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.

Playing to ‘lose’ with NK

Andrei Lankov has an op-ed in the IHT offering his take on what American negotiators can accomplish as they prepare to engage with Pyongyang fully aware that its leaders have no intention of abandoning their nuclear arsenal.

1) it is possible to agree on dismantling the North Korean nuclear research and production facilities.

2) North Koreans will probably agree to some nonproliferation measures.

3) the negotiations will allow a channel of communication with Pyongyang to be kept open at a time when Kim Jong-il’s health is ailing and changes (not necessarily for the better) might happen at any time.

4) the negotiations will create an environment in which North Korea’s exchanges with the outside world will become possible.

In conclusion, Lankov writes, the “pace of negotiations should be slow, bargaining should be hard, and no magical breakthrough should be expected.”

He does not mention here how Beijing factors into Washington’s game plan, though he does say that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s much trumpeted “Grand Bargain” would be a grand waste. “Alas, a cash-for-nukes solution will not be acceptable to Pyongyang: The lump sum payment would be spent quickly, and without nuclear weapons, additional aid would be very moderate…

Made in China

Went to the local E-mart a few nights ago. Standing around with my son while my wife finished the shopping we both got sucked into staring at a nearby flat-panel TV screen showing Madagascar 2. “Wow, look at that quality, and the price… but what the hell is a Haier?” The sales woman told us it was the latest model out of China, a big hit in Europe. Always wary of sales pitches I chose not to believe her spiel, assuming it was likely some no-name knock off.

This from Reuters:

Korea also faces stiff competition to hang onto its edge in sophisticated manufacturing from China itself. In electronics, Haier and Hisense have developed wide product lines while automakers from BYD to Geely have started to attract attention overseas.

I guess she was telling the truth afterall. In fact South Korea is facing increased challenges from its rising neighbor on all fronts, including the local mainstay. According to a London-based researcher, Chinese shipbuilders outstripped their South Korean rivals in orders this year. British author Simon Winchester begins his book on walking across Korea with a look at the country’s shipyards nearly twenty years ago, predicting that the sight before his eyes spells a death knell for England’s own shipping industry. I wonder if local manufacturers are now thinking the same thing when they look west.

Trade wars

It’s not all doom and gloom though. China may (or may not) move to allow its currency to appreciate against the dollar, which would be welcome news to the U.S. and columnists over at the IHT. For South Korea, analysts say a stronger yuan would mean “more demand for Korean goods on Chinese markets.” China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by the way and has been since 2003.

The bulk of that trade, however, isn’t in consumer goods but rather in materials used to produce finished exports. Per the Reuters article cited above:

Geographic proximity, cultural affinity and its own recent experience of economic development provided South Korea with a platform to reach out to China. Its companies — notably, electronics makers such as LG Electronics and Samsung — adapted their business models to send intermediate goods to China for assembly before selling the finished products abroad.

Such manufacturing inputs account for roughly half of all of Chinese imports. So as China’s export factories revved up production, South Korea and Taiwan, the two countries most integrated in their supply chain, reaped huge dividends.

China rising

From Af-Pak to Nork Nukes, Asia a minefield for Obama

Excellent piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh on securing (or not) Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the face of increasing attacks by the Taliban and radicalization of the nation’s military.

A senior Pakistani official who has close ties to Zardari exploded with anger during an interview when the subject turned to the American demands for more information about the arsenal… Today, he said, “you’d like control of our day-to-day deployment. But why should we give it to you? Even if there was a military coup d’état in Pakistan, no one is going to give up total control of our nuclear weapons. Never. Why are you not afraid of India’s nuclear weapons?” the official asked. “Because India is your friend, and the longtime policies of America and India converge. Between you and the Indians, you will fuck us in every way.”

Speaking of which, this gives a sense of the larger AF-Pak nightmare that Seoul recently agreed to become a part of and that will certainly be among the topics discussed when Obama visits Seoul next week. Others include a visit to Pyongyang by Washington’s point man on North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth. Of that visit, Victor Cha offers an interesting take.

