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.

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.

No Place Like Home

Brooklyn, NY, USA

Walking over the Manhattan Bridge alone in the rain in the evening, I felt melancholy and nostalgic, but tinged with something sharper: fear, maybe, not of anything in the present — New York is not the scary place it was when I first moved here in 1993 — but of an uncertain future.

I’ve come back to New York, I now realize, because I wanted to come home. For six long months, I moved every few days to some new place. I was always somewhere strange, with everything unknown and to be figured out: how transport works, what to see, where the good restaurants are, how to do laundry, where to get cash, how to say hello and thank you. Even Phoenix, my current US address, is a place I don’t know well, where I navigate by GPS.

New York is different. On my first day, I had some time to kill in Midtown, and I knew exactly where to go — Bryant Park — and when a bus rolled by on Fifth Avenue, I knew exactly how to jump on it. While sitting in the park, when I felt like writing, I knew that Kinokuniya was across the street, so I could go there to buy a notebook. In NYC, I know where things are. I know how things work.

Still, if NYC is more familiar than anywhere else, it’s no longer home. I can’t go back to my apartment, and I can’t go back to my office, my two landing pads when I lived here. And I’m floating free of purpose or connection: I don’t have a job, I’m not looking for a job, I’m not going to school. Nor am I a tourist, out to see New York’s cultural institutions and landmarks. I’m just here. I’m visiting friends, with the uncomfortable awareness that the threads that connect us will fray in the coming years, that this is perhaps the last time I will see each of these people, or the last time in a while, and that, try as we might, we will mostly drift apart, separated by oceans and continents.

I am old enough now, at 41, to understand the passage of adult time. I have lived out of the Bay Area longer than I lived in it, and it no longer feels like home. I know very few people there, and when I go back, it’s just not the place I grew up. That place is gone, erased by time and change. So is the New York City I first came to in 1993, but I was part of the change; I was here as neighborhoods transformed, buildings came down or went up, new laws changed the landscape (remember smoke in bars and nightclubs?). It’s like aging: you notice you’re older, but it happens day by day. I’m not the same person I was in 1993, but I was with me every day between there and here.

Now New York will go on changing without me. I’ll come back in five years, know in my bones that Kinokuniya is right next to Bryant Park, and be startled to discover that it’s moved downtown. Or that Metrocards have been replaced. (I was already thrown by Trash and Vaudeville‘s move from its old St. Mark’s Place home, and pleased to discover the new public Wi-Fi being tested around the city.) New buildings will go up, and no one will tell me. Friends will move away, and I won’t replace them with new New York friends.

All of this might feel less melancholy once I have a new home. Right now, New York is the home I picture, and it’s not home anymore, but there’s not yet a picture in my head of my Seoul home. There will be. I will have a street that feels like my street, an apartment with my stuff in it, friends, patterns, regular places. That’s coming soon. But for the moment, I’m in the curious position of feeling homesick for the place where I am.

Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.

Thailand

Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.

America

I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

Brooklyn the Brand

Vientiane, Laos

When I talk to people about Seoul, I talk about how much it has changed since I first went there, in 2001. But I suppose Brooklyn — my home ever since that sojourn in Asia — has changed almost as much in that same time. Maybe I noticed it less, being there day to day, whereas with Seoul I didn’t go back until 2009, and then again in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

I first discovered Brooklyn in the late nineties, when my friend Daniel moved out to a place on Sackett Street in Carroll Gardens. His place served as a kind of stoner artists’ collective, with a rotating gallery of roommates and hangers on and a regular habit of ordering in from Zaytoons.

Brooklyn wasn’t much then — certainly not in the brand sense. No one had heard of Williamsburg. Smith Street was just beginning to turn into restaurant row. DUMBO was an eerie, photogenic post-industrial wasteland with a few intrepid artists staking out studios in the ruins. Taxi drivers didn’t much like or even know Brooklyn. There was no Brooklyn Bridge Park, no concerts at McCarren Park. There were no Brooklyn bands. Brooklyn wasn’t yet a thing.

Well, now it’s a thing. NYC has always been a brand, and I see it everywhere in the world, but Brooklyn? It’s a surprise to see the name plastered on clothing and accessories across Asia. Apparently Spike Lee’s ad agency noticed too.  They’ve made a film to showcase the Brooklyn brand that’s being co-opted by companies around the world that have no connection to the actual place. It’s fun to see my town, and to see a couple of people I recognize. It’s not exactly Bitter Sweet Seoul, but it’s a nice little look at some of the cool things about the place I called home for more than a decade.

