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.

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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.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on” When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, quotes C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in her epilogue:

Bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases — like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.

Beyond all the gore and responsibility of the OR, all the climbing of towers built upon literature reaching for meaning, Kalanithi’s story is a testament to the simple fact that love transcends death. There is perhaps no cliche truer than this: despite the tragic notion of a neurosurgeon succumbing to the very cancer he has spent an entire lifetime learning to fight, Kalanithi’s love expands, blossoming in Lucy’s tender epilogue, his final paragraph dedicated to his daughter, the countless pre-medical students wishing to better understand the moral cross they must bear, and all other readers ranging from those who wish to find camaraderie in a similar experience to those who wish to better understand that common end we all share. In witnessing Kalanithi’s progression towards death we all draw a little closer to one another, family and strangers alike, bound by our common human reality that we must all follow that same path.

The beauty of literature to simultaneously allow for the perception of an individual experience (or perhaps even more: to step into an experience) yet amplify understandings of our own idiosyncratic lives, is never more apparent than it is in the discussion of death. In the past week I’ve spent with Paul, carrying this book around my travels, my trip felt more like a gift than it would have otherwise: a chance to reflect on my own privileges of being alive and elsewhere, away from routine, seeing the world. I began this book early morning (for Korean standards) in a Starbucks in Seoul, bagel in hand, coffee to the side. Workers trickled in for a moment of quiet, sending emails and reading the news, students scratched their heads and tensed their eyes as they struggled with a problem set, and others nestled into comfortable chairs with books. The quiet morning, filled only with light chatter and clinking of cups and spoons, is something I’m sure all early risers (of which I have only recently joined the ranks) cherish. But perhaps we feel most alive in such moments because the air is gently woven with a mutual understanding that we are all here, preparing for another day filled with its own chaos and emergencies (whether we are surgeons or not), and for now we can simply be together even without saying a word. If that much human relationship can be fostered by unity forged against a single day’s burdens, it only follows that we draw nearer in the face of death. Lucy observes the way death fuels life:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult — sometimes almost impossible — they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.

When Breath Becomes Air is a complement to Lewis’ journal entries following the loss of his wife, Joy Davidson, to cancer. With both books we are able to bear witness to both dying and bereaved, and come to understand that dying is not so different from living —  to die we must be alive, and to be alive we must die. But despite all of this, we casually fling aside memento mori and continue to live as if we are the exception. Lewis notes:

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Similar to what I had written in a reflection to Death ParadeI naturally spent a lot of time, on trains and buses, taking a break from the weight of Kalanithi’s words and contemplating the role of literature in my life and the imperatives that come with really knowing you will die. To avoid making this post too long and unnecessarily autobiographical, I’ll be brief.

One quote in particular rang particularly true for me, which pithily captured what I felt around this time last year:

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

Even in reading and giving myself assignments to reflect through this blog, there are times when I wonder if spending an evening at home, clutching the writings of someone so far removed from me at the expense of spending time in the company of people who add fullness to my life, is a huge mistake. The cliched quote from Good Will Hunting comes to mind, but somehow fits nicely into this conversation about love and loss:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.

It speaks to the immense depths of human experience that even I, as extremely privileged as I am to have traveled so much of the world, doubt that I have experienced nearly enough — it’s why I continue to read and take risks when venturing out. But closely related to this question of what we have and want to experience is the question of identity, and I find myself at times saying “that’s not something would do.” In many cases it’s our formation of identity that prevents us from chasing experiences or following through on our goals. Experiences form our identities (“I’m a neurosurgeon”) but our identities also often dictate our experiences, and I’ve found myself growing to challenge such limitations, however gradually.

*Featured photo is from a trip to the Pyeongchang Olympics I took just this past week. The ice games were in Gangneung, and I was fortunate to go to the beach before heading back to Seoul. The beach showcased some local and international pieces of art, the most captivating of which was this giant skull.

