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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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…?”

“Well…”

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book #24. The Beach. By Alex Garland.

Be careful what you wish for. It might make you temporarily insane.

I knew, ever since Yun and I began to plan our Southeast Asia trip, that I had to read this book.

Mention The Beach within a circle of travelers and you will probably see heads nod and eyes gleam. As far as I know, it’s the only famous backpacker novel in existence. Apparently Leonardo Di Caprio starred in a decent film version but I didn’t want to spoil the plot by watching the movie first. And boy am I glad I didn’t. You could say this book is the literary equivalent of a gourmet burger: exciting to plow through, but you’ve got to be sure to pace yourself, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The star of the plot is Richard, a roguish lone traveller who you could say is sort of a Gen X version of Humphrey Bogart. Richard sets out for an adventure in Bangkok but is soon bored by his touristic surroundings. That changes quickly when he ends up rooming next to a crazy guy who calls himself Daffy Duck. Daffy commits a gruesome suicide soon afterwards, but not before leaving Richard a handwritten map to a secret, unspoiled island. An opportunistic young French couple wants in on the action, and soon the three are paddling off in search of the alleged tourist-free Shangri La.

A duller and more literary book would have Daffy’s mysterious island tantalizingly out of reach and not quite real. But in The Beach it’s real. So real that cannabis farmers living on one side of it almost cross paths with Richard and his friends and the three barely escape with their lives. Only after stumbling along a bit further do they discover an incredible colony of like-minded expats, living in blissful and tropical self-exile.

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Although The Beach is supposed to be on an unnamed island in Thailand, there’s a well-founded rumor that Alex Garland drew his inspiration from an island in the Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines…  Possibly this one?

Sal, the enigmatic leader of the colony, welcomes the three newcomers and gives them tasks to earn their keep. Their fellow islanders seem more or less ready to welcome them in and life unfolds at a paradisiacal slow pace as everyone helps out with fishing, cooking, farming and building. But nothing is too perfect to fail.  In the case of the island (and its equally paradisiacal beach) things can actually go bad. Quite bad.

The Beach is like a psychedelic mixture of Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness with an extra shot of adrenaline but still enough ideas for a book discussion.  Is it a cautionary tale for those who are too eager to chase extreme forms of adventure? Is it simply an imaginative thriller? A bit of both? Certainly the narrative is deft and the writing is smart, in spite of a few plot holes and over the top scenarios – but isn’t that part of the fun?

Richard is an ideal narrator in many ways because he does not distract the reader with too many moral observations about himself or about those around him – you could say he is a truly reliable narrator. He is openly flawed, matter-of-fact, selfish, bored and honest:

Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started traveling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do. Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Banave, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly and interesting.  

Sound familiar? Many people whose weakness is travel may recognize these aspirations. I almost winced, like a mirror had been held up. Can even travel become…banal? With the wrong attitude, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why adventure junkies like Richard are perfectly primed for the self-destruction that lies behind a travel destination that is too good to be true. That’s not to say you need to be a backpacker or travel junkie to appreciate The Beach. It’s fast-paced, funny, lush, full of lurid yet likeable characters and it ends the way it should. Ideally it should be read in a gently swaying hammock overlooking a pristine a propos shoreline in the middle of the day. If you have no choice except to read it at night, though, you just may want to consider a nightlight.   The Beach is certainly entertaining, but it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of human nature. 

What I (think I) learned this past year

Almost exactly one year ago I was sitting in my apartment in Seongnam, South Korea and realized I was going to turn 29 soon.  And then somehow I decided that it would be a great idea to start a blog and read 29 books within a year.

Getting older is a mixed bag, emotionally speaking.  On the one hand, dreams fade and doors close (or slam) as you realize you no longer have enough time left on earth to do all the cool things you had hoped.   With growing alarm you realize that even some of the basic things – like buying a house, setting up car insurance or investing in some sort of savvy retirement plan – you’ve yet to accomplish.  Not only are your dreams of being a prodigy dashed, you suddenly find that you are “average,” or even below average compared to your peers in 21st century Americana.