 

Cold Storage

Seattle, Washington

It’s a chill, wet day in Seattle, and I’m having none of it.

I came here to visit my dear friend Amber, who this morning departed for a trip to Paris that came up at the last minute, along with her husband and toddler. Had I known her travel dates, I would’ve planned to leave Seattle a bit sooner. But I didn’t so here I am, sitting in an Airbnb, listening to music on the phone and Bluetooth speaker I bought specifically for the purpose of listening to music while I travel, and feeling a bit chilly but otherwise fine.

So this is travel.

Pre-travel anxiety

The whole Paris thing put me in the midst of a whirlwind of travel anxiety, because international travel with a toddler is anxiety-inducing enough, and Amber has a pretty intense fear of flying — which, to her credit, she hasn’t allowed to rob her of a trip to Paris. Still, it has meant that my own head’s been in a bit of a whirl, as if I needed my own travel panic just to keep up. I settled on one of my perennial fears, which is that there will be something wrong with the hotel I’ve booked, and spent a good deal of time booking and unbooking rooms in Bangkok before settling on what I hope is an OK place.

I am also experienced enough to know that the antidote to these sorts of panics is asking for help. I posted to a Facebook group for backpackers in Southeast Asia and learned that yes, you can book one night at the hostel or lodge of your choice and then extend when you get there, that this works except when it doesn’t, and that there’s always a room somewhere unless it’s a major holiday. In other words, I’ll be fine.

Sleepy in Seattle

In  the meantime, I’m still in Seattle, and I’m going to take a nap. Because this is my life now, and some days I get to just nap.

Then tonight I’ll see an old girlfriend, and tomorrow a colleague from Google. Maybe I’ll head off to see A Sound Garden, the sculpture after which my once-favorite band named themselves. Or maybe not. I will get a cup of coffee. I will eat — Seattle has great food, and I’ve already had excellent Ethiopian, Sichuan, dim sum, and Vietnamese.

Perhaps — hopefully — I’ll also run into my Airbnb host, Laura. She’s a lovely social worker from Mexico, in her sixties, who runs a charming little makeshift hostel here. My fellow guest is a Japanese guy who’s in Seattle learning to brew beer so he can go home to Yokohama and start his own brewery. One of my best experiences so far was the evening the three of us spent eating toast, avocado, and sheep cheese together and telling stories. This is also travel, and it reminded me of those joyous moments of coming together with strangers on the road. I look forward to more of that.

And then, very late tomorrow night, I will emerge again from this brief interlude in cold storage, get on a plane — I’m riding on the upper deck of a 747, a new experience — and emerge, some 21 hours later, in Bangkok.

Where my hotel will be just fine.

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix has been very chill.

After months of not very chill — all that leaving New York (twice), punctuated by a whirlwind five weeks of intensity in Asia and capped by a couple of weeks of near-constant Jewish holidays in the company of a seven-month-old who has just learned how to climb up high enough to fall on his head — it has been a pleasure to be somewhere relaxed and easy.

Picking a direction home

I feel like I’ve been here a very long time, though it’s been just three weeks. I suppose it’s the first place that has felt like home in quite a while — maybe since June, when my girlfriend left New York, and New York began to feel like ex-home, a place I was closing up and shutting down.

I have made a conscious decision to think of Phoenix as home, of this house I own, this house where my parents are retired and where my stuff lives in boxes in the shed out back, as home. Someday Korea will be home, but it isn’t yet. I didn’t want to go off backpacking in Southeast Asia with no direction home, no sense of a place in mind that I can think of as the safe retreat if ever I need it. I don’t expect to need it, but it’s good to know where home is, even if you never plan to actually live there.

And I like Phoenix. As a place to live, it’s not bad. The weather is great — not just the warm and sunny you think of, but the crazy storms with the constant lightning and horizontal rain that come sweeping through and last twenty minutes. The storms here are about the best anywhere, and everything is dry again an hour later.

Phoenix days

So what have I been up to?

Sleeping late. Getting up, making coffee, going out for Mexican food for lunch. Treading water in the pool for exercise in the afternoon. Writing. I’ve finished a draft of my Vietnam book, and no, you can’t read it.

I’ve spent some time with my sister too, going to an Arizona State football game and a Phoenix Suns basketball game and a Make-A-Wish walk and the Phoenix Art Museum (“Art is our middle name” say the T-shirts) and a hike up north.

