The Sauna

In a world,

Where thumbs exercise more than thighs. Where an elliptical machine is just another platform to twiddle your thumb. Where your eyes are glued to those few square inches. Where your thumb kindly strokes that screen, with a definitive sweeping motion. Scroll. Scroll. Where thighs slow down at the will of the thumb. The will of the device.

In a world,

Where pedestrians walk blindly. Where bustling downtown sidewalks house zombies strutting idly. Where eyes do not look where they are supposed to look – in front. Where the “next big thing” must dwell within those few square inches. Frown. Frown. So serious.

In a world,

Where the break of day is announced through those few square inches. Where your closest companion is neither dog nor partner. Where a device is put on a leash, never to leave your sight, always by your side, by your bed, by your head. Where. Where. Don’t loosen that leash.

In a world,

Where comics become reality. Where Power Rangers is now on your wrist. Where the device wears us. Where something electronic clasps on to your pulse. Where the “next big thing” pierces the flesh, quivering through fat and muscle fiber, like some alien nightmare. Thump. Thump. Wear the machine, those few square inches.

In a world,

Where no one owns the world in one’s palm. Where I dare to look up.


In a world.

YOLO (“You Only Live Once”) is such bullshit. Unless you pull an Austin Powers and arrange to be thawed in a few decades, yes, you do only live once. YOLO is based on the premise that one should do whatever one desires because, hey, you only live once.

Partially agreed, because I too think that at the end of one’s life, one’s greatest regrets are the things one did not do, not the things one did do (I read that somewhere). But YOLO is a coin, and on the other side, it is premised on mayhem – LET LOOSE. The premise of “no regrets,” on steroids, unleashes one’s innermost desires and pleasures, often in uncontrollable, irresponsible manners. “YOLO” so “Just Do It.”

In disguise, YOLO appears to be inwardly soothing. I have a desire for something, for some act. I only live once. I carry out that desire, that act. I achieve what I want. I have no regrets. Therefore, I am pleased. I am happy. Right? RIGHT? YOLO! In fact, the fruition of desire rarely brings lasting satisfaction. Instead, it fuels more desire, a thirst only quenchable by increasingly daring thoughts and actions. You are not “living in the moment.” Actually, you are living “for” a moment, and when that moment lapses, so does your satisfaction. And repeat.

Every moment counts. The second that just passed by while you read that last three-word sentence will never return, lost in eternity. So valuing the moment and following your passion is critical in living a satisfying, happy life. However, contentment need not always be accompanied by accomplishing things. Not everyone is a twenty-something George Washington University grad with no debt and cash to spare, thanks to daddy’s checks. Yes, there are desires, there are passions, there are dreams – but for some (perhaps most), circumstances do not allow them to come into fruition. Shouting YOLO, dropping everything, and darting to achieve that desirable act may not be an option.

A better slogan is “Amor Fati,” a Latin phrase meaning “love of one’s fate.” This is about total inner contentment, focused on “being,” rather than “doing.” At first, such proposition sounds feeble and helpless, bound to a predestined life. As my middle school clarinet tutor would say, “Life is a whore, whatever you do, you’ll always get screwed.” Traumatic at the time. But this is not what amor fati is about. Amor fati is about self-respect.

True content is only attainable when you practice the deep art of loving yourself. To do this, one must recognize and accept the current condition one is in, or one’s “fate.” However, I do not use the word “fate” here in an eternal sense. Rather, I like to think of it more as a short-term experiment, bound to change one way or another by miscellaneous factors beyond one’s control, in directions one cannot foresee. Love your fate also means love your situation. Regardless of where you are, regardless of your circumstances, regardless of what you have, regardless of what you don’t have – love yourself. Thrive in your cubic meter.

Stifling? Maybe. But not when you think about amor fati with its sister Latin phrase, “memento mori.” It means remember death. We all die, some sooner, some later. Death escapes no one, and therefore, every moment should be preciously lived out as if it is our last. The best way to do this is to prescribe value to the “now,” in its purest form, no bullshit, as is. The standard for contentment lies within. It is absolutely subjective, bound by no comparison, chained to no material or immaterial possessions. While YOLO is forward-looking (Just Do It), amor fati stops now, at this instance. And I am content.

The root of unhappiness is “but I don’t.” But I don’t have have money, but I don’t have time, but I don’t have the looks, but I don’t have the skills – but he does. This poisonous act of comparison, placing the standard of contentment outside of who we are, is like an inoperable cancer in society, claiming more lives than we bother to consider. (Read my piece on the suicide epidemic in Korea, here.) Millionaires cannot buy contentment. But that Zorba in Kazantzakis’ famous novel, dancing gleefully under the moonlight with santuri in hand – perhaps he holds the key to happiness.

We demand respect from others, but fail to respect ourselves. Happiness begins with self-respect. Happiness is achieved through loving me in the now.

Memento mori, so amor fati.


Objects do not speak. In rare circumstances, they appear to speak, in tones our ears are not trained to recognize. These apparent attempts at communication, the apparent tonal exchanges, are understood as “sound.”

Cell phones do not speak. But the manual input that took place the night before, the scrolling and pressing of 6:00 am, empowers it with an apparent voice. 6:00 am hit, so the hand-held device spoke, apparently. Incessantly. The repetition of a singular tone, so perfectly spaced yet alarmingly disorienting, triggers a host of other sounds – rustling sheets, creaking springs, groaning mouths.

Coffee does not speak. But the brewing process gives it a tongue, or tongues, fuming along with every ounce of vapor. The kettle hisses lightly, its lid rattles unevenly, to no particular pattern. The grinder is more unforgiving; you will not miss that voice. Even more so than the alarm, the Burr grinder penetrates the solemn morning kitchen like a freight train. Perhaps the most delicate of sounds is birthed when the fresh grinds bloom, in the womb-like cone filter, rising steadily but in no hurry. As the bloom dies down, like a deflating souffle, its bubbles burst, and the vapors that say “hey, this is coffee” permeate the several cubic feet of airspace surrounding its deflation.

Subway stations do not speak. But the unforgiving ticking of the internal clock resuscitates the concrete blocks and steel rails that make up these underground Batman caves. Up and down the escalators, on the “fast” lane on the left, shoes and pumps click sporadically, hurriedly. Eyes dart to and fro, wrist watch to cell phone, back to wrist watch. Coughs here and there, chatter elsewhere. Central Command blurts out something over the speaker, only to be buried in the business of busy-ness. From afar the tunnel illuminates, the train announcing its arrival with a not-so-authoritative honk. Again, the doors fail to shut on the first try. Bells go off, and the doors re-open, re-close, re-open. Hear the eyes roll. Newspapers rustle, and someone’s Beats headphones blast beats that sound like that other song with beats. Phones ring, “I’m on the metro, I might lose….” Lost. Doors closing.

Sidewalks do not speak. But the season tickles it just enough to evoke giggles and sighs. Summer comes, and the sizzling summer sun beats down on K Street. Old partners and young associates, seated outdoors in the one of many kitschy cafes and bars, chatter about and clank wine glasses. Autumn comes, and the orange and golden brown leaves lightly tap the sidewalks at the end of their descent. Visiting winds roar through the fallen, twirling them left and right, choreographing their every move, conducting their every sound. The chatter and wine glasses are no more, as if the winds have hushed them indoors, muting them from the sidewalks. Winter comes, and the leaf chimes are no more. The visiting winds sound empty, their howls become prolonged symphonies with no interludes or arias to speak of. The shoes and pumps, the clicking of heel to cement, accelerate and become sharp staccatos. It’s cold. Spring comes, and, well, spring comes. Alas, through all this, one sound fails to change. The lone saxophonist at the subway station continues his hymns, wrong notes and rhythm and all.

Offices do not speak. But the paycheck is the meth that powers the addiction, and more meth. Keyboards click, stop, and click. Outlook chimes, and more Outlook chimes. The printer sounds like it has a cough. The stapler has a weird soothing effect, but it has more to do with the physical motion of stapling than with the sound. Debbie, please come to the front desk. Debbie, please come to the front desk. Another motorcade. One, two, too many motorcycles, cop car, cop car, Suburbans, two more; is it Obama? Who gives, the siren is just as annoying. Outlook chimes. Printer coughs. Knock on the door. Keyboard clicks. More Outlook chimes. Damn, Bill Gates.

People speak.

