Death Parade Anime Analysis

Notes from Sunday, 11/26/17

*This post contains many spoilers for Death Parade*

This afternoon I finished watching this short anime series and while it has its faults, all in all it was not only thought provoking but also rife with symbols and allusions that made me want to take the time to try and unpack what I can. Prior to starting this, I searched for other analyses and could only find a few, all of which were generally short, touching on some symbol but not going further in seeing how that symbol functions in the story. Other than that there were lots of anime review type blogs, which can’t go deeper in analysis due to spoiler precautions. While I would love to do an in-depth, well-composed, post, for now I just want to get down my thoughts before the immediate inspiration fades.

Chavvot and Chiyuki: Limitations of Human Communication

Given the overarching plot is centered around the relationship between Chiyuki and Decim, a foil setup that unfortunately blossomed all too fast in the last couple of episodes, the show introduces us to a strange fairy tale titled “Chavvot” where a young boy named Jimmy sees Chavvot playing outside in the snow. Jimmy tries to talk to Chavvot, but she is deaf, and merely smiles back. Jimmy goes outside and, despite Chavvot being deaf, they can communicate with smiles and gestures and find happiness despite the barrier. One site notes that this is not an original story but a Russian tale.

Apparently Chavvot was based in an old Russian legend about a man and a woman. The man’s name is Death and the woman’s name is Life:

Death falls for Life and constantly calls out to her but because of the realms dividing them and their differences Life cannot hear Death. One day, Death stumbles upon a frozen boy in a pitfall. Instead of taking of the boy’s life he spares the child, and it is then when Life appears before them, finally able to hear Death. Together they revive the boy, with Death promising only to take the boy when his time naturally comes to die. Life and Death fall in love and eventually have a child named Hope who mediates and judges who goes where. “For even in life and death, hope can arise in both situations.”

The original story is so peculiar I plan to look into it, but as far as the function of the adaptation in the anime is concerned, it is primarily used to demonstrate the limitations of communication. Despite the fact that Chiyuki and Decim (parallel to Jimmy and Chavvot), a human and an emotionless reanimated marionette, eventually come to understand and change one another, Chiyuki originally uses the story to demonstrate that even with the multitude of dimensions humans are granted when it comes to communication, there is never a way to truly know someone. Chiyuki’s background of having skating, the most important aspect of her life, taken from her, and none of her friends or family being able to understand how she might feel, is a great example. I found myself similarly moved by the revenge story in the arc prior, which tells the story of a boy who takes on jobs and single handedly cares for his precious sister, only to have her assaulted and hospitalized by a stalker. As much as I can theoretically understand the rage that would possess someone in that situation, I felt a tinge of guilt in knowing that I can’t truly know without a set of experiences I cannot willingly take on.

In its explicatory scenes, the series wavers a bit between acknowledging the complexity of human nature and, as Chiyuki cries out in frustration, “People aren’t as complex as you think they are!” She says something along the lines of humans being dominated by emotions over simple, sometimes petty things we have no control over. The anime does well here in balancing simplicity and complexity, as it answers in a similar manner the question of how we might understand one another despite the limitations of the mind as contained in a single individual. When asked to press a button in order to kill a random person (out of 7 billion people) in exchange for being brought back to life, Chiyuki realizes that she can’t, that even though she won’t know or care intimately for the person who is killed on her behalf, she can’t help but understand the pain of loss and grief that others related to that the person and those around her. Just as it is simple enough to say that humans are neither entirely good nor evil, we have spent the past ten episodes learning not only that they can be one in the same, but that they can also be entirely absurd (one air-headed character, for example, dies slipping on a bar of soap).

Just a short addendum to the coexistence of simplicity and complexity is one of my favorite observations and drawings in the series, where we see that Chiyuki first enters Quindecim with tears and a smile as she asks “How did I die?” Later, as she is being sent in the elevator for reincarnation, she is seen with the same expression. The emotionless Decim notes that smiles convey happiness, and tears usually grief, but what does it mean when we see both? Of course there are tears of joy but when this combination accompanies the question “How did I die?” the situation is both simple and complex, the former because we are human and understand, and yet the latter because it is difficult to explain emotions to someone who lacks them.

One final observation I wanted to make is the theme of snow both in “Chavott” and Chiyuki’s ice skating scene. The skating is reminiscent of The Things They Carried , at the end of which (spoiler alert)  Tim imagines skating with Linda, a childhood friend who died of a brain tumor:

Sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.

I wonder if snow is used here for imagery of ephemeral purity (I feel like I’ve heard that’s the case in Japanese culture, likening snow to the sakura blossoms in the spring), but Tim O’Brien’s metaphor of skating over history, a tenuous boundary between life and death, feels fitting.

Nona and Decim, Threads and Marionettes

This blog did a good job pointing out the connections with Greco-Roman roots, especially in the names Nona and Decim, two of the three Parcae or Fates (the last being Morta, death). Nona spun the thread of life, Decim portioned it, and Morta cut it.

