Just how “scary” is it to live next to North Korea?


It’s been a month now since the news of Otto Warmbier’s horrific fate. I was part distraught, part fascinated by the footage of the sturdy-looking college student breaking down in tears before the North Korean authorities. Where the hell were they going to take him? What was he doing all those months afterwards? No photos exist of him in prison. The only photos that came after that dreaded court sentence are of him in a coma, with a breathing apparatus over his mouth.


A few days later he was dead.


I can understand why a story like this terrifies people – especially Americans – about North Korea. It sounds like a land where those who enter never return, even if they’re supposedly on a guided tour. Like some twilight zone of terror and human trafficking. The mysteriousness that surrounds it makes it all that scarier. It also makes for sensational news stories that people will read.


A question I get a lot is, “Wasn’t it scary to live next to North Korea?” My sister who still lives in South Korea today has also gotten this question from concerned people back in the US. Our mom bears the brunt of it. It’s usually her friends and colleagues who are worried. Sometimes it’s even made her worried. Sometimes.


Isn’t it scary to live next to a country with a blood bathed regime that is constantly threatening to blow you up?


Well, yeah, if you put it that way, it’s a little unnerving. I will admit that reality hung over me at times like a cloud, rumbling just enough to remind me it was there. It was stressful to read American (and British) news and see that North Korea was the headline story. And to tell people, “it’s all okay, nothing will happen” – you have to wonder how much you believe yourself versus how much you are trying to tell yourself, and of course tell them in order to comfort them.


But for the most part, I rarely even thought of North Korea while I lived in South Korea.


Basically it works like this: Life carries on, and you have to have to carry on with it. Your brain has this marvelous capacity to shut off certain imminent fears that you can do absolutely nothing about. You need to be able to wake up in the morning, go to work, have relationships, laugh, go to the movies, solve mundane problems and cook dinner. You have to think about the future and make plans based on what is rational and what is likely. Writing up a will for if you are blown to bits by North Korea is not as rational as saving money for your next vacation. Because the honest truth is, an attack from North Korea, however possible, is not likely.


I’m no whiz at foreign affairs, but you learn stuff by default, by osmosis, when you’re living in a certain country that concerns such affairs. You learn by hearing and observing what your South Korean colleagues are saying (or not saying). You find yourself studying the issue without realizing it because it’s of natural interest to you. You talk to some people in the US military and you get a feel for what’s going on. Not expert knowledge, but at least a feel.


And this is basically the answer to the “Aren’t-You-Scared-Of-North-Korea” question I’ve come up with over the last 5 years, of living in South Korea and in the US since:


If North Korea attacks the US or vice versa, there will be an ugly war and probably millions of deaths. No one wants that.   So there will be threats, there will be talk, but actual action is unlikely.


I know, it’s way oversimplified. I could go into more detail to explain how and what I mean by that – I could go into the dynamics that China and Japan play, or the shadowy world of North Korean politics. But like I said, I’m not an expert at all and that’s stuff you can find out for yourself if you care enough to research. This is simply the most logical conclusion I’ve come to that I have at the ready for when people ask me. Because they keep asking. I lived in South Korea, but in a lot of ways North Korea is more famous. Infamous. Oh well.


South Koreans, to put it frankly, are really too enmeshed in their own lives to seem bothered by the North. And they’re not enmeshed in trivial stuff, either. South Korean politics are pretty controversial and there was way more outrage about President Park Gun Hye and all her crooked deeds than there ever was about Fat Boy Kim. South Koreans do care about their neighbors across the border, but they seem to care way more about their own quality of life, political rights and immediate problems.   In my 4.5 years in South Korea I don’t recall a single South Korean person bringing up the situation with North Korea.


You have to wonder, though: Even though everyone is carrying on like life is normal, are they really not scared deep down?


So I have a confession to make. A year or two ago I got on Quora (always a bad idea if you’re not an professional at something) and I answered a question that went something like this: “Are South Korean people afraid of an attack by North Korea?”


I thought I had this one in the bag. I lived in South Korea, surely that gave me street cred, right? So rather arrogantly, without thinking, I wrote something like this: “No one in South Korea is worried about North Korea. They are too busy with their own lives!” I committed the cardinal sin of using an absolute statement.


A couple days went by, and a Quora user with equal street cred and a much more genteel background got on and called me out on this. “That is simply not true, how can you say no one cares or is worried…” he responded. I got a little dressing-down that day, in professional Quora-style. I made the most dignified acknowledgment I could and thought twice ever after about every comment I made in the public sphere.


Of course that person had a point: how could I know what all South Koreans were thinking deep inside? How could I know that any of them weren’t scared?


I would have to meet all 50 million South Koreans to answer that question accurately. I have assume that some of them do have worries. In the end, I can only speak from my own experience, and my experience – for what it’s worth – is that the South Koreans I knew were too busy with their own personal lives and messed up politics too worry about North Korea that much. If they did worry, they never talked about it. Not with me, anyway.


In fact, Yun Ho was less worried about North Korea than I was. We started dating in spring of 2013. Shortly afterwards the joint US-South Korea military training procedures began and that year the tensions were high. Every day BBC was featuring stories about the Dear Leader’s wrath and the regime’s hissy fits and threats of, “You had better stop this or else-!


It was getting to the point that the US government (overbearingly protective as usual) started suggesting that its citizens consider evacuating in case of an attack. I was distraught at the idea of leaving Yun after we had just started dating. I was even more distraught at the idea of him putting on his uniform and going into the reserve troops to fight. It sort of became this romantic, World War II situation that I was imagining myself a part of – now that I look at it in hindsight.


“Nothing’s going to happen,” Yun told me patiently. “This sort of thing happens all the time. There’s a big to-do, but nothing actually happens.


And he was right. Nothing did happen. I and my jittery fellow expats calmed down and got used to the routine.  Years passed and the joint military training started up again each spring. More threats. More talk of nuclear stuff. The factory in Kaesong shut down, DMZ tours would be suspended from time to time but otherwise, everything stayed the same. Yun was much more concerned about democracy in Seoul than in Pyongyang.   The South may look like a utopian paradise compared to the North, but beneath the shiny veneer is a lot of social and political ugliness. I got familiar with that ugliness as time went on and the problems of South Korea and my own personal life were at the forefront of my consciousness. I didn’t have time to also worry about North Korea.


