Miscellaneous ramblings, no. 4: New York state of mind – A week ago today, Hyunjin and I returned from a trip of slightly over three weeks. The first few days of our trip were spent in Tokyo, and then we flew to New York to spend about three weeks with my family. Today’s entry is not going to be a detailed account of the trip—that will probably happen when I get around to sifting through the five hundred photos I took and putting together a gallery. Instead, I’m simply planning on babbling about whatever impressions and memories come to mind as a way of diving back into journal writing. Regular readers will note that this is the first “miscellaneous ramblings” entry in quite a long time (well over a year, in fact), but I think it’s an appropriate label.
Our trip started in Tokyo, so that’s as good a place as any to start this entry. We spent exactly three days there, arriving at around noon on Friday and leaving at around noon on Monday. Despite the fact that Tokyo is about a two-hour and change plane ride from Seoul, it was Hyunjin’s first trip to Japan. She was actually the reason we went—for some reason, she’s been on a Japanese kick lately, studying the language pretty vigorously, and she wanted to try out her skills on the natives (for the record, she did quite well).
This was my second visit to Japan. My first trip was nearly eleven years ago, shortly after I first arrived in Korea (this trip merits a few paragraphs in my background story, which is the story of how I wound up in Korea and what I ended up doing here). Back then I showed up unannounced on a friend’s doorstep and spent most of my time drinking sake and waiting out a typhoon. This time I gave my friend plenty of advanced warning. Back then I was alone, a decade younger, and pretty much clueless. This time I was with my wife, older, and a little wiser.
The first feeling that hit me upon arriving in Tokyo was how strange it wasn’t. That might sound odd, but let me explain. When I first visited Tokyo, it was after spending two weeks in Seoul, and at the time everything was new and strange—everything was an experience. This time, though, even though it had been over ten years since my last visit, everything seemed so familiar. I commented on this to Hyunjin and she said, “Yeah, seeing Tokyo makes me realize just how much Korea is influenced by Japan.” So while I haven’t been living in Japan for the past ten years or so, I have been living in a country that is very sensitive to Japanese trends and fashions in all areas of life. Walking around Tokyo didn’t feel that much different from walking around Seoul. It is different, of course, and as we spent more time there the differences became more apparent, but my overwhelming first impression was how familiar everything seemed.
I’ll save the detailed description for the photo gallery (or galleries—I might split up Tokyo and New York, since I have a disproportionately large number of photos for Tokyo, seeing as that was more of a tourist trip), but I will say that we had a very good time. We stayed in a ryokan (yeogwan in Korean, although the two concepts are a bit different) in Ikebukuro that is apparently frequented by foreigners. Next time we might try something a little less backpackerish, but it was a nice place. And with accommodations being so expensive in Japan, it’s really hard to find a nice place for a nice price.
As usual, the food was a high point for us (probably a good portion of the photos I took are of food). As most foreigners who’ve spent any length of time in Korea will know, the red pepper that features so prominently in Korean food was introduced by the Japanese—yet this same ingredient is notably absent in most Japanese cuisine. Suspicious, no? I’ve occasionally remarked to my Korean friends that the real reason the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula in the 16th century was that they just needed someone to foist all their surplus red peppers upon. Anyway, Japanese cuisine is markedly different from Korean, and it was a nice change of pace.
After three days in Tokyo we got on a plane and found ourselves in New York roughly half a day later. Unfortunately, when we arrived it was the same time that it had been when we left, so our bodies were thrown for a loop. Monday was pretty much a wash, although I did find the energy to shoot some hoops with Matthew, my youngest brother. In turn, Matthew found the energy to sprain his ankle pretty badly and effectively cripple himself for most of my visit. In fact, I ended up being the only one of three brothers who got through the trip unscathed. Who says the young are more durable? Ha!
The latter half of the week was spent island camping in Lake George, something that had always been a family tradition. I remember we even took a playpen with us after Matthew was born so we could stick him in it and not worry about him toddling off the island and drowning. But this trip marked the first time in about a dozen years that the whole family went camping together.
It took a bit of cajoling on my part, but we brought the canoe up with us. A dozen or so years ago, Brian and I had paddled out to the islands from Bolton Landing. This year we were launching from Silver Bay, which is a few miles further away. I was confident that we could handle it and Brian was game, so we set out from the marina with broad strokes of our paddles.