From daybreak, people enable objects to speak, apparently. People empower objects with voices, apparently. Immersed in sound, people decline to differentiate sound from noise, floating along with their alarms, their grinders, their subway trains, their Outlook chimes. Immersed in noise, people cannot differentiate sound from sound; everything is the same, repetitive. Immersed yet unaware, unwilling. Unable.

But sound is here.

For creative professionals, lawyers, athletes, chefs, physicists (basically everyone), one of the most commonly thrown around expressions regarding creative thinking is “think outside the box.” To illustrate this point, a simple test was devised to see how well people actually carry out this concept. Perhaps some of you have already seen this, as this is certainly not news. The objective is straight forward. Using only four strokes, connect the nine dots on the page, with your pen never leaving the surface. For those of us that are visually challenged, here is my illustration, aided by my child-like handwriting.

In my two-dimensional brain, this was hard. Like a raged bull constantly charging a brick wall at the end of a dead end street, I zigzagged my way across this grid, seemingly lost.

The outcome was something like this.

The solution is rather simple, revealing a critical assumption – no one said you had to stay within the “boundary” created by the nine dots.

Taking that into consideration, here is the answer.

“No one said you had to stay within the box.” The illustration above, I hope, is self-explanatory.

The expression “think outside the box” sounds very creative, insightful, and is indeed useful. It reminds us to lift our heads out of the gutter, step back, and observe the situation as a whole. It reminds us to not allow the given rules of the situation limit our thought process by throwing up brick walls at every turn. It reminds us that the answer is actually “outside” the box, not within it.

This expression, however, is not always accurate.

Often, there is no box at all.

“Think outside the box” assumes that there is indeed a box to think “outside” of. Take a look again at the diagram of nine dots. Let me assure you, there is no box. A simple grid of nine dots. This “box,” then, is a pure creation of our imagination. The imaginary box dupes us twice. First, when we were trying to connect the dots (unsuccessfully), we assigned ourselves an imagined rule that we had to stay “within” non-existent boundaries. That led to nothing. Second, even after we figured out how to connect the dots with four unbroken strokes (by going “outside” the self-assigned, non-existent boundaries), we slap our knees and resort to saying something like “and that’s why people say think outside the box.”

Often, there is no box at all.

The only alleged box is the imaginary one we perceive, limiting our thought process to such non-existent boundaries. Therefore, the correct expression should be “think like there is no box.” In other words, think like you’re drawing your own boundaries, because there are none to begin with.

Problem solving requires one to work with a set of “givens,” meaning there already exists certain pieces to the puzzle that one simply cannot discard. Fair enough. But those pieces themselves are rarely “boundaries” imposed to set the outer limits of one’s proposed solutions.

Creativity, unlike problem solving, rarely prescribes a set of givens to work with, so thinking like you’re drawing your own box should be simpler. The dots on a grid do not signify anything; they are mere reference points, mere suggestions, designed to prick the tiniest of holes in a bulging water balloon of ideas. The reference points do the pricking, and the gushing thought process does the rest. Remember, no one told you to connect the dots within a supposed square outline. But also remember, no one told you to imagine a box in the first place.

Think like there is no box.

I am known for saying “lawyers are assholes,” but I make a conscious effort to include the word “most” before the phrase. Some of us are creative, some of us are virtuous, and some of us are simply amazing people.

As I often lazily do on lazy mornings, I was browsing through a jumble of news articles when I came across Ms. Miyoun Lee’s story. Two things hit me. First, she’s a lawyer, but her office is combined with a café. Mind blown. Second, she’s a young, solo practitioner, and her practice focuses on sex crimes in Korea. As I read through a myriad of interviews (all by Korean media), I knew I had to contact her and interview her myself, in the hopes that her story would spread further than the natural borders of the Korean peninsula. So I did that.

In a maiden Q&A for i am not a lawyer, I conversed with Miyoun on her creative venture, her passion for helping victims of sex crimes, and why she does what she does – in the small town of Euijungboo on the outskirts of bustling Seoul. Affectionately known as the “Neighborhood Lawyer,” her true colors shine from start to finish. The following is a translation of the original interview, which was conducted in Korean. Thank you Miyoun for taking the time to do this. It was definitely a meaningful opportunity for me, and I know it will resonate in the hearts of many, lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

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INL: A law office and a café. This is a breakthrough combination. As a total coffee addict myself, and as this blog contains many essays on coffee, I’m curious about your coffee preferences and patterns. When and how do you drink coffee throughout the workday? Do you brew your own or have preferences?

Neighborhood Lawyer: By no means am I a coffee connoisseur or snob. I know just enough to detect whether the coffee is weak or strong, burnt. I prefer stronger coffee and don’t really have a preference. As soon as I reach my office in the morning, my sister brews me a strong Americano, and I usually drink about three cups a day.

INL: “Law” and “law firm” sound stiff by nature, which makes the convergence of the law with coffee more intriguing. What prompted you to come up with such a unique combination? Do you take part in running the café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I couldn’t stand structured bureaucracies, so I didn’t want to work in an established organization. A good thing about being a lawyer is that you have the option to open up your own shop and go solo if you wanted to, and in doing so, I wanted to create a workspace that personally appealed to me. “General Doctor” in the Hongdae area in Seoul is a neighborhood hospital mixed with a café. I was intrigued by that concept and thought, if a hospital can be run like a café, why not a law office? So I discussed the idea with my sister, a gifted craftswoman, and devised our café-like law office. My sister is in sole control of running the café. But at the moment, it’s such a small operation in a small town, so I’m supporting the café financially through my practice.

INL: As I read through the “Neighborhood Law Firm” blog, I hinted a level of pride in the cookies and pastries offered at your café. Do you have any particular treats you’re fond of? Are all the pastries baked in-house at the café? Where do you purchase your coffee? Any special drinks you’re particularly fond of?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My talented sister does all the baking herself. Personally, the carrot cake and peanut butter cookies are my favorite. As for the coffee beans, we purchase them from a small local roaster we frequented before we even opened the café. Our coffee is good, but I’d also recommend our seasonal beverages, including our in-house ginger ale and lemon tea. Delicious!

INL: It’s interesting that your office is right in the middle of a traditional outdoor market in the small town of Euijungboo. Why did you choose Euijungboo over Seoul, and why did you choose a marketplace? Could you tell me more about the market? I’m also curious as to how you found your current building, and how you went about remodeling your office space and café. What are some pros and cons of opening your practice in an open-air market?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I was born and raised in Euijungboo, so returning here for my practice made sense. While many law firms in Korea are located near courthouses and other official buildings, I didn’t want to follow that path, so I expanded my search beyond the usual legal and business districts. I’ve walked these streets in my youth, so choosing Euijungboo came naturally.

My office is in the midst of a traditional outdoor market, known as “Cheil Market.” It’s fairly big, and the “ddukbokki” [Ed. rice cakes, fish cakes, lettuce, and other goodies smothered in smoltering gochujang sauce] is incredible. Everyone in the market is warm and welcoming.

Euijungboo is a relatively small city, with many older buildings still standing throughout the market. Many of them don’t even have elevators. After a long search, we luckily found one renting its second and third floors, perfect for our dual-concept approach. And the landlord cut us a great deal on the rent, which never hurts.

In terms of design, my sister and I researched the layout and interior of several cafes we liked and remodeled our space accordingly, and more importantly, we had to stay on budget. My sister hates dainty things, and I also felt that we could slowly fill the space out, little by little. So our café has a lot of intentional “empty” space.

The "Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe" is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

The “Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe” is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

INL: Given the location of your office, how would you describe your client base? What were some memorable cases you had this past year?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Even in small Euijungboo, there are many chain cafes around the central downtown area, where my office is located. Most of our café customers prefer our atmosphere over those of the chain shops, and we have regulars who camp down for hours with a MacBook, enjoying our space.

My clients are as varied as the market itself. Some clients stop by while strolling through the market. Others were dissatisfied with the legal service they received at other firms and intentionally looked me up to change lawyers.

Given the type of work I do, I’m frequently asked about the most rewarding cases or memorable moments. To me, every case is worthwhile and meaningful, and every case and client has been memorable. I’m still a young lawyer, so everything is still new, offering valuable learning opportunities at every step.

INL: Why did you choose the law? Did you have any different plans or goals while growing up?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My father suggested that I choose law as my undergraduate major. As a law student, I assumed everyone had to take the judicial exam after graduation. If I’d known how tough that exam was beforehand, I wouldn’t have even started. I spent about five years preparing for the exam. After I failed the first round, I quit, and wanted to write fiction or take up photography for a living. I felt groundless, lost.

