Tapestry

What you hold in your mind’s eye
becomes your dream tonight, they say.

I have no such fixation,
only a stipple of optimisms—

each one twinkles at just
the right moment, illuminating
a tapestry of what happens.

Peer into it closely, behold its secret:
Each affirmation conceals a doubt,
each doubt a step mistaken.

Let me daily light each humble star
that their dappled curtain comfort me!

But look closely, at each letter,
at the corner of each letter,

at the tip of each corner
where it meets the page—
do you see that invisible point?

Deeper than the moments of time they burn
tunnel those little lights into a world so aglow
I wither before its perfect expanse.

Through the forest of prisms,
the waters of the night,

glimpse me, if you can,
in the image not once reflected.

Least Concern

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List is a database of endangered species. IUCN evaluators analyze the population and habitat needs of species and then rank their risk of extinction on a seven-point scale.

In 2008, the IUCN conducted an assessment of Homo sapiens. They concluded that humans’ risk of extinction is “least concern.”

Humans have the widest distribution of any terrestrial mammal species, inhabiting every continent on earth (although there are no permanent settlements on Antarctica). A small group of humans has been introduced to space, where they inhabit the International Space Station.

At the very least, humans help define the end opposite “extinct” on the IUCN’s scale. But a small group of scientists thinks otherwise. They argue that the combination of technological innovation and environmental exploitation that has gotten humans this far will ultimately be our downfall.

Thanks to the ravages of climate change and wildlife destruction, Frank Fenner says, humans are up next to face a severe loss of habitat and resources. It’s already clear that anthropogenic climate change endangers countless species. Fenner's camp simply adds that humans are no exception. We'll run out of fuel and arable land eventually, and “we’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island.”

Reading the entries in the IUCN Red List suggests human dominance over wildlife as a matter of course. Just see the entry on the red panda: "Red Pandas are starting to enter the pet trade, perhaps partly in response to the increasing number of ‘cute’ images on social media." It seems like nothing will stop us. But geo-microbiologist Katrina Edwards says that of the current period of ecological unrest, “The Earth could care less. We will be recorded as a minor perturbation in the Earth system. The Earth will go on. The question is: Will we?”

The basic problem is overpopulation. "As the population keeps growing to seven, eight or nine billion, there will be a lot more wars over food," says Fenner.

The idea is not a new one. Thomas Malthus’s landmark Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is the defining text in this area. Malthus said that growth in the food supply can’t keep pace with population growth:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

Malthus championed chastity and delayed marriage as a kind of proto-eugenics. He thought the imminence of human extinction was a self-evident mathematical fact. His snark is tempered by the fact that we’re still here. Thanks to technological innovations and land conversion, humans have managed not to starve yet. But could that be what’s next?

Decompositional Music

Dehydrated and tired, I made a musical discovery in the practice room today. I was playing the standard "You Must Believe in Spring," a contrapuntal arrangement I've been working out, when I started to doze off. I found the texture reduce itself to three, then two voices, until I was barely awake, playing only a single melody that tracing the harmony and thematic motives. It was liminal music: the notes gradually spread further and further apart in time, until finally—nothing.

I fell asleep.

In free jazz—totally unconstrained improv—we start with chaos and try to find our way towards a group coherence, although we may stop shy of metrical form or harmony. On the personal level, the game is listening, and its object is for each musician to be so attuned to what the others are playing that they start to anticipate what they will play before they play it. On the collective level, the goal is to "make music," or arrive at a product that sounds intellectually organized.

It's an end-oriented process. A free jazz session, in this model, begins with the assumption that the music will arrive at a sort of form, and then it goes there. And I think that this kind of free jazz is "too easy."

I don't mean that it's easy to play, which it obviously is not. It takes a high degree of technical fluency, musical sensitivity, and intuition to perform a successful free jazz piece. I mean that this mode of playing free is too conceptually simple for a music that is so advanced in other areas. Starting from musical chaos and then nudging it into musical coherence meshes too well with the way the brain naturally operates. We already know that our brains are pattern-finding machines. Why do we need music to prove it?

