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

Mold of Masculinity

IMG1206

I have been in Seoul for a month. In comparison to the family free environment I lived in while in Taiwan, Seoul has been completely different. I haven’t been hanging out with many people my age here and instead the people with whom I’ve been passing time have been mostly family members who are from a past generation. Unavoidably, constant communications with this generation have brought their influences and ideas into my head. In this month, their wise but ancient values have seeped into my head slowly, like rainwater into sodden soil.

One of the impressions that quietly formed during this month relates to masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? I think that all guys contemplate this question while passing through the years of their teens. I don’thave a satisfying answer to this question myself. However, as I grew up in North America, I was exposed to one definition of what a man is. Coming back to Korea and being exposed to the culture on this side of the world has given me peeks at another.

In Western culture, I think that the archetypal male is someone like Ernest Hemingway. From what I know of him, he was someone who was similar to the persona of his protagonists. He enjoyed manly activities in the outdoors like fishing and hunting, and was an aficionado of bullfighting. He confronted death as an ambulance driver for the Italians in the Great War when he was only a mere boy at 19 years of age. Of course, as a man, he had his women as well, and plenty of them. He was married four times and even had an affair with a 19 year old Russian beauty when he was at the ripe age of 49 and still married to his fourth wife. Being a man, he was tough and honest, which reflected in his prose. There is something lonely and tragic about his story which also added to his public profile and mystique as a man, as he eventually ended his life by hanging himself.

Although Ernest Hemingway was a figure from many decades ago, this kind of definition of what “the Man” is supposed to be still prevails in popular Western media. We usually see this figure in movies being a leader, someone who directs and runs the show. He has a special aura around him that makes people around him want to listen. He is fatally attracted to females, while they are in love with him. He is largely indifferent to what people think of him, and knows what it is that he wants. There is something that is romantically self-centred about him that is related to a search for freedom, as he engages in a struggle for what it is that he desires over the obstacles that restrain what is essentially him. To get more concrete examples, I think a lot of the action movies in Hollywood promote this mold of masculinity, from Fight Club to the Fast & Furious series.

Meanwhile the idea of masculinity I gathered in Korea was different. Of course, I am not attempting to say that this mold of man is one with purely “Korean” characteristics. It is just a structure that built itself out of the impressions I accumulated in this country. It is a very limited idea that is not representative of the Koreans, as most of my contact had been with the older generation. This accumulation of my impressions is just a description of what masculinity could be, without any attempt at labelling.

In either case, the stories of men that I am exposed to in Korea are different. They are less manly by the standards of the former and far less glorious. The men that have left an impression on me in Korea are figures resembling my father. They are devoted to their family at the cost of themselves. An example can be seen in the less than glamourous example of the “seagull fathers.” These men are nicknamed “seagull fathers,” as they continue to work strenuous hours in Korea and live on basic needs in order to support their families who live abroad. This is done in order to give their children an education in English speaking countries. The mother of the family goes over as well in order to take care of the children, leaving the father halfway across the world in a completely different time zone away from the people he is making the sacrifice for. I think that the man in this context is one who engages in a struggle with himself in order to overcome his desire for freedom.

In the end, which of these two definitions are correct? I think that it depends on the cultural context. With societal developments, the role a man should play, thought convenient by that society in that particular moment of time, might be what determines the definition of an ideal man. Perhaps it is unfair to judge one as lacking masculinity for not conforming to the popular definition. Maybe the essence of masculinity and the sole requirement of being a man is something much simpler and more fundamental, like the blessing all men are cursed with from birth that has a mind of its own.

 

Picture: Somewhere in Corleone, Sicily (think about the Corleone family in the Godfather) where we were very nervous about everything, including taking photos. (Hence this bad photo with my finger visible)

Another City

 

IMG_4804

The plane landed in the Incheon International Airport, but I did not feel as if I had yet arrived in a new location. I got out and took a bus to the city of Seoul. Inside the bus, there were people speaking Korean, and I soon fell asleep. I woke and I took a look outside, at the Korean lettering on the store signs. They seemed familiar but foreign. I reached my destination, got off the bus and looked at the wide structured roads full of cars which were not the alleyways of Taipei. I tried not to let my tears overflow as children walked past.

Another city with its own personality and people has gone by already. In the short five months there had been many experiences that built bonds between me and Taipei. I left pieces of myself there, in the alleyways and streets where motorcycles motored by. I left pieces of myself in the people I met as well, although I know beautiful friendships slowly disintegrate with time. I feel as I left less than whole, the price I had to pay for a life in Taiwan.

