Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Take Me to Kyoto

Here was our itinerary flying back from Singapore to New York City.

Three hour flight to Seoul, five hour layover; two hour flight to Tokyo, six hour layover; fifteen hour flight to Newark. Sigh...Such was the limitation of frequent flier miles and basically, our return trip would last over 30 hours. Did I mention I am an incomparable planner?

My mother took one glance at our itinerary and told me I was crazy. She adamantly refused to spend two whole days in transit/airports and demanded that we "break" the traveling by spending the weekend in Japan. Not Tokyo, she was very specific about this, but Kyoto.

An ambassador's daughter, my mother had spent ample time studying at Sophia University in her youth. In fact, my earliest stories from Japan were her depictions of fat, drunken Japanese men haunting the Tokyo metro late at night, grabbing young girls in their supposed stupor, and flashing them. It was quite traumatic for my aunts. When they got to my mother, she unleashed her secret weapon: the sharpened end of a safety pin. Regardless of where she pierced, they never bothered her again.

So the technological fascinations of Tokyo held very little appeal for her (although it did for me). The decision was made: to extend our "stop-over" to the historical and cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto.

First step was buying tourist bullet train passes from abroad, as they were extravagantly expensive in the country. Nevertheless, they nearly broke my budget at $400 per person for 3 days ($800 total and the tourism bureau assured me it was a bargain).

Then storage of our over-sized, month-long suitcases at Narita Airport. Remember, these were still bulging with multi-weather attire and boxes of Ritz Crackers, Fig Newtons, and Oreo cookies that we transported from the States, "just in case" my mother's stomach could not tolerate foreign food. Well, my mother tolerated the spice of kimchi, latong kalasa of Singapore, and dumplings from Malaysia just fine. We wound up dragging everything back, and I was down over $100 for 3 days storage!

Of course, we had to locate a suitable hotel, since my mother would not brave youth hostels. We found a bargain on, $400 for three nights, but it was limited to smoking rooms only.

So our spontaneous, adventurous foray into the legendary lands of geisha and samurai had not yet begun, and I was worrying about my wallet. We were on the last leg of our journey to the Far East, not many places accepted credit cards, and no, dummy that I was, I did not use an ATM card. I didn't even have a passcode.

Did I mention I was running out of cash?

(To be continued...)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What's Left for Me in Vietnam?

People inevitably ask me if I have been to Vietnam, assuming that a) I actually have the intention to visit the country of my ethnic roots and b) it is only a matter of time before I get there, being an avid traveler of the world.

Words of wisdom: never assume. I was born in America, during a tumultuous snowstorm in the very heart of the Big Apple. The city that never sleeps, with its brusque honesty, flurries of diversion and distraction, art and money, dizzily fast-changing attitudes, is more my homeland than Vietnam will ever be.

I confess that I have never felt completely comfortable in the States, that there is some flavor or spice in me that is different. Perhaps all immigrants feel this way. I do gravitate towards Asians, even though I was raised in a Caucasian neighborhood. There is an altar dedicated to my ancestors, embellished with photographs of my grandparents and reeking of incense. Yes, I have the dull ache, the yearning to belong to a people who look like me and to immerse in a language that is uniquely our own, the sounds my tongue was shaped to pronounce.

But Vietnam is not the way. Simply put, I reject Vietnam because Vietnam has already rejected me. After 1975, the citizenship of all those who emigrated abroad was effectively nullified. Property was confiscated by cadres of the Communist Party. Tombs were overthrown and remains scattered to the four winds. Those who dissented were imprisoned and re-educated. According to Doan Van Toai's memoir, the Vietnamese Gulag, political prisons that housed 300 under the South Vietnamese Thieu administration held over 3,000 after 1975.

Over time, emigrants were valued because they provided a consistent source of income, as the local, state, and national levels of the Vietnamese government took generous cuts of money before it went to feeding the impoverished families left behind.

Circa 2010, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has officially re-categorized us. There are native Vietnamese, there are foreigners, and then there is us: Viet Kieu (Vietnamese From Abroad). We are the new minority: successful, worldly, educated, and "different." It is as if we are no longer ethnically Vietnamese, and the government has somehow bastardized us, particularly those who were born on that soil and now no longer have any claim to be there.

Despite our understanding of the language and tradition, we Viet Kieu are grouped with foreigners and expected to pay over-priced rates (triple the accepted amount), even though we are aware of being ripped off. The Vietnamese natives appeal to our sense of commonality only to ingratiate themselves to our wallets, or even better, to find a ticket out of there. Marriage is typically the path of survival for many young girls blessed with beauty, sexual prowess, and a whole lot of ambition. And no, they don't mind if the man is already married.

This brings me to culture. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of South Vietnam is not the same nation, despite the immutable physical land many of the estranged Viet Kieu still call home. Politics define freedom (or lack of it), freedom provides a framework to make choices, and choices are the living fiber of our lives. The culture of a democratic state versus a communist state don't even fit on the same page. (Think West v. East Germany. Or the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia v. USSR.)

