Category Archives: Life

Beijing Creature

IMG_20140913_211312[1]It was Saturday evening and I was walking along the 工人体育场北路. It was a broad road with traffic leading to 三里屯, which is an expat area. I was heading there to meet a friend. On both sides of the road were tall, modern structures which contrasted with simple street peddlers and the occasional dirty beggar. This was already a common sight for me and did not register as anything extraordinary.

In front of a luxury mall, I saw a sight that did catch my attention. It was the first time I saw anything like it. There was an implike creature sitting in front of a small speaker which was its equivalent in size. It seemed to be female with swarthy skin, wearing ragged, overworn clothing. With the size of a three year old, it looked to be less than human, with an appearance resembling a rat with a few loose strands for hair. Its age was indistinguishable. It held a microphone but was not moving its lips while the speaker played an upbeat Chinese pop song with the background music and the vocals. It could have been mistaken to be a badly made doll, as it emanated no force of life. Only its petite feet were moving, going up and down to the beat of the song.

It seemed that I was not the only one surprised by its figure, as other walkers, who were mostly middleclass Chinese young adults that would not even glance at other forms of destitution, involuntarily took a look at the creature, which was sitting on a short stool a few metres in front of stores that sold luxury brands. Then they continued to walk forwards towards shiny lights.

Afterwards I saw the creature again being moved to another location in a small trolley by nameless Chinese men who were indistinguishable with the masses. I had five mojitos that night.

A Not So North American Paradox

IMG_5596

A couple of months ago, while I was still living in a dreamlike state in Taipei, I wanted to write a blog post about a curious phenomenon I experienced while living in multicultural North America. I wanted to call this blog post “the North American Paradox.” This blog post was going to be written about the North American tendency to lack cultural understanding and knowledge of world history despite North America being a center for immigration, as various peoples have come to pursue new lives by crossing one of two vast oceans. Of course, as my experiences were mostly centered in Toronto, Canada, it was going to be representative of only one North American city, and one with a large number of immigrants from various countries, so it could have been more of “the Toronto Paradox.”

This still doesn’t change the fact that this phenomena does exist in Toronto. Despite having an immigrant population that amounts to 50% of the total city population, and people from literally all around the globe, I have found Torontonians to be largely clueless about what happens outside Canada, if they followed news from outside Toronto at all. Aside from current world events, I have found only shallow forms of cultural exchange happening in this great global city called Toronto. When we (Torontonians) think about other cultures and people, I think the only thing we know about them is their cuisine, and this being the adapted North Americanized version. Even the friends we make are those that are culturally similar to us. I guess this last part cannot be helped so much, as language and cultural barriers can stifle the creation of tight bonds. But this barrier creates further divisions between groups of people of different cultures. The result is a city where possibilities for cultural exchange seem to be limitless but end up being quite few.

I found it ironic that Torontonians proudly refer to global Toronto as being a melting pot of the world. I do not dispute this, although I see it being a “melting pot” in another sense as well. My friend, whose ancestors moved from somewhere in Germany to Canada four or five or six generations ago, put it very nicely when he said, “after a few generations, you just end up being white.” Being apart from the ancestral home and its cultural density, Torontonians start losing the drastic spices and flavours of their home country and find in its place sanitary but insipid flavours. Different flavours come in but melting pot of Toronto tastes bland, much like its cheese. But of course, I should note that I cannot help but being biased, as I lived most of my life here. I guess foreigners coming to Toronto would find it exciting in some way.

I think the experience that contrasted the most with my Toronto experience was the time I spent as an exchange student in Milan. There I met many Europeans and found them to be incredibly knowledgeable and worldly. They seemed to know all about what was happening in the world – the world at that moment for me being Europe – and much about its past too. Languages were another matter that impressed me, as all Europeans seemed to speak at least three fluently. My German roommate might have given me a particularly one-sided perspective in this matter, as he was interested in history and claimed to have known at one point all the countries in the world and their capital cities as well as a lot of their basic history. He also spoke German, English and Spanish fluently. With this environment and these kinds of people around me, it is no wonder why I thought so favourably about Europeans and disappointed from the contrast at bumbling, monolingual North Americans. (Torontonians)

A year went by and the time came for another plane flight, this time to Asia. Here again I met many Europeans. However, in contrast to the sophisticated and noble Europeans I met while in Europe, this new batch of Europeans seemed to shine less. They were just as clueless as I was about what was happening in this side of the world and this time, I had an advantage on them in language proficiency. Of course, when they discussed the various perspectives of World War II during a party I found it novel and interesting, but Europe was a world away.

