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The Akha, Part One

11 Jul

It is difficult, nay, nearly impossible for modern, and especially modern Western people to conceive how truly different they are from others outside of their own background. We have become incapable of seeing the world outside of a given lens, having lost forever any understanding that we ourselves and our world were once radically different. And, by extension, we do not conceive that the world can (or should) function in any other way than what confirms our predispositions.

Having lived in Korea, I had inklings of this fact, for there parts of the old world lives on under a veneer of modernity. But it was not until I ventured to the far mountainous north of Laos, amongst the Akha people, that I saw a radically different world in full, natural bloom.

The Akha are a hill tribe people, one of the many ethnic minorities in Laos (or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic).  In the past century they’ve migrated from parts of Yunnan, in China, and perhaps from areas closer to Tibet as well.

When you hear hill tribe, you should certainly note the “hill” part.  Because it informs so much about the Akha themselves and also what you have to do to get there.  From the crossroads town of Boun Tai, I took an hour-long ride by songthaew up a road of dusty red clay.  We passed villages covered in road dust, with plastic litter along the sides of the dirt track.  There were spots along the way where construction was going on — some looked like preparations for future dams, others for electrical lines.

From the first village where we were dropped off, to the three others I would visit over the next few days, it was plain that I had stepped into a place distinct from my own world. It was beyond medieval —- it was tribal primitiveness, the crystallized experience of hundreds of years of inherited living in a single environment. We hiked up and down the steep ridges, passing through large swaths of burned land, used for growing dry mountain rice. The smell was incredible —- rich and burnt, yet fresh at the same time, perhaps because it felt drier and freer than the damp, still air of the forested valley bottoms. A family was clearing half-burnt trunks —- they gawked at me in curiosity. Bamboo huts often occupy the middle or periphery of such fields; it seems that they are used for storing tools or perhaps sleeping in during the planting season, since the villages were often a fair distance away from the fields.

The Akha were a tad apprehensive at first, in every village we came to. I’m used to being stared at, but this was a fearful sort of staring, mainly by the women. After long awkward moments, they often became more congenial. This depended on the family, though, a phenomenon similar to what I experienced in Mongolia.

Most Akha houses are made of wood planks, with hard-packed dirt floors, and no chimney. They were long and open inside; some would have an upstairs where the whole family would sleep together, one right next to the other, even wife with mother-in-law. Everything inside had a black tinge from the smoke, which hung in the air and stung your eyes as it wound its way toward the door. There was no electricity, save for flashlights, which they used to embroider in the near-complete darkness inside the house. The men of the house often did some of the cooking. One morning I awoke and found the chief chopping up yellow fruit —- much like a hard, dry-tasting tomato, but more citrus-y —- that he had gathered from the forest, with a machete.

The kids ran around freely, covered in dirt, the very little ones often with no pants. This kid picked a fight with me because I took his friends’ picture but not his.

He slugged me until I took this snapshot, then was content. Later he tried to fence with me using a piece of bamboo.

The last village we were in was the most interesting. There was a lot of trash, especially on the main thoroughfare and far more than other villages. This was almost certain because they had a rough motorcycle road leading to the middle of the village. Other villages were accessible only by footpath and were consequently far more isolated. But the people were also less standoff-ish, especially when I pulled out a phrasebook that had Akha in it. Each group of Akha not only lived close to each other in the villages themselves, but the villages themselves were related in a way. The final village had been established twenty-five years ago with people from the previous village (itself established seventy-five years ago). Starting with fifteen families, they had grown to eighty-seven families. The chief was a very welcoming and generous man. He shared lots of rice whiskey with us, which was perhaps some of the finest alcohol I’ve ever quaffed. Normally any kind of rice liquor is extremely fiery and harsh, but the chief’s was smooth and warming all the way down. The chief seemed to like us and gave my girlfriend permission to photograph his wife and daughter-in-law doing embroidery after the meal. He was delighted when he gave him Korean and American bills and coins. He said he would show them off whenever there was a funeral or clan meeting next.