For some, watching free jazz is like watching someone fill in a sudoku puzzle. It's clear to them that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual activity going on, and it is satisfying to see all the parts line up, but the wow factor disappears as soon as they realize that the performer is just following a certain procedure. Though the outcome (numbers in squares, notes in space) may vary, the method is the same. The listener is easily drawn away, either by music that follows a more sophisticated compositional procedure (occasionally), or by music that doesn't have any pretenses about its simplicity (more often).

I am not that easily-bored listener. I love listening to even the sort of free jazz that people call repetitive. But I cannot say for sure whether or not my enjoyment of it is merely intellectual, connected to my being a student of jazz—the same way a chess fiend can truly love reading a move book recounting a match between two masters, while the rest of us just want to know who won.

What both groups have in common, though, is a desire to have something new to sink their teeth into.

My new experiment is to play a free jazz that actively tries to break down pattern. It takes reified musical structures and harmonic and melodic concepts and lets them disentegrate—into silence, or some pre-formal essence. I think I succeeded at this by accident with "You Must Believe in Spring"—beginning with little, and then subtracting.

I want to play that kind of music with my eyes (literally) open.

On the Occasion of My Baptism

I am technically dead now—
dead in order to be reborn on Sunday, November 13,
a scheduled birth, my autogenous due date,
when I will be delivered.

Scene III from Vermont Avenue

I heard someone on the street telling his
mom on the phone about how his wife was
doing, while he was holding his husband’s
hand with his other hand, and the
husband’s other hand was pushing the stroller.

I asked the husband if he knew of a payphone
nearby, and he told me he thought he’d seen
one on the corner of Adams and Vermont, at the church
there. I needed to call my mom because she had to
put down our dog last week, and I thought
she’d like it if I checked in with her,
but my phone was dead too.

Driving Home from the Baby Shower

"Charis, did you know that Harold just got out of rehab two years ago?" I ask.

"Peter!" It’s Mom, grumbling awake.

My girlfriend, driving, answers meekly, "I didn’t."

"But you could see it in his eyes," I say, turning off the radio.

"What could that ever mean?" Mom says.

Adds Maybelle, in antistrophe, "Yes, what’s that about?"

"You guys know what I’m talking about. That look that people get, after they’ve been through rehab, where their eyes are just too clear."

Maybelle is silent.

"And the way he was talking," I continue. "It was just too organized, like he was presiding over a ceremony or something. I mean, it wasn’t like Harold."

"Well, I don’t know," says Mom.

I go, "But I know you do and you just don’t want to say it. Because of course he’s going to be a great father, right?"

"I thought it was nice to meet him. And if he’s done rehab, then that’s good and he ought to be proud of it," Charis says.

I motion for Charis to turn on our street. "This is your left."

Plagiarism and Millennial Entitlement

Many millennials resent the stereotype that our generation is self-centered and demands coddling. The truth is that today’s college students face many pressures that their parents didn’t. College is more expensive than ever, and it is no longer possible to pay your way through by working part-time. I have personal friends who have engaged in all manner of overworking to pay tuition, ranging from legitimate but demanding part-time job schedules, to sex work and drug trafficking gigs that put them in danger of the law.

Clearly, we need to find a way to make college financially accessible, whether that’s through free tuition at community colleges, encouraging students to transfer into four-year institutions after completing an associate degree, or reversing the trend of universities prioritizing merit-based scholarships and reducing need-based aid. I support these measures, and I think that if our higher education system had a conscience, or at least a tax incentive for acting like it had one, it would have adopted many or all of them years ago.

And like anyone who believes that colleges have a responsibility to care for their students and ought not act like for-profit businesses, I also believe that there is a line at which the college’s responsibilities end and the student’s responsibilities begin. In this post, I will attempt to draw that line.

An editorial published last week in the Daily Trojan, a publication I write for, reads,

Recently businesses have been exploiting student desire for academic perfection by providing services for students that promote educational malfeasance. While this is so, we must also realize that student cheating is due to the campus climate—that is, the hypercompetitive culture of American universities that propel students to opt into higher levels of cheating.