The Fates

Likewise Nona in Death Parade is among the most powerful in the place of judgment, either injecting Decim with human emotions or merely bringing out what is latent by facilitating his relationship with Chiyuki (Death Parade tends to fall apart in these inconsistencies). Decim is an arbiter, but one Nona purportedly wants to be just in a way that an emotionless judge cannot — she hopes to find one that is both sensitive to humanity yet beyond mortal reason.

I found the marionettes to be an incredible symbol throughout the series, particularly in the way Decim, an animated marionette, began gaining human emotion (we see this in his eyes and the fact that we can only see both his eyes when Chiyuki hugs him), and the way Chyuki, a human, starts turning into a marionette when she stays too long in the halls of judgement. The idea that we are all merely players in an absurd universe is powerfully conveyed by marionettes, the baldness of their anonymity a cruel manifestation of the understanding that death is the great equalizer. It is all the more poignant when we find that Decim’s hobby is not cruelly playing with marionettes but respecting them, dressing them up as those he passes judgement upon, keeping their memory alive in his bar even if he forgets the people as soon as their judgement is complete. This human desire for memory, for the affirmation that life is not all for absolutely nothing, can be fulfilled if at least in the slightest in this way, even if Decim actually forgets. I found that to be profound and representative of the way literature and art is woven into our lives: we keep objects to remind us of other people, and even if we die we hope that the object still has meaning even if we forget (I hope this makes sense, but it’s definitely an idea to explore more in depth).

Given I have stayed up too late writing this, I must close with the impression Chiyuki left on me when she says that it’s a shame we don’t realize the meaning of our lives until we are dead. Everything we know about Death generally turns to cliché, and while mantras like memento mori and carpe diem are somewhat taken seriously, I do often feel guilty about not heeding them more fully. Humans really do act as if we will live forever, and, as the anime says, in our final moments try to cling to it and give it meaning. It’s an eerie warning we would all do well to keep in mind everyday — that is not to say live in morbidity but to be mindful of the fact that it is in our nature to believe we are immortal.

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Lessons from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

Notes from Wednesday, 11/22/17

Having just finished the behemoth of symbols and motifs that is Invisible Man, I must say that while I regret not reflecting incrementally throughout the book as I would have in a college course, it wasn’t until the epilogue that I felt all of the pieces came together, illuminating everything that came before. Because while the book has moments of captivating action and dialogue, there were many other sections where I felt the intrigue came more from the reading of the symbols beyond the present action in an almost allegorical form of processing. The Brotherhood was at times overtly symbolic and I was looking forward to a point where the narrator would move onto the next chapter of his life and yet that point never came. As much as I understand the importance of a communist-inspired organization portending the “All Lives Matter” movement, I grew tired of reading between the lines. But all was forgiven in the epilogue, where everything came together, where the narrator returns to the present and explicates why he has told us his story. He not only recognizes that the entire narrative was simply that, a narrative written in his reclusion from society, but also calls us, who have been similarly shut out from society through the long process of reading it, to action. In doing so the narrator poses eloquent remarks on the importance of both a life of reading and action, of improving ourselves by gaining distance from society and then making manifest change through that which we gain. (That is of course one of the reasons I have decided to blog rather than keep all of my writings to myself, and similarly share on Instagram photos I have long enjoyed on my hard drive.)

Perhaps it is my own reckoning with self-identity during this time in a similar “hole” away from the States that I find such strong resonance in the narrator’s anxieties and  motivation in not only relishing the process of understanding oneself and place in society but also coming to terms with the fact that one cannot bask in such theoretical comfort forever. While no other minorities in America bear a greater share of the weight of injustice than do African Americans, all minorities can relate to the process of losing one’s identity living under various ideologies of racism and seemingly benign “colorlessness.” We can all relate to this:

There is, by the way, an area in which a man’s feelings are more rational than his mind, and it is precisely in that area that his will is pulled in several directions at the same time. You might sneer at this, but I know now. I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wishes to hear what I called myself.

Being displaced from my usual friend groups and culture for the past year and a half, I have thought a lot about just how much my understanding of myself was based on my surroundings. The narrator puts it succinctly in the realization that, “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are,” and that where is incredibly difficult to discern — it is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s ironic parable, where the fish asks, “What the hell is water?” Only through facing the trials of growing up do we begin to unravel where it is we are, a process that usually continues in a hermit-like state of reflection and reading. If anything it is difficult to extricate the the rational from the emotional when we are in society, pushed and pulled, chasing and running away in a paradox of choice and that which is dictated by society. Invisible Man is a kind of thought experiment: what if it were possible to put life on hold, take a breather in a black void?

Aside from the fact that actually traveling and being apart from your usual surroundings is advice well taken, it is also possible to enter this void simply by retreating into your mind. Consequently, in order to find oneself in the void, in invisibility, rather than lose oneself in it, it is necessary to remember why it is that you have retreated in the first place:

Since then I’ve sometimes been overcome with a passion to return into that “heart of darkness” across the Mason-Dixon line, but then I remind myself that the true darkness lies within my own mind, and the idea loses itself in the gloom. Still the passion persists. Sometimes I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it, for all of it is part of me. Till now, however, this is as far as I’ve ever gotten, for all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd.

