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.

Obowma-san

Last week I headed up to the 9th floor of my office building to take care of some routine duties. The floor is filled with young interns, dressed in the tattered jeans and flannel shirts that are the trend during Korea’s wintry weather. Turning a corner I bumped into one of them, a young man who looked to be barely in his twenties. He bowed to me, and it was so abrupt and unexpected that I didn’t return it.

I worried at first, after my mind had a chance to register what had just transpired, that perhaps I had come across as rude. As a foreigner it’s something I’ve become at times acutely conscious of here, not wanting to unknowingly give offense. Then – and this surprised me – I experienced a sense of pride. My chest puffed out a bit and my head became inflated by the thought that this person had acknowledged me as a superior. As superior.

That felt good. But frankly I doubt its how Japan’s Emperor Akihito took Obama’s bow.

Obowma-san

Conservatives across the US are deriding the president for sending the message that America now “willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world.” They say Obama seeks to “transform the United States,” to “teach Americans to bow before monarchs and tyrants.”

My sense is that the bow was in fact not intended for Akihito himself but rather to win over the Japanese public, which has grown increasingly anti-American in recent years. And while the outcome of Obama’s visit to Tokyo may not have been as frutiful as he would have liked, that simple gesture likely went some way in assuaging local sentiment. It was an aggressive, not a passive, move.

I studied judo for about five years when I was in my teens. The first thing you do before beginning a match is bow to your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll over and let him throw you around like a rag doll. You bow and then go at him, with of course the utmost of respect as an opponent, an enemy and even perhaps a teacher. It’s an attitude America would do well to embrace.

Which brings me to China. Some two centuries ago a British admiral traveled to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in order to convince him to loosen trade restrictions that were then bleeding England dry. There were some issues of protocol to be worked out before the meeting, however, including making sure that Adm. Macartney banged his head on the floor before the emperor as a sign of England’s submission to the greatness of the Middle Kingdom. The proud Englishman of course refused.

I remember the event because of something I heard during a college lecture. According to an employee of the East India Company and member of the mission who recorded the journey, Macartney despite his obstinance apparently tripped and banged his head while approaching the emperor, who then graciously accepted the Englishman’s submission, though he refused his demands.

The failure of the mission has been described by scholars as a missed opportunity for China to accomodate the West, a political stumble by Beijing – not Macartney – that would lead to nearly two centuries of chaos and instability that China is now looking to put behind istelf. Now it’s America that is indebted to Beijing.

Obama has called hismelf America’s first “Pacific President,” and if his recent trip through Asia demonstrates anything, it’s that he’s learned to speak Asia’s language. Besides the bow, he’s drawn fire for backing off on pressing China over its human rights situation, something his critics have described in words akin to the president knocking his head on the floor before Beijing. Or bowing low.

In truth, as this piece in the Asia Times points out, Obama’s outward show of “deference” is no mere sign of weakness, it is not fueled by an apoligist approach to foreign relations. It is a genuine display of respect that allows the wheels of diplomacy to turn all the more smoothly and reflects a measure of confidence that America does not diminish itself simply by acknowledging its opponents.

In David Halberstam’s last book on the Korean War, he quotes a converstaion that Mao Zedong is said to have had with Zhou Enlai regarding the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. MAcArthur.

“What kind of man is he,” Mao asks. “Arrogant,” comes the reply, at which point Mao smiles and says, “Good, an arrogant man is easy to defeat.” That war still hasn’t ended.

It pays to get arrested by North Korea

It’s not as if this comes as any suprise but Euna Lee of the famed Ling/Lee investigative duo has reportedly signed a six-figure deal for a memoir about her time in captivity in North Korea.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about this, holding back the gag reflex that kicked in when I saw the headline. Maybe “these two brave American women,” as one commenter described them, really were motivated by the purest of intentions if not equipped with the most refined of journalistic skills.

But with the book deal (Ling’s reportedly got her own deal in the works) and the alleged damage their “reporting” did to activists and North Korean refugees in the region, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The arrest of three American hikers by Iranian border guards in late July brought about a similar cascade of vitriol from the on-line community as that hurled at the two women, with commenters calling for them to rot in prison cells for their carelessness, stupidity or simple naivete.

But unlike Ling and Lee, who parachuted into the NK-China border region, Shane Bauer (one of the hikers) had spent considerable time living in and reporting from the Middle East. He spoke the language, knew the culture and judging from his writing he was a sound journalist.

Apart from this their cases are strikingly similar, with both countries leveling charges of espionage and with the Clinton connection coming into play. And while all’s well that ends well for Ling and Lee, the future for the three hikers remains in serious doubt.

UPDATE

This is probably the best analysis I’ve heard on the plight of the three Americans, by Stanford Professor of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani.

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.”

Taking Kim Yu-na’s name in vain

The Korea Herald reports that fans of Kim Yu-na are in an uproar over certain political and academic institutions trying to cash in on the Kim Yu-na name, or face in this case.

Here’s an image of a member of the ruling GNP, with the caption that reads something like:  following Kim Yu-na’s lead to “conquer the world.”

Skating to conquer the world

Skating to conquer the world

One fan writes: “Kim Yu-na is our national treasure. For these GNP politicians to paste their images next to Yu-na for political gain is visually improper.”

Right, and there’s nothing wrong with the ENTIRE NATION cashing in on her success. Seems a little twisted to me, the way she’s become this exemplar for the country. Corporations, universities, political parties, they’re all cashing in on her achievements.

She seems to be taking it all in stride, but to carry the weight of an entire nation on your shoulders. That’s got to be a lot of pressure, and I wonder whether it’s fair to put that on her. She’s not even a person anymore, she’s a brand to be marketed, whether by companies looking to make a profit or a country looking to polish its image.

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.

Kim jong-il better skater than Kim Yu-na

Well, maybe not. But it does sound like somthing they’d say, and the personality cult that’s built around the two is eerily similar. They’re both lionized as “national treasures,” held up as icons of Korean honor and nobility.

Sure, I’m taking the comparison a little far. I mean, you’re not gonna be sent to the gulag for criticizing Kim – the skater I mean, not the short guy with the trademark pot belly. But it does remind me of just how much the two Korea’s share in common, despite the vast gulf that separates them.

Been reading a novel that came out a few years back – A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church (pseudonym), a fomer intelligence agent with years of experience in North Korea. His descriptions of journeys outside of Pyongyang remind me a little of my own trips outside Seoul. On both sides of the divide, there’s the capital and then there’s the rest of the country. Two completely different worlds.

It’s as if the two countries were mirror opposites of the other, or like two halves of the umyang that decorates the SK flag. One’s capitalist with a streak of Confucianism while the other’s Confucian with a nasty streak of communism. In one, children grow obese on fried chicken and Pizza Hut while in the other childrens’ growth is stunted by lack of food. One is supported by Washington, the other by Beijing. Neither is thrilled about the arrangement.

Whether because of these commonalities or in spite of them the two remain divided I’ve yet to figure out. Maybe they should just have it out on the rink and settle things once and for all.