When life feels like flames, throw something on it.
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…
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.
Expectancy adds minimal value to our travels. Setting out, on a journey for a day, or two, or days on end, expecting the expected is nothing beyond our norm, our due course; comfort, as some may call it. Comfort is the public enemy of a truly memorable trip. Expecting the expected, and cajoling one’s body and mind through the expected events and circumstances when the expected appears and executes itself; comfortable as it may be, it’s leagues away from memorability.
We remember glimpses of our travels through the unexpected. The virtually unknown crab shack (hideously delicious) discovered amidst pure desperation, an unannounced downpour that led to a scurry into a previously hidden vintage shop, road construction and its consequential detour, birthing explosive panoramas of cypresses, pines and willows.
Resting on the southern shores of the peninsula, Busan’s warmth and radiant beaches rarely hint of snow showers. Even in the winter months, when Seoul and its surrounding regions shiver and solidify like chocolate mousse in a blast freezer (minus seventeen degrees Celsius recently), Busan generally sports a gentle southern breeze, its temperatures never threatening or malicious.
After a two-day gastronomic galore, dark clouds swarmed in like horizontal pillars of smoke, and the skies opened up, regurgitating white powder and clustered matter with all its might. My cognizance had never pictured Busan cloaked in white. There is something intensely bothersome about non-accumulating snow; it’s a tease, a master of the push-and-pull, showing you glimpses of purity, yet taking it back before the density of its colors are fully revealed. Exceptions exist, and when an unsuspecting mind meets a wall of white flurries, dusting the windshield, brushing hotel window panes, caressing every barren branch, accumulation is an unneeded luxury to compose the luscious silhouette created by the clouds.
Fish mongers swiftly scurried about, not with panic or urgency, but with inexplicable joy, almost childlike, at this phenomenal downpour of snow. Beaming. Tourists, huddled under canopies or behind glass walls of some multinational coffee shop chain, absorbed the site of purity falling silently, at times at a slant, at times sideways, but always silently. Beaming. A gray-haired gentleman briskly walks with a young boy of no more than five years old, appearing to be grandfather and grandson. The older man’s knit scarf comes off, and he wraps it around the neck of the younger man. Both beam excitedly.
The unexpected snow cleansed our retinas, drawing us closer to the edge of our known comforts, and ultimately unwrapped its purity. Standing, walking, sitting, beamed we did. Giddily. With monstrous snowflakes hitting the sides of our faces, we loaded our luggage one by one, not knowing what the storm would bring to Kyungju, our destination. As we made our way, I was reminded of a Busan I encountered years ago, a city and shoreline on the brink of a mild hurricane. The soot-like clouds seemed abnormally low that day, as if one could grab a chunk if one stretched out far enough. The winds were gathering speed, gusting in some instances. At first, the raindrops were scattered, not menacing at all. But then after a roar or two of a thunder’s cry, I “heard” the rain as much as I saw it; Haewoondae beach and its shallow waters magnified the chorus of raindrops falling on its surface.
Odd as it seemed, a hurricane-infested beach was incomprehensibly more attractive than a sun-infested one in mid-July. Mother Nature’s flakiness, it turns out, memorialized an otherwise uneventful trip.
“With our backs to the snowy mayhem” would be entirely inaccurate. For one, the entire drive from Busan to Kyungju was never snow-free, and secondly, “mayhem” is a relative term. True for the driver, but not so for spectators. “Through white curtains and grayish black slush,” we drove the expected two hours to the ancient Shilla capitol.
As Alain de Botton put it: “Among all the places that we go to but don’t look at properly or that leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed. They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty. This may not involve prettiness nor any of the obvious features that guidebooks associate with beauty spots; having recourse to the word might be just another way of saying that we like a place.” (The Art of Travel)
Kyungju is just the place. As the capital of the thousand-year Shilla dynasty, it bears the many fruits of the era’s cultural heritage; tombs, artifacts and landscapes. Not unlike Washington, DC’s National Mall and its countless museums, where flocks of students and chaperons partake in the annual summer pilgrimage, Kyungju is the most popular field trip destination for many budding academics. But as de Botton accurately observed, not many look at its fruits properly, and consequently, Shilla’s legacy rarely scratches the innermost corners of our thoughts, and too often leaves travelers indifferent.
