The Korean Situation

I’m scared. I’ll admit it.

I don’t think anything is about to happen, and I have reasons for that. South Korea is going about its business as if everything is normal, because what the hell else can we do? But it’s unnerving to have talk of fire and fury directed at the place you live. I’ve started thinking about what I’d do if I had to leave.

Setting aside the rhetoric, though, it doesn’t appear that either the United States or North Korea is preparing for an actual war. The US has sent some planes our way, but that’s about it. No carrier group, no calling up of reservists like before the Gulf War and the Iraq War, no massive movement of troops or materiel. Soldiers in Korea and Guam are still in their barracks. (For what it’s worth, moving any great number of troops into South Korea would require at least the tacit approval of the government here, which has a pretty serious stake in not getting its country destroyed.)

On the North Korean side, I haven’t seen any reports of big troop movements: no tanks massing by the DMZ, no large-scale mustering, no panic in Pyongyang.

The biggest sign to look for — and there’s no hint of it — is a move to begin evacuating American citizens. There are well over a hundred thousand of us here, including diplomats and their families, and the US is likely to want to move us out of the way before doing anything big. So for the moment, at least, nothing big seems to be planned.

But it’s the small and unplanned that scares me. A planned large-scale war is something Trump’s generals are very unlikely to encourage, but I worry that our president might order a missile strike on impulse, without waiting for our military to be ready for North Korea’s response. What that response would be, we can’t know. It could be anything from total silence to a strike at Guam to a massive bombardment of Seoul.

 

I don’t think any of this is likely, mind you. But it’s not pleasant to consider the odds, or to keep hoping that something serious happens somewhere else in the world to distract the president. I hope this passes soon, and we can all move on with our lives.

Diversity at Google

So about that Google guy and his absurd fake-science rant about women. In my seven years at Google, I heard again and again from women in engineering that they felt slighted — left out of discussions, overlooked, underestimated. What happened with this post, and the author’s subsequent firing, didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with were women at Google: my tech writing colleagues, my first manager at DoubleClick, countless product managers and program managers and translation managers and UX designers and software engineers and women in other roles too. Women make tech better and women make Google better.

Here’s an example. Google is a global company that makes products for both women and men  — like, for example, smart phones that measure your steps. I remember a big meeting where this tech was explained: with the phone in your pocket, the accelerometer would measure each swing of your leg. But, someone asked, what about when the phone is in your purse? The guys on stage just sort of stared. Purses had not occurred to them, and they waved it off as something they’d solve later. It’s hard to imagine half the population’s needs being so easily dismissed if women had also been half the population on the engineering team.

The challenges of diversity

Diversity sometimes challenges us. I experienced this directly, and it wasn’t comfortable. I won’t go into the details, but at one point I found myself sitting in a room with an HR rep, trying to explain my way out of a comment I’d made to a female colleague in a private conversation. From her perspective, I’d questioned whether a woman could effectively lead a group of men. That wasn’t my intention, but I can see how she got there. I’d expressed myself poorly, and I take responsibility for that. But I’d also spoken against a background of pervasive, sometimes radical sexism whose extent and severity I don’t think I fully understood, and maybe I still don’t.

But you know what’s even more uncomfortable than a conversation with HR that makes you squirm and fucks up your quarterly performance review? Working an entire career in an industry and a company that makes you squirm and consistently undervalues, underrates, and underpays you because of who you are.

So I took my medicine. I defended myself, but I was also grateful to work for a company that took my colleague’s concerns seriously. There were things I needed to do better, and still are. I’m open to that. And I can think of moments across my 20 years of professional life where I’ve said sexist or racist things, or stood by while other people said them. We’re not going to make progress if we all pretend it’s someone else.

The right choice

Google made the right choice in firing the guy who wrote this manifesto, both for promoting grotesque and counterfactual stereotypes about women, and for expressing his views in a way that has been wildly disruptive to the company where he works. This isn’t, to me, a matter of free speech, nor a matter of political oppression. He wasn’t punished for his private speech or his conservatism, but for his public announcement in the workplace that he viewed a significant group of his colleagues as inherently unsuited for their work and prone to neuroticism.

It also matters that he was dead wrong. Not all viewpoints are equally valid.

I hope Google, and the larger tech world, learn from this incident. Much more needs to be done, clearly, if this sort of nonsense gains traction within the company.

