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.

Immigrant wives diversify S. Korean theatre

Via Yonhap a nice article on how a fledgling theatre company is aiming to help give a voice to the struggles immigrant women in South Korea face. 

 “When someone tells me ‘you scared me,’ I reply, ‘You scared me, too,'” Berera says with a laugh.

 Berera is a main member of the [Salad theatre] company begun earlier this year. Funded by the United Nations Development Program, Salad aims to create jobs for immigrant women like Berera who left their homeland and wed Korean husbands.

“We thought it would help immigrant women to tell their stories on stage rather than just talk about the difficulties they face in Korea,” said Ahn Soon-hwa, co-chairman of Salad and a Chinese immigrant, at the company’s rehearsal room in northern Seoul.

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.

S. Korea to fingerprint foreigners

Yonhap reports that South Korean officials said Friday the country will begin fingerprinting foreign visitors along the lines of similar programs in Japan and the U.S.

… the planned fingerprinting policy is primarily intended to regulate illegal entries by foreigners. The United States and Japan have already adopted the fingerprinting policy.

At present, some 200,000 foreigners are believed to be illegally staying in South Korea, accounting for 17.3 percent of an estimated 1.15 million foreigners here, according to ministry data.

First man convcited of marital rape committs suicide

An AP article reports that the first man to be convicted of marital rape in South Korea was found dead Tuesday. Identified by his surname Lim, the man had been convicted of  “accidentally” raping his Filipino wife at knifepoint and sentenced to a “suspended 30-month” prison term.

The case marked the first time a man in traditionally male-dominated South Korea has been convicted of marital rape.

Lim had strongly complained about his conviction, claiming the rape occurred “accidentally” while the couple fought and that their relationship was not good because she was negligent about housekeeping, news reports said.

I guess he accidentally stuck his head in the noose too!

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?”

Korea 3rd most adaptable nation

Anti-beef rally in Seoul

Anti-beef rally in Seoul

Ummm… hmmmm… really?

According to the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea ranked third among OECD nations in terms of its adaptabiltiy to globalization in a study conducted by the Confederation of Danish Industry. Some of the benchmarks used include education levels, growth and development, and export capacity. I’m assuming the anti-US beef protests last month occurred too late to be accounted for in the study.

Anyway, my initial reaction after reading the article was supercilious, given the nationalism, xenophobia and racism I’ve witnessed since arriving last year. I thought about the things I’ve dealt with personally while living here, a minority in a country that still cherishes its ethnic homogeneity. How can that qualify Korea as an “adaptable” country? How can its immigration policies possibly be considered globally oriented?

Continue reading