They live in a totally different world. Up there on the hills, no electricity, squealing pigs running around eating shit (literally), burning up the hills to grow rice, knowing almost nothing but their neighbors and how to survive. They knew nothing about other countries or their location, other than Vietnam, Thailand, and China. They didn’t know about Korea.  They thought the U.S. was close by. They are completely poor in everything material and extremely rich in everything relational. They talked about the ten elephants that came through the village the night before – yes, way up on the ridge, the elephants are even there. This seemed like their greatest worry in the whole world. You could add disease, crippling, widowing, but that’s what they’ve always dealt with, and it is intrinsic to their environment. To them, there are no forces, invisible and sinister and distant, that threaten them. No vast empires, ideologies, or powers are within their comprehension.

In their close-knit life, I could only think about the distinction H.G Wells made, noted by Lord Kenneth Clark, between “communities of obedience” and “communities of will.” The Akha are the former, without a doubt. Their natural environment, the necessity of survival, and their isolation makes it so. There is obviously no room for individuality. Yet as individuals they are perhaps as interesting and varied as we are, maybe more so.

Now the Akha are animists and understand some truths but not others; will is necessary in the search for truth; but so too is peace and contentment in the truths we already know. Obedience to what we know and, more importantly, to whom life, in all its mystery, has bound us, is equal to will.

We totally do not understand that relational aspect of the Akha and, indeed, we deny it in our contemporary modern civilization. We have gone from a prescriptive ordering of civilization’s necessary institutions, powers, and laws, to an activist one. Yet these things are incapable of acting humanly in their activism. But activism is necessary for life, especially life together. We must do things to solve our problems, disagreements, predicaments, shortages of material necessities, et cetera. These things are done best, most compassionately, on a human scale — that is, as close to humans themselves as possible. I am sure that the Akha chief has great power to solve disputes and make commands in his community. Yet he is immediately bound to those people, for he lives with them, survives with them. What better can temper power and guide action than sleeping, waking, eating, washing, talking with the same people mere yards from you for all your life?

What a world theirs is, where people and their life together are the force and the rule for all existence.  Would that it were so everywhere.

(For the second in this two-part series, click here.)


Alien by Choice

4 Feb

I hiked Inwangsan the other day.  It was a surprisingly quiet mountain, considering how close it is to the downtown regions of Seoul.  I thought that surely it would be swarmed with middle-aged power hikers elbowing everyone else in their blitz to the top.  But I saw perhaps only a few dozen people all day.  One of them stopped me on the trail and struck up a conversation.  When a Korean stops you to speak in English, you know it’ll either be funny, perhaps even endearing, or annoying, bordering on creepy.  But you’re almost always guaranteed to get a story out of them.

“Hi, my name’s Kim.  Are you from the US?”

I found out why Kim was interested.  The thin-haired Korean showed me his green card.  Been in the States since ’82, but never naturalized.  I didn’t ask him why, because he kept talking a mile a minute about living up and down the West Coast.  He kept asking me if there were mountains like Inwangsan in America.  By that, he explained, he meant with lots of rocks.  I told him there were, but he didn’t seem to believe me.  “There aren’t any on the West Coast.”  Well, I would have thought that 30 years in the US would have taught him that there’s just about every landform imaginable.  I insisted there were, but he didn’t seem to have heard me and kept saying, “Ah, but there’s no paths like this.”

He kept repeating over and over that he’d grown up here.  But it took a few minutes before it was that he meant here, right next to Inwangsan.  “I lived here for 13 years,” said Kim.  “I used to walk up part of the mountain when I was a kid.”

He pointed down the mountain toward the construction barricades visible in the picture below.  “That was my apartment building. The Ogin-dong (옥인동) Apartments.  They tore it down now, the Korean government did.  I grew up there.”

