Archives for the month of: November, 2012


this past october, before my mom returned to the us, we went to visit her aunts and uncles in her hometown, seosan. it was on her mind that this might be the last time she would get to see them, since they are elderly and she rarely gets to come back. a few days ago, my grandaunt, pictured here , passed away. in korean, when people die, we say that they “returned.” it is such a beautiful and apt way to express death. rest in peace.


since i’ve been living in korea, moving from place to place, i’ve had limited or no access to new books in english, especially the kinds i’m looking for. the two books i brought with me are gloria anzaldua’s borderlands and audre lorde’s sister outsider, which i had already finished by the time my plane landed, but they have been a constant source of new truths and inspiration.

by now, i’ve read through both of them multiple times, continuously going back to meditate on different parts. both books so profoundly and beautifully explore the questions that i am always contemplating, the frameworks through which i filter my experiences, and have become especially relevant now that i am confronting my history and roots in a new way. even though i experience these questions as a korean american and do not pretend to claim the chicana or black/caribbean american experiences, i feel that the works delve into a place so much deeper than those identifications, rearranging the world itself to make space for their truths. it has been like sitting with a mentor, who knows what you’ve been through and understands how you think, but can always bring out your own thoughts in a way that transforms how you understand them.

Imagethis past week, i’ve been studying borderlands like a bible. for some reason, i’ve felt drawn to a different part of it every day, throughout the day. my amazing friend stephanie introduced the book to me, and this is just one of the ways in which many of my friends have really stayed with me throughout this trip. it is a gift beyond words to have kindred spirits out there who are always there, in that place deepest and most formative to who i am, no matter where in the world we might be.

i just wanted to share a few parts, that are only flickers of the light that is anzaldua’s work:

“writing produces anxiety. looking inside myself and my experience, looking at my conflicts, engenders anxiety in me. being a writer feels very much like being a chicana, or being queer–a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where i kick my heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen.

living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create. it is like a cactus needle embedded in the flesh. it worries itself deeper and deeper, and i keep aggravating it by poking at it. when it begins to fester i have to do something to put an end to the aggravation and to figure out why i have it. i get deep down into the place where it’s rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument–the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. then out it comes. no more discomfort, no more ambivalence. until another needle pierces the skin. that’s what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.”

“the work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. the answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. a massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.”

“whites, along with a good number of our own people, have cut themselves off from their spiritual roots, and they take our spiritual art objects in an unconscious attempt to get them back. if they’re going to do it, i’d like them to be aware of what they are doing and to go about doing it the right way. let’s all stop importing greek myths and western cartesian split point of view and root ourselves in the mythological soil and soul of this continent. white america has only attended to the body of the earth in order to exploit it, never to succor it or to be nurtured in it. instead of surreptitiously ripping off the vital energy of people of color and putting it to commercial use, whites could allow themselves to share and exchange and learn from us in a respectful way. by taking up curanderismo, Santeria, shamanism, Taoism, Zen, and otherwise delving into the spiritual life and ceremonies of multi-colored people, Anglos would perhaps lose the white sterility they have in their kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, mortuaries and missile bases. Though in the conscious mind, black and dark may be associated with death, evil and destruction, in the subconscious mind and in our dreams, white is associated with disease, death and hopelessness. let us hope that the left hand, that of darkness, of femaleness, of ‘primitiveness,’ can divert the indifferent, right-handed, ‘rational’ suicidal drive that, unchecked, could blow us into acid rain in a fraction of a millisecond.”

“Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.
We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the gods. In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us crazy constantly, but if the center holds, we’ve made some kind of evolutionary step forward.”

sidenote: i have yet to find a korean american woman writer who speaks to me as much as audre lorde, gloria anzaldua, jamaica kincaid, kiran desai, and the list goes on… this is probably from a lack of trying on my part and a lack of exposure for those writers. if anyone has recommendations…

I’ll be traveling in Southeast Asia in a few weeks, and a lot of questions have been on my mind regarding my own position within the dynamics of world travel. In my search for resources to plan my trip, I came across a lot of travel guides and websites, including lonely planet, that were really hard to swallow. Travel literature seems to be so dominated by language that really dehumanizes and exoticizes (literally, the word “exotic” seems to pop up in every description) the people who live in these countries and describes their cultures as commodities to be freely consumed, curiosities to be feasted upon. While I won’t be joining any orientalist fantasies, conscious of how my identity and the identities of all people of color are constantly exploited by representations of the foreign, I know I still fall into problematic tendencies of romanticizing the idea of world travel in a world where it is an extreme privilege, and largely a one-way street.

Also, while I have had great backpacking experiences in the past, it seems to be, in many ways, a more self-aggrandizing form of tourism, in the way that backpackers often set themselves above the rest of the tourist crowd because they think they’re “roughing it” and really immersing themselves in cultures, when they are really just following paths beaten by other western travelers and staying at westernized hostels, and consuming and twisting the countries they travel to their needs in the same way.

I hope that this trip will help me to decolonize my mind, rather than further emphasize, the racist, imperialist tendencies of western society, whose depictions of the foreign have only ever been for the purpose of highlighting western/white supremacy and universality. The first step for me will be to deal with the travel culture that so clearly echoes this mindset. (Dear lonely planet, histories of colonization are not cute.)

While googling to see what kind of consciousness has been raised about these questions already, I came across an interesting article on tourism, which I am posting below:

‘Tourism consumes the places on which it alights,’ says Jeremy Seabrook in taking issue with its exaggerated claims of benefits for the host country.

THAT tourism has become an industry should not surprise us, since almost every human activity seems to have been industrialised. Animal husbandry has become a dairy industry, celebration in song has become a music industry, rites of mourning have been turned into a funeral industry, maintenance of health is a health care industry. Travelling, transformed into tourism, is now the most lucrative industry in the world, said to employ more than 200 million people.

People have always travelled and explored. Great migrations have occurred, transfers of humanity from one continent to another, often under outside pressure – conquest, depletion of resources or a ruined habitat. Humanity has always longed to know what is on the other side of the mountain range, what lies beyond the ocean, what are the customs of the people across the river.

The irrepressible curiosity of looking beyond boundaries and limits is one thing. It was quite another when it became institutionalised in European voyages of ‘discovery’, which then laid claim to territories in which indigenous people had subsisted for millennia; for this led to slavery, imperialism, annexation of lands and subjection of peoples.

How far have we have moved from those crude journeyings of dominance? This is not an idle question. The same sensibility lives on in those who regard the whole world as a ‘playground’, an amenity to be enjoyed and consumed by people of privilege. The result is a tourist industry which in 1971 saw 170 million people generate $216 billion. By 2000, 698 million recorded ‘arrivals’ spent $478 billion. It is forecast that by 2020, 1.5 billion tourists will spend $2 trillion.

Eighty percent of the world’s countries number tourism as among their top five foreign exchange earners, while for 38% it is the main source of income. It counts as an ‘export’ in economic accounting systems. It is also an extractive industry.

Tourism, promoted as an engine of development, exaggerates the benefits to the host country. Even a destination as sophisticated as Thailand sees 70% of its earnings lost in ‘leakages’: the majority of money spent by tourists goes on airlines, international hotels and companies which supply the foreign luxury goods and services rich travellers expect. In addition to this, the receiving country incurs heavy costs in the creation of infrastructure – airports, luxury villas, golf courses and highways (usually planted with palms, oleanders or advertising panels to conceal the slums of the capital city). Tourists pre-empt the best local produce, which not only robs local people of the most nourishing fish, fruit or vegetables, but also raises the prices of basic necessities for them. Employment is more and more dependent upon the whim of tourists: in the Maldives, 80% of labour is owed to tourism; in Jamaica it is 34%, in the Gambia 30% and in the Seychelles 21%.