The Sellout and “Post-Racial” America

Having left America right before its plunge into race relation chaos, a confrontation with the sweeping consequences of social media in its construction of echo chambers, and the rise of the #metoo movement, I’ve found it at times overwhelming to coordinate the self-exploration that comes in living in a country where everyone looks like you in relation to an unsettling zeitgeist. In particular, while the implications and frictions of globalization are so blatantly manifest in America, in Korea I’ve often felt conflict over the fact that most other countries in the world will never quite get it. That is to say, while of course globalization touches the entire world, most of it remains relatively homogenous and I can’t help but doubt at times the purpose behind the agony we commit ourselves to over identity politics, treading a thin moral line. Of course I, like most of my generation, believe in the egalitarian ideals, but sometimes I can’t help but be discouraged by the sheer gap between such ideals and reality — as Beatty observes, we say we’re “post-racial” and no longer segregated, but of course there will always be segregation in some sense: the recent election speaks volumes to that. But of course, my optimism, like that of many others, is grounded in the immense wealth that living in America has brought to my life in the form of learning about different cultures through lasting friendships and reconfirming over and over the fact that, at heart, we are all one species with the same joys and flaws. It’s not so much my doubt over the fact that such a world can exist, where people of different races and beliefs can coexist peacefully (this world, despite what current news may scream, already exists in some places) but the fact that getting a glimpse of this world requires economic privilege.

As I struggle to articulate my thoughts in this reflection I realize that what has weighed on me recently is the complex matrices of segregation that divide culturally, within a culture, economically, and by any other metric we subconsciously measure one another by.  That is to say, it’s not that I don’t believe in the merit behind debates over intersectionality, feminism, Marxism, and all the other -isms, but that, at the the end of the day, so many people simply lack the means to leave their communities. When I said that at times I struggle with the knowledge that Koreans will never quite get it, I was thinking about how those who get to even attempt to look into recent works of American art that grapple with race-related intricacy already reside in some of the highest levels of society. The fact that in order to watch Moonlight, after it won the Academy Award last year, I had to take a bus to the largest theater nearby is one example (the experience of watching it in a theater full of Koreans was intriguing but not something to write about now). Another example is the means by which I obtained and read this book — it came to me through a friend, another English teacher, whose Korean co-teacher passed it onto him because he just couldn’t make sense of the introduction. All this is to say is that you need immense amounts of economic privilege to get a grasp at the world outside Korea, and even then, for all your ability and money, you still won’t be able to fully understand the nuance of wordplay and satire in something like The Sellout unless you directly experience the many ironies that underlie American life.

Perhaps one of the chiefest ironies is this: that while we lampoon one another over critical theory, none of us really want to move back to insulated communities filled with people who have never stepped on a plane. Reading this article in The Atlantic deeply unsettled me as it forced me to stare directly at my own immense privilege:

“But spend some time reading the biographies of your representatives in Congress, and you’ll notice, as I did, that by the time they reach office, many politicians have already been socialized into a cultural, educational, and financial elite that sets them apart from average Americans. While some representatives do have strong roots in their district, for many others the connection is tenuous at best. Even for those members who were born and raised in the part of the country they represent, that place is for many of them not their true home. Educated at expensive colleges, likely on the coasts, they spend their 20s and 30s in the nation’s great metropolitan centers. After stints in law, business, or finance, or on Capitol Hill, they move to the hinterlands out of political ambition. Once they retire from Congress, even if they retain some kind of home in their district, few make it the center of their lives: They seem much more likely than their predecessors to pursue lucrative opportunities in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and, of course, Washington. By just about every metric—from life experience to education to net worth—these politicians are thoroughly disconnected from the rest of the population.”