“Do you know how much they cost?  The apartments, do you know how much they cost?  Ah . . . ah . . . ah, in 1970 . . . two thousand dollars.  Yes, two thousand dollars to own a 500 square foot apartment.  The smallest kind.”

He rambled on about something else as the sun continued dropping and the temperature along with it.  He somehow made it back to his point.  “Two thousand dollars in 1970.  And the Korean government is reclaiming the land.  It’s very valuable.  Now they pay . . . for the 500 foot apartments, you know, the small ones . . . three hundred thousand dollars!  Three hundred thousand . . . oh, that’s a lot of money.”

He then rambled on about random places he’d been around America, his glass tinting business, his Korean friends and family back in America, his father’s disaster in an ice storm.  Kim even came back to the topic of the mountain, asking the same questions again.  He kept talking on and on, but I listened anyway.  He was one of the fellows who either doesn’t know when to end a conversation, is lonely and starved for conversation, or might be a tad on the mentally unstable side.  Perhaps a slight touch of all three.

“I’m thinking about moving back here,” he said.  “The economy in America is pppffffffffffttttttttt.”

Eventually, we parted ways and he directed me the right way to get down, headed toward Gwanghwamun.

I’m thinking about moving back here.  His words stuck in my head as I descended Inwangsan.  How quickly things can change.  His parents probably struggled to escape poor ’60s Korea and were thankful to do so.  That’s the Korean Dream in large part — getting the hell out of your own country, while not assimilating too much into another culture so as to become a ‘bad’ Korean.

Kim had never naturalized himself in the States, even after 30 years, and now, when he looks at the hand the world deals him these days, he thinks about doing what perhaps his parents had fantasies of but never truly expected — going back to Korea.  And now Kim’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen looks like a smart move to him.  He’s still got the Korean passport; though his whole frame of reference is the United States, he lucked out on how he played this hand and can move back to Korea with ease, where the economy is good, the crime is less, and the people walk everywhere, as Kim pointed out.

But is it his home?  After all, his parents, brother, friends still live in America.  He wants to come back to what is nominally his homeland, but after being away since he was 13, how much does he really identify with it?  All he knows is his perception that America is pppfffffffffftttttttt, as half-formed as his notions of American geology, and his feeling that somehow this place, Korea, is the future.

What kind of future, with whom, for what end — well, those things didn’t seem to weigh on him.  I wanted to castigate him in some regard, but after some thought, I couldn’t.  After all, am I, or others like me, that much different?   I jumped to the other side of the world for a job, for adventure, to just get away in a certain sense.  My time has been a couple years, his longer.  At some point, perhaps arbitrary, one makes the shift from being a temporary interloper like myself to a permanent exile of one’s own choice.  But are our ends, our methods that much different?  Aren’t we both gaming the system?  Kim is not really that much different from me and my English ability which I did not work for and my passport which I did not earn but grants me the freedom to jump about and be respected anywhere I go.

Searching for the 마을 bus, I found the construction barricades and the spot where Kim’s old apartment building had once stood.  There will surely be a new, taller, sleeker one in its place, crammed with more people than before.  I wonder, what will those who grow up there be like?  Will they end up like Kim and me?  Biding their time with one eye on the look out for the next leap to be made, never existing fully in a single reality, but always guessing, planning, trying to game the system to jump to the one that looks better, only to find themselves doing so again?

Perhaps this is a necessity for survival in this modern, globalized world.  Perhaps we cannot fault ourselves for the ways and views set within us, recognized only once beyond the point of altering them entirely.  But that does not strip away the harsh fact that, as long as we act like this, we are homeless people.  Us as homeless does not mean we are without land, state, plenty, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.  Rather, it is the fact that none of those things coalesce into a larger whole, a home.

Pity us not, though, for it is our choice.  We love the journey, the change too much.

