Sunday, December 30, 2012

Korea: The War is Over

When over 100,000 troops crossed the 38th parallel in Korea in 1950 to reunite their divided country under a communist regime, I was 10 years old and living in a small town in North Carolina. This aggression was the first move in a short but bloody "police action" or "conflict" between United Nations forces, mobilized by the United States, and an army supplied and supported by China and the Soviet Union.  I was old enough to realize the dangers involved and followed events in the newspaper and on our black-and-white TV.  Pictures and film of Korea as a devastated and colorless country are etched in my memory.

Last week my wife and I spent six days in and around Seoul, still the capital of the southern half of Korea.  The three-year war solved nothing.  Nearly sixty years after an armistice, the communist northern regime continues to threaten the democratic south, with tests of a nuclear weapon and, a week before our visit, the firing of a long-range rocket.  What changed for me during out visit to experience the snow of winter was my monochrome memory of Korea.

We walked around many areas of central Seoul and our friends Kim and Yea drove us outside the city to the north and the south. Evidence of the war's devastation was hard to find.  Now the second-largest urban area in the world, greater Seoul is thoroughly modern with wide freeways, numerous bridges across the Han River, a landscape of skyscrapers, and high-rise condominiums everywhere to house the exploding population.  Yet here near the new modern City Hall was a display thanking the 22 nations that joined the UN coalition to save South Korea.

In Jongno on the way to tour Changdeokgung Palace (which was large and rather uninteresting), I saw this poster for what looks like a play about the war.  When I looked at those few Koreans more elderly than me, I wondered about their experiences in a time when several million civilians were killed and bombs destroyed almost everything.  It was the same feeling I had when visiting Vietnam.  In Hanoi I met ladies who had worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and I apologized to them for the destruction caused by my country. Wars in both places were the result of splitting the world into Them (the bad communists) and Us (always the good guys).  The communists won in Vietnam and the world did not change.  No one won in Korea, except perhaps the southerners who benefited from 26 years of dictatorship which enabled authoritarian regimes to reconstruct and rebuild with inflows of capital from the West.  The day before we arrived, Park Geun-Hye, daughter of dictator Park Chung-Hee (assassinated in 1979), was elected president.  Korea today has the world's 11th highest GNP.  Since the early 1990s, however, it has been one of the freest democracies in Asia.

Our goal in Seoul was to enjoy snow, Nan for the first time.  We were fortunate.  The afternoon of our arrival it snowed in the city for several hours.  A couple of days later, the snow was refreshed overnight. Expat David A. Mason, author of Spirit of the Mountains, gave us a tour of Insa-dong while the white stuff was coming down and guided us through an excellent meal of traditional Thai cuisine at a superb restaurant called Jirisan.  He also took us to the inspiring Jogyesa Temple, headquarters of Korea's main Buddhist group which emphasizes Zen meditation, and we went across the street to the headquarters of the Temple Stay program which he helped start.

What made our holiday truly special was Yea, Nan's friend from Phayao, and her Korean husband, Kim.  They live in a small apartment in his parents' house in the suburbs with their daughter Soi-yoon and young son Ka-yoon.  The day after we arrived they picked us up at our hotel in their car and drove us to Nami Island in the north Han River.  Calling itself the Naminara Republic, it has been developed as a nature tourist site and is reached by ferry.  The snow made everything beautiful.  The following day, Yea and Kim took us south to the Korean Folk Village where aspects of the 500-year Joseon Dynasty are on exhibit.  There was also an amusement park and a snow slide where Nan got to complete her winter experience. On both excursions we enjoyed wonderful meals, particular the regional dish of dakgalbi cooked at our table in a restaurant on the banks of the Han River.  On Sunday evening we stopped at a Korean barbecue restaurant in their neighborhood and I enjoyed the delicious marinated meat called bulgogi (of course every meal include kimchi and numerous side dishes). To cap their generosity, we were invited to share Christmas dinner with the family at their apartment.