There is another crucial difference between Bolton Landing and Silver Bay, though, besides the distance: Bolton Landing is south of the island group, while Silver Bay is north of the island group. Why does this matter? Well, the prevailing winds on Lake George blow from the south—so we were paddling against a headwind the entire time. When we were a little over halfway to the islands, in a great stretch of open water and near despair, my father and Matthew finally found us in the motor boat and brought us back in. Before we rounded the final bend to our island, though, my father let us back out and we paddled in on our own, maintaining what little was left of our dignity. (And I know some of you are thinking it—our difficulties had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we’re both a lot older now. Nothing!)
We spent our few days on the island doing the various things one does while camping on an island—swimming, canoeing, waterskiing, building campfires and making S’mores, desperately trying not to produce solid waste, etc. We only went waterskiing once, but that proved to be enough after Brian had a spectacular fall and bruised a rib (as fortune would have it, Matthew was filming at the time, so I have on my hard drive a short clip of his spill—it will most definitely be part of the photo gallery). After my own particularly long run, I got a little tired and caught the tip of a ski in the wake as I was trying to jump across it. I ended up doing a face plant into the water and was dazed for a while, but no lasting damage was done. I think.
We used to spend closer to a week on the islands, but this time we were only able to reserve a spot for three days. Three days turned out to be a pretty good amount of time, though, and since two out of three brothers were already injured, it was probably best that we didn’t press our luck anyway.
The remaining two weeks were spent back at home alternating between doing things locally and heading down into the city. Most of my time in the city was spent at the New York Public Library doing research for my doctoral dissertation. I also spent a day at the Strand bookstore and another day visiting my brother and his girlfriend in Hipsterville, Brooklyn, where we hung out at Mug’s Ale House (good food, even better beer). One of the days that Hyunjin and I spent in the city we stayed at the Milford Plaza rather than going home, and this allowed us to go see a musical (The Producers, which was absolutely hysterical). We also went to the MOMA one Friday evening—admission is free on Fridays after four, which is quite an improvement over the usual $20 fee. They were having a Dada exhibition when we went, so we got to see lots of interesting stuff.
I bought quite a few books while in the States—most of them at the Strand—totaling about $250. About half of these are academic/research-related. Some are academic but really weren’t bought for research purposes, like Darwin’s Origin of the Species. I bought that one because it is such a pivotal book and yet I’ve never read it. There are a few fiction books in there as well: Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which I must admit I picked up partly because the title includes the Ashanti trickster figure, Anansi, but also because I’ve heard good things about Gaiman’s work and wanted to check it out; David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, mainly because That David Guy is a fan of DFW and I wanted to see what the fuss was about; and a collection of Raymond Carver stories, mostly because it just caught my eye. All three of these books are by authors I’ve never read before; it occurred to me just how limited my contemporary reading has been, and I suppose this was an attempt to broaden my horizons.
But I haven’t touched the fiction yet, nor have I delved into my research books. What I’ve been reading so far has been the non-academic, non-fiction books. I flew through Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink. I found that once I started reading them it was very difficult to stop. I also found a book in the Strand basement titled The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. I read that one on the plane and absolutely loved it. It might not be for everyone, but if you love the English language like I do, you will find it fascinating. It is, as it says, the story of the OED, but what that really means is that it is the story of the people who compiled the OED. I whipped through it in no time at all, and I have no doubt that I will be picking it up again in the future.
I don’t know why I decided to start with the non-academic non-fiction, but it has had a very interesting effect on me. Those of you who have read Liminality for any length of time will know that I fancy myself a writer on my better days, but until now I’ve drawn a distinction between my fiction writing and my non-fiction writing. Not to say that there isn’t a natural distinction—of course, there is. What I mean is that I’ve only considered my fiction to be “real” writing. I’m not exactly sure what that makes my non-fiction stuff, but it’s not really writing. It’s my journal, maybe—these entries that appear on the front page of Liminality. But they don’t really count. Or do they? It might sound silly, but it came as something of a shock to me that there are actually people who write non-academic non-fiction—and that these people actually have an audience.
I suppose this is what happens when you spend all your time with your nose in academic books, only coming up for air with fiction. But that trend has changed for me recently, and I realize now as I am writing this that the change began with what I discussed in my last entry—Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Although I didn’t mention it in that entry, it was the first non-academic non-fiction book I had read in a really long time. Perhaps that’s why I picked up Gladwell’s books and The Meaning of Everything first. Whatever the case, it’s opened up my eyes to a whole new field of writing.
I realize how ridiculous that sounds. I mean, it’s not as if I was unaware that there is an entire genre of books that are neither academic nor fiction (I should clarify at this point that by “academic” I mean “books that I have to read for research purposes”—which I guess makes it a rather malleable definition, considering my cross-disciplinary bent). I just never seriously considered it before, either as a reader or as a writer. But it’s gotten me thinking... you know, I think I could do this. Not that I’m giving up on fiction—don’t worry I still plan to bore you with my bimonthly Workshop pieces, not to mention the November hell known as NaNoWriMo—but I definitely think I’ve got an essayist in me. Actually, I’ve always known that I like writing essays, it just never seemed “respectable” enough. Now I have a different view on the subject.
