Rootless

I don’t live in America.

I live in Korea now. I’ve been out of the US for a while. And there is, pretty clearly, a lot I don’t understand about my country.

This is some of what’s been running through my head the last couple of days. It’s not a balanced analysis or a prediction of the future or a plan of action. I don’t know what America will do next, and I don’t know what Americans should do next. I know I’ve misunderestimated Donald Trump pretty much every step of the way, and I hope I’m misunderestimating him still. I hope he’s a wonderful, beautiful president and in four years I’m totally embarrassed about the fear and dismay I feel now. But I’m not holding my breath.

Are you Jewish?

When I was a teenager, waiting for the bus under the highway at Fourth and Heatherton in San Rafael, California, a dude with a shaved head and a Budweiser tallboy in a paper bag stalked up to me, got right in my face, and barked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, too startled to think of lying.

“Whadda you play?”

“Guitar?”

“Oh.” He stomped away, leaving me to my confusion. How did he know I played an instrument? How did he know I was Jewish, and why was he asking? There was something clipped, amped up about the way he spoke. I was wary.

A minute later he turned back to me. “Wanna join a punk band?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not very good.”

“You don’t have to be good. It’s punk.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not really into punk.”

He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, “you prolly don’t wanna join an Aryan punk band anyway.”

I didn’t know the guy, but I knew guys like him. They hung out at a San Rafael club called the Copa, or they drove trucks and hung out in front of the 7-Eleven in Santa Venetia. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that they hung out there, instead of somewhere more pleasant like Denny’s or the pool hall or Caffe Nuvo in San Anselmo, because they had no money, and you can hang out in a parking lot for free.

 

They had crap lives, those guys. They were going nowhere. They had lousy grades and probably got beaten up by the men in their lives. There were probably good reasons for them to be angry. Their resentment had causes. But it wasn’t something I wanted to go explore with them while they were drawing swastikas on their school desks and shooting spit wads at the back of my head. Just because your life is shitty, that doesn’t make it OK to be an asshole.

 

It can happen here

After Trump was elected, I asked my family to make sure they had up-to-date passports for themselves and their children. It’s not that I think the end is nigh, or that America 2016 is Germany 1932. But German Jews in 1932 didn’t think it was going to get that bad either. And if it does get bad enough that my family needs to leave, there’s some chance that the US government might at that point have suspended passport issuance, or just run into endless delays.

Better to be ready.

I grew up Jewish in America, with a sense that I was different. I was taught that the veneer of acceptance was paper thin — that the violence of anti-Semitism could erupt even in what was one of the great safe havens in our history. I sometimes believed that and sometimes didn’t. It irritated me when Rabbi Lipner, the dean of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, would rant to us about how our goyische friends weren’t really our friends. But he’d been through the Holocaust, and you had to understand where he was coming from.

Right now I’m thinking that the things that happened in Babylonia and Rome and Persia and Italy and Russia and Spain and Germany and France and Poland and Lithuania and Hungary and Iraq and Egypt and Ethiopia could maybe happen again. Even in America. Now is hardly the moment for that sort of American exceptionalism.

Ask your black friends whether they think America is capable of sustained ethnic violence.

I suppose this is what #blacklivesmatter has been saying all along: that it’s frightening to live in a place where a certain part of the population wants to hurt and humiliate and maybe kill you, and the people in charge don’t seem to mind all that much, and they seem to think that maybe you’ve had it coming. Black people have dealt with that pretty much nonstop for the last hundred fifty-odd years. It was worse before that.

And no, I don’t think anyone’s coming for the Jews first. It’s queerfolk (also me), people of color, Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, the vaguely Muslimlike who should be most afraid. (The Jews weren’t first on Niemöller‘s list either.) I expect that there will be ugly abuses in the immigrant roundups. People will end up dead. People will disappear. Courts will say that no one is at fault, that rights don’t extend to non-citizens, that mistakes are inevitable. That, I think, is much more likely than any sustained reign of anti-Semitism.

Cold comfort.

Rootless cosmopolitanism

The night Trump was elected, I had dinner with a black woman from Brooklyn. We ate kebabs in Gangnam and talked about not fitting in. I told her that I realized a while ago that I live in foreign countries because I feel like I don’t belong, rather than feeling like I don’t belong because I’m living in foreign countries.

My friend is looking for somewhere outside the United States to live, maybe find a husband and start a family. But in much of the world blackness is something to appropriate before discarding the actual people. Koreans love hip-hop but don’t necessarily love black girls.

She wondered if I knew what it was like to have your culture endlessly appropriated while you yourself are devalued. I explained that that’s what Christianity is for Jews: we’ve been beaten up with our own holy scriptures for two thousand years now. Jesus was a hero to most…

We Jews get accused a lot of disloyalty to whatever country we happen to be in. Often the result has been expulsion or internal exile. That happens enough times, and everywhere begins to seem provisional. It’s not an accident that some Jews have a tradition of wearing shoes and dressing for travel at the Passover seder. The story of our people begins with a violent expulsion.

