The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea

Fans of Park Chan-wook, or of his classic thriller Joint Security Area, may remember the scene in which a North Korean soldier spits out a Choco Pie to declare his loyalty to his home country: rather than flee south, where he can get all the Choco Pies he wants, the soldier insists that he will wait until North Korea can produce the best Choco Pies in the world.
Choco Pies have long been a symbol of South Korean modernization: cheap, tasty, popular, utterly manufactured, completely divorced from any preexisting Korean tradition. Now South-Korean born artist (and Columbia alum) Jin Joo Chae has an exhibition at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art on the Lower East Side entitled The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea. Chae highlights the significance of the lowly Choco Pie in North Korea, where a single pie can fetch as much ast $10 on the black market in a country where the average monthly wage is $150.
I’m happy to see South Korean artists finding new ways to acknowledge and engage with North Korea. In this case, Chae focuses our attention on the marketization of North Korea, which often goes unnoticed beneath the news stories about Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman and nuclear weapons. I definitely plan to check out the show, and I hope you can too.  

[things i’d like to write about but haven’t]

  • My trip to Budapest and Vienna.
  • My trip to Ann Arbor. And Ypsilanti.
  • All the churches in Brooklyn Heights: visit each, learn about it, attend a service, blog it.
  • My life as a Korean dancer.
  • My theory of Tom Tom Club vs. David Byrne.
  • My trip to Ghana.
  • Being sick abroad.
  • Toilets of the world (this one’s more of a photo essay).
  • My trip to Mexico. (Noting a theme?)
  • My trip to Paris.
  • An open letter to the mayor demanding seasonal weather changes. (This will be funnier when actually written, I hope.)

[cold winters]

This winter is the coldest and snowiest I remember in a long time — maybe since my first winter in New York. I was a California boy then, new to the rigors of winter, so I’ve sometimes wondered whether my recollections were overblown — whether perhaps the winter of ’94 had grown harsher in my imagination that it actually was.

Not so.

Here’s a fun little sampling of articles on just how rough that season was:

I recall the Columbia campus covered in ice sheets an inch thick that made going to class a treacherous affair. My Lit Hum class was way over in the International Affairs Building, east of Amsterdam Avenue, and getting there required a late-afternoon traverse across the howling wind tunnel of West 120th Street, a canyon between the high walls of Teacher’s College and the Columbia campus’s forbidding backside. There were many afternoons when I simply didn’t make the trip. I had a hard time meeting people and making friends because so few people went out and did anything. But when the snow banks had piled up above the height of the parked cars, someone carved an entire life-sized automobile from snow, with a grinning grille and an icicle for an antenna.
I remember that on that arctic January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the pipes in my dorm froze, leading to a basement fire. I heard my RA pounding on my door, shouting, “Get out! Get out! There’s a real fire!” — we’d already spent much of the morning waiting out a false alarm in a slowly flooding lobby — and quickly pulling on boots and a coat over my T-shirt and sweat pants before running from the building. I didn’t have my wallet or my student ID or socks. It was very, very cold, and there was nowhere for me to go. I begged my way into another dorm, where I sat in the lounge and watched pictures of the aftermath of the Los Angeles earthquake.

There were ice floes on the Hudson. I could see them from my dorm room’s sliver of a river view.

I was totally unprepared for a winter like this. I didn’t know to get long underwear. My boots were designed for jungle combat and had air vents down by the soles. When at last the snow began to melt, deep slush puddles formed at all the corners, and you could only cross at the corners, where cuts had been made in the towering snow banks. Going to the store directly across the street meant walking to the corner, crossing, and walking back.

I recall a long, wandering, intellectually confused discussion with my Logic and Rhetoric professor, an angry feminist grad student in the English department. I wanted to know what differentiated my B+ essays from my B- essays, and she came around to the position that her methods were holistic and could only be understood once the course was complete. Along the way, she suggested that maybe I needed to experience bad grades because I had already had so much white male privilege, “locker-room camaraderie” and the like. I countered that seeing as how I hadn’t actually been on any sports teams, my friend Monica, who played rugby at Wesleyan, had undoubtedly experienced far more locker-room camaraderie than I ever had. This enlightened symposium took place outside in bitter cold. We were both too stubborn or too stupid to suggest going inside somewhere and continuing like civilized human beings.

My work-study job that year was at the reserve desk in the library, another institution dedicated to purging white male privilege. I was the only white person on the staff, and I’m fairly certain that was what my boss disliked about me, though I have no real proof. In any case, whenever I was on duty, it was invariably my job to go outside in the early morning and bring in the books from the drop-bin, which involved unlocking the Master Lock, which in turn required that I hold it in my bare hand until it thawed. Then I had to scrape the ice away from the bin door so that I could open it and retrieve the books. When I suggested that we perhaps wait a bit to open the bin on days when the temperature was in the single digits, it was pointed out to me that this would unfairly enable students to get away with returning their books late by several hours. I didn’t think this was such a bad thing, but I wasn’t in charge.

When at last the forecast was for 60 degrees, I went alone to Central Park — I was often alone in those days — and sat on a rock, thrilling that I was outside and it didn’t hurt.