I also bought some music when I was in New York, but unlike my book-buying binge I only spent $30 on two CDs. I had thought about buying more, maybe picking up some “newer” (by this I mean anything after 1995, when I left the States) stuff, but in the end I went with two of my favorite groups—Erasure’s latest album, Nightbird, and a 2002 New Order compilation called International. I already know most of the songs on the New Order compilation—the first eleven of the fourteen songs are pre-1995, and eight of those appear on the compilation Substance, which I have on cassette. But that cassette is pretty old and wearing thin, so I figured I’d buy the CD and update my collection. Truth be told, though, it was an impulse purchase. We were in Best Buy and a song came on that I recognized. “Hey, that’s Regret from Republic.” Then they announced that it was from the International compilation, so I decided to pick it up. I don’t usually make impulse purchases, but I love New Order. Pretty effective advertising, if you ask me.
I also love Erasure (and if you know anything about these two groups, you’ll know what sort of music I’m into), and I had planned on picking up Nightbird from the start. New Erasure albums don’t come along every day, so I was pretty excited about this one. Brian, a fellow Erasure fan, says that he needs to be in the right mood to listen to the album, but the more I listen to it the more I fall in love with it. Over half of the songs are what I would consider infectious, and a few of them are instant classics (definitely “Here I Go Impossible Again,” “Breathe,” and “Don’t Say You Love Me”). Unlike the New Order compilation, which (mostly) reminds me of a time long ago, Nightbird will be irrevocably tied to this time in my life. Every Erasure album is like that for me—just looking over their discography is like looking through a photo album, as I smile and remember what I was going through at that time. Nightbird will be a turning point album for me, because that’s what life feels like to me at the moment. I know that some distance will be necessary and it is far easier to judge the present when it has become the past, but for some reason I feel as if I am at a point of transition. I suppose every moment qualifies as transitional, but this particular period seems more... special. I couldn’t tell you why, it’s just a feeling.
I’m definitely getting into rambling territory here, which isn’t inherently bad, but it is a sign that it’s time to wrap the entry up. I’d like to close with some thoughts on an observation I made while in New York. Shortly after arriving I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that everyone was being exceptionally polite. People said “please” and “thank you,” and they said it like they meant it. If someone bumped into me they would apologize profusely, to the point that I would feel incredibly awkward. You know, like “Uh, you merely bumped into me, you didn’t kill my dog.” It’s very different from Korea, where people will run you over and not even look back to see if you’re going to be able to pick yourself up off the sidewalk.
I’ve heard numerous explanations for this apparent lack of public courtesy, the most common being that Seoul is a very crowded and busy city and people have gotten used to bumping into other people all the time. This may be true, but it doesn’t really explain the entire phenomenon. It doesn’t explain why people say “please” and “thank you” far more often in New York than in Seoul. Both places are big cities with lots of people. So what’s the difference?
This was something I discussed with my mother as we were driving somewhere, and I came up with a tentative explanation. Before I go into that, though, I want to say that I don’t think one cultural reaction is necessarily better than the other. They’re just different. I’ve gotten so used to Korean culture that I never really got comfortable with people being so polite in New York.
Anyway, my explanation is based on the relative perceived cultural homogeneity of the two places. In the final analysis, public courtesy is a way of building social solidarity. In a place like New York with vastly different inhabitants from vastly different backgrounds and cultures, building social solidarity is very important. In Korea, though, where there is more inherent solidarity on the societal level, public courtesy is less important. That’s not to say that courtesy is not important in Korea. It is, but generally only between people who belong to the same subgroups in society. To a Western observer, being very polite to someone in your “in group” and then turning around in the very next moment and abandoning all pretenses of courtesy toward those not in your “in group” might seem odd at best and hypocritical at worst. But this makes sense to most Koreans because of the inherently strong bonds of solidarity that most people in Korean society share. With no need to strengthen these bonds, Koreans have developed different ideas about public courtesy.
This is, of course, just a theory, and an imperfect one at that. There are other points in the argument I could address, but that would make today’s entry a lot longer than it is now. It would probably be better to save this subject for an entry of its own—and for a day when I’ve had enough time to think about it and convey my thoughts more elegantly. For now I’ll make good on my promise of closing this entry. And I promise a more organized and focused entry next time.