Three Nights in a Jjimjilbang

25 Jan

I recently did some venturing about Korea, not for any terribly specific reason other than I wanted to ride around on trains a lot.  I decided to check out Andong, for I’ve heard it’s an intransigently Korean place and I like intransigent stick-in-the-muds.  Being short on cash, I decided to sleep in a jjimjilbang, like many Koreans do when they travel.

Normally I’m rather averse to marinating myself in the various bodily fluids, bacteria, sloughed skin, and expectorate of total strangers, but I decided to give it a try.  For I’d recently gotten a blood test and my Hepatitis B antibodies turned out to be naturally almost four times higher than an ordinary vaccinated person.  I felt lucky.

Andong Oncheon

Once I got in and started looked around Andong Oncheon, the jjimjilbang pictured above, I was kicking myself for not having come to one of these places sooner.  I mean, a shower, water from a hot spring (the meaning of 온천), sauna, baking yourself inside a kiln, roasting your back on lava rocks, freezing yourself in a room lined with ice-encrusted pipes, plus a restaurant, PC room, DVDs, a space on the floor to crash — all for 7 bucks — 7 bucks — how is anything wrong with this picture?  I was to discover later, though, that there was.

It being winter vacation, there were a lot of college students traveling and nearly all of them seemed to be using these establishments for their lodging.  With a small bookbag, most of them were just bouncing around on week-long cheap train passes, trying to see as much as possible.  I talked with several of them.  Two young guys, one with a glistening cubic zirconia earring, playing hwatu together on the mat next to me, had just finished their second year of university, which meant that it was the customary time to do their compulsory military service.  Except the Military Manpower Administration wasn’t sure whether they would send these two off in February or March or when.  Ear Ring Kim’s parents lived in Hong Kong and had insisted that he go to university in Daegu so his grandparents could keep an eye on him.  Well, he wasn’t having any of that right now.  He and his friend were just going to kick around the country doing whatever they felt like until the military let them know when it was time to report for training.  Nice guys, as most of the people there seemed — a real family establishment.  I felt fairly comfortable.  Actually, I almost always feel far less ill will for my skin color outside the main urban areas.  Usually country people look at me as a curiosity instead of with suspicion or loathing.  One big-nosed, leather-skinned rustic on the train even made the effort to catch my attention and give a wave and smile as he got off at a rural station.  It is indeed the people you meet that make or break any physical place you come across.

But the most, shall we say, memorable character at the jjimjilbang was the ajeossi in the hot pool.  He had surprisingly tan skin all over.  His hair was unusually curly on top and suffered from a orangish hue, making him look like a Korean Jerry Stiller.  He made his way to the corner reclining section of the big bubbling warm pool, which I too stood in, albeit on the opposite side.  He laid down and I lost track of him, zoning out for several minutes.

When I came back to the present, I happened to glance across the pool.  The orange-haired old guy lay in his corner, but was looking about with a wide-eyed, almost paranoid look.  I saw his arm moving back and forth and some movement down by his crotch.  Gross, I thought, that old dude’s cleaning himself in this pool.  It seemed odd, but, then again, there were naked grown men over in the shower room scrubbing each other’s backs with rough cloths.  It’s Korea, after all, and things are just different in a lot of ways.  So I brushed it off.

But I kept feeling the old guy’s stare flitting about the room like a schizophrenic lighthouse beam.  No one else seems to notice him, but he’s still glancing around nervously.  Looking back over, I see that the man’s former motion is continuing, only at a more frantic pace, and a certain part of his anatomy has, by this point . . . emerged . . . from the water.  It suddenly struck me that this weird looking ajeossi was gratifying himself in a public pool.  And I was sitting it the same water.

I stood up immediately and climbed out of that pool without a second look.  I went into the sauna, shut the door, and sat down.  No way I’m getting back in that pool, I thought.  The heater next to me banged and clanged and I sat, wondering if this was normal behavior in a jjimjilbang and if anyone else had seen it.  But no one makes conversations in the jjimjilbang.  You sit there and avoid eye contact as you sweat and scrub.  So I was left with the mystery all to myself.