That was a very hard winter. The hardest I’ve known. This winter has seen a fair amount of cold and snow, but it’s nothing like the winter of ’94. 


For a while now, I’ve been talking about moving to Manhattan. At this point, it’s more a question of when than whether. Bay Ridge is pleasant enough, but it’s far away, and I like to have a home that people actually visit. Plus, I’m tired of the long commute, and of feeling like once I’ve gone out for the day, popping back home is simply too far to go if I want to go out again. And then there’s school: if I go back to school, living as far away as I do now will make things all the harder.

So I’d like to move to Manhattan, preferably somewhere very close to my office, in Chelsea or the West Village. Most of my life happens around here anyway: Korean dance in K-town, swing dance near Penn Station or Times Square, work in Chelsea, socializing in the Village or the East Village, shopping in Union Square.
As for the timing, well, I guess my life is pretty full. I’m just not going to get it together by the end of January, and anyway January is a rotten time to be going around, looking at apartments. Also, I have jury duty. So that rules out February 1. March 1 would be feasible, but I’m leaving for India on March 5, and that double stress is more than I need, nor do I want to come home to the chaos of a new apartment when I’m all jet-lagged. There’s pretty much no way, coming back from India on March 21, than I’ll find an apartment and get packed in that final week of the month. And so it looks like May 1 is the next really good date.
May 1.
I have until then to clean out my junk drawers, give away my old clothes, and generally scale down the stuff. That’s plenty of time, but also plenty of time to worry over it.

[visiting my congressman]

This morning I went to Representative Michael McMahon’s Brooklyn office to present my support for health care reform in person. I met a young, friendly staffer who’s on the same side as me, but made it clear to me that McMahon sees himself in a tough spot on this issue.

McMahon is the Representative for NY-13, a district that until the last election was held by Republican Vito Fossella. Fossella was caught in a scandal and declined to run for reelection. Then the favored Republican candidate, Francis Powers, died of a heart attack. In the end, McMahon took 61 percent of the vote in a district Obama lost.
According to the staffer I met, the people coming to McMahon’s office to talk to him on health care have been about 80 percent against, and this has got McMahon worried. He also said that they’d decided not to hold any town halls because of concerns that they would be unproductive shouting matches. I reminded the staffer that shouters are not the same thing as polls or surveys, and that the last time we had a major poll, back in November, we elected McMahon on a Democratic platform that included health care reform.
But I think there are two important points here. The first is that a Democratic Congressional Representative is saying that his position on health care is being swayed by the overwhelming number of people coming into his office to speak against health care reform. We need to get out there and talk to our Reps to make sure they do the right thing!
The second point, which I hope our Representatives will grasp, is that the shouters and doubters on health care were never going to vote for them in the first place. Does McMahon truly believe that if he caves on health care, these nuts will come around to the Democratic side in 2010?
If health care reform passes, the Democrats will look strong. They’ll have a record of achievement. And they’ll get shouted at by loonies during the next election cycle. If health care reform doesn’t pass, the Democrats will look weak. They’ll come into the next election cycle facing accusations of incompetence. And they’ll still get shouted at by loonies.
I hope the Democrats in Congress realize that voting down health care reform is not a winning proposition.

[dancing with the ajummas]

“Body like swan: above the water, everything slow. Down below the water, fast.” “Like cha-cha-cha! Cha-cha-cha!” “Everybody, Fast! In a circle! She is thief, I am police!” With these and other curious exhortations, I was initiated tonight into the world of traditional Korean dance.

I found the class on Craigslist, where people seek to enlist their fellows in all kinds of bizarre behavior. I arrived at Lotus Music and Dance, a world music-oriented dance studio whose entryway resembles a dental clinic for a dangerous clientele — I had to sign in through a metal grate before I was buzzed into the office area, where I filled out forms and signed and insurance waiver. Once that was done, I was waved down the hall to studio A, where I found myself in the company of three middle-aged Korean women, a young American woman, and our teacher, Songhee Lee, standing resplendent in her hanbok and moving with daunting grace.
Korean dance is unlike any dance I’ve done before. For one thing, it’s slow, requiring a smoothness of movement that, shall we say, does not come naturally to me. Second, its rhythms are dauntingly alien to me. And third, it involves keeping your arms in the air for extended periods of time, which is exhausting. (Toward the end of the class, I got to thinking about CIA-administered stress positions, and how they were inspired by North Korean techniques.)
In fact, my first experience of learning Korean dance was a lot like my experience of learning Korean: confusing, difficult, fascinating, and presented with a curious combination of welcome and wariness. Lee Seonsaengnim wanted my phone number and email, and so did the American (a dedicated Korean dancer, it turns out — I’ll have to get her story), and everyone was terribly impressed at my ability to speak Korean. But as is so often the case with Koreans, the question of how I learned Korean shades into the more accusatory question of why I’m interested in Korea. There seems to be a general consensus among Koreans that while foreign fascination with her gigantic neighbor to the west and her rich and sexy neighbor to the east makes perfect sense, there’s something a little weird about being interested in Korea. It’s like finding out your friend is really into polka, or a huge Steve Gutenberg fan.
Nevertheless, the welcome won out, as usual. People are usually flattered when you find them interesting. Lee Seonsaengnim offered to arrange special sessions to teach me “man dance,” and the American woman promised that she would give me free lessons. “Have you been to Korea?” I asked her.
“I go every year.”
“Then can you teach me out to dance like the drunk old men in the park?”
She says she can teach me in an hour. We’ll see.

