Today my fingers felt that familiar pull towards the pen, revived.
Today I began with the weightlessness of closure–I can finally reflect on what the first six months of this year really meant to me: what I learned, what was reinforced, and what I can gladly shed. Sometimes, in the moment, a feeling is too intense to possibly verbalize and so my journal, meant to be a chronicle and my primary means of remembrance, is instead a long list of sharp and roughly hewn bullet points. While waiting means that a memory can lose some of its more organic or candid emotion, what remains after a period of consideration is what the impulsive person has laid in concrete memory and in that is the lesson.
There is an infinite capacity for love and kindness among the people who seek it. Amid the chaos of competing interests, wellbeing is even more satisfying when shared. And I have many remarkable people to thank.
Thank you to the Palestinian basketball player Oday who rescued us when stranded in Ramallah without shelter, promptly inviting us to spend the night in his home, where he and his friends slept on the living room floor together to make room for us. Where we ended a night of clubbing (in what is supposedly a dry territory) watching bizarre sci-fi films in Arabic over a homemade bong and some of Oday’s mom’s killer baked goodies.
To the young German couple that delivered me to Jerusalem when left standing at a closed bus terminal.
To the Israeli soldier who gave up his gun in protest of racial profiling against his neighbors and delivered me one of the many sets of political realities in the Middle East.
To the Korean police officer who gave me green tea ice cream (instead of verbally abusing me a la Philadelphia style) and did my fingerprints without a single word of shared comprehension.
To the hostel guests who would pool everything from soju to toothpaste to shower shoes to laughs over the guest sucking his thumb in the capsules. Y’all are buckets of love. (And y’all are also a cesspool of disease and of crazy.)
And most of all to my infinitely supportive friends, who put up with my broken contact and often solely virtual presence. To the ones who have been with me in these unfamiliar situations, you are a different story. (Like Hannah, who put up with me on a very hot day in Bangkok when we were very thirsty/cranky and like Annie, who let me sleep on her couch even though I had just crawled out of the desert and smelled like camel breath.)
I can recall infinite instances of acts of kindness during my time abroad in which strangers showed me a new, heightened capacity to spread the love and in which old friends showed me ways to know them even better. From the spontaneous sharing of directions to rides to couches to wine, some truly beautiful interactions occur on the road. It is the people even moreso than the place itself that gives purpose to travel–human interconnectivity at intersections unattainable in the virtual sphere or at the crossroads of your hometown.
I also learned forgiveness and of the significance of creation of an identity outside of the limits of nationalistic loyalties–in taking apart and examining my convoluted racial makeup and the history of my blood, I have found peace. In social situations, I find that I am a peacemaker and mediator, and yet I had been so far unable to quell the deep storms within myself. In this time, I found peace in the universality of peoples’ will to survive, to create, and to destroy.
I remember sitting on the edge of a kibbutz overlooking a minefield that has become overcome with greenery—and finding comfort there, despite my feet being planted on bloodstained ground. That same ground is entrenched with layers containing the earliest civilizations. Old holy ground. There I came to terms with cultural Judaism and what it meant to me that, for the first time, I could say that I have Jewish heritage without feeling like a disdained minority and without feeling like I had announced something gruesome or dirty or laughable. Thank you to the other people who shared that moment of peace with me. In Torah it says something like fifty times that one of the pillars of the religion is “love thy neighbor”. Judaism is at its core founded on notions of community-building, strength of familial ties, and acknowledgement of history so that there may be a less flawed future. Unfortunately, people have difficulty distinguishing their religion/culture from Israel in their politics. When I was able to differentiate the two, I found that I could proudly stand with my Jewish heritage without necessarily supporting all of the policy decisions of a nation that is currently predominantly Jewish. After surviving something so horrific as the motion for an entire people’s extinction as dictated by public policy, the endurance of the Jewish people puts me into a constant state of awe, though I fear the parallels with the situation between Israel and Palestine in the current age. I am interested in returning to study cross-cultural communication in the Israeli-Palestinian divide (while trying to put a stopper on my often naïve and always loud self-righteousness in attempting to not fall into the patterns of imperialistic thought that have since dominated American foreign policy). Tel Aviv though, reminded me that much of Israel’s urban youth is secular and for the advancement of the shared human experience and mutual growth. Many of the extremists of Israel are instead those that have made aliyah and left their piece of the Jewish diaspora for the homeland. Tel Aviv is a coastal city, financial center, more racially integrated than most other Israeli cities, and really really gay, with developed infrastructure and truly inspiring street art. Cheers to the moment I thought I would learn to surf, take up kosher eating practices, and make it in Tel Aviv.
Also, if you so choose to do Taglit-Birthright, know that you are signing up to receive three e-mails and two calls a day for the rest of your life asking you when you will return “home”.