Of course, that is still no guarantee that North Korea will not do something horrific. They could. Deep down, every South Korean knows this. Every able South Korean male has to commit to a minimum of two year’s military service to help the country prepare in case such an attack should happen. Above all, the South Korean soldiers are aware of the situation and they, if no one else, have to think about it. It all goes back to that survive and thrive instinct – life goes on. A bomb may go off but you can’t let that stop you from biking along the Han River or heading out the store for more kimchi, or getting married or cramming for the college entrance exam or hanging out in a game café with your friends.   Your brain knows how to be logical about this stuff, even if you don’t. You will go through the motions without even realizing it.


Over ten years ago I worked in a candy store. One day an Israeli couple came in. I was picking their brains and asking all about Israel and whether it was safe to go.


“Oh not right now!” the guy said. “Way too crazy right now.”


“Oh,” I said, a little disheartened. “How about a few months from now?”


“More like, two weeks from now.”


“But what about you two,” I pressed. “Aren’t you scared of the danger?”


They looked at each other and smiled. “No problem for us,” he told me. “You come visit in two weeks, but for us, it’s no big deal. We’re used to this shit.”


Now that I’ve lived in South Korea I think I understand what that couple was talking about. Israel is a dicier place than Korea, but the point remains.   Things usually look worse from the outside than they do on the inside. And even though there still is a real threat hanging overhead you have to carry on for sanity’s sake. You get used to it.








My Long Goodbye to Korea


It’s been 6 months since Yun and I returned to the United States.  Seeing my parents outside the Phoenix Sky Harbor gate around midnight, with bleary eyes but smiling faces was a déjà vu experience.  Had I really been living in another country for 4 and a half years or was I just coming back from a trip to Disneyland?    Was this really “home for good,” or was this just another stage in part of a bigger journey?   

There were so many things to look forward to back in Arizona.  Blue skies and Mexican food, for one.  Yun would be able to pursue his career.  I would finally be able to spend Christmas with my family again.  Of course I was happy to be back.  Even so, I’d heard many tales about other expats who had a hard time transitioning out of the life in Korea.  They would often talk of the dreaded “reverse culture shock.”

The comments of these fellow expats raised questions in my mind.  Would I feel like I “belonged” or would my hometown feel alien somehow?    Would I be able to find a job?   Would the food be too greasy and salty?  One expat in some literary article spoke of suffocating isolation in his small hometown and complained that he didn’t like how personal and chatty servers in American restaurant were.  Fine, that was just silly.  But still.

It turned out my fears were mostly in vain.

The confidence I gained while living and working in Korea made my post-Korea experience in Arizona very different.  I got a job, a car and an apartment within one month of being back.  I wasn’t scared to go places and talk to people after almost 5 years of living in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  Having lots of prior work experience made it much easier to adapt to new demands and situations at my new job.   And there was no language barrier either!

There were other more surprising ways in which Korea made life easier back in Arizona.  Hearing other languages like Spanish or Chinese at the grocery store wasn’t intimidating.  I was used to hearing a language I didn’t (fully) understand and I became much more sympathetic to expats living in the US after knowing what it was like to be one in Korea.  It wasn’t a conscious highhanded decision.  It was a natural reaction after living and traveling in foreign countries for a long time.  The world didn’t seem as big and overwhelming – just different wherever you went, which was part of the fun.

I thought about Korea, but I focused on the present situation and kept my head down and moved forward.  My brain seemed to be compartmentalizing: That was Korea, that’s what you did then – now you’re in Arizona, this is what you do now.  Yun bought some Korean ingredients at an Asian foods market and I bought seaweed crackers from Costco, but otherwise our diet was American.  We talked only once in a while about our memories in Korea.   Yun now spoke English to strangers and co workers.  It was sort of like living in another lifetime.

Sometimes I would remember Korea and it seemed like a dream.  Other times it seemed very real.  At about the 3 month point I began to miss Korea and felt pangs of nostalgia and bittersweetness about the places and people.  Leaving behind expat friends wasn’t as painful because I knew eventually they would leave too.  They weren’t part and parcel of it.  But the mountains, the cherry blossoms, the food, the lantern festivals, the neon lights, the music, and the Korean people were.

My old route to work.

One of my favorite characters in fiction, Philip Marlowe, said, “to say goodbye is to die a little.”  Appropriately enough that comes from the novel The Long Goodbye.

Leaving Korea felt like a long goodbye.  Yun and I had planned for months how we would apply for his visa, send our things home, and travel Asia on our savings.  I knew Korea wasn’t “home,” but it had still become a part of me.  Even during our planning I couldn’t become detached from Korea.  The time went by faster than I’d hoped.  There would never be enough of it to explore the city, the countryside, and to eat another bowl of haejang gook.  Each year living there went by faster than the last.

This is one of the things I’ll miss the most.

It seems natural for people to preserve their psyches by not thinking about what’s beyond their control.  If saying goodbye really does kill a little part of you then better not to dwell on it.  But did saying goodbye to Korea kill a part of me?  That sounds so…tragic.

Perhaps it’s the opposite.  Cheesy as it sounds, perhaps there’s a part of me that wasn’t there before thanks to Korea.  I’m a fuller person with a heart that belongs to two places.  Leaving Korea was sad, but it’s cool to know there’s a place on the other side of the world that is now comforting and familiar.  I can’t really imagine never going back.  Perhaps it’s not truly “goodbye” – it may well just be goodbye for now.

It’s Okay To Suck At Bike Riding

And other lessons I learned from Haruki Murakami

It’s not often that I have a special experience surrounding a book I read.  This one involves the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and what was probably the worst bike ride of my entire life.

September of last year Yun and I planned a do or die trip to Jeju Island, the so-called “Hawaii” of South Korea. We were leaving Korea soon and it didn’t seem right to do so before we paid a visit.   Why not go all out, we thought, and turn it into an epic bike trip. So with some thought we planned our itinerary, where we would stay, and how we would pack.

We didn’t exercise as much thought when it came to the weather.