It’s deeply unsettling to me that on college campuses people will often skewer a conservative for being immoral because they lack the liberal ideologies that largely come from bastions of privilege — privilege not exclusively in the economic sense, as you can come from a lower-class immigrant family but the fact that they immigrated at all is usually a product of education or ambition (I realize this is a flimsy point, and one I’d like to think more about). Our self-justified selves inevitably arrive at this uncomfortable point of nature versus nurture, that of course people can be blamed for some aspect of character that lies beyond environmental influence. Usually at this point we just ignore this complexity and cave into the same tendency of communities to justify and support one another — after all, confirmation is the lifeblood of camaraderie.
This reflection has taken on a life of its own, but these thoughts only scratch the surface of all that I’ve been thinking about recently, before and even more intensely throughout reading The Sellout. And it’s these same complex thoughts, same feelings of helplessness in reaching a dead end, that triggers our survival mechanism to tell us to step back, laugh it off, and try not to take it too seriously — let’s just pretend we can hold hands and sing Kum Bah Ya. But the tenuousness of this humor, the way it’s a mere glaze over the dark depths of self-insecurity (read: “Who am I?”) and screams of frustration we all keep pent-up inside, is why The Sellout was such an uncomfortable read for me: it forced me to simultaneously laugh and question why I was laughing.
Some of the final lines are a testament to the fact that after the endless cycling between not taking it seriously and taking it too seriously, we end up just pushing on, numb as we are:
There should be a Stage IV of black identity—Unmitigated Blackness. I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed. It’s Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Alfre Woodard, and the serious black actor. It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside. It’s “whereas” and “things of that nature.” It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked-up feet. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.
These are all but cursory thoughts and I hope to explore them further in more polished writing, but for now, as always, I’m glad I was able to jot down and make sense of at least this much.

 

More reading to reflect on: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/no-compromises

Reading and Forgetting

For at least a year or two I believed I hated Haruki Murakami. Before I went to Sierra Leone to work with a non-profit, I packed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because I had thoroughly enjoyed Norwegian Wood. Long story short, due to the Ebola outbreak we were forced to stay in the same place for a while. Under the summer heat and lack of electricity, I passed a lot of the time reading the book and grew overwhelmingly frustrated. I got tired of hearing the narrator’s voice, I was tired of all of these weird flashbacks, and, well, I don’t remember what else. All I remember is I didn’t like it, and from that point on I decided I was no longer a Murakami fan (a stance that has since changed after Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki).

I tell this anecdote because while there may have been some truth in what I didn’t like about Murakami at the time, the point is that the way we sometimes remember and talk about books are extremely similar to the way we talk about people, places — probably everything. This post is spurred by an article in The Atlantic, which I thought was not that profound but led me to this article in The New Yorker. The latter references this quote attributed to the poet Siegfried Sassoon:

For it is humanly certain that most of us remember very little of what we have read. To open almost any book a second time is to be reminded that we had forgotten well-nigh everything that the writer told us. Parting from the narrator and his narrative, we retain only a fading impression; and he, as it were, takes the book away from us and tucks it under his arm.

There’s great comfort in the limitations of our memory being “humanly certain,” that there is nothing wrong with us for not being able to remember the exact details of every movie or book we consume. And yet this is just the same as how we go about our daily lives: we experience, stow away particular snatches, and push forward. You may believe you recall all of the details of the time spent with your friends last night, but what you remember is different from what your friends remember. They might remember you looked a little bit more tired than usual, or, going into the night, two of your friends had a conversation that colored the entire evening in a way you can’t imagine — essentially, all of the details that go into the media we consume. The fact that our memory of real life is any better than our memory of books or movies might just be a difference in sensory input, not in some inherently greater significance of what is “real” and what is “fiction” — human memory is limited all the same. We all run through life picking up memories, leaving some behind (not entirely by choice of course), more or less tumbling towards the end in which, as one of the articles puts it, we forget everything in death.

