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.



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.


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.

Harold Koh on Sharia law

An article disputes attacks on Obama’s legal appointee Harold Koh over his comments regarding Sharia law and the U.S. legal system.

I was in the room with my husband and several fellow alumni, and we are all adamant that Koh never said or suggested that sharia law could be used to govern cases in US courts. The subject of his talk was Globalization and Yale Law School, so, of course, other forms of law were mentioned. But never did Koh state or suggest that other forms of law should govern or dictate the American legal system […]

Koh’s commitment to the rule of law is what really offends the hard right. His belief in the supremacy of US law has put him in direct conflict with some of the conspiracists’ favorite folks. Dean Koh testified before Congress against the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General because of Gonzales’ support for torture. He also challenged the right of George H.W. Bush to house innocent Haitian refugees at a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Koh’s opponent — then-Solicitor General Ken Starr — argued that US law did not apply at Guantanamo, and thus the Haitians had no rights. Koh argued that both U.S. law and U.S. morality certainly applied there.

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.

American journalists to be tried in NK

The two journalists detained by North Korea and being held in the country are going to be tried for illegal entry and “hostile acitivities,” according to Yonhap.

According to the North’s Korean Central News Agency:

The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements, according to the results of intermediary investigation conducted by a competent organ of the DPRK.

There’s a lot of speculation that the North will make a good will gesture by releasing the two women after they are found guilty to gain points with Washington. What the US does in response to the North’s upcoming launch in April will likely have a lot to do with the fate of the detained reporters.

As far as the moral highground here, in light of Guantanamo and the number of illegal immigrants jailed in the US under conditions perhaps only slightly less traumatizing than a North Korean labor camp, Washington doesnt have much of a leg to stand on.


The big question seems to be whether Washington or Tokyo will move to take out a North Korean rocket.  Here’s an interesting inside look at what went on in 2006, the last time North Korea tested a missile.

In late 2006, Lt. Gen. Joseph Inge, then-deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command, confirmed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system on full alert; interceptor crews at Fort Greely, Alaska, were in place to react to a possible launch; and Rumsfeld personally took part in training exercises meant to test the rules of engagement. When the launch was detected, conference calls with command authorities quickly got underway. But the “threat track” for the missile, however, disappeared before any decision to engage.

That test failed shortly after launch, hence there was no time (or need as it turns out) to make a decision. The finger was on the trigger though, and it’s likely there again now.

Possible post-launch scenarios include a naval skirmish, or more likely short-range missiles fired into waters off its coast. Hostilities along the border, though this seems unlikely due to the treat of a wider conflict breaking out. Another nuclear test would deplete what plutonium the North has left as well as strain ties with Beijing.

The Reuters article suggests another ballistic missile test would undermine the North’s claim of peaceful space development, but intercepting its launch would pretty much do away with that whole premise so I wouldn’t be as quick to dismiss the possibility.

Detained journalists in Pyongyang

The latest on the two American journalists being held in North Korea from the JoongAng Ilbo. As with everything on the North, speculation takes the place of certifiable intelligence, though the article does highlight the role played by South Korean intelligence in aiding Washington.

The U.S. intelligence community asked South Korea for help using the South’s humint, or human intelligence, referring to intelligence gathered through human contacts. While U.S. intelligence may be a step ahead in its high-tech satellites and other devices, it decided South Korea would be better able to collect humint. And in a relatively short time, South Korea came up with the information.

According to South Korean sources, the journalists ventured into North Korean territory at 3 a.m. last Tuesday hoping to get a closer view of that side of the border. They are now being held in Pyongyang and the intelligence community here says they could be charged with espionage, which carries a 20 year sentence. Others speculate they could be forced into giving a taped confession and then released as a “good will” gesture.

The timing of this is couldn’t be worse. While I sympathize with their efforts to tell the story of North Korean refugees, I can’t help but think of inexperienced mountain climbers who ignore the warnings and put at risk those who are forced to come to their rescue. Only in this case its all those folks on the footage contained in their cameras that are at risk once their identities become known to North Korean intelligence.

UPDATE: Reporters Without Borders is calling on North Korea to release the two detained journalists and called the incident a kidnapping if the two were in fact taken while on the Chinese side of the border.