[dreaming of fluorescent pepsi in the night]

So where were you last Tuesday night?

Seven years after the definitive where-were-you-when moment for Americans under sixty, it is with great relief that there is now a new moment to talk about. For the past week, conversations have turned to the election, which has unleashed a giddy elation in myself and countless others.

As for me, I was at a house party in a high-rise on West 42nd Street, where I stayed to watch first McCain’s and then Obama’s speech. At around 12:30, I headed out, planning to walk back to Times Square and take the subway home, but soon it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. Packs of people streamed by, chanting and waving Obama signs. Strangers were smiling and talking to each other, even embracing. A black woman threw her arms out and howled, “I’m goin’ ta work naked tomorrow!”

Times Square was still packed when I got there. The big screens around the square were all showing the results still coming in, and Obama’s picture kept drifting by on the giant LEDs. I called my sister, then my parents, then some friends, to let them hear what was going on. “YES! WE CAN! YES! WE CAN!” “O! BA! MA! O! BA! MA!” “YES! WE! DID! YES! WE! DID!” Fire trucks drove by and honked in rhythm. I talked to a man from Guinea who was texting his friends back home. They were still celebrating, though it was nearly morning there.

I bought a T-shirt that said President Barack Obama. I cheered and I chanted with strangers. I stared at the monitors and talked shop with strangers about Senate races. At last I headed home, by cab, sharing my joy with my Senegalese driver. It was a beautiful night.


The next day, I bought my ticket for Thailand. I’ll be going on December 20, returning on January 4. At first I agonized over how I would book internal flights for when I arrived, but yesterday I decided to let that go. I’ll just show up in Bangkok and figure it out. There’s always a bus to somewhere.

Bus travel, of course, is unpredictable. I have been battered and bruised on buses, ridden on the roof over mountain roads, crossed the United States with Euro-hippies, been awakened by snapping fingers in my face and a man barking, “Tea, toilet!” But what comes to mind most viscerally for me are two experiences. In one, I am riding through Bridgeport, Connecticut, gazing out the window at a bombed-out husk of a city, and listening to “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997,” by Beck:

I was born in this hotel, washing dishes in the sink
Magazines and free soda, trying hard not to think

The other memory is of India, staring out the window of a night bus — god knows where — listening to Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers and watching these islands of fluorescent light drift by, illuminated roadside bhatis with walls of turquoise and pink, hand-painted Pepsi logos, and skinny, mustachioed men with bushy hair, bushy mustaches and dhotis.

In each case, the memory mixes music, bus travel and alienation. Buses, it seems to me, are an ideal environment for feeling alienated, with none of the romance of trains or the sense of occasion that still clings to air travel even in the age of the flying cattle car. Buses rattle and bump, stop unpredictably, go off course, get stuck in traffic. And music is ideal for creating a contrast, or an emotional frame, for absorbing images that are somehow surreal and out of context.

And so I’m sorting through my music, trying to figure out what goes on my iPod for my trip to Thailand, and contemplating a bus trip up the country, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, with stops in Ayuthaya and Sukhothai and who knows where else. What will settle into my memory this time?

My first little taste of adventure travel was on a Green Tortoise bus down from Oregon, and it sold me on the notion. I soon spent ten days crossing the Northern US with the Green Tortoise, and then another fourteen days heading back across the South. After college, when I leaped blind into India, I experienced bus travel in whole new ways: riding the roof with a couple of cackling old men on the road that winds over the mountains back into Pokhara; wrapped in a shawl, trying to sleep as the cold desert wind whips through the empty window frame of a night bus to Jaisalmer; pressed up against a man smelling of sandalwood and sweat, trying to tune out the high-pitched warble of distorted Hindipop. I have been bounced and battered in a sleeping compartment with no seats. I have been awakened early in the morning by snapping fingers in my face and a man barking, “Tea, toilet!” I have

Bus travel is unpredictable. Some of the best and worst travel experiences of my life have involved buses. My first trip, down from Eugene, Oregon to San Francisco, was a revelation: my first time jumping into a travel experience with no clear idea what it would entail. I sat on the back, on the mattress platform, while an impromptu bluegrass band struck up, and then sat by a river at the Oregon campsite stopover and shared stories with probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.

Over the next couple of years, I twice crossed the United States in Green Tortoise buses. Then, after college, I made a grand, blind leap into India, where

[mafia laundry]

Here’s a fun fact: Paulie Walnuts does his laundry at my laundromat here in Bay Ridge.

Okay, actually it’s Tony Sirico — I saw him sign his laundry slip. He drives a black Cadillac convertible, and not one of those new Caddies, either. And he really does have those white wings in his hair.