A thousand-year history bears a heritage too rich for words. On a clear day, when the yellow and orange sun beams directly above one’s head, eyes dart from left to right, trying to encapsulate the green, the brown, the granite-gray. Too much for a pair of eyes to handle. An inherent beauty of snow lies in its ability to simplify matters, to cloak the distractions, the impurities, and leave standing only what is truly important. As I stepped out of our vehicle, and as my sneakers fell through a seven-inch white abyss only to be stopped by that friendly “squeek” of compressed snow, only two beings occupied by sight; five majestic tombs and the surrounding barren trees.
The sky and snow-covered tombs were inseparable, the whites of both bleeding into one another, their boundaries blurred and unclear. Distinguishing, with any degree of certainty, the end of earth, mound, tomb, and the beginning of sky, atmosphere, air was a daunting task. The color “white,” however, was distinguishable in shades; pale, bright, stern, mellow. This panoramic plataeu of white was disturbed only by specks of black representing far and near trees, standing as guardians of the dead, and even this disturbance was no menace at all, instead adding depth, perception and balance to the otherwise overwhelming display of the shades of white.
To borrow the words of John Ruskin, “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
Ruskin was lamenting the speedy haste of tourists, boasting the ability to blast through Europe in a week by train; going instead of being. Kyungju and its royal tombs would be nothing more than a few white blurs from the vantage point of a warm car. Feet sinking in inches of powder, the steam from our breath billowing in clouds of white, tasting the moist winter air – every step draws one closer to Shilla, to the story of its kings, their reign, and their long-forgotten legacies.
Closer to beauty in its absolute terms.
A family of five was busily snapping photos; father shifting left and right for the perfect angle, mother struggling mightily to harness her three boys; and the boys preoccupied with the size of their snowballs. One would hardly guess that this, indeed, is a grave site, laden with death and sorrow. Yet ironically, death, symbolized by the five hill-like tombs, resembled nothing less than pure beauty, the effects of funeral somber nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the white sheet of snow has cast a spell, suppressing whatever gloomy thought squirming to emerge from the underworld, just layers beneath our feet. But on a second thought, even in the spring and summer months, the tombs, with their lush greens resembling pastures more than burial grounds, may be deemed beautiful; even then, the tourists come and go, families pose and smile, children run about. The snow must then have another meaning.
“For a foreigner the pilgrimage to Greece is simple, it happens without any great convulsion; his mind, liberated from sentimental entanglements, leaps on to discover the essence of Greece. But for the Greek, this pilgrimage is fraught with hopes and fears, with distress and painful comparison. Never does a clear and unencumbered thought arise, never a bloodless impression. A Greek landscape does not give us – if we know how to listen and to love – an innocent tremor of beauty. The landscape has a name, it is bound up with a memory – here we were shamed, here glorified; blood or sacred statues rise up from the soil, and all at once the landscape is transformed into rich, all-encompassing History, and the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea)
A pilgrim’s confusion is exemplified by layers of snow. How easy it would have been to walk besides those mounds of dirt with no thought, no inquisition; as Kazantzakis explained superbly, “without any great convulsion.” Travel with no convulsion is like locking one’s bedroom door and embarking on an epic journey from one’s couch to one’s bed, then on to the mysterious windows (This was actually done by Xavier de Maistre, written about in his Journey around My Bedroom). Beneath the snow, beneath the layers, exists fruits of history that have been muted indefinitely. For a traveler obsessed with the “speed” of travel, a journey through Kyungju, through Korea, is simple, uncomplicated; but for those who question the “innocent tremor of beauty” – the cities’ flashing night lights, the thumping music, the car-riddled roads and cloud-piercing skyscrapers – one may hear the groans of centuries of invasions, bloodshed and hunger.
A hiatus of invasion or foreign occupation was a rarity for Korean Peninsula; the various Chinese tribes from the north, the Japanese on their ships from the east. Even when Shilla conquered its rivals and built a thousand-year dynasty, blood was poured on the streets of Kyungju and elsewhere to maintain that power. After the Second World War, the peninsula was split in two, and a civil war tore through, permanently scarring the mentality of those surviving and even their unborn descendants. Financial hardship drove people to the mountains in search of food – tree barks, grass, dirt. The economy boomed like no other example in modern history, but at the cost of democracy and individual freedom; even the president at the helm of that exponential growth was gunned down. Bloodshed, pain and tears defined this peninsula, more than any of us would like to readily admit. Much of this has been drowned in “beauty,” perhaps of a misunderstood variety.
