나의아저씨 (My Ajusshi/Mister)

For the past couple of months I’ve been slowly watching this drama while juggling other books and shows. I tell everyone that this is a winter drama, not only because it takes place mostly in the season but also because it’s rather merciless about life’s crushing realities. Unless you sympathize with the story, it’ll be hard to watch during longer summer nights where the inclination is bent towards watching less TV and going out more. But if you are like me, with an affinity for “slice of life” stories, and going through a somewhat difficult or existential time yourself (at the time I was job-hunting and more and more thinking about what constitutes a meaningful life), then you will deeply enjoy this drama regardless of timing. I hope to write this post mostly spoiler-free (rather, it’s difficult to spoil because the plot is rather complicated), and to encourage those who might never have watched a Korean drama to give it a try.

What is an Ajusshi?

The translation, “My Mister,” is a bit odd, and hard to understand because it is impossible to translate “ajusshi” in a single word without adding a footnote for cultural context. Furthermore, the bit of cultural context required is essential to understanding the drama as a whole (and many other dramas, for that matter) without getting annoyed. Essentially, given Korean culture is based on a tight collectivism, aspects of the culture that may seem rude to foreigners, such as yelling at the waiter to take your order, is quite normal because the underlying assumption is that all Koreans live together in a kind of larger “family.” Growing up, I was often confused about who was actually in my family, because any middle-aged woman was called my “aunt” and any middle aged man was called my “uncle.” Just the other day I was with a friend who told her son to come talk to me, his “uncle” (the first time I had been called 삼촌, which was odd at first). Ajusshi is similar but a step removed from the word for “uncle,” which I have also been called one time by a little kid on the street at a crosswalk (again, felt strange because I don’t consider myself middle-aged). It’s the equivalent of “mister” but in English “mister” is a bit neutral — to call someone “my mister” is a bit strange because there is no closeness embedded in the word.

“Ajusshi,” on the other hand denotes a connection based on a hierarchical, collectivist society. And again, aspects of this society can be particularly bothersome throughout the drama (and many other dramas). This drama does critique the system itself, taking place in a corporate setting, showing corruption and abuse of power, and often breaking traditional gender roles. At the same time, it’s still often irritating to watch various subplots or secondary characters who too accurately embody life in Korean culture, such as being too over-protective, or over-reliant. This is likely reflective of my own views on Korean society more generally, and the drama can be a good litmus test to see where your own views fall (if you are not aware of them already).

An Unconventional Love Story

The fact that the drama offers a critical lens on Korean society is most prominent in the slow construction of a love story that heavily differentiates itself from other Korean dramas. The man is not only middle-aged rather than young with lots of money, but also is married and, above all things, pretty ordinary. He’s the epitome of a “nice guy” who stays quiet and gets by pretty well in the middle class. The girl is not only more like a “girl” rather than a woman, but also is unconcerned about her appearance and is more capable and aggressive than the man. The way their relationship develops is difficult to anticipate, making it a breath of fresh air compared to other dramas.

The difference between the two characters is cemented in the unforgettable first scene, where an insect is flying around the office and the man tries to catch it and release it, but the girl kills it without a second glance. This is the starting point: a man who is too nice to challenge his place in society, and a girl with a mysterious past who lives in society’s seldom examined edges. From there, the two characters move closer to each other, the man spurred to shake off his complacency, and the girl gradually learning that toughness doesn’t come from pushing others away but from being vulnerable, and fighting for others. On paper, these two ideas look rather trite, but they are brilliantly brought to life by Lee Sun-kyun (who just looks like a nice guy), and IU (whose face is a bit mysterious and almost acts in its natural state).

Thankfully, the characters do not neatly meet in the middle, nor is their development so obvious. It comes like life itself, in sudden bursts and moments of defeat. At one point the man is on his knees, and repeats the girl’s words to give him some strength, and later the girl is on her knees, apologizing to the man despite being alone. I found those scenes to be the most beautiful, where despite how lonely we may feel or actually be, the words of others can help nudge us along. In the end, they have changed each other but the moral may be that neither side is correct, that the best situation is to live somewhere in the middle, both dependent on others yet with a fierce, independent agency.

Love, in the context of this drama, is perhaps purer than actual romantic love. That is, perhaps the two characters would be a perfect match for each other if not for time and place. However, some doubt also lingers in the idea that if they were romantically involved, none of this development would have occurred. One of the most profound, unspoken statements of the drama is that strength comes less from romantic relationships (they’re shown to cause more pain than anything else) and rather from family and friends. They are the constants, the ones who always support you unconditionally, without any pretext for what is sometimes the impossible expectations of love: validation of self-worth, satisfaction of romantic fantasies, fulfillment of some pillar in what one perceives or desires to be his or her identity, etc. The only reason family and friends have to support you is the bond itself. I can’t help but remember a quote from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, a self-proclaimed meditation on friendship:

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

If we expect out of romantic relationships the cliché of us being “changed” into “better people,” then friendships succeed in this more so than any form of dating. Romance might crumble under its expectations but friendships are strengthen by the lack of expectations. The only thing a friend expects out of another friend is trust and for the friend to be there — it is by nature much less transactional.

Internal vs External Forces

The drama largely takes place in a structural engineering company that not only engineers but also conducts security inspections. Halfway through the series, the two main characters have a conversation where the man explains his work, talking about internal and external forces and how his job is to make sure buildings withstand both of them over time. The man then talks about his childhood friend who was talented at everything — sports, grades, sociability — but ended up not being able to stand it and instead gave everything up and became a monk in a nearby temple. The drama does well in comparing different aspects of life — people who are aiming for the top of society’s ranks, people who have fallen to the bottom, and people who have rejected it all — and examining their different internal and external strengths.