Many of these countries have fragile ecosystems. They are liable to damage from storms, cyclones and tidal surges. The social injustice which sets rich foreigners cheek-by-jowl with impoverished residents may lead to unrest or riots which destroy the industry overnight. Secondly, excessive construction on certain sites of unique beauty spoils the very raison d’etre for people to visit them; and hitherto undiscovered beaches and scenery must be found further afield. Whole islands, over-developed resorts, urban agglomerations and polluted beaches lie neglected and abandoned.

Tourism is often cited as promoting mutual understanding between peoples. This is rarely the case. Rich foreigners admire the self-effacement and eagerness to please of those who serve them, sometimes mistaking this for exotic cultural features. (How unspoilt they are!) Tourism consumes the places on which it alights, predatory, omnivorous and yet protected from any contact with disagreeable realities like poverty, squalor, crime and violence. It sanitises and cleanses, offering people an experience prepackaged in the great factory of illusion, sensations crafted by an industry which masks real relationships in the world.

Types of tourism

In response to some of these well-rehearsed criticisms, different forms of tourism evolve. Medical tourism is offered to the global rich by Thailand or India, where operations may be had at a fraction of the price at home, and with lovely scenery, as well as attentive nurses who cannot do enough for them, unlike the surly functionaries of home. Whole new enterprises dedicate themselves to ‘ethical’ tourism, whereby conscience-stricken travellers may pay to have some trees planted in Tamil Nadu to efface their carbon footprint, which nevertheless leaves its deep traces upon the lined faces of servitude. Adventure tourism scatters debris and waste in formerly inaccessible places on the earth; pristine mountain slopes, ice-floes and high plateaux receive their quota of mementos from the unquiet visitations of people avid for sensation and novelty. New concepts – disaster tourism, poverty tourism, development tourism – bring charitable individuals to repair, heal and commiserate with the damage they have helped to inflict with their incontinent lifestyles. I once ran into a party of visitors in Dharavi in Mumbai gazing at what was advertised as the biggest slum in the world; they looked on with the same lugubrious indifference with which parties of visitors regard Balliol College or the Eiffel Tower.

The lure of sex tourism is now worth several billion dollars a year. Consuming the youth and beauty of the poor is one of the least attractive forms of plunder on earth. When I was researching in Thailand, I was struck by the mismatch between the expectations of the sex-tourist and the purposes of the provider of tenderness: he was looking for love, she was earning for an extended family. When he became aware of the difference in their objective, he became angry and accused her of being dishonest, of cheating him. He was seeking a relationship; she was looking for survival.

The tourist has her or his mirror-image in the migrant. The former possesses the golden key to all the magical places of the earth, since the secret password can be spoken only in the language of money. Yet when it is a question of traffic in the other direction – the starveling and the refugee seeking to gain admittance to the citadels of wealth which have also been the agents of his or her dispossession – they find a fortress, implacable custodians debarring entry into the forbidden cities of privilege.

The emergence of an extensive middle class in Asia and elsewhere now sends streams of tourists in the opposite direction. Europe is now a favoured destination for parties of south Asians, who can now travel across the world to enjoy the delights of Indian and Chinese cuisine in London or Toronto. Tourism encloses people in an invisible protective bubble, so they are never compelled to reflect upon the relative nature of their values, or be exposed to any disturbing questioning of their culture. The smiling waiter, the pleasant hustler, the eager cleaner and agreeable driver convince them that their presence is a blessing; they must do so, since their livelihood depends upon the decorative servitude in which they present themselves.

The British government has just announced the construction of a third runway for Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world. This will double its capacity. It is occurring simultaneously with the anguish over green growth, reducing carbon emissions, sustainable development and all the other fairy-tales we tell ourselves to make believe we are doing something to halt the ruinous consequences of our brief time on earth. Between 1978 and 1998, the real cost of air travel had fallen by 35%. One thousand miles of air travel requires 61 fewer hours of work than it did 25 years ago.