About two days before the trip it occurred to me to check the weather status on Jeju Island. “Constant rain,” the Internet told me. All three days we would be there. All day long.

We shrugged it off. What’s a bit of rain, anyway? We figured. Isn’t that part of the adventure? A raincoat each and we’d be set. How bad could it be? (Here I take a moment to pause and exhale ever so slightly…)

When we arrived in Jeju City the rain was fairly mild. See, this is nothing! My psyche made a valiant attempt to see the glass half full. We hopped on a bus headed south and crashed that night at a “pension” (something like a Korean B&B, minus the breakfast part). We had ordered our rental bikes to be dropped off the next morning. And then the next morning came.

Rain. Frenzied, relentless, pell mell. Half filled with dread, half mortified I couldn’t look Yun in the eye. The rental bike guy came with our bikes to the hotel lobby at around 9 am. Seeing our hesitation he asked, “You know how to use these…?”


It’s not that we didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Rather it was at this moment we realized the second critical error we had made.

The bikes we had rented were…how to describe them?  Professional bikes. Bike enthusiast bikes.

The kind of bike with the hand bars one foot lower than the seat so that you’re bent forward like a yogi. The kind of hand bars that have little horns you have to grip on top so that it’s almost impossible to pull the brake without killing the muscles in your pointer finger. These were bikes meant for true athletes, meant for aerodynamic cruising around hairpin turns. They didn’t even have kickstands. My idea of a bike was (and still is) a low-rider with a fat, cushy seat and a big basket in front for carrying a thermos of lemonade. We both stared for a moment in silence.

The bike rental guy showed us how to adjust our seats (even the lowest setting still put us in the leaning yogi position) and with a brusque, I-don’t-have-time-for-this kind of attitude sauntered back out into the rain and drove off in his rental van.

The hotel manager watched us from behind the counter and said, “Are you guys really going to ride those things out there?” I don’t understand Korean all too well, but I can’t imagine what else he could’ve said. I’m pretty sure at that moment both Yun and I reconsidered what we were doing, but we had checked out of the room, paid for the bikes, and the ship had sailed.   We donned our helmets and our pitiful rain ponchos we’d bought at a convenience store and headed out.

Something to note about riding in the rain: there’s riding in the rain on a level surface. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill in the wrong clothes.   And then there’s all of those factors, in addition to riding on a bike you have absolutely no experience with.

I did okay until it got to the uphill part. I tried to think of it as a whimsical sort of misadventure I could sort of laugh my way through. That’s when my thighs started to die.

I was wearing jeans – probably the worst thing you could wear in a rainstorm – and they were soaked to the core in seconds. Along with my muscles they resisted the upward pull of my legs as I pedaled. I was thoroughly out of humor by the time I reached the uphill peak, and my exchanges with Yun were few and terse.

Downhill, however, was a nightmare.   As you recall, the position of the bike forced me into a leaning forward position. This meant that in order to look up, my neck and shoulders experienced a terrific strain. But if I looked down I couldn’t see my path ahead, and in rainy conditions this was nothing short of suicide. In addition to that, the brake was near impossible to pull and I almost wiped out at one point. After a few moments of primal, childlike crying from shock I remounted and changed the position of my hands. I was now able to reach the brake easier, but at the cost of my hands and wrists being uncomfortable.

Over the few hours biking on the road along the south coast of Jeju Island we experienced little variation and a lot of monotony. When uphill became too painful for us we stopped to rest under a bus stop – otherwise we kept moving. When downhill became too painful we got off and walked. Any time delaying at a restaurant or store just meant more time until we reached our destination. Almost every second of riding the bike was miserable, but the anticipation of getting back on the bike was even worse. So we just kept going.

I have two distinct memories of that epically disastrous ride. The first was when we passed the “Health and Sex” museum that happened to be next to the road. I’m not sure why, but we stopped and took a photo. The museum name was too long to get in the shot, so in the photo is Yun, standing in a field, in his helmet and poncho, next to the giant letters “S-E-X.”

The second memory was another time I nearly wiped out, although I managed this time not to hyperventilate. The front end of my bike swerved this way and that, and I had just enough presence of mind to steer it and pull on the brakes before crashing into a fence. When I finally stopped and looked up there was a giant, brown cow standing a few yards in front of me.   Its huge, unblinking eyes directly met mine. The sight of me had probably stopped it in the middle of chewing its cud. Normally I find cows to be less than intelligent animals, but this one regarded me with an unmistakable expression of both wonderment and disgust. I quickly backed up and rode off, ashamed.

Through some sort of miracle we made it all the way to Seogwi-po City, the only largish town on the southern coast. To add insult to injury the first two hotels had no vacancy. Finally we found a decent place with a friendly and sympathetic clerk. We peeled off our clothes, showered, found a Laundromat, ate a dinner of pork barbecue and called the bike rental guys to come pick our bikes up early. They said they would be happy to, but it would take a while because they had to pick up some other bikes that their other clients had quit using. Gee, go figure.


The next day of our Jeju Trip Yun and I were walking and riding in cabs instead of biking, but the memory of the day before still stung. After seeing a couple of waterfalls we found a coffee shop. It was another cold, wet day and we needed something warm, but we didn’t intend to stay long.

Unlike Seoul, the people of Jeju Island are rather friendly and casual. When I rattled off a stock-memorized sentence in Korean (“Do you happen to have hot chocolate?”) the barista became delighted and tried to start a conversation.

Oh dear.

I tried to muddle my way through her questions, grasping at any words I recognized and answering her as best as I could understand. Of course, I denied that I could speak Korean well, but this seemed to have no effect on her. She said something else I couldn’t understand, and came back a few moments later with a book in her hand. An English book. It was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.

“It’s one of my only English books, so you can read it,” she said, in essence. “This is a very special book to me.”

Gratefully I plopped down into a chair with my hot chocolate mug and it didn’t take me long to realize that Mr. Murakami’s book was strangely apropos to my whole Jeju misadventure. I lost track of time and soon had read the whole thing.

For the record, I have not read any Murakami novels. I am aware that he is a both a bestseller and a sort of darling of the critics, and maybe for that reason I felt a bias and didn’t bother. Illogical, I know. I guess I imagined he was someone pretentious and boring. And for all I know, his novels are that. But his memoir, Running (I’ll call it that for short) is anything but pretentious. And certainly anything but boring.