So I wonder if the culture of my mother's country (which no longer exists) is embodied in the earth of Indochina, or if it is embodied within my mother herself, her values, her teachings, and her spirit. Our culture dwells within us, within the stories that continue to be told.

Many raise the development of Vietnam to quell my views on the regime. It is a booming economy, they say, and it is getting better. I would agree that constant construction of hotels, and an influx of industry are definite pluses for the country. Money is definitely pouring in. Yet, it is getting better for whom?

Developing countries disseminate resources into education, building roads and infrastructure, and improving agriculture. In Vietnam, the transportation system is comparable to what was prior to the war, agriculture still relies primarily on human labor and beasts of burden like oxen or buffalo, and public schools are in shambles. Compare Saigon (oops, I mean Ho Chi Minh City) to Beijing, where the 3 ring highway system became an 8 ring highway system in 10 years, or the multitudes of foreign students who travel to Chinese universities. Who travels abroad to Vietnamese universities to study? So who is benefitting from the newly acquired wealth of Vietnam? Certainly not the people.

It pains me when travelers intimate the beauty of Vietnam, the diamond sand beaches of the south, the melancholy shrines of Hue, and tiny romantic islands of the north. I long to breathe in the air of the earth that once, long ago, was my motherland.

But I won't. Non-Vietnamese friends don't understand the sensation of being cast off by a nation, a government that severed the bonds of commonality, and now only wants you back because of the benefits you can offer: resources. Vietnam is now inviting all Viet Kieu back because the intelligentsia fled long ago.

I won't go.

You see, Vietnamese Communists are like sweet-talking men, promising something they never intend to deliver.

I would rather stay home.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Danger in Kuala Lumpur

I remember Kuala Lumpur as a dangerous city, non-discriminating to native or tourist alike. The Department of Tourism reported casualties that resulted from purse snatching: the victim would be walking with a handbag or backpack slung loosely over the shoulder, and a thief on a motorcycle would grab it coming from the opposite direction. Not only were valuables lost, but the victim crashed backward into the cement, suffering from cranial damage and sometimes even death. Blood was spilled for petty gain there.

I trembled every time I stepped outside of my hotel, an upscale architectural wonder with a fantastic view of the Petrona Towers, courtesy of Marriott points from my corporate days.

Yet Kuala Lumpur was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited, harboring an amalgam of the colorful heritages of Malay, China, and India. Sandstone and creme-colored mosques heralded the Malay's Muslim roots. Varied tribes and the richness of their costumes were showcased in festive dances that enthralled the eye. Chinese cuisines sizzled with the poignancy of taste available only in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Indian woven fabrics and handicrafts populated the open markets, and some women graced the streets in saris.

Although Singapore boasts a melting pot of the same cultures, Malaysia offered a startling sense of authenticity. KL was unabashed and uncensored compared to its very hygenic and commercialized neighbor. Here the curry was spicier, soy sauce was tangier, and racial tensions were more pronounced. The Chinese-Malaysians were clearly the nation's economic backbone, driving business and commerce. Indian-Malaysians constituted the mercantile class, small shopkeepers. For the most part, indigenous Malaysians have been relegated to more labor-intensive work.

Resentment of the races was so thick you can cut through with a knife.

And it was the most attractive culture I have ever experienced.

What is it about danger that we find so irresistible? I was drawn to streets here more than anywhere else, like a moth drawn to a flame. Here I had a greater chance of being knifed by a stranger than anywhere I've been. Yet, I was intrigued.

Perhaps it is only at the risk of destruction that we discover courage. Perhaps it is the challenge of finding what we are made of, testing the "mettle" of our souls. Perhaps that realization is worth perishing for.

Perhaps it is just plain stupidity.

Perhaps it doesn't matter.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dreaming of Angkor Wat

Every traveler has a dream destination. It could be the lighted splendor of Paris or the surf and sun of Aruba or the snows of the ever walkable Mount Kilimanjaro. It could be the foliage of New Hampshire's autumn or the scenic coast of California. For me, it was Cambodia.

Ever since I had seen Wong Kar Wai's film In the Mood for Love, I have been dreaming of Angkor Wat. It is a story of yearning, words never spoken and love never expressed, except whispered into a crevice of a stone pillar, and covered with a patch of grass. It was immortalized there, a speck upon the wall, a wall within the temple, a temple within the ancient city, a city within the ruined nation, a nation spinning its bloody history within the world. I believed I would find meaning there.

I never made it to Angkor Wat. Three times I came close, but fate intervened and relegated me somewhere else. Twice in Thailand and once in Singapore, all a stone's throw away from this fascinating country, and I kept missing it. In Bangkok, I somehow always deferred to my traveling companion. Once it was my mother who did not want to witness the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's massacre. The other time it was my ex, who managed to run out of money for that leg of the trip. In Singapore, it was my health that failed me. Siem Reap was not the place you'd want to be right after major surgery.