Perhaps the “snow” layering the ancient tombs of Kyungju have deeper meaning; perhaps it is a symbol of a new beginning, a cleansing of whatever impurity that lies beneath it, within the deathly mounds; an opportunity to press the refresh button. Free from the costly race that has deceived us with economic fortune, free from the corruption that has become the new norm, free from the pain-drenched conscience of every pilgrim walking the grounds. Perhaps snow is, truly, beauty, and beauty is truly possible. Cloaked in shades of white.
My gastronomic senses instinctively recognize “beauty” when they see it; the nose first detects it, the ears bring in the crowd, the sizzle, the eyes memorialize on first sight, the tongue and mouth take care of the rest. Our footrace through time amidst the snow-covered tombs was only complete with another pilgrimage to a traditional bakery infamous for its “Hwangnam bread”; a delicate dough filled with sweet bean paste, imprinted with its signature logo and baked until the very tips turn ever so crispy. Proportion and texture stands out. Each pastry is hand-molded from scratch, and the dough has surprising density, despite its incredible thinness; Chewy Chips Ahoy after they are heated for ten seconds in a microwave, but better. The sweet bean paste tastes nothing like the sugary black matter easily found in cans. Also handmade from scratch, the smooth yet lightly grainy texture perfectly matches its buttery richness (but, of course, no butter added).
Beauty, so easily found, so easily consumed. But then again, the slushy roads were no easy task to reach this harbinger of beauty, and it is doubtless that its beauty was magnified by each step we took amongst the dead kings and ever-falling snow, still visible just outside the steamy glass windows. Beauty led to beauty, all falling into its respected place, enhancing and never overwhelming.
Exotic lands and voyages across forests and rivers may reveal some layers of beauty, some value not easily discoverable in everyday life, say in one’s bedroom. But beauty’s true shades, its true colors, are closer than we often assume, at times right above us in the falling snow, right in front of us in the tombs of dead kings of bygone eras, and right beneath our feet is squeaky snow. Perhaps the first bite into a steaming Hwangnam bread is all you need to fall into an aesthetic abyss.
Some say you eat with your eyes. I say you eat with your circumstances; why limit eating to the eyes? How you got to the vendor, on what road, in what weather, who took your order, in what plate was your pastry given to you, who partook with you, did you stand or sit, coffee or tea, was there a line – all this accompanies one’s “eating.” Not at all complex, just circumstantial. The surroundings make the food, such a truth in all the gastronomic corners of Korea.
Handing one’s passport and boarding ticket to the attendant at the international departure terminal is an oft-overlooked trigger; memories of all hues and depths percolate in one’s conscious, filtered and recollected. The attendant glances at my passport photo, looks up at me, glances at the photo again, as if the photo is nothing more than an alter ego bearing no resemblance to the man thirty inches away. One last look over my shoulders, crack one last smile; one last wave goodbye, before reentering the vortex called reality.
The annoyance of removing one’s shoes and the ritual of posing within the all-seeing body scan machine shuffles one’s thoughts, not in any particular order, yet cinematographic. A mind does not remember every morsel of detail from a trip, however short or prolonged. Like an artist, it harvests only what it chooses to harvest, carefully picking the highlights of the trip’s crops; and scenes are filtered, some crisp and some fuzzy, to embed permanent sketches into the soiled walls of our conscious. Vincent van Gogh would latch unto this phenomenon in an instant, in which some colors, contours and characteristics are chosen amongst others, brought out into the fore. Yet the exaggeration still represents “reality,” and resemblance takes on a completely different subjective meaning.
Snow-covered tombs of ancient Shilla kings thumped the outer edges of my thoughts as I closed my eyes in my cramped economy seat. Beauty is majesty cloaked in white, the hurt of bygone eras caressed and blanketed by all-forgiving, forgiving and healing layers. Beauty is simplicity in design and taste, balanced under the scrutiny of all one’s senses and with its surroundings.
Travel is beauty, but only if one’s soles are willing to embrace the sound of sinking snow.
It doesn’t mean anything. Just another tick on the second hand on a watch, another minute in a day full of minutes, another Wednesday like the ones before. Just another speck in an endless spectrum we call time.
But it does mean something, for this tick, this minute, this Wednesday, shall not return. That tick of the hand is forever engrained, immortalized somewhere in our distant memories as a speck in a finite spectrum we call time.