As per the Asia Times:

The point of the Bosworth mission, he indicated, without actually saying so, would be to fail. Or, as Cha put it, “Bosworth could go there and come back and say the North Koreans are not serious.” So take that, China. No longer could the Chinese be telling the Americans to at least talk to these people, and no longer could anyone anywhere accuse the US of not wanting to deal.

Seoul’s concern, of course, is being sidelined by any possible deal struck between the U.S. and North Korea, intrinsic to Kim Jong-il’s attempt to portray himself as “ruler of all Koreans before whom all others bow, as did the previous South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun…”

And speaking of bowing before a higher power, with the first stop of Obama’s Asia tour in Japan a lot of attention has been paid to Tokyo’s desire for a more “equal” partnership with the U.S.

The second page of the Financial Times is dominated by a story on plans to relocate a U.S. Marine base on the southern island of Okinanwa, where “10 percent of the land is under U.S. control.” While Tokyo’s previous government under the LDP made the agreement, the country’s new leaderhsip under the DPJ is looking to either alter or scrap the plan alltogether.

Accompanying the piece is another on Tokyo’s announcement that it will provide some US$5 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, a move many say is aimed at quelling fears in Washington over Japan’s decision to end naval refueling in support of U.S.-led anti-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean. The Afghan aid could also be meant as leverage in discussions over the base relocation.

(It’s ironic that Japan’s new leaders are looking more like the past liberal administrations in Seoul while Lee Myung-bak would fit right in with the old LDP.)

In an interview on the BBC yesterday, a Japanese official seemed hard pressed to explain how the country would ensure that the money did not disappear into the pockets of Kabul’s corrupt leaders. But anyway…

Peter Brown back over at the Asia Times does a much better job of summarizing what exactly Tokyo means when it says it wants a more “equal” partnership with the U.S. “without actually doing any damage to the security relationship that guarantees Japan’s survival in a dangerous neighborhood.” How dangerous?

“North Korean missile tests and China’s impressive missile modernization program showcased during the National Day celebrations on October 1 underscore the missile danger to Japan and the US.”

(…) In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou has recently accused the US government of being too easily influenced by China as he declared that the US is stalling with respect to the planned sale to Taiwan of 66 F-16 fighter aircraft….

Certainly, North Korea does not appreciate the timing of new revelations in the Japanese media these past few days concerning the abductions of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans and the allegation that Kim Jong-il exercised command authority over North Korean abduction operations starting in the 1970s. When Kim met with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, he denied any role in these operations.

This almost guarantees that Pyongyang’s volatility and confrontational stance will be ramping up over the coming days, especially when Obama’s trip to the region already lent itself to exploitation by the North Koreans. (This written before Tuesday’s naval clash.)

According to Brown, all of this noise adds some serious weight to the long standing alliance with ballistic missile defense at the core of the issue. While the U.S. needs its bases in Japan for deployment of its Aegis destroyers and for missile detection, Tokyo needs the missile umbrella provided by the U.S. The relationship could call for “unprecedented integration and information sharing,” which some could interpret as proof of Japan’s elevated status.

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.”

Language of the gun

With regard to the shooting in LA, as well as an earlier rampage in New York, the following I think really goes beyond the ususal suspects of the media or simple insanity in exploring how a person – an immigrant in both these cases – becomes a cold-blooded killer.

Read the full article here:

Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one. We saw it in the case of Cho Sung-hui of Virginia tech, and now, in the latest case involving Jiverly Linh Phat Wong — (or Voong). He blocked the back exit of a civic community center in Binghamton, N.Y., where immigrants had gathered to learn English and shot 13 people to death before killing himself.

It is a habit of “finding the ethnic angle” that is endemic in the work of American journalists in an age of cultural diversity, and in order to sound credible, we often ask so-called experts to give their insights.

Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University and an expert on mass murderers, offered his take. “He was going to take his life, but first he was going to get even,” Levin said the day after the Binghamton incident. “He was going to get sweet revenge against the other immigrants who had looked down upon him, among whom he had lost face. To him, that was an extremely important thing.”

The keywords here are “revenge” and “lose face.” Those are the popular terms we in the media like to throw around when we think of the inscrutable Asians. To use them well is to impress the Early Show, whose anchors were easily impressed.