The places I belong are the places where the wanderers intermingle, where cultures blend: big world capitals, backpacker havens, university campuses, international corporations. They’re often elitist places. They’re not salt-of-the-earth places. My people have mostly not been allowed to own land or be salt of the earth. We live on trade, exchange, ideas, intangibles. We invented an incorporeal God, and we’ve been in on some pretty serious abstract thinking, whether it’s psychology or relativity or Communism or third-order financial derivatives.

Abstract ideas are both difficult to grasp and enraging. It’s actually true that unseen forces control people’s lives: viruses and quantum mechanics, yes, and also the opaque machinery of international finance and trade, and invisible gases that change the climate. And if you’re not happy with your life, you get mad at those unseen forces, and at the people who seem to be in control of them.

This election — yes, I’m still talking about that, somehow or other — was a repudiation of all the thinky, abstract people on both sides, as much a smackdown of Paul Ryan and Bill Kristol as of the left. It turns out the angry mob doesn’t care that much about supply-side economics or constitutional originalism. They want insults and cruelty.

The center does not hold

There are moments in history when the center does not hold. Are we at one of those moments? It’s hard to know. It isn’t 1914 or 1939. But these moments creep up on us. As of January, the three largest countries in the world will be run by a shadowy Communist regime, a Hindu nationalist, and whatever Trump is. Europe seems to be in the process of dismantling the economic arrangements that have made continental war impossible. Marie Le Pen and Frauke Petry are ascendant. The Philippines has elected a goon. Being a moderate is not in style.

Here in Korea, the inept daughter of the old dictator was elected president in a spasm of nostalgia for authoritarianism, and a lot of people here felt the way a lot of Americans feel right now. She’s currently embroiled in a bizarre scandal that has left her with an approval rating of 5 percent and left South Korea with no functioning leadership.

I’m not sure right now how I feel about democracy.

(As has happened so often in world history, the Persians were ahead of the curve and get no credit: the Iranian revolution might be the first great spasm of the nativism and tribalism and nationalism and fundamentalism that is seizing the world.)

Requiem for a forgotten dream

In 2000, Al Gore was elected president after a campaign that didn’t get caught up in the question of why he once wore a brown suit and in which a third-party candidate was not able to convince any significant portion of the electorate that the two major parties were basically the same.

Al Gore became president, and his administration kept up the pressure on Osama Bin Laden’s obscure terrorist organization, occasionally firing cruise missiles into faraway places, which kindhearted liberals like me tended to find shameful. FBI and CIA monitoring quietly disrupted a plan to hijack some planes.

The Gore administration put global warming at the center of its agenda, and America used its considerable economic weight to push China to join a global carbon trading regime.

Rudy Giuliani retired quietly at the end of a tumultuous two terms as mayor of New York, and his nastiness came to seem sort of charming as he became a fixture on NY1, arguing with Al Sharpton.

Early in Gore’s second term, a hurricane hit New Orleans, and everyone agreed that it was a good thing the Army Corps of Engineers had repaired the levees. And an administration undistracted by foreign war hiked interest rates sharply in 2006 and began investigating the shady practice of bundling subprime mortgages as investment vehicles.

And the center held.

And there were no pulverized bodies raining down on New York or floating bloated in the streets of New Orleans, and there were no hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and there were no CIA torture sites spread around the world, and there were trillions of dollars that weren’t spent on fruitless wars, and ISIS didn’t emerge from the chaos of those wars, and our police weren’t militarized with the surplus gear and PTSD from those wars, and revanchist fascism didn’t become the new normal around the world.

 

Like a Bowl of Laksa

Da Nang, Vietnam

Once you get beyond Kuala Lumpur, peninsular Malaysia offers tourists three things: mountain highlands, beaches, and historical trade cities. I opted for the latter. There are beaches and mountains elsewhere in the region — I’d just spent a good bit of time on both — but what’s unique to Malaysia is the melange of cultures created by its strategic geographical location and its history. Like a bowl of laksa, Malaysia is a mix of cultural influences that can sometimes be a bit sour or strange, but is worth tasting.

Melaka and Penang

In my brief visit to Malaysia, I visited just two destinations beyond Kuala Lumpur: Melaka City, the capital of Melaka State, and George Town, on the island of Penang. Each is a historic trading city that has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and each is a mixture of European, Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences, with the Baba Nyonya — the local term for the Malaysian Chinese — leaving the strongest mark in each place.

Melaka (Malacca) (photos) is the smaller of the two, an old Dutch trading port whose importance has long since faded. The old city has been restored and decked out in murals, but there are traces of earlier, less heritage-driven attempts to drum up tourism: a defunct monorail, an abandoned pirate-themed amusement park, an unfortunate thing of overdecorated trishaws — cycle rickshaws — done up in LED lights and Hello Kitty or Doraemon and blasting music. George Town, on the island of Penang, is larger and more vibrant, and there’s still a major working port on the mainland nearby, in Butterworth. But Georgetown, too, shows signs of misguided early development: the highest building, just beyond the heritage area, is a soaring tower, now in a state of disrepair, whose lower floors house one of the most depressing malls I have ever been to.