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget…The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness.

It is all too easy to lose oneself in the madness — particularly relevant these days with all that is going on in the world, all the division — but we must remind ourselves that we analyze in order to act, that we write to give meaning to that which seems utterly meaningless. It is a common mantra, but one we must keep reminding ourselves of in order to pursue a more just future, one in which we recognize each other as humans and not just forces that both push and are pulled all too often at the same time. To be socially responsible by pursuing ideals without giving oneself up to them is a herculean task, but one that is most necessary:

In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.

I hope to return to this post over time to remind myself of these lessons, as life is a momentary state between forgetting and remembering them.

Featured photo is one I took on a lightly snowing day in Seoul near Gyeongbokgung.

Handwriting and Making Habits

Notes from Saturday, 11/18/17

Once I read something along the lines of loving someone for a long list of reasons among which was “messy handwriting.” Though I can’t remember the exact context, the idea was poignant: one’s handwriting can be seen as a representation of oneself, but the sentiment brings to life the vague cliche of loving someone for all their “curves” and “edges,” and “perfect imperfections” (thanks, John Legend). It’s romantic to think that one’s personality is inlaid in one’s handwriting, not only in the content of the words the hand produces but the way in which it is produced. For while a common romantic anxiety is the elusiveness of another’s mind, the intimidating distance at which even the thoughts of the person closest to you can lie, handwriting presents some possibility of not only capturing but also giving form to that which is constantly in flux. All this being said, while it is no new idea that words lay bare our thoughts to both others and ourselves, it is generally all the more meaningful if these words arrive not typed but handwritten, without any mediation between mind and paper.

Recently I have thought of handwriting for two reasons, the first being that my handwriting is not only awful but something I have, over time, come to accept and almost become proud of. The second is that these thoughts were spurred in part by a peer’s explanation on how it is actually quite possible to change your handwriting later in life. As a quick aside, his handwriting is also rather impressive (the featured image for this post) as is his writing:

If you’re interested in working on your handwriting, the good news is that it’s a lot easier than most people think. You just need to tinker with borrowing and making letter-forms that you like, and scribble enough to make it a habit. Most people with good handwriting find themselves getting sloppy every few months or so (I certainly do), and you just make a point of concentrating on being tidy the next time you write something. The reason why most adults now have messy handwriting is because schools usually teach writing (for obvious reasons) too early, before children really have the fine motor skills to master it. And we never really return to it later when we do have those motor skills. I have a friend who has terrible English cursive, but writes beautiful Russian Cyrillic cursive just because she learned the latter when she was 18 in college and the former when she was 7. So it’s totally possible to develop a good English hand later in life.

As I looked through my journal one night I felt a little down having to pause every few lines to make out a word, and because I have recently been thinking a lot about how to gradually incorporate good habits into my life, I found solace in the idea that something so idiosyncratic and seemingly set in stone can also be changed. While at first the idea of changing my strange mixture of print and cursive handwriting felt like relearning how to do something as rudimentary as brushing my teeth, the notion that we always have the capacity to change was empowering. This in turn led to some self-reflection on why we continue to let bad habits slide, and how such habits may not only arise from but also give shape to our identities.

For a long time I have prided my handwriting on being like a doctor’s (aka, bad), meaning a part of me hoped that handwriting was like a fingerprint, and I belonged to some class of natural elites. The other reason I excused my messiness was because I told myself that my thoughts race too fast for my hand to keep up. But these are simple lies I have been telling myself that may actually have been born out of insecurities. Being a kind of perfectionist, I hate owning up to half-baked thoughts or ideas, which means the initial act of writing a journal entry always requires an extra push. Because not only are lines in a journal largely unorganized but they also contain sensitive information and ideas that you generally do not want other people to see. Upon closer reflection I wonder if I excused my bad handwriting because it was a kind of defensive measure against foreign eyes, or even against truly admitting and owning up to what I was attempting to pour out and make sense of. It’s always a little bit easier when handwriting can become a code that only you can decipher, if in the least because it gives you some distance in the choice of leaving it encrypted.

So onward with improving my handwriting and seeing which styles work for me, as well as the progress of uncovering what other excuses I have been making myself. It is a frigid November afternoon and it finally is starting to feel like winter.

Late Night Reflections on Dreams and “Reality”

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” -Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

It was the validation I felt in the pages of The Things They Carried that ultimately led to a college career dedicated to the study of literature. Tim O’Brien so clearly distills what is the miracle of stories: they can rewrite the past, bring closure to open-ended traumas, and, even if only for a moment, breathe life into the dead. While my parents had largely pushed upon me a more quantitative education, O’Brien’s perspective put into words the value of stories — whether they be in comic books, movies, or canonical texts — that I had suspected all along. Stories are written through the process of taking apart and bringing back together our realities — they are not just lies posing as truths, but lies woven so deep into the truth that the entire duality is brought to question.

