The Moon over Korea

On a cold winter night in Seoul, my Korean scientist friend pointed to the full moon. “They say the moon over Korea is bigger than the moon over the US,” she said. “What do you think?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the same moon on either side of the planet,” I said. “Our people have been there, and there’s only one.”

A while later, she brought it up again. “You know that on the Korean moon, there’s a rabbit making tteok [rice cake].”

“Yes,” I said, “I know that story.”

“So what do you have on the moon in America?”

“We see a face.”

“Aha!” she said. “So it’s not the same moon.”

Cows, chickens, and hay

Some time before, this same Korean scientist had drawn a picture for me on a Post-It note — a cow, a chicken, and some hay — and asked me to group two of the objects.

I could see what was being asked: Westerners like myself would be expected to put the cow and the chicken together, using categorical logic, while Asians would group the cow and the hay, giving primacy to the functional relationship. (A contrarian American friend put together the chicken and the hay: “I just think chickens would enjoy playing with hay.”)

Checking to see if there was any research behind this sketch test, I discovered The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why, by Richard E. Nisbett. Nisbett starts with truisms about East and West: the East is Confucian, focused on interrelationships, and sees the world as fluid and complex; the West is Greek, focused on individual objects and abstract principles, and sees the world as governed by discernible laws. What sets his work apart is that he then tests these ideas with cognitive psychological research, discovering actual, measurable differences in the ways that East Asians and Westerners — mostly North Americans — see and understand the world.

Motivationally speaking

Recently, my team at Samsung electronics moved to a new department. In our first meeting with our new manager, he pronounced himself “worried” about the quality of our work and what would be needed to improve it. And that was about it. Meeting adjourned.

From a Western perspective, the meeting was frankly bizarre. It was helpful, then, to have read Nisbett’s account of a study of motivational effects that was conducted in the United States and Japan. Subjects were given a task to complete, then given feedback: positive, negative, or none for the control group. The study measured performance and persistence on a follow-up task. Among the Americans, those who received positive feedback were most successful on the second task, sticking with it the longest; negative feedback was demotivating. But for the Japanese, the effect was the opposite: positive feedback was a license to slack off, while negative feedback was an opportunity to prove oneself.

You can see this divergence in popular dramas, East and West. Americans love the narrative of a loser who becomes a champion when a great coach teaches him to believe in himself. You can see versions of it in Rocky, The Karate Kid, Stand and Deliver, The Empire Strikes Back, Kung Fu Panda. Korean dramas often start with a humiliation by the big boss, in which the main character is belittled and dismissed. The humiliation serves as the motivating engine for the protagonist’s drive to succeed in the end. (And sometimes to marry the big boss; a Korean Karate Kid would’ve had a lot less Mr. Miyagi and a brewing romance between Daniel and Johnny.)

Restoring truth, restoring harmony

That’s not to say that you can just dismiss negative feedback from your Asian boss. Sometimes you really are being told that you’ve done badly, and you need to take it that way. But even then, there can be a different understanding of what it means to give and receive negative feedback.

In the West, when your boss yells at you — or, more likely, has a civil talk with you about your performance — there’s a kind of back and forth. At least formally, there’s usually an opportunity for you to speak up for yourself, to defend your performance or to talk about what might be causing you to fall short. Social realities notwithstanding, there’s a kind of shared understanding that what you and your boss are after is truth and justice: honest information about what’s wrong so that it can be made right. The discussion has the atmosphere of a trial: there could be an acquittal, or possibly a punishment. If there’s no action taken, the implication is that the trial’s not over. That’s what makes these conversations so uncomfortable.

A couple of months ago, our team had a meeting like that. Our manager asked us how things were going, told us we were making too many mistakes, exhorted us to try harder, and then added that we would no longer have QA oversight to help prevent the mistakes we were making too many of. To me, this was profoundly disheartening, and for a while afterward I felt sick with worry. I had trouble sleeping. Were we on probation? What consequences might be looming?