I have encountered similar defenses of plagiarism before. The argument, when fleshed out, goes like this: Students are already working twenty-five hours a day to keep on top of their tuition bills and don’t have time to do their homework. Plus, college coursework is really hard, which isn’t fair, because a college degree is the new high school diploma. And since the point of college is mainly to get ahead in the workforce anyway, plagiarizing is just how you maximize your ROI without endangering your health.

But let’s remind ourselves of this editorial’s subject: third-party services that sell students original essays and problem solutions. The author even helpfully lists the popular ones in the sentence following the above quote. Some of them, she says, will complete a whole course for you.

She neglects one thing: these services are expensive. On the topic of friends who have done illicit work to pay tuition, one English major I know made $100 an essay by writing college applications for seniors in the class under her at her high school. This guy makes 2500 GPB per dissertation—3300 dollars, or over 3700 pre-Brexit. Ed Dante, another “shadow scholar” writing pseudonymously for The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall link), reportedly makes $66k a year. (At least the cheating economy is keeping humanities majors employed.)

A quote from Dante:

From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

It’s not struggling, overworked, poor college students who are paying for custom-written essays. It’s students who are already in a strong financial position, and buying plagiarized work solidifies their place at the top of the academic pecking order.

For all the avowed progressivism of arguments defending the various recourses college students take to stay in school, failing to hold students accountable for plagiarism is a surefire way to keep hardworking students with limited financial resources at the bottom of the food chain.

So, in response to the title of this Daily Trojan article: The cheating economy is not a new symptom that “reveals” a deeper problem. The cheating economy is there and has always been. It is the deeper problem.

Departure

I board the bus and peer out the window. Its heavy tint obscures me from the view of my host family. Still they stand and wave, their eyes full of sincerity, scanning broadly from left to right in hopes of matching glimpses with me. I wave back, even knowing that they will not see.

The bus begins to move. I thumb through the slim envelope of photos Hyeongcheon gave me and discover a letter tucked inside the deck of prints. I unfold it. The message is written in his plaintive and lucid print: a prayer that we would meet again.

As the bus begins to move, my memory flashes to how my little brothers used to play soccer together, their meager figures panicking back and forth in unrelenting pursuit of the ball. The tears finally flow, first thin and acidic, then heaving, obscuring my view of Gwangju’s downtown as it lurches away on dawn's redwood stilts.

Sorites

We pretend stability by tracking our life's progress as a series of marginal changes, so that from each day to the next we can see that we are still ourselves, changed perhaps in substance, but never in identity.

But sample two days, say, ten or twenty years apart within the spread of a life—could you recognize the images as of the same person? Over time the marginal changes penetrate to the being's core. The transformation becomes comprehensive.

In seven or ten years' time, nearly all of the cells in our bodies regenerate. They either fall off, as in the case of skin and hair cells; die, as in the cells living in the acidic environment of the stomach; or are "willfully" (to the extent that our body has a sense of will) killed by the immune system to fight or prevent infection.

Similarly, in the chrysalis, a caterpillar digests itself into a loosely-differentiated soup. It emerges a butterfly. Its new appearance is entirely unrecognizable; the only way the observer can know that the caterpillar and butterfly are the same is by witnessing the whole process—maybe you tried this in an elementary school science class. Moreover, if you perform classical conditioning on a caterpillar, the butterfly retains the memory. Few would deny that the caterpillar and the butterfly are the same organism.

It is self-observation, in the form of memory, that preserves our identity as we pass through the many transformations (willful or otherwise) that constitute life. Memory is what gives life a sense of flow; it enables us to compress the many different forms our existence takes into a comprehensible narrative. Memory gives continuity to life's many interruptions and breaks.

Animators know that using continuity is the smart way to model a dynamic process. Modern animators do not draw each frame from scratch, the way you would make an animated flipbook. Instead they draw the first image, and then make several small changes to it to produce the next frame.