INL: Taking the bar exam here was a pain. I’ve heard horror stories about the Korean examination process. Could you tell me more about the exam, the preparation, and what happens after you’ve passed it?

Neighborhood Lawyer: The Korean judicial exam is comprised of three stages. The first round is all multiple choice, the second is a series of essays, and the final round is an in-person interview. If you pass the first round of multiple choice questions, you are granted two opportunities to take the second round of essays. The multiple choice questions cover four subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, and an elective of your choosing. The essay portion cover seven subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, administrative law, and contracts. The essay round goes on for four days, a true killer. Two subjects a day, for four days. I don’t even want to think about it.

If you pass all three rounds of the judicial exams, you now enter what’s called the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” where you take part in practical training for two years. Specifically, you practice writing judicial opinions for civil and criminal trials, and receive practical training for civil and criminal defense. The first year is mostly spent in the classroom, learning theory, while the second year is spent in real world of courts, prosecutors’ offices and law firms.

Ever since Korea adopted the law school system four years ago, the judicial exam and “bar exam” are being used concurrently. In the law school system, you take a grad school entrance exam, and upon graduating, you take something similar to a U.S. bar exam to earn your license.

INL: Compared to the bar exam here, your judicial exams and the two additional years of training sounds tough. So instead of choosing the big law pay check or a comfy judicial post or prosecuting job, why did you decide to open a solo practice? What were the difficulties of going solo, and what were the rewards of working alone?

Neighborhood Lawyer: As I mentioned, I wasn’t made for structured organizations or bureaucracy. I didn’t think I would be happy in any of those.

Financing was the toughest part of opening a solo practice. I was constantly worried about whether I would earn enough to even keep the office running. My goal wasn’t to make the big bucks, but rather, I wanted something more sustainable for the long run.

Working alone is a perfect fit for me. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I’m not good at distributing work to others. And I really hate people nosing around in my work [laugh]. These traits totally make me sound like I have a personality disorder or something (just kidding, I’m fine).

INL: I’ve heard that you specialize in representing victims of sex crimes. Is that your sole practice, or do you take on other cases as well? What sparked your interest in sex crimes? In terms of client interaction, what’s different about representing sex crime victims?

Neighborhood Lawyer: During my second and final year at the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” Korea initiated a public defender service program for victims of child sexual molestation. Within the confines of Korean criminal procedure, the victim is usually left out of much of the process. However, in sexual harassment cases, the victim’s testimony is often the most critical piece of evidence, or sometimes the only credible evidence. Taking this into account, there was a great need to assist the victims in the process.

The problem was that, while the victims were getting assistance during the trial, they were actually re-victimized by unrelenting and insensitive government agencies, lawyers and other arms of the justice system. The press certainly did not help protect the victims, either.

So when I started my own practice, I was determined to focus on sexual harassment cases, to make sure that the victims were fairly protected throughout the entire trial process, and not seen as mere nuggets of information. Of course, to pay the bills, I regularly take on other civil and criminal matters as well.

I was first interested in victims of sex crimes in college, when an upperclassman introduced me to some women’s study courses. There were a myriad of different areas within women’s studies, but given my law major, I was more interested in sex crimes. As I researched the issue in depth and read through critical court opinions, I noticed something wasn’t right. So before I started studying for the judicial exam, I spent more time delving into books and documentaries focusing on women’s issues.

In terms of approaching sex crime victims, there isn’t one clear method or checklist. Victims come from different age groups and professions, and the degree of victimization and relationship to the assaulter vary greatly. Also, approaching a client with special needs presents a new situation as well. However, even with innate differences, there are a couple of key things to watch out for. First, to maintain the integrity of the victim’s story or statement, I try to stay away from leading or suggestive questions that would embellish or alter the facts in any way. I also try not to prejudge anything in favor of or against the client. Second, keeping my emotions in check is important. I can’t afford to be too emotionally attached to the victim’s story.

INL: I’d like to ask you about sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs in Korea in general. What’s behind the never ending news on these horrific crimes? How can Korea, or society in general, solve these issues?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs can be categorized as “power crimes” aimed at socially vulnerable individuals. The greatest problem is that our society in general is losing sensitivity towards socially weak and vulnerable groups. The current education system, only rewarding “first place” achievers, is also a problem, along with the common recognition that only praises and encourages success in terms of monetary gain or political influence.

There are too many issues, and they cannot be solved at once. To implant a sense of community and care for the socially vulnerable groups, the most important thing is to educate our children in that manner from a very young age. But to correctly educate our children, the parents’ values need to change first. Because of the interconnectedness of the issues, no one educational program or simple approach will present a cure. I constantly worry about these issues, and yet never come up with a clear solution.

INL: Whether in Korea or here in the U.S., I think lawyers are in a tough spot financially, as there are fewer opportunities. Any words of advice for current or future law students, and practicing lawyers who are concerned about their career path? How did you overcome your financial difficulties and expectations of others? Now that you’ve been going solo for almost two years, what are your dreams and goals, both personally and for your neighborhood law firm café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I’m in the same boat as other young lawyers, with financial debt and a practice that doesn’t yet rake in the cash. I guess I’ll be able to pay off the loans at some point. I try not to let the finances get too much in the way of having fun, though. Getting through school was tough, and studying for the judicial exam and completing the two years of practical training was worse, and I basically sold my happiness throughout those years. I thought I’d be happy after I passed the exam and became a lawyer, but that wasn’t necessarily true. So instead of choosing a particular “job,” I honestly asked myself what it is I wanted to do, and opted to choose a path that was centered on allowing me to pursue what I truly wanted to pursue. I found something that would make me happy in the long run, and I am glad and thankful to be doing that now. My true passion is helping victims of sex crimes, but I also have to take on other cases to keep that passion a reality. Because I know that all of my cases fuel my true passion and calling, every day on the job is fun and meaningful. I am now thoroughly convinced that doing what you love for a living is the greatest blessing of all.

My dream is to stay put in Euijungboo as its neighborhood lawyer, for a long, long time. There will undoubtedly be obstacles along the road, but I will never quit trying.

Ms. Miyoun Lee and the Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe own all the rights to the images incorporated into this interview.

I envy doctors.

Not their paychecks (okay maybe a little), not their social status (what status?). I envy them because their profession requires them to partake in life at its most essential core, its bare naked truth; at the very crossroad of life and death. Observing death, or one’s miraculous escape from it, has a certain effect (or depending on how you look at it, a certain toll) on one’s life and thoughts. Life, stripped of all temporary badges, removed from all foam and bubbles, comes down to your health. At the root of everyone’s lives and concerns, health, and consequently death, is center stage. Observance of the body’s inherent weakness and vulnerabilities, often leading to tragic ends, humbles you like no other, constantly reminding you of what it means to “live.” Oddly enough, death illuminates life.

The life of an average lawyer is often monotonous. Contrary to public belief, not every lawyer enjoys courtroom thrills every other day like the JAG guys in “A Few Good Men.” Litigators, like me, spend most of our time buried in paper. This past week, in which a filing of thousands of pages was due, all I remember are Excel spreadsheets, corporate documents in PDFs, standing in front of the massive copier, feeding the copier, more spreadsheets, more PDFs, cursing at the copier, and walking to and from the copier. And the scanner with an unusual appetite to devour every other page, making that terrifying hissing sound as the sheet is violently crinkled and deformed. Like a pure, white lamb being devoured by a gray wolf.

Sure, this work was also for the public good (I try to console myself), as a victorious case will save this corporation millions of dollars, keeping it in business and providing paychecks for its employees. Yet in this statically hectic life of an average lawyer, “life” is so often forgotten. Working for corporations with no “face” makes it very difficult to measure the impact of one’s worth; dollar signs, while critical on the balance sheets of the business, do little to gauge meaningful “personal” impact on individual lives. Mindlessly muttering in front of the copier and computer monitor does not help, either.

Living in this gray area called “associate attorney,” I am sometimes jolted awake with utterly unreasonable tragedy.

A family of six was just beginning to revel in their new life in Phnom Penh. The parents were both missionaries from Korea, and were sent to the bustling city to study the language and culture of Cambodians, all in preparation of eventual missionary work. The young children – eleven, nine, seven and three years old – were grasping the language like dry sponges, slowly becoming accustomed to the suffocating heat, the very fragrant (but very different) food, the people, and streets, everything. As the parents began laying the ground works of their mission works, brainstorming and networking, the children also began building their imaginary fortresses – of new friends and classmates.

