冬至點

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

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

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.

The Ultimate Answer

The Ultimate Answer

Seoul, South Korea

Today’s my birthday, and this year my age corresponds with the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything — an answer that famously lacked a question.

At the moment, that seems about right. I’m in Korea now, living here — my birthday is my first full day here on my work visa — and this seems like the answer to a question that can’t be formulated.

I didn’t ask for Korea to be the answer. It sneaked up on me. And it’s the answer to what, exactly? I don’t know.

“Six by nine. Forty-two.”

Sometimes it doesn’t all add up, but there you are anyway. Today I’m 42 years old (though still 43 in Korean age, like I was yesterday), and I live in Seoul, Korea.

 

 

The Fog of Language

The Fog of Language

Seoul, Korea

(Photos)

We were somewhere on the back half of an eight-hour hike across Bukhansan National Park in northern Seoul, scrabbling over yet another series of boulders so steep they required us to hang on to steel cables that had been installed along the trail. Our legs were tired, we were low on water, and we had no idea how much further we had to go.

“This is hard,” my friend said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s like learning Korean.”

The start

Actually, learning Korean is harder. Still, the comparison seemed apt as my German classmate and I climbed Seoul’s highest mountain and traversed Bukhansan National Park. From the bottom, Baegundae Peak looks rocky, but you think about 836 meters and figure it can’t be that hard. And every time you come to a distance marker — another 1.4 kilometers to the next junction, say, or to another temple — you think to yourself, It can’t be that far. And yet somehow it is. Every time. Just when you think you’re about to get somewhere, there’s a steep uphill, or an open slab of slick wet stone canting toward a sea of foggy nothing below, with no discernible trail to follow. As with learning Korean, you reach these queasy moments where it seems impossible to go forward. But you do. And as you do, strange beauties open up to you.

Early in the hike, we came to a temple where monks in ceremonial robes were leading a congregation in chanting, some in fourth-note harmony. There were gifts to ancestors and paper cutouts that looked shamanistic to me, and I felt the wonder of knowing enough to have a sense of what might be shamanistic. And when they chanted about Gwanseum, I knew enough Korean, and enough Buddhism, to know that they were giving praise to Avalokiteshvara,the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Guan Yin in Chinese, Gwan Um in Korean. Then three monks began a dance with flashing, clashing cymbals, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it was lovely. It was the sort of moment that makes you want to keep going along the rocky, precarious path toward another culture.

As we continued, the rain began to fall again, soft then hard. It was intermittent throughout the day, and soon we were hiking through the clouds themselves as we climbed through forest, deciduous and pine. What should have been spectacular viewpoints were just walls of gray-white mist, which is kind of how I feel every time we do a listening comprehension exercise in class. My friend is much better at listening than I am, having gorged herself on Korean dramas for years. On the other hand, I’m much faster at reading Korean, the result of my year living here with no real Korean language skill except for reading the alphabet. I got very good at spotting the English embedded in the Korean: ham-beo-geoin-teo-netke-i-bul-ka.

We took a small side trail up to yet another temple, where we sat on a bench and ate our kimbap while elderly blond dogs hovered with the eternal optimism of dogs everywhere, hoping for scraps. From there, we began a steep ascent, our assault on the peak. As we walked, we passed other hikers, and it was a pleasure to be able to chat with them in their own language about the trail, distances and times, the weather, where we were from. At the junction from the main trail to go up to the peak, we sat and rested, and a couple of ajossi gave us boiled potatoes and fresh ripe tomatoes. People do that on trails here. The shared experience, the shared hardship, creates camaraderie. When we’re out on the mountains, it can begin to feel like we’re part of a community, even part of the community of language.

The peak

The final stretch to Baegundae Peak is no joke, especially when everything is wet and the wind is blowing. There are many stretches where you have to use metal cables pull yourself along steep rock faces, and the thought of going down again is terrifying.

As I neared the top, my fear of heights kicked in. A Korean hiker at one point got very insistent that he should take a picture of my friend and me, and that we should climb past the cable barriers, out onto a rock promontory, so he could get the right shot. We spent some time waving him off, and under the stress of the moment, my Korean skills fell apart. I wasn’t sure what he was saying, and I couldn’t come up with my own words. I was trying not to fall off a mountain.

As we climbed up past an old defensive wall and out onto the rock faces, I wondered whether there was any point to doing this at all. The thick mists obscured any views, I was exhausted and afraid, the trail looked dangerous. But we went on ahead.

And then there we were, at the top, the Korean flag whipping in the wind, with nothing but white all around us. But as we stood there, panting and spent, the clouds parted. First a nearby peak revealed itself before being folded back into its white shroud. Then the whole of Seoul appeared in front of us, misty and indistinct but undeniably there, great expanses of apartment towers spread out below.

There are moments like this with the language too, when suddenly the blank fog seems to part and reveal meaning, depth, content. The details might still be fuzzy, the shapes uncertain, but yes, there’s something there! And the elation I feel, the urge to point and shout and tell everyone to look at what I’ve seen, is not dissimilar.