Today, I read an article in The Atlantic about a Japanese industry in which professional actors are hired as surrogates for essentially every “role” in society, whether that be (in the case of a male) a father, husband, boyfriend, etc. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Morin: What makes your company different from competitors?

Yuichi: We have a huge variation of employees and the dedication to create an experience that surpasses reality. That’s why our motto is “more than real.” We had a case recently where a dying man wanted to see his grandchild, but it would not have been born in time. His daughter was able to rent an infant for the day.

Morin: What does it mean to be “more than real”?

Yuichi: There are less concerns. There is less misunderstanding and conflict. Our clients can expect better results.

Morin: You’re offering a more perfect form of reality?

Yuichi: More ideal. More clean.

While the unsettling gut reaction against such a business is understandable, I couldn’t help but feel that Yuichi is coming to understandable conclusions. The drama I am currently watching (당신이 잠든 사이에, or “While You Were Sleeping”) repeats a relevant axiom that goes something like, “It isn’t a lie if you sustain it until the end.” Such reasoning depends entirely on the idea that reality is not a singular, objective state but an idiosyncratic, subjective one built entirely in one’s mind. As far as we are concerned, the dying man, at least in his reality, died having seen his grandchild. In this case does the guilt we feel in our reality, marred with the notion of a lie, have any real consequence? We consider lies to be one of the chiefest sins, often taking precedence over a physical act of wrongdoing. And yet, in both the forms of stories and Yuichi’s business, lies can also be healing, if at the cost of risking a crushing realization that one was deceived.

Of course we as readers and writers preside over stories, knowing they are lies but willfully stepping into them in order to make better sense of our narratives or to simply enter a world different from our own. A cynical Thesus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream  might argue that both the consumption and production of art is a form of escapism, but is this not ultimately in our nature as cognizant beings, able to perceive different variations of a reality all in the span of a few short seconds? Can we really call an exploration of the imagination’s limits “escapism” if there is no unanimous agreement as to what we are escaping from? Each person immerses him or herself in art for a different purpose, and willfully entering these alternate realities to better make sense of our amorphous identities is, if anything, a consequence of our basic condition.

What we find so unsettling about Japan’s surrogate business then, is not only the proximity of these alternate realities to everyday life (or a larger, agreed upon “reality”), but the extent to which a handful of people are given the power to rewrite the narratives of other human lives. It is the notion that these people are complicit in a very consequential game of playing god that does not sit well with us. While we to some extent have control over the narrative form as a tool to understand our own lives, Yuichi’s business imposes realities on others without consent.

But even while it is gratifying to reach such a conclusion, to clear the air that such a business is engaging in unscrupulous behavior, further examining the surrogate’s perspective reveals to greater depth the problem’s complexity. Yuichi himself recognizes the moral weight of his actions, and yet in admitting he feels guilty he touches upon the important point that we are all, in some sense, actors:

Yuichi: It’s a business. I’m not going to be her father for 24 hours. It’s a set time. When I am acting with her, I don’t really feel that I love her, but when the session is over and I have to go, I do feel a little sad. The kids cry sometimes. They say, “Why do you have to leave?” In those instances, I feel very sorry that I’m faking it—very guilty. There are times, when I’m done with the work and I come back home, where I sit and watch TV. I find myself wondering, “Is this, now, the real me, or the actor?”

At what point does acting slide into reality? Furthermore, doesn’t acting in itself require some semblance of reality? When Yuichi says “I don’t really feel that I love her” is this a rational understanding of the situation or an honest one? The conundrum is fascinating: if Yuichi poses as a daughter’s father until his death and she never finds out, would that be any different from if she actually had a “true” father? It may seem that the only trouble in answering the question is that we know the truth, that it is all a lie, and yet we must then also bear the responsibility of deciding for someone whether it is in their best interest to know the truth.

Reflecting on this article in the style of the blog posts mandated by my college courses was extremely helpful in making sense of my thoughts, and I hope to do more of it. On a final note, this topic brings to mind a short film and a Japanese animation that may be of interest. Shell by Wongfu Productions, which is asks questions about memory and whether or not one would want to conjure up “fake” memories. Plastic Memories is a sci-fi romance about a world where humanoid robots with artificial intelligence, undistinguishable from actual humans, can be hired as surrogates much like in Yuichi’s business. The main characters are tasked with retrieving the robots when they reach the end of their short life spans, but this task turns out to be difficult because it requires signatures from the owners, and in many cases they are too attached to let go. To further complicate matters, the robots, once past their expiration date, enter a process of memory loss and personality disorder that often becomes violent.