I enjoyed my time in both cities. In Melaka, it was thrilling just to gaze out at the sea and realize I was looking across one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The old city is beautiful and evocative, and it came alive with the Friday night market on Jonker Street. And I met fascinating people, like the Chinese Eurasian proprietor of a restored Dutch heritage house, who told me about Catholics he knows with Jewish surnames like Menasseh, and also seemed to believe that though you can’t come into Malaysia on an Israeli passport, there are secretly Israeli advisors at the highest levels of government.

In Penang (photos), I stayed in an elegant bed and breakfast, You Le Yuen, in a restored building on Love Lane, supposedly so called because that’s where the rich Chinese merchants kept their mistresses (I stayed in the North Studio Suite). My arrival happened to be the night of the Chingay Parade, which centered on teams that carried great banners on enormous bamboo poles, which they would toss or kick into the air so that one member of the team could catch the pole on his forehead and run with it for a while.

Penang is known for its food, and everyone says to go to the hawker stalls, so I did. The food was good, and varied, and often delicious, but I’m not sure it’s travel-across-the-world delicious.

Penang is also where I had my most extensive interactions with someone who was Malay, as opposed to Indian or Chinese, which is mostly who I ended up talking to in Malaysia. It was at the mosque, where a young man beside a banner about Muslims respecting Jesus roped me into a theological discussion involving several faiths I don’t believe in. He was gracious if passionate — at one point, he tried to inspire me by beginning a recitation of the Koran — and invited me into the mosque at prayer time. I watched him wash, but when he invited me to pray with him, I declined.

Fruitful misunderstandings

On Christmas, I went on my own to watch a movie (the new Star Wars!) and eat some Chinese food, as is the way of my people. Then, in the evening, my Indian friend took me to his brother’s Christian “open house” gathering, under some party tents in a vacant lot between a highway overpass and an elevated rail line. We ate Indian food that was too spicy even for the Indians, and then dessert was some sort of porridgey thing with noodles and beans, served in a cup. My hosts asked me what I thought of it.

“At first it was weird,” I said. “Then it was OK in the middle, and now that it’s gone, I kind of want more.”

The same could be said for my visit to Malaysia. After the warmth and ease of Thailand, Malaysia was prickly, strange, difficult. But it was difficult in a way that I found compelling on some level. I think Malaysia will stick in my mind. It’s an awkward country, cobbled together out of disparate cultures and in grave danger of exploding, yet it’s wealthier than most of its neighbors. It’s an oil state, and also a palm oil state — so much oil palm is planted that Malaysia has to import coconuts from Thailand — but it has the potential to be much more. Unlike Thailand or Vietnam, it has no real ancient roots; it was created as British and Dutch tin mines and rubber plantations, and its peoples and cultures are immigrants. It’s complex and messy enough that I could imagine staying interested in it, the way I stayed interested in Korea — which I also didn’t love after my first experience there. I wouldn’t put Malaysia at the top of your tourist list, but I wouldn’t put Korea there either, and I plan to live there.

My host told me the story of a Chinese Malaysian woman who got set up with an Australian man for a dinner date. As they were ordering, the woman asked, “Do you like me?” It was a forward question, but the man answered, “Yes, I suppose I do.” Eventually they married.

Except that she was asking, “Do you like mee?” — noodles. Malaysia feels like a country built out of such misunderstandings, a country where the locals have trouble talking to each other but muddle through anyway.

Bonus: What Malaysia gets right that the world gets wrong

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you check in, drop off your bags, and then go to the departure gates — and not through security. Instead, your security screening happens at the gate, when the flight is just about ready for boarding. You then wait in a sort of holding pen, for just a few minutes, between security screening and actual boarding.

This system means you’re not on a security line with everyone else coming to the airport, regardless of when their flights are and when yours is. It means that there’s far less time between your security check and your boarding — and far fewer opportunities to, say, slip into the back of a restaurant and get a knife. Your security line is just a part of your boarding process, not a separate waiting period.

Other airports should do it this way. It might require extra security staff, and it definitely requires the construction of secure holding areas by each gate. Not every airport has the capacity. But new airports should adopt the KLIA model.

Trekking Beyond Pai

Pai, Thailand

You learn a great deal when you spend a day and a night with the local people, even when it’s structured and touristic. All the better if you remember that you’re seeing one small corner of a much larger society, presented through one or two viewpoints; the perspective is less sociological than anthropological, which is to say novelistic and personal.

I went on a one-day, one-night trek with Pai Adventure, the same outfit that took me rafting, and with Paul, the same guide who steered our boat. Along the way, I learned about this part of Thailand, where the land of the Tai ethnic group butts against the Shan and Karen peoples in the Burmese borderlands, and what Paul thinks of it.

Into the farms

We began with a drive up past Hong Nam Saen, Pai’s bigger brother out on the main road, until we veered off, down a dirt road, and began our walk into the hills. Along with our guide, Paul, there were five of us: Tammie, a 52-year-old Aussie train driver and florist who has been to 71 countries; Liu, a young Japanese Ph.D. student in biochemistry; and a young French couple, Gaelle and Julian. Gaelle studied cultural management, which strikes me as a very French thing to study; Julian is a pilot, just beginning his career with a small Swiss airline. Julian was also rather ill as we began our trek, and I worried how things might go if his upset stomach worsened into something acute.

