The Vegetarian (2/2/16)
by Han Kang

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

By Colin Marshall 

Friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances often ask me if they should make a trip to South Korea, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all of them — all of them except, perhaps, the vegetarians. I do know a handful of non-meat-eaters living here, all either foreigners or Koreans who grew up abroad, all living proof that a vegetarian can technically find a way to get by in this country. But the all-important social culture here, centered in large part on rounds and rounds of pork, beef, and squid grilled over an open flame, offers few points of entry to those who those who would stick to carrots and tempeh. (And as for the accompanying rounds and rounds of cheap liquor, teetotalers will find this a difficult land as well.) Once, I tried to explain veganism to a lady I met at in language-exchange group. “Oh,” she replied, in less a tone of judgment than of sheer bewilderment, “I think I cannot be friends with someone like that.”

But it’s one thing for a vegetarian foreigner to try living in Korea, where the locals know us by our often baffling lifestyle choices, and quite another for a Korean to decide to stop eating animals. Just such a conversion sets in motion the events of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (채식주의자), first published in South Korea as a cycle of three novellas starting in 2007, and just this month published as a single volume in English in the United States. The book has sold publication rights in twenty countries and in the Anglosphere received, especially by the standard of Korean novels in translation by authors unknown outside the homeland, a staggering amount of press, all of it positive, and much of it struggling for the right words to describe what, exactly, makes it so very compelling. “I was convinced,” as one character observes, “that there was more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism.”

Those words come from the plainspoken, unambitious husband of the titular vegetarian, a similarly nondescript-seeming woman in her thirties called Yeong-hye. “I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” he says at the beginning of the novel. “To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know.” But “if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.” And so their featureless union smoothly goes, until the morning he finds her taking the hundreds of dollars’ worth of meat in their refrigerator out and bagging it up for the garbage.

Yeong-hye can offer only one sentence to explain her actions: “I had a dream.” And she had quite a vivid dream, the glimpses of which we get involve her struggling her way through a seemingly endless, meat-packed tunnel and emerging in shamefully blood-soaked clothes. She makes no attempt to convey the full extent of its horror to those around her, and on some level knows it wouldn’t make any difference to them; a visit with her parents, sister, and brother-in-law turns into a wild suicide attempt after her father, enraged at her intransigence, strikes her after a futile attempt to cram a chunk of pork into her mouth as her panicked family looks on.

KB - The Vegetarian 3

But again, we have more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism: as time passes, Yeong-hye cuts out of her life not just all meat but most sleep, communication, reaction, and ultimately action of any kind. Kang has spoken of asking herself whether someone could live “a perfectly innocent life in this violent world” as well as the inspiration she drew from the poet Yi Sang’s pronouncement that “humans should be plants,” and in Yeong-hye we seem to have the result, examined from three different perspectives in the book’s three sections: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, then her sister In-hye. (Here in Korea, each of those parts constituted one of the novellas.)

The novel only allows Yeong-hye the occasional opportunity to speak to us, or, given the italicized text and internal monologue-like tone of the passages, think at us. She remembers one childhood run-in with a dog and the violent folk remedy that followed: “The saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog-bite to heal you have to eat that same dog, and I did scoop up a mouthful for myself. No, in fact I ate an entire bowlful with rice. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”

The attitude Yeong-hye develops toward meat and humanity as a whole that reminds me, in certain respects, of that held by another title character: J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a respected novelist spending the twilight of her life on the lecture circuit who insists that her own vegetarianism “comes out of a desire to save my soul.” She’s made her choice but her inner turmoil continues: “I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.”

When she looks into the eyes of family, Costello says, “I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” Yeong-hye acts as if she sees nothing at all in the eyes of family or anyone else, and nothing raises any kind of desire in her until her sister’s husband, a video artist obsessed with her blue Mongolian spot, convinces her to participate in realizing an image that has come to obsess him: a man and a woman, their bodies painted with brilliantly colored flowers, having sex. At this point having got fairly deep into her own transition to living as a plant, Yeong-hye gladly obliges.

KB - The Vegetarian 2 (1)

Costello, so far as I can recall, engages in no experience quite like that, and also unlike Yeong-hye has only grown more outwardly stubborn and opinionated with age. Kang’s ever-withering vegetarian, who ultimately refuses to accept food of any kind, locks into what those around her see as an inexorable march toward non-existence. By the novel’s end, when everyone else has turned away in disgust or shame, only In-hye remains to futilely urge her sister her to eat, and even she reaches a breaking point, “no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The myriad strictures of Korean society, as well as their invisibility to those who have never known freedom from them, give this country’s literature one of its major themes. I sometimes hear Korean life described as the challenge of keeping the various groups — social, academic, familial, workplace — who claim you as a member constantly satisfied, and Yeong-hye manages to throw them all into chaos at a stroke. Taking stock of their reactions gives Kang the opportunity to touch on nearly all the other themes Westerners who read about Korea will recognize: not just meat-eating and suicide, but sudden bursts of rage (we learn that Yeong-hye’s father, made a habit of beating her, but never In-hye, throughout childhood), the unenviable position of women (In-hye escaped those beatings through sheer subservience, growing into “the kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive”), and the vast generation gap (that father, before dressing down Yeong-hye for her vegetarianism through it, had “never used a telephone in his life”).

Deborah Smith, who with her work on this book has made herself the young Korean-to-English translator to watch, doesn’t hesitate to speak of her admiration for Kang: “The great strength of Han’s work is that she gets to the universal through specificity,” she told the Guardian. “Historically, that’s been rare in Korea, which is such a homogenous country that the writing it produces has often been too inward-looking to travel.” The Vegetarian clearly can travel, though it also demonstrates that, no matter how astute the translator, awkward cultural artifacts will always remain: Yeong-hye calls In-hye “Sister,” In-hye prepares “side dishes,” and their family enjoys “yuk hwe, a kind of beef tartar.” (Tellingly, the bits of Korean novels that don’t quite translate often have to do with food.)

English-language readers will no doubt hear more from Smith, Kang, and both of them in collaboration. The Smith-translated Human Acts (소년이 온다), Kang’s examination of the Gwangju massacre of 1980 which appeared in the United Kingdom last month, will certainly make its way to the United States sooner or later. Not long ago, I asked a friend in Japan, himself a friend of a very well-known Japanese novelist, why that novelist has attained such international success. “He’s created his own genre,” my friend replied without hesitation. We’ll have to wait and see whether Kang’s work will attain the same reach, but the readers of The Vegetarian who appreciate (presuming they can handle) Kang’s seamless union of the visceral and the surreal will surely sense another genre on its way.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

cemitas poblanas


By Jon Wiener

Twenty little kids, two by two, wearing matching blue T-shirts, are walking down Pico and chattering away, watched over by two teachers and five  moms – no dads.  The T-shirts say “Overland Avenue Elementary School, Mrs. Shaffer’s kindergarten class.”

“We’re going to Louise’s,” the teacher in the lead explains.  “To make pizzas.”

At nine in the morning, in kindergarten, you get to go out and make pizzas?

“That’s right,” she says.

Then, to the kids: “Okay pay attention now, this is very important: two by two holding hands crossing the street.”

*     *     *

The Cemitas Poblanas truck parks outside the Pep Boys every morning as soon as the tow-away parking hours end.  They serve tacos, but it’s not your usual taco truck: “Cemitas Poblanas are like a sandwich,” the good looking young guy inside explains, “with meat and cheese but no vegetables, except avocado and chipotle sauce.”

It’s clear he’s said this line hundreds of times to ignorant gringos like me.

At noon, half a dozen guys are waiting for their orders—they seem to be mostly from nearby construction sites.  I’m the only one here speaking English.

The cemita poblana starts with a great big roll, a special kind of crunchy egg bread with sesame seeds, almost six inches across.  They serve twelve kinds, including “Cemita Al Pastor”–marinated roast pork sliced thin; “Cemita de Cesina”–salted beef; and “Cemita de Milanesa”–thin pounded beef or chicken deep-fried in garlic breading.  There’s also “Cemita de Pata”–they say it’s some kind of meat from a cow’s foot.  They all come with shredded quesillo string cheese.

Poblanas, meaning from Puebla. Puebla is south of Mexico City. I ask him, you’re from Puebla?

“My dad,” he says.

I get the chicken Milanesa.  Deep-fried meat, lots of string cheese, with avocado and sauce on a fresh roll—not terribly healthy, but of course it’s terrific.

*     *     *

fire station 92

The big doors are open at LA Fire Station 92—maybe they are waiting for a visit from a gaggle of schoolkids? Last night around eleven we went past a bad motorcycle accident on Olympic and Beverly Glen – the bike was on one side of Olympic, a bashed-in car on the other side, and a guy was lying in the street, helmet on, not moving.  I ask the guys if it was them pulling up.