For people who look like me, that means facing up to discomfort from time to time. We can handle it, though. Our women colleagues have handled it their whole careers. There’s a lot we could learn from them.

How to Respond to Hate

A couple of weeks ago, my sister and her husband, Shoshana and Ari Simones, came home from vacation to find a swastika and “JEW” spray-painted on their mailbox and on the fence beside their home.

This is in Phoenix, Arizona. This is in 2017.

This is a symbol that represents a policy of extermination of Jews through mass murder. It’s not nice to discover that someone who knows where you live wants to see you killed.

“We’re not afraid, we’re not ashamed”

A first instinct is to want to make it disappear as quickly as possible. A kind neighbor covered it with paper, and after calling the police, even tried to get it cleaned up before my sister and her husband got home. Although it’s probably good that she didn’t.

With great bravery, strength, tact and intelligence, my sister and brother-in-law decided to leave up the graffiti and go public.

With help from the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, Shoshana and Ari began talking to the press — AZ Central, ABC 15, Fox 10, 12 News, and more — making sure that the coverage always noted this was not an isolated incident, but part of a spike in anti-Semitic acts in Phoenix this year. Eventually the story went national, reaching the USA Today. “We’re not afraid,” my sister said, again and again. “We’re not ashamed. We’re proud Jews.”

The response from the community, at every level, was a rebuke to those who would intimidate and threaten Jews or other minorities. From the very beginning, to their credit, the Phoenix Police Department took the incident seriously, referring it to their special bias crimes unit, and the FBI stepped in as well. And the mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, gave Shoshana and Ari a call to express his support. At a more local level, neighbors sent flowers, came by to ask if there was anything they could do, sent notes of support. Strangers became friends.

“I definitely smile when I see it”

Of course, my sister and brother-in-law weren’t going to leave up a symbol of hate forever. But rather than cover it up as if nothing had happened, they decided to throw a party, inviting the community to come and repaint their mailbox with messages of love and inclusion.

From a symbol of hate, Shoshana and Ari brought the community together and created a symbol of joy. “I definitely smile when I see it,” my sister told AZ Central.

It’s notable that in the middle of all this, after Shoshana and Ari said they’d leave up the word “JEW” and write “PROUD” above it, someone — presumably the perpetrator — came in the middle of the night and covered over the graffiti with what appeared to be the same black spray paint that had been used in the first place.

It’s impossible to know why. Perhaps the perpetrator felt ashamed. Maybe it was a local kid whose parents got mad and made him cover it up. Or maybe the perpetrator was angry that his act, far from creating the intended fear and intimidation, was turning into a rallying point of support for Jews.

My friend Alena Tansey works for USAID, has been stationed in conflict and post-conflict regions like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and studied genocide prevention at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I talked to her about what happened, and she said that the best response to hate crimes isn’t to ignore them, and it’s not to be shocked, either. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge that these things happen, see any larger pattern that they might be part of, and then do whatever possible to empower the victims and disempower the perpetrators.

Which is exactly what Shoshana and Ari had done, and I couldn’t be prouder.

Do a mitzvah

Shoshana and Ari also made a request of the community. The “entrance fee” for their party was one good deed, or mitzvah, as we say in Hebrew. They asked people to join them in spreading light. So if you’re horrified by the act of hate that started this whole thing, please take one conscious action to bring positivity into the world. I’d be delighted if you could share it with me here.

For me, here in Korea, my good deed was to stand up and be counted at the Seoul LGBT Pride festival this weekend (I’ll have more to say about that soon). Like Jews, LGBT people are often the targets of hate, and the thousands of angry protesters outside Seoul Pride were intimidating, to be sure. But there was joy and celebration in the face of it. Despite the pouring rain, tens of thousands of people came to express themselves and their support for a more inclusive society at the largest LGBT event in Korea’s history.

There is no way to prevent every last incident of hate. The real danger, though, is not in these acts of hate themselves, but in the silence that too often surrounds them. We must stand up as individuals and communities to counter fear with love.

Pride

I am a proud Jew.

I am a proud bisexual.

I’m not afraid.

I’m not ashamed.

And I’m not alone.

Stop Abusing Quantum Physics

Quantum this, quantum that. Everybody loves a quantum, right? Because probability versus certainty so anything can happen, and nothing can be observed without the observer changing it, and it’s just so profound, you know? All that relativism and possibility!