The first half of the day was spent mostly in farmland that has been carved out of the surrounding mountain jungle: fields of peanuts, red bean, and especially corn. As we walked, paul explained the economics of each crop — the price per kilo, the kilos a field could produce, how long a farmer had to work to grow that much — and came up with hourly rates that did not make farming seem like a good proposition. We calculated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of no one living on less than a dollar a day was being met by farmers who were earning something like B150 ($4.50 or so), but Paul also explained that when he worked on farms in his younger years, his B30 would buy him enough for a great heap of food at the market and a tuk-tuk home, while now just the tuk-tuk is B20. It makes sense that prices would be rising in a country that has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, and also that the rural farmers would bear the brunt of it.

Added to their burden is the corn situation. According to Paul, the government encouraged people to clear the jungle and plant corn, which the government promised to buy at a subsidized rate. You could hear the trees falling “like elephant crashing, boom! boom! boom!” Paul told us, waving his hands in every direction. The trouble began when the subsidies ran out. The corn variety the farmers grow is for animal feed, not human consumption, and whether it’s GMO or not I’m not sure, but it’s one of those types where you have to buy the seeds again each year. Without the government coming in to buy the stuff at fixed prices, Paul estimated that the farmers struggle to net more than B50,000 (about $1400) in a year on a plot of land that takes three people to work. The seeds, the weed killing chemicals, and even gasoline to ride motorbikes back and forth to the farm every day, cut into the profits. (All day we saw farmers putting by on motorbikes, up and down the rutted dirt trails, going empty into the hills and coming down with sacks of crops.)

We climbed up a long way into the hills, then stopped for a break in a small village where there was a shop run by an old Shan couple. The old woman served us coffee — hot water and Nescafe, which I hope is less disastrous than the “Mexican coffee” that did in my brother and me some years back — while the old man sat and sipped his can of Chang beer, setting it down beside two empties. It was 11:30 am.

A short while later, we stopped for lunch at a shelter in a cornfield. Paul pulled out plastic bags of rice and chicken curry, and we all tucked in, except Julian, who had just managed to keep down a few swallows of the warm Coke he’d bought back in the village. Paul topped it off with some bananas he’d cut from a farmer’s tree along the way, and then we all napped for a while to the buzzing of flies and the rustle of corn leaves.

Into the forest

The second half of the hike took us into wilder territory, off of the farmers’ motorbike paths and into dense forest with great stands of bamboo. As soon as we entered, the air was cooler, wetter, and still. Paul warned us to put on our bug spray: bamboo, he said, means mosquitoes. He also cut a leafy branch and began swatting it in front of his face as he led us, to knock away spider webs. I found out why when I took the lead a bit later — Paul made a pit stop — and walked into a couple of webs before attempting to make my own spider swatter.

We went up and down and up again through the forest, past spectacular karst mountains that we had seen at a distance at the beginning of the day and suspected Paul was joking about when he said we’d be walking to them. According to Paul, we started at 400 meters and topped out at around 1800.

Along the way, at one of our breaks, Paul told us a story. At the beginning of the world, the Buddha came to all the different peoples to give them languages and alphabets. But at the end, he ran out, and there were two countries left, Burma and China. So Burma looked around, saw a horse walking by, and decided to make the tracks into its alphabet. And China saw a chicken scratching the ground, and that became the Chinese characters.

The climax of the long walk up was a soaring view of a vast cave across the canyon, a giant gaping mouth in the mountain where Paul told us he has led rappelling expeditions. After the cave, we began a descent that took us back into farmland, past banana groves and down to the Shan village where we spent the night. On the way down, in what felt like safer territory than the forest, Paul almost stepped on a cobra that was hissing at him, head reared, but I didn’t see it. He said it set his heart pounding.

Into the village

Lukhaolam, which means “bottom of the mountain,” sits in a bowl of karst ridges and peaks. It’s full of chickens, dogs, old people, and children — we walked around, handed out some candies, played soccer with some local kids — but few young adults, most of whom have headed for the cities for jobs that pay better than farming. I was reminded of the village setting where Laurel Kendall did her research in Korea in the 1970s: it was rural and shamanist, yes, but with electricity and televisions, not far from a road, and tied to the expanding Thai economy and the wider world.

Paul might have followed the others into the cities, but I suspect he has a conservative streak that keeps him tied to his homeland. He spoke wistfully of how the Shan used to have their own state, and he claimed to prefer his own village because it doesn’t have electricity, and he said that unlike a lot of local people, who supported Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt faction in the recent conflicts in Thailand, he supports the military government and its campaigns to root out drugs and addicts, sometimes by breaking into people’s homes and shooting them even though they don’t actually have any drugs — and this from a guy who also used to smoke meth when he was younger. He also showed me scars all over his legs, shrapnel wounds from a bomb that exploded when he was in the army, fighting off Burmese at the border in what he called the “quiet war” that has gone on for decades in the region: the Burmese army runs drugs, while the Thai army tries to put a stop to it. And he complained that Thai people sit around waiting for the government to help them, when really they should do something for themselves. In assessing his perspective, I imagined what his equivalent might be in the United States, and came up with a part-Navajo wilderness guide: someone with a minority tribe’s distrust of the central government and the disposition to maintain old ways and live on the land.