It is easy to read external forces as friends and family and internal forces as being some intangible, likely exhaustible inner strength, the former being embodied by the man and the latter in the girl. In the corporate world, the sheer number of relationships and cogs in the system make for a constant clash between various external forces that ultimately decide one’s fate. In unemployment, one lacks the external forces and so must suddenly depend on his or her internal motivation to continue each day. Ironically, while many of us like to say we would rather not work, the show depicts characters who wish they could go with everybody to commute in the morning and come home feeling like they had done something. In leaving everything behind to be a monk, you succeed in cultivating inner strength and being unhindered by external forces, but, to continue using the metaphor of engineering, you forgo the possibility of building anything at all.

Koreans, perhaps because of their tumultuous history, a collectivism that encourages the sharing of grief and joy, and a strictly hierarchical society, commonly express the idea that “life is difficult,” perhaps more so than I’ve heard the sentiment in America. This drama affirms the adage that “the grass is always greener” — life is difficult regardless of what you do or do not have.

On a final note, one song in the OST that captures the drama as a whole is shared below. The lyrics are quite beautiful:

There are English subtitles, though it’s difficult because certain phrases that sound perfectly fine in Korean can feel cliché or just not as meaningful in English (e.g. “I become me”).

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On Anthony Bourdain

In that odd space between dinner and the night’s other, more taxing obligations, my father, brother, and I used to find ourselves slouched in the living room with the linger scent of dinner. One of us would be flipping through the channels for nothing in particular, but there were unspoken favorites. These tended to be, and still are today, cooking and travel shows.

Though we watched a lot of Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and various travel documentaries, we never watched Anthony Bourdain. While I want to say this was for no reason in particular (maybe the times and channels never lined up), I also wonder about the possibility that we were, at the time, not “American” enough to understand his captivating ability to be so incisively direct — perhaps we were taken aback by his brashness, especially in comparison to the ever cool and logical Alton Brown or the lacquered virtuoso cooking skill of Bobby Flay. My brother and I might also have simply not been old enough to understand the courage it takes to enter intercultural spaces, to dive headfirst into the unknown and the messiness one learns to embrace.

This past weekend I set off for Busan to meet some friends and enjoy the beach. On the train ride there I read Bourdain’s landmark New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” More so than the content, the writing was riveting. The robust metaphors relating chefs to a band of misfits plunged me into what felt like a lawless tavern, where all of my ingrained social mores were thrown into the air, replaced with surprising stabs of blunt truths about life in the kitchen. But through the chaos the writing conjured, you were always assured that Bourdain was there, in brief interjections of wit and personal stories: “What do I like to eat after hours? Strange things.” As my train pulled into Busan I was left awestruck by Bourdain’s gift as a writer — how can a chef write like that? — and became deeply curious about his worldview.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

Yesterday was a painfully beautiful day in Busan: strong sunlight accompanied by a cool breeze, trendy art-oriented cafes, a walk by the beach during the sunset, fresh fish for dinner, and a night out with friends. Painful primarily because each moment makes me think about how I’m leaving Korea soon. These days I often find myself caught in between states of feeling satisfied and impossibly grateful for the privileges I’ve enjoyed while abroad and the gaping potential for regret in all that I didn’t do because I, at times, decided not to push my limits. As the sun set by the beach and all of the couples and families laughing on patios were cast with a deep golden hue, I felt something like the Bourdain quote above, the sheer marvel of being able to enjoy such an experience while also knowing it is all too fleeting.

Reading about and listening to Bourdain this evening has been revelatory about travel in the way I imagine talking about food often is: the necessity of constantly reexamining that which is taken for granted. David Foster Wallace in his commencement address “This is Water” starts with a fish asking “What the hell is water?” and goes on to instruct that in the coming years after college we must learn to constantly examine the purpose of our everyday routines, all of the “water” that is an indispensable, and thereby often invisible, foundation of our realities. Travel is similar in this way. This year has been a struggle to remember that I am still traveling, that my time here has an expiration date, and I should prioritize my life accordingly.

Bourdain, at the peak of his career, enjoyed privileges of constantly being able to shake the water, to visit the unknown. What many of my peers say is most admirable is the way he understood foremost the nature of this water as something bigger than us. He listened to the stories of others and knew his place as a guest in a manner impossible to see through a camera that places him directly in the center. (My impressions of his authenticity and cultural fluency come largely from this tribute on CNN.)

This has made me think about how easily I’ve been lulled into the same comfort of living that my family and I, on however subtle of a level, wanted to escape through the shows we enjoyed together. And while it’s easy for me to imagine the number of people these days who want to travel to Korea after listening to Kpop or watching a drama, or simply seeing a single travel special on TV, the more difficult realization to discern is that we all live in places others wish to travel to, or, at the very least, want to visit to challenge themselves by rubbing up against the unknown. It makes me think about the ridiculous way locals wear not having visited a nearby tourist site as a badge of honor, as if living somewhere precludes you from wanting the desire to try something new. How easy it is to forget to live with curiosity about where and why we are.

I want to round out these notes with a few words on food. Food is a language, deeply shaped by culture and shared in contexts as unique as the utterance of a single word. And yet I’ve thought little about food not only in Korea but also in general, beyond the way most people talk about food as a way to relate to others on a superficial level. Recently, I tried to write down my top five meals in Korea, but found it difficult to remember the best. But the issue, I now realize, is likely not due to a lack of experience or culinary knowledge but in my standard of what is the “best.”

A quote by Bourdain, as with most realizations that come from travel and food, is a cliche but nonetheless incisive: “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” As I struggled to come up with restaurants, I subconsciously considered not only what I thought tasted the best but also what others would respect and would think “unique.” The thought process was a more complex evaluation of what represents a culture, exceeds culinary standards, and what, in my honest opinion, would “wow” people who might want my recommendation. But the taste of meal evaporates from memory more quickly than anything else, and Bourdain has vindicated me from measuring meals in this way.