Except it’s not a metaphor. Quantum physics isn’t some marvelous set of life principles you can scale up to living room size. It’s science stuff, which means that all that probability and uncertainty is actually really, really precise and strict.

(Same reason we don’t have giant spiders: they don’t scale up. They breathe using body surface, and surface area increases at a lower rate than volume. You’re welcome.)

Follow the bouncing ball

Let’s start with the whole thing about how observing something inevitably changes it. People looooove to make this one into a metaphor about how we all see things differently, how no two views are the same, blah blah blah.

But it’s actually a pretty straightforward concept: the way you observe something in quantum physics is to bounce something else off of it. And when you do that, you change the direction and velocity of the first thing. It’s like trying to figure out how big and fast a baseball is, and what direction it’s going, by throwing a basketball at it in mid-flight and seeing where the basketball goes. There’s nothing really profound about saying that hitting a moving baseball with a moving basketball changes the trajectory of both. There is similarly nothing really profound about saying that bouncing an electron off a photon changes the trajectory of both. (Being able to do it and measure it is pretty darn cool though.)

Scientist doing quantum measurements.

That’s really all we’re talking about here. Nothing mystical. Nothing about how we feel inside. Just that bouncing one thing against another thing affects both things. In the real world we know, this is how we look at stuff: photons bounce off the stuff, causing changes (which are small and hard to notice but can have visible effects over time like fading a work of art), and then we get hit in the eyeballs with the photons. For a thing to be observed, it has to interact with other things. Physically. And physical interactions cause change. This isn’t a metaphor for how Democrats and Republicans really need to come together and talk it out.

Probability not

And the probability stuff? The notion that everything is always fluctuating anyway, coming in and out of existence, so anything is possible? Well, theoretically. But the probability of a bunch of particles conspiring to turn your Ford Focus into a Tesla is so vanishingly small that, while not impossible, it might as well be. Quantum physics won’t get you washboard abs or pay off your student debt. It could, but it won’t.

Jerk.

And if you think that somehow you’re going to magic quantum mechanics into doing your bidding by using your superhot thought waves, go back to the first part of this post. If your thought beams were a real thing (they’re not), you’d be flinging basket balls at baseballs. You would be changing things in the physical world. You know, the way people at a Tesla factory do. No magic in that!

But of course none of that is happening anyway. Deepak Chopra is lying to you.

So please, stop using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for relativism or probability. It’s stupid and inaccurate and it makes the particles mad.

A Communion of Music

As a destination, Daegu doesn’t have much to recommend it. I’d come down from Seoul for one reason only: to see my friend Dong-Won Kim accompany the great pansori singer Bae Il-dong. So when we arrived at the address Dong-Won had sent us, far on the outskirts of Daegu, and found ourselves in the office of a loan shark next door to a tire shop, I was not amused.

After some frantic messaging, we got an updated address that took us deep into one of those ubiquitous beige apartment complexes, and at last we spotted Dong-Won waving his arms on the far side of a parking lot. With Korean musicians, it’s always a little yeogi-cheogi, a little here and there. But perched above a GS25 convenience store in the unlikeliest spot was this delightful little music cafe with an upright bass against the wall and a pair of master musicians getting ready to perform.

We were exactly nowhere, which is where a lot of the best things happen.

Intangible

We arrived in the middle of a screening of the documentary Intangible Asset No. 82, which tells the story of an Australian jazz drummer who comes to Korea in search of an elderly percussionist he’s obsessed with. Dong-Won becomes his guide, introducing him to some of Korea’s finest musicians — including Bae Il-dong — and providing about the best possible introduction to Korean traditional music.

When the film was over, I at last got to hear Bae Il-dong in person. His voice is an extraordinary instrument, raw but supple. There’s nothing showbiz about what he does. His only real trick is absolute mastery of his art form born from total dedication. He once spent seven years singing at a waterfall to develop his voice and find his sound.

Pansori is a storytelling art form, born as a communal activity among the lower classes in Southern Korea in the 19th century, full of humor and pathos, moments of sorrow and moments of joy. Il-dong sang a famous piece in which an old, blind man is reunited with the daughter he thinks he sent to her death — a shock so profound that he recovers his sight. The performance was vivid enough that my friend could grasp the gist of it without understanding the words.