On Christmas Eve we shopped.  First, at the huge Namdaemun Market where everything is on sale at a proliferation of stores and stalls, followed by a dive into the crowds at Myeong-dong where brand name shops line several car-free streets and the Salvation Army competes with strident Christian evangelists for the attention of materialist consumers eager for a last minute bargain.  In the morning we had toured the traditional neighborhood of Bukchon and taken a taxi and bus up to the top of Namsen Park where the N Seoul Tower overlooks the city.  Nan was most interested in the wall of locks attached by lovers who then threw away the keys (signs warn that this is ecologically damaging to the park).  We ate Italian food for a change in an expensive restaurant with a hazy view of the city.

On our final morning we returned to Insa-dong which could perhaps be called the Greenwich Village of Seoul with its art galleries and shops full of traditional pottery, clothes and masks. At a tea room we shared exquisite drinks and "green tea chocolate," and at a restaurant down an alley we ate bibimbap (with a raw egg) and fish.  We bought handmade candy that melted on the way home, and souvenirs for friends.  I got a tee shirt and Nan dug dirt out of the ground at Topgol Park (where democracy was declared in 1919 despite Japanese rule) for one of her girlfriends who loves anything Korean.

Six days in Korea did much to erase those desolate images I've carried with me of the war.  In many ways Seoul reminded me of Los Angeles with its car culture and miles of freeways (I noticed that nearly every vehicle now has a GPS device and learning directions is as passé as multiplication tables).  If this is a first world country now, then Bangkok with its rough edges and poor underbelly is still struggling to develop outside of the tourist oasis of Siam.  Koreans seemed taller, louder, smiled less, and actually bumped into you on the sidewalk.  I saw little of the spitters I was warned about.  They appeared more serious than the sanuk Thais. There are no spirit houses as in Southeast Asia and little evidence of Buddhism away from the temples. Nan was thrilled by the cold and snow but I found it less convenient and felt like the Michelin man bundled in my layers of clothing and down jacket.  I loved the warm floor in our room at the GS ("good stay") Hotel and the warm toilet seat: luxury!  We only took one subway ride and our T-Money cards (a great idea, even taxis took them) went to waste, but noticed that the transportation system is vast, far superior in its reach of the city to Bangkok's BTS and MRT.  The MTA could learn a thing or two from Seoul. Some of the tourist sites had discounts for foreigners which is the opposite of the Thai strategy.  Overall, it was a terrific holiday, an appetizer for a longer visit.  It's main purpose, however, was to introduce Nan to snow.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Measuring Life With Coffee Spoons

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I used to hang out at Starbucks just inside the entrance to Central Pinklao, the upscale shopping mall up the street in my Bangkok neighborhood, but now I frequent Coffee World on the 2nd floor because of the comfortable reading chairs and free wifi.  I think the cappuccino is better, although I don't consider myself a connoisseur of the bean.  If truth be told, it's the foam that I like best.  Since using my finger is impolite, the spoon is for the foam.  I don't take sugar.

So I'm a creature of habit.  Routine hems me in, and predictability gives me purchase on the vagaries of existence.  Life might be boring had I not chosen to uproot myself from America and move halfway round the globe to Thailand where I count myself among the tribe of expats.  Every day brings surprise and mystery.  This is not my home and can never be.  I remain at the whim of the smiling bureaucrats in Immigration.   Just today I learned that a friend has been given three days to leave the country.  I don't know the details but it raises my hackles.

Each morning I rise before dawn and drink a glass of orange juice, one of the many small luxuries I allow myself.  Moving to California at 13, I used to pick oranges from trees on the way to school.  Now it comes in a carton and tastes almost as good.  I stand next to the washing machine on my tiny balcony and watch the sun come up over the spire of the Rama VIII Bridge: Dramatic cloud formations and a color palate of pinks, reds, and yellows, more often than not the subject of a photo (sometimes posted on Facebook).