Paul, who is in his late thirties but looks much younger, told me a lot about himself, especially after he’d cooked dinner and had a few drinks, and after the other tourists had gone off to bed. Paul has two daughters and a girlfriend who is their mother. He used to run around with women a lot, especially the exotic tourists he had access to, but for the past seven years he’s been faithful. He told a story about the time he ended up in jail for the weekend because of a bar brawl that broke out between northerners and southerners over some German girls the former had brought in, and said he was glad he hadn’t brought his gun or his knife or his brass knuckles. He also explained that he’s a kind of village chief in his hometown, so he gets called in for every sort of problem: pythons in the house, domestic disputes (caused by “no fucking, no cooking, whatever”), or anything else that comes up. In fact, when we found him the next morning, we learned that Paul had only slept a couple of hours when the men of the town woke him up to lead a hunting expedition for some sort of big cat they’d seen. Paul was sneaking up on the animal and asked the others to hold back, but someone fired a rifle over his head, wounding the animal but not killing it, and it got away.

We stayed with a family that regularly hosts trekkers, getting paid for their hospitality. The household consisted of some old men, an old woman, and a five-year-old girl whose parents have gone to Chiang Mai for work. We sat on the bamboo floor of the kitchen — the bamboo stays cool even when the teak walls don’t — and ate chicken curry and fried vegetables over mountain rice. Above the doors were abstract woven wicker talismans and drawings put into plastic sleeves, provided by the village shaman for protection. Paul, who is half-Shan, half-Chinese, is Buddhist, as is his Burmese girlfriend, but this village was shamanist. Such villages, he explained, have both a secular chief and a shaman, usually an old man who is good with the spirits. As far as I could gather, the role is not hereditary, and like Korean shamanism, it includes spirit possession and expensive rituals: sometimes a family has to sacrifice six or seven pigs to feed the surrounding villages, spending several years’ wages, to bring good luck. I asked whether shamans undergo spirit sickness before they become religious figures, but Paul didn’t know.

We were all in bed by 9 pm, though the village continued to buzz with conversation and the barking of dogs for an hour or so after that. I made do with earplugs as I lay on my mat under the mosquito net, but by midnight or so, there was little sound but the chirping of insects. Around 3 am the roosters started up, and by five the village was coming back to life, though I slept through it until about seven. I came out to find Tam drinking coffee; she’d already gone into the village and joined in a community cleanup, pulling thistles with her bare hands and signing the register of participants. We were alone in the kitchen for a while, heating the water again over the fire, and then I stood out on the deck and watched the mist rise off the ridges as the sun crept in. (Later Paul explained that the raised houses let you hang things underneath, and also keep the pythons out.) Gradually the others emerged, Julian last, much better for a night of sleep. Paul fried us some eggs for breakfast, served alongside fresh-cut onions and tomatoes and toast he’d done on a grill. then it was time to pack up and go. Most of the others were going rafting today, but I’d already done it, and Gaelle doesn’t like that sort of thing, so the two of us waited in the middle of nowhere, by two little shops on either side of the highway, for the minivan that would take us back to Pai.

Unemployed Drifting in America

Sandy Springs, Georgia

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?

It’s now 86 days since I had a job. In those twelve weeks, I toured New York with an old friend; visited Vietnam for the first time, gave a talk on how Jews raise kids, and came away with a book project; spent a month falling in love with Korea and Korean and Koreans again; took the last steps to secure my master’s degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University; and moved out of New York once and for all. I’ve been busy.

And now I’m not.

It’s been 12 days since I moved out of New York. My apartment has been cleared out, the deposit check is on its way, and the movers have delivered my stuff to my parents’ house in Arizona. All my big worries are, for the time being, handled. It’s a nice feeling, as I sit here in Georgia in my brother’s house, listening to the rain come down and smelling the pot roast that will be Shabbos dinner tomorrow.

Riding Shotgun

I’m sort of in Atlanta but not really. I haven’t actually been to the city, or much of anywhere outside of my brother’s suburban orbit.

I’ve been to his shul down the street, and to the the rabbi’s house, and to the houses of a couple of other members of the community. I’ve also been to the nearby Kroger supermarket, a few kosher restaurants, two different malls, and a Lowe’s to buy reflective vests for the Shabbos walk to have dinner with some friends who live where there aren’t sidewalks. (The house, and the meal, were lovely.) I’ve spent a fair amount of time working from a Caribou Coffee with either my brother or his wife. It’s good coffee, and there’s a great view of the Walgreens across the street.

Once we went to a National Recreation Area for a short hike, and also to do tashlich, a Jewish ritual where you cast your sins into a body of water. Then later we went to a birthday party for a three-year-old at a playground next to an airport for private jets and small planes, where you can sit and watch the planes take off and land. What with shul and the holidays and Shabbos meals and the birthday party, I’ve spent more time around children and pregnant women in the past eleven days than in maybe the eleven years before that.