The conclusion I got from thinking about this “paradox” was that it is actually not a paradox at all. North Americans learn in school about the history of colonial powers in North America – with a brief sidenote mentioning the Native Americans – because this is what happened on the continent. Europeans learn about Europe, because tension have historically been present there and with two large scale wars destroying the continent and taking too many European lives, it is important to learn about the history of the Europe. With the European Union, and the proximity of different cultures, I guess learning languages has also been pragmatically emphasized in their education system. If my family never moved out of South Korea I would be learning about the history of the Korean peninsula. I asked a Taiwanese friend and he told me the Taiwanese learn about the history of China and Taiwan. I am in Beijing right now and I am guessing that the students here are not learning about the history of Ireland. As for Torontonians lacking deep cultural exchanges, I do not think that I should be pointing any fingers. When I was living in Taiwan, I always found myself hanging out with the exchange students more than my Taiwanese classmates. And when I did hang out with the occasional Taiwanese friend, we would use English most of the time. I think it takes serious conscious effort to reach out to people using an unfamiliar language and most people, including me, lack patience.

I still think that cultural understanding – and by extension, language – is a worthwhile goal and one that I would like to pursue. Learning about different cultures and peoples destroys ignorance and brings humility. It brings to light the truth that human essence is the same. There are times I see ignorance at an extreme level, particularly on online channels where one group of people are put down as being less than human due to misinterpretation of their actions. I believe that proper respect and understanding of one another are missing in these cases. I think that beneath the surface (I’m not sure if this layer is thick or thin) there is a part within that is relatable. Maybe I am being too idealistic. History is another discipline that is worth pursuing. Learning about the stories that have taken place on this planet earth before this moment in time gives us a proper perspective on life. The world does not revolve around us, despite how much we would like to give ourselves the role of the main character in our personal stories. The world just revolves and will keep on revolving way after our death. It will revolve and revolve and then it will stop revolving sometime in a distant and unseeable future. Then there will be imperceptible darkness. But as accidental and fortunate receivers of the blessing of life, it is important to play our role and play it with conscientiousness and humility and without an overinflation of our ego.

 

Picture above is somewhere in Taroko Gorge in Taiwan

 

Three Bowls of Rice and Korean Parents

IMG_20140802_152648[1]

“All we wish for,” my aunt who is the daughter of the oldest sister of my paternal grandmother said, “is for you guys (the children) to have your share of the three bowls of rice.”

This was mentioned as she drove us back from a lunch meeting of many old family members who were all related to me by my paternal grandmother. More than 10 people were there and I think the average age of the people present was at least 65 years of age, as my grandmother and her sisters, along with their sons and daughters (who were approaching retirement age) made up the most of the party. The oldest granny was 93 years of age, which meant that she was born during the time when Japan ruled Korea, went through her twenties when Korea was liberated but destitute, raised her children through the devastating Korean War in which her husband was taken by the North, lived most of her adult life under dictatorships and during the time of a miraculous turnaround of financial fortunes, and spent her days as an elder in the prosperous South Korea of today. She is basically a moving memory of modern Korean history.

Her generation experienced numerous adversities as Korea and Koreans faced fated historical hardships that were bombarded onto them one after the other. My parents’ generation suffered as well, as they were born into the postwar South Korea that had no wealth but was full of destruction. It was a poor Korea that grew rich as they grew into adulthood, a poor Korea that I can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Meanwhile, I grew up in Canada, where all necessities and superfluities of life were given to me and accepted as if it was my birthright. It is a rich country and all but few of its inhabitants live well. The poor in Canada have access to resources that even the rich in poor countries might not have. I think that all Canadians are a little spoiled. We are oceans away from the lands and the stories of people live in terrible circumstances, and we overreact with what are minor displeasures in comparison with the people beyond the ocean. We are able to dream and be idealistic as we are protected by unpleasant realities with the thick solid glass of the TV screen. These visions may enter but they quickly exit, as they are quickly replaced by trivial thoughts. The world beyond the TV screen seems fake, and incomprehensible in the context of our surroundings.

These days I feel pressure from all sides as my extended family fusses about my unforeseeable future. They cannot understand why I do not have a definite career plan and feel an insatiable irritation about my lack of worries about the future. For them, the best professions are the –sa professions, like the uisa (doctor), the guhnchooksa (architect) and the byunhosa (lawyer), or any type of professor. I think that this is because these professions give status and money and most importantly, stability. Meanwhile, my contemporaries and I are concerned with another, more elusive pursuit, happiness. “Why should I do something if it doesn’t make me happy?” “What career will make me the happiest?” “What do I like doing?” Such questions are the foundations for what we base our career choices on.