Eastern Medicine at a Gangnam Café

I had written this piece for Fulbright Korea’s Infusion (literary magazine) in Spring 2017.
http://infusion.fulbright.or.kr/current-volume-10-2/

I glance at the time on my phone’s lock-screen – 6:52pm – and sigh. The plate is bare before me, freckled with crumbs from the pineapple tart I devoured an hour ago to stave off my hunger. I glance around and see a tall, pretty girl smiling, her grin half-nestled into her palm as she watches what could be a variety show on her phone. Her gold headphones complement her sky blue coat and black stockings, and the scene feels almost like a phone commercial, a sight you just don’t see in the countryside. Sitting in the corner of the café, I can see everything. I notice that it isn’t just this girl, but there are several people sitting alone, reading or browsing their phones. I wonder if this is common in the city, in that odd, hanging space between shopping and waiting for a dinner rendezvous. After all, it was tiring just walking through Gangnam, as not only the buildings but the people themselves conducted a sort of electricity that pulsated through you, a rush of intimate chatters, honking horns, and wafts of street foods like fishcake, all funneled into streets only about three people wide. Cafés like this become, at least for the moment, shrines of serenity. I lazily flicked through a New Yorker article on my phone, trying to force myself to make use of my newfound free time. I had planned to meet a college friend at around 6:30pm, but he was never punctual – unfortunately I was too tired from the bus ride to Seoul to fill the time with more shopping. I glanced out the window down at the street below. Everyone seemed to be in a rush, a happy one at that: it was finally time to unwind and meet friends to celebrate the weekend. A trio of girls walked by in laughter, covering their mouths with the pastel-colored sleeves of their sweaters. A man who had been standing restlessly at the corner was pleasantly surprised by a woman who playfully tackled his back. By the look of her polished business outfit, she seemed to have come straight from work. The street had a reddish glow about it, one of the many passages in the maze of restaurants, bars, and cafés that sprawled beyond the posh, blue lights of the main road. I readjusted myself in my chair, envious of life in the city. Among other things, living in the city meant living in a realm of possibility. The city was a dark sea of atoms pulsating at night, always on the precipice of collision with another, newer element – it was a far cry from the insipid countryside. Even if I didn’t meet anyone new in this ocean of entropy, the very prospect generated within me anticipatory warmth, a premature satisfaction.

실례지만, 면접 시간이 있나요?”

It took me a second to register that he was talking to me. I looked up to see a young man around my age, leaning over on my table, presumably to look less assuming. He had slightly messy curly hair, and wore circular wire frames and a jumper that hung loose around his thin frame – all in all, a typical young Korean man.

아, 사실 전 미국에서 왔어요.”

“Oh, well my English is not so good but we can switch between English and Korean,” he said with a near perfect American accent. “Do you have time?”

I glanced at my phone again: 7:01pm. When I last checked my messages, my friend had said he was just leaving his home for the subway.

“Sure, have a seat. So what’s the question?”

“I’m currently a college student and I research at a Mind Institute nearby. In my spare time I like to survey people and see what they think about their religion and their opinion of…” he paused to find the right words in English, “meditation and looking for calmness of mind.”

“That sounds very interesting and I have some time – the person I’m waiting for is running really late.” Surprisingly the words jumped out more enthusiastically than I had expected. I had spent the past couple of weeks holed up in my countryside town, using the solitude to prepare for an exam I had coming up. Though I like to consider myself sociable, it would seem one could grow rusty even in matters as simple as that of everyday conversation. I placed my phone facedown on the table.

“Oh, but first you said you were from America? Why are you here in Seoul?”

“Actually I’m not from Seoul, I teach down in Jeollabuk-do, near Jeonju. Have you heard of Jeongeup?”

He paused for a moment, mouthing the words to himself. Jeongeup, Jeongeup, Jeongeup.

“No, I don’t think I’ve heard of it… but Jeollabuk-do! That’s very far!” He smiled to assure that he was not trying to be condescending.

“Yeah, I actually took a bus this morning. I’m only here for tonight so I can meet my friend before he goes back to America.”

“Only one night?” he asked, eyes wide in surprise.

“Yeah, but sometimes I come up to Seoul for longer periods of time. I just need to go back to teach.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

He drank some of his tea and then picked up a black, pocket notebook I had not noticed before.

“So what is your religion?” he asked, wasting no time.

“Hmmm…Christian, but I would say I’m in a weird place right now.” I hated the question these days, because words sealed abstract thoughts into declarations. It didn’t help that words sometimes prematurely leaped forth, eager to fit snugly into social context.

“Why would you say that?” He took out a pen in anticipation.

“Well… when I first came to Korea I was a pretty strong Christian, but it’s been hard living down on the countryside and well, you know, a lot of the churches in Korea are a little suspicious.” I hoped the last part wouldn’t offend him.

He laughed. “Definitely, no I understand.” He scribbled a few messy notes in what seemed to be Korean, and read them over. Satisfied, he looked up again and asked, “And how are you doing?”

The question caught me completely off-guard.

“What do you mean how am I doing? Like, in general? Or in my religion?”

“In general, like life in general.”

“I would say these past few weeks have been hard, teaching and whatnot. Actually I haven’t seen many friends these past couple of weeks so it’s been a little lonely, but I’ve also gotten to really focus on myself…” I wondered why I was pouring out so much of myself – normally I would be a little more cautious.

“…I would say in general I’m doing alright.” But even as the words came out I began to reassess them. Was I really doing fine? He nodded and took a few more notes. I noticed that a line marked off my section, the two pages split into quarters, each with its own tangle of Korean characters, lines, and circles.