My brother has a good life here with his wife and his baby. I’m glad to have this time to bond with my little nephew, to take it easy and not do very much, to ride shotgun in someone else’s life. My brother and his wife are working hard — unlike me, they’re not unemployed drifters, and they have to deal with the baby when he wakes up in the night — which all means that they don’t have much time or energy to entertain me or take me places. Which is fine. I sit around. I work on my book. I nap. I read. I drift a little. I do some pushups, because pushups are good. I help out with the baby.

I have spent a lot of time watching the baby, who is seven months old. He laughs, he climbs things, he topples over and bumps his head. He eats pureed bananas with terrifying excitement and intensity, flapping his arms and lunging for the next bite, until suddenly he is done; usually he sneezes out a big gob of snot somewhere in the middle of his meal, and it looks more or less like the banana, and he flaps and complains while we wipe his nose because we’ve cut off the banana supply for no reason he can discern. His eating habits remind me of Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

The baby likes his set of colored plastic cups very much. He has started to like me too, I think, now that I’ve fed him. He climbs me and smiles at me. And then sometimes he cries for a while, which reminds me why I never kept one of these things at home. My nephew has poor manners and lacks skills. He doesn’t know anything about anything; I’m pretty sure the notion of representation, of things standing for other things, simply hasn’t occurred to him yet. Which limits conversation.

Sins Committed Through Light-Headedness

I’ve also spent a lot more time doing Jewish things and thinking about Judaism than I have in a while. I’ve been working on my Vietnamese book about Jewish child-rearing, and I’ve finished a draft of the background section, about who the Jews are, our history, the basics of the religion. I have done Shabbos and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — by the end of the latter, I had a wicked caffeine-withdrawal headache, though a little snuff helped. As we read through the list of sins for the thousandth time, I began to wonder about the sins “committed before You through light-headedness” in particular.

I think the experience of writing my thesis on Korean shamanism has helped me to approach Judaism with a little anthropological distance, and maybe a lighter head too. I’m less judgmental about it than I once was, more able to engage it on its own terms without fussing overmuch about my own beliefs. This is also the one of the few times that I’ve been involved with Orthodox Judaism away from my parents, and that changes the dynamic: here it’s not a replay of my adolescent rebellion if I decide I’m done with shul for the day or duck out for a while or skip the night services.

America

So this is my sojourn in America. I sort of hate it when people say New York City isn’t America — we’re Americans too! — but the New York City way of life is very different from what I think of as normative America, with its cars and strip malls and wide-aisled supermarkets. By the time it’s done, this will be my longest stay in that normative America since 2003, when I got back from living abroad the last time.

I suppose it’s OK, but I don’t really get it. Somehow a coconut plantation on the Mekong Delta makes more sense to me as a place to live, and a giant city, whether it’s Saigon or Seoul or New York, makes way more sense to me.

It’s just about a month until I’ll be touching down in yet another Asian megacity, Bangkok this time. In the meantime, I have a book to work on, family to enjoy, naps to take, strip malls to visit. And I have to go soon, because Kroger awaits!

New Beginnings

If ever there were a Rosh Hashanah that might symbolize new beginnings for me, this is it. For 23 years — even for the year I lived abroad — I have called New York home. Not anymore. Today I closed the door for the last time on my Brooklyn Heights apartment and walked out into a new life. Today I’ll fly down to Atlanta to meet my nephew, who will be experiencing his first Rosh Hashanah.

I have read that while our culture imagines us as walking forward into the future, some cultures see the future as something we walk backwards into: we can see the past clearly, but the future is hidden. It’s very easy for me to catalogue the things I’m leaving behind, and much harder for me to bring to mind, at this moment, what it is I’m heading towards. I suppose that I’m still in a bit of a pause before the start of what I have been thinking of as my new life, which is my life in Asia. For the next couple of months, I’ll be in the US, not at home in New York, but also not on my new adventure.

But this is also my real life, and something new and different. I am taking a pause, an interregnum, as we enter into the Jewish season of reflection and renewal. There’s an arc to the whole thing. Rosh Hashanah is the entry point into a period of sanctification, with Yom Kippur as its climax, the moment when (we hope) the purification is complete, and we are ready to begin the new year. Then comes Sukkos, a reconnection with earthy reality, where we build huts and eat outdoors under starlight and leaves and wave branches and fruit around. It’s a festival that focuses on joy, coming to its conclusion with a burst of celebration for the Torah, the text and the way of life that links the high spiritual plane of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the material reality of crops and dirt and fecundity that Sukkos celebrates. 

I am thinking about all of this not just because my life is changing, but because of how it’s changing: among other things, I’m co-writing a Vietnamese book about Jewish childhood education. As I step away from what my life has been and prepare to set forth into what it will be, I’m interested in taking a fresh look at the Jewish part of my upbringing — a look that will be, I hope, a little distanced from all of the adolescent conflict that charged my experience of Orthodox Judaism when I was at home and living it. I will be writing my book over these next weeks and months, looking back on my own childhood to discover what was best in it so that I can share these things with a nation on the far side of the world about which I know very little.

As with my New York life as well, I will spend some time sifting out the resentments and frustrations, the disappointments and discomforts, to find the jewels I’ll carry with me. They will need to be compact and lightweight and durable enough for the unpredictable road ahead, and useful enough to be worth carrying.