This past weekend I ate a Busan speciality, 돼지국밥 (pork rice soup) two times, but neither time lived up to the one bowl I had this past winter. My friend and I woke up early and took a day trip on a frigid January weekend, for no real reason other than wanting to see the ocean. Our first stop was the original 할매국밥, a long-running restaurant that now has several stores throughout Busan.

The sun was as beautiful as it was this past weekend, with light streaming in through the windows of the old place. It seemed unchanged from when it opened in 1978, with a rusty sliding door and yellowing wallpaper. But that was the charm. I was probably the only foreigner in the room, as my friend and I took a seat at a long row of wooden tables. Though it was rather early, the place was full of local grandmas and grandpas in their colorful parkas and athletic pants quietly eating some warm soup on a cold morning. It felt as though I had entered a distinctly “Korean” space, a corner tucked away from the long shopping streets dominated by foreign companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s. It was easy to imagine my grandparents being regulars there, starting their day with the same thing they always started their day with.

The kitchen was open, so you could see the smoke from the pot rising into puffs that shone in the slanted sunlight. When the grandma preparing our food brought it over with an array of kimchi, chives, and garlic, my friend remarked at how clear the broth was. Normally you wouldn’t be able to see through to the rice, she said. And yet despite its appearance, the soup tasted like pork perhaps more so because the flavor was so subtle. Similarly my memory of this meal seems built around a similar principle: the quiet clinking of spoons with bowls and snatches of conversation, the weak, morning sunlight, and the slight imperfections of the building itself all came together in a way that is difficult to forget.

It’s simple to seek out a restaurant with high reviews, but creating such context for great meals is often beyond our control. In the same way, it’s easy to tell yourself that today you will be more mindful of your existence, but the real miracles happen in the instances where your being more mindful coincides with something that validates that mindset. For example, you could have the same open mind for your day but find no special revelation in a fast food joint (though it’s possible). Notable meals or moments are by nature exceptional, but there is beauty in understanding that they are not always extravagant or far away.

In the coming weeks and months after returning to America I hope to write more about such memorable experiences in Korea.

World Order by Henry Kissinger and the Importance of History

I’ve never held any particular fascination with history. Though I enjoyed my US history class in high school, the interest was a combination of its closeness in both time and space, a fascination with politics, and, perhaps most importantly, a classroom atmosphere energized by an inspiring teacher and enthusiastic peers.

This was likely a consequence of my generation’s access to technology, as one of my primary complaints about history was that it was “just a memorization of facts, and all of those facts are on Wikipedia anyway.” The obvious consequence of holding in my hand a database of every single historical fact was that I was less inclined to commit any one of them to memory; what was more subtle was the way standing before that vast ocean of information could be intimidating  — how could I ever hope to absorb all of that?

There are obvious misconceptions here. One, the overlooking of history as a narrative; and two, the end goal of a historian being the impossibility of storing eons of information in one’s head. But even if these assumptions are clarified, there remains the issue of, like my high school self, only being interested in history relevant to one’s nationality or ethnicity, and an unwillingness to look beyond the past century or so.

Since coming abroad, I have started to wrestle with history because it is intrinsically tied to my identity. The near mystic cliche of “tracing one’s roots” implies an act of uncovering one’s ancestral history and thereby better understanding one’s place in the world. But as I have come to understand its importance (my budding thoughts can be found here and here), I have also started to wonder how much history is sufficient, given we can never truly know everything. History is limitless, an integral solved across not only time but also space, science, art, tribe, animal, plant, ad infinitum. In this case, isn’t understanding the world through the narratives I select merely an imposition of my image on the world around me? To trap myself in a hall of mirrors like this, unable to identify whether I am influencing my perception of history or vice versa, seems to be no more stable of a bedrock to build my identity upon than diving headfirst into the unbounded ocean of history.

One other aspect of history that I dreaded in high school was that it was all about things that had happened before. Literature, while also the study of artifacts, was the study of humanity — emotions, agency, relationships, society — that always seemed immediate in a way history did not. But as I have thought about the necessity of history to a formation of identity, I have come to realize that history is not just the study of the past. Rather, it is in many ways the study of how people in the past actively imagined the future — in this way we too, learn to shape our present worlds through the study of history.

I already wrote a bit on World Order by Henry Kissinger in my last post, but here I hope to elaborate more on the book on its own, as it was my first reading of history in a while. I agree with Michiko Kakutani’s review, which praises the way the novel easily “strides from century to century, from continent to continent” in a way that is easy to follow yet carefully details the complex parallels between disparate timelines. (I also agreed that the sections on Vietnam and Iraq seemed to throw the book a bit off rhythm, as Kissinger adopts a more distanced tone.) There was so much I learned yet a lot that has escaped me (probably more due to my shortcomings than technological circumstances). Consequently, I’ve wanted to write this post to think about why I should work to better understand history, to think through the implications of the way I choose to do so, and to note Kissinger’s own thoughts.

This idea of history as a way of looking forward by looking backwards is not new, and yet Kissinger worries we are beginning to ignore the counsel of the past:

Great statesmen, however different as personalities, almost invariably had an instinctive feeling for the history of their societies. As Edmund Burke wrote, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” What will be the attitudes of those who aspire to be great statesmen in the Internet age? A combination of chronic insecurity and insistent self-assertion threatens both leaders and the public in the Internet age. Leaders, because they are less and less the originators of their programs, seek to dominate by willpower or charisma. The general public’s access to the intangibles of the public debate is ever more constrained. Major pieces of legislation in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere often contain thousands of pages of text whose precise meaning is elusive even to those legislators who voted for them.

