Tuesday, August 30, 2005

 

Everywhere you go...

…you always take the weather with you.

A whole helluva lot to write about, as the last brief entry suggests. Suffice it to say, the recent lack of updates on this blog have not been due to any paucity of events to write about. I’m currently sitting in my new apartment, in Gangneung, which is a city located on the Northeast coast of South Korea, where I am currently employed as a teacher of English. I arrived in South Korea at about midnight, local time, on Thursday, and yes, I’ve already worked my first shift…a fact that constitutes the only negative note to my experiences since arriving. I’m looking over the notes I wrote as I was en route, and will be drawing from them as I type this up for posting here. Currently, I am drinking cold coffee from a can (I was warned about coffee before I came, of course…), listening to the Velvet Underground, and waiting for one of the people who work at the institute at which I am employed to come—in about three hours—to help me line up cell phone service, hopefully give me a few pointers re: internet access at home (there’s a PC gaming room about three blocks away that charges approximately 1 USD for an hour’s worth of access, and does sometimes provide a free drink into the bargain, so that’s there, but could be cheaper with a home connection…and more convenient, to say nothing of quieter. Something tells me the sound of virtual hand grenades going off in the background is not the most conducive atmosphere for working on matters poetic…), and show me where the nearest supermarket is. I’ll probably go on a proper explore later this afternoon, just to get the lay of the land. So far, I’ve only managed about a 6 block quarter circle to the (I think) south and east of my apartment building—that needs to change, and quickly.

A brief time-line: in late June, it became apparent that the work at the restaurant was not feasible, financially or emotionally, for me. My wife’s work as a research scientist drawing to an end on June 30th, and with her main prospects for further employment on hold, essentially, until October, it became apparent that we needed to work something out re: liquid assets and a general career direction for myself (poetry don’t pay, though I hold out quiet hope that at retirement age, I may have done enough work to land me some sort of gig…though even that is, in the words of my friend Paul, "an aggressive timeline.” Thing with poetry is, I don’t think it possible to just stop. Still, the rent needs to be paid, so I started exploring options, sending mails out to friends to feel out any possibilities, but not to much effect. I do have about 7 applications still out in Germany, but at this point don’t expect them to come to much, and getting hired in Germany is a rather long process, one that might well be nulled by my wife’s applications by the time they came through. So I started looking at ESL options, and, to make a long story short, ended up with a job at Best Language Institute in Gangneung, South Korea. I’m to be a millionaire as a result, though only in terms of Korean Won. The job was vacated by another teacher on August 1st, and the folks at the institute were keen on getting someone else here as close to that date as possible. Much visa work and travel planning followed, all culminating in my departure from Munich on June 24th, with my wife and daughter staying behind to wait for word from my wife’s many proposals out in Australia, or, barring that, my own efforts in South Korea looking for possibilities for work here. After a bare 33 hours in the country, it becomes relatively apparent that my wife’s working here is very much an option. Many goodbyes said in Munich, which, I have to say, is a city that treated me very well, and one that will always hold a very special position in my memory. I suspect I'm fated to return there one day, whether to live or just to visit, I don’t know. The outpouring of good-will expressed upon my departure made it very apparent that I will be missed in those quarters, and while that's not exactly occasion for joy, it does provide me with some sense of comfort.

The flight here: preparations were, for the most part, smoothly executed, though the process was made somewhat difficult by the fact that, on the day before my intended departure, I still had received neither my passport (from the S. Korean General Consulate) nor my ticket. I received a call from the S. Korean consulate that morning informing me that my passport had been returned to them, and, after about 6 hours of phone and computer work, during which I discovered that my ticket had also been returned (this in spite of the fact that both had been sent to the correct address), I managed to arrange for both to be delivered to my door through alternative means. This was not an inexpensive process. I can now tell you how much it costs for same day delivery, via DHL, from Frankfurt to Munich. It isn’t something one wants to make a habit of. The tickets were hand delivered at about 1 am on the day of my departure, at which point, all was in place for my departure. I spent the waning hours of my time in Munich with my family, stopping by to rub the noses of the lions at Odeonsplatz for good luck, and being treated to lunch by Wolfgang, an excellent fellow who has helped us out during these last few, very trying months in more ways than I can properly count. After a farewell round of helles, bretzn, and obazda at the airport, and not a few tears from the most excellent wife and daughter in the world, I boarded a flight to Seoul, via Istanbul (not Constantinople). After a rough day getting preparations into place, the flight itself came off as regular as clockwork, and I arrived in Seoul with German punctuality (in spite of being ferried there by Turkish Airlines), and with luggage intact. No fusses with customs, and the only surprise being the fact that, in order to make the flight transfer in Turkey, I was required to purchase a visa for 15 euros.