In America, we are raised on the bread of manifest destiny. If you want it badly enough and work hard enough, it is sure to happen. Remember the law of attraction? You can bring everything you desire to fruition as long as you keep thinking it. Perhaps if I had pressured my companions or forced myself to go to Angkor Wat despite medical concerns, I would have lived my dream.

The older I get, the less I am convinced that we prevail in this age-old struggle versus nature. Mountain climbers tell me that they choose to climb in the best possible season, fairest weather, and still they would abandon the quest if it got too snowy or too cold. Experience taught them to indulge nature to get out alive. That's also true of life. While effort does help, we don't get our way because of our inveterate awesomeness. We get our way when nature's in a good mood.

I knew better than to keep pushing Angkor Wat. After Singapore, I found myself in Kuala Lumpur instead...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Asian Girl on Asian Girls

Aboard the Singapore MRT, sleek pulse of the city transporting everyone to everywhere they need to be. I was on my way from Eunos station to Tanjong Pagar station to meet a new friend for lunch. As I stood in the midst of that crowded car, I caught sight of my reflection in the immaculate windows.

There I was, full-figured by Asian standards, complete with cleavage. In my native America, I go unnoticed among waves of voluptuous Caucasian and African-American women. In Singapore, I stuck out like a sore thumb, plump girl with a full buxom who was conveniently wearing a strapless top. Boy, did I get stares. Even in 97 degree weather, I pulled my jacket over my shoulders and zipped it all the way up.

I began contemplating the varieties of Asian beauty. Singaporeans are typically Asian in origin, mostly ethnic Chinese. Women here are attractive, well-manicured, and highly maintained in expensive cosmetics and strappy designer sandals with rhinestones. Yet their exterior seems to be a production, a process of overlaying the material enhancements until perfection is reached. Their skirts are hiked high at mid-thigh; think lingerie length. In my part of the world, they'd be asking for trouble.

Korean women are willowy, leggy creatures, with the natural advantage of height and stature. Not partial to make-up; their features are soft and simple. However, their plastic surgery industry is renowned within the Pacific. Most female Korean celebrities tend to look alike because their double-lidded eyes and luscious full lips were borne of the same masterful surgical technique. Margaret Cho was not kidding. There were recent controversies because few babies resembled their mothers.

Japanese women have the loveliest complexions. Their features are delicately etched onto ivory skin, smooth as porcelain. Based on the history of geisha, who are living works of art, Japanese women have inherited that grace throughout the years. Even abroad, you can always tell a Japanese tourist by her elegance. But they do tend to be a bit short and stocky compared to their Korean neighbors.

Vietnamese women, too, are rather short; I grudgingly admit this. We are known for our extraordinarily long hair, waterfall of black silk. Despite being petite, we are very proportional. A Vietnamese girl might weigh only 99 lbs and stand 4'9" tall; still she can flaunt her curves in the alluring, fitted "ao dai." And we look deceptively taller (unlike our men). Of course, high heels help.

Chinese women? Even I will not attempt to generalize women from a nation of 1.2 billion in population. There are too many regions and ethnicities within that diverse melting pot of beauty. Same goes for Indian women. I will note, though, that Indian women are by far the most dazzling when it comes to attire. Regardless of economic or social class, Indian women are consistently garbed in wonders of jewel-toned fabrics, even if they are walking around cow dung.

So I stereotype, but quite honestly, we all do. The human brain is wired to make judgements. All political correctness has done was stop us from saying what we really think, not changing the way we think.

Of course, my Singaporean friend Helen broke the stereotype that I have so diligently crafted. We met flying back from Kuala Lumpur and she was a tall, bronze-skinned young woman without a hint of pretension. Between bites of sushi, we discussed career, travel, and of course boyfriend troubles. After sipping sake, I found myself confiding more details about my recently ended relationship than I cared to remember.

I realized that no matter where I went, I took my baggage with me and it weighed more than any physical suitcase. That's the thing about finding yourself. Unless you make peace with your past, it is bound to creep up on you in unexpected ways, in some strange land, sometimes in a bout of intoxication.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Great Singapore

My friends Samir and Shubhra had relocated to Singapore to pursue a better quality of life. Shubhra recently bore a daughter and cringed at the lifestyle of working mothers in the States. Reminiscent of India, the cost of labor in Singapore was reasonable and she could find domestic help. I bid them a tearful goodbye on their departure from New Jersey, haboring visions of their nearly royal existence in the exotic Southeast.

Fast forward four years later, and I was aboard Singapore Airlines for a visit. I had heard rave reviews about Singapore Airlines before and I am positive they all came from men. I was less impressed by their service than by the fire engine red lips all attendants puckered and their bosom-bearing cobalt outfits. Compared to stately Korean attendants in smart-looking suits from Asiana Air, I got a taste of Singapore before I even got off the plane.

