romanticism.

Our names are called and I shake hands with the young father before heading to our table. There’s more I want to ask and I contemplate fleetingly inviting them to share a table with us. The steak is mediocre, the pasta supersized and heavy.

On the way out the mother enters the elevator alone, thinking her husband and daughter had already gone ahead. My wife says they just passed her by in the hallway and she thanks her in flawless American English before hopping back out. My four-year-old son looks up at me with this quizzical expression and says, “Daddy, why was she wearing a mask?”