Digital video compression works in the same way. The first frame, called a keyframe, is stored much the same way as a still image. Then, each subsequent frame is rendered by describing how it is different from the keyframe—something along the lines of, "The image darkens by 10% and the block of pixels in the corner moves slightly to the right," but in computer language. After a certain number of frames pass in this way, the change becomes too drastic to account for in so few words. The video encoder determines mathematically that it would be more space-efficient to snap a new picture, so it creates a new keyframe and proceeds from there.

This special point at which the computer decides it would be better to encode a new keyframe then to narrate its progress since the last one has, I think, an analogue in the human experience. When we change our life abruptly or in a major way, we often speak of being "reborn" or "finding a new life." But we lack the computational diligence of a computer to tell us when a transformation could be more efficiently accounted for with a new raw description than a description of changes.

This is perhaps easier to understand if we imagine describing someone other than ourselves. If we take two snapshots of different points from an individual's life, at how many years apart do the snapshots become unrecognizable as the same person? In other words, in the video of that person's life, how often and where would we insert keyframes?

A picture of them from last week and from this week would look quite similar. If last Monday was a keyframe, the description of today's frame may read, "Weight increases by two pounds and facial hair is removed." It may also read, "Slightly less anxious about finding a job, but more strongly longing to make up with his ex." Straightforward. We practice making these sorts of descriptions every day, even about ourselves, when we answer questions like, "Are you feeling better today? You looked pretty down after evals came out."

But describing our transformation as a continuous process becomes a much more awkward process when we try to trace changes in our lives over several years. If you and I had attended kindergarten together but never met since, and I asked you to describe yourself today by comparing your current self with your four-year-old self, would I be able to deduce an accurate picture of who you now are? You might say, "I whine a lot less," but of course, given that four-year-olds are prone to excessive whining, the description is hardly informative. You could be a whiny person still, as long as you are less so than you were at age four.

In this case, I would be better off asking you for a keyframe description of who you are. If I asked you, "Are you happy with your work?" your answer would probably give me a better understanding of whether or not you are whiny person than even the most precise comparison of your four-year-old and present day habits—and that's with a sideways question.

After a certain point, the transformation simply becomes too comprehensive to be accounted for in the language of continuity. You have been born anew. Outside of the perception of those who know you closely and have watched you evolve through every stage of your being, there is no way for me to verify that you are, in fact, yourself.

I am interested in the location of this point, a simultaneously knowable and unknowable point. As in the sorites paradox, in which some unknowable minimum number of grains lumped together eventually produce a "heap," the changes that shape our lives and identities are so marginal and nameable that a close observer would never be able to name a point at which one has comprehensively transformed. That's because in the process of observing, the observer becomes keenly aware of the continuity between the original and transformed object, such that a transformation that any outsider would call comprehensive is to the observer recalled as only the sequence of marginal changes that it actually was.

So we arrive at a problem: Our memory—the set of observations of our own transformation—is what confirms to us that we are ourselves. That's because without observing continuity between two apparently different objects, we cannot identify them as the same. But how can we know that our memory is itself continuous? As above, the brain is constantly recycling its own cells. Even on a psychological level, we sometimes rewrite our memory, underlining and punctuating emotionally intense moments and lumping similar experiences together into generic memories ("my commute"). We are perhaps not ourselves, but figments of our own imagination, a cluster of observations that exist only to verify their own existence.

Field Notes

For a backyard linguist, every day in a foreign country is field day.

One of my favorite things to talk about with foreigners is language learning, because each language has its own unique quirks, quirks which change depending on the learner's background.

Yesterday, my language partner and I compared notes on the differences in pronunciation between Korean and English. If you take a word like NIMBY ("not in my backyard"), which also exists as the English loanword 님비 in Korean, it's easy to write off the pronunciation as identical in both languages. Unlike other loanwords like 카페 (meaning café, but pronounced "kape" because Korean lacks the F sound), 님비 requires no substitution of consonants or vowels. But even though all the sounds are "the same," the words don't sound the same. If you listen to someone pronounce the word NIMBY, you can easily identify their accent as English or Korean. How? One reason: the Korean N is formed somewhat differently than in English. Rather than flicking the tongue against the roof of the mouth, to pronounce the Korean letter ㄴ, you rasp your tongue against your front teeth. From a physical standpoint, it feels more like a D or L.