On the other hand, you gain confidence.  You’ve boughten plane tickets, opened bank accounts, had successful job interviews, moved multiple cardboard boxes of stuff multiple times to multiple homes and set up shop and somehow made it work.  And where else does such confidence come from but sheer experience?   Perhaps confidence is a misleading word because it suggests some sort of proactive, can-do attitude that conjures up an image of an attractive person in a pantsuit making lots of important phone calls.  To me, that’s not confidence.  Sure, some people are natural networkers and go-getters (not me), but I’ve experienced that confidence is simply this: the inevitable result of willingly doing boring, demanding “grown up” stuff on your own over a period of time.  Not only do you survive and not screw up or blow your credit to hell – you do just fine.

So yes, as I get older I realize there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve done alright, and that makes me feel good.  There’s still other stuff I haven’t done, but that’s okay.  Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.

2016 was a good year for me as far as, “doing stuff alright.”  The biggest highlights include the travel I did (mostly with Yun) and actually finishing my goal to read 29 books.   Predictably, some of the books were better or more enjoyable than others.  The predictable question I suppose, is, “what did you learn from it all?”  Or better yet, “did you learn anything at all?”

The short answer: Yes.  The long answer requires putting words crafted in an original enough way that I hope can stick with you, instead of evaporating like a trite meme on Facebook.  But how to do that?  And how to condense the foggy but powerful impressions I experienced?  Is there anything profound or true that I gained, or was it a lot of emotions and aesthetics?

Here is the best way I can sum up what I (think I) learned in 2016:

1. Anywhere can be boring.

The most interesting thing I realized while traveling this past year was that anywhere you go, you are on someone’s mundane and familiar home turf.  “Exotic” and “exciting” are completely relative terms.   Diving with sea turtles may be the experience of a lifetime for you, but for your dive guide, it’s her bread and butter.  Mind-blowing jungle landscapes in Malaysia had me slack-jawed, while the holiday makers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore were mainly interested in strawberry markets.  Strawberries, for crying out loud. Because to them, the European imports are that much more interesting than rafflesia flowers and pitcher plants.  Things that are familiar become boring.  In the worst case, you may not even care about preserving or understanding them (a problem for the jungles in Malaysia, anyway, according to our guide Joe).

But there’s something very good here.  If anywhere can be boring, simply invert that and you discover that anywhere can also be really exciting.

It’s all perspective.  Now, of course Yun and I paid with our hard-earned savings to travel to these different places because we wanted to experience something “different,” and we did just that.  But the more time we spent talking to guides and other locals, the more we realized that the beauty and excitement in something has to do with how you associate it.  Do you see elephants as a commodity, or do you see them as otherworldly creatures that bring you joy and and inspiration?  A lot of that would have to do with how and where you grew up.  A Thai elephant trainer and a middle class American woman are going to see that one very differently.

The cool thing, though, is that perspectives can change based on enough experiences (or just a touch of wisdom and sense).  After living in South Korea for almost five years I returned to my hometown in Arizona and found it absolutely surreal.  As I sat in my dad’s truck listening to him tell stories about the Lost Dutchman and ore mines in the mountains it almost seemed like I was on another tour of a new and faraway land.  Except this time it was my birthplace.

My dad knows a thing or two about this subject.  He used to work at a hotel, sometimes arranging tours for guests who came from as far away as Japan and Germany.

“Early in a morning a jeep would pick them up and drive them far out north, out towards the mountains like we’re heading now.  They would see a rattlesnake in the wild and have a chance to fire powdered bullets out of a pistol.  Later they’d build a big fire and have a steak dinner and the guide would pull out a guitar and start playing cowboy songs.  And they loved it.  One lady came to us in tears the next day and said it was the best experience of her life.”

A few years ago I would have just laughed at that.  I wouldn’t have believed it.  But I get it now.  And the Phoenix valley no longer looks boring to me.  It’s exhilarating and sublime, in fact.  I even have an interest now in the history of the miners and the Native tribes and the Mexican settlers.  And the ironic part is that it’s thanks to spending enough time on the other side of the Pacific ocean, in places where rain forests, Buddhist temples and tuk-tuks were “normal” and “boring.”

2.  I can’t believe that I only read British and American novels for so many years

How to explain.  How to not sound hoity-toity.  The truth is, it really was eye-opening this year to read so many books written in other countries.  I still read a lot of British and American novels, mainly because my options were limited due to geographical reasons, but the international books I was able to read (mainly Asian) added so much color and fun to my traditional diet of “classics.”  Of course, traveling to a lot of those countries solidified it – but I don’t think travel is necessary to enjoy a book.

