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.


Jeju love affair

An article on the life and work of photographer Kim Young-gap, who spent the last ten years of his life submerging himself into the hidden beauty of Korea’s southern island. Kim died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2005.

I visited a gallery set up in his name on the island in 2006. His love of the island and his devotion to his craft shined through in every single image.

He would spend days searching for the perfect shot and once he saw the image he was looking for he would set up his camera and wait, returning to the same exact place day after day waiting for the wind to push the clouds into frame, the sun to give the perfect light, for the colors to be palpable and full.

He spent the last ten years of his life walking through the mid-mountain ranges waiting to find the sublime. The tangerine famers that lived in the rural areas of his search did not know what to think of him. So alien he seemed with his long hair, his camera, sitting in fields for days on end that they mistook him for being mentally ill or at the very least a beggar…

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.

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.

Where the Hell is Matt?

Wow! Really inspiring. Just discovered this and glad I did. Check out the spot at the DMZ…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Where the Hell is Matt? (2008)“, posted with vodpod

S. Koreans targeted for ties to US

Al Qaeda in Yemen said Thursday that it specifically targeted South Koreans in the country this month for Seoul’s ties to Washington.

Per the statement:

“Our heroic brother … Abu Obeida al-Jarrah, carried out a martyrdom-seeking operation … in response to South Korea’s role in the war on Islam in alliance with crusader forces under the guise of a war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Korea road trip

The key is avoiding the traffic out of Seoul. Do that and its smooth sailing all the way to Busan, with a stop along the way to peer at the stars in Mt. Jiri National Park and a quick tour of Taejeon on the way home.

About 10 kilometers past the town of Hwagae – known for its tea plantations and cherry blossoms – is the village of Uishin, which lies in a valley below rolling mountains that are home to dozens of small hermitages. One of these, Wontong Temple, is supposedly the site where Hyu-jong, who led an army of monks against Japanese invaders 500 years ago, first shaved his head and took the monastic oath.

Wontong Temple

Wontong Temple

We were told to park the car in front of a small guest house, behind which a trail began that meandered its way up to the small temple. A little boy stared from across the road as we packed what we’d need for the night, waddling over to get a closer look. The air was crisp, clean and invigorating after months of breathing in exhaust fumes while standing at jammed intersections.

We walked for about 40 minutes, soaking in the first signs of spring that were everwhere along the trail and wondering whether we’d taken a wrong turn until we heard the distinctive knock-knock of the wooden moktak used in prayer ceremonies. “You’ve gotten fat!”

I looked up to see a spritely older monk with bronzed skin that belied his 60 plus years. An old friend of my wife’s, it had been almost 10 years since we last met and I’d put on a few pounds. He stood below a cluster of bamboo that hid the temple, grinning as we huffed and puffed our way up to greet him.

Mt. Jiri National Park

Mt. Jiri National Park

The view was stunning, blue mountains with a coating of fog that stretched to the horizon. Not an apartment block or skyscraper in sight, just clouds and sky and a sense of lightness that permeated the whole place.

We sat over endless cups of tea, taking in the view as we reminisced on the past decade. Dinner was a simple meal of pickled vegetables and rice followed by shots of home made herbal liquor, then cognac, and finally wine as the stars slowly filled the sky. Our host broke out his flute.

“How will you manage here when you get older,” my wife asked. “How will you get down on your own?”

“Who needs to come down.”