What can I say about the flight? Clouded as it is by emotion, my own view of events steadily declining in coherency due to my inability to sleep when en route (that, and bad in-flight movies…The Interpreter and Monster-in-Law…yum.), I feel pretty inadequate in getting much down so close to the event. So, for the moment, I’ll defer to the notes taken, mostly in Istanbul, and augment as necessary.

“As I write these words, I am waiting out the hour and a half left me until my connecting flight departs, and I am in Istanbul. I am on approximately an hour and a half’s sleep & trying to decide whether my money is better spent on coffee or on a couple of stiff drinks to knock me out for my forthcoming 10 hour flight into Seoul. I have said farewell to Munich—a city that has treated me well, on the whole, & one I heartily encourage any traveler to visit—many friends there from all walks of life, and, most crucially, my wife and daughter, both of whom I may not see for up to one year. This last point is the single negative chord struck by this most recent adventure…but of course, there are many blanks to be filled in.

Let’s ease into this with music.

Being in Istanbul, I find it impossible not to have They Might Be Giants somewhere near the fore of my brain. But of course, although this is no country for an old man, it is yet one I would like to have said I visited longer. & the line that titles this blog entry, which is from a song by Crowded House, one I’ve heard for years & only recently begun to appreciate, is one of two lines from songs that present themselves a bit too readily upon departing loved ones and loved places. The other being the chorus from Beaujolais Nouveau, by the Humpff Family:

“The hardest part's not leaving,
the hard part's not going away,
it's the life you have to take with you,
and the price the other people have to pay.”

Departures and arrivals attended by that rare sense of immediately present awareness that usually accompanies deep love, passion, profound spiritual experience, or death (and one, consequentially, that would seem to recommend itself in the discipline of writing, but is notorious for subverting any efforts in that direction…hence Wordsworth’s description of the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...from emotion recollected in tranquility,” I suppose…) This is a subject I hope to explore deeply over the next year, the particular awareness of a lack of any real sense of rootage, a fundamental instability felt, I think, by a greater percentage of humans with each passing day, as economic and political demands upon practical life compel them to “up sticks” on a relatively regular basis.

Perhaps this is personal in nature—a straw of my own invention to grasp at, projecting my own experiences on the human race as a whole. That’s fair enough, but I can’t help returning to the Biblical verse (Ecclesiastes 1:9), “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun,” & seeing there both profound wisdom, in that the fundamental demands of life remain much the same for all ages, & profound foolishness, to the point of willful blindness, in that the scope of our experiences is, at least potentially, much greater today than it has ever been before. I see posters for the latest movie version of "Around the World in 80 Days" & must consider the fact that when this story was first told, 80 days would have been a whirlwind tour—today, not much more than a century later, it’s a leisurely pace. I am, personally, working hard on 2 times around the bloody thing myself, in opposite directions, and in the not so terribly distant past, the travels I can claim would have represented a fair claim to colleague status with Marco Polo. While there are still those humans to whom my travels border on the incomprehensible, they’re not that big a deal, and are a hell of a lot less than what many have done.

I’m not deft enough, yet, to segue into those points I really want to make with all of this, which include the simple fact that moving so often, and so far, has a real effect on one’s conceptual sense of the world. I’d like to think that travel broadens the mind, but I’m not sure there’s a better or worse here, just different. In the typical 3-4 years I find myself spending rooted to a single spot, there’s a definable trajectory to my own emotional engagement with any particular location: a near manic curiosity in the face of newness, and, when I'm fortunate, a period of close engagement with the culture I find myself in contact with...followed, near the end, by a dimming of that light, a sameness to the streets, and finally, departure, which brings those instances of joy to the fore of my memory at just that point when I must engage something new. So far, that place where one sets down serious roots has eluded me, but in traveling, in the space created by iminent departure, I always wonder what lies on the other side of this dimming: if there is some shattering, at which point either the location becomes new again, or simply comfortable, or if the dimming continues until one finds oneself defined by that sameness, and one's vision becomes a single, lengthy slide into the greyness of the same streets each day. It is a world that remains alien to me, and while we all make choices, and are all 'missing' some other experience of the world, the simple act of remaining has so far proven to be the dialectical opposite to my own experience, and thus the source of my greatest curiosity.