My language partner and I also talked about a grammar point that continually frustrates those who study English: definite and indefinite articles. The other day my host dad asked me about this, too: What is the difference between to catch a bus and to catch the bus? I explained that the difference is very small, but that using the definite article the tends to suggest that the specific bus is already known or decided, whereas catching a bus seems to emphasize a choice between the bus and some other mode of transportation. Compare:

"If you want to catch the bus, you'll need to leave early." (Using a here would be unidiomatic.)

"Since it's only two of us, should we take a bus instead of driving?" (In this case the could also work, but the indefinite article softens the suggestion, and emphasizes that the speaker has no strong preference.)

English idioms often exploit the softness of a and the resoluteness of the for effect. Compare the expressions a quiet life and the good life: both refer to desirable lifestyles, but in slightly different tones. A quiet life is a humble life away from the city and the stresses of the workplace. The indefinite article a suggests that the quiet life is just one life among many, unassuming and content to be left undisturbed. The notion of a quiet life holds a high degree of nostalgic appeal—nostalgic because such a life is imagined as taking place inaccessibly away from the speaker, either in the past:

"Sometimes I wonder if those folktale peasants had it best, living a quiet life, day by day."

Or the future:

"All I want to do is retire and live a quiet life, fishing and hiking all by myself."

Sometimes we also refer to it as the quiet life, with no major change in meaning. But the good life and a good life have quite different connotations. The good life is usually a sarcastic remark, used to criticize someone who has surrounded themselves with material extravagance with utter imprudence and disregard for their personal relationships:

"While I'm here putting food on the table and taking Mom to her chemo appointments, my brother's off living the good life in Las Vegas like he doesn't have a care in the world."

By contrast, a good life is simply that—a desirable life, defined in whatever terms the speaker wishes:

"I'm not going to college so I can be extremely rich or anything. I just want to live a good life, meet a good girl—the sorts of things Mom never got the chance to do."

These are the sorts of nuances that native speakers tend to gloss over. I don't need to think about how to speak English because I think in English.

Of course, taking a moment to step back (zoom in?) and look at the elements that make up language is a valuable thing. It can even teach us more about our own native language! As my partner told me at the end of our conversation: 언어 배우기엔 끝이 없다. There's no end in language learning.

On Optimism and Regret

It's week six and I'm struggling to measure the relative weights of my desire to go home and to remain here forever. In two months, it's impossible to see every site and visit every city, and I've certainly fallen far short of doing and seeing everything I first set out to.

Last weekend I went with a friend and his host family to Busan, the second-largest city in Korea. It's a port city in the southwest corner of the peninsula, famous for seafood, Hanjin freight, and a city plan that stretches 330 degrees around the bay to maximize port access (think Vancouver). We checked out Taejongdae, a sort of cliffside park area where you can get some sea air and take pictures sitting on the ledge, and poked around the shops and restaurants in the downtown area.

Usually expat blogs describe Busan as the laid-back, quirky alternative to Seoul (think Portland). But since we're based in the extremely laid-back, quirky city of Gwangju, I had somewhat the opposite experience. Busan was fast-paced and I felt almost nervous to see so many other Americans walking around. We celebrated my friend's birthday at a Baskin-Robbins after eating samgyeopsal in a restaurant where all the staff spoke perfect English. The awkward familiarity I felt with navigating that city cast my memory of Korea prior to that point in a strange haze, like Kwangju was the dream and Busan the reality. Cultural disorientation is real, and mysterious indeed.

Choosing to go on the trip to Busan meant turning down an invitation to go to Seoul with a different group. Similarly, next weekend my host family offered to take me to Sokcho, a city near the border that's trending nowadays as "The Pokemon City" because Pokemon Go players are flocking to it. Pokemon nerd though I am, I had to say no to that trip too because of other obligations. This got me wondering: How ought an optimist approach these sorts of missed opportunities?

