Death

I just finished reading The Stranger by Albert Camus. The main character of the novel, Monsieur Meursault, ruminates on the meaninglessness of life as he awaits his execution in the French Algiers. Meursault is a stranger to social norms, and he satirically examines the absurdity of human emotions and customs when faced with a predicament eliciting these said responses. Meursault bemuses about the absurdity of human life as he is executed for killing the Arab man at the Algerian beach.

Perhaps Camus views life – and in tandem, death – the way Meursault does. Though I do not necessarily agree that human life essentially boils down to the absurd, it has gotten me to think more about death. We all know that once people are born into this world, they will eventually meet life’s end in the form of death. But have we really thought about the fact of life, the un-doing of life?

Death is one of the most ironic qualities of life. It’s the one resolute fact we are all acquainted with – that all humans die eventually – but we are surprised to no end when death actually happens to our loved ones, to those who are close to us, to friends, strangers, accomplices, colleagues, whatever. Why is that? Why is something that we are so familiar with also something that we struggle with the most?

Of course, many thinkers in the past (and the present) have attempted to frame death in their respective ideological frameworks. Camus’ endeavor with The Stranger is one example. Some resort to hedonism when explaining death, some to fatalism. Religion is often the answer to appease the worries of man. Many religions diverge in their doctrines of proffering the panacea to mankind – that is, what lies beyond death. In the most radical sense, some seek for immortality, though no one actually attains it. Qin Shi Huang of Qin Dynasty comes to mind when I think of this example. He was convinced he was immortal, until his son killed him.

But I digress. I write this post because the idea of death never entered my mainstream conscience until recently. I’ve realized that for me to get to where I am right now – age 21 and relatively healthy – I have had to evade death multiple times. People jokingly say that you’re risking death if you walk outside because you might be hit by a car, but there is a grain of truth to that seemingly improbable statement. We can’t choose when we die; rather, death chooses us. People hope to die a certain idealistic way, but I say that’s ludicrous and insensitive to those who’ve succumbed to death in unexpected ways. When talking about death, we are all clueless children.

So, then, is there a “correct” way of facing one’s death? I’m not sure, and I don’t know if I will ever be sure. I do think, however, that the best way to come to terms with our notions of death is to read literature on how others have dealt with theirs. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is where I found solace. Kalanithi was a coveted neurosurgeon about to complete his residency at Stanford when he was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer. All his life’s achievement crumbled with one scan of his body.

If courage was to manifest in some form or another, I think I found it in Kalanithi’s encounter with his imminent death. His examination of his health was poignant but honest. He knew he had little to live, and he accepted that fact without pretense. Instead, he proceeded to write a eulogy to himself, a legacy that he would leave for his wife Lucy, his daughter, and his readers. I was floored and found myself reading his book over and over. Kalanithi is gone, but he is still remembered by many.

We all want to be remembered after we pass on. I want to be remembered after I die. If nobody remembers me, did my life matter? How will I be remembered as? What will I be remembered for? These questions float around my head from time to time, and there is no way of knowing concrete answers for them. This is why death is tricky.

Growing

I’m feeling the pains of growing older.

One constant fact of life is that life does not slow down for anyone; regardless of where you are in life, the clock ticks all the same. Resuming my junior year in college, I am feeling the relentless of time propelling me in twenty different directions. The great irony of life is that with its relentlessness comes an even greater sense of uncertainty.

More so now than before, I am realizing how the things that were so seemingly permanent in my life are actually quite fleeting. Ephemeral. Yesterday they are here to stay, and tomorrow they are gone without a sign.

The best thing that I can do, then, is to cherish these impermanent qualities of my life when they seem permanent. Life, in the end, is a culmination of memories stacked on top of each other, like Jenga. In the past year, I have experienced the impermanence of home, relationships, academic studies, and my identity. It’s laughable, just how certain I was of my choices, of my surroundings, of my social circle. Who am I to be so sure of my life without possessing any sort of clairvoyant ability?

I do not want to be self-critical, however. Of course, it’s good to have conviction in the things I do and the friends I have – we’re taught to be confident of ourselves. There is a point, however – and I think I am experiencing this juncture in my life right now – when everything that we were indoctrinated with shatters. Call it a post-modernist outlook on life, if you will. The only thing I am sure of is the fact that I am unsure of everything.

I am not downtrodden by this new revelation. I believe it’s just a phase one goes through in growing up and embracing reality. Because reality is impermanent, life, as a consequence, is impermanent. A feeling of liberation overcomes an individual once they acknowledge said impermanence. Life, finally, does not seem uni-linear: it starts looking like what it’s supposed to look like, a hundred rays of diffracted sunlight, all heading down the path of who-knows-where.