Traveling in Southeast Asia is fundamentally different from living there. No matter how long the duration, be it a weekend trip or an extended six-month stay, travel is travel. Knowing that your roots are not permanent, that you have the will and ability to pack your bags, book the next flight and get out of there offers a sense of freedom or outlet that calms the nerves. Leaving the comfort of your home country to set new roots in Cambodia – with four young children – takes guts. No amount of planning seems adequate, and suddenly, sacrifice takes on a whole new meaning.

Yet this family of six made it through the first three years. Chatting up the locals and making friends was easier, thanks to all the language training. The food – the food! – was beautiful, vibrant. When the announcement came that their missionary site had been finalized (Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia), the excitement in the household was palpable. The thought and process of moving again was daunting, but years of preparation had finally come to fruition. As they packed their limited belongings, thoughts of their new life and work in Siem Reap reeled through their minds, a distant land full of new people, new schools, new food. Change, they now realized, was a blessing in disguise, now an essential fuel for this young family.

Sometime in the early morning. The last of the boxes were stuffed into the back of the weathered SUV. Teary goodbyes were exchanges, as other missionaries and friends gathered around to send the family off. But no one was truly downhearted, for they had made plans to visit sometime in the near future. They promised to call when they arrived in Siem Reap, and to send pictures. A fellow missionary took a photo of the family in their SUV, and after the family had left, emailed the photo with the message, “Sending this now, but you’ll see it when you get there.” All of this took place before 10:00 am.

The missionary friend who had taken the photo (and who had also helped with the packing the past few days) went about his usual routine, taking language courses, making contacts. Ready to go to bed, he received a phone call later that night around 10:00 pm. “There was an accident. The SUV carrying the missionary’s family hit an oncoming tour bus head on.” His mind blanked. His knees buckled, and he grabbed a chair for balance. He could not believe what he was hearing. The family was passing through the Kampong Thom region. Both parents and the two middle children were killed on impact. The oldest daughter and the three year-old survived, but the oldest suffered massive brain damage, several compound fractures, and lost an arm. The youngest was in a coma. Ten Taiwanese tourists on the bus were also killed. Still unable to digest the news, the missionary rushed to the hospital, where the four lifeless bodies arrived around one in the morning.

I am told that the grieving mother of the dead missionary just boarded a plane from Korea to witness first-hand what had just happened to her beloved son and his family.


Why do things like this happen, even to the best of us. Why now, when their new mission work was just about to bloom. Why the kids, still so young, full of life. The surviving children, what about them, what about their lives. What about the old, grieving mother; what are you supposed to say to her.


There is simply no answer. Reason only goes so far. Logical explanations are often rendered meaningless. No words of comfort are good enough – they’re simply not good enough. Grief, anger, confusion. Nothing satiates what life sometimes regurgitates. It does not care about your circumstances, and it could care less about how you deal with it in the aftermath of tragic loss.

In the wake of things, as I continue to go about my work as a lawyer, swearing at the copier and cursing Bill Gates and his damned Excel, I am once again reminded that life has a purpose. No level of comfort will do, and no cry for an adequate explanation (why?) will satiate the thirst. But a belief that everything happens for a reason, and that every life in every path has a purpose mends at least a portion of torn hearts. The enlightenment that someone’s purpose may be realized through death is still hard to swallow. That “why” question.

So much suffering, so much injustice. As another tragedy is permanently etched in my mind, this average lawyer continues to ponder about the purpose of life.

May the victims rest in peace…

A few months ago, when Jodi of Legal Nomads asked me to take part in an interview for her “Thrillable Hours” series, I was excited yet worried at the same time. Unlike many other interviewees for that series, I had not turned my back on the law, I had not packed my bags to travel the world, and I did not have a unique, interview-worthy career. I was (and still am) an associate at a small law firm, living in the repeated patterns of commuting, working, commuting, eating, sleeping. I did not attend a top law school, and I certainly did not finish in the top of my class. Nothing special. What the hell was I going to talk about?

I was telling people that the gist of my interview was this: stop being an asshole and you’ll start having fun. That point still remains true. Upon reading through the interview again, however, I realized that a common thread was much broader and “brighter”: it was creativity. What I didn’t have was the Ivy League diploma, the credentials, the experience, the connections, the ability to travel the world. What I did have, and what I was really struggling to get out through the interview, was to show an average lawyer’s desperate clawing to live a creative life, to lay in bed at night and honestly say I created something today that I am really proud of. What I did have was this blog, started from humble beginnings (still is), but slowly growing to 500 subscribed readers. What I did have was a developing writing gig with an online magazine headed by former editors of world class publications (why the hell would those guys work with me?). What I did have was the urge to think beyond my daily lawyer parameters, to leave something lasting that is more than legal memos and motions. What I did have was a new found ability – and willingness – to stop and to think, not only with the logical left brain, but with the entirety of my being. Creating.

A headache created by the left brain is often cured by igniting the right brain. We were born to create, and therefore, we experience the purest quality of satisfaction and happiness when we are creating. Sadly, some occupations were not created to create, consuming even our non-working hours with work-related thoughts and worries, a never-ending noose slowly suffocating our creative capacities without any tangible alarm system to trigger our senses. Take lawyers for example. By nature, lawyers are destructive. To be successful, we must be (particularly litigators). Whether you practice before county judges or federal agencies, lawyering is warfare; if you don’t strike first, if you don’t strike accurately and with force, if you don’t contemplate your opponent’s every move two, three, four steps in advanced, you die. There is partial truth in that even we lawyers create. Yes, we come up with legal arguments, draft pieces of writing, practice the art of persuasion before judges and juries. But the ultimate goal of such creation is, ironically, to destroy. Someone must lose for you to win that verdict, that settlement, that zero percent dumping margin. The tool of our craft, our weapon, is principally the left brain and the logic it supplies. We strain the brain for every ounce. This is the prime culprit behind lawyers’ unhappiness and destruction. With every successful memo, with every persuasive brief, with every jaw-dropping argument, we may win motions, we may win cases, we may achieve acclaim, money and success. But as most lawyers would agree, behind those wins lurks emptiness. Uncontrollable emptiness. Human beings (yes, lawyers are people too) were meant to create lasting value for the enjoyment of the entire flock, and when we fail to do so, we are miserable.

This is why I write. Commuting on the metro, walking the sidewalks of DC, I take notes of every morsel of thought that jabs my thought. Every time I scribble something in my Moleskin, every time I sit in front of that keyboard to pound at something, that is when I feel like I am truly creating lasting value, something worth pouring time into, something that will live on long after the breath at the tip of my nostrils ceases. That is when I feel alive. That is when my right brain, and for that matter, my entire being, is moving. No, I am not a professional writer. No, I was not a journalism major. No, I am not actively seeking to become a professional writer or a journalist. Regardless of one’s profession, we are all writers on many levels. Historians say humanity, and culture, was born when people started drawing and scribbling things inside caves. Writing need not be so technical; simply put, it is a form of expression. Every breathing being yearns to express itself, though some are more talented at doing so than others. I am a human being who expresses himself through writing – this is a natural, very average, phenomenon everyone should strive for. The form of expression varies. Some write music and perform, some paint, some act. Though different in form, all methods have this in common: they make you stop and “think.”

To live creatively, one should practice two principles.

First, be observant. Two people see the same object, experience the same environment and observe the same happenings. The non-creative person easily walks by, nonchalantly, thinking “this is the same lilac from yesterday, this is the same street, the same protests.” In other words, the non-creative person does not give a shit. On the other hand, the creative person, having taken in the same things, “cares” and does give a shit. He stops, observes, and more importantly, asks “why” or “how come.” I once read somewhere of a training technique for fiction writers. They would sit around in a cafe, facing the street and looking through the window. Taking turns, they pick out a random person, and knowing absolutely nothing about that person, they would devise her life story – where is she from, where is she going, why is she going there, who is she meeting, and on and on. This exercise is perfect for fiction writers who need to develop characters and prose. It’s also a great example of what daily creativity requires. It requires observant storytelling. It requires you to look at something, someone, and think beyond the mere given, beyond the facts. What you see with your eyes is the bare minimum; you have to imagine beyond that to tell the hidden story. Creativity is storytelling, and all stories are built upon patient observance.