We had arrived at just the right moment. A few minutes later, the clouds were back, the vistas closed off again. It was time to savor what we’d been lucky enough to see and then head down.

Descent

We found a sheltered crevasse and ate our second kimbap before beginning the long descent. As scary as those cables had been going up, they weren’t quite as bad as I expected going down, though my hands were soon raw and my arms aching. The way to do it is to stick out your butt and go down backwards, like you’re rappelling. My friend had learned that from an ajossi when she’d gone solo hiking the week before.

Once down from the peak, we decided to continue on across Bukhansan Park to end up on the far side from where we started. This was perhaps unwise. A couple of guys on the trail told us that this was the easy route, but we began to doubt that we’d heard them right. There were more cable passages over rocks and scree, more unnerving cliffs and dangerous traverses. And things get riskier when you feel that the hardest bit is behind you. The most dangerous part of most hikes is the back end, when you just want to finish, you’re tired, and you get careless. At one point I heard a scrape and turned around to see my friend hanging from the metal cable, legs dangling down a steep incline of bare rock. She was OK, but it was a frightening moment.

These moments happen in language too: you think you’ve got it, you think you’re fine, and then everything drops from under you, and you’re just sort of dangling, dazed, unsure why everyone is staring at you like you just nearly died. They’re less dangerous when they happen in words, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

The long slog continued for hours, and as we descended, mosquitoes began to whine around our ears. There were exquisite moments when the late afternoon light filtered through the trees and mist, but by the end, we were just exhausted and ready to be done. And that, too, is like living in another language: you’re tired, you’re overwhelmed, you’re stumbling and making mistakes, but the language is still there all around you, still the path you need to follow if you want to get home.

Refreshment

Nearly at the end of our hike, we finally found a good spot to take off our shoes and put our feet in a cold stream. There was a young guy there who shared his water with us — we had run out — and who then more or less guided us on the last stretch, through more boulder-strewn river beds and at last out to a ranger station and a road.

We all got on a bus together and rode it for a while to the nearest subway stop. We were back in civilization again, dressed in our damp hiking gear amidst the hordes of fashionable weekend shoppers in this lively corner of Seoul. Our new friend showed us to a jimjilbang, a Korean sauna, before he headed home.

We spent the rest of our evening recovering at the sauna: showering, getting a meal — there are restaurants in most jimjilbang — and going from one sauna room to another, first hot, then hotter, then into the ice box. There were families there, kids playing in the common room, a TV showing Korean dramas and then comedy and then Olympic ping-pong. It was all very Korean, and also very relaxing. We could listen or not listen to the conversations around us, tune in or tune out. We could let relax into the murmur of Korean without needing to struggle with it. We could let it come to us in whatever bits and pieces we could understand, or cared to.

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Seoul, Korea

I really, really wanted this Engrish to be on purpose, like those PLAN AHEAD signs you see where the ending is all squished. Alas, Designer Miss Kim confirmed that it was just a mistake. In fact, she was selling these notebooks at a discount because they were misprinted. (And let’s not even get into the alright issue.)

Somehow “EVERYTHIG IS ALRIGHT” is both more entertaining and more reassuring than a correctly spelled notebook would have been. Because everything is alright (or all right), even when it’s a little fucked up.

And besides, “EVERYTHIG IS ALRIGHT” is a pretty good approximation of the way I speak Korean.

So, like, hang lose. Purra vida. No wories. Its all good. 괸차나. 다 조아.

Living in Korea

Living in Korea

Seoul, South Korea

So here I am, living in Korea. I’ve been here since last week Tuesday evening, which, for those counting, is four nights, three days. (I still have to write about Tokyo and post pictures.)

Already it seems like ages. In this short time, I’ve moved into my summer residence — the same tiny goshiwon where I stayed last summer — started my language program, connected with various friends, gone to Itaewon and Shinchon and Hongdae and Samcheongdong and Bukcheon and done a little shopping, eaten galbi and kalguksu and cheese ramen and bingsu, and attended a cooking class where we made chimdak and haemul pajeon. I’ve done laundry and bought some housewares. I’ve made plans for a big hike tomorrow and to go see apartments with a real estate agent on Monday afternoon.

If it feels like I’ve been here a while, that’s partly because I’ve been here before. This time in Seoul is a continuation of my visits over the past three summers, during which I built up contacts and friendships and familiarity. I have a better mental map of Seoul than I do of Phoenix.

It’s different this time though. I’m saying. Sometimes that has me elated. At other moments it has me terrified. Mostly, though, so far it has relieved a certain pressure I’ve felt on previous trips to fill every moment, to fit it all in. If I have an empty day or evening this time, it’s fine. That happens in real life too.

For the moment, in my tiny little room, I still feel like a traveler. And I suppose I still am, in a way. But by September I’ll have a real home and a real job again for the first time in a long time. And it feels good to be laying the groundwork.