Around that time, I was lucky to have as a house guest a Swiss friend who had lived for some years in Korea, pursuing a master’s degree in traditional music performance and embedding herself in the very traditional world of Korean shamanism. She told me about a time when she’d received a dressing down from the head of her academic department. “You just sit there and listen and don’t say anything,” he’d instructed her, which she pointed out was actually helpful: she was being taught the Korean way of handling negative feedback.

A couple of weeks later, she ran into his assistant, who asked how she was doing, and she told the assistant that she was upset and shaken, worried that the department head was still angry at her. “Oh, no!” the assistant said. “He already talked to you about that. It’s finished.”

From an Asian perspective, what needs restoring is not truth and justice, but social harmony. When something has gone wrong, the senior person needs to reassert authority, and the junior person needs to reestablish humility. As the junior, your job is to sit quietly, listen to whatever’s said, and promise to do better. (“네, 알겠습니다. 앞으로 열심히 할게요. Yes, I understand. I will do better in the future.”) Together, you restore balance and harmony.

That’s why, from the Asian perspective, it made sense to take away our QA oversight. As a Westerner, I wanted the ongoing measurement. Good or bad, it would help us to restore truth and justice. That’s because I was locating the problem in our performance. But our managers were locating the problem in the disruption of harmony between management and workers. The situation could be smoothed over by taking away the disruptive measurement. If the mistakes we were making had been causing serious problems, this might not have worked, but the reality is that, like a lot of things we get invested in at work, these mistakes didn’t matter all that much. A Westerner would want some ideological justification for downgrading their significance, but for Asians the social value of the downgrade was more than enough.

Meeting in the middle

The need for harmony is also helpful in understanding how Samsung tends to respond to customer complaints.

In any big company, you’re going to get customer feedback, and some of that feedback will be produced by idiots. At Google, we would assess incoming customer issues, and at times we would determine that a given customer complaint was simply wrong. No action was needed on our part.

That’s not how it works at Samsung. The first instinct isn’t to assess the complaint on the merits. That’s Western thinking: abstract the issue from the one raising it, look for fundamental principles, make a logical judgment. Instead, the first instinct at Samsung is to find a middle ground. Can we bend to the customer a bit? There’s much less sense of a broader right and wrong. Instead, the goal is to see things both ways and move closer together: harmony.

I find that this approach is also important in working with others internally. In a Western company, a kind of debate-style approach was a reasonable way to discuss choices about design or language: we could ask dialectical questions and try to come to a better understanding of what was needed. At Samsung, I’ve discovered that my counterparts aren’t very good at that kind of discussion. There’s a lot more deferring to authority — we want to do it this way because the VP likes it — and a much greater discomfort with pointed questions or outright contradiction.

The art is to discover a middle ground that my Western mind can accept. And having attempted it for a little while, I’m much more aware of my Western tendency to jump to categorical right and wrong before it’s warranted. We Westerners tend to stake out positions and defend them, and it’s hard for us to show up the next day and admit that we can see, with a little distance, how our initial judgments were perhaps too rigid. We insist on reasons for backing down, and they have to be case-specific reasons, not social-field reasons like deference to authority or keeping the peace. It’s the American version of saving face, but I’m not sure it has much relevance in Asia.

Rabbits in motion

These different ways of seeing things — Western, categorical, abstracted; Asian, situational, interrelated — explain why Koreans have a different moon. The Western moon has a face that’s just a face and nothing else. The Korean moon is more complex: there’s a rabbit in motion, though we never see the motion; that’s something you have to infer. The rabbit is making tteok, an act of transformation — rice into rice cake — that mirrors the moon’s ceaseless cycling. It’s also a social act: rice is communally planted and harvested, and the making of tteok is a community affair. To see a rabbit making tteok is to see a web of connections, interactions and transformations. The moon is never just the moon. Everything exists in relation to everything else.

For an American, much of the fascination of living in Korea is learning to see these threads of interconnection. To get there, we have to judge less, let go of our craving for absolutes, and be willing to hover in a kind of no man’s land of uncertainty that feels very unnatural. But if you’re willing to endure the dark for a little while, you may find the Korean moon surprisingly illuminating.