This comes from the final chapters dealing with the repercussions of technology, and there is an anxiety over the growth of information outpacing the human ability to process it. We are becoming detached from history, ironically, due to its ever-growing accessibility. The problems of immediacy and intimidation I cited as reasons for avoiding the study of history are applicable to other fields, many of which intersect in government operations. But learning to examine this information with deft precision and efficiency is necessary to consult the number of other possible realities and thereby map the best course of action. Burke’s use of “prosperity” and “ancestors” may seem like uncritical bromides, but the two words each hold within them a vastness that, as technology progresses, requires more and more ability on behalf of leaders.

Kissinger concludes his novel with a remark that neatly packages this idea of history not necessarily of the past but of time itself:

Long ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on “The Meaning of History.” I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared. It is a question we must attempt to answer as best we can in recognition that it will remain open to debate; that each generation will be judged by whether the greatest, most consequential issues of the human condition have been faced, and that decisions to meet these challenges must be taken by statesmen before it is possible to know what the outcome may be.

The paradox of history being a study of the past and the future is perhaps most manifest in thinking of ourselves as being written into textbooks, to be studied (or ignored) by future occupants of our world. It is all too easy to look at the participants of the most significant historical events with condescension, in the same way we sometimes listen with removal from the stories our friends tell us over dinner. The challenge of history is in many ways to think of the past as the present and the present as the future. Furthermore, history tasks us with thinking beyond ourselves, calling to attention the necessity of expanding our perception of the world at large. These are deeply personal responsibilities, and while history may not be an objective timeline upon which we may fit ourselves into the cosmos, it is a means through which we can belong to a network of others who have tried on the same planet we now find ourselves in.

Featured photo The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648 (1648) by Gerard ter Borch depicting the Peace of Westphalia (1648)

 

Re: Social media, images, and death

Recently a few English teacher friends and I sat at a table, decompressing after a long week. Naturally, when the food and drinks arrived, we whipped out our phones to broadcast to our friends and family (and anyone else) that we were cool, that we do, in fact, “get lit.” The small bubbles rising to the surface of my beer seemed to make a good Boomerang, and as I tried to figure out which filter to use, someone chimed in: “Who even uses Snapchat anymore?”

“Yeah it’s all about Instagram stories now — to be honest I didn’t really believe in them but now I’m converted”

“It’s just easier, you know? Just having everything in one place”

“Snapchat is still okay because filters are better. But the real question is, who uses Facebook stories? I feel like the people who use those aren’t normal”

“Or they’re a Korean student”

We all laughed. It’s true — the only series of bubbles above my Messenger app are from my students. Surprisingly this is useful because through self-selection a demographic is neatly organized in one place. But it speaks to a difference in generations, the arbitrary length of which is becoming shorter and shorter in proportion to technological progress. For example, high school students in Korea were born in the early 2000s, meaning they were around 6 years old when Facebook and the first iPhone were released. Just yesterday, my friend who teaches elementary school said all of her students have started following her on Instagram (cue appropriate response: they have Instagrams?!). The rise of technology is wedging an ocean between generations that do and do not know life without it, the two seeing the world and themselves through prisms unimaginable to one another. Consequently, the futures we imagine and the paths we take to understand ourselves are rapidly changing even within the generation of “young people” many older generations are inclined to see as one entity. A few years can make all the difference — after all, it only takes a couple of months for the most popular “story” platform to change.

Recently I read Kevin’s musings on social media, death, and their relations to Zadie Smith’s Feel Free, a collection of essays (the post is here). His thoughts on why he quit social media and its changing role in our lives as we enter the middle of our 20s collided with my reading of the last chapters of Henry Kissinger’s World Order, which details technology and its potential impact on international relations. Though I have many thoughts on the book regarding world history that will come in a later post. For now, I want to focus on my own relationship with social media, Zadie Smith’s essay “Generation Why”, and contextualizing the rise and spread of technology through Kissinger.

I check my phone way too often. While I haven’t checked the exact frequency, the compulsion borders on habit. This ailment is tied to the dizzying array of options technology provides us, which in turn may create a sense of non-commitment to any one task. As I read a news article in the morning I sometimes feel an impulse to check the month’s calendar or buy that train ticket I need for an upcoming weekend. Switching into either of those tasks takes no effort partially because opening a new tab allows me to believe I’m not truly distracted but merely “multitasking.” Furthermore, if I reach a particularly complex paragraph and really don’t want to tackle it, I reach for my phone to see if any new messages can take me away from my obligations and, if not, there’s always Instagram to scroll through. Admittedly, these confessions about technology’s negative impact on my life need only be slightly twisted to showcase the wide array of benefits: because I have the option of tabs I can look up any difficult factual information related to an article, and the availability of my phone means in the case of an emergency someone will be able to contact me immediately. There’s also the chance that I see something on my phone while procrastinating that spurs a new idea for something I’ve been working on (though this argument is not as neat).

But I’m worried that, at the end of the day, technology is eroding away at our ability not only to concentrate but also to make decisions. This is not only our fault — no other generation has been bombarded by so much information: options on what events to attend, who we can choose to denote our “friends,” people we might date or hookup with, and even something as simple as the best speakers or camera to buy. Naturally, these options all interlace in a manner that is almost paralyzing, not the least because the availability of these options are subject to algorithms and the lives of others. In that case, how can you decide what to do first? The challenge of making a decision is heightened if thought of not as choosing one among many but choosing not to pursue an infinite number of other desirable options, of which more and more are constantly populating our databases.