Beyond that, there’s been a lot of logistical stuff of the kind you do before you leave the country for a long while: getting an Arizona driver license and an international driving permit, buying travel insurance, getting a trust and a will and setting up durable power of attorney and making multiple visits to the notary at the UPS store, organizing boxes of my stuff in the shed out back, going to Target too many times and spending too much money on a year’s supply of drugs and toiletries. I have enough Imodium that I could stop pooping for a year, though that seems like maybe not the best idea, because that’s the number of pills that come in a Costco bottle of Imodium.

Like I said, chill. I’ve enjoyed the time with my parents, the relaxed flow of their retired life. It has been easy. I will miss it.

Back on the road

In another couple of days I’ll be on my way again. I’m nervous about hitting the road once more, a jittery feeling I’ve channeled into fussing over all the things I’ve packed and wondering how my bag is already this overstuffed when I haven’t gone anywhere or bought anything yet. (To be fair, it weighs only 32 pounds, not counting the stuff that’ll go in my carry-on. At some point I should probably make the inevitable blog post about what I’ve taken with me as gear.)

But the nerves will pass, I’m sure, once I’m in the thick of things. Next up is Seattle for a week (October 22-27) to visit one of my very best friends in the world, and then I’ll be on to Bangkok, arriving on October 29.

The adventure resumes!

Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ

Phoenix has been very chill.

After months of not very chill — all that leaving New York (twice), punctuated by a whirlwind five weeks of intensity in Asia and capped by a couple of weeks of near-constant Jewish holidays in the company of a seven-month-old who has just learned how to climb up high enough to fall on his head — it has been a pleasure to be somewhere relaxed and easy.

Picking a direction home

I feel like I’ve been here a very long time, though it’s been just three weeks. I suppose it’s the first place that has felt like home in quite a while — maybe since June, when my girlfriend left New York, and New York began to feel like ex-home, a place I was closing up and shutting down.

I have made a conscious decision to think of Phoenix as home, of this house I own, this house where my parents are retired and where my stuff lives in boxes in the shed out back, as home. Someday Korea will be home, but it isn’t yet. I didn’t want to go off backpacking in Southeast Asia with no direction home, no sense of a place in mind that I can think of as the safe retreat if ever I need it. I don’t expect to need it, but it’s good to know where home is, even if you never plan to actually live there.

And I like Phoenix. As a place to live, it’s not bad. The weather is great — not just the warm and sunny you think of, but the crazy storms with the constant lightning and horizontal rain that come sweeping through and last twenty minutes. The storms here are about the best anywhere, and everything is dry again an hour later.

Phoenix days

So what have I been up to?

Sleeping late. Getting up, making coffee, going out for Mexican food for lunch. Treading water in the pool for exercise in the afternoon. Writing. I’ve finished a draft of my Vietnam book, and no, you can’t read it.

I’ve spent some time with my sister too, going to an Arizona State football game and a Phoenix Suns basketball game and a Make-A-Wish walk and the Phoenix Art Museum (“Art is our middle name” say the T-shirts) and a hike up north.

Beyond that, there’s been a lot of logistical stuff of the kind you do before you leave the country for a long while: getting an Arizona driver license and an international driving permit, buying travel insurance, getting a trust and a will and setting up durable power of attorney and making multiple visits to the notary at the UPS store, organizing boxes of my stuff in the shed out back, going to Target too many times and spending too much money on a year’s supply of drugs and toiletries. I have enough Imodium that I could stop pooping for a year, though that seems like maybe not the best idea, because that’s the number of pills that come in a Costco bottle of Imodium.

Like I said, chill. I’ve enjoyed the time with my parents, the relaxed flow of their retired life. It has been easy. I will miss it.

Back on the road

In another couple of days I’ll be on my way again. I’m nervous about hitting the road once more, a jittery feeling I’ve channeled into fussing over all the things I’ve packed and wondering how my bag is already this overstuffed when I haven’t gone anywhere or bought anything yet. (To be fair, it weighs only 32 pounds, not counting the stuff that’ll go in my carry-on. At some point I should probably make the inevitable blog post about what I’ve taken with me as gear.)

But the nerves will pass, I’m sure, once I’m in the thick of things. Next up is Seattle for a week (October 22-27) to visit one of my very best friends in the world, and then I’ll be on to Bangkok, arriving on October 29.

The adventure resumes!