“Yeah, that was us.”

What happened to the guy?

“Killed instantly.  Speed way too high, misjudged a car turning left in front of him, went right into the side of it, flew 50 feet through the air, broke his neck.  Sad.  But if you have to go, that’s not a bad way to do it.”

Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the first entry in his diary here.


The Cultural Revolution at 50: A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part One)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the first of a two-part roundtable interview we invited Alexander C. Cook, editor of the well-received Cambridge University Press book Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, to conduct with four scholars who have been doing important work on the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule and were part of a recent American Historical Association panel that he chaired.]

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning, and the 40th anniversary of the end, of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite the passage of time, the Cultural Revolution remains one of most controversial and least understood periods of modern Chinese history. I have invited Denise Ho (Yale University), Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona), Daniel Leese (University of Freiburg), and Yiching Wu (University of Toronto) to look back and help make sense of what we know — and what we still don’t know — about the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the standard “textbook” view of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE HO: When we teach the Cultural Revolution here in the United States, our textbook version is that Chairman Mao, fearing “revisionism” within his own Communist Party, launched an attack on perceived internal enemies. Our students tend to be most fascinated with the Red Guards, young people who Mao called on to “make revolution” by joining him in an attack on the old world.

YICHING WU: The problem of mass politics has fascinated scholars, as well. Mao’s attempt to cleanse the Communist Party of pernicious “bourgeois” influences involved the mobilization of a ferocious mass movement. Many ordinary Chinese who responded to Mao’s call for rebellion had long been discontented with the established system and were eager to take advantage of the newly sanctioned “right to rebel.” For several decades, we have examined how the charismatic mode of mass politics mobilized existing societal antagonisms and effectively undermined the ruling party’s bureaucratic authority.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How different is the standard view in China?

DENISE HO: One interesting thing is that the standard view in the West and the standard view in China overlap a great deal. Both our textbook version and the Chinese Communist Party’s official verdict (published in 1981) offer similar explanations: that the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s responsibility, that it was a period of great chaos, and that it was an ideological movement gone terribly wrong.

DANIEL LEESE: As for Chinese textbooks, they contain little or nothing about the Cultural Revolution and render the period as a distant and irrelevant past, akin to Neolithic history. A disturbing consequence is the near complete lack of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution among the younger generation. Nevertheless, there is definitely a standard or official view that still predominates. That view is largely negative. The party resolution of 1981 still defines the boundaries of permissible interpretation, and describes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration of the otherwise correct path of party-led socialist construction.

DENISE HO: In China the standard narrative is one of chaos, describing the Cultural Revolution as a “turbulent decade” in which not only were lives lost but also lives wasted. The official Party line is to lay responsibility at Mao’s feet but also to rescue his legacy; despite the Cultural Revolution being a mistake, the Party says, Mao was still a great revolutionary. Was the Cultural Revolution an aberration? To answer yes is to say that this was an extremist period and China has since returned to a path of modernization and development. To answer no is to suggest firstly that the Cultural Revolution came out of longer traditions, and that it has left a lasting imprint on Chinese politics, society, and culture. As historians I think we’re all trying to look for elements of both change and continuity.

DANIEL LEESE: Yes, and while Mao is blamed for having committed many mistakes, not everything of that 10-year period is officially negated. There were many continuities. It was not all chaos. The party continued to exist. Economic growth picked up as of the early 1970s. Also, China achieved foreign policy successes such as its 1971 entry to the United Nations.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So the real picture is more complex than we have previously assumed?

YICHING WU: Very much so. First of all, the sociological interpretations that previously dominated the study of mass factionalism have been seriously challenged by a new wave of scholarship. This new research contends that mass political conflicts were not derived from preexisting sociopolitical grievances, but rather were shaped by contingent events and dynamic interactions between the masses and the political leadership. Second, scholars interested in the ideological aspects of the Cultural Revolution have challenged existing views for their tendency to over-systematize and over-interpret late Maoism. The newer works highlight areas of incoherence in the official ideology and explore how ambiguities became exacerbated by the chaotic political circumstances in which ideology was interpreted and deployed.

DANIEL LEESE: While a powerful coalition of party members and intellectuals victimized during the Cultural Revolution has dominated public discussions of the period — and, understandably, emphasized the ordeals experienced — some other aspects of the period are remembered and even romanticized. The recently purged politician Bo Xilai tapped into heroic memories of revolutionary fervor and revolutionary idealism for example by way of singing “Red songs.” Former Cultural Revolutionary activist Qi Benyu recently expressed the hope that current Chinese president Xi Jinping would become a second Mao Zedong, meaning he would curb corruption and lead China back on the path of socialist revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: The Cultural Revolution has been romanticized from the beginning, and not just in in China. Why is that?

FABIO LANZA: In the 1960s, Maoism provided the vocabulary to describe and express new political ideas around the world. The global fascination with the Cultural Revolution has usually been viewed as orientalism of a sort, with Gauloises-smoking rive gauche intellectuals mesmerized by a revolutionary East they really did not know anything about — the “China in our heads.” But I believe we should take seriously the interest that activists and intellectuals around the world demonstrated for the experiment of the Cultural Revolution. Why should we? Precisely because they took it seriously at the time and because, no matter how misunderstood and misinterpreted it was, the experience of the Cultural Revolution seemed to be tackling head-on many of the issues of the day.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What globally relevant issues did the Cultural Revolution touch upon?

FABIO LANZA: First, the Cultural Revolution addressed directly the relationships between learning and teaching, politics and education, theory and practice. It was then not strange for student protestors in Paris, Turin, or New York to see similarities and connections between the Red Guards’ attacks against stultifying university learning and their own actions against the school system in the spring of 1968. Similarly, the integration of politics and education that the Cultural Revolution proclaimed echoed the political challenge that student organizations spearheaded against supposedly “neutral” pedagogy in Mexico, Chile, and across Europe. Second, the blossoming of the Red Guards in 1966 signaled that people could independently organize themselves outside of the Party-State and even use those organizations to attack the Party or other centers of political power (“Bombard the headquarters,” as Mao said). Third, Maoism seemed to embody an alternative to the existing development models, either capitalist or Stalinist. This was an alternative that was described and perceived as more humane, one that potentially could produce progress without sacrificing the quest for equality.

DANIEL LEESE: In China in the early 1980s former participants in the Cultural Revolutions began to argue that the elite power struggles between Mao and his rivals need to be differentiated from the “public” dimension of the movement, with its salutary elements of mass democracy and anti-bureaucratism. These aspects are still held up by many old and new critics of capitalist exploitation as an alternative path to modernity.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So they feel there are positive things we can salvage from the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: The global appeal of Maoism was made possible by the fact that it did not offer a fixed model, a set of steps to follow, or a rigid scheme to apply. Rather, Maoism presented itself and was viewed as a method of analysis of reality and as the lived experience of revolution. The lesson of the Cultural Revolution was not one of easily transferrable programs, but one of a massive, and still open experiment; a localized but inspirational experience. In this sense, it was not a “Chinese thing”: as one French Maoist worker quipped at the time “we don’t give a f — about China.”

DENISE HO: And yet the Cultural Revolution was, and continues to be, very much a product of Chinese culture. The Cultural Revolution has “culture” in the title, and yet in the past scholars have often written off cultural explanations for why the Cultural Revolution happened. Recent scholarship has tried to put culture back into the conversation.

YICHING WU: That’s right. Conventional wisdom has portrayed the Cultural Revolution as merely an era of chaos and violence, in which culture, education, and literature and art were ruthlessly destroyed. The reality, however, was far from one-dimensional. Several recently published studies have carefully examined films, drama, music, dance, fine arts, and popular literature during the Cultural Revolution, arguing that Mao’s last decade, rather than a cultural wasteland limited to a few hyper-politicized revolutionary plays, in fact witnessed considerable cultural innovation and artistic success.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Then we will pick up next time with the problem of culture….

KB - Night Journey 5

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s ‘Night Journey’

By Colin Marshall 

This is the first in a series of essays on the important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch it here. 

By day, Miss Lee and Mr. Pak work at the same bank in downtown Seoul, maintaining an ostensibly cordial if chilly professional relationship. But at night, they both return to the same apartment in a riverside tower block, where they live almost — but not quite — as husband and wife. “Weddings are lame,” insists Mr. Pak when Miss Lee, spurred by the coming nuptials of another formerly secret office couple, asks if they’ll ever have one of their own. He then nods off, putting an end to one of their rare opportunities to communicate, hemmed in as they are by the need for propriety at work and the insistence of his superiors at the bank on round after round of nightly drinking.