As for me, I was startled by how much I did understand. During the film and the concert — which had a lot of lecture mixed in — I became my friend’s Dong-Won, leaning in to let him know what was going on. And for the first time, I found myself following along with the words of the pansori, even laughing at a few of the jokes I caught.

Community

After the concert, heaps of food were brought in — hearty, traditional Korean stuff — and everybody stayed on to eat and drink together. Dong-Won explained that Korean music is communal, in which the musicians don’t just transmit emotion to the audience, but share in a collective emotional experience.

After a little while, an emcee got up and began to chatter. Dong-Won explained that he was actually a fine musician and dancer who’s known for his skills as a clown and comedian, and soon it was clear what he was up to. He started pulling people up from the audience and getting them to sing: traditional songs, sometimes with Dong-Won pressed into rhythm accompaniment or with a guitarist picking out some backing chords. And these people knew their stuff. No one was at Bae Il-dong’s level, but these were people who’d spent time learning Korean traditional music and dance. Or some of them were, anyway. As the evening went on, the emcee made sure everyone got a chance to do something, whether it was singing an old pop tune or doing a little dance. I got up to dance too, showing off what I can remember of my Korean moves and then putting on the traditional grandfather mask and doing the requisite drunkard’s dance.

Eventually my friend grabbed a guitar and sang some classic rock — Oasis, Pink Floyd — while Dong-Won played the box and I had some fun thumping along on the janggu. It’s not every day you get to play with a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, so you’ve got to grab the opportunity when it comes. My friend sang, I drummed, people danced.

The road to nowhere

I said at the start that the best things often happen exactly nowhere. I’m thinking of a night in the little Burmese trekking village of Kalaw, where some guys at the back of a bar called Hi Snacks & Drinks got out acoustic guitars and sang the night away. I’m thinking of a pansori festival I saw on the banks of a river somewhere in Jeolla province when I lived here as a teacher. I’m thinking of a night spent in an obscure temple with just one other person — my Swiss shaman friend — sitting by the pagoda under the moonlight and listening to the chorus of cicadas and frogs. I’m thinking of northern Laos, where nothing happens, and of the house where I grew up in Marin County, California.

At the heart of Korean music is cyclicality: strong and soft, yang and yin, breath in and breath out, in every note and movement. Right now I’m leading just about the most yang existence imaginable, living in Gangnam and working for Samsung, but there’s an undertow of yin that’s calling to me.

“So save your money and then run away!” Dong-Won said, when we had a chance to talk about it.

Maybe.

“You and I have the same blood type,” he said. “Blood type W. Blood type wind.”

In the film, Dong-Won used a different metaphor from nature: you can be a lake, or you can be a river. A lake stays where it is, but a river is always carving out new paths, flowing where it’s never flowed before. Yeogi-cheogi.

He could have added that a river does this by letting go, not by force of will. I suppose that to heed the call of the yin is first of all to stop worrying about the yang. Things will go how they go. My life has taken enough surprising turns that if I go back over it in five-year increments, I realize that I never really had any idea what was coming. Why should now be any different?

Two Years Later

The other night at a team dinner at the Four Seasons buffet, I had a Proustian moment at the charcuterie table. The prosciutto and brie — rarities in Seoul — brought me back to nights at The Tippler, under Chelsea Market, where we would go to say goodbye to someone who was leaving our team at Google. It’s where I had my goodbye drinks.

It’ll be two years tomorrow. I don’t think that much about my New York life these days, but there are moments.

As I write this, I’m sitting on my veranda, watching the rain come down in sheets over the nearby apartment towers and Umyeon Mountain as the breeze plays with the leaves of my little hallabong tree out on the balcony. My life is different and not different. I work as a writer at a giant tech company, and I live in an apartment in a nice part of town.

Different tech company, different town.

Leaving New York

It took me a long time to leave New York. It’s hard to leave because it fools you into thinking that life outside of New York is both impractical and uncivilized. My grandfather, before he decamped for California, expressed a worry that he might not be able to buy duffel bags there, as if sack-and-zipper technology were exclusively the province of Canal Street artisans. And there’s a reflexive sense that being in New York makes you cultured.