It’s no wonder why there are conflicts between these two generations. One is thinking about earthsolid stability, while the other looks for flighty happiness. We share a fundamental inability to appreciate each other’s views due to an irreconcilable system of values. It’s as if there is a wide and deep chasm between us, the chasm created by the shifting tectonic movements of time. On one side, there are three bowls of rice between many people. It is a constant struggle to keep one fed. Basic needs may be met but are not forever guaranteed. One the other side, everyone is given a bowl of rice each with extras for those who ask for it. Three meals a day with clean water and warm shelters are accepted as an assumed and unbreakable reality.

Which side is correct? Perhaps the former side is incorrect in thinking that there are only three bowls of rice, while the latter is has expectations that are too optimistic, as they have known no real hardship.

Photo: the lunch

Reflections on Freedom on a Contemplative Day

IMG_5422[1]

Yesterday was a night of great festivities, today was a day of bodily recuperation. After a four hour lunch and coffee with two friends who also experienced the fun, I went walking on roads wet with fresh rain that had flooded the streets a few hours prior. There was a damp smell in the air and the sky was steadily darkening. A pallid greyblue from the sky was ubiquitously waterpainted on the buildings and the roads and the pedestrians. A contemplative mood was awash, perhaps influenced by the caffeine, a steady fatigue and last night’s experience, in which excess waves of liquid poison repeatedly “smashed” into my stubborn ego and broke it into tiny recovering pieces. Walking in the middle of the main road of National Taiwan University, aptly named Palm Tree Boulevard for a row of evenly spaced palm trees on either side, I looked far into the distance to the direction of the main library. I felt as if I was experiencing a movie, and a thin film of nothingness separated me from reality, as passing groups whose voices came to me in murmurs, the slight rhythmic sound of bicycles and the contenting sights of a lazy Saturday quietly reflected and were absorbed into me from beyond the veil of unreality. I felt like the observant protagonist in a Murakami novel.

At that moment, I felt a strong desire to be free, a feeling which came like a flash storm on a summer afternoon, and rapidly flooded my being.

I wanted to be free from parental pressure, the obligations coming from human relationships. I wanted to be free from societal norms, human expectations. I wanted to be free from monetary limitations, free from the limitations of my current living conditions. I wanted to break free from myself. I wanted to be free of earthly desire, bodily responsibility. I wanted to be free from my own habits, my own solidifying personality. I wanted to be free from acquired philosophies, my own selfconceptions. I wanted to be free of irrational fears, free of anxieties and indecision. I wanted to be as free as the moment of my birth, in which virginal newness purifies all perceived reality, and allows reality to be seen as reality, and lived with an honest and true intention, without the fog of developed personal subjectivities.

I wanted to be free from earthly logic. I wanted to be free from Newton, free from Einstein. I wanted to be free from the limits of my puny, weak, unreliable, worthless body so as to express the feeling of freedom with a dance oblivious of physical practicalities. I wanted to be free and let my spirit fly out of my bodily prison and soar past clouds, planets, stars, galaxies, and let my presence envelop the whole universe with an indescribable oneness; and experience an escalating liberation from subjectivity to objectivity, from perception to truth, from experience, from feelings, from concepts, from rationality, from life, from death, from time, from space, from God; to a truly incomprehensible and unfettered state of being, being an emptiness, nothingness, wholeness complete.

Such an idealistic version of reality cannot exist anywhere in physical form on the earthly plane, where ideas touched by the rockhard solid world shatter instantaneously, fragile as it is pure. However, I believe to some extent, freedom is a treasure coveted by all, and one everyone already possesses in different amounts. Unlike perfect freedom, the freedom on the physical plane has a different exterior and form.

I think the latter definition of freedom is close to what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He wrote: “that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” Furthermore: “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

To speak truthfully, I do not understand perfectly the wisdom of his words. I cannot grasp the sturdy bond that connects the concepts of freedom and responsibility together in an unbreakable chain. Perhaps more life experience will be the teacher that will teach me this rope as greater age will bind me closer and closer to freedom and responsibility. For now I can only elaborate on his words from a lower level, although living life may give me opportunities to climb higher and higher to let me see further into new insights from the taller vantage point.