Having reached her late twenties without any marriage prospects, at least as far as the rest of her colleagues know, Miss Lee, given name Hyeon-joo, plays the role of the office “old miss” (올드미스), a title she’d until recently shared with the worker who sits next to her, the one about to get married. The boss, apparently out of pity, gives Hyeon-joo some time off and a holiday bonus as well, which Mr. Pak, in his work persona, jokingly suggests she use to tag along on the newlyweds’ honeymoon. Humiliated, she must wait until the evening at home before she can scream, shout, and throw household objects as well as punches in retaliation at her husband-to-be-or-not-to-be.

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This domestic battle cuts straight to a televised boxing match, which the couple watches in rapt, half-drunken excitement. When a round ends and the broadcast cuts to commercial, they fall amorously to the carpet, but they’ve barely got started before the fight resumes and Mr. Pak snaps back to attention, chanting and punching along with this geopolitically charged contest between a Korean boxer and a Japanese. Hyeon-joo remains sprawled on the floor, and we get a long look at her disappointed expression, a mixture of shock and bitter expectation at her apparent inability to compete with the flickering entertainment. How, she wordlessly says, can it have come to this?

The malaise of modern marriage — or modern quasi-marriage, anyway — has provided a reliable (and perhaps too reliable) theme in the fictions of many societies for decades and decades. Usually these stories end with either a union dissolved or made stronger than ever, but Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (야행) departs from the tradition by ending with Mr. Pak and Hyeon-joo’s relationship in the essentially tentative state in which it began, but sending the latter on a haunting, erotically charged odyssey in the meantime. Stanley Kubrick would do the same thing a quarter-century later in Eyes Wide Shut, but he did it to a man in 1990s Manhattan, which makes a fairly different statement than doing to to a woman in the South Korea of the 1970s.

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Kubrick, who got most of his material from novels, adapted Eyes Wide Shut from Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (or “Dream Story”). Kim, whose prolific filmmaking career has also tended toward literary adaptation, took the material for Night Journey from a short story by Kim Seungok, a writer who, in a burst of creativity during the 1960s, produced a body of nihilistic work that crystallized his generation’s experience coming of age in a country careening toward a state of both full industrialization and harsh repression. His best-known story, “Seoul, Winter, 1964” (서울, 1964년 겨울) showcases the author’s thorough knowledge of the city as well as his thorough knowledge of what it feels like to lead a meaningless life within it.

Hyeon-joo decides to use her holiday time and money on a solo trip out to her small coastal hometown. There she immediately changes into her old high-school uniform and relives her youth, taking her little sister bicycling along the beach as she was once taken by her first love, a teacher who, not long after consummating the relationship, went and got himself killed in Vietnam. All that had the Korean-seaside-hamlet rumor mill going full tilt, forcing Hyeon-joo to leave home for Seoul, but now, back in town, she draws the attention of a widowed former acquaintance, the scion of a local factory-owning family. But despite his habit of going around on a roaring motorbike in a white leather cap and aviator sunglasses, he proves more timid than the brutish playboy for whom she’s found herself hoping.

KB - Night Journey 1

Kim Seungok’s original story focuses on this compulsion. Its Hyeon-joo spends night after night wandering the streets of Seoul, longing for passers-by to fix on her as an object of desire — the more roughly handled an object, to her mind, the better. The film’s Heyon-joo does share her textual counterpart’s taste for being grabbed by the wrist (even drawing a fetishistic charge from the sight of handcuffs) and taken to the nearest yeogwan (여관), a kind of cheap, old-fashioned hotel, but she spends the rest of her vacation after returning from her hometown in search of viscerally cathartic experiences in general.

Visiting a café that overlooks her and Mr. Pak’s workplace, she casts a glance across the room at a rough-looking fellow sitting alone, and in her imagination entertains a brief fantasy of the two of them as a kind of Korean Bonnie and Clyde, dapper in dress and with guns blazing. (In reality, he skips out on his bill, leaving Hyeon-joo to pay it.) She goes to an arcade, giving its punching bag hell as the prepubescent clientele looks on in a kind of amused pity. As she re-emerges onto the streets and the night darkens further still, increasingly unsteady men circle around her, asking for a light, asking for a drink, asking for a dance.

KB - Night Journey 3

That last one turns out to be one of the boys from the bank — the very same one, in fact, whose wedding to the other “old miss” she’d attended just days before. “You must be enjoying your honeymoon,” Hyeon-joo says to him. “I did not enjoy my honeymoon,” he replies. “She wasn’t a virgin. Virgins, where have you flown off too?” His frustration, which has by now reached a theatrical pitch, peters out: “Men are all the same. We don’t like anything complicated. There are no virgins in this world anyway.” He might just as well have asked where everything else about the world he knew growing up, or thought he knew about the world growing up, had flown off to.

These characters make their way through what must have looked like a startlingly modern city in 1973, but the film presents the fast developing Seoul as a highly anomic kind of place, its inhabitants — even the basically middle-class ones like Hyeon-joo and Mr. Park, who look out from the balcony of their high-rise at the balconies of another high-rise — racked with feelings of dislocation. And to make matters worse, as Hyeon-joo finds (though she finds it more dramatically in Kim Seungok’s story, which has the tearfully reunited mother and daughter plunging into mutual spite in a matter of days), you can’t go home again. The men get caught in the samsara of eighty-hour work weeks and the regimented bacchanalia that goes with them, and as for the women, who knows what they’re liable to do in their desperation to feel something?

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The Koreans have a saying about how you choose either a boring heaven or an exciting hell. It can apply in a variety of contexts, but I most often hear it used to describe the choice between emigrating to the West, the boring heaven, or staying in Korea, the exciting hell. Kim Soo-yong, whose style critics describe as a bridge between traditionalism and modernism, renders an exciting hell indeed — or, to put it in terms more suited to the medium, a vivid nightmare, rendered in the somehow muddily rich colors of the era (1970s Korea didn’t dodge that flood of orange, green, and brown any more than 1970s America did) as well as its cinematic techniques: freeze frames, dubbed voices speaking with dreamlike clarity, an ominous score that generates uneasiness still through incongruity, and an unexplicit, metaphor-intensive eroticism. (The director gets plenty of mileage here out of his signature image of waves splashing against the shore.)

But even such hellish excitement can consign the Hyeon-joos of the world to a deeper, more existential boredom, and the Kim would return to the theme of a woman’s consequently compulsive self-ejection from the rigors of Korean life in his next film A Splendid Outing (화려한 외출), the story of a high-powered Seoul entrepreneur who, overtaken by the desire to drive to a sea village she’s seen in a dream, finds herself sold as a wife to an island fisherman. It, too, stars Yoon Jeong-hee, best known in recent years for her comeback performance as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (시).

A Splendid Outing came out almost at the same time Night Journey which, while shot in 1973, couldn’t get past the censors until 1977. Though Kim has claimed they made substantial cuts, it still comes off as much more daring a movie than one imagines emerging from its time and place. Even today, outsiders perceive South Korea as a conservative, buttoned-up, almost martial society, but behind that veil of conservatism people more or less obey their impulses. Kim’s films show, captivatingly, how new a condition that isn’t.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


Coming Home

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Saturday, 24 October

The taxi is waiting for me in early morning dark. I’m on my way home. It feels like it will be a dry day in Berlin after two solid weeks of light rain. The driver and I begin in German, but he’s from Thailand, I discover; he shifts into English. He’s been living in Berlin for the last 26 years.

Where are the refugees, I ask him. They’re everywhere, he says, a big problem. Yes, but in Berlin, I say, where are they. Oh, you can find them at Lageso and at Bundes Allee, he says, do you know where that is? Yes, I say, what do you think of the situation, should Germany be letting them in? Germany has opened its arms, he says, and it is a nation that keeps its word. The refugees that come here need to learn the language and become German. They need to stay, not just come for some years and leave. But the problem is (he speaks English slowly and carefully, making sure to articulate every syllable fully) that there are some who come and they are jihad, they are being paid to come over here, to bring the war here. Who do you think is paying them, I say. He shrugs. (Did I miss an issue of Time magazine or something; is this on an episode of Homeland?) The government, he says, needs to check everyone very carefully. It’s a lot of people, I say. He nods.

What will happen, he asks, in your presidential election. Ha, I bark. I like American individuals, he says, but I don’t like American international policy. I’m not so sure, I say, that I always like the individuals. Americans, he continues, are open, direct, candid, friendly, very warm. Who do you think, he says, will be the next president? Hillary Clinton, I say, and she’s none of those things. She will get along well, he says, with Merkel. We laugh. I close my eyes.