New Old Korea

Kim So Ra is why I live in Korea.

I discovered her this past Saturday night, after a new friend made a vague invitation to a janggu concert. It was a bitterly cold night, and the concert was in an underdeveloped, industrial section of Seoul called Yeongdeungpo, where the main street is still lined with small machine shops and artificial limb wholesalers. It reminded me of winter excursions to the Lower East Side twenty years ago to see experimental theater productions tucked in between old bra shops. I connected with some friends of friends at a chicken restaurant with an outdoor fire rotisserie and stacks of wood, and then we headed off, eventually finding our way to the Mullae Art Factory Box Theater, a stylish bit of postmodern concrete architecture hidden down an unpromising side street.

I wasn’t expecting much. The theater was small, the audience probably fewer than fifty people, and the theme of the show, “A Sign of Rain,” complete with accompanying video projections, seemed like it might turn into the kind of embarrassing conceit that masks mediocre playing.

But the art scene in Seoul, I’ve discovered, delights more often than it disappoints. Kim So Ra, it turns out, is not only a janggu virtuoso, but also a subtle explorer of world percussion, which she integrated into her playing in startling ways, incorporating everything from pouring water to Tibetan singing bowls (only the xylophone piece fell flat). Her fellow musicians — percussionist Hyeon Seung-hun, O No-eul on piri, Im Ji-hye on gayageum — created a rich, complex range of sounds that put me in mind of the Steve Reich performance I saw at BAM in 2015.

Visual music

Traditional janggu performance is inseparable from the excitement of watching the drummer swing the stick from one side of the hourglass drum to the other, and samulnori music comes fully alive as dance, with colorful costumes and long spinning streamers attached to elaborate hats. Kim So Ra augmented that visual tradition with video projections. At times it felt a little Pink Floyd laser show or nineties screen saver, but at their best, the videos helped to focus our attention on particular details in the music, or brought out themes and feelings, as when the screen behind the stage became a dancing watercolor ink painting, creating a kind of willed synesthesia.

Similarly compelling was a burst of modern dance from Kim Jeong-un, whose expressive face and joyous movement brought the theater to life even before she began spinning plates (which is apparently an old Korean art form that predates Ed Sullivan by some years).

The cleverest effect was a projection onto a white-painted janggu, timed to the rhythm so that drum hits became splashes of water and bursts of color. What could have been a gimmick turned out to be powerful and moving, in no small part because of the general tendency in Korean art to take craft seriously.

More than fusion

That all of this is happening in Seoul, right now at this moment in history, is a big part of why I’m here. Other than Japan, there’s nowhere else in Asia where artists are bringing together traditional and global ideas not as fusion — a flaccid affair that usually means old instruments and shitty synthesizers — but as serious postmodern art.

And right now, I think Korea’s more vibrant than Japan, or at least a lot newer and fresher at this particular game. It’s only in the past few years that young Koreans have started venturing out into the world, but they’ve gone in droves to the art and fashion institutes in the US, and what they’ve brought back with them is starting to take root. Fashion, music, art: Seoul feels like it’s on the cusp of something. Artists like Kim So Ra are why I’m here now, ready to wander off into weird neighborhoods in the freezing cold to see what’s happening.

Equality vs. Individual Freedom

Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing the every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Lies About Love and Work

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Every now and again, I see this little pearl of wisdom pop up on my Facebook feed, and I think, Yeah, Steve Jobs said this to a bunch of Stanford grads, but I bet he never made this little speech at one of those Foxconn factories in Shenzhen. He probably never made this speech to the janitors who clean the Cupertino campus.

Chasing what you love and never settling is rich people bullshit.

Work is work

You know why people pay you to do your job? Because it’s the kind of activity that no one would do if they didn’t get paid for it. That’s how most jobs are, whether it’s cleaning toilets, cooking Denny’s meals, or doing the QA and writing the code updates that make sure you can still open Adobe FrameMaker in OS X Snow Leopard.