“Well you look good,” he said, looking up.

“Good?”

“Yeah, I mean, you look happy,” he awkwardly elaborated.

A smile spread across my face like a sigh of relief. Deep down I had been self-conscious of my social skills, and wondered if the rust marks were glaringly obvious.

“So you would say you’re happy, overall. Just out of curiosity, have you ever practiced meditation or anything like that?”

I paused for a moment, reconsidering how much I wanted to share.

“Formally, I did maybe two times with a counselor when I was really stressed out in college. But these days I’ve been looking for more pockets of time to really leave free for a kind of meditation. I’ve been trying to look at my phone less these days.”

“What did you think when you tried it in college?”

“It was really nice, I think people should really try it and not look at it as a strange Buddhist thing.”

As he jotted down some more notes I added, “I think there’s an unnecessary stigma around Eastern medicine… and that kind of relates to why I’ve been a little shaky with my Christian background.”

“Hmm, could you talk a little more about that?”

“So actually I had just traveled to Japan a couple weeks ago, and there I was really impressed by Shintoism. It was never something I had taken seriously before, but when I was actually there and surrounded by all of this beautiful scenery and quietness I couldn’t help but kind of understand why Shintoism exists.” Again, I was surprised at how much I felt I needed to unload – perhaps these experiences yearn to turn into words that declare their existence. I went on: “Actually one of the best memories I have is going to a hot spring up in the mountains of Kyoto. It was outdoors and the snow came down in flurries; until that point I didn’t know snow could fall like that. It was completely silent – so silent I could hear my own heartbeat. My friend broke the silence for a moment and said quietly, ‘They write poetry about this stuff.’”

“Wow, so going to Japan really made you question your Christian background?”

“Kind of. But I think it was more that it made me realize that these Eastern religions aren’t some voodoo but that there really is something to them.”

He had a lot to jot down. As he wrote, I gave him a question: “So where do you study?”

“Korea University,” he replied without looking up. When he did, his face had a nervous expression. It was likely that the prestige of his school had impacted previous interviews. But I had shared quite a bit, and now it was his turn.

“And you just go around asking random people about meditation? Is it for a class?”

“No, I just do it in my free time.”

“In cafés? Isn’t it a little weird to go up to random people?”

He smiled softly, taking a beat to think back on previous interactions.

“I do. At first it was really uncomfortable and lots of people rejected me, but you would be surprised. Once you get past the initial barrier, people really open up.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine him coming up to an older woman reading a magazine alone in the middle of a café, asking that question: How are you doing?

“And what do they usually say?”

“Obviously, there are a lot of Christians in Korea, so some of them don’t want to go further in depth about meditation, but really I’m also just interested in how people live their lives. Are they happy? If not, why? What do they try to do to make themselves happy?”

I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. Here was someone who was entering those spaces, ones that we let close because we lose ourselves in the beauty of romanticized introductions that, if acted upon, would shatter into rocky, awkward introductions. In many ways he started to seem more mature than I was, despite his age.

“Well actually, I’ve got to go now, but would you ever be interested in coming to the institute? I promise it’s not a cult or anything like that.”

“I’m not in Seoul that often, but if I find time I think I’d be interested to see what you do there.” Normally, I would politely refuse any sort of solicitation, but I had few truly Korean friends. “What’s your phone number?”

He typed it into my phone and after exchanging names, I added (Mind) next to his contact information.

“Thanks so much, maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”

“Thanks, you too.”

We shook hands and he departed downstairs, back into the electric crowd of atoms that, despite all of their potential, may collide once and never actually meet again. I looked around. The woman watching her phone had long since left, and most of the seats were replaced by new people. The overall chatter was a bit louder than before – I glanced at my phone: 7:21pm. Though he had only been gone for a few minutes, it almost felt like it had never happened.

“Hey man, long time no see!” A familiar face greeted me and he patted my back. “How’s it going? You want to grab dinner? I bet you’re hungry, sorry I made you wait.”

“No problem, it’s good to see you! But yeah, I’m pretty hungry, let’s go.”

I gathered my belongings, gave him a hug, and we headed downstairs. The air was a little colder than it had been before, and there were more people to maneuver around. A group of five boys slapped each other on the backs as they smoked, laughing at some joke, and I held my breath as we passed by. A couple slowly strolled along, in an entirely different tempo from the energy propelling everyone to their evening arrangements. They held hands and looked at the lights above: the flickering white and blue karaoke signs, the dense, musky yellow that set the backdrop for a bar, and the constant, underlying red that permeated the streets. It was amazing how all of these people, crammed in these narrow alleys, managed to keep moving without running into each other. I felt myself move between people without even thinking – only when I noticed it did it become a little laborious, like when you catch yourself breathing. Suddenly I was no longer at one with the crowd, the sea that continues to push and pull underneath those city lights. For the briefest of moments, I felt an urge within me to pull someone onto the little cement island I found myself washed upon. It seemed as though my interviewer had dissolved into nothing but a single question, one that begged to be spoken, to be released. What if I pulled someone aside, out of the constant lull of the crowds, and asked:

How are you doing? Are you happy?