In a modest but riveting 127 pages Murakami matter-of-factly explains why he enjoys running long distances and how the self-discipline and enjoyment of it help him write novels. He shares pieces and glimpses of his life and his beginnings as both a writer and as a runner. I can’t tell if the self-effacing way he talks about his flaws and foibles is a Japanese cultural thing, personal modesty, subtle humor or all three – whatever it is, it’s delightful. His attitude is either genuine and honest, or so brilliantly contrived that it doesn’t matter if it’s not. He gives you the straight talk on marathons he’s run and the leg cramps, dehydration, crappy weather and other ignominies he’s suffered along the way.

The ecstatic moment for me on that rainy day in the coffee shop, though, was when he began to share his triathlon experiences. Guess which is his least favorite part in the triathlon. One lucky guess.

Murakami seems to feel almost as awkward on a bicycle as yours truly. I think I laughed out loud when he described the hunched leaning position as “a praying mantis with a raised head.”   “It’s next to impossible,” he tells us, and goes on to say that:

Sometimes it [cycling] strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all. I totally agree.

 If a worldwide bestselling Japanese novelist and triathlete feels like cycling is “torture,” I guess I’m not quite such a baby after all. Not quite, anyway.

But Running is a memoir filled with so many more witty and straightforward insights than cycling. After all, it is mainly about running. And about inspiration. Above all, it is personal – he never claims to have found the ultimate answer to anything, but rather, shares his own experiences as an artist and as a runner, for what they’re worth.

One thing (among many) that I think Murakami hits on the head is the concept of pain – and by extension, effort we put into anything we do. That could also include writing a novel. Or overcoming the discomforts of traveling to a new destination:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.

The glorious cliffs of Jusangjeolli.  Was it worth it?

I felt cranky, tired, dirty, soiled and grimy on that long bike ride. I felt pain both physical and figurative. And yet I certainly felt alive. It was the pursuit of that aliveness that gave me the mad impulse to go out in the rain anyway, even though the hotel manager and Yun and I knew it was folly. And while I will never get on one of those lousy praying mantis bikes again I can’t deny that there was a sort of triumph of overcoming.   Yun and I first felt a spark of that triumph when we managed to get our bikes all the way to the cliffs of Jusangjeolli and forget our misery for a few serene moments as we stared at those ranging waves rising towards the sky like something out of a 19th century Romantic painting.

Sometimes pain is worth it. And even when it’s not, it can make for a great story later.

The barista was kind enough to let me read Murakami’s memoir till the end, but she did rather anxiously let me know that I needed to give it back when I was finished. It was one of her few English language books, after all, and other patrons needed a chance to read it. Maybe some day another poor unfortunate soul on a praying mantis bike would stumble in and need some validation. Or not. Either way, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a book that goes wonderfully with hot chocolate, and it just might change your life.










There’s no such thing as the “real” Japan

The Mrs. Moore vs. Adela Quested Way to Travel

For some reason I keep going back to Japan.

I first visited Kyoto two years ago and found it disarmingly quiet and serene. The mute, modest brown and gray homes with bonsai plants in the courtyards, the bicycles on every street corner oozed some sort of otherworldly charm.  Osaka and Tokyo followed, and they proved that the big cities were equally enchanting in their own reserved way – light years apart from the commercialized feel of Seoul. When I sat on the old, worn seat cushions on the Tokyo metro I wondered if I’d actually gone back in time. Quaint and retro aren’t quite the right words, but something was in the atmosphere and I couldn’t put a finger on it and it began to drive me crazy.

The craziness got the better of me. I returned to Kyoto and Osaka last month, determined to become more intimate with Japan. This time I wanted to put a dent in the surface. I wanted to meet Japanese people. If I could sum it up as a question, I guess it would be: “What makes Japan Japan?”

In so doing I almost fell into the same trap as Adela Quested, the heroine of A Passage To India.

The first thing out of Adela’s mouth when we meet her is, “I want to see the real India.” Her tone is almost plaintive. She has just arrived on Indian soil and been quickly ushered into the local bubble of expat British society. Her fiancé’s friends and colleagues are watching a play called “Cousin Kate“ – it’s already played back in England and as you can imagine, it’s about the most un-Indian way to spend an evening possible. A contemporary example would be arriving in Agra for your first time ever, primed to hit the Taj Mahal and maybe watch an traditional dance performance when your expat friend grabs your arm and says, “Hey, the newest Avengers movie just hit theaters here. Let’s go!”

To this you might rightfully respond: “Come on, Jake. I can see the Avengers anytime. I want to see the real India.”

“As opposed to the ‘fake’ India?” Jake retorts. “What exactly do you mean by the ‘real’ India?” Admit it, Jake has a point.

I had already seen red torii gates, shrines, neon lights and zen gardens. This time around I wanted to drink in the same rich scenery, it’s true, but I knew I would always have a one-dimensional view of Japan if I didn’t actually meet some people and have more interactive experiences. I feared I would feel like Adela who, “would see India [or rather Japan] always as a frieze, never as a spirit, and she assumed that it was a spirit of which Mrs. Moore had had a glimpse.”

If Adela Quested is any example of the wrong traveling attitude, her friend Mrs. Moore is a great example of having the right attitude. I’m still currently in the process of trying to be more like Mrs. Moore. Maybe one day when I’m as old as her.

Like Adela, Mrs. Moore is not exactly excited about watching “Cousin Kate.” But instead of complaining that it’s not the “real” India she goes and does something. She goes on a walk and explores a mosque. And that’s where she runs into the one-of-a-kind Dr. Aziz. The two of them – unlike in every outward way you can imagine – unexpectedly hit it off and achieve a sort of cross-cultural understanding. Adela is excited and envious to hear the story, and she too wants to meet “real” Indian people and (to her credit) get outside the artificial confines of the expat community.

Adela does get to meet her share of Indian people. But unlike Mrs. Moore she is unable to really get close to any of them.   She is so conscious of their identity as “Indian,” and in trying to study and understand them as such that she altogether fails to see them as regular people and appreciate them for their own sakes. She even does this to Mrs. Moore’s friend Aziz – “In her ignorance, she regarded him as ‘India,’ and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India.”