Will I continue to go leaving pieces of myself in the future like this? I still feel restless, wanting to go to new places to see new things with nice companions. I want to embrace the world and know it. At the same time, I want to return to the places where I left pieces of me, perhaps to try to collect them to make myself feel more whole. What a process this is, being fuelled by the glimmer of a future with distant locations while continually reminiscing of a golden past.

Where will the future take me? Will I find somewhere suitable to settle down? What will happen to my memories, as I lose contact of the familiar? Without the continual reinforcement of my external environment, my memories will quickly fade. Many dreams have past, leaving disappearing residues. The past disappears and leaves me without a sense of belonging.

But I’m only 22 years into my life, so maybe there is no use in thinking so much about this when I have just exited the gate. I still have long ways to go before the end of the race. Perhaps memories do not disappear, they just hide below the surface, waiting for the right occasion to come up and impart warm memories. Instead of losing pieces of myself, perhaps I give and take to create a different whole.

The Dream of Taiwan

IMG_5097

Today was the first time I felt the feeling of an unmovable helplessness. There was a great dark hole within me, one that could not be filled. It suddenly hit me that I was to leave Taiwan in three days. Biking through the happy and crowded Saturday streets, I felt a desperate need to capture everything around me, for the world in front of me was soon due to vanish. It was like I was biking through a movie, as the scene before my eyes was one that I could no longer participate in. Biking through the void and surrendering my movements to simpler instincts, I rode slowly and observed. I was nearing the end of a dream.

It has already been over four months in this miragelike island of Taiwan. It was at two in the morning on February the fifth when I boarded my plane from Toronto, not knowing what to expect. Over several time zones and nameless countries the plane travelled all through the night, while inside the plane, an unlit and quietly rumbling interior gave me the feeling that I was travelling through a vortex. When I finally landed and stepped outside the airport, a new world greeted me. I left the cold deathly weather of Toronto, one in which an unrelenting snow silently lay ubiquitous, to a land where life existed endlessly unacquainted with the chill of winter. Waiting for the bus, a moist and cool morning breeze greeted me with a slightly drizzling rain, giving the early morning the feeling full of a fresh spring. The existence of the Taoyuan International Airport did not daunt the vivid greens of the trees and plants, which continued from the airport to the view past the windows of my bus to Taipei, as the greenery rose and declined with the whims of the mountains. And thus my dream of Taiwan began.

The next months plunged me further into the world of my dreams. I lived in this new world naively and wholeheartedly, gradually forgetting about the world of reality I came from and would have to return to.

Deep in my dreams I started to become acquainted with the city of a thousand winding alleyways, Taipei. I started biking to move around in my new fantastical surroundings, immersing myself with the unpredictable traffic which followed only unwritten rules. Everyday as I biked, I became used to the unfamiliar laws of these automobiles, who fought for every inch of space available to them. Motorcycles weaved through and about the traffic everywhere, and it was possible to hear their rumbling during the day in any alleyway in Taipei. Often there were one or two riders, but a family of four with a pet dog on one scooter was also not unheard of. Off the road it was a completely different story. Biking through my dream, pedestrians with their languid pace were often a nuisance to me, as they were always taking their sweet time to head to unknown personal destinations. As I passed them by, catching brief glances of these inhabitants of Taipei, it was always the old and feeble men and women that held my attention, the spectres with unwashed dark faces wearing dirty rags riding worn out vehicles from a past generation, going through garbage bag after garbage bag to separate trash for livelihood. There was one such old man who I saw a couple of times in my neighbourhood when I came back home late after a night out. Looking of retirement age, with a mound of garbage spread on the floor and an antiquated automobile beside him, I imagine he laboured all through the night in his work unknown and unseen, while the rest of Taipei faded.

IMG_5643[1]

As I continued to dream, I got to grasp the vast scope of this land. I rode on imaginary trains which took me to different areas in this illusionary reality, with the passing scenery and the trembling train the only things confirming my physical displacement. Outside the windows of the train, sights I had never seen in my waking world revealed themselves to me. Green plains of tall grass and shrubs rushed past, occasionally rotating with sparse forests of green trees that were leafy near the North and turned into palm trees closer to the South. At other times the world outside my window showed imprints of human activity, with wide pastures of crops on flat lands stretching out for long distances, and the lonely plain boxlike houses with roofs in solid colours, sitting wholly weatherworn. But no matter how far the flatlands went, there were always the looming presence of mountains in the distance, full of green trees and looking like mossy rocks when they were close, and changing into bluish waterpainted objects of illusions when further away. Only when beyond the window lay the Pacific Ocean did they disappear. And on the East coast, instead of the bulges of mountains there was a variety of pure blues which grew darker and bluer until they touched the sky at the flat and endless horizon, leading across the Pacific Ocean to the tedious world of reality that I lived in when I was awake.