To me, freedom fundamentally means the power of choice. Whether it is freedom of speech or economic freedom, more freedom will mean more power to choose how to let loose one’s spirit in thought or in action and allow it flight to any desired destination. When there is no freedom, the case is the opposite and there is no power of choice. All one’s actions and thoughts are fettered like a bird in a cage. In this way, responsibility is inextricably tied to freedom. The phenomenon of cause and effect will follow a freely chosen action or thought, and the effect will undeniably require a responsibilitytaker. A caged bird will not be free, but it will be fed and cared for. It will not be able to spread its wings in homage to its Godgiven or Darwingiven form, but it will be sheltered from dangers leading to inexistence. The uncaged bird will float at a lofty level across miniature terrains with the honest expression of its soul’s impetus. With such freedom will come the price of risk to its unbroken existence.

On a personal level, I can relate to freedom and responsibility. As I age, I desire more freedom and autonomy. I do not want to be kept on a leash, no matter how comfortable life on a leash may bring me. Confucius driven traditional Korean values serve as the philosophy behind my parental leash, while money brings about its physical form. My parents are always behind me with support and I feel their concerned gaze on my back, like the limelight onto a stage actor. These lights are sometimes suffocating. I suppose that it is unavoidable, the cutting of the umbilical cord in birth and the later metaphorical cutting of the umbilical cord with adulthood. At least for now, I have severed monetary ties to bring a similar severing of the physical leash. Perhaps later on I will look back on leashed days with nostalgic longing, and futilely attempt to reattached the umbilical cord of my youth, as life as a pampered domestic dog becomes preferable to that of a stray. Perhaps I am being immature and not taking responsibility for correct relations with my relations.

Freedom is an oft mentioned word as recent history has brought unprecedented levels of freedom to the lives of the majority. What is the nature of this freedom? Is it the immature and idealistic freedom of the former or the freedom which is justly connected with responsibility? If it is the former, then where does unwanted and untaken responsibility go to? Maybe responsibility piles up like bags full of garbage. If no one accepts responsibility, the stacks will grow higher and will eventually lead to an inescapable stink, an odorous and insufferable reminder of unmet obligations, brought by one individual to be smelt by all.

 

Note: Picture is of Palm Tree Blvd, although it was taken on another day.

Stoic Acceptance

IMG943  This past week and a half has been difficult; a fever for two days, a stubborn cold, all with bad sleep throughout. A sudden change in the temperature had me accidentally giving improper care to my body, and I slept under one blanket, not two. The next morning I woke up with hints of fever which later developed into its mature form. Taking two hour long naps in the afternoon, not being able to sleep at night has me in disarray both physically and mentally. Weather quickly changes in Taipei, as humid and cool has quickly turned to humid and hot. Last night had me tossing and turning for hours as heat and incessant coughing kept me up to hear the birds chirping for the start of their day, which was soon followed by sounds of morning from my neighbours’ rooms. I am hoping that tonight won’t be as bad of an experience, but the signs do not look positive so I am writing for good use of time.

This has me dreaming of Toronto, where it is the time for the wonderful springtime weather. By this time, Toronto would be past its long winter cold, and spring would be in full blossom, with sunshine and growing greenery warmly welcoming Torontonians towards the outdoors under a lengthening sun. Instead of the 4 by 3 metre prison I am in, with a miserable foot by foot window in the bathroom for ventilation and cockroaches and spiders for company, I could be at home, going from spacious room to spacious room at my fancy, sleeping on the sofa or in the basement room if my own bed shows signs of hostility, sitting and enjoying a natural sunlight smiling in from wide windows on the black leather sofa, while reading a book or admiring the scenery before me gradually opening up with life.

As I sit in front of the computer with a less than fully functioning mind, a sticky body due to the warmth and humidity and with the formation of a slight plea towards an otherworldly force for a quick recovery, I start thinking of Stoicism. Cultivated by the Greeks, adopted and nurtured by the Romans, its existence has been a source of reassurance and acceptance when the chaos of the world confounds me. Due to limited scholarship on the subject, there is not much that I can expertly write about, but from my understanding it is about ‘living in accordance with nature,’ through acceptance of nature’s will, fate. I particularly find it useful for its practicality in dealing with worldly matters. To give you a direct experience of Stoicism, here is an excerpt that I found particularly moving and profound. This is from Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXV.