When I last went to Japan, I knew better than to expect that Japan could be put into a box. Yet I couldn’t help but hope for a “glimpse of the spirit” of something deeper within Japan – within the culture. I wanted to do something less touristy and more “authentic” to try to get that glimpse.

Meeting Japanese people spontaneously among the ruins the way Mrs. Moore met Aziz is not quite feasible. It’s a nation full of introverts who usually stick to busy schedules. With that as an excuse, I sought out the company of Japanese people ahead of time, through a program called Nagomi Visit. My first host was Chise, a longtime resident of Kyoto.

Chise met me on a Sunday evening at Fushimi-Inarii Station in the middle of a typhoon.   We tried to make small talk, but the storm was too loud. We laughed instead. As soon as we staggered into her apartment, more than a little wet, a surreal feeling hit me. Maybe it was just because I was in her home, but I felt like I was in the company of a friend– not a Japanese person per se, or a Chinese person, or an English person or an American person, for that matter. We were just two people, in an apartment that could have been in Berlin, Los Angeles, Cape Town or anywhere.

The conversation came easily.   Somehow fifteen minutes into it Chise mentioned she has a friend who lives in Utah.

“Are you serious? I have a friend who lives in Utah, too.”

To which Chise laughed one of her beautiful, open laughs,teeth exposed, the complete opposite of how stereotypical Japanese women are assumed to laugh – except her way still had its own feminine gracefulness.

“Ah, really? That’s great!”

We didn’t keep track of time, except when it came to the soup. Chise was following a family recipe. As she showed me how to prepare the broth using the dried bonnet fish and seaweed I reminded myself: I’m in Japan, in a Japanese person’s home. And yes, you are halfway across the world with someone you have never met before, but the beauty of it is not how different and foreign it is, but how familiar and universal it is. And after a while you start to wonder what exactly is the difference. That is the really wondrous part.

Chise making Udon soup.

Chise and I had an informal Q & A discussion about our respective cultures. Some of the things Chise told me about Japan resonated with what I’d heard before (young people are reluctant to marry), others were quite similar to Korea (many social expectations), yet others were not all too different from the US (fewer young people are planning practically for the future). Of course, Chise herself had to be unusual in some ways from a lot of her fellow Japanese. She spoke English quite well and already had friends from other countries.

 She seems so unique and free-spirited – are many other Japanese people like her? Is she really Japanese? There was the Adela Quested coming out in me! Yet again I was comparing reality to an expectation, to an idea. It distracted from the moment, but it was there all the same.

As I walked with Chise from a pharmacy (where she helped me find cold medicine) back to my guesthouse I couldn’t shake my sense of déjà vu. “I feel like I’ve known you a long time,” I told her, as we stood outside saying goodbye.

“I have that feeling too.” She smiled. It wasn’t anything sentimental or wishful. It was just a fact.   My heart felt light when we parted because I had a feeling I would see her again. Just not sure which country or continent, and it honestly didn’t matter.

“Paul” Fukuyama was different in many ways from Chise, besides the fact he was a man. He was older and he had a family of his own. His cobalt blue shorts and Hello Kitty car seat covers spoke to a fashion and style that to my western imagination must be more “typically” Japanese. I think he was just as pleased yet anxious about meeting me as I was meeting him, so both of us were sort of studying the other at first. It was certainly no soul mate connection like Mrs. Moore and Aziz at the mosque. But it was still pleasant.

“So, where you want to go first?” He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and eagerly raised the other hand upwards in a cupping shape, as though it were holding the question. He smiled but didn’t look directly at me.

“Well, let’s see…”

“You been to Golden Temple?”

“Yes, but we can go there again. I don’t mind!”

“Okay, Golden Temple – let’s go.”

Like a lot of people, Paul played music while driving, even though our chatter was almost continuous. The Adela Quested in me half hoped and half expected it would be some sort of classical Japanese folk or rock music that he could expound upon. Instead it was a collection of Paul McCartney hits – one of my childhood favorite artists. Weird déjà vu feelings once again.

“Woah, you like Paul McCartney?”

“Of course! I saw his concert before – in Osaka! It was amazing. I tried to see his concert one more time, in Yokohama. But that time it was too expensive.”

The typhoon clouds were lowering once again when we arrived at the Golden Temple but that’s not the reason why Paul wanted to stay in the car.

“I wait for you here. I seen this place too many times. Not interesting to me.”   He waved his hand back and forth, as though to dismiss the Golden Temple from his presence. “You have a good time.”

The irony when you meet people from other countries is that the thing you find novel and exciting about where they live is often dull or mundane to them, and vice versa. I went to Antelope Canyon four years ago and was shocked at all the Korean and Chinese tourists. Perhaps they were there to see the “real” Arizona. They might have been just as puzzled to meet me and the tape of K-pop songs blasting from my Toyota RAV4.

The folly of thinking that there is a “real” version of any place is that it all goes back to an expectation that may have some credibility, but can never match the complexity of real life. A Victorian B&B is still as “real” as a ryokan, even if both are in Hokkaido. A TJI Friday’s in New Delhi may not be as traditional as a curry masala restaurant, but it’s still in India so at least in some scientific and philosophical sense it has to be “real”. You could argue that what makes a place real and authentic is the people. The thing is, people are more complex than anything else. They are also more important than anything else.

It’s harmless enough to say that you want to eat sushi and not hamburgers in Japan because sushi is real Japanese food. Same for TJI Fridays and curry. But to say that you want to meet “real” people from a place who “represent” the place and the feeling of it underscores the fact that no two people are alike, even when cultural patterns may occur. The bigger the area the more obvious this is. That’s why it is such folly for Adela Quested to assume that Dr. Aziz represents all of India. It would be just as crazy if I thought that Chise and Paul represented all Japanese people.