I once had two hamsters. When we bought them, my mom and I were told that one was male and the other was female, and that they would start reproducing mini-hamsters within weeks. Turns out the bastard lied to us; both were male, and instead of making hamster love, they ended up biting the life out of each other. Tragic story, really, but my point rests elsewhere: the hamsters’ plastic turn wheel. Turning turning turning, that constant, annoying squeak and rattle, day and night. Their beady little eyes either darting side to side or staring into infinity, as their twig-like legs peddled with no purpose or methodology to speak of.
Working life, a lawyer’s life, seems no different than two male hamsters trotting away on a plastic turn wheel. We are lost in the constant churn, deprived of all alertness as to what truly ignites our true purpose. Objectivity is lost, and subjective amusements paint our palette, defined as the willing ability to justify whatever the hell we’re doing. The abnormal becomes the new norm. Questions cease to be asked, as justification becomes acceptance, the lame way of comforting oneself from one’s inability to break the mold.
In some respect, this is truly a #firstworldproblem. Monotonous labor, be it physical or mental, pays the bills, and hoards of individuals would be more than ecstatic to have such paying jobs. Hamster wheel or no hamster wheel.
But dammit, let us not give up our given rights to question what we do, that endless stream of consciousness, poking and prying at the very purpose of life, what we are meant to do, what we were born to accomplish. This tick, this 1212121212 tick, has already passed into the past. History it is. 1111111111 ticked away last year, and in no speck of my mind do I recall what the hell I was doing at that moment in time. We assume the next tick will always be there, unfaltering, guaranteed. We live as if each tick is nothing more than the one before. We live as if time regenerates itself; immortality is ordained upon our own time.
I once read an essay comparing writing to a woman spreading her legs at the OB/GYN, or a man getting a prostate exam (I’m sure it was stated much more elegantly by the author). In short, she defined good writing as bare, open, uncloaked. Embarrassing and exposed, yes, but true. Genuine. No hiding, no holding back. Just you, just as you are.
Life should be no different.
As this one special tick approaches, I will remember the moment as the time when I mused about time. That moment my mind perused through fields and dreams of shattering the earthen pot grasping my very existence. There will be no 1313131313.
So what do you know about kimchi?
Most of you have heard of it by now, maybe even tried it. Most likely at some Korean joint as a side dish, along with (I dare say) rather boring cuts of Korean “barbeque”. One thing in this disorganized and chaotic world is clear: Korean carnivorial culture is vastly understated and misunderstood. Misrepresented. That is a topic for another day. Today, we shed light unto a relatively unkown scene in kimchi culture – “gimjang”.
“Gimjang” is an annual familial (or communal) event, where folks gather to make fresh batches (and batches and batches) of kimchi. This tradition originated from times when refrigeration and greenhouse farming were non-existent. Vegetables used for kimchi – mainly, cabbage and radish – were harvested in the fall, and only in the fall. To stash away your vital supply of kimchi for the winter months (yes, I do mean vital), you had to act and act fast. Family and friends all came together, washing, soaking, chopping, sometimes over a few days. After makgulli and unbelievably delicious home-cooked meals here and there, the finished kimchi was placed in clay jars and buried underground. The science is similar to that of underground wine cellars; the cool earth would keep the kimchi refrigerated (but not frozen) for the months to come.
This scene is diminishing. At the very least, few people actually harvest their own cabbage and radish anymore for gimjang. More and more urban dwellers just buy their kimchi (available twenty-four months) at the local grocery chain. Understandably so, since kimchi-making, and especially the quantity involved in gimjang, is a pain in the ass.
I am proud to say that my grandparents still carry out this tradition. To the east of Seoul, on the doorsteps of the majestic Sorak Mountain, away from the bustling, smog-infested city, my grandparents live in a two-bedroom house they designed themselves. Yards away from their home, they have a patch of land – nothing grand but plentiful – to carry out their vegetation exercise. Cabbage, radish, cucumbers, peppers, shiso leaves and much more. Every November, they harvest their organic vegetables for gimjang, enough to feed themselves, aunts, uncles, cousins and many friends.
This is a chronicle of this tradition. A tradition that is becoming forgotten. A tradition that cannot be bought. The vivid images are the courtesy of my mom, a step-by-step memory of what is the only true way to make and taste kimchi.