I went to the Apple website to look at jobs, and this is from the first one I saw:

As a Business Leader, you drive the strategy and infuse the business vision into management and store teams in each market location. You foster consistent practices for all locations, but you’re also flexible enough to manage unique variances in your market.

No one wakes up on Saturday morning thinking, I’m gonna manage some unique variances with my kids! I have never, ever, ever, in a conversation or a Landmark course or an AA meeting or wherever, heard anyone say that what they really wanted out of life was a chance to foster consistent practices. Someone might get into it and do it really well, and that’s great. But it’s a job. You do it to get money to pay for things.

And there’s no shame in that, or there shouldn’t be. But what the do-what-you-love rhetoric really has behind it is something much more insidious.

Only the rich do it right

When Steve Jobs tells you that if you do what you love, you can be like Steve Jobs, he’s also saying the opposite: if you’re not rich and successful and respected like Steve Jobs, it’s because you weren’t bold and brave enough to follow your bliss and never settle and do what you love.

In other words, Steve Jobs deserves his money because of his personal merit. That’s the secret message behind every zillionaire saying you should do what you love. He didn’t get rich by a combination of luck, privilege, ruthlessness, and peculiarly lucrative business skills. No, he got rich by following his passion and never settling. Something anyone could do, right? If only we were bold enough.

What follows is that if you’re poor, working shitty jobs, struggling to get by, or doing OK but sort of just getting along somewhere in the middle of a corporation, it’s your personal fault. It’s not the system, so don’t even look there. And whatever you do, definitely don’t start considering the idea that vast accumulations of personal wealth are a problem. They’re a goal — a personal goal, not a societal goal — and if you’ve fallen short, it’s on you.

How to do what you love

So let’s say you really do want to take Steve Jobs at his word. You can do it individually, trying to cut a path that sets you apart from everyone else so that you, and you alone, can do what you love. Or you could consider systemic changes that could allow many more people to lead lives that they enjoy, with more time to devote to what they enjoy.

There’s no simple solution, but there are ideas out there: guaranteed health care that frees people from corporate employment as a survival requirement, guaranteed universal income, sabbatical years, free education. These are some of the ideas I like, but you might have others.

And on a personal level, do your work because there’s work to be done and because you need to make a living, and do what you love because you love it, and stop insisting that these two things have to be the same thing.

A Strange and Wonderful Year

Think 2016 was bad? In 2004, George W. Bush was reelected on a platform of torture and war, 280,000 people died in a tsunami, and Ray Charles and Ol’ Dirty Bastard died. But you didn’t yet have Facebook to make it feel like all these things were part of your own personal social life.

So how was your actual 2016? The one you really lived?

My 2016

For me, 2016 was actually pretty amazing. It began on a wet, windy beach in Danang, and the first five months took me on adventures in Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Bali, Java, and Singapore: festivals and flings and love affairs, Phnom Penh rock and roll and Laotian chill, ancient temples and gleaming cities. Then it was back to the US for a few months to visit friends and family before returning to Asia: finally getting to visit Japan, attending a month of language school in Seoul, swinging one more time through Thailand, and finally starting a completely new phase of my life as an actual Seoul resident, with an apartment and a job.

I’ve made an extraordinary number of new friends. A lot of them I’ll probably never see again.

But more important that any of that was the safe, healthy arrival of two new people in the world: my sister had a baby, her first, and not long after my brother’s wife had her second child. I’ll be meeting my two new nieces early in the new year.

Your 2016

How’d the year go for you? I know some of my friends had it rough. Others had amazing things happen. Most of us, we had both. That’s how life is.

Our 2017

Here’s wishing you and me both a very happy New Year.

 

冬至點

冬至點. 동지점. Winter arrival point.

Here in Seoul, on the shortest day of the year, it’s a balmy 8 degrees (Celcius, not Farenheit), and rain is pouring down over the city, turning the uneven alleyways of Gangnam into alternating rivulets of rainwater and people.