In A Passage to India the characters talk a lot about India being a “mystery.” So is every country, in its way. I went to Japan hoping to learn and understand it better – and in some ways I did – but part of me now is content to leave it be a mystery. A beautiful and intriguing mystery, just out of reach. I’m pretty sure that Mrs. More was content to leave mysteries alone and just enjoy things in the moment, for their own sake (Adela, on the other hand, “hates mysteries”). Maybe by the time I’m seventy I’ll be almost as mature and wise as she was. There is hope yet.

The “Awful Nearness” of Marriage

3 Lessons from Middlemarch and from real life.

“So, how is married life?” This half-sly, yet genuine question I’ve gotten from several people over the past year. After all, it’s only been fourteen months since Yun Ho and I were married. People are curious. I get that.

I try to give an honest but simple response. Usually it goes something like this: “The first six months were good, but definitely with some challenges. After about six months we started to have fewer problems. Now we almost never have problems. Sort of, anyway.”

 It’s not that things are perfect. Actually, neither of us has changed a ton since we first met.

Yun Ho is a concrete and logical thinker, both very introverted and happy-go-lucky. He can easily enjoy an entire day in solitude with a cup of ramen and a webtoon. I am an abstract thinker who thinks too much. My ideal day is spent with a group of close friends at an amusement park, quoting favorite movies while waiting in line for the roller coaster.

The biggest thing that has changed, really, is perspective.

Before we got married Yun and I used to have a lot of civil but intense “discussions”. I often categorized and philosophized about people; he saw people strictly as individuals. I loved reading a book for the beauty of its language but to him words had no aesthetic value. I thought people ought to be well rounded in their education. Yun Ho argued that people should be able to focus on only what they care most about in life.

I’d say it took a few hundred hours for us to truly learn the art of “getting along.” We learned to listen better and consider the other person’s point of view. We stopped feeling threatened. For two stubborn first-born Millennials I would venture to say that’s a tiny miracle. I’m just grateful that we hashed out so much stuff before we got married. Sadly, in my experience, a lot of people wait until after they’re married to really get to know each other – if they ever do at all.

This brings me to a novel I read recently: George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  It’s a novel of many angles, but the one that struck me most is the excruciating, up-close-and-personal look it gives at married life. Eliot’s characters run the gamut of marriage challenges: money troubles, pride, mismatched expectations and bad communication.  Her spot-on observations will make you laugh or wince. Or both.

Here are just three “insights” into marriage and human nature found in Middlemarch that I also found to be true in my own life.

#1: Don’t freak out when hard times come

The heroine of Middlemarch, Dorothea, has a tough time wedded to a much older guy named Edward Casaubon. In the meantime she befriends his younger cousin, Will. When Casaubon dies and Will banishes himself from Middlemarch to avoid a scandal, Dorothea is devastated. Perhaps no one can put it into words better than Eliot:

If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems to be final, simply because it is new. (Ch 55).

 Needless to say, as awful and real as the crisis feels, Dorothea’s despair is premature. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this isn’t actually the last time she sees Will.   She just thinks it is.

It’s only through time and experience that we realize crappy single events don’t actually doom us to a crappy destiny. Sure, sometimes people and relationships really do die. Sometimes the conflict in a relationship can’t be fixed. But often, it’s not the problem itself – it’s how you handle the problem. It took me a long time to realize this.

When Yun and I first started actually living together it was really tough having disagreements. I had never been “stuck” with anyone before.  If we disagreed on where to keep the garbage I couldn’t tell him “screw your idea,” because it was our home, our garbage, our issue. If one of us was in a bad mood and misunderstood the other person – even if it was about something as silly as planning what to eat on a vacation in Japan – then the other person also went into a bad mood, and the atmosphere spiraled downwards. This led to snarky thoughts, which led to guilt, which in turn led to mild despair. We live in a small two-roomed apartment together on the 14th floor so lack of privacy didn’t exactly help, either.

I had to find outlets. One time I went outside to the nearest playground and sat on the swings. Another time I walked to the park next door, got caught in a downpour, and hid out for an hour under a gazebo.  Sometimes I sat outside next to the elevator and just had a good cry. Some nights I just didn’t get much sleep.

I remember one time we had an argument over Pixar versus Dreamworks animation movies. I can’t remember how exactly it started (except that it had to do with the word “quality”), but I know it ended with him storming off into the other room and I went to bed alone. A half hour later he came back and apologized between sniffles. Now we just laugh about it.

We both saw the best and worst of each other – and ourselves – within those first several weeks of coexistence.  The big take away: don’t freak out when there are unpleasant experiences. Don’t mistake a frustrating incident for a sign that you are “not compatible.” Distance yourself from your emotions just a bit, eat a bag of gummy bears, and take a nap. In the moment it might feel like a crisis – but next week it probably won’t.   Because it’s probably not a crisis.   Especially if you’re an emotional ball of nerves like me.

#2: Expectation is the key

 Rosamond Vincy, one of the main characters in Middlemarch, finds that life is not exactly rosy after she gets married. Her husband doesn’t make as much money as she expects.   When she refuses to give up her expensive lifestyle they start bickering. Exasperated, Rosamond finds herself dreaming about her friend Will Ladislaw:

 He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui.

In other words, Rosamond’s problem is with Rosamond.

I had to face my own struggles with this issue of self-suppression and tolerance – a lot of it before getting married, actually. While Yun and I were dating I actually experienced a lot of anxiety because I felt overwhelmed with making the “big” decision: was it “right”? Was there someone out there “better”? Were we really “compatible”? These questions especially nagged whenever he acted in a way that was “different” from what I had originally envisioned in my spouse. I thought of myself as a tolerant person, but my anxiety revealed I didn’t accept the differences between us as well as I thought.

One of the big turning points came when a very wise and experienced friend – who had been through a horrendous marriage and divorce – told us one evening: “The key to happiness in marriage is expectation.”

That was a new thought to me. Wasn’t happiness in marriage about communication? Wasn’t it about “similar interests” and personality and being able to laugh together and having mutual attraction and all that kind of thing?