The issues I’m hinting at are bigger than these words--bigger than me--but it's what I want to tackle, and it's something much bigger than a blog entry. In the rootless nomadism of a society fueled by high-technology, is there truly 'no new thing under the sun'? When our conception of distance allows us to see the trip from Munich to Seoul as the palest shadow of those truly great ventures--our own reaching out far beyond the boundaries of our solar system--can we say that our ideas do not shift at all?

There is a further point, though, that is almost impossible to segue into, and I think the reason is that, when read upon the surface, and expressed no more ably than I seem capable of at present, it is a fundamentally melodramatic statement, and expression of it is so laden with emotion as to require more discipline than I have so far amassed to carry off effectively. Nevertheless, it is a point I feel to be, in its most fundamental sense, true, and I still comfort myself by believing that I’m not alone in feeling it. Where I was raised--and perhaps more importantly, when I was raised--there is a deep sense of the uniqueness of being American. In all honesty, I have to say that at least in my own personal experience, when dealing with such things as customs and immigration, that uniqueness expresses itself in a very practical manner, though perhaps not the manner many Americans would prefer to imagine. It all has to do with privilege, how you are treated in comparison to others. Sometimes, it takes the form of some know-nothing you've had the misfortune to meet, who is guided by some unacknowleged and fundamentally misplaced sense of envy and frustration, and can find no better outlet for them but to lay every policy failure ever endured by the American people at your feet personally. On the official front, however, an American is quite likely to find their course expedited, and their case given priority over someone from, say, Turkey. There's a generalization at work here, and there are reasons, some good, for that generalization, but that generalization is based on aggregate numbers, the only language our bureaucracies seem to understand. So fault bureaucracy, call it unjust, do what little you can within the machine to fix it, but finally, you’ve no choice but to move on--to accept that position of privilege even as you fault the reasons for it. There's a corrolary to all this, though: on the one hand, you encounter less difficulty in the quest for a visa, but in so doing, you align yourself with that machine. A few outstanding marginal cases aside, there is no such thing as an American refugee. So when, after five goodbye beers with my very good friend Alfonso (and considerably the worse, in terms of mental acumen, for the beers), I approach one of the members of Munich’s local chapter of Democrats Abroad to tell him that we need to find some way of expressing a real sense of exile among many expatriates, I’m quite aware, even in my inebriated state, of the fundamental absurdity of the statement. There’s no such thing as an American exile. There are those who have left by choice, who remain outside its borders by choice, and there are those who have made the radical choice to accept haven from a stated enemy--the latter being a class of citizen for whom 'exile' is too weak a word. On a quite personal level, however, as one who would like to think the American electorate intelligent enough, and committed enough to the principles of self-government, to not allow criminals (in the spirit of the law as well as the word, and in the principle that the law applies to all citizens equally) to be let off, not only without punishment, but quite likely with reward, so long as they inhabit the correct circles--one, in short, who has grown weary of the mounting evidence that Democracy is basically flawed, because the majority of the electorate, however slim that majority may be, either is not capable of seeing past the parade of lies or simply does not care, and finds himself in a position where it is preferable to separate, temporarily, from his wife and daughter rather than reside within the borders where I was born & learned a deep, very nearly religious respect for the principles of self-governance, I have no other word by which to refer to my status, as it applies to my citizenship, but exile.

I admit, I am tired and I am emotionally worn as I write this, so it is possible that the situation suffers in exact expression, but the fundamentals stand, and remain important considerations even when I am well rested, emotionally secure, and sober. I’m sure my absence is no great tragedy, especially so far as those on the right are concerned, but I have to say, I don’t think I’m the only American abroad who feels this way. Make it a million, and maybe a few people start to perceive this as a problem. Bureaucracies were never much good at seeing things in any other fashion but aggregate numbers, and it’s a rather odd quirk of the human imagination that, so long as the number is neither too small nor too large, it’s quite possible to not only get away with murder, but to be handsomely rewarded for it. Truth be told, though, I’m starting to feel that saying what I have to say in terms of America is misguided, because America is not--and never will be--big enough for the idea I’m trying to express. I’m fairly clear on what it is I’m seeing both in and around me, and I seem to have grown old enough (it would perhaps push the boundaries of self-delusion to say “mature enough”) to accept my limitations in expressing what I see in terms others will easily understand. It is a much more important task, finally, to phrase it in a manner in which I can come to accept it, rather than trying to persuade others to accept it in my stead.

All of this needs to be much better worded (or perhaps the wording is fine, but the expression suffers), because in its present draft, it sounds unrelentingly negative, and it isn't. Curse the cause and rejoice in the effect, I suppose. All a bit like this trip, which takes me from Germany to Istanbul, then over the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China (Beijing from the sky, for Christ's sake), & yet is comprised mostly of a 17 hour flight, a 28 hour period with only 1.5 hours sleep, 8 of which are spent either in terminals harassing clerks or in a 3 hour stay hotel in Istanbul, the only real chance for sleep, as sleeping on the plane is inevitably done, by me, in 15 minute intervals at best.”