Singapore gleamed at first glance. Floors, walls, and handles were polished until they shone. High-rises loomed from windows and interiors were vibrant colors like pumpkin orange or lime green. The airport was a luxury house in itself with shopping galore, shimmering marble surfaces, posh massage parlors and chairs, free wi-fi, and delectable foods from all over the world. I took the Metro to my friends' place, a modern silver train that made me ashamed of dingy NYC subway cars.

Amid kisses and jokes, my friends introduced me to Meera, their beautiful three year-old toddler and Alma, the Filipina "help." I was shocked when they opened the door to their flat. It was painstakingly bare. There was one table in the living area; only mattresses and sheets in the bedrooms. Refuge-style. The air-conditioning was turned off, despite a temperature of over 92 degreess Fahrenheit. Now Samir and Shubhra were both successful professionals in their fields, and I was under the impression both had been promoted in Singapore. Yet they seemed far more affluent in America. Then they shared with me the reason...taxes.

Samir confided, "Don't be misled by the low income taxes. I had no idea things would be this expensive." He proceeded to enumerate a litany of grievances. "In Singapore, you pay taxes on your home and on your car and on the radio inside your car. You pay a special tax for every television you own and every computer you use. You pay wages to a domestic servant, and then taxes for using her services, even though she is not affiliated with the state. You pay for a license to own a car, another license to drive it on weekends and evenings, and an additional license for unlimited use of your own car. Then you have the exquisite honor of paying a toll every single time you cross a stoplight, whether it is red or green. Multiple times if you are lost or looking for a parking spot..."

"No taxation without representation." So goes the famous American mantra. In Singapore, it is "no breathing without taxation." Every movement you make, everything you own or use, is fair game in the name of taxes.

I began thinking about expectations. My friends had envisioned an entirely different future when they moved here, one of prosperity and relaxation, far from the bitter cold of the American Northeast. Singapore was a veneer of glass and mirrors and glittering opulence, behind which they struggled. The city was everything in material success. The food was fantastic, designer brands were prevalent, and inviting real estate sprawled for miles. It just had no heart. And it was a dream they could scarcely afford.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back in Brooklyn

On another trip, en route to another flight. Sometimes I fly out of JFK instead of the customary EWR because of significantly cheaper fares. The shuttle would drive on the Cross-Bronx Expressway or the Long Island Expressway and I find myself gazing towards the Verrazano Bridge, shimmering seaboard of the Atlantic and feel suddenly nostalgic.

I am a New Yorker, by birth. As the city evolved from Koch days to Dinkins nights to Guiliani's revolution, I learned to identify myself by my birthplace the farther I ventured from the proximity of the Big Apple. I remember crossing 42nd St with my mother. "Close your eyes!" she admonished, fearful of some triple X vision that would steal my innocence. There was her unfailing closeness to my every step, watchful of potential kidnappers. Strangers tried to give me candy, and she intervened so I never knew if it was an innocuous lollipop or a pedophile in disguise.

Bay Ridge. There was the omnipresent shore a few miles away; we would either go to the beach every weekend or eat fresh seafood as a concession. There were steaming shish kebab carts on the corner and the old man who refused to take money from us. There was the Italian baker who let me choose the biggest, cheesiest Sicilian slices from the local pizzeria. My eyes would rest on old posters of a woman choking and a man helping her, both faceless and yellow, primitive precursors of CPR. I remember window-shopping for Barbie dolls at Century 21 Department stores. I remember opening a single gift on Christmas morning (Santa was all we needed) and never realizing we were poor.

I went to P.S. 314, while my friend Tony across the street went to Catholic school. I used to go there too, until I was harassed by a racist nun. Tony's older brother went to Harvard, and his mother, Cookie or Candy was her name, scolded him for acting "rich." She never forgave the girlfriend in the gleaming convertible and fought hard to prevent him from getting his own phone. Tony never understood it. We watched Michael Jackson videos and Thriller and tried our hand brake-dancing in the streets.

When I was in Brooklyn, my Latina friend AriSally had a house draped in burgundy velvet and all things red. I fought imaginary kungfu with a Chinese boy named Kenny and hung out with a black girl Monique, whose hair were wondrous spirals that just stuck out, no matter what she did. And I had a crush on a Taiwanese boy named, get this, Chiang Kai.

Then we moved to New Jersey. It was the first time I experienced culture shock. Everyone around me was white and Italian, with flowery surnames that ended in vowels. Suddenly, it mattered that I wore boy's socks and I did not have a playroom brimming with recent Cabbage Patch kids. I did not play softball and I was ridiculed because my sentences ended with "thank you" or "please." They smirked when I told them my family only had one car. And I became painfully aware of what I did not have.

Worst of all, I was Asian. Globalization had not hit suburban New Jersey in the late 1980s. There was no Chinese food or appreciation of anything Asian. We were still considered "Orientals" at the time, and anything remotely Pacific in orgin was relegated to the Karate Kid. My nickname at school was Miyogi. They laughed that I knew more about Shaolin and Wudang than I did about "Roseanne."