Floating in the Dark

I have just had my first experience of a “float,” or what is known, a bit misleadingly, as a sensory deprivation tank. And I feel great.

I decided to try it out as a bit of a birthday present to myself. I went down to Lift / Next Level Floats, where I spent an hour floating in the dark inside of a pod filled with high-density salt water.

One of the things about being 41 and having lived an active life is that most things I do now, even if they’re new experiences, are like other experiences I’ve already had. So: a float in a tank is like lying in the Dead Sea, but in a dark room and against a smooth surface rather than in the heat of the desert and with sharp salt balls underneath you. A float in a tank is like getting a massage, in that it’s an hourlong sensory experience that lets you drift. A float in a tank is like meditating, except that no one has told you to keep coming back to the breath. A float in a tank is like an afternoon nap, except you can’t roll over or quite get to sleep. A float in a tank is like being in your bed awake at 3 am with jet lag, in that you’re motionless in the dark at a time when your mind thinks you ought to be awake.

What’s surprising to me is how good — how relaxed — I felt when I was done and out the door. I don’t think I felt that relaxed during the session. As I began to float, I noticed exactly where all the tension was in my body: I could feel it in my legs, my arms, as they seized up while I tried to hold myself up, hold myself in place — which was, of course, unnecessary. The sharpest tension was in my neck and shoulders, which began to ache right away, such that I used the neck flotation pillow to hold up my head for maybe the first two thirds of the float.

After a while, once the water stopped moving, there was a curious sensation of solidity, as if I were lying on a solid surface perfectly contoured to my body. And it might have been this easing of the body into the float, and the melting away of physical tension, that led to the relaxed feeling I have now.

Whatever it was, I came out of the water feeling calm and mellow. We’ll see how this feeling unfolds over the rest of the day.

Thesis

I have, at long last, posted my master’s thesis online. Called Swiss Gods Don’t Like Rice Cake, it tells the story of how Korean shamanism has begun to incorporate non-Koreans as shamans. You can find it here.

Hitting the News in Vietnam

With the help of education entrepreneur Catherine Yen Pham, I have now made the Vietnamese news. Two articles have come out so far — one in Young Style, another in Family Life — and I’ve been told more are on the way.

The articles are about the talk I gave in Ho Chi Minh City about Jewish traditions of education. Catherine and I spoke to an audience of about 120 people, plus press, for several hours, including an extended Q&A session. I was amazed at how interested people were, how hungry they were for new ideas about how they can best raise their children. They want to do better. Many of them were taking notes. A lot of Asians, Vietnamese included, are convinced that Jews are smart, good with money, rich, powerful, and maybe slightly magical. I wanted to share with them some good points from Jewish culture, while at the same time puncturing some of the myths.

It’s an irony for me that after years of focusing on Korea, and pretty much an adult lifetime of distancing myself from Judaism, or at least Orthodox Judaism, I am now on my way to becoming an expert on Judaism in Vietnam. Catherine and I have begun work on a book, and it would also be pretty ironic if my first book were to be in Vietnamese — and about Judaism. But life is funny that way.

Identity and geography

When I was a baby, my parents began to worry about my Jewish identity. They’d grown up in New York, where everyone they knew was Jewish, but how would I know what it meant to be Jewish as I grew up in Marin County, California? That’s what first drew them toward greater involvement with first Reform Judaism, and then the Orthodox Judaism that has become a core part of their lives.

I sort of reverse-solved the problem my parents had raised by moving right back to New York, where I could have almost no religious involvement with Judaism and still be Jewish without having to think about it. In New York, there are Jews all around me. We share a culture. No need for a whole lot of fancy stuff to get the point across.

But I have found that at the various points in my life when I’ve been away from New York, and especially in Asia, identifying as Jewish has become more important and more interesting. Before I left on my current trip to Vietnam and Korea, I got myself a Jewish star to wear around my neck, and I’ve had several occasions where the easiest way to explain who and what I am was to pull it out and show it. Jewish culture — and, yes, the Jewish religion I don’t really believe in — are a core part of who I am.

Jewish wisdom

In being asked to speak about Jewish values, I’ve had to take a close look at my own values. After all, I’m not about to begin espousing a set of ideas that I don’t agree with. I’ve looked to find where what I believe aligns with Jewish traditions, and to find ways of presenting these ideas to an audience that doesn’t know the first thing about Judaism.

It turns out — not a big surprise, really — that there’s a lot in Judaism that I agree with and am proud to be able to share: the Jewish concern with ethics and charity, the Jewish passion for questioning and curiosity, Jewish humor, the Jewish tendency to be able to hold multiple opinions at once. And despite my frustrations with it along the way, it looks like all those years of Jewish education actually taught me something useful.

Maybe this isn’t quite what my parents were after, but the son they raises is certainly aware of his Jewish identity.

Where are the ones who condemn?

This is a question that one hears after atrocities: where are the people of the same group — Muslims or blacks, usually — who condemn the ugly acts of violence perpetrated in their name? I hear this complaint often from supporters of Israel. They are making the case that terrorists who fire rockets into Israel or stab people in synagogues are representatives of the true will of the great mass of Muslims and Arabs. If that’s not true, then where are the Arab and Muslim condemnations of such violence?