Scenes from the Kitchen

I had written this piece for Fulbright Korea’s Infusion (literary magazine) in Fall 2016.
http://infusion.fulbright.or.kr/volume-10-issue-1/

I’m crying. The feeling is at once gripping and unfamiliar. I’m crying. I’m crying. Repetition does not pull me closer to this fact, as I try to stop by sheer force of will. My snot-soaked sleeves are punctuated with the timeline of the flood’s unknowable duration. Quietly, I set my knife down and wait – I am careful not to rub my eyes. I cry every Friday. I cry every Friday after school and yet the feeling is always unfamiliar, arriving without notice. Eventually, I emerge from my tears and can see clearly again, but only to see the object that has become both the beginning and end of my Friday afternoons: an ordinary, benign household onion.

*

He averts his gaze for a moment, looking out into nothing. My native language swims in his mind elusively in a way I will never quite understand. I have come to see this gesture is a habit as he prepares a question. I pick up another onion from the wide, blue basket and savor the way it halves effortlessly under the weight of my knife. My left hand is rounded as if holding an egg, just as I was taught, and my index finger guides my knife as I make my way across one half of the onion. I am swiping the newly cut crescents into a second basket on the floor when my host-father finally speaks: “My personality…it is…so positive?” I nod. 이게 맞니? I nod again.

“My personality! It is so positive…I always want learn everything.”

“I always want to learn everything.”

“I always want to learn everything! Many old people don’t…want to learn…but I always want to learn. I always like to learn.”

I have always wanted to learn how to cook. But catching up on years of missed cooking experience means making lots of food, and food is typically limited to three meals a day. It has been less than a month since I began learning how to cook at my host family’s Chinese restaurant on Fridays, and yet I have already gained years of experience because of the sheer amount of onions necessary for 짬뽕and 짜장면.

“Me too,” I reply. “Me too.”

*

Fluency is this: noodles grabbed from behind precisely at the moment they come out of the machine, thrown into the boiler without so much as a second glance; crumbs from the fryer peeled off the oil’s surface with a strainer and flicked into a bin in such a way that each glistening, golden crunch flies as if held together by an invisible thread; cucumber slivers cascading into a bowl under a slicer, the cucumber then flipped in the air and caught precisely with the other side down as if handled by a bartender. Fluency is anticipation born out of persistent repetition and calculation dissolved into the subconscious in such a way that work becomes breathing. For the non-fluent, it is a subtle mastery that is both mysterious and beautiful to witness.

*

I have always been told my hands are pretty. My fingers are long and slender and there are no visible cuts or bruises. Each crush into the bitingly harsh heat of a piece of fried pork brings me face to face with the fact that my hands tell a comfortable history of privilege. I break apart the Siamese pieces of freshly fried pork – conjoined in twos, threes and fours, in split-second intervals. Time is precious – each point of contact sears redness into my fingers, and it takes pure willpower to push on. I glance at my host father’s fists. A white bandage is wrapped around his left index finger and there are multiple dark spots marking the backs of his hands. Before we started frying he pointed them out like constellations, urging me to heed the cautions etched in their stories. His hands are heavily muscled, with huge veins forming great valleys and canyons. They are worn like the white, slightly yellowed poster tacked onto the kitchen fridge, lined with scribbles of various phrases in English filled with hope of remembrance. I have no such poster but instead have decades of memories written in English, some painful, embarrassing bruises and some callouses that mark pivotal moments like the time I first read Othello. And though he cannot see this palimpsest, I wonder if he overhears conversations with my friends and sees them the way I see his hands – like artifacts that, by charting the past, look forward to tougher palms and longer sentences.

*

“Half spoon of soybean sauce.”

“Just soy sauce; not soybean sauce.”

He laughs. “Okay, half a spoon of soy sauce!”

I take the ladle and scoop – clumsily. I can sense that his nod is caught in that odd space between a pledge to exactness and an indulgence of laissez faire. I toss the sauce into the pan and hear a sizzle. Time passes and the stir-fry in the pan is splashed with shades of black, brown and red that belie their disparate places on the spectrum of taste.

한번 먹어 봐.”

“‘Try it?’ No, that doesn’t sound right… Ah! ‘Have a taste?’”

“Have a taste!” He teaches me to sample the sauce from the piping hot ladle, which fogs as I bring it closer to my mouth.

I have had this stir-fry many times since arriving at my homestay. But this time the flavor is cosmic – it explodes in my mouth in every direction, as I at once perceive the various seasonings that compose a certain flavor and simply enjoy the taste for what it is. Ah, so that’s been garlic this whole time. I hope that learning English, though a more gradual endeavor, will one day also make the ordinary beautiful again. All of those unheard conversations and words flickering past here and there will hopefully one day start to take on some kind of meaning. I nod in approval and I turn to my host father, who spends a moment in thought. Finally he smiles, and though his cheeks are worn with constant smiling, I know that he means approval – maybe not for taste but for effort.