At this time last year, I was in Georgetown, Malaysia, close to the equator and a little over a quarter of the way through my time in Southeast Asia. There was no winter there, of course. Here, winter is just arriving, though it feels like it’s already been here a while. It has its points. I like bundling up in a nice warm coat, or sitting inside sipping tea while the rain pelts the windows.

It’s been a tough couple weeks — work stress mostly, and I’ll get into that in some detail soon — but I’m starting to feel like I’m coming out the other side of it. As I have learned in another context, what feels like lifetimes and impossible distances ago, This too shall pass.

Holidays

In Korea, when a holiday falls on a weekend, you don’t get a day off. So I won’t have any time off work for Christmas or New Year’s. But other people are taking vacations, and things are slowing down a little. There’s a lot to get done, but it feels for the moment like the frantic, panicky vibe of the last few weeks is tapering off.

I’ll be having an open house on Saturday, for whoever wants to wander by. I went out to Itaewon over the weekend and visited the Chabad synagogue there, so I’ve got Chanukah candles, gelt and dreidels. I’m hoping to confuse some Korean friends with my own weird traditions for once.

And for the moment, I need to remember to go easy on myself. I have high expectations, but there’s a great deal about Korea and Korean culture — including work culture — that I still don’t understand. I’m learning. For tonight, I think the best thing I can do is not write the bigger blog post with the serious ideas. Instead, I’ll put some Stevie Wonder on the stereo, plop a Nature Republic mask on my face, fix a cup of hibiscus tea and watch the rain.

Things that matter most

Oh, I suppose this deserves a mention: my sister had a baby girl a couple weeks ago, and now my brother and his wife have had a baby girl too. (And so has my brother’s wife’s sister, while we’re at it.) And I’m going to visit Phoenix and meet my new nieces in about a month. So maybe that’s lifting my mood just a little.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m feeling all of Stevie’s classic period right now, but I’m especially feeling this.

Normal Life

A quiet evening, listening to soft jazz as the rain falls outside. After work, I went to the office gym. Then I took the shuttle bus to Yangje Station and walked home from there, a couple of kilometers, stopping to pick up dinner at Mos Burger on the way. It was cool but not cold, and not yet raining, and it felt good to stretch my legs.

At home, I called the dry cleaner to get some shirts picked up, and then I watched a couple of episodes of Archer on Netflix while I ate my burger. After that I had a long phone conversation with a well-known North Korean defector. We have a bunch of friends in common, but we only finally met in person last night, and tonight I was helping her to clarify her thoughts on the work she wants to do — reassuring her that she doesn’t have to do everything herself, suggesting that she focus intently on one or two things she wants to achieve while leaving some of the other tasks to others, and also reminding her that the point of freedom, for her and for all of us, is that it gives us the opportunity to pursue happiness. North Korean defectors often feel a heavy burden of obligation to do something for their compatriots, and they are certainly not raised in a culture that prioritizes personal fulfilment or happiness. I’ve wondered what contribution I might make to North Koreans now that I’m in Seoul, and maybe one thing I can do is just give people permission to feel joy and comfort and peace.

After we got off the phone, I took a bath and read the New Yorker for a bit, and then I studied some Korean.

I’m tired. It was a long day, and I suppose a good one. This is my life now. In a lot of ways it’s not all that different from my life in New York, where I might well have met with a North Korean defector or stopped off at my Korean cleaners on the way home before studying some Korean language and listening to some jazz. For all the ups and downs and waves of culture shock, sometimes what’s most startling is how normal all of this feels: going to work at a tech office, coming home to my apartment, sitting on the sofa and blogging.

And then other things are strange and different. My friendships here are new, and many of them, I know, will be fleeting, especially with my fellow foreigners, who come and go. I’m still just 85 days in, and there’s much to get used to, connections to make, roots to put down. But I’m here. Ella is singing to Joe Pass as the rain pelts the penthouse windows on a cool night in Seocho-gu.

Giving Thanks

At the end of college, I experienced a great failure of imagination. I was terrified that I would be chained to a desk for the next forty-odd years and that nothing interesting would happen. Of course, life didn’t turn out that way. It’s just that when I looked into the yawning blank future, I didn’t know what to fill it with.