“I am too great, was born to too great a destiny to be my body’s slave. So far as I am concerned that body is nothing more or less than a fetter on my freedom. I place it squarely in the path of fortune, letting her expend her onslaught on it, not allowing any blow to get through it to my actual self. For that body is all that is vulnerable about me: within this dwelling so liable to injury there lives a spirit that is free.”

Reading writings of Stoicism remind me that inside of the body which bears the changing currents of nature’s temperaments, there exists an entity that is able to freely decide how to respond. There is always this choice: I can either choose to be beaten down by my current misfortunes or accept nature’s will and be forever content. Although it is paradoxical, it is only with wholehearted acceptance of fate that we are able to control it. With my current situation I have these options as well. I can either curse the series of events that have led to this situation, and feed a growing anxiety and irritation, or just accept circumstances for what they are and nourish contentment.

In life, it is invariable that there will be times of distress and disaster. Life is a personal journey with an undeterminable end. There will be times of infinite happiness but also times with uncertain paths, bad weather and accidents. When the path is nice with sunny weather and the irrepressible desire for a song to be sung, nothing can go wrong. However, the opposite can manifest as suddenly as the coming of a tempest. Through these seemingly terrible times we can choose to preserve our indomitable spirit by unreservedly offering our physical shell to the whims of nature, and continue traversing towards our destination with a great humour.

 

 

Picture: Budapest

Death

black

When we are younger, death is never on the mind. We may catch glimpses of it from time to time, but just as the coming and going of a rainbow after a sunny afternoon storm, it fades into irrelevance both in the physical world and in our minds. In our twenties, why worry about such a thing? We are young and still blessed with bountiful energy. A peek into the mirror will show a healthy looking individual at the peak of his mortal life and the ability to realize a personal ambition onto the world. Time is still on our side and visions of the future are eagerly described with the air of a tingling excitement. When we walk on the streets in the city center, the passing images of a previous generation make an imprint on the mind, but there is almost a fundamental inability to connect these appearances with a prophecy of the future. A quick glance in the mirror deters such notions.

As time passes, so does our perception of reality. Confrontations with death become increasingly frequent and just like a natural erosion of rocky surfaces by rainwater, the idea of death is gradually uncovered with each instance. The reflection which once reassured us of longevity assures us of inevitability, as wrinkles and the accumulations of the microcosms of death stare at us. What once seemed as fleeting as the rainbow now takes on a different form, as the apparition of death fills into a physical form and details of its features are gradually outlined. The past is remembered with the longing sigh of nostalgia and the world appears to us as being grandiose and immovable. Sitting in the subway we start to relate with the faces of the once previous generation. Notions form that Time is not on our side, but has instead withdrawn Its welcomed friendship. It now makes its appearance as an unwanted guest who inconspicuously detracts from the merriment of a party. We may look towards the clock for the leave of Time, but It increasingly makes its subtle presence known and spreads discontentment and anxiety. The culmination of anxiety stemming from Time eventually arrives in the form of the most unwelcome guest, Death, as all our fears towards It are heightened tenfold with the abrupt and piercing shrill of the doorbell.

When It arrives, can you feel Its ubiquitous presence? Can you feel Its existence, which is lonelier than being the last man on Earth, containing a profundity deeper than the deepest tunnels, darker than the darkest shade of black? Can you feel the mystery of Its existence, in which at the moment of its occurrence comes the evaporation of life for the deliverance of the soul past all notions of the physical plane and time?

Aldous Huxley, English writer of the 1900s, wrote two novels about two completely contrasting versions of society. He wrote the Brave New World in 1932 and the Island thirty years later. Despite the different natures of the societies, one which is totalitarian and the other, utopian, there is one point of similarity among these societies. From an early age, children are raised to accept death. There is no mysticism towards the concept of death. It is accepted to be the most organic of happenings and inescapably bound with life. There is the sense that life and death are not contrasting ideas like the poles of a magnet, but instead are the heads and tails on the coin of existence.

In our modern world, we are adept at subjecting the natural world to our command. With further advancements we are able to escape the organic unpredictability of the natural environment for an anticipatable artificial atmosphere. Death is no exception. With certain medical and scientific discoveries we are to delay nature’s last affirmation of existence but are unable to completely eliminate it. Traditional tests put out by nature to test our mettle in her world served as reminders of the connection between life and death, but such reminders have disappeared. Instead of living in a blissful opiatic state, unaware of eventual realities, it is better to wake up from our fantastical slumber to accept Death in a holistic way. With this attitude, Time may continue to serve as a welcome friend and the ringing of the doorbell signaling the long expected arrival of Death can be received with sincere acceptance.