IMG_5731[1]

In every city of my dreamland there was character. Every building and every street and sidestreet held a story and a community. At first glance, every alleyway looked generic, with short stunted buildings holding family owned businesses on the ground level, while just in front there were badly paved sidewalks under uneven arcades while vehicles motored by. However, as I got to know my area better, and my daily routine brought me into contact with the same people over and over again, whose businesses were an extension of their lives, I felt the existence of a deep personal connection to my area. The 7/11s and Family Marts were not family owned, but they still had a special role to play in every alleyway community. I don’t think Taiwan would be Taiwan for me without them.

Sometimes, these alleyways turned into night markets in the evenings. At these times the sleeping streets burst with life and activity, and completely transformed, as people from beyond the neighbourhood would gather together with friends and family to wander around the streets for tasty treats. There were always so many lights and so many vendors calling out to the interested looking customer. Some were not successful, some got the occasional customer, but there was always the snack stall or diner that for unexplainable reasons always had a long line. Although I was never sure how great the actual quality of the food was at the end of the line, there was a feeling of anticipation and then happiness when you got the snack in the end. With food in the hands and in the mouth, lights and people everywhere, sounds of happy chattering while enjoying a cool evening, I would often get overwhelmed. However, the most overwhelming sensation came while walking to other stalls and suddenly smelling the putrid sour stench of sewer water. This smell would be the stinky tofu. Crispy on the outside, soft tofu inside, served with sauce and pickled cabbage to neutralize the taste of stink, it indeed could be a marvellous treat, despite the idea disgusting me in my first few weeks. And these environments would last often until midnight, slowly losing their dreamlike qualities as groups of walkers gradually vanished out of the collective consciousness of the night market.

IMG_5193

Along the way, I was able to meet other dreamers. Coming from different areas of the real world and finding themselves in the dream of Taiwan, together we explored this world and created a Taiwan with a special meaning for us. We created memories of Taiwan, and formed bonds with this land and its wonderful people. There were many strong relationships fashioned through the adventures and the parties and the unique experiences, but these relationships were temporal in nature. As the dream comes to a close, and as the birds start chirping to signal the start of a new morning, many dreamers have already woken up, travelling back through the vortex to the land they came from and finding themselves in their own familiar bed and outside the window, a familiar sight under the clear morning light. And as the real world drags on and on, and the dream of Taiwan starts to disappear, will we still be such good friends as we once were when we were dreaming? Perhaps we will always have the unbreakable connection of Taiwan.

Or perhaps we will not. After the last among the dreamers awakes, the dreamworld will still hold and continue to exist on its own. And it will rain, for God how it rains in Taiwan. It will rain in light drops as a pleasant hazy shower and it will rain fiercely and suddenly and disappear like a flash of lightning. It will rain for days and nights on end, clouds relieving themselves of their heavy burden, as sleepers in Taiwan hear the pitter patter of the raindrops on the rooftops of their homes. The rain will pitter and patter and wash the streets and buildings of Taiwan, and fall on every single part of the mountains and plains from the North to the South, the East to the West. Still pittering and pattering, the incessant rain will fall and wholly wash Taiwan of the dreamers’ existence, as the flowing rainstreams take with it the slightest imprints until not even the faint memory of once treaded paths remain in Taiwan.

Similarly, the constant rains of forgetfulness will rain upon our hearts, and as time passes, the dream of Taiwan will lose its vividity while a thickening fog will appear when we try to look into our experiences. Friendships made will lose their basis and the characters we met will slowly fade away from our hearts and from our memories, until photos show only smiling strangers with the image of a familiar former self. But I hope that as the rains fall and carry with it these memories, they will transport these memories to a deeper place in the heart, where they will remain and lay pure and undisturbed until the end of our time.

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.

Delusions of Travel

IMG250

I might be unqualified to speak about the subject of travel, but since I’ve been on two exchanges and a lot of plane flights and train rides and car rides to different places as a result, I have had some experience and some thoughts which will be reflected in this post.

In this post I want to talk about the unrealistic expectations I think people have about travelling. Now the ‘people’ I speak of are probably individuals in their 20s living in North America, as a lot of my friends and Facebook friends belong to this category, and they are the people I get these impressions of falsehood from.