The way technology impairs our decision-making is significant because it is subtly tied to the way we come to form a sense of personhood. This is a primary concern in Zadie Smith’s essay, in which she begins with a tacit distinction between Person 1.0 and 2.0, the former being pre-Facebook and the latter deeply wired into it. Her central argument is that while her ability as Person 1.0 may inhibit her understanding of 2.0, she is convinced that “some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.” Embedded in her argument are indirect jabs at those in the tech industry who build empires in the infinity of cyberspace without any clear sense of philosophy other than progress for its own sake. Underlying such a vague belief are likely profound reasons, and Kevin alludes to some of them by writing on death: “Social media is an illusion that you’ll live forever. Images are an illusion that you’ll live forever.” Such progress might be, however subtly, tied to a desire to transcend our human boundaries, to be everywhere at once and entirely in control of our realities. Data allows us to organize our lives into neat cabinets labeled “friends” and “followers,” both of which can be, needless to say, exclusionary. Even today, eight years after Smith’s essay, Zuckerberg’s latest hearings in Congress over data mining and cybersecurity show that he has changed little from her critical portrait:

The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued1), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.

Zuckerberg’s religious touting of “connection” may seem ridiculous from afar, but everyone holds their share of similar, unfounded beliefs. The problem with the way social media is almost ignorantly shaping the way entire generations come to understand the identities that are tied to such beliefs. The combination of decision-paralysis and a sacrament of “connection” — the like button — diminishes the development of a sense of identity, the consequences of which have become clear in recent years: depression and self-doubt.

This religion of “connection” is deceptive in that it attempts to codify inherently human phenomena — friends, relationships, acquaintances, likes and dislikes — in categories that can easily lull one into believing that they are a reflection of one’s identity. On a basic level there is no problem with this — journals and fashion are also ways of making physical the ephemera that define us. Yet on Facebook the issue comes with the publicity of this curation, and the way the process of curating takes into account potential likes. As I see younger students worry about likes on their profile pictures, selected with just the right filter and caption, I wonder if technology has plunged a generation unawares into years of self-doubt and concern for praise from which they will have to exert great force to emerge.

It is not only the younger generation but our world leadership too, especially as we live under a social media president who is in many ways the epitome of the recent decade. Kissinger lays out his fears for a world that is increasingly resistant towards disagreement (after all, Facebook still has no “dislike” button, and “like” is still a preferred neutral):

Approbation is the goal; where it not the objective, the sharing of personal information would not be so widespread and sometimes so jarring. Only very strong personalities are able to resist the digitally aggregated and magnified unfavorable judgments of their peers. The quest is for consensus, less by the exchange of ideas than by a sharing of emotions. Nor can participants fail to be affected by the exaltation of fulfillment by membership in a crowd of ostensibly like-minded people. And are these networks going to be the first institutions in human history liberated from occasional abuse and therefore relieved of the traditional checks and balances?

Admittedly this is a formidable challenge. Had I not come abroad, unmoored from the circles I occupied for years, I don’t think I would have come to better understand myself by trying things that may not have received approval from others. Technology imposes on our purviews what everyone else is doing, the latest trends for fashion, music, humor — even whom you should side with in politics. Emerging as a leader in any field today means learning how to discern knowledge from information, to winnow the data from the self.

Kevin’s anecdote about literally seeing an early bird catching the worm as well as his quote from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King have lingered over the past few nights I’ve spent in bed, my face lit up by a bright screen:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there . . . That’s being a person . . . Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.

It is thoroughly uncomfortable these days to sit on the subway and not take out your phone. You risk making eye contact with someone across from you, and aren’t sure where to look. The same phenomenon holds for waiting for someone by a cafe — without your phone what would you do with your arms, where would you look; how do you pass the time? Many will argue that people in the past still read newspapers or did something to ignore one another at the dinner table but I think this is a flimsy argument — today we are much less capable of standing there and doing nothing.

Confronting what DFW calls the “forever empty” is a quintessential fact of being human, and learning to take in the periphery of the world around you is, while seemingly unnecessary, one of the disappearing romances of being a Person 1.0. Its importance, however, does not lie in nostalgia but rather the ability People 1.0 had to stand before that emptiness and through it, come to understand themselves. Surely People 1.0 dissolve into 2.0 when faced with the temptations of technology, which damage our self-confidence and teach us to withdraw into our phones for comfort. Perhaps the ideal is to strike a balance between the two, become a Person 1.5, if you will, who is simultaneously confident enough to sit on the subway and think about nothing while also capable of reaping technology’s many benefits. Cyberspace is uncharted territory, its civilizations built before even the space was understood. Just as the Enlightenment was followed by the Romantic period, we must understand the rules governing this new world we have come to, almost unknowingly, inhabit, before examining its implications on the self.

Lee Chang Dong’s “Burning”

*Spoilers for Burning*

During my final semester of college my professor invited me to help him with on a project about Shakespeare and fire. The idea was sparked by the recent Macbeth  (2015) starring Michael Fassbender, in which Macduff sets Birnam wood on fire. My professor talked about how fire represented the imagination (evidence by my use of “sparked” in the previous sentence). At the end of Macbeth, the burning forest marching to Macbeth can be interpreted as the prophecy come true — all of Macbeth’s fears have suddenly become a burning reality. Fire can also be a muse or a precious idea, in the case of Prometheus and the first lines of Henry V, “O for a Muse of fire.” The metaphors run deep in religion and art, as fire’s many qualities allow it to represent enlightenment, uncontrollable rage, renewal (in the case of a Phoenix or refining metals), or even life’s ephemerality.

But perhaps one of the most overlooked notions is the arbitrary division between fire and inferno — when does something cross over from being a fascination and comfort into an all-consuming conflagration? Lee Chang Dong’s Burning is nothing like the visual spectacle at the end of the 2015 Macbeth. Rather, it is a study of the phenomenon seen in Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness — a slow, quiet progression that ends in her putting out the raging fire in her mind. The major difference is that whereas Lady Macbeth’s metaphorical flame is sparked by complicity in regicide, Jongsu, the exceedingly ordinary protagonist of Burning, is driven mad by something far more relatable: a girl.

There are so many elements of Burning I understood and related to, yet there are also a few mysteries I hope to work out by writing this. Given, I watched the movie without subtitles so I wasn’t able to catch everything, but in general the questions I am most curious about now are 1) what is the function of Jongsu’s parents? 2) why pantomime? 3) who is Ben really?