The way I talked about Murakami is a lot like the way I’ve talked about some people. “Yeah I don’t like him, he’s just a bit too dark and drops too many cultural references…” And while at times it’s fine to generalize (after all it’s natural to alleviate stress on our limited minds) when I sit back and think about it, the judgment of a person after one interaction like that is quite absurd. Since my opinion of Murakami has changed, I’ve started to wonder if I didn’t like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because it was the only form of entertainment I had, not to mention it was read in a stuffy, hot apartment all day until it got too dark to read. I wonder if it was because of my own frustrations with the situation, not to mention the uncertainty. While my circumstances then were quite extreme, the general principles hold for some people as well, where I’ll sometimes come in with a preconceived dislike or like, and then later be thoroughly surprised at just how wrong I was, how much of my assessment was based on the situation.

In short, to say that consuming media is meaningless because we forget it all anyway is to say the same nihilistic thing about life — why do we spend all this money on trips and nights out when we forget most of it anyway? As The New Yorker article says, reading is of course a form of narcissism in that what we have to gain is a better understanding of ourselves. But at the same time, that narcissism is rooted in that bond between reader and writer, where there’s a relationship forged over not necessarily a common understanding of a phenomenon but a common understanding of the fact that it is important in some way. In that sense it might not even really be narcissism at all — art allows us to become someone else for a while and learn from that interaction. What we take away may be a better understanding of ourselves but it comes by virtue of a shared experience.

On a final note, The New Yorker article ends with this:

Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

In my experience, writing has been the real act of conquest, reading the mere perception of the beast. Because writing is a more refined version of what the interpretation that goes on in our minds as we read, and because our minds are so finite the only way to really conquer the beast is to set it down in writing, expanding our limits. You can reread as much as you want, but rereading is just a form of reinterpreting and coming to an understanding, all of which is greatly enhanced by writing. So many times on this blog so far I’ve discovered something new about a book I’ve just finished by forcing myself to write about, to come face to face with the beast, fangs and all, and try to understand it. Those hours spent behind a dimly lit screen, hands paused over a keyboard, is the act of giving shape to both the beast and one’s understanding of it.

Dreams and Kafka on the Shore

*Some spoilers for Kafka on the Shore*

As one reviewer put it (perhaps an article in The Atlantic), reading Murakami is in large part enjoyable because he is a great travel companion. Having been raised in the Western tradition, I have a general distaste for plot holes and artistic excess, but my experience reading Kafka was in large part enjoyable because of its “filler scenes” of characters going out for a walk, eating dinner, and going to cafes. The cliche that, “we read to know we are not alone” rings especially true here, where you are reading not so much for plot development or to excavate some great truth to the world, but simply to feel the presence of another, to be allowed into that intimate space of self-reflection. There’s a scene in which Hoshino goes out to a cafe and listens carefully to and appreciates Beethoven for the first time, and while this contributes almost nothing to the plot other than showing that Nakata is opening Hoshino up to a world beyond that of mundane routine, it’s memorable because it’s so lovingly painted. In many ways Hoshino is the most relatable character because Kafka harbors some darkness that is impossible to understand (who is Crow, anyway?), Nakata is, well, Nakata, and Oshima is a bit too complex for us to understand entirely. Hoshino is simple, likable, and most of all forgivable, for he’s just like anyone one of us stumbling around in life and just trying to do the best that we can. For these same reasons Sakura is sorely missed throughout the book, as some of the scenes with her are well crafted and ground us in reality — I suppose that’s her role for returning only at the end of the story, to ensure that Kafka is back in our world and that we can somewhat find closure in its comforts.

Because the reading is so easy and conversational, I found myself experiencing a phenomenon that strangely tied into the novel itself. When I started being more comfortable with the idea that good literature doesn’t have to be carefully planned and executed in the sense of everything having certain meaning (a “magnetic field” as described in the New Yorker review ) I began letting my imagination run loose: what would I write if I were to just let it all gush forth, all the scenes that randomly spring to mind throughout the day and in my dreams? Might there not be some meaning between it all, even if that meaning is indecipherable? This was in part spurred by the fact that I had been wanting to write fiction for a while but was afraid to start unless I knew exactly what the themes would be, how it would develop, etc. But reading a book in which Colonel Sanders comes out of nowhere as a pimp, or where the entrance stone is literally a stone, and where fish falling from the sky is allowed to remain a mystery, you begin to think differently.