My family needs me to come home, it’s been too difficult to have me gone a whole month. And of course I can go back home, whenever I want; that was the first condition of my leaving. I planned to come to Berlin to work on my German, read literature and German newspapers (a fantasy, that last part, newspapers are hard), write, reconnect with friends, work on translations, and re-immerse myself in the capital, its particular jagged rhythms and the dark psychology of its spaces.

In August, I realized I had to turn my attention to the crisis, it was too big, too encompassing, and happening with terrific speed and violent energy. I was going to Germany in a moment of historical transformation that would affect the rest of the world. I decided to relearn Berlin through the experience of the crisis, and to try to tell a story that was rather unlike the one mainstream media is telling so dramatically. Mine would be a perpetual crabwalk, personal, a winding detour, like my experience. Returning to the States now, earlier than planned, brings home the awareness of freedom and privilege — with a US passport, I can go wherever I want in Europe, while many I’ve been speaking with in the last three and a half weeks cannot. They cannot go back, not if they wish to live; and, in many cases, they are also blocked from going forwards. While capital flows freely across borders, bodies — laborers — are stopped.  To what degree is diaspora a result of global capitalism? We’re living with the evidence.

The taxi was pulling up to Tegel Flughafen (airport) — the word for refugees, Flüchtlinge, once again audible, legible, all too apparent. I think of the breaking news about Berlin beginning to house refugees at the Tempelhof airport: no departures, just arrivals, and by the thousands. I can imagine the big white tents inside the even bigger hangars, where the US, for years after the war, landed a plane every five minutes, dropping supplies to aid the reconstruction of the city. After reunification, Tempelhof became a flashpoint for the differences between East and West Berliners — those in the East remembered the airport as a Nazi site, but for the West, it was a site of renewal, reconstruction, revival.

The division of memory turned divisive and so pronounced that the airport was never reopened for planes, but rather became the most unique playground in Europe: imagine getting to ride your bike on a runway, or run your dog, or fly your kite at a defunct airport. Just this past summer, it was the concert site for Lollapalooza. With unusual foresight, I had heard, the city kept all the porta-potties in place after the festival was finished. The fun-lovers who had to piss between Paul McCartney and Metallica are gone. Those fleeing their homeland will soon turn Tempelhof into a concert of the desperate. Maybe a good time to go, the driver says, reaching forward to pull a lever and pop the trunk, the situation here is a bomb, but no one knows when it will go off.

In the security process, I’m singled out for an additional “explosives” check. The computer cables, external disk drive, and adapter plugs I’m carrying home have set off protocols — the Germans are much more thorough than our TSA. They lecture me about my liquids, and the wand outlines my entire body without missing an inch of seam. A lot of these guys are old Stasi; they know what they’re doing.

Half-hour into the flight, I get up to use the toilet. I’m in a row near a lavatory that separates economy from business class. I head for the closest vacancy. A stewardess stops me. Are you sitting in business class or economy, she says. Economy. These are for business class, she says, there are four lavatories in the rear of the plane for economy. But these are all empty, I say, pointing to the folding doors, and I’m sitting right there, I point to my seat, a few feet away. You can walk to the rear of the plane, she says, as if offering a helpful suggestion. I’m permitted to go somewhere else, I say. Yes, she says, you can back there. That’s where you can go.

De-boarding at Newark. Passport control, nothing more than an exchange of silent looks. Baggage claim: a beagle walking with a customs officer points his nose deliberately at the plastic bag in my hand. What’s in the bag, the officer asks. Bread, I say. Anything on the bread? What, I say. Seeds or anything? (There probably are — it’s a half-loaf of Alpenstückbrot that I bought at the Swäbisches bakery where Karsten and I sometimes met). No, I say. The dog is praised, they move on. Newark is chaotic and dirty. TSA guys yell at passengers going through security, and yell at each other for creating havoc with new lines to expedite the process that actually lead to nothing but more confusion and slower lines. Der Prozess. The title, in German, of Kafka’s The Trial.  Systems. Borders. Permission. Control. What kind of society do we want to live in? What is necessary for meaningful life?

In the circular theater of gates to commuter flights at Newark, people seem to swim round and round like fish in a bowl, consuming snacks and media. A pigeon has found its way inside and wisely sticks to walking, following its own bobbing path, pecking at the crumbs. Is there animal control at the airport to remove unwanteds?

Humans are too busy here moving from one place to another to pay much attention. When it’s tired, the pigeon will find a place to sleep, tucked in the crotch of two steel beams. Maybe it will meet another pigeon. They will start a new life together here, flying creatures caught inside the vast structure of a complex system designed for flight.



Refugees Bring New Energy to Germany

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Friday, 23 October

Karsten Eckardt, the language instructor at Humboldt Universtät, and also a filmmaker, has been meeting me in the mornings for a Deutsche Stunde, or lesson; we’ve become friends over the course of only a few weeks. (When you make a friend in Germany, I’ve been told, it’s usually for life — a fine notion, and something to realize). Karsten has encouraged me to keep speaking German without fear, and to continue to push myself into the refugee situation in Berlin, to try to make some kind of small difference.

He is the best kind of idealist: disabused. Tall, lean and strong, he has a mountaineer’s physique, and his eyes are always bright with the energy of engagement. Like many great teachers, he finds out about his students, and he cares how they see and think about the world. After our first meeting, I told him my motto for the month was the German verb, versuchen (to try, to attempt; to essay, one could say); he recognized it as the key word, maybe the word our friendship is now based on.

We meet for a last time in another great old Kneipe, Schwarze Pumpe, in Prenzlauer Berg. We ride bikes in a fine rain to get there, and the atmosphere inside has a sweet humidity thickened by big steaming bowls of Korbis Suppe. So, Josh, he says, is there anything you’ve learned about the situation that’s surprised you. Everything about it surprises me, I say, because when you’re talking to actual people, there’s an energy of communication that’s part of the situation. The migration of refugees from the Middle East seeking political asylum and traveling, I say, each of them, thousands of miles, is a situation born from a great political explosion building over many years and culminating now.  A potentially terrible energy. Just think of the energy the refugees themselves have exerted to get here! But energy is not ideologically fixed. Maybe it can be harnessed to do something good? An energy generated by cataclysmic change, directed to become an energy for positive change? God, that’s too hopeful by half, I’m obviously dangerously naive . . . I haven’t learned anything, I guess. I’m making connections, I say, but I don’t know what they mean, like in a poem . . .

I am not so hopeful, says Karsten, I can’t be, about the crisis. The problems are permanent because we are the problem. I don’t think things are necessarily getting worse, but things have always been problematic. Maybe now, however, the problems are coming closer, so they look bigger. And we ask ourselves, are we able to change and move our minds and grow, or are we stuck. Tomorrow, he continues, I will meet a student, 28 years old; he is on a mission, to become a professor — he is a Marxist thinker, really competent. He made a presentation to the class arguing for open borders worldwide, and of course he couldn’t convince anyone in the class because we are thinking in borders, they are in our mind. How do we reach ourselves — that is the question I will put to him tomorrow.

Big ideological sentences can be convincing, Karsten says, but only rhetorically; they are not convincing on an emotional level. On a political level, however, I see no hope. I too was a kind of refugee, he says. I grew up in the DDR, and I fled the DDR and entered the West by way of Hungary. Karsten takes a drink and I break in with something I remember Rabbi Rothschild saying about the triple axis of ironies in a divided Germany: Germans who shot Germans fleeing Germany in order to enter Germany. Yes, Karsten continued, I’m coming from a system that broke down expecting the breakdown of another system. We all live in systems. How to build up the human community, the human family — that is the question. But what are we experiencing individually in whatever system we find ourselves in — we have to start with ourselves, and that opens the world. Of course there are good willing people in Germany who want to try to open the society; at the same time, we are regressing with extremist violence. But there is always hope, we have to hope, there’s nothing without it. We look for a few seconds into our empty soup bowls. You’ve come full circle, I say.