What I see a lot of the times is travel being presented as some sort of fantastical adventure in which only a few are able to embark on and where an individual will experience magical and romantic things while undertaking a plethora of fun adventures. I see a lot of posts coming on my Facebook Newsfeed about very similar stories reflecting these ideas. Sometimes it will be about some guy who had been travelling for a whole year and made a cool videos during the process, and at other times it will be a quote charged with idealistic notions about ‘how travelling is food for the soul’ or something else cheesy, accompanied with by beautiful instragramed photo of an exotic looking location. Maybe such a quote could be true in a vague way, and personally, I think that the guy who travels for a whole year is quite admirable in his tenacity. The only problem I see is that these things add fuel to the delusions of travel.

In my experience, (and of course, my experiences will not wholly reflect other people’s experiences; I might be a particularly boring guy) when travelling is stripped of all its romanticism, it is quite unremarkable. You have the highs and lows; sometimes you meet nice people, sometimes you feel lonely; sometimes you have a great day of adventure, sometimes you are completely at a loss and don’t know what to do. However, most of the time, you will just be walking a lot to get to from one place to another.

However, the best way to actually get to know what travelling is like is by travelling. It is really not that hard of a process to do so, although the mental preparation could be difficult. However, for the logistical process, it is as simple as buying a plane ticket, booking accommodation and finding activities to do. It would be better if you had some sort of interest in the location’s history or culture to facilitate this process. Language could be a tricky thing, but it is usually not exceedingly difficult to manage. In Italy, not many people speak English, but there were many fellow exchange students who manage without being able to speak at all. Also, I’m sure that the personalities in the stories about the guy who travels for a year don’t speak all the world’s languages either. If you are reading this post, you probably have a certain degree of fluency in English, and often English is enough to get by. Finally, buy travel insurance for emergencies.

In the end, I might have been a little too harsh when describing travel as being unremarkable. If it was so unremarkable, I would not have been doing so much of it. But what I want to do is provide a counterweight to the common perception of travel. You might not have a perfect experience or be doing interesting things every moment or be guaranteed to like your experience. Instead, you might be tired, homesick or bored. Realistically, it will be some combination of the two. But for sure, there will be a lot of walking.

 

Above is one of the five towns in Cinque Terre in Italy

Korean in Paris

IMG1484

It was mid-November in 2012, and the days were growing colder in Milan. The cold breeze signalled the impending arrival of winter and the encroachment of the day in which I would have to go back to Toronto. Long past seemed the days under the hot Tuscan sun in the month of August in Siena, in which cold weather seemed like a foreign concept in the dry and cloudless weather. At that particular moment, the cold was not foremost in my mind, as I was soon due to leave to majestic Paris.

Paris may seem like an eventual destination for an exchange student in Europe. One of Europe’s great capitals with a worldwide recognition and reputation for culture and beauty, it experiences innumerable tourists annually, who wish to have a taste of a fantasised Parisian life. Cities like Budapest and Shanghai have been given titles like the “Paris of the East” or the “Paris of the Orient” respectively, as if Paris holds the absolute measure of a beautiful city. To contrast, no one would dare call Paris the “Shanghai of West” or compare Paris at all in such a manner. There is a unique romantic mystique associated with the name Paris that prevents the demeaning suggestion of such titles. Perhaps all this is just speaking from a North American point of view, but Paris can only be described as Paris.

Despite Paris being Paris, it was not a location that was originally on my list of places to go to. I was very happy in Italy and enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle. Most of the travelling I did was to Italian cities. It felt like every new Italian city I visited was a puzzle piece which helped me piece together a greater understanding of the country. Ironically, with more pieces came a realization that the picture was exponentially larger than I thought.

However, there was a French friend I wished to visit in Paris. We had met two years prior in the summer of 2010 in Seoul. We were studying in the same Korean language program. He developed an interest in Korean culture due to his Korean girlfriend. Being a relatively cheap and short flight, I took the opportunity to go see him.

There is always an emotion that is part anxiety and part anticipation when seeing a friend that you have not seen for a long time. Change is always happening to people, and you are not certain whether the previous connection you and the friend once shared still holds. Change is particularly prevalent for people in their 20s, who still are going through a period of many decisions. Add the fact that you have also changed as well, and we get a further compounded problem. Maybe it is just the physical features that are the remnants of an old friendship, and the feeling of comfort you get along with the familiar face, which is a solid, physical affirmation of a previous shared connection. Maybe this feeling of ease is the most fundamental glue in a friendship, with the rest being details that are whisked off with the passing of time.

When we met at Crimée Station, it was a relief to find out that the friendship was still there. There was one big difference that I immediately noticed, and it was in the language we used to communicate. Two years prior, we used English due to his insufficient Korean. At this meeting, we used Korean. While acquainting ourselves with each other anew, I started to find out how excellent his Korean grew to be, far surpassing my own abilities in my first language. It was an interesting turn of events. In the month of our friendship in Korea, I had always thought that he was reticent and reserved. I was finding that he was not. I was seeing aspects to his personality that were put behind an opaque wall when we used English to communicate. With Korean, his self was able to shine through. Meanwhile, it was the opposite for me, as my Korean put me behind the opaque wall this time.