* * *
Right in their front yard, my grandparents dry the radish leaves and stem. These are a staple in traditional Korean gastronomy, and can be consumed in many ways – chopped and used in kimchi, or further dried and used in many soup dishes. Nothing goes to waste. When times were tough, especially during the winter months when nothing was growing and there were no refrigerators to stash Hot Pockets, these were crucial to survival.
The harvest is here. Many parts of Korea were hit by severe drought and flooding this past year, but these managed to survive. Hundreds of cabbage, radish, green onions, chilies and much more. Everything is organic. They take “from garden to kitchen” literally; go to garden, chop cabbage, carry cabbage to kitchen. If cabbage could move, they would be squirming as they enter the kitchen’s slumber. Fresh has a different meaning out there in the mountains.
The quality of the cabbage is largely determined by the quality of its golden innards. The inside should be a bright, rich yellow, should be firm with a crunch and should have a sweet aftertaste. These are gorgeous. The halved cabbages need to be soaked in sea salt and water overnight. This maneuver both seasons and softens the cabbage. Mind you that this day was one of the coldest days of the year in Korea. Brave men and women. Looks warm in these shots, but sticking your hands in freezing saltwater is no joke. But all is worthwhile for the kimchi stash.
Day two. The salt-soaked cabbages are rinsed (in ice-cold water) and drained naturally. The cabbages are wilted but not soggy. In the first shot, you may notice – besides the rockstar beanies – the huge clay pots in the background. That is the lucky jackpot, holding homemade condiments. Chilli paste (gochujang), fermented bean curd (dwenjang) and soy sauce. You can’t buy this anywhere. Korean dishes live or die by the quality of these pastes and curds, and homemade organic is the best you will find, anywhere. I was told that my grandma even made her own fermented fish sauce for the kimchi. I love my grandma.
As those cabbages bathe luxuriously in the pristine sunlight, awaiting their massage of sexy, red seasoning and filling, the crew works tirelessly, julienning the radish, chopping the radish leaves and stem, in preparation of the red filling that will soon smother the wilted cabbage. They will be wed in holy matrimony, inseparable.
Tub-sized containers are a must to prepare the filling for the hundreds of cabbage that await their fate. The julienned and chopped radish and friends are tossed with red pepper flakes, loads of garlic, sea salt, homemade fermented fish sauce, and some other secret ingredients that I probably don’t remember. All that is held together by a white, serum-like rice paste. Serious upper body strength is involved here. Everything is tossed and tossed until the red is evenly distributed, resulting in a mound of heaping lava-like, salty and spicy creation that is probably delicious by itself with a steaming bowl of rice.
In the end, here is what my parents brought back for themselves. And there were many, many more containers left. Back at my parents’ place in Seoul, these cartons will be placed in refrigerators specially designed for kimchi – called “dimche” – where they will ferment and ripen at just the right tempo. Yes, there exists refrigerators made especially for kimchi. Again, just think back to wine coolers. Fermentation at different temperatures, for different durations, will affect how the kimchi ripens. There are even different temps and humidity levels for different types of kimchi, as cabbage is far from being the only main ingredient for the dish. The vast array of different kimchi dishes is another lesser-known aspect of Korean gastronomy.
After a cold, hard day’s work, this awaits.
Pork belly, boiled with bean curd and onions until buttery soft. A few edible herbs from the mountains, tossed lightly with sesame oil and salt, edible roots tossed in the same way. Bowls of cabbage and bean curd soup. And a whole plate of that kimchi, now cloaked in ruby red, made just minutes ago. Simple yet elegant. Straight to the core. A true workman’s lunch in the quiet, calm mountains of Korea.
Even the local cats know where to find their grub that day.
* * *
And that’s a wrap on kimchi. Done in tradition, done with family and friends, done right. Gimjang is a workman’s feast, a festive occasion where a year’s harvest, through sweat in the freezing mountain cold, is transformed into a dish that embodies the welcoming, earthy element of Korean culture.
The chronicle continues. I can’t wait to see what next November will bring.
It has been days and days since my last posting. My intellectual gas tank – never close to full to begin with, possibly leaking profusely – has run dry. Taking longer and longer to even finish books, and the news has been so depressing that my guts refused to exacerbate the global tendencies by writing about them here. I’m still stuffed with ample dark meat from a fifteen-pound turkey (and the best parts, the skin and the fat gristle). Honey-basted ham, four different casseroles, corn bread, pie, more gristle, more pie, more corn bread.
So my girth is revived, my brained amply moistened with fat, my taste buds flattered, nourished, and spoiled for days to come.