Purposeless mobility has now become a basic need for well-to-do people; a busy hither and thither which distracts from the most disagreeable question of all – what is wrong with home, that it can no longer furnish us with delight or satisfaction? It seems the realm of the imagination, the internal landscapes have been even more used up than the sites of fantasy to which we flee. It is a paradox, as yet unaddressed by politicians, economists, experts and all the self-appointed saviours of humanity, that we lay waste both the inner and outer worlds in an attempt to escape from the most escapist societies ever known.

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK.


i find it kind of comforting to know that even brilliant intellectuals and literary figures like susan sontag are still caught up in basic questions of love and trying to figure out how to get out alive like the rest of us. : )

“can i love non-possessively, permissively,- without withdrawing myself, setting up my own defenses and strategic retreats, on one hand, or reducing the amount or intensity of my love, on the other?”


On the other side of the world, there is a language I have never heard
It is beautiful, and in this dying tongue, there are words for Love and God
that resemble Bread and Wing
Or another forest language in which Mother and Knife

equal Drawer and Sing
And Island Wood is somewhere Desert Milk
And Berry, elsewhere is a Door
And if you added up all these dying words, and the people who speak them

All their memories, histories, and lessons
All their gods, jokes, rituals, and recipes
If you learned and stirred them, over and again, until
each utterance became a star, a new footprint, the marrow of a poem—


I am now at my aunt’s house in Seosan. She is the only one of my mom’s 8 siblings to have settled down in their hometown. While much of it is still farmland, its central area has become completely urbanized, lined with multinational corporate chains. In the US, there are things that are very much unique to the big cities, such as the fashions and types of commodities and restaurants that one can expect to find, but in South Korea, many of the aspects of urban living seem to be spread pretty constantly throughout the different regions. Even kids in Seosan dress like New Yorkers, but in way that really epitomizes the expression, “you’re unique, just like everyone else.” It’s pretty shocking how adherence to fashion and brands in Korea has become a country-wide necessity, from the smallest towns to largest cities. Especially when it comes to places like Seosan, I wonder if these families can really afford it or are forking over disproportionate amounts of their livelihoods to meet the “requirement”. Its prevalence makes it almost like a flat tax on the people to the multinational corporations. There is so much more i’d like to learn about how these “needs” are created in different societies, but the image of a douchey investment banker salivating over the “Asian markets” comes to mind.

During the day, we went around Seosan and made impromptu visits to the homes of two of my mom’s extended family. First we visited my mom’s uncle (my grandpa’s younger brother), who was bedridden and in very delicate condition. He didn’t remember my mother and had never met me, but he looked at us from his state with a gaze so heavily weighted with suffering. As he grasped my mother’s hand and painfully mouthed his thanks that we had simply come to see him, my tears suddenly began to spill out.

My mother thought i was crying because i was thinking about my grandfather, who passed away, and soon enough we were both crying in front of the poor guy, whose expression never changed. But really, I was struck by a simple picture of life, worn into the skin and dimming eyes of an old man I never knew from Seosan. Like my grandpa’s eyes, they were so full of pain and severity, as if life had never cut him enough of a break for him to smile. I only knew my grandpa when I was too little to begin to understand that pain, but as i learn more about our history and physically experience remnants of the world that made my family, i feel myself somehow making sense of the imprints left on my younger self by my grandparents, especially during the few years they lived with us in the US.

It’s a sad fact that some people on this earth are born into lives where they will toil without knowing lightness or leisure, without profiting from all they produce for this world, while others in the world live out their excess and frivolity on the backs of others, and gain access to pensions and retirements or amass enough private wealth to continue living cushy existences until death.