For lunch at his place, we were joined by another Frenchman, an acquaintance of my friend who also spoke very good Korean. Together, we ate a nice simple lunch of some bread, potatoes and blood sausages with a cocktail. Afterwards came the drinking of an alcohol made of oranges that was as strong as vodka and reminded me an orange version of the Italian limoncello. Of course, the primary language of our increasingly drunken communications was Korean. Two Frenchmen and a Canadian in Paris, who would have thought.

Continuing through the afternoon fuelled by drinking games involving the Nintendo Wii, we started to think of options for dinner. Naturally, we decided on a Korean Barbeque restaurant, not even discussing any French style bistros. Away in the Parisian subway we went, speeding off in tunnels below the surface to some location in Paris I still do not know to this day, while the orange liquor slowly withdrew to the bottom with each passing of hands.

It was the first Korean restaurant I went to while in Europe, as Italy did not have enough of a substantial Korean population to justify such a luxury. While in the restaurant I remember flashes of merriment; drinking a soju cocktail which involved a loud banging on the table for its creation, which brought the owner up to our table to quiet us down, although afterwards he was appeased with a taste of the cocktail; meeting French-Koreans, some who were ironically not able to speak Korean at all, while the Frenchmen at our table spoke fluently; eating wonderful tasting meat with each bite bringing me a supreme happiness, while the drinks contributed with a bright and dreamy glow. Afterwards, the two Frenchmen and the Canadian walked downstairs to the basement of the Korean barbeque restaurant in Paris to sing karaoke on a Korean karaoke machine, bringing an appropriate end to all festivities.

IMG1472

After sobering up and reflecting on this experience while walking on Parisian streets, I began to think about language. The use of language is an aspect of communication we do not think too deeply on, for the reasons that it is a part of daily life so basic that it is unnoticeable. We can often be oblivious to the role it plays in our communications with other people.

As a student in the University of Toronto in the Rotman Commerce Bachelor’s program, which holds a 50% international student population, I had the chance to interact and work with many international students. I always believed that they were shy and afraid to express their opinions. I did not like working with them in group projects for this reason. Now in Taiwan as an exchange student, there are times when I am put in the same situation. One of my classes requires group work every lecture, and the class is comprised of all Taiwanese students except me. My group members have been very accommodating and have spoken English so that I can also contribute my opinions. There was one class when they communicated in Mandarin instead, and I was unable to contribute although I had done the work beforehand. I think they probably thought I did not do the work for that class. Just like my French friend when I first met him, just like the international students in the University of Toronto and just like me here, we may find ourselves in situations in which one of the parties involved in a communication is stuck behind the opaque wall of an unfamiliar language. In an increasingly global environment, perhaps patience and understanding is required for better communications, and not unfair judgements.

Languages are also interesting due to the special characteristics each language holds. Korean is a language which has many graduations of formality and respect. There are two main methods of speaking, one which is an informal way a person would use with friends, and an informal method, which one would use with strangers, elders and peoples of higher position. This method carries with it implicit assumptions of respect and formality. Age is an important determinant in creating the context the relationship operates in. If an individual is even one year older than another, the former has an authority over the latter. The younger individual must address the older person with special titles which come with implications of respect and deference, while it is the other way around for older individuals to younger individuals. Furthermore, the informal method of speaking is often used by the younger individual when communicating with an older individual.

As my French friend is 3 years older than me, I did not know how to address him in the correct way when using Korean to speak. I remember avoiding using his name or any title to address him, due to the ambiguous nature of the current relationship. There was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our interactions, until without thinking I called him “hyung,” the proper address for an older male. After addressing him in this fashion the first time, the once cloudy and ambiguous relationship became as clear as day with this single admission. At the same time, there was a feeling that it signalled the start of a relationship with a slight submission from me to him.

I saw him twice afterwards in Paris, once in a Starbucks completely incidentally while on a guided tour, and finally in another Korean restaurant for lunch, where the waitress commented on his proficiency in the language, and told him that he was so lucky to have a good friend to learn from. She was referring to me, so I kept my mouth shut and smiled so she would not find out the truth about our actual abilities. And thus went my first experience in Paris, city of lights, city of romance, city of beauty. It was an unexpected surprise, finding a culture so close to my heart in a location that was so foreign to me. The five days in Paris ended quickly and I soon found myself boarding the plane back to Milan, my temporary home which held the promise of more adventures to come.

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.