Second, become a generalist. Study and absorb as many areas of knowledge as you can. Throughout the industrial era, and even as recently as the 1990s, many “successful” people were highly specialized professionals, the cream of the crop in their fields, sharp as a sushi chef’s knife. They drilled a singular well, and they drilled deep, not wavering, not looking to their left or right. So what you end up with are physicists, lawyers, doctors and PhDs of all kinds. For drilling that one well, for drilling it deep and sturdy, you were compensated. People paid you for your professional knowledge and experience. In other words, people receiving your services could care less about whether you played in a garage band on Sundays or whether you secretly baked macaroons as a hobby. You’re a doctor, I’m paying you to remove my appendix, do your damn job and remove my appendix, no more, no less. To be clear, if you’re a general surgeon, and if your job is to remove the patient’s appendix, you better be qualified to do the job, and you better do a damn good job. In terms of living a creative life, however, just doing your job is no longer good enough. Rather than becoming a specialist – studying one thing, doing one thing, and living completely immersed in only one thing – become a generalist. Be the doctor who can discuss economic policy with other economists. Be the mad physicist who can discuss Manet with the art student. Be the lawyer who can discuss the ancient art of Edo-style sushi with the chef from Japan. Creativity in this century will come from a wide net of individuals, all contributing (and deeply understanding) one’s intellectual gifts. All areas are interrelated. Sorry, but you can no longer give the science guys the finger. The web of knowledge is what creates true value that lead to lasting change in people’s lives. To join this web, one must meet others dwelling in other professions, widen one’s reading capacity and crack open one’s intellectual curiosity.

Whether it’s literature, music, economics or engineering, regardless of professional area, the creative being – the satisfied and happy being – is one that constantly seeks new ground, sees what others do not see or simply pass by, and stops to create something that adds value to humanity. The artsy people do not own the copyright to the word “creativity.” This transcends occupations or personality. We are all wired to live creatively. Not creating will inevitably lead to bitter depression and hatred. Live according to your wiring. Stop and observe something, and think. Meet new people and read about the last think you thought you’d ever read about. Ignite your being in its entirety, and live happily ever after.

According to author Oliver Bullough, in his book The Last Man in Russia, the country is “dying from within.” The culprit? Massive quantities of vodka. Toxic levels of alcohol abuse coupled with alarmingly low birth rates are eating away at the Russian population – a bastard child of the long Soviet totalitarian rule. By following the life of an Orthodox priest, the book illuminates the multifaceted cause that has ruined more than a few livers; lives ruined, generations lost, and hope hard to find. The beloved national drink has become an outright epidemic.

With the book’s last words still lingering in my thoughts, I read of yet another epidemic. Thousands of miles south of Moscow and the northern gulag sites of Inta, this epidemic is ravishing a nation regardless of generation, is extremely contagious, and has no apparent cure. While Russia suffers from “chronic alcoholism,” Korea suffers from “chronic depression,” and its people are leaping to their death, literally. Dying from within. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Korea, with tens of thousands of people annually taking their own lives, usually by leaping, hanging, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Chronic depression has taken a firm hold on the populace. It does not always show up in stat sheets or in the evening news, but silently, it is draining the lifeblood from the heart of this country. What is causing this epidemic? In the last few decades, Korea has experienced unprecedented economic growth, with a GDP of about $1.16 trillion in 2012, compared to an economy of about $250 billion in 1990. Skyscrapers scorch the sky all throughout Seoul, Busan and other major metropolitan areas. The country played host to the Summer Olympics of 1988, the World Cup in 2002, and will host the Winter Olympics in 2014. On more than one occasion, President Obama has praised Korea’s math and science educational curriculum, urging U.S. educators and policy makers to benchmark the academic feats. Samsung, LG and other global corporations were all birthed here. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” racked up a record number of views on YouTube and has rocked radio stations all over. So then, what the epidemic?

Suicide. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) defines it as “an act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome.” It is also important to note that data and figures on suicide rates are only based on official registers of causes of death, meaning many suicide deaths are unreported and unaccounted for. According to the OECD Factbook 2013, suicide rates have decreased in many countries since 1990, with declines of 40% or more in Denmark, Hungary, Finland and others. On the other hand, for Korea, the rates for males have more than doubled: from 19 suicides per 100,000 people in 1995 to 50 per 100,000 in 2010. Also alarmingly, the rates for women are the highest among OECD countries, at 21 per 100,000. Age is no barrier to suicide deaths in Korea. According to the WHO, suicide is the leading cause of death in Korean youths, defined as those aged 15 to 24. Strikingly, youth suicide rates have risen sharply during a three-year span from 2006 to 2009, from around 9 per 100,000 in 2009 to around 15 per 100,000 in 2009. At this rate, with its youth population falling helplessly to suicide, Korea’s future is bleak at best. This is beyond a few news clips. This is a disease, an epidemic, a public health catastrophe.

From both official research data and an uncle of mine, a psychiatrist in Seoul, it is apparent that a rise in depression levels is directly correlated to the rise in suicide rates in Korea in recent years. During the same span of years when male rates doubled and female rates reached OECD records, the number of persons treated for depression and bipolar disease also rose drastically, with increases of 17 per cent for depression and 29 per cent for bipolar disease, all within a mere five years from 2006 to 2010. Studies point to many factors that contributed to the rise in psychological disorders and suicide, namely economic downturn, weakening social integration and the erosion of the traditional family support base for the elderly. And not surprisingly, those in low socioeconomic groups were much more likely to be affected. Government initiatives, both at the federal and local levels, have had minimal impact, and early detection and treatment of depression have not been effective. Fueling this stark increase in Korea’s chronic depression is the largely underwritten social stigma of receiving therapy or psychiatric care. Compared to other Western OECD countries, where reaching out for such help is more common and socially acceptable (encouraged even, to some extent), in Korea, one risks being labeled as “crazy” or “psychotic” by visiting professionals to seek help in the early stages of depression and other disorders. Ironic, as the primary reason in seeking help is to treat such “craziness,” and yet that label is the very reason many victims are hesitant to proactively seek treatment. The whispers, the gossip, the glares and stares. In their 2008 paper titled “South Korea” (included in Paul S.F. Yip’s “Suicide in Asia: Causes and Prevention”), renowned researchers B.C. Ben Park and David Lester write that Korea’s cultural belief that suicide is an individual problem makes it difficult to secure funding for medical and educational programs aimed at reducing suicide. Depression is silently killing of a nation, and its people may be silently fueling it.

Discussing statistics is easy. Analyzing numbers and debating psychology is easy. What’s missing is connecting each statistic to a face, to a story. Every hanging, every poisoning, every leaping has a person behind it, a story that needs to be known and discussed. Talking of suicide in the third person helps nobody. As long as we remain distanced to the root cause of mass suicide, as long as we maintain our comfort zones, this wound will never heal. The mask needs to come off, the numbers need to pushed aside. In an attempt to partially reveal the monster behind these attacks, the victims’ stories need to be told. Who are they? What kind of lives did they live? In what circumstances? Will this lead to a cure? Certainly not. But in illuminating each death, others’ lives, and even their deaths, become “my” life and “my” death. Such personalization is vital to empathizing with others, a characteristic widely missing in Korea (and elsewhere). Therapy helps. Pills help too. But what really helps is one outstretched hand. A few caring words, words of encouragement and support. One set of watchful eyes. As a small gesture towards such enlightenment, here are their stories.

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Three female teenagers, classmates at a nearby high school, make their way up to the nineteenth floor rooftop of a highrise apartment building. It’s 9:50 pm, and they are holding chips and soda in plastic bags. There are two male friends as well, smoking cigarettes, chatting. When the last of the cigarette butts hit the deck, the boys they leave, and the girls’ conversation turns to life, in a bad way. They had been friends since entering high school together, finding solace and a common bond in the fact that all three of them were brought up in single-parent households. One of them had recently moved from a neighboring province had was living with an uncle, her parents no longer a part of her life after their divorce. A second friend was brought up by her grandmother after her parents’ divorce when she was still a toddler. Since April, they were heard saying that, if they ever found a “suicide mate,” they would be willing to take the plunge of death. These comments were taken likely as jokes, and other repeated signs of severe depression and suicidal impulses were untreated, or unnoticed altogether. Shuddering at the thought of their parents’ divorce and families depleted of love and support, the three quickly agree to kill themselves, at once. They are more than prepared, as they take out green construction tape to tie their wrists together before leaping from the nineteenth floor. The thick tape is noisily drawn out, latching onto the slender wrists over and over again, as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were once mummified. One friend, taken over with a fear of death, desperately tries to convince the others to back out. Her pleas are meaningless. The two, already bound as one, literally and metaphorically, do not budge. A mental tug-of-war ensues for the next sixty minutes, a struggle between life and death, between the sudden impulse of suicide and a friend’s plea for life. Convinced that her friends’ determination is unwavering, the third girl rushes down to get help from the apartment security guard. As she pounds the elevator buttons in search of help, the other two slams the rooftop door shut, locking it from the outside. After a frantic search, the security guard is found, but by the time the third friend was on her way up the top floor, the two others plunge forward. They are found in the apartment complex garden, wrists tied together with green tape.