Until last year, I didn’t even realize the Philippines had a national literary hero who almost single-handedly inspired a revolution.  I read his novel (Noli Mi Tangere), and it was fascinating.  Until last year I’d never read a Korean novel, so I found a few of those and gave them a try.  I even ventured into the kind of books that would normally appear on post-colonial reading requirements for a college course (Things Fall Apart, anyone?), but I actually enjoyed them – probably because I didn’t read them as a requirement, but instead out of my own curiosity.

The bottom line is, it’s fun to learn about different places where different cultural values and customs are the norm.  Frankly, it helps you understand your own norms.  Learning about the rigidity of Korean family roles I realized the things I take for granted in my life – such as not even addressing my aunt and uncle by their titles.  Reading a post-colonial Indonesian novel (This Earth of Mankind) in which the author himself admits that in spite of the cruelty of the Dutch, the Europeans overall treat their women better than the locals suddenly presents interesting ethical food for thought.  And sometimes, the most surprising things of all are when you discover that characters, for example in 1920’s Japan, are all too relatable to people you meet today.

In hindsight, it’s like I was seeing through a small crack – whereas now that crack has broadened into a small hole.  The more countries and cultures I learned about, the more familiar, less strange and intimidating, and more interesting they became.  I can’t say whether the similarities or differences between such cultures and ours are more important, because both are crucial to get the full picture.

3. Dream big, but plan small – for now

It’s kind of a miracle I actually managed to read 29 books in a year.  Not that it’s hard to do so.  I actually have a dear friend who managed to finish about triple that in the same space of time.   I’m just lousy at keeping goals.

But the difference this time was that I kept it modest, and I kept it specific.  If I had strived for anything over 30, I would have choked in the dust.  My curse is that I am interested in too many things at a time, and tend to browse superficially through them – or focus too hard and then burn out soon afterwards.   Even worse, I am something of a perfectionist and dislike doing something if I feel I can’t do it just right.  That often comes into play when writing blog entries.  It almost drives me nuts that I can’t replicate the quality in my own stuff that I recognize so readily in other people’s.  But a lot of that boils down to pride, the most major pitfall of all.

I obviously didn’t go viral this year and get rich this year, nor did I even write nearly as much content as I’d hoped.  But I did keep going, kept reading, kept writing, and I’m still here.  And I don’t intend to go away.

This year is going to look very different from last, now that Yun and I live in Arizona rather than South Korea.  There are no big international trips on the horizon, and may not be for a while.  But if I am to practice what I preach, then any place can be exciting and interesting, with the right perspective.  And not being able to physically travel far away gives me all the more reason to travel and discover new stuff and ideas in the form of books.  Happy 2017 and happy reading, everyone!

The Completed List of 29 Books for the year of 2016:

1. Please Take Care of Mom, Shin Sook Kyung

2. Middlemarch, George Eliot

3. Love’s Executioner, Irving Yalom

4. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

5. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

6. Naomi, Junichiro Tanizaki

7. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

8. 198: How I Ran Out of Countries, Gunnar Garfors

9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim

10. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

11. The Vegetarian, Han Kang

12. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns

13. The Lost Executioner, Nic Dunlop

14. First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung

15. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

16. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

17. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

18. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

19. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

20. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

21. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

22. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

23. Noli Mi Tangere, Jose Rizal

24. The Beach, Alex Garland

25. Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap

26. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig

27. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, Shamini Flint

28. The Princess Bride, William Goldman

29. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

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.

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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.

Book #15: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

“Oh man,” I thought, after I finished reading this book for the second time. “How do I do this?”

A recurring theme in A Passage To India is how multifaceted India is and how it’s impossible to put her into a box. Likewise, the novel itself has multiple ideas and aspects that can’t be summed up easily. Is it colonialist, post-colonialist, or neither? It’s a book that has managed to offend both British and Indians (and Edward Said), yet ultimately it’s not even a book about “India.”   Or is it? Like the elephant and the blind men in the old proverb, seven people could read it and each come away with something different but still relevant.

Maybe that’s why I read it twice.

The British Raj is on the wane in the 1920’s when the action begins. Most of the main characters are British, and so is the author. Yet the opening scene is a dinner gathering exclusively of Indians.   The big question of the evening is: “Is it possible to become friends with an Englishman?” Many of the diners argue, “No.” Among them is our eventual protagonist Aziz – a young widowed doctor with a passion for poetry:

“They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better.  I give the Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton.   It is only the difference of a letter.  And I give any Englishwoman six months.  All are exactly alike.”