The Caffe Bene in Koreatown New York, where I am typing up this blog post, is louder than when I first walked in. The gentle sound of people conversing, which initially provided a nice ambiance, is quickly turning into a cacophony of K-Pop music, over-the-top study group conversations, and obnoxious laughter. Even within this space, I don’t feel annoyed; in fact, I am enjoying this uncoordinated ruckus. Maybe it’s because I know I am just a passerby, that these people will never know of my existence, that I am a part of this space along with others sitting around me, that the space I belong to in this very moment is nothing more than a sliver of impermanence I will experience in my life.

Or maybe it’s just a part of growing up.

Japan

Today concludes my three days and four nights trip to Japan. For it being my first solo traveling experience, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Tokyo. Here are some thoughts I want to jot down about Japan before I forget them.

Itinerary:
Day 1: Asakusa (Sensoji Temples, Nakamise Dori) – Sumida (Tokyo Skytree) – Ginza
Day 2: Imperial Palace – Shibuya (Bunkamura) – Yoyogi National Park (Earth Day Parade) – Harajuku (Monster Cafe, Harajuku Street, Takeshita Street) – Shinjuku
Day 3: Tsukiji Fish Market -Daimon (Tokyo Tower, Zojo-ji Temple) – Odaiba (Tokyo Decks Beach, Diver City, Statue of Liberty) – Akihabara (Super Potato, Maid Cafe)
Day 4: Ueno

1. Japan is friendly.
Every time I asked for directions, Japanese people would go out of their ways to point me towards the right path. Amidst the mixture of broken English and Japanese exchanged between the two of us, I found a genuine sense of cordiality emanating from these Japanese passerbys. Without their help, I would have been a lost cause in the cobwebbed streets of Tokyo.

2. Japan is independent.
There is a social stigma in Korea where eating alone is looked down upon; however, that did not seem to be the case in Japan. Each time I walked into a restaurant, l noticed many eating by themselves and minding their own business. The interior of the restaurant was inviting to lone eaters – tables were organized in a hall-like fashion with chairs neatly pressed below the tables. I never minded eating alone, but in Japan, it almost seemed like eating alone was the norm.

3. Japan is paradoxical.
The juxtaposition of the old and the new is remarkable. I can walk down any given street and expect to see a newly brandished skyscraper right next to an age-old Buddhist temple. The most interesting of this said juxtaposition can be found – in my opinion – in Daimon, where the Tokyo Tower looms over Zojo-ji Temple. I can easily say Japan is a place where tradition and modernity blends in seamlessly, like two pieces of fabric interwoven together to create an interesting piece of clothing.

4. Japan is clean.
For the lack of trash cans in public, Japan is devoid of litters. I think psychology plays a big part in this cleanliness: because the streets were spotless, I felt a certain compulsion to keep it that way. Although, however, the city could use a couple more trash cans for the public to use.

5. Japan is musical.
Music abounds Tokyo. Whether it’s Hatsune Miku Vocaloid blasting in Akihabara or a woodwind quartet playing jazz standards in Ueno Park, one can always expect to hear good music in Japan.

Now that the excitement of traveling to Japan has subsided, I feel a wave of nostalgia settling into my memory. I wonder if it is Tokyo that I miss or the solitude I felt traveling alone that I miss. With the trip neatly folded into the top shelf of my most recent memory, I already dread the process of this particular memory slowly fading away from my mind with the passing of time. Though the details of the trip will become hazy, I know I won’t forget what this trip ultimately meant to me: a deep understanding – and a quiet appreciation – of my existence.

 

 

 

Movies

My Top 10 Movies (In no particular order):

  1. Oldboy, 2003 by Chan-wook Park
  2. Whiplash, 2014 by Damien Chazelle
  3. Good Will Hunting, 1997 by Gus Van Sant
  4. Casablanca, 1942 by Michael Curtiz
  5. Synecdoche, New York, 2009 by Charlie Kaufman
  6. Coach Carter, 2005 by Thomas Carter
  7. Roman Holiday, 1953 by William Wyler
  8. A Clockwork Orange, 1971 by Stanley Kubrick
  9. Life is Beautiful, 1997 by Roberto Benigni
  10. Up, 2009 by Pete Docter

 

*Prone to Change

Home (Pt. 2)

It’s already been a month since I’ve touched down in Korea. I’ve been going to school here, reluctantly gulping down the soju glass my friends offer, singing off-key in karaoke, and trying to blend in with the crowd of native Korean students.

Being a Korean-American (or Korean anything, for that matter) is like being homeless. As a disclaimer, I am using the word “homeless” in the most literal way possible: one literally does not have a home once one enters a culture distinct from oneself’s.