Those who wander seek out authentic experiences, ones which illuminate either the universal or the particular.  We want a full spectrum of experiences, a broad, diverse array that will enable us to both make generalizations.  But on occasion you see something that just leaves you at a loss, that fails to fit into any preconceived categories you have or can be considered a rare outlier that conforms nonetheless in its own way.  Just because you spend three nights in a jjimjilbang doesn’t mean you’ll see the same thing that I did.  And that, my friends, is why you keep your eyes open, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t.

Pleasant Peninsula

1 Dec

Si quæris peninsulam amœnam, circumspice.

Jebudo Sunset

1 Nov

Hope for Korean Beer

30 Oct

Mungyeong Saejae is yet another example of a beautiful piece of Korea’s fascinating and demanding past ruined by the ajumma/ajeossi weekend tour bus crowd, hordes of neon-clothed boomers showing up by the thousands, if not tens of thousands, to shove and elbow their way down a path whose ancient ruggedness has been ruined by the perpetual urge to park-ify anything remotely challenging with flat, wide paths, drainage ditches, and vendors and advertising running all the way up into the forest.  How incredible it is to consider the long treks porters made up the old Yeongnam Daero with their 지게 A-frames, up the narrow valleys and over the surprisingly formidable mountains into Chungcheong, and how impossible it is to envison the road’s past importance amongst all those crowds.

However, even a despiser of progress as recalcitrant as myself couldn’t be upset with one of the many vendors hawking their wares outside the first gate.  They sold Mungyeong Omija Beer, and only W2500 per pint at that.

Actually, it’s omija (오미자) and apple together, both of which the Mungyeong area is well known for.  I will go out on a limb and say right now that this is the best beer I’ve had in Korea, period, either domestic (both name-brand and craft-brewed) or imported.  The omija lends a tart edge to it and the apple a tad of sweetness, making the taste very well rounded, especially for the fall weather.  But even beyond the fruit addition, the beer had good body to it.  I was, quite frankly, shocked at the quality.  Most craft brewers in the States would be well satisfied to have this beer as a part of their lineup, and for Korea to produce a beer of that quality is damn impressive.

If you’re in the Mungyeong area, find all the 문경 오미자사과 생맥주 that you can and drink it up.  The contact numbers are obvious in the above picture; it would be great to keep this fledgling experiment in brewing going, as the addition of the omija is a very Korean twist, it supports the local farmers, and the quality should be an example to the rest of the brewers here of what they should be striving for.

Unfortunate and Sublime

29 Aug

In my time here, I’ve seen quite a few humorous typos, failed attempts at puns or plays on words, or just plain absurdity when it comes to Korean efforts in English.  Here are a few pictures of the best I’ve captured on my phone camera so far.

I can see how they were trying to be clever. “Rap” and “percussion,” fused to together to describe their musical style, yet making a play on words at the same time.  But that one missing “p” does it in. Ah, for want of a nail . . .

I found this endearing more than anything, but was equally impressed that it was grammatically correct.

If you look past the raised finger, you will see the lyrics to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” sprayed on a bridge pylon. Proof that cultural detritus penetrates farther and faster than cultural masterpieces.

Desperate for a hip, foreign name, the proprietor of this restaurant must have gone to the library looking for inspiration from architecture-themed book titles.  He chose poorly.

Horrific images come to mind every time I see that juxtaposition.

Salty Affogato should be the name of a Chicago South Side bareknuckle boxer and not something that you would consider putting in your mouth.

I miss a priceless picture from time to time, usually because I don’t have my phone or I’m passing in a bus or taxi.  The one I regret the most was the sign for a women’s plastic surgery clinic.  The tiny door read: “She’s Bits.”  Never a truer name.