Starting with the first, all we know is that Jongsu’s mom walked out on the family, his father is tried and ultimately sent to jail partially because of his pride and not wanting to admit he let his temper get the best of him, and that his father forced him to burn his mother’s clothes after she left. The one other detail is that the phone rings several times with no answer, until finally it’s Jongsu’s mother and they meet. We are invited to think the mother got cold feet and hung up, but just as it is with Haemi and Ben’s cats, how can we be sure?

The answer to these questions might like in “Barn Burning” by Faulkner, rather than Murakami. While I haven’t read it and will do so shortly, the story deals more directly with class divisions and I wonder if the underlying story of Jongsu’s parents brings together the concrete differences separating social classes and the more abstract difference in what we see or choose to see. Everyone Jongsu asks about a well Haemi mentioned almost drowning in as a child recalls no such thing — except for his mother. If she was able to see something others overlooked then perhaps there was more that prompted her to leave. To return to the father and the phone call, the absence of anything for us to really latch onto in both cases is an invitation to spark flames in our own imagination. We are constantly writing our own stories whether we are writers like Jongsu or not — when the phone rings we imagine who it might be, or we write narratives about fathers and other people we feel we should know but are always distant enough to fan something into flame. In that sense we don’t even know who we truly are ourselves. We give ourselves names and believe we have a right to this or that, or that someone else plays a certain role in our lives, but these are all fabrications of our own making, suspended somewhere, bottomless like the well must have seemed to Haemi.

The use of pantomime is from Murakami’s “Barn Burning” which I haven’t read either, but is directly tied to Haemi’s character. She only pantomimes once — peeling a tangerine — early in one of her first conversations with Jongsu. I might be mistaken but she says something along the lines of how it’s not making something appear but rather yourself disappear. This perspective is what divides Haemi and Ben from Jongsu, as we go on to see that even when we “get” it (that everything is in the imagination) the way we deal with this imagination is different. Haemi, for example, wants to disappear without a trace, like the sunset — gone like she had never existed. Meanwhile Ben seems to have better control of this imagination, intentionally fueling Jongsu’s jealousy and having fun with Haemi and other girls without getting attached. Perhaps Ben’s social class allows him to see what Jongsu cannot (a good example being the scene in which he can see a reservoir while Jongsu can’t). Because when you have access to everything, each individual thing becomes a bit less valuable. He can easily dispose of Haemi or feel no loss if she disappears — another girl will readily take her place. When you have resources you can command the imagination in a way the lower classes cannot — to Jongsu Haemi is everything, whereas for Ben she is just another plaything.

Ben’s neutrality in this way is as enviable as it is a bit depressing. Perhaps his freedom from attachment extends beyond just money, as he introduces himself early on as someone who has never cried before. This may be why he finds Jongsu and Haemi so interesting — “Cute, isn’t she?” he says as he points to Haemi having fallen asleep after crying. He says he enjoys burning greenhouses but this may just be a larger metaphor for finding joy in ruining relationships and people — there are many of them, he says, so nobody will care too much to come after him. But as much as I want to write him off as the antagonist, I think of my conversation with my friend about the morality of Hansu from Pachinko. There’s a beautiful scene in which Ben’s new girl is telling a story about her travels in China and he yawns. Jongsu is seething at anger because it becomes clear that Haemi was just a way for Ben to pass time, but that scene is difficult not to relate to. I’m sure many of us have sat through conversations at gatherings wondering why we’re talking about any of this, listening to things that could be self-glorifying fabrications. There is a beautiful contrast in boredom between that of the lower classes in the countryside and that of the bourgeois in nice upscale Gangnam lofts. Whereas Jongsu passes the time thinking about how to move up, and fiercely latches onto anything that may get him out of his situation, Ben is looking for a disruption to his quiet, everyday routine. But regardless of whether one is willing to burn or start fires, both of them hunger for this same ignition of the imagination — of dreams to pursue or stories to enjoy. In the end being human means to let the imagination burn.

The most striking scenes for me took place in Haemi’s room, the first when Jongsu watches the flicker of sunlight disappear, and the second when the sunlight is in the room again, as he dreams Haemi is there next to him. He wakes up alone, in an empty room that is perhaps fuller than it had been when she was actually there. The first scene is a beautiful study of the way we are not fully “there” in any moment — as Jongsu has sex with Haemi his attention is turned to the wall for that moment, and perhaps elsewhere in his mind (the future they might have, things in their past childhood relationship he might have overlooked). The tension before their kiss is the anticipation before igniting a flame, and the later scene at the end is the quiet glow of embers spent. The fascination lies in the way the less we know about people the more they occupy our imagination. Ben’s words ring ominously here, as he says that Jongsu might have missed the greenhouse he burned because he may be unable to see things that are too close to him. Lee Chang Dong invites us to question everything we have taken for granted, from the seeming facts we rely upon to our greatest hopes and fears. We end up feeling much like Jongsu does on Haemi’s bed in her vacant apartment, feeling like we have lost something we never quite had.

ReLIFE, Reflections on Life Abroad

I originally wrote this for a submission to Infusion, Fulbright Korea’s literary magazine.

Living abroad can seem, at times, like a dream. Some days we feel weightless, free from the constraints imposed by our friend groups or jobs — shackles we didn’t even know existed. We feel as if we can, if only temporarily, take risks and stretch the boundaries of our preconceived identities. Other days we feel that such a dream is, in its fleeting nature, just something to get over with — none of it matters anyway. The freedom from a comfortable reality at once allows us to expand our sense of self and be terrified at the thought of losing it.