europe 1954

the netherlands border on germany and belgium
belgium borders on the netherlands, germany, luxembourg
     and france
luxembourg borders on belgium, germany and france
france borders on belgium, luxembourg, germany, switzerland,
     italy, monaco, andorra and spain
monaco borders on france
andorra borders on france and spain
spain borders on france, andorra and portugal
portugal borders on spain
italy borders on the vatican, san marino, yugoslavia, austria,
     switzerland and france
the vatican borders on italy
san marino borders on italy
switzerland borders on italy, france, germany, austria and
liechstenstein borders on switzerland and austria
austria borders on switzerland, liechtenstein, italy,
     yugoslavia, hungary, czechoslovakia and germany
germany borders on germany, austria, switzerland,
     france,belgium, the netherlands and denmark
denmark borders on germany
norway borders on sweden finnland and
     the soviet union
sweden borders on norway and finnland
finnland borders on sweden, norway and
     the soviet union
the soviet union borders on finnland, norway, corea,
     china, mongolia, afghanistan, iran, turkey, rumania,
     hungary, czechoslovakia and poland
poland borders on the soviet union, czechoslovakia
     and germany
germany borders on germany, poland and
czechoslovakia borders on austria, germany, germany,
     poland, the soviet union and hungary
hungary borders on yugoslavia, austria, czechoslovakia,
     the soviet union and rumania
rumania borders on yugoslavia, hungary, the soviet union
     and bulgaria
bulgaria borders on rumania, yugoslavia, greece and turkey
yugoslavia borders on bulgaria, rumania, hungary,
     austria, italy, albania and greece
albania borders on yugoslavia and greece
greece borders on albania, yugoslavia, bulgaria
     and turkey
turkey borders on greece, bulgaria, the soviet union,
     iran, irak and syria

—Gerhard Rühum
(translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop)


” . . . the border is an in depth concept, not a line.”
—Jonathan Littel, Syrian Notebooks


Making Something of It

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Thursday morning, 22 October

7 a.m., the flat’s buzzer jolts us with two prolonged bursts. My first insane thought: oh my god, I’m hiding a Jew in my apartment! — and (of course) maybe it’s me! Bleary, I open the door. The stern Frau Hausemeister is standing at the threshold. We are here for the curtains, she says. What. It’s not a question. She repeats herself, we are cleaning the curtains today. Two large men in blue work overalls boom out a Morgen! and set up their ladders at the windows. We will bring them back at noon, she says.

After breakfast, Joseph tells me he’s going to stay in a hostel tonight. How come, I say, you don’t like officious Germans banging on the door at 7 a.m.? He smiles, he doesn’t laugh. He is planning to go to some Kaffeeklatsches he keeps up with in Berlin, where he can meet more people. He doesn’t know how late he’ll be; maybe he’ll meet a woman. We head out together. Where you off to now, I say. Joseph is going to visit the Berlin Wall, or what’s left of it. I’ve never seen it before, he says. No figurative curtain, the Wall was an ideological and deadly concrete border, turned over time into a work of anonymous protest art. Have a ball, I say. We make an arrangement to meet later that afternoon should I have any follow up questions for him.


Thursday evening, 22 October

Another rainy night. I take the U-bahn into Pernzlauer Berg, to find the home of Jalda Rebling and Anna Adam, two Berlin-based artists who are also leaders in the Jewish renewal movement here — Jalda, a cantor for the Ohel Hachidusch community, and Anna, a painter and installation artist who works on interfaith community-building, specifically with Muslim kids. They live on the street named after the Gesthemaniekirche (or church), which marks an important location for the peaceful demonstrations that lead to the Mauerfall. The church itself was a refuge and place of vigil for demonstrators trying to escape police crackdowns along nearby Schönhauser Allee. It was also home to one of the few congregations explicitly open to lesbian groups. Jalda and Anna begin the conversation, as so many do, I find, by looking out the window and describing the significance of a specific location in plain view. The conversation in their home — another enviable high-ceilinged flat full of books and music, and the warmth that comes with over thirty years of domesticity — starts with that year, 1989, and moves forward.

The idea of German reunification was scary for a lot of Jews here in the late 1980’s — it was a unified Germany, after all, that lead to the Holocaust. Jalda, one of the founders of Ohel Hachidusch, and its cantor (one of the few ordained female cantors in Germany), came to East Berlin from Amsterdam at the age of 2, with her family — her parents eagerly joined the effort to build a socialist society devoted to peace. Jalda and Anna both belong to that first generation of children of Holocaust survivors. Jalda’s mother, who survived Bergen Belsen to become a well known actress and singer, rode the same train car to the concentration camp as Anne Frank. She was the one later to tell Otto Frank that his daughter was dead.

But we were never afraid, says Jalda, speaking of herself and Anna about the inexorable political and social forces that lead to reunification. We were open about being Jews. And we trusted our neighbors. (It’s very important, she says, that you know who your neighbors are.) We were not sure about the possibility of violence that might result from reunification, and what this might mean for Jews here. But it never materialized as had been imagined in paranoid fantasies. Yet fears persist around us, says Jalda. When the Gaza war started [between Israel and Palestine], Jews in Berlin bought pepper spray to protect themselves from attackers. It became an atmosphere in which every Arab appeared dangerous.  Jalda expresses her perturbation: “Wait a minute,” I would say, “we have Muslim friends.” But those who are scared don’t want to hear it, she says. Jalda and Anna, who are now what they call Bubbes (grandmas) speak with calm subdued voices steady in their deliberate thoughtfulness. One feels their grounded strength. If you are looking for anti-Semitism, says Jalda, it is always there, it will always be there. She tells the joke about the Jewish father of a child who wants to be a violinist. The violin teacher eventually makes his judgment. “Your son plays the violin like a piano,” he says to the father, “he will never be a violinist.” Says the father to the son as they’re walking out the door, “Another anti-Semite!'” We laugh.

Anna describes one of her main interfaith efforts, the Happy Hippy Jew Bus, an actual small bus that travels around Germany, stopping at street fairs and other locations to teach people about Judaism through performance, dialog, and hands-on arts & crafts. Anna’s quiet firm voice has a liquid softness at its center that’s mesmerizing — I can easily imagine her holding people’s attention, especially children’s attention, with her voice alone. She tells the story of how Ibrahim, a Muslim mechanic she knows, helped her when the bus died, by finding a new bus through his uncle, even going so far as to secure new plates for it, with the number BJ1967. “1968,” he said [the pivotal year in German history when the left-leaning younger generation protested against the entrenchment of Nazis in German society] “was sold out; but 1967 seemed close enough.” It was a great story. But when a local Jewish journalist wrote about it, he emphasized that the Muslim mechanic was insinuating a protest against Israel: 1967 is the year of the Six-Day War. When Anna read that, she approached Ibrahim. His response: “The Six-Day War, what is that?” He read the story. “Anna,” he said, “you and I are here to live in peace. But Anna, why can’t the Germans learn to clean their own dishes?” They laughed. You talk about the devil, says Anna to me, and he will show up. The work, she continues, is to dispel the clichés about Judaism. Another story: I discovered, she says, the power of satire. I was on the metro and a young Muslim woman was surrounded by three neo-Nazi guys who were harassing her. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something. Then I saw one of them was wearing Levi jeans. And I screwed up my courage and yelled, “Awwww, that guy is wearing Jewish jeans! Look, Levi, a Jewish name! He is a traitor to Germany, wearing Jewish jeans!” The other two turned on him, she says, and started beating him. The three of us chuckle and pour some tea.

So many more Germans are supporting the refugees, says Jalda, than are against their coming. Last winter I was in Israel, and the Israeli press was reporting the nationalistic xenophobic demonstrations in Dresden, but the anti-demonstrations were much bigger. But US and Israeli media weren’t reporting those. And all the refugees who had come months earlier, she continues, were receiving so much help — the media didn’t report it until the political right set the shelters on fire. But that’s not the atmosphere here, she says. Here are people who feel we have to help. Nobody knows how to solve the situation. In a way, the third world war is already going on. Will it lead to the building of a new wall, a new curtain, she asks. All I know, she answers herself, is that now we have to help these people. The Berlin bureaucracy is crazy, she says, we don’t have words for it. I mean, writing numbers in pen on people’s arms? [This was actually happening in September, but discontinued.] I ask Jalda and Anna if the new spike in xenophobia is the expression of feelings that have always existed, or those born from the crisis for the first time. It was always open, says Jalda, but the media was not in the habit of reporting it. The biggest demos, says Anna, are in Dresden and places in the East where there have never been many strangers.

What kind of pressure do you think so many Muslims coming into Germany will place on the Jewish community, I say. They are afraid of something they don’t know, says Anna. We are survivor’s children, says Jalda, and we have taught our children. There is a survival gene; if you have it, you move in the world as it. If we Jews want to be tolerated, then we must tolerate. I work with refugee kids, says Anna, they’ll all figure out I’m Jewish; but I can’t talk about my religion — that’s the law in Germany, everything must be totally neutral. But these people I’m helping will know they are getting help from a Jew. Anna then tells the story of a Muslim girl she knows whose parents have passed on the pernicious blood libel of literally vampiric Jews. When they need help filling out government papers, Anna agrees to lend a hand and takes the opportunity to make fun of the ludicrous, vicious fiction of the blood libel. “You see,” she tells them, “I am helping you, and I am also not sucking your blood.” She makes comical biting gestures with her teeth. The struggle, she says, is to dispel ignorance with the flash of perception: humanity, equality, charity. We can only create a society together, says Anna. It has been a struggle for us to become proud German Jews, says Jalda, but that is where the beginning is for us, and we choose to stay here. We are making something of it.