Every November, a pitch-black shadow looms over Korea, as if the Angel of Death himself is swooping through the city streets. It’s not even 8:00 am, yet dull-faced high school seniors, sporting their respective school uniforms, march through the schools’ front gates. Some parents and loved ones waive goodbye, kisses are exchanged, some wipe tears. Some swiftly turn around, as if staring at the backs of test-takers magically casts a spell of bad luck. As the cold autumn winds whip the students’ faces, the day of the college entrance exam has arrived. Unlike the SATs in the U.S., or other standardized tests, the Korean entrance exam is administered only once a year. Practically, all three years of high school are spent preparing for it. In addition to standard coursework at school, most students take out-of-class tutorial sessions that often last well past midnight each day. It’s no exaggeration that college acceptance is almost purely depended on one’s score on the exam, and given Korea’s bleak employment opportunities for young graduates, the test takers’ expressions on that chilly morning are nothing less than sheep being dragged to the slaughterhouse. Three years of your life on the line, your foreseeable future on the line, your parents’ expectations on the line, the weight of the world squarely on your shoulders. For one exam. Pressure, at its peak. Test takers A, B and C all walked into this exam in the fall of 2012, in their respective cities of Dangjin, Busan and Daegu. For A, age 18, it was his second time taking the exam. After a sub-par score the year before, he was accepted into a mediocre university, but opted to re-take the exam to transfer schools. A spent the better part of the ensuing year preparing for it. Around 7:30 pm on the day of the exam, his mother found him hanging by the neck on a rope. He had suffered from depression-like symptoms all throughout the preparation process. For B, age 19, it was also his second time taking the exam (this one-test-a-year thing is clearly not working). Almost two months after taking the exam, B took off, telling his family that he needs some time to digest and dispose what had just happened days before; the exam results were out. Late at night on December 29, B rented a motel room near the renown Haewoondae Beach, ripped open a small bag of ignition coal, lit it on fire, and laid down on the bed. When room service found him the next morning, he was already a corpse, dead from suffocation, the pile of coal now flameless, burnt, and lifeless like the deceased. For C, this was his third time taking the exam. Actually, he never took the exam the third time. The night before, under tremendous pressure to perform well, he had jumped off the balcony of his high-rise apartment. Third time is never the charm. One test, three suicides. In fact, there were countless more, documented and undocumented.

Like any other day, Ms. Kim, age 47, a wife and mother, went to work at a Lotte Department Store in Seoul. For the past few years, she had worked as a managerial salesperson for a cosmetics company with a storefront on the first floor of the main building. Smiling, she approached passersby with the newest creams and eyeshadow, making a few sales here and there. Her numbers, reflective of other cosmetic sales and the slumping economy in general, were down lately. Like any other day, she wrapped up her shift, cleaned her station. Like any other day, she also was semi-forced into cleaning the air ducts and wiping the dust off of high ledges. Unlike any other day, at 10:00 pm, Ms. Kim jumped to her death from a seventh-floor balcony of the department store. According to her family and other sources, she was enveloped by pressure to raise sales, both from her cosmetics company and Lotte. The police investigating the death initially told family members that there was reason to believe that unethical “pressurizing” from both sides played a critical part in her death. However, in the end, the investigation was cut short, ruling Ms. Kim’s death as a simple suicide, her fault and her fault only. The police department’s reasoning was that suicides, by definition, have no external cause, thus warranting no further investigation. “Our job is to determine whether the death was a suicide or homicide, no more, no less,” they were quoted as saying. Of the thirty or so fellow employees, only two were interviewed. In regards to Lotte’s exertion of pressure to raise sales, the two employees stated that it was more like “positive encouragement,” rather than a deathly grip that drove Ms. Kim to her death. Two out of thirty testified, and according to an anonymous employee at the department store, even those testimonies were probably “false” and “fabricated,” given that Lotte had full knowledge of all the participants of the investigation; one-too-many words and one’s job would have been thrown out the window. Ms. Kim’s death led to a few days of calm on the first floor, but soon after, the hawks’ eyes were glaring once more in search of Won signs, preying on their next victim.

Twenty-six year old A was a female firefighter in the city of Daejon. Around the station, she was well-regarded as bright, active and cheerful. She had recently started studying again to return to college, and even participated in a local competition to show off her “Gangnam Style” horse dance moves. A had completed a night shift the day before, and had returned by around 9:00 am. She was due back at the station by 6:00 pm for another night shift, but she failed to report. Her friends had called and texted throughout the day, and had gotten no response. Around 6:30 pm, A took the elevator in her apartment building to the twentieth floor. Leaving her pair of shoes by the staircase, she jumped off the balcony. No will of any sort was found. It was her birthday. According to her family, A’s superiors at the station had repeatedly pestered her to join their afterwork drinking binges. Mind you that these were more than mere happy hours over beer at the T.G.I.F around the corner. A was supposedly forced to comply and participate, her rejections and discomfort were of no one’s concern. The fire department acknowledged that they had one recent gathering in which A was a part of, and that some male firefighters had “jokingly” suggested they get together again in the near future. The police are continuing to question family and members of the fire department to gather additional facts. However, given the epic history of Korea’s drinking culture, its often demeaning attitude towards women, and how all of this combined implodes uncontrollably (alcohol plus rowdy Korean men plus female co-workers), one should not be surprised to find chronic abuse and sexual harassment as a leading culprit behind this case.

B was a fifteen-year old high school student in the small town of Kyungsan, adjacent to metropolitan Daegu. A few months ago, he wrote the following letter to his parents and his older sister: “Mom, I’m sorry I’m not coming home today. Say sorry to Dad and Sister for me too. I will now tell you why I’m killing myself. Police officers, I’m writing down all the hateful bullying I received at school. At this rate, there is no way you can completely prevent or stop school violence. In classrooms and in restrooms, there aren’t enough security cameras, and even if there are, there are too many blind spots. The beating usually takes place there. Lastly, I’m tearing up as I’m writing this on the top floor balcony of our apartment building. But I love you all. I’m thirsty. Sorry I’m pestering you ’til the end. Give me some water…” With that, B jumped to his death. Since middle school, B was the subject of extreme bullying, often beaten until bloodied and bruised, usually at school from fellow classmates. He had moved to a different school district to start high school, but even there, the bullying persisted, his repeated pleas to school officials and parents having no preventative effect. In recent years, after an alarming number of school violence incidents, school districts and municipal governments had installed security cameras in and around school, but apparently, these did not have full effect in preventing all beatings. Battered and bruised, this high school student sat their on the rooftop, penning his final letter, thirsty for water. He never got that glass of water.

Ulsan is a port city on the eastern seaboard of the Korean peninsula. C, an eighteen-year old high school senior, was struggling from stress related to her academic performance, or so said the school officials. She had recently taken a “emotional, behavioral characteristic exam,” which indicated a dangerously high score for various forms of depression; the school had deemed such results as “unalarming,” and C was sent to go about her life, as if everything was bright and shiny. Days later, she hanged herself. C’s parents thought otherwise. They claimed that she was ostracized as an outcast, by her own classmates. As proof, they presented an email, dated last December 31, from C to a close friend, expressing shock and dismay at the behavior of some of her other friends, the perpetrators of said “ostracization.” The email names four or five individuals that were C’s friends from middle school, and states that they had engaged in extensive gossip and fabrication of false facts to purposefully ruin her academic and social life. When confronted with this evidence, the police said it was not enough to see it as a cause of the suicide, because the email does not explicitly discuss “violence” or the fact that C was ostracized, per se. The police, in turn, quesetioned the parents’ motives, stating that the parents had never raised the issue of “school violence” in connection with their dauther’s death. To the parents’ disbelief, the police, the school, and the school district was ruling out the possibility that group ostracization was the cause of the death, simply because physical violence was never brought up. In a country where “group think” is a powerful force in every aspect of society, this young lady was driven to her death, not by a masked gunman or ravishing serial rapist, but her own classmates, her so-called “friends.” But friends don’t kill other friends, do they?