It seems hardly coincidence, then, when sometime later that evening Aziz stumbles upon an older Englishwoman while both are out for a stroll on the grounds of a mosque. Aziz is mortified at first, but soon realizes the old woman – Mrs. Moore – is open-minded and genuinely interested in exploring the new culture. An unlikely connection develops between the two and Aziz begins to reconsider his previous opinions.

Mrs. Moore has in tow a prospective daughter-in-law, Adela, who also fancies herself open-minded but seems to be hell-bent on seeing “the real India” and having some sort of romantic, whirlwind Oriental experience. Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny is busy trying to keep his head above water with his job as a government worker and does not at all approve of Mrs. Moore and Adela’s dallyings with Aziz and other locals:

“We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them’s my sentiments. India isn’t a drawingroom.”

 “Your sentiments are those of a god,” she said, quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

 Trying to recover his temper, he said, “India likes gods.”

 “And Englishmen like posing as gods.”

Luckily Mrs. Moore and Adela – and Aziz – find a new friend in a school teacher, Cyril Fielding who is even more liberal in his attitudes than the two ladies and even less caring of what his fellow “Anglo Indians” think of him.

Fielding, Aziz, Mrs. Moore, Adela – along with Godbole, a Hindu colleague – begin a fragile but exciting new friendship together as they share food, conversation and poetry. Then one day, a planned expedition of theirs to the famous Marabar Caves goes horribly awry and leaves Aziz in greater doubt than ever before as to whether true friendship with English people is possible.

When I really like a book, I instinctively hold back from summarizing the whole thing.  A Passage to India is worth the read and so I won’t spoil it – especially not the famous climax at the Marabar Caves.  But I will highlight what it is that keeps me thinking about this book, long after I’ve finished reading it.

  1. The Characters

I think Forster had to be a sympathetic character during his lifetime: he was a gay man living in Edwardian England and as such was compelled to keep his identity a secret. In one way or another, all of his most important characters are outcasts or sympathetic.

Aziz is obvious: as an Indian he receives more than his fair share of prejudice and injustice from most of the British characters, although he identifies himself as a Muslim, not as an Indian (the British outsiders mostly fail to appreciate these distinctions within India, which is another recurring theme). It’s only when his negative experiences with the British leave him so embittered that he stands in the rain in a pivotal moment and realizes, “I am an Indian at last.”

For all his tribulations, though, Aziz is not without flaw. His passionate and easily provoked nature leads him to losing faith even in those he could still trust – namely, Fielding.

The relationship between Fielding and Aziz is one of the most memorable in classic literature. Detached and logical Fielding is the perfect foil to Aziz’s more reactive personality and their conversations are barbed and delightful:

(Aziz): “If money goes, money comes. If money stays, death comes. Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb? Probably not, for I have just invented it.”

 (Fielding): “My proverbs are: A penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine; Look before you leap; and the British Empire rests on them. You will never kick us out, you know, until you cease employing M.L.’s and such.”

Forster had an Indian Muslim friend in his own life – Syed Ross Masood. Most agree that the character of Fielding is patterned after Forster himself, and Aziz was very possibly inspired by Masood. It would make sense: the most convincing and dynamic relationships in literature usually seem to have a basis in real life.

The character of Fielding may not get the flack Aziz does, but he is on the periphery of Anglo-Indian society as he generally prefers the company of Indians to his own people.  He never had that attitude back in Britain – rather, he finds the expat crowd in India to ironically be more closed-minded than the English who live in England.  By siding with Aziz he effectively chooses to go against his own people.

Adela Quested is not your typical heroine, either.  She comes to India restless and full of expectation that’s set up for disappointment. She is well meaning but awkward. When she meets Aziz she sees him only as a label, not as an individual:

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.

 Adela, like Aziz, has to go through her trials and misadventures and in the end becomes a more mature (if still awkward) person for it. Even Ronny, Adela’s uptight fiancé is not without redeeming qualities. He does his best to be patient with his mother and her opinions, which he considers to be idealistic. He tries to be reasonable and understanding, but his stressful and political work life makes it difficult.

One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.