I learned that kids are cruel, how words and stares can penetrate the bone and make you bleed deeper than any flesh wound. In New York, danger lurked in the streets. Sometimes, I would hear shouting and fighting from my bedside window. In the good neighborhoods of New Jersey, it is a more insidious danger, the kind of bullying that drives students to suicide these days. What's more, I am not sure that inveterate meanness goes away when people grow up.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Enter Jeju Island

This is Korea's answer to Hawaii: a vista of lush greenery, crystal waters, and indecisive volcanoes. Ironic how lava and ash from smoking mountains comprise most of the places we think of as paradise: Hawaii, Jeju, Capri. Out of destruction come our most coveted vacation spots. Perhaps we are more aware of our mortality when we come to these islands. Perhaps we sense that life is fleeting and this beauty within each of us becomes ever more exquisite.

People come to Jeju Island to honeymoon or to fall in love. I came here because I had walked out of my life. My mother followed the footsteps of her favorite Korean TV drama All In, filmed on location here. And apparently, we were accompanied by a plethora of little ones.

Let me explain. South Korea is the mecca of educational after-school programs; students are more ubiquitous than pens. We ran into large groups of students with matching parkas at practically every national site, monument, or museum in Seoul. It must have been field trip week. Some were inquisitive, some were bored, but their sheer numbers made sight-seeing painstakingly slow. Noisy. And they followed us to Jeju. Imagine trying to admire waterfalls and scenic panoramas with giggling kids running past you every two minutes. Or climbing Sunset Peak, a mountaintop with dazzling views of the island, and finding middle-schoolers throwing tissues at each other on the summit. They were impossible to avoid, even at lunch. Some found my mother endearing; they even gave her gifts and shared kimchi with her. Mostly, they just laughed at me. So much for my maternal instinct.

Luckily, I was in good company. I ran into two single Korean gals, teachers on holiday. One was a tomboy, rather petite, dressed in no-nonsense jeans and a t-shirt. The other was feminine and tall, with long ringlets flowing over her ruffled blouse and she sported high-heeled sandals. She carried a purse, and a magenta parasol to keep the sun from infringing upon her fair complexion.

They were exploring a new walking trail that promised to take hikers through all the delights of Jeju, and I joined them. Despite their command of the language, their mastery of trails left some to be desired. Not that I minded. The shores of Jeju were so beautiful. Sapphire seas breaking onto the black rock beaches in a perfect angle of light. We trudged through hills and cliffs overlooking the ocean, and kudos to my friend with the high heels. Along the way, we also traversed unknown roads and wound up stuck on the wrong side of criss-crossing highways.

We laughed through it, and they told me about the rigid Korean social structure, how society expects them to be already paired off, and how single women were regarded as pariahs. "Everyone wants to know why you are still single and then they are scrambling to set you up." I wasn't sure America was so different. They were a few years older than me, approaching forty and I discerned the lines of defiance in their faces. Both were attractive, but seemed somehow wistful. I wondered about their past relationships and the inevitable endings, since neither appeared to trust men. Maybe they were even divorced. Edith Wharton once said, "Our legislation favors divorce, but our social customs don't." Same thing applies to singlehood. Philosophically, we are encouraged to be independent, but socially, we are discouraged.

Single women of a certain age tend to be bold, audacious, and defiant. Maybe it's because we are free. Maybe we just don't care. Or maybe our defiance is a defense mechanism. Maybe underneath it all, we are afraid to be hurt again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Flavors of Haggling

If there is one thing I learned from all my travels, it's haggling. Like cuisines and smells, every country has its unique style. Some challenge you; some overwhelm you; some are downright scary. But you can always count on one thing: the victory of getting a bargain, whether it is real or illusory. How often do we strut through a charming marketplace with a swelled head, thinking we've made a fantastic deal and meanwhile doing noticeable damage to our wallets?

Truth is, we get ripped off. We always do. My grandfather used to say, "The seller never loses out. It is only a matter of how much profit he makes." Wise man. Yet it is a ritual, an enticing dance between tourist and native, a contest of wills to see who emerges on top. A game, a negotiation, and the prize is that sparkling, idiosyncratic trinket that seems ever so inviting with no practical use in everyday life.

You can taste culture through the way the indigenous parade their wares. The Thai are sweet-talkers. They smile coaxingly, cajole with finesse, and welcome you into their well-worn taxi-cabs with no meters. Next thing you know, you are drinking Coke or champagne in the lobby of an overpriced jewelry factory or a well-established brothel.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are exceedingly verbal, whether you understand them or not. "How much? I give you good price." They follow you around, flaunt their merchandise, and curse at you in Mandarin if you look and don't buy. Resourceful folks: they've got everything, including open boxes of Viagra pills that you grab by the fistful for twenty yuan.