It turns out, though, that there are ways to be cultured that don’t involve sucking down a grease triangle on a paper plate before riding the L train a hundred years to see your friend’s photos tacked to a Bushwick wall and pretending to have visited the latest Whitney show over plastic cups of cheap white wine. After I left New York, I discovered that LA has really good art museums now. In Bangkok, there are motorcycle gangs that look like American motorcycle gangs and play heavy metal on the street to raise money for charity. Up in Khon Kaen, the college kids play some mean ska, and they do it for hours nonstop. Yangon has a fascinating little art scene emerging in the crumbling but still gorgeous colonial buildings downtown, and there are some good galleries in Hanoi too. They play excellent Latin music at Carmen Bar in Saigon, and late in the evening they turn to French pop from the sixties that the older folks still remember. I saw Dengue Fever fight their way through a collapsing sounds system to play the most rock-and-roll show ever in Phnom Penh. Hanoi has good art galleries. In Hue I ate a sauteed lemongrass bird’s nest that was like nothing I’ve had before or since, and in Singapore there was a dessert made from artisanal pop rocks. Laos makes the loveliest textiles you’ve ever seen, and you can take a weaving class in Luang Prabang, then finish your day with exquisite French cuisine.

Seeing Seoul

16464989_258890017869115_8950001736446115840_nSeoul is deceptive in more or less the opposite way from New York. Seoul convinces you that everything is normal and there’s nothing to see. The standard tourist circuit includes some so-so palaces that were all rebuilt in the last 50 years anyway, plus a bunch of shopping districts where everyone’s wearing Western clothes and drinking Starbucks coffee. As a friend put it recently, “I was expecting Seoul to be more Asian.” The beige apartment towers, the red-brick residential buildings, the glass-and-stone commercial strips have an almost militant blandness, and the chain stores repeat like a canvas backdrop loop on a crank. Even the city slogan, “I.SEOUL.U,” manages to convey nothing, while its bizarreness distracts you from the actual city.

But for all that, Seoul is beguiling. It’s hard to explain. A New York fashion designer I met here told me that the city brought her back to life, that there was this one elegant building that caught her imagination with its elegant S-curve lighted up at night. That something about the people here touched her. I know what she means, but I don’t know how to convey it to anyone who hasn’t been here.

And now it’s home. I’ve spent a lot of nights in a lot of places in the last two years, but more of them here in this apartment than anywhere else. It’s been quite an adventure, and it’s still just beginning.

Seoul Jazz Festival 2017

Over a glorious weekend of bright sun and clear skies, a corner of Seoul’s Olympic Park played host to the Seoul Jazz Festival. Spread across three indoor venues and one outdoor main stage, the festival was extraordinarily well run: good sound, shows that started and ended on time, few serious lines, minimal hassles. Because Koreans are mostly pretty honest and not prone to public violence, security could be handled by college kids doing cursory bag and wristband checks at the entrances to venues, while the main pavilion was technically outside of any restricted area and open to the public, and you could go a little further to the local convenience store if you wanted to. Across two long days, I saw no drunkenness, no violence, no real incidents of any kind. Well done, Korea!

There was no way to see all the performances, of course, because of all the overlapping shows. But here’s what I did see.

Day 1

Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble: Good Latin jazz of a thinky variety. Arturo is a helluva piano player, and he’s got a trombonist who can make Korean girls scream.

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Echae Kang: A singer and violinist who does alternative rock that’s reminiscent of Jaurim. She’s definitely got something going on. Tremendously charistmatic, and her band is also very good. Definitely worth checking out.

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두번재달/2nd Moon: So the schtick is that the singer is a young, handsome guy who does pretty traditional pansori — a traditional style of story singing — while the backing band plays a mishmash of folky Americana. The hall was packed and the Koreans seemed to go for it, but it left me cold. The pansori singing was good but probably wouldn’t have seemed extraordinary in a traditional setting, while the backing music was undistinguished, and the combination never melded into more than the sum of its parts.

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Lianne La Havas: The highlight of the day and the most delightful surprise of the festival, Lianne La Havas is a British soul singer of Jamaican and Greek parentage. She played solo, just her voice and some very, very hip guitar playing. She sang mostly her own songs but also covered “Say a Little Prayer,” and it takes some guts to tackle a song everyone knows from the Aretha version. Her sense of rhythm is unerring, her lyrics are smart, and the songs are excellent. She reminded me at turns of Sade, Ani Di Franco, and Bill Withers.