As I become more aware of the fact that I only have six more months in Korea, I can’t help but think of a Japanese webtoon titled “ReLIFE.” The main character, Kaizaki Arata, is an unemployed man in his late twenties in Japan, a country where being fired once makes it incredibly difficult to find another job. One day a mysterious company offers him guarantee of a job if he completes a program that seems to have very little risk — all he has to do is take a drug to change his appearance into that of a teenager and enroll in a high school for one year. Upon completion, all participants will have their memories of Kaizaki wiped, and he will return to his adult life. With no other options, Kaizaki relents and begrudgingly begins attending a high school, having to gradually make sense of himself in a community of bright-eyed, eager high school students.

Examining the parallels between such a situation and our lives as Fulbright ETAs — the expiration date of one year, being surrounded by students day in and day out, feeling like you don’t quite belong — is illuminating. As the end of my time in Korea looms, thinking about how Kaizaki discovers and deals with the many difficulties of his ReLIFE has yielded invaluable insight into how we may make the most of relationships despite their temporality, be inspired and revitalized by those younger than us, and be instilled with the humbling recognition that our lives are not any more important than those across the globe. Through these lessons we may aspire to better lead lives that are just as transient as our time abroad.

A primary symptom of being transplanted halfway across the world is loneliness, and yet the solution of making friends is haunted by a cost-benefit analysis: the deeper our friendships abroad, the greater the difficulty of leaving them behind. Initially, Kaizaki describes his status just a “shadow passing by,” maintaining his distance from everyone and wanting to get through the year as quickly as possible. But as he develops closer relationships with his classmates, he finds himself in a paradox of wanting to enjoy life to the fullest and knowing that doing so will further hurt both himself and those he shares such memories with. While this is more dramatic than the ETA experience in which no memories are wiped, the sentiment can be all too familiar. At times I have found myself entering social situations a little detached, not only because I there is a certain limit as to how much somebody here can understand the background I am coming from, but also because I can’t help but wonder if I should be investing more time in relationships that will actually last. But Kaizaki decides that life is here and now, and time spent hiding at home logically evaluating relationships when they are so much more complex and unpredictable, is time we do not spend making memories and truly living. Yes, relationships abroad are temporary, but where did we ever get the notion that any relationship lasts forever? What is more unsettling than bittersweet pangs on our flights home is the thought of such habits carrying over into relationships to which we have dedicated our entire lives. Holding back for the mere sake of knowing it will end soon is to miss out on experiences that call forth all of the emotions and difficulties that make us human. The more Kaizaki wishes he could stay and grow up with his classmates, the more he discovers the value not just in his year but in his life.

Embedded not only in deep but also in shallow relationships at school are stories from our past we can look at anew, in a time when we may most need them. One’s early adulthood is plagued by a whirlwind of questions and a calcifying sense of one’s identity. Such formation of self-understanding, while necessary, can be detrimental. Kaizaki finds himself trapped, feeling set with certain skills that he cannot use to advance his career. Therefore the stories and aspirations he discovers among his classmates shake the preconceptions he had built over time about who he is, and consequently what he can or cannot accomplish. As ETAs at the start of our careers, such stories challenge us when we are more malleable to what they have to say.

While it is all too easy to romanticize such stories and use them to adorn the walls of our social media outlets, when we apply the pressure to questions of why they linger in our minds long after the school day we are forced to confront foreign aspects of ourselves. As one of my students looked up a word on her phone, I noticed that her phone wallpaper was the emblem of the National Police Agency. She was very quiet but always studied very hard, and so I had taken her to be one of the many students at my elite high school aiming for one of the top universities. But when asked about it she responded confidently, “I want to be a police officer.” In that moment something clicked and I thought it made complete sense. This was not by any real logic — though she has certain grit and seems guided by a good sense of justice — but rather by the confidence it must take to choose a different path from that of your peers. Upon reflection I realized that perhaps that’s why I was moved last year waking up early to go drive out into the fields and see my homestay brother fly model planes he had spent countless hours working on, or by a student who told me that, after feeling the life go out of a pet hamster he held in his hands, decided he wanted to be a veterinarian. When we are young we have such dreams motivated by pure intentions, only to second guess them as they are brought to confront the burdens of adulthood. When we are young we are told anything is possible, and upon graduating we once again find that ourselves at that blank canvas — only to face it with years of accumulated cynicism. Spending time with students can help wash away, or at least keep at bay, such negativity.

Nearing the end of his ReLIFE, Kaizaki reflects on how self-centered he had been. This is understandable — when placed in a new setting it is even easier than usual to see oneself as the main character and everyone else as mere extras. He notes, “Since the very beginning of my ReLIFE, all I thought about was how to get safely through it. I couldn’t care less if I was forgotten by everyone. I wanted to keep my distance from everyone else — it was a big mistake.” When we live guided by such a selfish perspective we feed the idea that everything will still be around us later, that there is nothing to seize in the moment except that which will most benefit the future. This lopsided view of life, tilted towards the long term, is of course essential to productivity but entirely against the ephemeral reality. It just so happens that a year abroad is much easier to measure — but how would you change the way you lived if you knew exactly when you would die? For Kaizaki, revisiting his youth was an important remedy for the ailments of adulthood: “After looking at these guys go, I want to do my best no matter how many tries it takes. It brought back all of my wishes and desires from when I was in high school. It encouraged me to keep trying.” In coming to value the aspirations and lives of those younger than him, Kaizaki moves from a self-centered approach to life to one that is more communal, constantly taking in the inspiration from those around him and using it to fuel his path forward. In a similar manner, to think that time spent with people far across the globe is merely for our own benefit is to leave such a privileged opportunity sorely missing the point. Our lives are not any more important than that of any students we pass in the classroom, nor that of any adults we pass on the subway — we may live in entirely different societies and yet what we can give each other is all the same.