Egyptians are touchy-feely. For some reason, only swarthy bearded men are vendors in marketplaces; women are non-existent in the working-class strata of the tourism industry. If you window-shop and leave, they grab you, entwining their arms around your waist and pull you into some sinister corner where they stock "the best stuff." Apparently, it doesn't hurt that I'm a Western woman and they are not allowed to see bare skin on their own Muslim women. Between the American concept of personal space, male/female dynamic in a sexist society, and knowing I was not protected under Islamic law, I felt genuinely threatened.

Indians are fighters. Very aggressive. They battle swarming crowds and flies to get to you, they bicker with you over price, and they beat the crap out of any potential competitor. Case in point: Coming back from the Taj Mahal, we were offered plastic souvenirs by an eight-year old boy asking for a dollar a piece. An Indian-American walked by, informing us it's only worth a quarter. In the blink of an eye, the boy rallied his cronies of four and they charged like bulls at the Indian-American. He even forgot his sale. Let me not recount the endless vendor brawls that occurred on the stairs of our tour bus.

Koreans? I don't remember haggling there. I didn't have a desire to take home any isolated memento to remind me of the country. Seoul is not a city of things. Seoul is an experiential city. It inspires us to experience the things that are evanescent. Carpe Diem. To seize the day. To live in the moment: to savor good food, companionship, and the energy of life buzzing around us.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Finding Samcheong Dong Part Deux

The next day I returned to the Changdeokgung palace 6 blocks away, a Unesco World Heritage site and undoubtedly more popular than the Gyeongbukgung. It's interesting how rather arbitrary opinions define the way we think...someone at Unesco liked one palace better than another, therefore it becomes more worthwhile. After all, what really separates the noteworthy and the forgettable, success and failure? Opinion.

The Changdeokgung was similar to its older and larger counterpart, except for an exquisite garden situated on a lake in the inner courtyards, aptly named the Secret Garden. Well, it wasn't so secret anymore. Practically everybody who was anybody who visited South Korea had to get a photo with the Secret Garden. It was a greater celebrity than Lee Byung Hun. Aggressive photographers bellowed at tourists blocking shots of willow branches, pavilions, and mirrorlike ponds.

Truth was, the Secret Garden wasn't photogenic. Digitally, the waters came out muddy, and the trees appeared awkward and crooked, gangly sprouting teenagers with leaves. I wondered how many enjoyed the living beauty of such terraced landscapes, since most did not lift their eyes from the camera's viewfinder. Reminded me of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, prosaic men who preferred to see the dark silhouettes of things rather than the things themselves. When faced with the possibility of something real, do we make the leap?

As I left, I saw two fellow backpackers like myself. (Okay, so I really wasn't a backpacker yet, but I pretended to be one in my mother's absence. It made me feel more adventurous.) One was a mild-mannered Korean girl and the other, a beautiful Caucasian girl with an almost tangible exuberance for life. They looked like college students. I introduced myself and invited them to coffee to escape the sweltering heat.

Where, you ask? Samcheong Dong, of course!

Over tea and Kahlua, they told me they were sisters, visiting from Belgium. My bewilderment must have surfaced in my face, because Sun Mee, the Korean girl, leaned forward. "I was adopted. I'm Belgian. People come up and speak to me in Korean, but I have no idea what they are saying."

"It terrifies her," the emerald-eyed Cheryl laughed. "She shakes her head and turns away. Really quickly."

"She's not afraid of anything," Sun Mee countered. "She does whatever gets into her head. Moving out, quitting jobs, moving in with her boyfriend, takes off whenever to see the world."

"She thinks too much and she's too responsible," Cheryl gently berated. "It took forever to get her to Korea."

"Why Korea?" I asked.

"I just wanted to see the country I left when I was 6 months old. And I want to meet my mother."

I found out later that she did meet her birth mother. That it was like two strangers meeting, and that it felt like coming home. How they visited temples, Yangsan, museums, ate black pork dinners together, and still felt out of place, the residual memory of how things could have been permeating their conversation. Yet they still talk, though both are shy.

I realized that no matter where you go, you still have roots. Whether it is near or far, whether it hurts or not, your flesh calls to you like a conscience. Blood is a magnet; it eventually brings you home. I remembered I had left my mother back at the hotel.

I lost touch with Sun Mee soon after. But I wrote this for her, a Rendez-vous*.

Perhaps she will embrace the birth mother.
Marvel at the eyelid's flat plain, its singular whiteness
undisturbed by a crease, so like her own.

The woman's hair would be cropped close to the scalp
or pulled into a bun, speckled grey from weathering Korean snow.
And the girl would spot stray hairs, black as a calligrapher's ink.

protruding from the woman's neat ensemble, the disarray
she must have felt, finding herself with child. Aneong hay say oh?
the girl might ask, hesitation inflecting the vowels incorrectly.

This is not the question she wants to ask. Speech suspended in the
throat like a muffled bird. The woman responds in English, language
native to neither, but a common tongue and good enough.

Meanwhile her sister, a Belgian, is waiting.
She's the landscape of an entire country onto herself, steely confidence,
wheat shade of hair, and green eyes open to all they can hold.