It’s not that those things aren’t important. But none of those things are worth a hill of beans if the two people don’t have realistic expectations. You’ve got to be comfortable with some differences, some adjustments, and some awkwardness at times. The awkward times will come, sooner or later. You’ve got to be okay with the fact that he likes Owl City and you’d rather listen to Amy Winehouse. You’ve got to be okay with the fact that he likes those serial sci-fi paperbacks and you prefer “literature.” It doesn’t have to alienate you; you learn to appreciate and respect the other’s tastes and opinions over time, until you can tease each other about it without being defensive.  There’s no “Unreal Better” person out there, which in today’s terms might be referred to as a “soul mate.” Rather, your partner transforms into your soul mate over time as the two of you create history together.

The funny thing is that after Yun and I got married most of the anxiety went away.   It was a relief to have finally made the big decision, but I confess it helped that I married someone who was both kind and patient. And who also had the right kind of expectations.
#3  Take care of your marriage – or you could end up murdering it

 By the end of Middlemarch Rosamond’s marriage to Lydgate is in shambles, and Dorothea is resigned she’ll never see Will again.

The two women end up in a personal conversation. Dorothea, in trying to connect with Rosamond confesses some of her own feelings:

Marriage is so unlike anything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings. Even if we loved someone else better than – than those we were married to, it would be no use….I mean, marriage drinks up all our power in giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear, but it murders our marriage – and then the marriage stays with us like a murder – and everything else is gone. And then our husband – if he loved and trusted us, but we have not helped him, but made a curse in his life…”

What Dorothea doesn’t realize is that her confession actually reflects Rosamond more accurately than it does herself. The “someone else” in question, for both women, is Will Ladislaw. They both like him even though they both married other men. But Casaubon had never loved and trusted Dorothea the way Lydgate had loved and trusted (or at least tried to love and trust) Rosamond. The situation is pure irony. Dorothea is preaching to the choir here.

Speaker aside, the message itself is powerful. In our day and age of fleeting relationships and prenup divorce we might argue that marriage does not “drink up all our power,” – at least not the way it used to. But we can’t deny that when we marry we do make a promise to stick with the other person until the end. So here is the question: do we help the marriage along, or do we murder it?

I think of relationships – including marriage – as organic and living, like a plant. There’s no way around it: you have to water the thing every day or it will die. Rosamond’s marriage to Lydgate is shriveled up and parched. She has unwittingly murdered her own marriage by blaming, despising and ignoring her husband even as he tries to reach out to her.

The phrase that really gets me is, “something awful in the nearness it brings.” I don’t think Dorothea is trying to say marriage is bad because it requires commitment. I think rather she is saying that marriage is no joke. It will change you, for better or for worse, and it will force you to be accountable to another person the way no other relationship can. Either you will save him or you will murder him. There’s no middle ground when you have promised to be together till the end of time.

So far Yun Ho and I have managed to not murder our marriage – or each other. In fact, I’d say we’re making a pretty good pace in the opposite direction. Yet every time I’m not as patient as I should be, or say something peevish I can’t help but wonder if I’ve maybe murdered a tiny fraction of him. Or I’ve murdered a tiny fraction of our relationship. Marriage is a big responsibility.

The great thing about marriage is also the kicker: it requires so much. For it to really bloom you have to give up a lot of personal space, loud music streaming and megalomania. I’m still working on all of those. But in return you get something undeniably better: a best friend and a muse who will help turn you into the best version of you possible without ever judging. Your old life and your old self will die, but you won’t miss them.

For those who have married the wrong person, the “nearness” of marriage truly can be awful – but for those who are more careful (or lucky), it just might be the best thing that’s ever happened to us.

A Tale of Two Grandmas

What I have learned so far from a sappy novel and my formidable Korean grandmother-in-law about filial piety.


Ever since reading a story about a woman named Park So Nyo who goes missing at a train station I can’t stop thinking about another woman named Nam Pib Han.

You could say she is one of the many “real life” versions of So Nyo, living her life quietly the way she always has out in the countryside while her children and grandchildren head to the city. Luckily her existence is not cold or thankless like So Nyo’s. But she does face the same cultural, generation gap that many other elderly Korean people today face.

Nam Pib Han, by the way, is my husband’s grandma.

When I tell Korean people that I married a Korean man, one of the things they are most anxious to know is how I get along with my mother-in-law. Not unlike neighboring “tiger moms” in China, Korean matriarchs are a force to be reckoned with. So when I cheerily report that not only is my mother-in-law a very kind and laid back sort of person, but that she and my father-in-law are entrepreneurs living in Salt Lake City you can imagine the wide-eyed reactions I sometimes get.

But on the other hand, I silently add, my grandmother-in-law is not someone you want to mess with anytime soon!

The first time I met Grandma Yun Ho and I were still dating. It was during Chuseok – the full moon harvest holiday. Breakfast was at 6 AM in the morning, and the ceremony right afterwards.   I woke up a few minutes too late, and right after slumping onto the toilet I heard a banging at the door.   Not wanting to seem rude by shouting at an old woman (especially while sitting on the toilet), I awkwardly sat frozen while she continued to hammer away for a good minute or so. The banging finally stopped, and Grandma had no choice but to give up and clamber onto her scooter and drive off to Aunt and Uncle’s up the road.

 The rest of the time went a bit more smoothly – I appeased both Aunt and Grandma by stuffing myself at the table and did my best to help clear dishes. Grandma was a tad ruffled that I couldn’t be of more use in the kitchen, but she acknowledged that my limited Korean language skills made it difficult. My last memory of that trip was standing outside her front porch and eating steamed corn on the cob that she had insisted on giving me. She grinned as I ate it – that small reassurance was enough to keep me chomping away in spite of my bursting stomach seams.

A year and a half later, two months after our wedding Yun and I returned to Grandma’s to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This time around I was actual family, so I did my best to make myself useful. I already knew Grandma (and to some extent, Aunt) expected it. Yun and I gave them gift money and did the “full bow”, once to Grandma and Grandpa, and once also to Aunt and Uncle. I tried to use Korean phrases whenever the opportunity arose. But in spite of efforts on both sides to be gracious, there was a definite strain this time around. Tensions were taut. Grandma was irritable unless all the women were in the kitchen helping, in spite of the limited amount of work to be done. Both Aunt and Grandma almost never smiled. Long silent meals were followed by longer periods of time idling in front of a TV playing at low volume, until each family member wandered off one by one to take a nap. Whenever we took our leave, Grandma would bark, “Be sure you come back for dinner!”