Arriving in Korea is a bit like that. Here I am, living the expat life I’ve been preparing for, in one way or another, since 2003. And now that I have it, I find myself worrying that it will be nothing but what it is right now: get up, go to a corporate job, come home tired, repeat. Is that all there is to living abroad?

An interesting life

Of course, my life is already way more interesting than that. I’m dating, spending time with friends. I’ve thrown a party with eight nationalities in attendance, had Central Asian food in Dongdaemun with a new friend from Kyrgyzstan, seen paintings from the Musee D’Orsay and traditional Korean music performances, wandered the boutiques of Samcheondong with a real actual fashion consultant from Bergdorf’s in Manhattan. Tonight I’ll have Thanksgiving dinner of a sort: I’m throwing a party, and we’ll eat sandwiches made from the sliced turkey I found at the Emart Everyday near my office.

Life will inevitably have its future twists and turns, too, but I don’t know what shape they’ll take yet. I’m new here, so it’s hard to imagine. I did pull myself out of my funk a little bit by making a five-year plan, a habit of my grandfather’s (he got it, presumably, from the socialists he admired in his youth). By my birthday in 2021, I will have enough savings that I can go hang out in a cheap place — e.g., Laos, Phoenix — for more or less as long as I want without worrying about it. I will be fluent in Korean. I will have a long-term residency visa in Korea. And I’ll be married. (For those of you who’ve known me in my bachelor adventurer years, circa 2012-present, that last one might come as a surprise, but yes, I would like to make a long-term connection.)

You know, or not.

All of this is, like everything in life, subject to change. As my father is fond of saying, if something is more than three weeks away, don’t worry about it. You still have to plan, though. It’s just the worrying that you don’t get much value from.

Manager shoes

But you know what really lifted me out of my funk?

Shoes.

I’d noticed that the managers a couple of layers above me weren’t wearing dress shoes. Those, it turns out, are for lower-level guys who are trying to look serious. No, the managers wear what I think of as dress sneakers. And I wanted to start dressing like the managers.

It took me a while to find these shoes. I tramped all over Gangnam, Garosu-gil, Myeongdong, Hapjeong, to no avail. You don’t find them at ABC Mart or Folder, the chain shoe stores you find everywhere. But on Monday night I headed over to COEX Mall, and I found a little shop called Salt & Chocolate, and they had so many amazing shoes that I bought three pairs.

I acknowledge that this is a very Sex and the City way of dealing with existential dread and political despair. It’s not my usual thing. But you know what? It worked. And I’m somewhere very new, figuring out what works. There’s a shallowness to my current condition — an unbearable lightness, if you will — and maybe shallow responses are in order. It’s amazing what new shoes or a good Turkish dinner can do for my state of mind. And it wasn’t just the shoes either. It was finding the shoes: accomplishing a task, an effort of discovery, here in my new home.

Now I just need to figure out how to buy Bactine for the blisters.

Gratitude

Here in Seoul, the first snow is falling. It’s been a hard couple of weeks, but it’s Thanksgiving weekend back home, and it’s good to remember how much I have to be thankful for. I’m watching the snow from inside my warm home that will soon be filled with friends. I have a good job and a loving family and a brand new niece who was born on Halloween and is named Pumpkinella (her parents think her name is something else, but whatever). I have new shoes. I have new challenges to tackle and a new life to make my own. And there’s sliced turkey in the fridge.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

 

This Is Happening

As I sit on the couch, listening to music and my dishwasher as I write, it’s hard to believe that it’s been less than two weeks since I started my new job and moved into my apartment.

The apartment

When I was still living in New York, on the ground floor of my prewar Brooklyn building where the pipes hissed and rattled like Das Boot all winter and the window air conditioners buzzed all summer, I had this fantasy of living in a sleek, elegant apartment high in the sky, looking through floor-to-ceiling windows at the lights of some hypermodern Asian city.

Well, I live there now.