Undoubtedly, balancing the lessons of ReLIFE and the harsher realities of life is a herculean task, even during our short stays in Korea. And yet the way teaching in a foreign country can reorient such vital perspectives on how to lead one’s life can be overlooked if one does not, like Kaizaki, pursue potential experiences. ReLIFE accounts for this in including a foil in another character that has previously failed the program because he or she was unable or unwilling to embrace the possibility of change. Likewise, some of us have fantastic ETA experiences while others do not, and while that is not entirely anyone’s fault, taking the time to not only reflect on our mindsets but also actively break out of them is essential. ReLIFE is not by any measure a perfect webtoon, but it has been invaluable in helping me make sense of the many trials and joys of living abroad.

Pachinko

I finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee this past weekend, and while the book is easy to read (driven more by plot than language), it was still relatively long — for that reason I feel like doing a single post at the end of the book is an unfortunate disservice to the book’s depth and scope. I’m sure it was MJL’s intention to give the novel a long arc that mimics the course of life itself, full of unnecessary yet necessary fillers and moments that feel too drawn out or hurried past (the last book I’ve read that used a similar effect in the same manner to complement its content was A Little Life, and turns out MJL and Hanya Yanagihara are friends). It feels like forever ago I read about Hoonie, the ancestor of the novel whose story is told to us in a manner resembling that of a prelude or fairy tale. While at first glance it seemed unnecessary to give us Sunja’s father’s backstory, Hoonie remains an ever-present force throughout the novel, emphasizing the importance of family in Korean and other Asian cultures (to the extent of ancestor worship, which might seem odd to Western society). Sunja, too, gradually moves from being the central protagonist to the margins, where her sons and eventually grandson take center stage. Pachinko encompasses so many generations and niches of Korean, Japanese, and Korean-Japanese (even American), life that it’s hard for me to settle on a single topic to write about in the brief time I have tonight — instead, I would like to just jot down some notes about the conversations I had regarding this book and the extent to which it masterfully plunges the reader into an experience of life that is simultaneously unique to each character yet common in its burdens and triumphs.

My friend said that his friend noted Hansu is like a Pachinko player, in control of all of the money and pieces such wealth affords him to entertain himself with. While in a literary sense I think I would largely agree, it should also be noted that Hansu himself, despite all of the power that comes with metaphorically playing Pachinko with Sunja’s family, is not any less subject to the paradoxical laws of chance and agency that govern life. Hansu, probably much like actual Japanese businessmen who try themselves at Pachinko, is a tragic figure, having climbed up from the lower levels of society to achieve wealth and status only to find that he is still, somehow, despondently unhappy. Much of that has to do with geopolitics, and Hansu is perhaps the most complex and intriguing figures in the novel because of his geopolitical views as well as his morals (which I will touch upon later). Hansu cynically darkens the concepts of citizenship and nationalism Benedict Anderson calls “imaginary” in Imagined Communities (used in an epigraph to Book II) from a force that is all the more powerful because it is imaginary (“Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings”) to mere ideas that get people killed (I think there’s a scene in which he says something similar to Noa). One of the most alarming scenes is when Hansu violently beats a prostitute in his car, taking out his anger on all people who do not think for themselves. While initially this seems intended to shade in Hansu’s position as the antagonist, it actually points to the fact that “protagonist” and “antagonist” are severe oversimplifications when it comes to the intricacies of human difference and societal pressures. Hansu throws himself not against a presumably annoying girl in a simple assertion of patriarchal privilege, but against all that we cannot understand despite our nature to climb up society’s ranks and expand our minds. Hansu, like so many other literary characters, bangs his head against one of life’s cruelest jokes — that the more we learn the more finely we perceive life’s seeming indifference to human agency and wisdom. Citizenship, nationalism, community — these are all things that give us identity and meaning, but give cause for concern when they encroach upon that which makes us individuals with a right to choose and have a chance to better our futures. Such intrusion on these rights can be enacted either by a collectivist or autocratic society, or by people who see not you but the imagined community of which are a part, dehumanizing you in the process:

…because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

Like Americanah (which unfortunately I read before I started this blog), as well as other recent novels, such mediations on identity and community, while usually focusing on a particular experience (for example Nigerian/Nigerian-American, or Korean-Japanese-American), are so pertinent in today’s social and political climates in an era of globalization and friction between communities.

While I would like to write more about the conversations I’ve had on morality regarding Hansu, and morals tied to one’s responsibility as a product of one’s place in society, unfortunately I don’t have enough time. So for now I’m going to record this last quote from MJL’s Reader’s Guide at the end of the novel:

Today, all of us live in an era of vast income, educational and information inequality. However, what we also witness each day is how many ordinary people resist the indignities of life and history with grace and conviction by taking care of their families, friends, neighbors, and communities while striving for their individual goals. We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.

On a kind of tangent I read Pachinko while simultaneously watching Reply 1988 (응답하라 1988), a drama set in the Seoul 80s that tells the story of a group of neighboring families. It’s easy to imagine the similarities between the two, as Reply 1988 similarly captures so poignantly the quiet hardships of those immigrant mothers and fathers who come from nations that are much poorer than America is today. One of the most memorable scenes for me in Pachinko was when Sunja starts selling kimchi in the Osaka street market, overcoming her fear of speaking out and setting aside any pride for the sake of her family’s survival. MJL beautifully writes her rise from the ground to shout out and grab hold of an agency many might relinquish in an era so decisively dictated by geopolitical forces. Reply 1988‘s arcs are similarly subtle, with meditations on motherly love, and how sometimes we must set aside our concerns for our parents and let them take care of us even when we don’t want to be taken care of. A powerful scene from an episode I watched today mentioned that it’s entirely selfish of you to allow yourself to be at ease by telling your parents you don’t want their help, when such ease comes at the cost of that of your parents. Such stories, whether directly relatable to a person by shared ethnicity or not, are incredible important today, only a bit more so than they have been in the past.