In my stressed and hypersensitive state I tried to “figure out what had gone wrong.” I was well aware that filial piety was a crucial aspect of Korean culture – was I not “pious” enough? Or was the “filial” part the issue, since I was a foreigner?

That night I had what one might describe as “an inevitable mini meltdown.” I experienced the strange, distinct sensation of suddenly being in someone else’s life – of feeling like I was in some sort of cross-cultural drama. I recall sitting in Grandma’s humble, dusty little guestroom, staring at Yun and thinking, “How did I get here?” The man who I was in love with and whom I had married was also the very reason I was there, and thus the reason I was having this spectacularly suffocating experience. That very thought made me feel a pang of guilt, and redoubled my annoyance with myself. Why couldn’t I just shake it off? It was at that point that Yun confessed to me that he, too, was not “having fun.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” he began.

“You and I aren’t happy right now because we don’t know what else to do.   Aunt isn’t happy because she isn’t sure what to do. And Grandma herself isn’t happy because she probably doesn’t know what to do, either.   We’re all family, but we’re not close. We live apart. We have totally different lives. And then there’s the language barrier. Grandma and Aunt probably never expected their kids and grandkids to end up so differently from them.”

I have to admit, I can understand why the characters in Kyung Sook Shin’s “Please Take Care of Mom” were so frustrated all the time. So Nyo, like Grandma, wanted what was best for her children – even if that meant their lives went in opposite directions from her own. But could even So Nyo and Grandma have anticipated just how different that would be?   Did So Nyo realize that her literate daughter would turn into a famous writer and travel the world? Did Grandma consider that five of her seven children would move to other countries, and three of her grandsons would marry foreign women? Did either woman ever manage to make peace with these events while they themselves stayed at home, tending to their farm, feeding the chickens, making banchan, and taking care of the ancestral rites?

What are Park So Nyo and Nam Pib Han’s ultimate feelings on the matter, anyway? In “Please Take Care of Mom” we never get So Nyo’s exact sentiment. Even in her death she is more concerned about her family members and their welfare than she is about her own, and seems almost resigned to her less than ideal life.  The most revealing passage in the novel, perhaps, is one in which So Nyo’s daughter Chi Hon asks her, “Mom, do you like being in the kitchen?”

So Nyo is utterly nonplussed by her daughter’s question.  “I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to.”

So perhaps Grandma is simply doing what she has to do, in her own gruff way, neither liking nor disliking it, and I am misinterpreting it as personal resentment. I can see that being the case. Yet at the same time, there still obviously is some sort of expectation on her end. And that expectation goes back to the matter of filial piety.

This begs the question: what exactly is filial piety and how does it apply in an ever-changing and modernizing world?

How is it that we can we honor our elders and make everyone happy in spite of long distance, technological distractions, intermarriage, shifting values and a bigger generation gap than ever? Is it even possible – or is filial piety a concept of yesteryear that the old merely reminisce over and the young only know about through watching Korean dramas?

In seeking to answer this question I now begin to see the obvious differences between the lives of Park So Nyo and Nam Pib Han.

While Park So Nyo’s family had evolved and urbanized so dramatically that they literally lost their own mother at a train station and had no clue where to find her, Nam Pib Han aka Grandma is blessed to live next door to her oldest son and daughter-in law who never let her out of sight. The other kids, although they live further away, come and pay their respects whenever they can, and the grandkids haven’t turned out too badly, either. Yun Ho, in his seven years of living in Korea as an adult has managed to make it out to the family farm every year for important holidays, as well as special occasions like weddings and funerals (I accompany him whenever I can).   So much for Kyung Sook Shin’s scathing description of Korean people who board a jet plane during the traditional holidays and exclaim, “Ancestors, I’ll be back!”

Also unlike So Nyo, Grandma can read and write (actually, most in her generation can) and her husband was always loyal and even cooked her seaweed soup once in a while. Perhaps the fact she outlived him meant he didn’t have a painful lesson to learn, the way So Nyo’s husband did.

So Nyo was never able to leave Korea, and rarely even went to Seoul. Grandma, on the other hand, has traveled to Canada and the US to visit her children, and even saw the Vegas Strip. You might not imagine it from your first assessment of her – she is as crumpled and careworn as the other women of her generation – but she has seen more of the world than many of her peers. During her youth she fled with her family to China to escape North Korean soldiers. I’m sure she would be full of fascinating stories, if only she were prompted to share them. (In fact, perhaps I should make that a project for the next time we visit her!).

So while there is awkwardness and compromise, while there are disappointed expectations and undeniable distance, I feel that Yun Ho and his family (and hopefully me, by extension) have found our own 21st century way to observe filial piety, the best way we can. Doubtless a few more phone calls wouldn’t hurt. But I would like to think if we were walking with Grandma in a train station, she wouldn’t slip away from our notice and get lost in the crowd. I would like to think that when she passes away we aren’t consumed with regret at what we should have done but did not.

Real life is never perfect, but there’s often a lot that’s good to it, and that is why I prefer Nam Pib Han’s story to Park So Nyo’s. And I’m glad that it’s the story that also happens to be true.

The Korean Lunar New Year is less than a week away. This year my parents will be visiting Korea – there will be no chance during the holiday to visit Grandma.

“That’s a phone call I don’t want to make,” Yun confessed to me the other night.   I admit that I felt a twinge of guilt: would Grandma understand? Or were we disappointing her expectations, yet again? In her culture you don’t simply invite over your grandson’s wife’s American relatives for the New Year, otherwise that might strike some people as an obvious solution.

It then occurred to me that we could always create a plan B. There’s no rule written in stone that says we can’t visit Grandma and Aunt and Uncle at another “normal” time of the year to bear gifts and pay respects. Perhaps setting up a “rain check” with Grandma would appease her for the time being. I’ve already begun considering which sorts of goodies or household items she might most enjoy.   It’s not an ideal scenario, but it is the next best thing possible – and that is precisely what I mean by “filial piety in the 21st century.”

I’ll send a text message to my mom tonight to see if she has any extra space to pack a carton of Sees’ mini pops.   And perhaps I should write a reminder note to go on my closet door as well: “Please look after Grandma.”