Thus, I am homeless in Korea and I am homeless in America. Koreans look at me in half-bewilderment, half-awe when I say live in Seattle; Americans ask me which side of Korea I am from when I say I grew up in Seoul.

I am rather numb to this treatment in America. I have found out ways to gently – but firmly – defend myself in situations of racial micro-aggressions. Many years of schooling have given me the opportunity to learn the history of Asian-Americans, contextualize my experience in that particular historical narrative, and ultimately gain a holistic understanding of why things have become the way they are.

Therefore, I don’t feel anger when I am confronted with insensitive comments. Most likely, the insensitivity arises from two choices: either the commenter genuinely is unaware of the implications of her words, or the commenter is a racist asshole. Whatever it may be, I recognize the inherent differences in the culture and world view of those I may deem racially insensitive. As long as the racism is not blatant, I am willing to forgo the confrontation and lightly critique the statement. Life would be too hard if I made a big deal out of everything that came my way.

But in Korea, there is no misunderstanding that I am Korean. I speak Korean, look Korean, go to a Korean university (at least for the time being), and fucking love Korean food. However, it is precisely my home country that I feel most not at home.

When I introduce myself to Koreans here, I have to brace myself for the inevitable relay of questions about my life in America. To compensate for the permanent label of “immigrant” I wear in America, I desperately sought to erase my American identity while I’m here. But the curiosity of Korean students, as harmless as they may be, all the more reinforces the notion that I am different from them.

No years of schooling can combat this empty feeling. No number of scholarly articles can completely do away the unfamiliarity. The country that was once my all has become a country I visit periodically for temporal comfort. How foolish was I to think that everything will be the same once I return.

————————————————————————–

I am sitting in a cafe with my half-empty earl grey tea keeping me company. I look around and I see other Koreans focused on their tasks. Some are reading, some are chattering, some are sleeping, and some are eating. I, like them, am writing this blog post in between my school work.

It’s a cafe full of Koreans, except it’s not.

 

Separation

Two stone buddhas, naked and unfed,
Face each other by the roadside. Come wind, rain, or
Frost there they sit unprotected. I envy them
For they know nothing about the pain of separation.

-정철 (Jeong-Chul), 1536-1593

Voice

I am what people would call a lurker on Facebook.

I exist on social media to survey, detect, and observe. I chuckle at a new meme that surfaces on my news feed, cringe at videos compiling all of Donald Trump’s public gaffes, and read through statuses involving modern day political discourse, all while trying to stay impartial and disinterested. I have kept my social media controversial-free since the seventh grade, when I posted a status asking for “likes” if you cared about Jesus (but then, what wouldn’t a seventh-grader post for “likes” and recognition).

Early on when I took my private life to public online domain, I made the conscious decision to steer clear from dialogues involving the social, the political, and the economical. I saw it as a zero-sum game: no one party would come out of the dialogue benefiting from it, and the dialogue in itself would actually lead to an even greater chasm than what was present before.

I will be the first to admit that I am a cynic. Rather than placing myself in the ever-so-important conversation of race, police brutality, and the like, I chose to observe from afar and take the stance of a bystander. It didn’t connect with me how an impassioned status or a shared link on Facebook could lead to a significant upheaval of the status quo. Thus, I ceased to voice my thoughts on social media and looked on from the comfort of my revolving chair as my dear black brothers and sisters uproared, cried, and feared.


It first started with Alton Sterling. Then Philandro Castle. Then simultaneous rallies across the country. Then 11 Dallas police officers shot, 5 of whom were pronounced dead. Then the death of my high school English teacher from stomach cancer.

Mainstream media made the public desensitized to the death of humans. Lives became numbers, shootings became a form of entertainment, public condemnation became soundbites, and humanity became just a page in the history textbook that will be read 20 years from now. We will mourn for these victims, write enraged Facebook posts, seek comfort from other people of color, and move on, hoping that these things don’t happen in the future.

The moment when these murders become a part of the cycle, however, is when we become complacent of systematic killings of marginalized people. I know I have no ethos in making these proclamations, given that I am not vocal about these things.

But I have to wonder: am I siding with the oppressor for not raising my voice? Am I contributing to the cause of complacency? Did Alton Sterling, Philandro Castle, and the police officers die because of me? Am I a part of the problem?

For the first time in my social media career, I am choosing to record my point of view on this issue and disturb the balance of impartiality that I have dearly held onto for the past many years.

While not all police officers are racist in the core, there are legacies of institutional and inherent racism that pervade our judicial system, our police force, and most importantly, us.

There, I said it. I just made a claim, and as weird as hell it may be, I feel as if a huge boulder has been lifted off my shoulders.