The second place we visited was the home of another great uncle. All his children happened to be home for the harvest, so I got to meet my mother’s two closest girl cousins. It touched me to see how they so dearly held onto my mother’s arm, even though they had barely been able to recognize the face they had last seen so long ago. One of the cousins put her hand against our faces and fawned over us in a way that most people i know would only do towards children. I feel that we as human beings have such a natural desire to connect, physically and emotionally. Yet so much of that is inhibited and broken in us by societal norms and the alienation of human touch and the distortions of our ability to identify with one another. Observing how expressions of love materialize in the different places I’ve been to makes me realize that there is something so constant within us, which is expressed differently, according to what our societies and our languages allow.

When I interact with my relatives, I have been able to become so deeply bonded to them through touch and the most basic, silly interactions of love. In the US, the dominant culture seems to turn love and meaningful social interaction into some kind of rare commodity or difficult exam that only a few of us deserve to succeed in. I think it leaves us with a constant feeling of emptiness, or wrongness, that we try to treat in a lot of ways. It’s a void that festers within us, leaving us vulnerable to a lot of forces that only further rob us of our ability to meet our collective needs, and makes us dependent on a lot of dehumanizing forces. Almost everything sad about society that i can think of, from rampant consumerism to militarism, seems to have a lot to do with that void.

4 months ago, i  haphazardly got rid of almost everything i owned from 6 years of life besides what could fit into 2 suitcases, and moved out of new york without ever really deciding to do so. then i moved from place to place, spent a few weeks pretty much just staring at the cutest baby ever (my nephew), and finally moved to korea last month, where i have continued to move around.

this constant state of flux has really challenged my sense of reality and my connections to the fixtures of my life. and the word that crossed my mind to describe my current state was “unhinged”.

i think it has to be my favorite euphemism for “crazy”, “abnormal”, etc.

a hinge is something that fixes one object to another, so that the object can only move in a predetermined way, pivoting from a fixed location.

it’s an interesting metaphor for human beings, and really telling that to be “unhinged” is considered a dangerous state. we are creatures of habit, fixed to certain ways of existing and perceiving the world. we become fixed to our ideas of what is ‘normal,’ which are often shaped by information that is fed to us, or ignorance of the different, equally valid ways that people exist in this world. though our lives change constantly, we continue moving back and forth along the same drawn-out paths, perceiving our lives through the same fixed frameworks, prejudices and fears. we continue to be oppressive to others in the same ways, avoiding anything that might challenge us to see our beliefs and actions for what they truly are. we keep considering the same range of possibilities for ourselves, refusing to see all the ground that we are not crossing, experiences we are not having, and people we are not meeting or understanding. we continue to silence ourselves because we somehow feel subject to a system of unspoken rules about what we are allowed to say.

there have been moments throughout my life when i have felt completely unhinged, major moments when my world changed and i had no choice but to move away from the place i had been comfortably occupying, and reassess the versions of reality that i had accepted and operated by until that moment.

every instance has been painful and confusing. it has meant losing foundations for my sense of self, becoming alienated from friends, and redefining my ideas of success.

but once i become unhinged, i free myself from a lot of fears and expectations, and learn to stop operating according to the same knee-jerk reactions. suddenly i become less concerned with being useful to systems that i realize do not work for me or most people, and i begin to transgress those systems that once held so much power over my life.

and though i may expand my universe and find new ways of challenging myself in those moments, ultimately there are still parts of me that remain fixed to other things. sometimes they are new things. new communities of people, by whose standards, real or imagined, that i will continue to assess myself. new sets of values by which i will determine the rightness or wrongness of things. new fears and preoccupations that will border my possibilities.

and i don’t think any of this is necessarily right or wrong. existing in set ways for set times has allowed me to understand myself better, to make space for fragile relationships, and to realize obvious, constant truths i had been missing.

but in the end, each time i free myself from one more thing that was making me experience the world back and forth, i become more willing to unhinge myself again, and search, unattached and unafraid, for a more expansive reality.