 It would be easy enough for an author writing a critique on British colonialism to depict those in charge as shallow and self-interested. Indeed, some of the more minor characters are just that – but examples like Ronny prove that it’s not always that simple and the reality isn’t black and white.

 2.The Ideas

 The narrative style of A Passage to India is simple and traditional, compared to certain other novels that were written around the same time (think, Virginia Woolf). In that way, it’s an easy and pleasant enough read. But the ideas themselves are anything but simple.

One of the most profound and disturbing parts of the book is when the characters enter the Marabar Caves and hear the endless “ou-boun” sound – the sound that represents the annihilation of every individual quality in life as it’s absorbed into one great whole. It’s a Eastern, particularly Hindu concept, but it freaks out western characters like Mrs. Moore who comes from a culture where individuality and immortality of the soul is paramount. Of course, the revelation in the cave – the “ou-boun” sound – is just fiction, but it gives rise to the thought: why is annihilation of the self so terrifying? Does the self live on after death, or does it get absorbed into something else? What’s the meaning of life, anyway?

A consistent theme I’ve noticed in reading novels that are written post World War I (this one included) is a heightened fear of death that comes with a doubtfulness as to there being any meaning in life. I know that sounds depressing, but I can’t really blame anyone who’s survived World War I for having those thoughts.  In A Passage to India it’s interesting to explore these thoughts with a new spin that involves Eastern religious worldviews.

This novel is, in fact, filled with uncomfortable but important questions. Another one is, “how is England justified in holding India?” It’s a question that Aziz’s friend Hamidullah puts to Fielding.

“It’s a question I can’t get my mind on to,” he replied. “I’m out here personally because I needed a job…”

 “Well-qualified Indians also need jobs in the educational.”

 “I guess they do; I got in first,” said Fielding, smiling.

 “Then excuse me again – is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available…?

 Finding himself in a corner, Fielding gives the honest answer the one can only give in such a situation:

“I can’t tell you anything about fairness. It mayn’t have been fair that I should have been born. I take up some other fellow’s air, don’t I, whenever I breathe? Still, I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad I’m out here. However big a badmash one is – if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”

 Forster is not one of those authors who takes a nihilistic view of things and claim that truth does not exist. However he suggests that the truth of some matters is more complex than we might assume. The values that the British and the Indians hold respectively lead to culture clashes and confusion. In the foreign atmosphere that is India, one cannot take anything for granted:

But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge into something else.

As a reader you have to wonder if Forster literally means us to understand India in that way, or if India is a metaphor for the world or even life itself. For all the metaphysical rumblings, it never gets dark or bitter like so many other 20th and 21st century novels. The ideas are just clear enough to be discussable, but deep enough to be tantalizing and discussion-worthy.

  3. The Writing

Finally, what is a great novel is the writing is not up to par? A Passage to India can admittedly be a bit dense at times, but the conversational passages are generally wonderful, and some of the descriptions are lovely as well. Here is one example:

The faint, indescribable smell of the bazaars invaded her, sweeter than a London slum, yet more disquieting: a tuft of scented cotton wool, wedged in an old man’s ear, fragments of pan between his black teeth, odorous powders, oils – the Scented East of tradition, but blended with human sweat as if a great king had been entangled in ignominy and could not free himself, or as if the heat of the sun had boiled and fried all the glories of the earth into a single mess.

 Forster traveled to India twice before finishing this novel. It’s not surprising to me, then, how alluring and vivid his descriptions of the scenery are. His India is not a perfectly beautiful one, nor is it sordid and dismal, but rather an intoxicating and arresting mixture of many qualities that resonates with other accounts of India that I have come across over the years. I have always wanted to travel to India, and this novel has only piqued my interest.  I’d be curious to know what people who have been to India think of this book.

There are those novels whose authors are masterful at character development (Jane Austen), others which are intellectually stimulating (Dostoevsky) and yet others which are beautifully written (Lolita, by Nabakov). A Passage to India does not rank first in any of these categories, yet it manages to succeed in all three of them. A testament to this is the fact I have 17 pages’ worth of highlighted passages in my reader, and still haven’t sifted through them all. You could settle down for a book discussion with your friends on a rainy day with a pot of tea and some lemon scones and after three hours still not be done with this book. If I ever am able to make it to India – and it’s high on my list of places to visit – I will definitely read A Passage in India again and will probably find several more new vantages to look at it from. But it’s possible I’ll read it again even before then.