Part of the charm of her set was her evident surprise and delight at finding a passionate fanbase in Korea. Crowds of Korean girls were singing along, hanging on her every word, calling out for favorites or just shouting that they loved her. I noticed this with a lot of the musicians, actually: they seemed very, very happy. Apparently the Seoul Jazz Festival treats its performers right, and it’s probably a relief, when your booking agent has told you that you’ll be playing at a park in the afternoon in South Korea, to discover an entirely professional setup with great sound and support.

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지코/Zico: Korean hip hop. Unmemorable stuff for kids.

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Avishai Cohen Quartet: Thorny, confrontational Israeli jazz with none of the decorum and studiousness that can make a lot of American and Scandinavian jazz these days so toothless. This is not easy music. Cohen takes traditional jazz and fragments it into shards, but his musicians have the rigor to hold the pieces together, and Cohen’s plaintive tone on the trumpet is what Miles Davis might have sounded like if he’d grown up hearing the shofar.

Day 2

오프온오프/OFFONOFF: Off off off.

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Squirrel Nut Zippers: I saw the Squirrel Nuts way back in the 1990s, during the swing revival back then. Like me, they’re a lot older now. They still put on a great show with lots of energy and loopy antics, and they still suffer from the same fundamental flaw they’ve always had, which is that they’re just not such great musicians. They play swing with the skill of a ska band, and it’s not quite enough if you’ve grown up on the Count and the Duke and know what swing sounded like in the hands of people like Ben Webster and Lionel Hampton and Sweets Edison, et. al. The Squirrel Nut Zippers are the cotton candy of swing: colorful and fun, but they leave you hungry and slightly queasy.

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Cecile McClorin Salvant: Salvant is a serious and skilled jazz musician of a particular sort. She grew up on classical and came to jazz late, and her approach — fishing up obscure old songs, often focused on the travails of underprivileged women of color — can feel like a graduate seminar on intersectional feminism. There’s something pedantic about it, and the music and musicality can seem secondary, even if the level of skill is hard to argue with. It never caught fire for me.

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Tower of Power: Ho. Ly. Fuck.

Go see Tower of Power. Do it now.

Tower of Power, the Soul-Funk institution from Oakland, is in its 49th year and still has three of its original members. This won’t go on forever. On records they can sound a little wan, a little too smooth. Live, they’re something else. How these old dudes have this much energy, this much funk, this much soul, I don’t know. But they do. The horns are legendary and deservedly so. The bass player — still an original member — is slinky and groovy like funk base oughtta be.

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Tower of Power has always been a backing band, the JB’s without a James Brown, and their singers over the years have been better and worse. Their latest singer is phenomenal. Marcus Scott is a Memphis soul singer in the Otis Redding vein, a showman with tremendous range and a master soul man’s consummate skill in whipping the crowd into a frenzy. His dance moves, his passionate patter, his descents from the stage and into the crowd had the Koreans going nuts, and I think it would’ve worked on anyone anywhere. With the giant force of Tower of Power behind him, Scott put on a glorious show that had everybody jumping. It’s this — soul, funk, sweatin’ it out — that makes me proud to be an American. This is our gift to the world. (The Koreans knew it, too, and I was impressed that a few guys behind me knew the words to every song.)

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Zion T: The Korean pop and soul singer didn’t exactly follow Tower of Power — he was in another venue — but because Jamiraquoi dropped out for health reasons, much of the Tower of Power crowd went to see Zion T right after. A smart and savvy singer who writes good songs, he managed to hold his own. We stuck around long enough to hear a couple of his biggest hits, “This Song” and “Seethrough,” before heading out and calling it a night.

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Imaginary Lines

Much of what we think of as the real world is actually collective dreaming. Money, laws, social mores, nation states don’t exist in any absolute sense; they’re not real the way rocks and trees and gravity are real. They’re shared agreements that could evaporate in an instant, and sometimes do.

Confronted by a national border, we are suddenly reminded how arbitrary our shared agreements are: the money in my pocket can be exchanged for goods on this side of the imaginary line, but not that side; I can relax here in the shade of this tree, but if I try to rest in the shade of that tree over there, armed men will stop me unless I go through a particular ritual involving specially prepared documents.

The DMZ — the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea — is an especially arbitrary border, the result of hasty decisions at the close of World War II and a military stalemate in 1953. It’s also the site of a bitter struggle between competing collective dreams, where each side has been preparing for 64 years for the other side to wake up and adopt the worldview of its opponent.