My apartment is on the top floor of a 27-story building a few minutes’ walk from Gangnam Station. It’s in one of those beige Asian apartment complexes that look from the outside like a Jane Jacobs nightmare but are actually amazing places to live: clean, modern, spacious. I have three bedrooms and two bathrooms, with a jacuzzi tub in one of them. There are enclosed balconies on either side of the floor-through apartment — with, yes, floor-to-ceiling windows. I can see mostly other apartment towers, but also some mountains and a fair bit of sky, and Namsan Tower in the distance. The whole place is nearly a thousand square feet.

There’s a dishwasher, an oven, a washer-dryer, two stoves. There are four fridges: out on the balcony is the full-sized fridge and the built-in kimchi fridge, while in the kitchen is the smaller built-in fridge plus an odd horizontal fridge above the sink that’s specifically for Korean side dishes. The heating is under the hardwood floors. There’s a leather sofa and a big new TV. Samsung provided me with most of the furniture, and I supplemented it with a trip to Ikea. I’ve managed to set up internet service, and it’s as fast as you’ve heard Korean internet service is. I can stream music and sit on the balcony and sip tea and watch the sun set and the moon rise.

Getting settled in has had its challenges. I still haven’t managed to get my paintings on the walls, which are mostly concrete and will require a serious drill and someone who knows how to use it. I have accidentally set off alarms while trying to answer the doorbell and let people in downstairs, leading to intercom exchanges not unlike Han Solo declaring “Situation normal” on the Death Star, only in Korean. I had to get the maintenance guy in just to show me how to turn on the shower, and then I felt like an idiot when he showed me. Things around the apartment have an unsettling tendency to start beeping: the refrigerator when the door was left open a crack, my bedroom light switch when its built-in alarm decided it was time to go off. I can operate my Samsung Digital Bidets relatively well now, thanks to some time spent with an online dictionary. I downloaded an English version of the manual on my washer-dryer and discovered I’d been putting detergent in the wrong place.

On the other hand, I’ve managed in just two weeks to get my boxes from America, my Alien Registration Card, a bank account. I’ve gotten restaurant food and groceries and Ikea furniture delivered and arranged dry cleaning pick-up service, Internet and phone service. A coworker found me a cleaning lady. I now know how to answer the door and how to throw out my garbage — there is a key card for the compost machine, which weighs my food waste and bills me monthly — and I know that Thursday is recycling day. These small victories are satisfying, especially when they involve using my Korean language skills.

As for the neighborhood, it’s great. I’m in the heart of Gangnam (yes, yes, I am aware that there was a song), with a ton of restaurants and bars and clubs and noise just a few minutes’ walk from my door, yet my apartment is remarkably quiet and sedate. And for all of Gangnam’s craziness — imagine if Fifth Avenue in Midtown had St. Mark’s Place immediately adjacent and you’ll begin to get the idea — I have discovered little corners of the neighborhood that feel, well, neighborhoody, more like where ordinary Koreans hang out than like the blinky, flashy club life a block or two away.

But sometimes it’s nice just to stay in. We had a long weekend, and yesterday I just stayed home and watched the rain over the city and the mist on the mountains, and it was beautiful.

The job

Working at Samsung is like joining a Korean family: everything is provided for you, in exchange for which much is demanded of you, and father knows best.

After a year of doing whatever I want, and before that seven years at freewheeling Google, Samsung’s structured style was a shock. Security is tight: you have to put stickers over the cameras on your phone (until you install security software, anyway), and no USB sticks or laptops or storage devices go in or out. Bags are X-rayed when you leave. Time is tracked by when you badge in and out, and you’re required to work at least 40 hours a week and four hours on any given day, with a mandatory hour of break time for each eight hours you’re there, which means nine hours a day in practice. This is hardly an onerous schedule, but it’s the tracking of it that gave me pause.