*

Just as the blemishes of an amateur chef’s poorly cooked meal can highlight the care put in, so too, can the pauses between correct and incorrect grammar showcase the herculean efforts of a language learner. But beyond the glorification of effort is the simple reality that, even for fluent speakers, language is hardly ever perfect. Like cooking, it is usually a pastiche born, for the most part, out of necessity. My host father helps me pour the stir-fry onto a plate, my forearms unaccustomed to wielding a restaurant-sized pan holding dinner for six. My arm trembles both from the weight and the heat. He smiles and gestures me to bring it out to the table, where my host siblings are waiting, hungry from the long school day. The dish may not be perfect, but for us, the makers, parts of it are more memorable than others. And maybe for my host father, particular words or phrases in the conversations we will have at the dinner table will be infused with a little more significance. Every Friday is a chance to teach while being humbled by the mistakes that lie between the nascent and the refined. Every Friday we become two souls in a kitchen that, above all inhibiting factors, speak by tacitly recognizing the other’s desire to share.

 

On Blogging and Seneca

I have had a love-hate relationship with blogs, one that goes beyond a similar relationship with words. The issue lies in the same conundrum that complicates my use of social media, that liminal relationship between the private and public. I feel uncomfortable when people post too many pointed status updates on Facebook, directed towards particular individuals or putting forth personal information, because it seems what is likely intended (subconsciously or not) for a private audience is delivered to a semi-public one, possibly because the poster is lacking in the former (much like a famous Tweeter these days). What results is a vague sort of voyeurism in reading something that is likely not intended for you, and the consequent coloring of your perception of the poster which you then carry into other social interactions.

While blogging is of course different in that it is technically more public than Facebook, unless your blog becomes famous your readership will likely be an extension of your friends on Facebook. Therefore what results is a twist on the conundrum, in which the blog becomes a similar surrogate listener (if the poster is like myself and posts more introspective thoughts) but the audience is now knowingly complicit in this act of quasi voyeurism. While one could argue that the audience of a blog is not really “complicit” in anything because a blog is more public than social media, what I take issue with is that the root of both situations is the same: an unspoken relationship formed between writer and reader that hangs over actual, direct conversation.

I have had many blogs, mainly projects that explored setting photos next to words, but in almost every case I either discover that someone unexpected is an avid reader, or that nobody reads it except two or three close friends. In the case of the former, the newfound knowledge is unsettling because instead of writing to an unknown public, I have to take into consideration the outlier from my usual audience, not to mention the implications of thinking about why that person is so interested in me. In the latter, the blog begins to slowly become more of a letter than an actual address to the public, in which case why blog when you could email? With every blog I’ve started I hope that, aside from the benefits it will bring me as a repository for thoughts, it can truly speak to a public or some fraction of my social media connections in a way that fosters two-way communication between writer and reader and openness in how my writing has colored your perception of me. Indeed, this is idealistic, and the politics of blogging will undoubtedly continue, but this is the unease from which my motivations are born in starting this new space.

During my final year of college I started learning Latin, and during my final semester I was assigned this passage to translate from Seneca’s Letter 84:

“Nec scribere tantum nec tantum legere debemus; altera res contristabit vires et exhauriet (de stilo dico), altera solvet ac diluet. Invicem hoc et illo commeandum est et alterum altero temperandum, ut quicquid lectione collectum est stilus redigat in corpus.”

From Margaret Graver and A.A. Long’s translation of Seneca Letters on Ethics to Lucilius (University of Chicago Press, 2015):

“We ought neither to write exclusively nor read exclusively: the first – writing, that is – will deaden and exhaust our power; the second will weaken and dilute them. One must do both by turns, tempering one with the other, so that whatever is collected through reading may be assimilated into the body by writing.”

On another blog, which I started the summer after college, I quoted this same passage and wrote: “…as I embark on my first year out of college, what will I do to keep writing? And, more importantly, what kind of writing will that be?” The answer so far has been scribbling in journals and telling myself to write more but never actually getting around to it. While I have written two or three pieces, without regular subjects to write on other than those that really require reflection it has been difficult to discipline myself.

In a working schedule it is easy to read, especially for an introvert. Reading is time to decompress or to be productive away from people — books and articles are also readily available on phones and can be read on subways or buses. But whereas reading has strict progress (even five minutes of reading will get you somewhere) wrestling with thoughts and words and putting them into any recognizable form is both time consuming and frustrating. And yet as Seneca writes, exclusively reading will result in an atrophy of your writing skills because you are not putting into practice the words and ideas you consume. As someone who is teaching English and living between languages now, I know all too well the curse of having great comprehension but an inability to speak. I hope to take the forum posts and reflection assignments from college and continue them here, tempering what I read with more comprehensive writing (the loose thoughts will find a place in my journals).

Aside from improving my own craft, I hope this blog will, rather than be another social media tool, deepen relationships in a dizzying technologically advanced world that paradoxically leaves little time or place for connecting over longer form ideas.