While it’s impossible to ascertain some “core” to the novel’s whirling layers, the fact that an imagination run wild can still lure you with some hint of meaning, even if it is unreachable, is profound in its own way. There’s so much we end up not knowing, about Johnnie Walker and the flute, Crow, Miss Saeki (is he really Kafka’s mother? But really, does that matter for their relationship to have meaning?), what was that slime thing that comes out of Nakata?, etc. but in the end we enjoyed and gained from, the journey. You step into the sandstorm and, even though the sandstorm is nothing but particles thrown spontaneously and randomly against the wind, we emerge changed.

“You’re afraid of imagination and even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the resposibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep and dreams are a part of sleep. When you’re awake you can suppress imagination but you can’t supress dreams.”

This bit on the importance of dreams was intriguing in that it implies there is something, some other world, that lies dormant in each of us and is impossible to keep at bay. Some combination of memory and longing, a raw imaginative force, pulses within us and is beyond even the most herculean efforts to give it shape by narrative. In a sense Kafka mocks those clean cut stories with firm resolution: who are we to dictate what dreams have to say? In that sense perhaps it’s best that Crow remains elusive, that part of ourselves that we know is there and have a relationship with but cannot ultimately be understood on the same plane our world rests on.

Earlier this month I went on a short day trip to Busan, and the entire time I couldn’t help but keep thinking about Kafka. I saw lots of cats lazing about and skirting through dark, narrow alleys, and the waves crashed in and out along the shore that lined the culture village. It was windy and freezing yet a nice, sunny day, reminiscent of the day I went to Odaiba now just about a year ago:

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The winter air lent itself to introspection, though perhaps all shore are like that — we humble ourselves before all that we do not and cannot know, and yet go on living regardless. Sitting there absorbed in the beauty and wonder of the unknown, Nakata asks Hoshino something like, “What lives in there?” Hoshino tries to rationalize all of the creatures and rubble underneath the waves but ends up like the rest of, asking himself: “Who am I kidding, what do I know?” For all our worth in philosophy we will never really be able to be in the deepest depths of the ocean or the furthest reaches of space just as we will never be able to map all that lies within us.

Sure, the Western culture references to literature and music may seem a bit gratuitous at times, but I’ve also started to see this more in terms my own fascination with Japan. For Murakami, the West is like the ocean as well, full of pieces like the Archduke Trio and stories like Oedipus Rex, rich with meaning yet speaking to a wider sea of art that lies in the distance simply by virtue of chance.

For me, Kafka is but a small pebble washed up on a shore looking out into the East, but all works point inward to the depths that extend beyond any regional markers.

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(Busan, South Korea)

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Notes from 12/29/17

*Light spoilers for Never Let Me Go, particularly because it’s really hard to read anything about this book without it being ruined for you (happened to me)*

Somehow I managed to squeeze in another book before the end of 2017. When I studied abroad in England a peer of mine was really eager to see Ishiguro at the Oxford literature festival, and though I hadn’t heard the name before I assumed his books would be something like Murakami’s (a naive assumption but hopefully understandable). Since then the name has floated somewhere in my mind, and it wasn’t until Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize that I happened to discover a co-worker had a copy of Never Let Me Go.