The girl is thinking of tomorrow when she departs, what to say, and
how to pour feeling into it. Outside the sky is thundering.
She's hoping the silence between strangers is
like a break in sound, resting
between great chords of music.

*First published in the River Poets Journal, 2009

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Finding Samcheong Dong

I love ruins. Old buildings, architecture, decrepit rocks that are shadows of their glorious past; they all make me feel connected to the long line of human history, that continuum on which we are mere specks, no matter how important we think we are.

So I am fascinated by the past. I don't know what that says about my optimism or ability to move on. All I know is that I tend to be more interested in dead stones and departed people than I am about the latest figment of pop culture. (Who the heck is Kim Kardashian?)

In Seoul, my idea of fun is hitting every archaic imperial palace and strolling around, imbibing the atmosphere of kings and queens who reigned centuries ago. I believe that karma exists not only in people, but in places. The walls and floors around us absorb the love, faith, power, struggle, and blood of generations past. That karma, the karma of places, can influence events of the future. I wandered about the Gyeongbokgung, the largest royal palace in Seoul, my eyes drinking in every detail. I imagined a lonely concubine in the courtyard; a stately mandarin in the official hall.

My mother nudged me forward, pointing at our empty water bottles and the grating sun of about 93 degrees Fahrenheit. She surveyed the lake, ceilings, and buildings; then sat in the shade waiting as I completed my circuitous tour. "I don't see what all the fuss is about," she confided, shrugging. "They all look the same. Upturned eaves, pavilions, elaborate red and green etchings; it looks like the Forbidden City, except the roof is grey." I glanced around, hoping no Koreans understood Vietnamese. So much for my grand imaginings of the past.

We left, both annoyed; she feeling exhausted and me feeling slighted because I was not ready to leave. Like any good mother and daughter pair, she rushed me, I snapped, and we fought. Somehow, we managed to miss a turn, a street, and the metro station. We ended up lost.

Now, in a wonderfully organized city like Seoul, it is impossible to really be lost, even for the directionally challenged like us. We poured over the map and located another metro station within a few blocks. I grated my teeth the entire way, since it made such a huge difference in the grand scheme of things and it was naturally all her fault.

A block from the metro station, there were crowds of people heading into a side street. The station was faintly visible in the distance, beyond the teeming heads rushing into that alley way like ants. I looked at my mother and she nodded. What do we do when we see everyone else jumping off a bridge? We follow.

At first it was just people, and I wondered if we joined a rat race, literally. Gradually, shops and cafes began to emerge from the dust of foot-traffic. Tasty barbeques and scallion pancakes grilling in the street. Green-tea and red bean ice cream shops. Intoxicating smells. Artsy jewelry like turquoise and moonstone. Snazzy boutiques that even I, clearly no fashionista, could appreciate. We walked the entire 1.6 miles of that neighborhood without tiring.

"What is this place?" I wondered aloud.

A friendly bystander replied: "Samcheong Dong."

Samcheong Dong!

Todd, a NYC friend who had visited Seoul with native Koreans, recommended Samcheong Dong as one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city, kind of like Brooklyn or Soho. I had searched for it, but it wasn't marked on any of the maps and I was forced to bypass it. And if we hadn't gotten lost, we would never have found it.

I thought about that as my mother and I sat down in a cafe. I thought about it as she sipped some pomegranate-flavored green tea aloe vera drink and I drank my brandy infused cappuccino. I thought about all the things I was searching for with no luck: love, inspiration, a sense of self and the knowledge that I was not just living, but going somewhere. The somewhere I landed was not where I wanted to be, and I woke up one morning lost to myself.

So maybe we need to be lost before finding our way. Maybe there is no roadmap to the best things in life. And like Samcheong Dong, maybe I'll find them not when I'm looking, but when I'm desperate to make a quick exit.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

South Korea, Asians, and Bathtubs

I had met Allison and Jeremy on a tour of Egypt and Jordan two years ago. When you share a Turkish bath, a hookah, and forays into the land of Jesus together, I guess you are eternally bonded. So when I discovered they were teaching English in Suwon, I promptly invited myself over.

They lived in a charming little apartment decorated with paper lanterns. I was surprised by how native they had become, since both were white as apple pie. Allison pranced to the sounds of K-pop, catchy songs with one or two words in English. "Oh baby, oh baby," she'd moan before breaking into a barrage of Korean syllables, synchronized to tunes of a synthesizer.

Jeremy took me to eat kimchi and galbi, yelling at the waiter with a ferocity I'd never seen. "Yokyo!" "Don't worry," he'd tell me, noting my embarassment. "They don't come unless you are loud. In Korea, they don't get tips so they make no pretense at being nice. They want to serve you and be done with it."