Lately my blog posts have troubled a few friends.  "You are beginning to sound like an unhappy man," one told me, "longing for what no longer is and surely never will be again."  I try to reassure him, and myself, that such is not the case.  I've never been happier.  No one wants to be a sad sack.  We put our best face forward, even when the money is almost gone and the diagnosis is terminal.  Good vibrations and positive thinking are the norm for social intercourse, particularly in the western world where death is out of sight and beggars are off the streets.  I am not sure that happiness is so monochromatic as all that.

On the one hand, I have the love of a good woman, a comfortable place to live, and a reasonably dependable income.  I can maneuver without the aid of prosthetic devices, manage to exercise my intellectual curiosity, and continue to enjoy select pleasures of the flesh.  Is this the basis for happiness? In Bangkok I am surrounded by people with less: Burmese mothers nursing babies on the pedestrian overpass, tireless cooks selling roasted fish and meat on a stick from sidewalk carts, street sweepers bundled up against the sun's rays, the indefatigable laundry lady downstairs who works 10-hour days every day but one.  My lazy habits compared to their work regimens seem like needless extravagance.

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light," another poet suggested.  While T.S. Eliot equated timidity with regularity, Dylan Thomas, probably in a drunken stupor, threw his glass at fate.  My life falls somewhere in between.  What is a blog post in the face of the unending catastrophe presented every day to those who will listen?  The runaway train of climate change, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, civil war in Syria and war threatened against Iran. The world is truly fucked.  Here in Thailand on the same day a man was eaten by a tiger and a woman was stomped to death by a wild elephant enraged by fireworks.

Why would anyone give up home (country) and family to live in a strange land among people whose customs often puzzle and mystify?  Humans are hard-wired to live in groups.  Despite the social Darwinists, cooperation is more beneficial for evolution than competition.  We demonize those who do not belong to our group and will die for those who do.  People with lovers and friends live longer than loners and outcasts.  Some are forced from their homes and become refugees, displaced persons.  Others, like me, expatriate.  T.S. Eliot preferred England to his native St. Louis.  Gertrude Stein from Oakland (where there is "no there there") settled in Paris along with a generation of expats.  Over 5 million Americans reportedly live outside the country of their birth.

There are infinite reasons for expatriation, ranging from economy to pleasure, not to mention the dark secrets that cause some to flee persecution or retribution.  In many cases the move doesn't work.  Foreign bloggers and retirees in Thailand grumble loudly on the internet about what they see as the natives' unsavory characteristics, their unholy religion, and the obsequious obedience paid to hierarchy.  I find their complaints tedious and wonder why keeps them here beyond the tourist-littered beaches, cheap medical services and easily obtainable sexual favors.  Thailand is not utopia.  Political troubles, flooding and recent reports of the numerous unexplainable deaths of visitors have put a dent in the tourism industry in Thailand.  But for expatriates these stories are unimportant.

I stay because after five years I have made a life here.  There is a gentleness to the living that soothes me.  I am familiar with a good chunk of the city and can get around easily.  I am aware of events and issues, and have the resources to research both the past and present of Thailand and the Southeast Asian context.  My circle of friends is smaller than back in California, but the internet has made it possible to stay in contact with those I care about, near and far.  Virtual conversations are no less satisfying than face-to-face interactions.  While I spend considerable time with my digital devices, nothing prevents me from going out the door, to the pool for a swim or across the city for a lunch date.  And it all takes place within an exciting and cosmopolitan city that offers views, smells and sounds that tantalize and please the senses.

That said, life may change at any minute.  At the moment I am facing the prospect of an upheaval to my late-in-life teaching career.  The administrators at my university are sending the message that part-time teachers are dispensable.  I have not been paid for my work in months.  An additional job I expected did not materialize.  This particular habit of weekly class preparation and teaching may end.  It was a gift anyway, the opportunity to teach, something that came as a surprise after my move here.  While I enjoy the identity of ajahn, I am more than the sum of my identities.  Retiring from teaching will give me new opportunities for living life in a strange land. Life is a dance between habit and change.  I might even give up coffee.