Dorasan Station

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A full-day tour of the DMZ begins at Dorasan Station, the northernmost point on the South Korean railway system and a monument to a South Korean dream of unification. The fully functional station has been used exactly once, for a test run into North Korea during a thaw in relations. It sits waiting for the moment when rail service to points north becomes possible. You have to buy a ticket to go to the platform. On the way in, I noticed a South Korean tap his paper ticket to the top of the turnstile, the way you do with your digital transit card in an operational South Korean train station. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens here.

The Third Tunnel

For all that borders and nation states are imaginary, certain things are all too real: the landmines that make the DMZ impassable, and the tunnels the North Koreans dug at various points in attempts to infiltrate into South Korea. We visited the Third Tunnel because it’s the closest to Panmunjom. Surreally, you enter the tunnel in a little open train that feels like a kiddie ride at an amusement park.

Like everything else along the DMZ, the tunnels are the subject of a propaganda war. The North Koreans first claimed they had nothing to do with the tunnel — discovered by the South Koreans in 1978 because of underground explosions — then later claimed it was a coal mining operation, though the walls are obviously granite and the odds of finding coal in such a location are exactly zero.

Outside the tunnel, big letters spelling out DMZ are a kitschy place to take a photo, while a statue of young people pushing a divided world back together unfortunately made me think of Humpty Dumpty.

In a small garden at the edge of the compound, you could hear music drifting in on the breeze: South Korean propaganda being blasted at the North. This audio war, in which the North and South played music and taunting messages at ever increasing volume, had fallen into an armistice during the period of the Sunshine Policy, but the South started it up again a couple of years ago in response to some North Korean provocation or other, and now any North or South Koreans close enough to the border are subject to the whimsical musical choices of whatever South Korean colonel is in charge. On this particular day, I caught a bit of an old pop tune from 1994. (Thank you, Shazam.)

Looking down

From the tunnel, you continue on to Dorasan Observatory, where you can finally peer down on North Korea itself and see its enormous flagpole — once the highest in the world — which was built to overtop a South Korean flagpole. There’s a village down there that US officials say is empty and always has been: a Potemkin village that would be more laughable if we hadn’t just visited South Korea’s Potemkin train station. And you can see out to Kaesong, the industrial complex that was once the site of South Korean businesses operating in North Korea but is now shuttered.

There’s a line of mounted binoculars at Dorasan Observatory, and for 500 won you can take a closer look at the mysterious country beyond. I managed to catch sight of some fieldworkers — most clad in white, a few on the edges in gray, maybe supervisors or guards or who knows what. There was a frisson to seeing actual North Koreans, like spotting a rare animal on safari, and also a kind of sickening feeling about such voyeurism. It’s true that I’ve taken photos of poor peasant farmers in Laos and Myanmar without feeling particularly weird about it, but at least those folks could engage with me if they had wanted to. I was looking down on North Koreans who had no way of looking back.

Human beings

A DMZ tour isn’t really about North Koreans as human beings. At no point did any of our tour guides, South Korean or American, mention North Korea’s awful human rights record or the recurring famines that continue to torment the North Korean people. One way the DMZ works as an imaginary space is by turning North Koreans from individuals into representatives of their state: Bob the soldier, or tiny little dots in the distance seen from Dorasan, or anonymous tunnel diggers. But I know about all these things. I have friends who grew up on the other side of that border, and I know some of the hardships they endured, some of the traumas they still carry with them.

Perhaps that’s why the most affecting moment of the tour, for me, was a brief stopover after lunch, at a kitschy little tourist trap in Paju, close to the border. There we saw the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged and had the option of choosing one or the other Korea to stay in. To consider the bridge was to think about the individuals crossing it, the reasons they had for choosing one side or the other and the sacrifices this must have entailed. We also learned about a shrine where people with North Korean roots come to do ancestor worship on the major Korean festivals, when all the other Koreans are heading to their hometowns. The thought of those people cut off from their roots was ineffably sad, and it made me think of the Book of Lamentations and the suffering of Jews in exile who could no longer reach their beloved Jerusalem.

Panmunjom

The highlight of the tour was our visit to the Panmunjom Truce Village. South Koreans aren’t allowed to join this part of the tour, and it’s frankly weird that anyone else can go there. We switched from our tour bus to a different bus, leaving our bags behind, and now we were under the care of a young American infantryman with a pistol prominently at his side.