They taught me to wave down a taxi by fluttering my fingers like a butterfly. Apparently, waving to someone with upright fingers is offensive, equivalent to giving them the finger. Well, I'd already made that mistake at the airport. There I was, carting my mother's suitcases overflowing with just-in-case crackers and cookies, wondering why taxis honked and sped up when I tried to flag them down. We finally took the train.

Then they introduced me to the bathroom. There were clever heating pads on the toilet seat, by which I am deeply impressed. And there was the bathub. Or lack of it. The tile floor extended another three feet from the sink. Breaking the continuity was a drain, sitting like a pothole in the middle of traffic. A shower head dangled from above.

"Oh, didn't you know?" Allison asked me, "Asians don't take baths." Actually, I didn't. Or maybe I did. The only time I recall ever taking a bath was when we couldn't go to the beach and my mother filled the tub as a makeshift swimming pool. I was six. Otherwise, I took showers all my life. Hmm...

It's funny what grabs hold of our imagination. Suddenly, it became clear. We don't take baths in our bathtubs. My mother stocks unopened cosmetics there. My aunt has a lovely Jacuzzi chock full of dusty VHS tapes. My great-aunt's greenhouse resides in her tub, complete with a sunroof.

But it was true beyond my Vietnamese family. My best friend's parents, South Indians in San Diego, store a repository of clothes in their hot tub. I surveyed my Chinese and Filipino friends on their parents' use of bathtubs, layering in the geographic diversity of Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, and Texas.

The response was unanimous: STORAGE. Plants, clothes, toys kids had outgrown, unused but functional electronics, extra linen, knick-knacks, wedding paraphernalia, etc. Apparently, whatever our parents didn't know what to do with, they put in the bathtub. Kind of like the kitchen sink. It's an Asian parent thing.

Okay, I don't admit to knowing what that's all about. Maybe they are practical people who don't understand space without utility. Maybe it's about holding on to culture, this stubborn tradition of not taking baths. Maybe they don't want to waste water. Maybe it's about baggage. Maybe it's about not letting go of certain things.

I wonder if we will ever understand the enigma of our parents.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Me and My Scar Go to the Jingabong

The first stop on this journey was South Korea, galvanized by friends who were teaching English in Suwon (never underestimate the power of a friend to get you out of your comfort zone). Suwon is twenty miles from Seoul and an industrial center where companies like Samsung have their headquarters.

Straight away, I was awed by the grace of Korean women and the chauvinism of Korean men. In airports, ladies nimbly push carts of luggage while men walk behind them empty-handed. In trying to get an oversized suitcase off the baggage conveyor belt, I appealed to a strapping young Korean man beside me. He seemed bewildered, pointed at me, pointed to himself, shrugged and stalked off. So much for chivalry.

Another custom is the love of communal heated baths, affectionately referred to as the Jingabong. Everyone swims stark naked in these 100 degree pools, most often filled with spring water. Reminiscent of old Roman baths, this is a social activity with folks chatting, reading magazines, etc. and yes, they can be co-ed. Being a fan of spas, saunas, whirlpools, and anything that causes me to sweat on a cold day, you'd think I'd be first to hit the Jingabong, right?

Wrong. Remember that ordeal with my body? It culminated in a pretty conspicuous scar. Let's just say the contrast is startling and my belly has not seen the light of day since. So I decided to stay away. And I found out how smokers felt trying to quit. For four days, it was torturous. Then I did the classic American thing: I gave in.

Before I knew it, I donned a cotton robe and rushed down to the Jingabong. Gingerly, I stepped into the water and remembered the humiliation of my eight year old self when someone pointed out that my fly was unzipped. I waited for someone to point out the zipper in my flesh. I imagined those beautiful Korean women, preening themselves like swans, wrinkling their noses at my imperfection. I could almost hear the snickers.

Then I looked up and realized that no one was looking at me. They were carrying on conversations, checking out tabloids, falling asleep in recliners in that blissful state between sleep and relaxation. No one even bat an eyelash when I moved from one side of the pool to another.

I discovered that I was not nearly as important to everyone else as I thought I was. That's the strange thing about insecurity; we expect people to spend far more time thinking about us (and our faults) than they actually do.

My scar? It finally got some fresh air. And I got to sit in a heated thermal spa brimming with spring water. It was fabulous. Some people say that you can touch divinity through meditation. I think a Jingabong could get you there with a lot less work.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


To be honest, I am blogging in response to a challenge. When someone thinks you are too chicken to try something, you leap in headfirst, right?

Two years ago, life delivered me the big boot. I was booted out of corporate America, booted out of a fledgling relationship, and even my thirty-something year-old body decided to quit having babies before it even started. (Yes, I'm a woman.) So after moping and crying, I picked myself up and began looking in the nooks and crannies of life. For what, you might ask? For identity, for self, for lost memories, for all the things you loved and forgotten about, all the things you think about in those dark unholy hours that you only admit to yourself. Dreams are so cliche. Think of yearnings, of all those gems you gravitate towards without even realizing...

What did I find? Among other things, people are amusing. Life is amusing. So this is my "musings" on amusements...