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During my last trip to Korea, I was embarking on an annual journey to the shores of Busan. I stopped in Daegu for lunch, hungrily stepping into a restaurant famous for its spicy puffer fish stew. As I stuffed my face with bean sprouts, steaming morsels of puffer fish fillet, and perfectly al dente ramen noodles, I realized that I was just miles away from the birthplace of the late president Park Jung Hee. After overthrowing the government via a military coup d’état in 1961, Park reigend the country for nineteen years. Under his dictatorship, countless human rights were ignored, and freedom of speech was all but forgotten as trite and meaningless values. Journalists and rights activists were jailed, beaten, exiled or even killed for speaking out against the government. Along with such abhorrances, the Korean economy experienced a boom it had never experienced before. After the devasting Korean War came to a “pause” in 1953, the country was still in shambles, people struggling to eat and grasp basic human needs. Park launched the “New Community Movement,” an all-comprehensive plan to revive the Korean economy through increased exports and domestic industrialization.

The plan worked. Korean industry boomed in the ensuing decades, exports grew, and chaebols were born (thanks to Park’s pro-conglomerate policies). The hard-working, working bee-like soul of the Korean’s were ignited to drive an ever-growing workforce, never taking no for an answer, raising skyscrapers and sending shipping containers all over the globe. What the Koreans did not do, however, was look back. Economic polarization was entrenched in society, and was growing like a malignant tumor, spreading. The “haves” grew fatter while the “have-nots” saw their savings dwindle. The country was unofficially divided into “Seoul” and “everywhere else.” Even within Seoul, the city was divided into the stereotypically wealthy “Gangnam” district and “everywhere else.” Inheritance of characteristics is frightful thing, as evidenced by the “haves” relentless pursuit to not only amass continual wealth and power, but also to make sure that the “have-nots'” opportunities are crushed at every opportunity, ensuring their social positions are safely maintained. This dichotomy of haves and have-nots has permeated every sector of the country; politics, business, education and health care alike. Koreans’ “extremism” had helped country get of fits feet after the war and had led to an unprecedented economic boom, but the same extremism had fueled the inner soul of many to morph into monstrous totems of selfish greed.

So what’s causing this country’s suicides? What’s feeding this deathly frenzy? Frustratingly, no one answer exists. It is a culmination of many facets of life, many dichotomies, many extremes – financial, educational, familial. What’s clear is that suicide is decimating the population, especially among students and young adults. It is concerning that suicide is viewed as an “easy” way out. The suicides of many celebrities and public figures (including former President Roh Moo-hyun, Samsung heiress Lee Yoon-hyung, singers U-Nee and Chae Dong Ha, supermodel Daul Kim, and actors Choi Jun-shil, her brother Choi Jin-young, Ahn Jae-hwan, Jeong Da-bin, Lee Eun-ju, Jang Ja-yeon, Kim Ji-hoo, Park Hye Sang, Park Yong-ha, and Jung Ayul) have often ignited the so-called “Werther Effect,” in which the suicide of a popular figure triggers a string of “copy-cat” suicides. To borrow the WHO’s definition of suicide, “an act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome” is not easy under any circumstance. But the Korean populace is jumping and hanging all too easily, as if the end of one life is meant to bring closure to whatever pain that caused the suicide in the first place.

Too many of us forget, however, that the end of one life never brings closure. Instead, it mercilessly rubs course salt onto an already gaping wound of raw flesh, right through the nerves and down to the bone. Their deaths remain silent. Numbers do not speak for themselves. News articles are easily forgotten and archived, dusty. The world moves on, the prideful haves continue to have, while the wounded continue their daily struggle for survival. Government is of no help. Schools do not help. Religious organizations try, but to no avail. Suicide, ultimately, is an “individual” act. Yet to combat it, more than one individual’s heroics are needed. Care is needed at the indivdual level, but the empathetic interest needs to be societal, encompassing every corner of every district, town and province. The victims are bleeding. Their families are bleeding. Their cities are bleeding. The country is bleeding. Profusely. It’s bleeding to death.

And no one seems to give a shit.


Fewer things are as unpredictable as life. Fewer things are as miraculous, unique and precious. Its beginnings, though often calculated and planned, are nevertheless spontaneous, a result of a rather tenuous competition, or race, ending in a spark that in time changes the lives of others forever. Its endings, though often not calculated or planned, are often dictated by terms within the controls of a system, a system promulgated and regulated by those that were equally “created” by that miraculous spark we call conception. Life begins as a spark – arguably out of one’s control – and yet, oddly, life may end when a third party decides to snub that spark, at a time and in a manner as that third party deems appropriate.

The recently renewed discussion revolving around drone killings shines more light upon life and the right to take it. Lawyers make a living taking sides on arguments, and dubious words and phrases are friends in concocting more dubious explanations justifying the circumstances in which lives may be ended. As any lawyer would know, “legal reasoning” is often another name for “rubber stamp”; it is a sophisticated (maybe not) mean to a desired end, amorphous and easily sculptable. Simply put, it is bullshit – expensive, gift-wrapped bullshit. By no means am I taking sides. There is no easy answer to drone use, and one should stay away from either extreme, as there are always two sides to the equation.


Winter in the Nevada desert is dry. Appropriately so. As the decadent shades of the summer months are dry, so are the winter winds and chills. The cold slaps the outer layers, but fails to penetrate further, bouncing away to some other vulnerable target. Winter on a tiny peninsula, which, by definition, is surrounded on three sides by ocean, penetrates. Frozen air particles drift aimlessly, forming sheets and clouds of ice, and there, the cold wraps around you, clinging to your layers, to your face, to your ears. Humidity is the problem. Sweat and dehydration in the summer, and bone-chilling cold in the winter.

But alas, the enrapturing humid cold is perhaps why Koreans are mad for spicy things and things boiling in hot stews. Russians and their vodkas will also get the job done, but on this particular day, wool scarves wrapped around our faces, we stumbled in for a fire-breathing treat. Space heaters are strategically placed around the tables, but the small dining area is only degrees warmer than the howling winds outside. Taking our order, the lady assures us the heaters will warm up the place in a short bit. A large order of “agujjim” (monk fish casserole) and a order of “gaejang” (raw crab in soy sauce). The friendly lady was right, as coats started coming off and the room, already permeated with the aroma of bean sprouts and fresh fish, started to heat up.

I sat across from a man I have never met before. He looked tired, shoulders slightly stooped, either due to the cold or some weight of life bearing down. And yet his eyes possessed a twinkle, an excitement I only possess when I am awaiting for a plate of food I have been yearning for almost a full year. His twinkle was beyond that.

As recent as forty years ago, the monk fish was thrown away as inedible trash in Korea. Understandably so, given its ugly countenance and rather lackluster amount of fillet. Then fishermen in the Masan area of South Kyungsang province, after hours of battling the waves for the day’s catch, took these beasts to local establishments and asked the cooks to conjure up a creation to enjoy with shots of soju. According to gastronomic legend, for the original Masan-style monk fish casserole, the fish was dried in the wind for twenty to thirty days before cooking, but now that the dish has become a national favorite, simply gutted versions of the fish are used as well. The lightly boiled chunks of fish (fillet, skin and cartilage) are smothered in red pepper flakes, loads of garlic and green onions, alongside bean sprouts, water dropwart and sea squirts.


The casserole still steaming, I pour soy sauce over a mound of fresh wasabi. As I have uttered before in this post about monk fish at the restaurant Adour, the true beauty of this creature is not in its fillet, but in its skin and cartilage. Pepper flakes and garlic penetrating the flesh, even the fillet on this cold day is moist and delicate. The wasabi is a surprising match. Chilli spicy and wasabi spicy is different, and the counter play between the two dance on my tongue as I dig into a bowl of steaming white rice. As all of this is unraveling, my eyes are locked on a piece of fish with a generous amount of skin attached. As true gourmets know how to enjoy fish head, if you know monk fish, you know skin and cartilage. The pepper, garlic, wasabi-laden beauties go in the mouth, and chopsticks fly out once more to haul in some of that glistening bean sprout.