Initially I was really surprised that, given the hallowed nature of the Nobel, Ishiguro’s prose is really plain and easy to read. Even the names itself — Tommy, Ruth, Kathy — feel a little childlike (likely the intention) and the entire book, for all the literary merit I expected, came in a modest package, delivered without any ceremony. For that reason I was initially rather annoyed at Kathy’s naivete, and the way the novel so obviously foreshadows the future and tugs the reader along with suspense. It made me think of an article recently shared to me by a friend, a reflection by George Saunders on writing fiction:

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

As I explained to a friend earlier this morning, there were many times I felt that while I was deeply entranced in Kathy’s memories, lying in my presence was not only the characters but some thin outline of Ishiguro himself, baiting me along to keep reading. Undoubtedly, Ishiguro is a talented writer, reaching the nooks and crannies of our everyday and childhood experiences we can only intuit but not exactly explain (perhaps explaining such moments is one of the main roles of writers). But this cleverness is not so well concealed, especially when Kathy keeps saying “in order to explain this I need to tell you about this…” creating a “to be continued…” suspense that gets old quickly. This is in part because other than the mysteries of Hailsham and the setting, there is very little motive for me to care so much about Kathy’s trauma. It’s the incredibly realistic voices and probing of memory, the masterfully fabricated dreams that keep you going, if anything just to savor how real and lifelike it all feels. It may very well be that because Kathy’s voice is so real, it’s almost too-real — and therefore you can’t help but force yourself to remember that Ishiguro is there: the talent itself can become the subject if it shines too brightly.

Aside from my thoughts of Ishiguro, the novel itself was a bit too dream-like for me, and I didn’t like plunging so much into these memories. I sometimes have to wonder if I’m more interested in fiction that is just not so immersive, works that are more evocative of big thoughts and act as thought-experiments, or otherwise reflect some aspect of the world. This work is pure fiction, sketched in a fictional world, bare of any particular details that may reveal and specific time or place, and I’m not sure how well that sits with me personally, though I can see how some people would be huge fans of such an immersive experience.

A review in the Guardian kindles in me some more fondness for the book by placing it within a larger theoretical structure — that is, thoughts on life and how this book may be practical:

This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn’t about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It’s about why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.

I thought the way the novel delivered its climax in Miss Emily’s explanation of everything — Hailsham, clones, donations, etc. — was thoroughly depressing, and I suppose that is the theme of this novel. You build up all these dreams and fantasies of what places will be like, only to realize that life is really just a big absurd joke (to reference Moby-Dick). While we may at times see Kathy and Tommy as being too childish, and Ruth as being a little repulsive for blatantly conforming to society’s norms, it ends up that we have to cling to something, whether it be acceptance in society, sex, or fantasies of love, in order to escape existential free falling. The way Tommy explodes at the very end of the novel and just screams out against the universe is a nice subdued version of what we see in something like Moby-Dick, and the way Kathy and Tommy clutch each other against the stream of time that erodes away at everything we love exemplifies the powerful way humans will try to hold on even if it may all be pointless anyway. I think as I piece together these aspects of the novel, I realize that it may be less of anything related to craft and more the melancholy of the novel itself that made me not fully like it but still appreciate it. In realizing this I feel more drawn to the novel and its merits.

Never Let Me Go is a novel about loss and recovery, and in that sense the entire plot of carers and donors can seem a bit gimmicky at times. But in any case, these themes of entering the labyrinth of our memories and searching for what we’ve lost is beautiful. It’s intriguing that our gift of memory can bend the passage of time, at least put up a force of resistance against its stream and change its trajectory if only in the slightest. Memory enables us to bring back to life those we’ve lost, to recover them without actually recovering them, and in the same way Kathy “recovers” her missing tape by finding a new one, a “clone” it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s the real thing. What matters is the way it evokes feelings in someone else, and those feelings, despite being different (Kathy and Madame react differently) validate the existence of that being even it’s a clone. The final scene is hauntingly beautiful:

That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that — I didn’t let it — and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to where it was I was supposed to be.

Addendum 1/1/18

Never Let Me Go is not about clones in the science fiction sense, but about the relationship between clones and memory. We effectively clone people when we bring them into the landscape of memory and such memories are not any less valuable than the actual thing, especially when they are all we have left. Of course these clones/memories will never be as “real” as the real thing, but this raises questions about what is “real” and the tragic notion of never being full enough in that sense.