The answer is that they are in the places you would expect them to be: the Arab and Muslim press, in the languages spoken by the communities involved. Or they’re easily accessible in the English-language Arab press, where an Arab Muslim cartoonist had this to say about the Charlie Hebdo attack:

I condemn the attacks on the cartoonists even though I don’t agree with the publication’s editorial slant, which I have often found to be hurtful and racist. Nevertheless, I would continue to stand for their freedom of speech.

Which is pretty much what I think too.

This time, the condemnations are easy to see because they’re in cartoon form. Here’s a whole set of Arabic cartoons condemning the attacks. Take a look and remember that there are Arabs and Muslims who are as disgusted and disappointed by murder in the name of Islam as you are, or maybe more so.

The pleasures of transit

I’ve been meditating for the past month, using Headspace (I get it discounted as a Google employee benefit). It’s a series of guided mindfulness meditations hosted by Andy Puddicombe, who sounds like the GEICO Gecko. Each day, the GEICO Gecko tells me to take some deep breaths, leads me through a body scan, reminds me to let thoughts come and go. There are times when I want to do it and times when I very much don’t. But has it been having any effect?

There are few better tests of mindfulness and patience than transit. Yesterday I flew from JFK in New York to Phoenix, on an oversold flight the Saturday before Christmas. I thought of Radiohead:

Transport
Motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings

As they announced a last-minute gate change, sending the mass of passengers scurrying across the terminal, I felt the pull of that kind of numb irritation. But I made a choice to approach the experience differently. At that second gate, as an entire planeload of people mobbed the counter, I went to look out the window at the ground crew attaching the terminal ramp to the plane, balancing on a high platform to open the plane door and roll in the food carts, putting down and taking up chocks. I noticed the hashes on the ground for where different models of planes should pull in: 747, 777, Airbus 380, 767, 757. Inside the terminal, a sparrow was darting from window to window. A mother brought her toddler to the window and tried to point out the bird to him, but he was mesmerized by the big metal birds outside.

Getting on the plane, I stood beside the woman who was furious about being in Zone 3 and kept telling the counter staff, with tight-lipped determination, that “overhead space is my biggest concern right now,” as if no one else had luggage and the airline had never had to deal with a situation like hers before. Two different families on the ramp were dealing with crowds of children whose seats were somehow not adjacent to their parents’. On board, the young man next to me was coughing up a lung, and his father in the aisle had an argument with the flight attendant over his already-tagged bag that was supposed to be checked. The cabin was so cold that I kept on my hat and gloves. The pilot announced that our JFK ground time was estimated at 50 minutes.

There was every reason to be sour and annoyed, but somehow I wasn’t. I looked out the window. You could see Manhattan in the distance, the new World Trade Center tower, and the planes taking off in front of us were silhouetted against it. It was beautiful. In the air, I ate my overpriced terminal sandwich, put a travel mix on my headphones and took a nap. I woke up, meditated with Headspace. I tried watching Frozen, but it was terrible, so I turned it off. I looked out the window. By then we were over western Nebraska. There was a stripe of snow, maybe 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long, across an otherwise undifferentiated flatness of squares and circles, as if a line of clouds had gotten exactly that far and said, “I think I’m gonna go right here.” I thought about how strange it is that I know Seoul and Beijing and Kathmandu better than I’m likely ever to know that farmland, that the chances of finding me in Omaha are far less than the chances of finding me in Phnom Penh or Vientiane. Then the farmland gave way to the layer cake buttes and canyons and the snowy mountains of New Mexico, and after a while that landscape changed into badlands where the icy rivers splayed out like white fractals, and then the land stepped down into the Arizona desert. It was beautiful. I took out my laptop and wrote about it, and I noticed that when I’ve meditated and been sober — the one other time I kept it up was when I lived in Korea — I’ve written more and more freely. I almost didn’t want the flight to end. Almost.

*

There are two related thoughts that transit evokes: that nowhere is anywhere, and that everywhere is everywhere else.

The first thought is the numbness that comes over us, the feeling that we’re in non-space, non-time. It’s easy to feel like a dead thing when you’re in the TSA line. (As Talking Heads put it, “I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane / I’m tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.”)

The second thought is the unnerving feeling that planes and technology are shrinking the world, that there is no escape, that wherever you go will be the same as wherever you left. This illusion is brought on by the weird sameness of airports, airplanes, transit lounges, duty free shops, chain hotels. But these places need to be legible and at least minimally palatable to travelers from everywhere, and they need to be interoperable with planes coming in from wherever. Airports aren’t the world. The world is still out there in all its everyday strangeness. Omaha retains its mystery, if you’re open to that.

But contra Talking Heads, nowhere is nowhere, and everywhere is somewhere — even airplane cabins and duty free shops. We’re always in transit: through time, through space. We’re always between things. Something is always ending, something has always not yet begun. But we are always somewhere. And I’m finding, for myself, that the simple practice of noticing where I am makes being there less frustrating, more interesting, more worthwhile. It’s counterintuitive, but when I stop resisting the irritations, stop forcing them away, they lose much of their power. Even at the airport.