But, also, if you don’t extend to do some exploration on your own, well, you’re at least kind of a gotdamn fool because the region has much to teach.
I am confident that my time in Korea following the Middle East acted to further reinforce my connection with the Eastern tradition as outlined by texts on Buddhism, minimalism, and quiet observation. However, the Korea I found was very distinct from my expectations. While I did not find home there, I in no way regret my time there. Aside from creating a new family at the hostel, I learned so much about my motherland’s traditions, a narrative that continues to feed into the Korean-American mentality. I had never quite understood what it meant to be Korean or how it was a part of my life. I can get down with the tenets of Buddhism, but in Korea, Christianity has dominated since the Vietnam War. American values are the norm in supercity Seoul, if even more caricaturized, in an appreciation of designer named handbags, fierce jaw lines, and an emphasis on personal achievement in a corrupted meritocracy. That aside, I did get to experience a culture defined by its rapid development, discipline, and innovative technology. Aside from the disquiet I found in what I perceived to be a highly condensed space of unhappy people, I came to peace with my own little demons. I am accustomed to being perceived as racially white when convenient and racially Asian when convenient. And when I use the word convenient, I mean that it in the sense that it is really convenient for other people to think of me as white when they can associate it with privilege and to think of me as asian when that can somehow excuse my success as the result of affirmative action or Tiger study habits. Side note: I never realized that there existed an archetype of Koreans owning dry cleaners. When I was younger and would mention that visits to my family included running through aisles of freshly pressed shirts in their dry cleaner’s or putting on wigs in my grandma’s Detroit based wig shop, sometimes people would laugh, but the nature of the joke would be completely lost on me. I had disdain for the way my mother (though an infinitely wise woman who pushed herself through law school soon after being introduced to the English language when her family moved her from Korea at the age of 15) would pronounce words that I would then take to school and say the same way, only to be corrected endlessly by my WASP-y classmates with an ingrained habit to do so, often with a malicious take on an Asian-based language. For me, being in Korea was the first of many strong peaks of my thankfulness towards my mother and of the receding of the war inside me. The immigrant gives up their world for their child. It taught me what it means to leave all you know because of need instead of desire. By the way, don’t get it twisted–even though my mother and I will have our disagreements over most pertinent social issues and the box of turtlenecks she sends me each winter, her accent is fucking dope because it is a reminder to me that English is her second language and she has a first. And a daughter then has a model for courage.
I’m about to start a club of Korean Jews—our membership is somewhere around three. Myself and my brother and sister. I am a mudblood, a mutt, a hotbed of cross-contamination, and am so proud to have further had the privilege to visit places where at least a part of myself is the majority–to better understand my unique position. (Though I’ve heard that LA is the next move to be with Koreans and with Jews…)
The friendships you make on the road are real. Even if you spend just an afternoon wandering a cobblestone road with someone looking for something to eat or are seeking some conversation to fill the vast void created by a region’s language barrier, you will remember the impact of each individual. The best case scenario for lifelong friendship is to get really lost in a potentially dangerous neighborhood where you can’t read the street signs after dark with a stranger–these friendships crystallize and are yours to carry around your neck on all roads. And damn you guys are heavy. My heart is never mine—it is somewhere else always with the people who have enriched my life with stories—which essentially present the opportunity to live more lives than one. As spoken by my longtime spiritual guide, Henry David Thoreau, “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.” The volume of my perceived world expands with each venture when I have people to think of at far-flung geographic coordinates and then again retracts when my plans to see them in their natural habitats are realized to be completely attainable.
To my Seoul Base Camp family: I’m sorry I haven’t written you. I feel like an a$$hole.
Lastly, people are crazy. Like, really counter-intuitively crazy.
But, then, if all people are crazy, that means no one is crazy, right? Wrong.
Right now, I’m saving up for a camera. I have so much to express and want to try as many mediums as I can. For a time I traveled with it and then, when my Nikon SLR fell off a sailboat during a booze cruise, I tried without it, and became thankful for the opportunities when I could look at something and really see it without a glass lens between me and the infinite beauty of an encounter. I am both enchanted and a little bit saddened to see these experiences as they have been warped by my mind-to envision the spatial qualities of each memory and realize that I have probably added my own filters-of color and distance and removed the dissonant images from the catalog of my memory. And with my penchant for exaggeration, the ridiculous becomes otherworldly when there is no physical record.
Sometimes, I want things. But then I remember that that really nice bike is a roundtrip flight to Mexico. And that a pair of boots is a fifty-hour massage in Thailand. And a blender is a bus ride from the northern coast of Spain to the south. And a houseplant is dinner for three at a Korean BBQ restaurant.
Things will have to wait.