Charity Benefits the Giver

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Wednesday, 21 October

Joseph has accepted my invitation to stay for a couple of nights. He’ll check out of the hostel around noon and come to my flat in Scheunenviertel, a fast 10 minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof. He has offered to go with me to Lageso to act as an interpreter. Also, he says, he can tell me things about the people we talk to based on the way they answer questions. He knows I’m skeptical of the conspiracy picture he’s painted, but he clearly likes the fact that I’m listening to him closely and appear to be at least half-informed about the situation. And, of course, we’re both Jewish.

But what does that mean? I find this troubling. Why have I invited him to stay and not a Muslim in more desperate straits who likely follows Islam? I know it is because I’m Jewish, a fact I’ve kept totally under wraps in my interviews with refugees at Lageso. Not that I had a reason to bring it up, but if someone had asked me, I would have said “yes, and I’m against the occupation.” And then I would have felt very nervous. The difference of religion is not the issue, but rather my inability to identify the political ideologies of Muslims after talking to them for only a short while, and in their rough English, or my rough German. Where German Berliners might not feel any trepidation bringing a strange Muslim into their house, as an American Jew in Berlin I did, and do. Maybe such initial feelings would change in the course of a larger conversation, in a different setting than the tense grounds of Lageso. I trust my intuitions; but unfamiliar and stressful situations can distort the signal one tries to pick out — too much background noise. Joseph, however, has arrived already vetted, in some sense, by Rabbi Rothschild and Germany’s greater Jewish network. And three hours of conversation in a café — a normalizing environment — have lead me to extend myself. But not flatter myself; the evidence of my limitation in this moment is disconcerting. Next time, I hope, I like to think, I will find a way to go further. So, I’ve found a flattering reflection in any case: optimism by endless deferral; that is not an ethics . . .  (The mirror doesn’t lie, we do).


“First and foremost charity benefits the giver.” —Joseph Roth (“Ghettoes of the West”)


En route to Lageso, Joseph and I talk more about the situation. What about Russia? Russia, he says, has weakened IS; they are still dangerous, but not as powerful right now. Some of my information is a year old, he continues, so I made some calls to people in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan yesterday to find out the news. This is what they are saying. The guys I talked to at Lageso, I say, don’t like to see Putin in the region; they say he is simply supporting Assad. They would like to see Obama fly planes over the region — just the sight of planes, they say, would send the regime underground. Joseph laughs. Yes, he says, that’s true, totally correct. Whoever told you that, he says, maybe has some military experience. But, he continues with a shrug, Russia is looking out for Russia, supporting Bashar is only supporting their own interests; they don’t care about anything else. And Bashar is bad, he says, but IS is worse. Bashar does not want to take over the world, IS does. (Still, I think, listening to Joseph, the difference in numbers of murdered is staggering; what Assad is doing to his own people is beyond criminal.) And, continues Joseph, IS is even more violent. They are smarter than Al-Qaeda, they are more powerful, better armed, and bigger. And yet the US is doing less than they did before, less than they did against Saddham. And this enemy is greater. It doesn’t make any sense. He changes the subject. We should have a word, he says, that I can use at Lageso to signal that we are talking to a radicalized Muslim. Do you like baseball, I say. Joseph shrugs. Why don’t you do something like touch the bill of your cap, kind of adjust it on your head. He gives it a try. Ja, like that, I say. We go over how Joseph will introduce me — an American writer wanting to tell people back in the States about the situation of refugees in Berlin. True enough.

Approaching the Lageso compound of buildings, we pass the big white convention-size tents set up behind fences and adjacent to the first building that faces the street. The tents are full of people stepping in and out of the cold. Some on the sidewalk converse with others inside the fence. A young boy, 4 or 5, plays with a toy car on the sidewalk, spinning it upside down on its roof like a top. His family is squatting nearby eating apples. Their stroller is full of food, packaged and also fresh produce that’s easy to eat raw with one’s hands. Five kids. Walking onto the grounds, we pass the food tent — soup and brötchen. There are only a few hundred people today milling about the digital console of amber numbers. Joseph and I walk around observing people. I decide to approach three men and two women wearing hijabs standing around an empty baby carriage.

They are two families. Husam, 23, and his father, Razin, 50, are Palestinians from Libya. Husam has been in Germany for a year, having only recently arrived from Dresden (where anti-immigration xenophobia is spiking with the right organization, Pegida). His father has just joined him. What did you do in Libya, I ask Razin, the father. I was a geography teacher he says to Joseph, who is interpreting. I’m a teacher, too, I say, literature. He gives me a broad smile and we shake hands for a second time. They have been running from radicalized forces that would compel them to join. What was the situation like when you left, I ask Razin. Bombs were going off everywhere, he says. Cars are outfitted with guns. There’s no school, no university now for two years. Girls are afraid to go out because of kidnapping. All the young men are armed and fighting. Who are they? All different groups with IS. Who are they fighting? The regime, the oil families. Why did you want to come to Germany? Germany is the best, says Razin, for acceptance and protection. The Arabic world doesn’t want us [Palestinians], for 76 years now.

I turn to Fudail, 35, from Aleppo. What did you do in Aleppo? Fudail ran a fish and chicken restaurant destroyed by a bomb. Well, he says, there’s still a counter standing there, but no one to cook or serve! He laughs. The absurdity of the mental picture is infectious, and I laugh, too, and shake my head. Is your family still there? My mother and sister, and the workers from the restaurant. In the course of talking, the two women in concert have stepped back and moved to the side. Occasionally one of the young daughters comes over to us and takes Fudail’s index finger in her hand. He ignores her questions but doesn’t pull away. Good luck, I say, shukran lak (thank you). We all shake hands with smiles. Joseph and I walk away and he weighs in. Those are just normal people, he says. The Palestinians from Libya are exaggerating their situation a little, he continues, there are lots of places to go in Libya where there isn’t war. They are practicing their story for the Germans, to get their status. Joseph shrugs. It’s okay, he says, that’s what people are doing so that they can stay. It’s easier for the Syrians than the Libyans.

We approach what look like a couple standing with a third guy, slightly younger. Moonif, 29, and his sister, Rina, 27, have lived in Germany since they were kids; they’ve been here a total of 50 years between them. They’re at Lageso helping their cousin, Elias, 25, get registered. Make sure, says Moonif in perfect German, that you tell people we are not refugees, we are German. Moonif works in a steak house in Schöneberg; he and his sister both live in Neukölln. They are warm, friendly people, spending their free time at Lageso helping new arrivals fill out forms and navigate the system. How many people have you helped so far? 20-35, with the papers, says Rina. I turn to Elias, their cousin from Aleppo. What was the situation when you left? If I stayed, he says, I would have to join the Free Army or IS. What if you joined neither, I say. I’d be killed, he says. The Free [Syrian] Army bombed my house, I can’t go back. If it were safe, says Moonif, 80% would go back. We say thank you, shake hands, and turn in another direction.

Two guys approach us. They see we are something like reporters, and they want to talk. Abdul, 35, wears a white down jacket that cinches at the waist — otherwise stylish, it shows the soiling of his journey. He speaks with lively eyes; his hips move expressively as he talks; he could be a slim, seductive Spaniard or Italian. He’s here with his wife and two daughters, 9 and 14. I am from Iraq, he says to Joseph, from the city of Mosul; I saw the fall of Mosul. Why are you talking to me with a Syrian accent, says Joseph (according to his account afterward). Abdul shifts into his hometown speech — I adopt the accent, he says, to blend in with the others. Before IS entered Mosul, Abdul was working in the government’s Ministry of Health. They knew IS was on its way when they were told to stay home and not leave their house for over a week. Abdul was working at a hospital when the civic order was announced; he was stuck there for days. At the time, says Abdul, there were 60,000 soldiers in Mosul, but none of them from the city itself. When 200 IS fighters entered, the soldiers simply dropped their weapons and left their posts. Only the local police stayed to fight, and they were no match. Why’d they stay? They are from Mosul, he says, the others are just there for the pay. They never fought IS at all. Many people were being killed, but the military watches without reaction and simply moves out. (Abdul still has family there; I promise not to use his real name.) IS took my 2014 Hyundai, he says, I hardly got the chance to drive it. And now life there is totally ruled by Sharia: no shaving; no jeans; women totally covered, no bare skin at all; you have to go to the mosque when called or you’ll be killed. Any change in your life, he says, and you must get permission, otherwise you’ll be taken to Islamic court, and they’ll cut off your head. If you try to leave, and they find you, he says, they’ll kill you. How did you get out? Abdul describes how he and his family and three other families — a total of 13 people — hid inside an empty oil tank for seven hours. And his movements then? From Iraq to Syria to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Croatia to Austria to Hungary to Berlin. How have you been treated so far? The police in Germany are very respectful, he says, thoughtful, considerate. Our dream, he says, was to come to Germany, but now I see it is not a dreamland. The routine is killing. I hope, I say, that’s only a figure of speech here. He smiles genuinely. Yes, he says, I hope so.