I wake up and head straight for the couch with hot coffee. And the following exchange with my brother personifies the ultimate state of turkey day hangover. Fat-shocked mental
* * *
Bro: Fo sho.
Bro: U know it.
Bro: Whachu up to.
Me: Listening to bagpipes.
Me: On the couch.
Bro: That’s cool.
* * *
The dichotomy is pristine clear.
My brother, the ever so studious, meticulous, up-at-four-in-the-morning med student who takes joy in spending his nights in the ER drilling holes into skulls.
Me, the lackluster lawyer, drained of all academic curiosity, proud cynic and coffee-at-one-in-the-morning guy.
But bagpipes on the couch with rich Honduran coffee, now that is soothing. That is soul food. We discover our muses on different grounds, in different circumstances, on different couches. Music helps. Music as your muse? Maybe. Bagpipes, though, have an odd medicinal quality. Any motivation-depleted, call-seeking dreamer can tune into holistic medleys of grand bagpipes on an iPhone and be instantly transformed to the green hills of Scotland. Haggis on the side? No more.
What calm, what joy, what hope.
Turkey day plus two.
“In a way, I was apprenticed to life, open to everything, motivated by the blind and febrile egoism of youth.”
A French Life, Jean-Paul Dubois
It takes a whiff of cold, autumn air, a plate of hearty goat stew and beef tongue, and a whirlwind of fallen leaves to realize that there are less than two full months left of this year.
As the years go by, time seems to be on an endless downhill, unwilling and unable to apply brakes, mercilessly rolling, tumbling. At times out of control, at times
For reasons I cannot seem to verbalize, the change in the air sparks deep thoughts of life’s direction and purpose. Reflection is a powerful tool, shining light unto my innermost vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
Life at times seems like an endless one-way street, or a never-ending loop on a roller coaster track, or a high-speed train in full gear, aimed at no destination in particular.
Albeit dim, the light shining within asks the critical question, what it means to be complete. Some conclude that they are born complete – born of stature, wealth, and opportunities. Some conclude that they have earned their completeness – through education and financial gain.
Completeness means the lack of need. Want is there, it will always be. But need has been overcome, at least for some, through self-satisfaction and assurance. Outside of oneself, there is no need. No force other than oneself may interject, for there is no reason to do so. One is self-sustained, fulfilled, complete. One may think.
For those that feel the autumn air blowing right through a void in one’s innermost space, completeness is a yearning. For something more, something greater, above and beyond the status quo. The heart’s void, and the mind’s void, demands a greater presence to quench the otherwise unquenchable.
Blessed are those that are cognizant of such greater presence.
It’s as if one has had a death grip on a stress ball all these years, so tight one’s fingertips and knuckles have gone white. Control, one says, is power, ability, completeness. Total control within my grasp, within my own two hands. Trust oneself, you say, none other.
Letting go – a sensation that permeates through your hand, wrist, arm. It’s assigning control to something beyond one’s fingertips. For one does not trust oneself. Reflection has proven such unworthiness, an utter failure when one foolishly believed in self-contained completeness.
Perceive the unfathomable. What you see and what you hear is not always followed by a period. There is more, more that will lead to a narrow path, perhaps to completeness.
According to a prominent DC trade lawyer, who shall not be named, if one is to become a good lawyer, one must worry about everything, all the time.
One must constantly worry about every little way others can screw you, one must constantly worry about every little way you can screw others. Every sentence, every phrase, every word, every breath you take can be used against you down the road, and people will bring the forces of hell to screw you. Worrying, hence says the prominent lawyer, is lawyering.
Why the hell would anyone want to become a lawyer?
There lies the answer to the ever-sought question – why are lawyers so unhappy, all the time? Worrying, my friends, that’s why. You are paid to worry for others, so others don’t have to worry about getting screwed by the forces of hell.
In bed, eating breakfast, in the shower, walking down the sidewalk, in the coffee line, in the elevator – you worry.
Some are a natural fit to this phenomenon. Who knows, you might be gifted at worrying. A born-worrier! Oh through all the layers and depths of worrying, for worrying for lawyers is not one dimensional. There are two, three, four layers of ways others can screw you, so you must worry on, through all two, three, and four layers. It’s like the movie Inception – layer within layer within layer.
So, my friends, if you’ve ever thought of law school, ask yourself. Am I a good enough worrier?