That’s probably long enough—and ranting enough—for the present. With reflections out of the way, I’ll try to concentrate more on the physical flight in the next entry…which will be posted in short order.

Peace from Gangneung—Tchitch.

Comments:
These days I feel like we are all of us exiles from our better selves. Or maybe it's just me. But I find that there is nothing not new under the sun. Everything most dear to us is so damned fleeting. We just allow ourselves to be lulled by a sense of familiarity for a while and miss (or actively fight to blot out) the constant change that can only serve to rob us in the end of all but memory.

But why bemoan the future its potential? To fulfill their lives, our children must first give up their childlike perfection. Sure it’s a loss, but also a revelation. Life is complex and messy, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Likewise, the world has some growing up to do. Some civilization to undergo. Sure it seems like it’s been all scrapes and bruises, dirty words and dodge ball, broken hearts and three day hangovers since we busted outta Eden, but think of all the fun ahead. We’ll all be getting our collective drivers licenses soon, and then lookout Miami Beach!

Then again, here we are sharing language and angst across vast distances in near real time, though we’ve never touched, or shared a beer, or even set eyes on one another. Perhaps out here, running through the wires and catnapping the redeye through the ether, we are a nation of exiles and expatriates. Not a world government, but a true community of the world. Perhaps only our own loss of faith and innocence could ever have given birth to something so new and potent.

Well, enough from me. Our thoughts are with you on your continuing adventure. You are not alone.
 
Randall,

Agreed on most points, and acknowledged that everything in quote marks on this sucker was written in a period of high emotion, and yeah, doesn't reflect all that is exciting about such changes. I do remember well that moment when I first began to get a true sense of the real potential of the changes we are seeing, especially the internet, and I do not consider myself a luddite by any stretch of the imagination: in fact, in spite of my poor tech chops, I feel like I'm very much an advocate of the changes occurring as a result of the internet, and am most engaged by precisely those issues arising from a shift, among some, away from consuming entertainment, but actively trying to promote it, something that seems to be expedited considerably as a result of the low production costs and potential for high distribution that the web represents. I'm nothing if not right there with you on being excited, as well as a little saddened, by the changes that I believe the human species is undergoing. Course, when you're facing a year long stint without your family, in a country you know next to nothing about, and wondering why it is you feel uncomfortable with the possibility of ever going back to the place where you were born, you tend to get a little...irrational...about the matter.

Also, innocence: I have this tendency, when I get really stuck on a word, to worry the potential of that word until it's like a rawhide bone that's been worried by a doberman pinscher for the last 6 months. Innocence was once one of those words, and in fact, I'm supposed to be in print with a piece that deals--as I see it--with precisely this word. I see it as something that is necessarily discarded, and not necessarily an unmitigated good. As I once defined it to a friend, innocence is the inability to perceive the cruelty you visit on other people. In that definition, it isn't something you want to see in its unadulturated form in a man of 35.

No bemoaning, here, unless its to bemoan the very real toll these changes exact on individual humans, all of whom sometimes find themselves unable to keep up.

&...thanks for the well-wishes.
 
Hmm. After reading your response and re-reading my comment I guess I should clarify that I was empathizing with you, not presuming to lecture you. My comments re: the sense of loss that comes with change, trying not to bemoan the future, etc., were meant to reflect where my head is at right now - trying to convince myself to remain positive and so forth - not what I think would be appropriate for you. Guess I should have chosen my words a bit more carefully, maybe ended with "enough about me," instead of "enough from me."

At any rate, I do have some experience with being separated from my family for an extended period of time and living as a stranger in a strange land (although in my case it was moving to the Michigan countryside with my in-laws - but not my wife - for seven months). It's not the same thing, obviously (although I suspect that South Korea may be a bit more sophisticated than the Michigan countryside - and I'm quite certain they speak better English there). But the situation sounds just similar enough so that I know I don't envy you the loneliness, alienation, and uncertainty.

But for what it's worth, my thoughts are with you. Along with my poorly chosen words.
 
I think I caught the empathy, though I was unsure whether the bemoaning question was directed toward me or you, yeah...

No fuss on this end, though. I just felt a bit reflective after reading. And you have a BIG point re: just how far we're able to communicate due to those 'no new things under the sun'--not only have I never met you, I've never met my co-editor!

Funner post to come.
 
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