The particular racism I speak of paints a bigger picture of how citizens of the United States have become political pawns to the judicial system. It’s the reason why Korean-Americans were pitted against Blacks and Latinos during the 1992 LA Riot, the reason why no statistics available to the public can actually elucidate the casual relationship between police brutality and African-Americans, the reason why many still deny white privilege  when it comes to rape and other atrocious crimes.

I want to borrow a great Facebook status written by my friend, Manny Osunlana. He recanted that if all lives matter, which they should, then black lives should also matter, but the current status quo is not telling of that normativity.

This weekend has through and through legitimized the sub-section of America that’s constantly under plague: The Black America. When the Preamble of the United States’ Constitution asks for the government to “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility,” that sentiment should apply to everyone, black and white, immigrants and non-immigrants.

The United States is on the cusp of a new civil rights movement. Unlike the movement of the 1960s, however, the new fight for social justice starts online, an interconnected platform of citizen democracy.

Educate, proliferate, and enact. The death of our fellow brothers should not go unnoticed.

Solitude

I moved into the third floor of a terraced house in DC for the summer. Taking the Uber from the Ronald Reagan Airport was easier than I expected, and in less than three hours, I found myself removed from the familiarity of my Amherst College dorm and somehow placed in the foreignness of DC.

As I started unpacking my stuff from my baggage, a wave of loneliness washed over me in a way like never before. For the first time, I was free from an institutional setting, whether it be in a form of a family or of a school. I deliberately placed myself in an uncharted territory for the summer, and it finally dawned on me that I will be spending the next three months in the corner room of this terrace house.

The city is a big concept. It encompasses the concrete such as buildings, monuments, streets, people, houses, and cars. It also embraces the ephemeral such as emotions, thoughts, daydreams, hopes, and miseries. I think solitude aptly describes how I feel at the moment. I am deliberately lost in the things that comprise the city, and during my time here, I hope to add to the things that constitute the city, whether that’s in the form of the concrete or the ephemeral.

Solitude. It’s an interesting word. The word literally means “the state of being alone,” and yet it somehow sounds more resolute than the word “loneliness.” Right now, as I look around in this dimly lit room, I wonder whether I am enjoying my solitude or wallowing in my loneliness.

 

 

Perpetuity

As the third week of my sophomore year comes to a drastic close, I realized the constancy in the amount of workload assigned by professors on a given day. But despite the hectic schedule, I deem these moments of action to be the moments where I can truly feel my conscience navigating through the labyrinthine college path.

Labyrinthine it may be, college seems to hold a certain degree of perpetuity in the past and in the present. Last year, I changed my focus of studies from concentrating on pre-medical studies to optimistically declaring my academic focus as “Undecided” (though I am planning on declaring math and history). This radical academic transformation of mine was certainly met with skepticism and backlash from people around me, including some from my friends and family.

Despite my reorientation of academic goals, I am perpetually learning and perpetually curious about the topics that intrigue me and enthrall me. One criticism I received from my friend was that by ditching the pre-medicine route and opting for a study in humanities and mathematics, I was “copping out” from the intolerable weight put on pre-med students. But after taking classes in modern Japanese history and global environmental history this semester, I cannot reinforce how utterly and horrendously wrong this preconception is.

When one notices that the grass is greener on the other side, it may also be the case that the observed grass may actually be the same shade of green as the one he or she is stepping on. It would be hypocritical of me to deny the fact that I, too, saw the grass of humanities to be greener than the grass of laboratories and sciences. However, as I slowly start examining the grass of humanities up close and personal through the telescope of an ex-pre-med student, I am realizing the breadth of intellectual vigor humanities can offer.

History is a topic of much speculation and vigilance, as one needs to keep up-to-date with the current event as well as preserve the heritage of the past and construct a framework for the future based on these heritages. I am excited to engage in the study of history, and although it requires extensive reading and annotation, I am genuinely challenged and piqued by the text.

When I tell people I am studying math and history at college, they look at me as if I am academically confused or pragmatically unsound. Some of their prejudice makes sense; after all, there is a striking dichotomy between my areas of academic focus. But the inquiry into two definitively different studies makes my academic career all the more exciting, and as I have mentioned before, I am studying math and history under the perpetuity of intellectual curiosity that is laden underneath the subjects. Be it physics, biology, psychology, or math, there will always be a thirst for learning, questions, and conjectures.

Rain

it’s raining outside
and it drops
pitter patter
pitter patter

a symphony of lull
the rain soothes me to sleep
it races down the window
small drops big drops
converge into one
until it’s only a drop

the drop continues to fall
until it falls into my heart
pitter patter
pitter patter

maybe that’s why when it rains you feel lonely
the solitude of your existence
the existence of your soul
the soul of your heart
all starts from a drop
and it goes
pitter patter
pitter patter