The truce village itself isn’t much to look at, just some military buildings and some sheds in the middle, but everything is formal and tense. First we were given an introductory slideshow, narrated by our American soldier. We learned about the incident in which North Koreans hacked to death with axes two Americans who were trying to cut down a tree that blocked their view. We learned of a firefight that broke out in the 1980s when a Soviet journalist bolted for the South Korean side. We learned that the North Koreans never give the South Koreans or the US any information about what they plan to do, but that the South Koreans announce the day’s schedule and activities through a bullhorn each day to try to minimize the chances of any incidents.

Then, as we marched out into the open, we were told not to stop for anything, not even to tie our shoes, and not to try to signal to the North Koreans in any way. We stood outside for a bit, gazing across at a lone North Korean soldier standing in front of their rather formal building. The Americans call him Bob because he likes to bob in and out of the columns when the tourists come. South Korean soldiers stood around here and there, facing both north and south, motionless and intense in their taekwondo stances. (Their shifts are three-and-a-half hours.)

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Finally we had our turn to go inside the conference room. The American cheerfully said, “You’re in North Korea! You’re in North Korea!” as people began crossing the dividing line at the center of the room. Also in North Korea were two more of those motionless North Korean guards, there to prevent anyone from doing anything interesting. We stayed there for a few minutes, then filed out again.

Self-defense

Once we’d departed the truce village, I asked the American soldier about his life in Korea. He’s never been able to go down to Seoul, but sometimes he goes drinking in the nearest South Korean village. (Villagers near the border get free land and exemptions from taxes and military service, but you have to have North Korean roots to get the deal, and you also have to be back in your village before dark each night.)

He also said that being a tour guide made him the laughingstock of the infantry. “I got buddies who’re going to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan,” he said. “At least they can defend themselves.” Then he paused. “I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

I wondered what he meant by that. Are American troops at the DMZ supposed to retreat or surrender if fighting breaks out? Maybe. I think the US would rather lose a few soldiers as prisoners and have time to negotiate or calculate a response rather than have an escalating military engagement in which North Korean soldiers are killed or wounded. This is probably not much fun for the US troops involved to contemplate, but it makes sense.

Back to our reality

And then, with one final visit to a gift shop, our tour came to an end. You can buy I Heart DMZ merchandize, which has a certain absurdist charm. I bought an armband like the ones the South Korean soldiers wear.

Then we rode the bus back down to Seoul, and my friends and I headed for Hongdae and its Saturday Night crowds. We ate barbecue and bingsu, watched buskers, bought some swanky new clothes at Aland. Some rampant capitalist indulgence felt good after a day spent contemplating one of the least compelling alternatives ever devised. But it also felt a little less real, a little more imaginary than usual. 

Every Artist You’ve Ever Loved

You have to be bloody-minded, and you have to be awkward. You have to be, like, “I’m doing it like this.” It doesn’t matter what everyone’s saying it should be like. Every artist you’ve ever loved has done that.
– Richard Russell 

How Crowded is Your Bus?

When I say that life in Korea keeps getting better, I mean things like Seoul’s newly announced bus congestion monitoring.

There are electronic signboards at most bust stops that currently show which buses are coming and in how many minutes. This is already a phenomenal system, and the GPS it relies on is also available to local mapping apps, which can tell you how long you have to wait for the next bus going to where you want to go. The current system is an astonishing upgrade from the mapless chaos that prevailed back in 2001, when the buses were so confusing and unpleasant that I wrote an essay about it.

And now you’ll be able to see which buses are packed or empty before they arrive — especially useful at stations like the one I use every day in Yangjae, where any of a dozen buses will take me up Gangnamdaero and home. Instead of shoving myself into a packed 407 because it’s there, I could check the signboard and see that there’s a 440 coming in two minutes that has seats.

These kinds of improvements are individually not that big a deal. But there have been so many of them! When I first came to Korea, Saturday was still a workday for a significant number of people outside the retail sector. The rivers were in worse shape. The hiking trails weren’t nearly as well maintained. Coffee was uniformly terrible. And on and on.

Since I arrived last summer, already I’ve seen more of these kinds of incremental improvements: a plan to add more trash cans in Seoul, a plan to get end the practice of putting used toilet paper in smelly wastebaskets and use dissolving toilet paper instead, a president elected on pledges to reduce overwork and extend aid to the elderly, the opening of a Highline-style park. Bit by bit, things get better. It’s impressive and inspiring.