There are other differences from Google that are more subtle. Meals are provided, and they’re good, but the whole approach is different. At Google, you go to whatever cafe you like and grab this and that from various stations, going back for more or even going to a different cafe to finish if you like. You go when you want. At Samsung, the lights start to go out in the office at 11:30, and by 11:45 you’re in the dark and it’s time to go, as a group. At the cafeteria, you pick one of the set menus, go to that station, and eat what’s there. You can go back for more or go somewhere else, but the second round isn’t free, and I’ve never seen anyone actually do that. Outside of mealtimes, there are no free snacks, not even coffee. If you want some, there’s a coffee shop downstairs and convenience stores nearby, but you have to make some effort and spend a little money.

The office space itself is pleasant but uninteresting. There are no elaborate themes or crazy rooms shaped like bee hives (I’m looking at you, Google NYC!). Conference rooms on our floor are named after colors but do not have said colors represented anywhere in the decor.

All this would seem to mean that life at Samsung is, compared to life at Google anyway, stultifying and grim. That was my gut reaction at first. But after a couple of weeks, I’m finding that the lack of constant stimulation is a huge relief. I can actually concentrate on my work, and I’m less exhausted at the end of the day than I was at Google, where I think we all suffered from decision fatigue: Should I go to the microkitchen? Do they still have beef jerky? Should I make an espresso drink or just get a coffee from the machine? What do they have in the other microkitchen?

 

As for the work itself, I’m the senior writer on a team that reviews and updates language for the next generation of Samsung phones: all the text on the phone, from menu names to settings descriptions to the details within native apps. It’s a lot more text than you think it is, and our goal is to make it friendlier, more intuitive, more human and humane, not so stiff and formal. It’s a formidable task.

The people I work with are so far pleasant and kind and helpful. My team leader is a Korean who spent time teaching at Pepperdine University. The other senior writer in our group is a Korean who spent a decade at Apple, and she’s a very capable writer but recognizes that she’s not a native speaker, so her focus is more on workflow management than day-to-day writing. There are two North American natives, a Canadian and an American, who have both been on the team for about a year. They’re both married, and one of them has a Korean wife and has been here for ten years and speaks Korean fluently. That’s a big help considering how much Korean is spoken in the office, in conversations and meetings and in emails. I was afraid I might end up in an English bubble at work, but that is certainly not the case so far. Along with the North Americans are two Korean-born junior writers who grew up in Australia and America respectively, and who just started at Samsung a couple of weeks before me.

I’m still learning what we do and how we do it, but already I’ve been able to contribute. I’ve updated the style guide, and the other writers are looking to me for ideas on tone and style and approach, which is nice. Samsung is the world’s leading smart phone maker and a flagship Korean company, and we have a chance to shape the voice of its most prominent products.

In a way, how a Samsung phone speaks to its English-language users is a significant piece of how Korea speaks to the world at large. Is it formal and uptight and a little stiff and awkward? Or is it clear, intuitive, inviting? I actually believe this stuff matters. Some years back, when I was working for the South Korean mission to the UN, I was helping diplomats to give voice to their country’s goals and concerns in a global forum. The way a Samsung phone explains its fingerprint scanner to its users will probably be read by far more people than any of those UN speeches, and it will shape the impression people have of Samsung, and of Korea. For some years I’ve talked about wanting somehow to use my knowledge of Korea and my communication skills to be a bridge between cultures, and now I’m doing it.

 

 

I know that there will be challenges along the way: long hours, senior vice presidents who want to use terrible language because it’s consistent with other terrible language, deadlines that mean we can’t make things as right as we would like them to be. But I’m in no hurry to get jaded. Yes, I’m going to an office job. But it’s an office job in Korea!

Living the dream

If you’ve known me a while, you’ve seen all this take shape: the creeping frustration with Google, the master’s degree in Korean studies that had no obvious purpose, the decision to move here, the winding down of my life in New York, the year off to travel.

Well, now I’m here. It can be scary to get what you want. Now I have to live it out, day by day. I still have much to learn, lots of steps left just to get things set up, and then there’s a whole life to create for myself. But it’s beginning. I’m making friends, enjoying my life at work and my days off.

I’m here.

This is happening.