Food is a great ice breaker. Even for a table of six and first encounters, a belly full of spicy fish ought to warm the conversation. As our stomachs fill, our small talk about the food, of the weather, and of local politics also blooms, paving the way to something deeper and greater. Not unlike a well-timed shot of vodka, pepper-drenched sprouts and fish simmers a soothing campfire in one’s innards, slowly crawling up and out into one’s mind, illuminating flash-frozen thoughts of past and present. As our bodies thaw, so do our neurons, captivating glimpses of a reminiscent slideshow we call life.


I am against the death penalty.

Arguments for and against this institution are plentiful. The power of the state to decide on the fate of a human life is not to be taken lightly, and there are decades of advocacy on both sides. I am against the death penalty not for those reasons, but because of the man with whom I shared a plate of monk fish casserole. Sweat streaming down the side of my face, and washing down the spiciness with tea, I was in the midst of a meal with the adopted uncle I never had; more accurately, the uncle of stories and yet not reality.

One mistake – one violent, ill-reasoned mistake – landed him on death row for armed robbery and murder. He grew up in an orphanage in Busan; his birth and life before the orphanage is unknown, lost. Maybe it was never lost, because it was never found or realized to begin with. Roaming the streets in Busan with other orphans, my then-delinquent uncle had no reason or purpose to life, listless and restless. Some say the opposite of “love” is not “hate.” Rather, antonym to love is “disinterest.” The potential of disinterest to harbor and nurture hatred is deeper than hate itself. In actuality, this type of hatred may be irrelevant to the common hate, as it is ideally closer to “fear”; a fear of abandonment, a fear for survival, a fear for the cold. The ultimacy of the crime itself – the mens rea, the actus reus – is no doubt the responsibility of the individual. On the contrary, the question revolves around this question: is the act a consequence of the individual himself? Cause is difficult to define, as social justice itself may have no definitive definition to lend support for teenaged orphans convicted of armed robberies. A product of the streets, my teenager uncle, convicted and sentenced to death, arrived at a prison in Daegu, which greeted him with cold bars and a jumpsuit. He was seventeen.

Abandonment hardens the softest of hearts. Prison cells do nothing in reverse, instead pouring superglue over the wounds of hatred and shame. My grandmother, even with years of experience in prison ministry, chiseled away painstakingly slowly to reach out to my uncle. The hardship of reconstructing trust in humankind is no different for death row inmates; the issue of one deserving trust is often so one-sided and disproportionate. Cursed out, neglected, and shut out at first, my grandmother confesses that all he needed was a spoonful of “motherly love” to initiate the thawing process. “Everyone has some good inside them,” she says, “and it is up to us, those of us that appear to be slightly advantaged in the amount of love we’ve received, to caress that good and bring it to the forefront.”

How easy it is to judge upon standards conjured by the select few. How simple it is to draw lines, not in sand but in permanent, black ink. How reasonable it seems to impart indifference to others that fall outside bubbled boundaries. And yet how difficult it is to look over one’s shoulder, to take a second look, to turn around, to walk back, and to reach out one’s hand. How difficult it is.

Fear and emptiness cause hatred. Ironically, the same fear and emptiness causes hatred not only in death row inmates, but also in model citizens under the law. There exists a significant void in our emotional capacity to love. Those closest to us, be it family, lovers and friends, are easiest to love. The socially acceptable, seemingly good folks causing no harm to others, are lovable, but not like our immediate circle. The void has crept in, yet not permanently, for these folks are easily admitted into the circle – a few drinks after work may do. Those that have no connection to us (not even on LinkedIn) are beyond the void. Because “we don’t care.” A simple phrase with devastating impact. Why fill my void with these “others”? Worse, why fill my void with death-deserving convicts. When one does not care, and finds no reason to care, one strikes the gavel, personally condemning others to death. So easy to do so. Because that inmate has no face. And death has no face.

But death has a face.


The most straight forward way to enjoy crab is steaming it with Old Bay seasoning. The best way to enjoy crab, however, is not cooking it at all. Instead, fresh blue crab seeping in a soy sauce mixture for days and weeks creates a succulent delicacy known as “gaejang.” Crab flesh is jelly-like in its raw form, and its natural sweetness is beset preserved this way. Anything that has been seeped in soy sauce is salty, but this kind of salty is counterbalanced with the sweetness of the crab meat and the slight bitter-butteriness of the the crab “brains,” that is, the yellow and green oozy goodness on the shell. The result is melt-in-your-mouth raw crab meat, spoonfuls of gorgeous innards and roe, and a sauce that shall not go to waste, to the last drop.


The kind lady prepares a house specialty with the gaejang. Forcefully yet delicately, she squeezes out the crab meat into a gigantic bowl of steamed rice. In a few swift motions, she then tosses in spoonfuls of the crab-indulged soy sauce, handfuls of crushed dried seaweed and dashes of sesame oil. Mix. This “gaejang rice” is beyond human description. The entire experience of inhaling it was as creamy as butter, but there was not an ounce of butter, and it was better than butter. Infinitely. Blasphemous, but true. The soy sauce has absorbed all the flavors of the crab, and in the process, has breathed in the ocean breeze as well. It tastes of the ocean.

Guacamole prepared at the table could be a dining experience, but it is no longer unique and sought after. What makes this rice dish so memorable was how it was made. Slow food (as the crab itself took weeks to complete) as the lady painstakingly removed all the raw crab meat, chatting with us, laughing, adding sesame oil here and there, sprinkling nori. I felt as if I was dining at a home on the shores of Busan.

Death has a face if you choose to give it a face. In spectacular form, food gave me a face for the death penalty; I could no longer speak of it in the abstract, in theorems. Not because he was ultimately executed, but because he was not, because he lived. Hearing his testimony over a meal brought death from the abstract into a name, a face, a wife, a new home, a job – a life. Before him, death row inmates have never been paroled in Korea. While several inmates with life sentences were granted parole, death row inmates evaporated one by one with no hope. But miracles do happen, and after years of transformative interactions and conversations (and probably an intricate pulling of political strings), my uncle was granted amnesty and entered a new world leaving decades of cell-life behind.

It struck me to realize that life illuminates death. One could see how death illuminates life, encouraging one to live to the utmost worthy cause. As a butterfly struggles free from its cocoon, and into a new life of beautiful flights among trees and flowers, a life that should have ended on the end of a noose or in a chair blooms retroactively, the cocoon acting as incubator for something greater and worthier. The narrative I was listening to, from this uncle out of nowhere, would not have been the same from a third-person point of view. If his death sentence had ripened and was carried out as intended, the death would be the only thing illuminated, his life not even worthy of a few lines in a local paper. Yet he lives. And it is his life, the words that came out of his mouth, that struck me as to value the moment of death, that sacred moment when a beautiful life calls it an end.

Whether one believes in creation or evolution, or things in between, life “begins” beyond one’s reach. If your sperm refuses to swim towards the egg, you have no life. We are here because we are here. Capital punishment, for admittedly valid reasons, “ends” life with third-person control. We are here because we are here, but you will no longer be here because we decided against your interest – sums up the issue. Even in death row inmates, the miraculous potential of life still exists. This is one confession you cannot make until death has a face in one’s life. And this face is given not because someone died, but because he lived.


Our plate of monk fish casserole begins to show its bare bottom; I scoop the remaining bits of sprouts and red sauce into my mouth. The gaejang rice, sadly, is long gone, and I reach over and grab a final crab leg hanging out in a pool of that magic soy sauce. Another bowl of rice would have been great (as a vehicle for this amazing crab-infused soy sauce) but what measure of reason left in me politely declined. Such useless politeness, if you ask me now.

The death penalty arbitrarily takes away “potential.” Within parameters constructed by imperfect human beings, we define “worth.” We then measure a life against those parameters and deconstruct it, asking whether the crime in question is “deserving” of death, and whether the person in question is “worthy” of life. My uncle and I shared one of the most memorable meals of my life, both in terms of gastronomic substance and conversation. The culmination of my grandmother’s stories, her news clippings and my imagination was a warm, laughter-filled meal, with an uncle that may have never been. Capital punishment takes away that potential; a full life with a paying job, a new wife and just-blooming memories all cut short and denied with a few poundings of the gavel and some bullshit order by a judge.

How funny it is that one speaks of death over food.

But how fitting it is to realize that food, the very fuel that sustains life, is the perfect medium to reminisce upon the most basic rights to humankind – the right to life.

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’.”

The Art of Travel

-Alain de Botton-

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