I turn to the other man, Yaman, 45, an oil engineer from Homs. A tall man, he looks aged beyond his years and sways slowly as he talks, but from the shoulders not the hips. His voice is mellow, its softness a rich contrast to the harshness of his situation. He’s arrived in Berlin three weeks ago with his wife and his daughter, 10, and his son, 17. I am an individual person, he says, I’m not with the regime or with IS or with the Free Military, I am just myself. The Free Military has come to control Homs by force. They say, “we are here to protect you.” (The FSA is made up of many defectors from Assad’s regime who refused to kill civilians). “But,” says Yaman, “you will draw Bashar to us,” we say. “The Koran tells us,” they say, “that jihad licenses us to fight the regime.” “But we’ll get killed,” we say. “Or,” they say, “you will be killed other ways.” When the fighting starts, says Yaman, we hid under our kitchen table. For ten days we were surrounded by fighting. Funny thing, though, he says, all fighting stops in the middle of the day, for two hours, so both sides can eat. Then it starts again. We saw many bodies in the street. The Free Military would throw the bodies of soldiers into garbage cans and write on them: For Bashar Al-Assad, from the Free Military. I will stay here if I can, he says, but the process is so slow. How are you being treated by security here, I say. Some are okay, he says, quite nice. Others kick us while we are sleeping. Joseph says afterward, I don’t think he’s Syrian. No one says, as introduction, “I am an individual,” no one — everyone has some affiliation. And he has no accent, Joseph continues, he speaks in a way that comes from nowhere, he has learned to talk like that. Joseph shrugs, maybe he’s Egyptian and has lived in Syria for a long time.

We walk to the front courtyard area, where the console displays its lit amber numbers, and hover by the opening of a large tent set up for people to take shelter. Three guys who look to be in their 30s sit on stools by the tent opening. One smokes a cigarette down to its filter and talks quietly to another in hip designer glasses. Joseph makes introductions; is it okay to talk to them? The smoker gives me a dead hard stare for an eternal five seconds. His eyes are steel blades. No, he says, we are not interested in talking to anyone from the West. The West cares only for its own interests. We will not talk to them. Joseph says, okay; he adjusts his cap, well, thank you very much. We go. Those guys, he says, are totally radicalized, maybe not as much as the guys in the camp who tried to stab me, but definitely those are not just normal people. Will they get sent back, do you think, I say. Probably not, he says. The way the law works in Germany, he says, they can stay: they will say they are against Bashar, which is true, but they will not say that they support IS, even though they do. And as far as the law here goes, being against Bashar is enough.

On our way out, we are stopped by a guy who looks to be in his 20s, in a red track suit and athletic shoes. He is highly agitated and starts talking to Joseph in a voice that grows more insistent and louder with every sentence. I got here three months ago, he says to Joseph (it’s clear that our presence has been discussed around the grounds) and because I’m from Iraq they won’t accept me. I want to go back, how can I go back? I’m almost ready to kill myself. It’s safer back there. Even if I’m killed there, it will be better. EU is just accepting Syrians. It’s terrible here. So go back, says Joseph, it’s easy. Just go to Frankfurt, to the embassy, and say that you want to go back. They have to take you. But I need a paper from the German government, he says. Go to the embassy, says Joseph, they’ll help you get the paper. We walk off the grounds. Upset guy, says Joseph, but he’s exaggerating his situation.

Sitting over a plastic plate of noodles at the Asian Wok booth outside the Hauptbahnhof debriefing with Joseph over the visit to Lageso. Two girls walk by cloaked in Palestinian flags. I look around for a demo forming, but nothing’s happening. Maybe they’re on their way to one? A red balloon rolls by on the sidewalk, looking for its string; a grown man stomps, and it pops. The little red lit Ampelmann with his arms straight out signaling to stop turns into a bright green profile in stride. The real man imitates him, walking across the tram lines to the other side.

DC Snow in shuttle

When a Tree Falls

By Joanna Chen

I land in Dulles Airport after a blizzard. A thick layer of snow covers the Lincoln Memorial; the Reflecting Pool glistens with ice. The driver of the shuttle bus notices me taking photos through the window with my iPhone and offers to stop for a minute so I can get a good shot. I start explaining that I’m not interested in the tourist sites; my best photos are the blurry ones in which trees, people, buildings, seem to move, when their outlines are smudged across the frame, when there is something suggestive, something left to the imagination, but the driver has already pulled up to the curb so I snap a couple of photos obediently and say thank you. He seems happy, nods and pulls out again into a road that is strangely empty. It’s President’s Day and the recent storm has kept people indoors. Everything is clean and bright.

I last visited DC during the cherry blossom season. The streets were swarming with people back then; we walked down Capitol Hill to the tidal basin at 7 a.m and blossoms the color of silken ballet slippers greeted us. But now the roads are deserted and the shuttle bus makes its way up to the National Mall, sleet thrashing at the windscreen of the van.

I get out at Union Station. This is almost the last leg of a journey that began 13 hours earlier in Oxford, UK, as I descended the creaking wooden stairs leading from the bedroom after parting from my daughter. She lay in bed, the fragrance of sleep hanging in the air. I leaned over her, kissed her forehead, smoothed a tendril of hair away from her brow and murmured in a low voice: See you in six weeks. That was it. As my cousin drove me early morning to Heathrow, the sun rose pinkly and I looked out at the bare trees that lined the country roads and tried to imagine we were headed north towards Yorkshire, to my brother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery that lies on the edge of the main burial grounds of Leeds. There had been no time to go there on this trip to England. It’s more important to be with the living than the dead, I had reasoned. There were cousins to catch up with, there was my Auntie Sheila’s 90th birthday to share. But I missed Yorkshire, I missed the rough diamond quality it has about it, the lack of varnish, the absence of fine tuning. What you see is what you get.

VCCA Day 1

I think about this as I settle down into my seat on the train whose final destination is New Orleans but that will stop for me at Lynchburg, Virginia. I peer out the window as the train moves off. The snow has stopped falling and pristine white illuminates the branches of the trees as we head out. I have been watching the trees closely and they are holding out their arms to me, stretching out their spindly fingers. About half an hour from Lynchburg, the train creaks to a halt. The electricity cuts and we sit in semi-darkness, illuminated only by flimsy, flickering emergency lights. An Amtrak worker with a peaked cap walks through the carriage, informing passengers that a tree has fallen onto the tracks. A baby begins crying and his frazzled mom tells him “night-night” in a sharp voice, over and over. His name is Damian and he won’t stop crying. I’m tired and cranky too. The woman next to me, her hefty body wedged into the seat, spilling over into mine, begins snoring loudly. I shift towards the window, peer out into the night but see nothing. The Amtrak worker moves slowly up the darkened carriage, head down, vacuuming the dingy floor carpeting.

I try to imagine the tree, but I do not even know which trees grow here, whether they are tall and thin, or thick and gnarled, and I wonder how long the tree has been growing until the exact, precise moment of toppling.

After an hour of sitting like this, jammed against the window, I make my way through to the dining carriage. It smells of pot noodles and stale coffee. There is no one behind the counter and I stand there, contemplating the candy bars and bags of popcorn on sale. A large woman with beehive hair dyed blonde, wearing a dark blue Amtrak apron, looks up at me from the next carriage, flashes a smile, and gets up heavily. She lumbers over to me and puts her head to one side. She has twinkly blue eyes and earrings that hang from her lobes like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Her nails are red.

“What can I do for you, my love?” she says, and my heart misses a beat. Her accent with its rough edges and gruff tone is unmistakeably from Yorkshire. I would know it anywhere, even in the middle of the night on a train headed for New Orleans. She is one of mine. “Tea?” I say stupidly as if I am asking her if tea is the right choice, fumbling in my wallet for two dollars. “Tip it out, tip it out,” she says, pointing to the wallet. Her hand hovers closes over mine in a surprising gesture of intimacy, then pushes it away and begins shifting through the coins as though she were examining shells on a beach. There are shekels from Israel, pennies, and pounds from England, and two dimes my dad gave me the night before I left Israel. For luck, he had said, tossing them across the table at me. I remove a 10 dollar note and place it into her hand. “Ta very much, love,” she says. I drop the tea bag she hands me into the paper cup. “Not like that,” she says, and drops another tea bag into the cup, then zaps it in the microwave for a few seconds. “Nice and strong, the way we like it in Yorkshire,” she winks at me again and snaps the plastic cover on the cup. I consider telling her that I’ve lived away from England for more than 30 years and I like my tea weak nowadays, but I don’t want to break the magic between us and so say nothing.

“What’s a Yorkshire lass doing on a train bound for New Orleans?” I ask her as she leans her weight against the counter top. She laughs throatily and tells me she’s been in the US for more than 30 years and doesn’t miss Yorkshire in the least. She tells me she can get anything she wants from England: vacuum-packed spotted dick, Marmite, Thornton’s fudge toffee. Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad anymore about not squeezing Yorkshire into my visit. I have it right here in the flesh.

I return to my seat. I lean back and sip the ridiculously strong tea until the train lurches forward again. By now, it’s almost 3 a.m. The tree trunk has been removed. We continue on through the darkness, and at the next stop I get off. Cora and Charles, who run a taxi service and have been waiting for me in the freezing cold for the past three hours, take me to my final destination, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Cora holds out her hand to steady me as I get out the van. They lead me gently up the stairs to my room, open the door, place my luggage by the bed. Below my window, a deer moves across the snow-drenched yard, lifts her head to the night, listening.

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How Has Korea Become a “Silent Cultural Superpower”? The BBC Sends a Historian to Investigate

By Colin Marshall 

“I’ve been to China and I’ve been to Japan,” says Rana Mitter at the beginning of his BBC Radio 3 documentary South Korea: The Silent Cultural Superpower, “but I’ve never got off at this place before.” Increasingly many Asia-savvy global travelers have uttered variations on that line in the past decade, having known, of course, of this country’s existence and even of its history, but never having regarded the actual experience of it as a priority. Why has that changed?

The BBC has clearly taken an interest in the question, having sent potter Roger Law here at the end of last year for the five-part series Art and Seoul, and now having had Mitter come and take a closer look at why so many of us know something about Korean culture today while so many of us knew almost nothing about it yesterday. When I interviewed Michael Breen, author of the respected book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, he mentioned that, when he wrote its first edition in the 1990s, only when a friend pointed it out did he realize that he hadn’t said a word in the text about the products of Korean culture, and at that time didn’t feel he needed to. Now almost every major piece of writing about South Korea begins with them.

The Silent Cultural Superpower looks for the sources of modern Korean culture in many of the stops in Seoul that, if you follow Korea’s presence in the international media, you’ll expect: the tourist-thronged shopping streets of Myeongdong; the hip cafés of the historically countercultural Hongdae district; the sidewalk across from the Japanese embassy where protesters express their views on the “comfort women” issue in no uncertain terms; Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (a “huge, sinuous, gorgeous egg of a building” as well as a “statement about what Korea is now”); and the foot of Lotte Tower, the under-construction symbol of the power of those giant corporations, a lineup also including such now globally known names as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, that have “powered this country’s economic miracle and sent it global.”

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Refreshingly, Mitter never sets foot inside a cram school or plastic surgery clinic, avoiding some of the topics all too frequently obsessed over in mainstream Korea coverage in favor of others not so commonly discussed. An examination of recent Korean film and television highlights the centrality of “the powerlessness of the Koreans,” as against the power of China or Japan or America or anywhere else, as a theme. It surfaced with special clarity in Ode to My Father (국제시장), Yoon Je-kyoon’s blockbuster from the Christmas before last. While it drew many comparisons to Forrest Gump, not without cause, the film’s story of one Korean man’s life from the division of his family at the end of the Korean War to his work abroad as a soldier in Vietnam and a coal miner in Germany to his struggles with redevelopment as a merchant in modern-day Busan tells a great deal of Korean history in domestically tear-jerking microcosm.

Ode to My Father has its inaccuracies, the product of artistic license as well as glossings-over, but in that sense it offers a valuable look at a certain kind of Korean perception of Korean history. In his review and analysis of the movie, Matt VanVolkenburg at Gusts of Popular Feeling breaks this down for the non-Koreanist, framing the film as “a national coming of age story” set in a harsh, unforgiving world in which “a weak Korea, beset by poverty and war,” a “shrimp among whales” ever caught between powerful neighbors, must struggle simply to exist. Hence, in this storytelling tradition, the tendency to portray Koreans as “blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet” (literally, in the case of Yoon’s previous tidal-wave disaster picture).

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In The Silent Cultural Superpower we also hear from Han Kang, a novelist who’s broken into the English language in a big way with The Vegetarian (채식주의자), published in translation in the United States this month, and Human Acts (소년이 온다), just recently out in Britain. In the latter book, Kang takes on the theme of the powerlessness of Koreans from another angle: not their powerlessness against the whims of other, bigger countries, but their powerlessness against the whims of their own dictators. The program discusses on Park Chung-hee, the architect of South Korea’s industrial development who held the reins of power from 1961 until his assassination by his own security chief in 1979, but says less about his successor Chun Doo-hwan, who in 1980 ordered the military’s massacre of protesters which Human Acts takes, unblinkingly, as its subject.

Even the documentary’s inevitable coverage of K-pop takes a different tack. We hear one argument that the music “isn’t really Korean,” but a simple repurposing of Western pop forms, and we hear about its strategic use to improve Korea’s often troubled relationship with Japan, as in K-pop star BoA’s recording of songs in Japanese as well as in Korean. We also hear about its strategic use to retaliate against North Korea’s recent announcements of a hydrogen bomb test by setting up giant speakers blasting K-pop over the border, which the North reportedly fears might actually influence the minds of its young soldiers. (Silent cultural superpower, indeed.)

That grumpy neighbor aside, the much-publicized “Korean Wave” of culture, driven by music and television, has indeed swept to an impressive extent across Asia. When Mitter hits Myeongdong, he starts looking for Chinese people — no tall order, since these days that area seems populated by nothing but — to ask about their own degree of enthusiasm for K-pop. When he immediately finds some, he busts out fluent Mandarin to talk to them, which might comes as a surprise until you learn that he holds a professorship of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford’s Institute for Chinese Studies. It places him well to analyze Korea’s still-shaky relationship, despite all the Myeongdong-going girls who profess their love for the Chinese-Korean boy-band EXO, with the Middle Kingdom, summed up neatly by one of his Korean interviewees: “We still have a lot of wary eyes toward China.”

But in the West, the Korean Wave hasn’t done much more than splash against the shores. “I wonder,” theorizes Mitter, “if that’s because most K-pop acts reflect a regimented culture of centralized corporations and social conformism,” which leads into a talk about PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (as if I needed to provide the link for anyone who hasn’t yet seen its 2.5 billion times-watched video) and how the success of the track’s Seoul-specific satire and the goofiness of the rapping jokester doing it astonished everyone who assumed a highly groomed boy- or girl-band held the natural right to break the coveted American market.

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This leads Mitter to look for the exact opposite of K-pop culture, deep in Seoul’s experimental music scene. He talks with Hong Chulki, a political theory graduate student by day and experimental musician by night who uses a laptop, mixers, various pieces of broken equipment, feedback noise, and the sound of air blown onto turntable needles to craft listening experiences meant to cleanse his head of K-pop, so unavoidably has it become woven into the sonic fabric of the city. This sort of thing also offers a catharsis, for Chulki and his colleagues, from a life in modern Korea dominated by social pressures, hated (though painfully competitive) jobs, and an older generation out of touch with and unwilling to cede any power to the younger one.

Comic artist Yoon Tae-ho dramatized these circumstances in his series Misaeng (미생), or “Incomplete Life,” which, adapted into a drama, became a surprise hit on Korean cable in 2014. Clearly the material works, even if it presents a side of Korea the country’s boosters would rather downplay. Those in the business of promoting Korean culture abroad understand that the now-characteristic high-gloss professionalism of so much of the country’s music, film, and television — and even, in some cases, comics and literature — appeals to the rest of the world. But they may understand it too much, ignoring the fact that the polish is only as interesting as the sorrow, humor, confusion, strangeness, and discontent with which it contrasts. Indeed, “the roughness at the edges,” Mitter concludes at the end of his short visit, “might be Korea’s best hope for giving its culture a genuinely global presence.” If so, the best of modern Korean culture, which itself has moved farther past powerlessness than ever, is yet to come.

(Dongdaemun Design Plaza photograph: Eugene Lim)

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.