Human nature inclines us toward regret, which in turn spurs us to plan even harder for the next weekend, packing as many things in as possible. Our intention is to stave off the feeling of regret, but the result is usually anxiety and further disappointment. (Hence the joke about how the vacation really begins when you land safely at home without anything having gone wrong.)

Here's my draft of an optimistic answer to the unpleasant anticipation of regret that accompanies a missed opportunity: What if saying, "Sorry, I can't" is really a tacit promise—to make the most of the time anyway, by doing whatever it was that you had planned originally; to make the new experience happen some other way, some other time; to live life rather than screenwrite it?

As my time in Korea slips away, the many things I hoped to see and experience but failed to follow up on on this trip are coming into unsettling relief. Regret opines: Why did I go to the same cafe twice in a row when I could have gone to a new one? Why did I hang out with so-and-so even though I already know her life story—shouldn't I get to know someone new?

But the optimist's heart speaks with assurance even in its times of regret: The things I have left undone are not my failures but my reason to return. They are my promise to be back soon.

First Week of Class at CNU

I've just finished my first week of class at Chonnam National Universty here in Kwangju with CLS and everything is amazing! I am staying with a host family in a suburb about 40 minutes from school by bus, so I get to practice my Korean 24/7.

Speaking in a new language can feel like doing the dishes with chopsticks. One of the conditions of the CLS scholarship is that students use only the target language when they are on campus, even outside of class, which is both exhausting and rewarding. Listening and speaking are my weakest language areas, and trying to explain a multi-step process in Korean or politely make a request of my host family often leaves all parties frustrated and confused. I am committed to the language policy, but it seems to worry my host family that I come home each day exhausted of my Korean abilities rather than more fluent.

Life in Kwangju is really nice. Kwangju is the sixth largest city in Korea, so although most people here have interacted with foreigners, we are by no means common. I certainly feel the preen of cautious eyes turning toward me when I get on the bus or enter a restaurant. The questions I most often receive from strangers are whether or not I can eat spicy food and whether I know how to use chopsticks.

Heimweh

This week I have begun mentally preparing to leave for Korea. My flight to D.C. for orientation is on Thursday, and then we'll leave as a cohort on Saturday morning to Gwangju by route of Tokyo and Incheon.

I just finished reading Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea. If, these past few weeks, I have put off processing the anxieties of leaving my hometown, reading Lee's latest has surely thrust me to the opposite extreme. On Such a Full Sea is something of a reverse odyssey, the protagonist venturing into the unknown in hopes of being reunited with her beloved. And it engenders a terribly inconsolable desire to see them reunited, a desire only sullied and complicated by the anxiety that their reunion cannot possibly meet our romantic expectations. The feeling of longing is destructive. It strings us along with the promise of consummate reunion, with each moment of prolonged separation only sewing stitches of doubt. Don't get your hopes up, we admonish ourselves, making a secret promise to ourselves that the reward for tempering our expectations will be a more satisfying reunion.

Homesickness is a peculiar species of longing that draws us toward something impossible to claim. When we long for home, we long not just for a place or even a time but for the special encounter we had with that place and time: the feeling of being there and then. Whenever I ride the plane back from L.A. to Seattle, I like to watch out the window on our landing approach and see if I can pick out our house from the grid. I do this automatically, no matter how many times I take the flight: somehow the act of pressing my fingers to the glass and staking out a house as ours is comforting. But upon my return, nothing is ever quite the same. This summer, the new light rail extension reconfigured my journey home. And though our house was the same house and its occupants the same family, somehow that slightly different preparation cast everything in a new light, like how the Christmas trees downtown look a little more insecure and lanky on the twenty-seventh.

When I was in sixth grade, my mom sent me to Germany to stay with a second-cousin for a few weeks, and I remember crying myself to sleep one night, feeling the acute pangs what I knew was called homesickness but never expected to feel so much like a real illness. I looked up the German word for it in the dictionary, just in case.

The next day, at breakfast, my aunt saw my sullen expression and suggested a diagnosis. Hast du heimweh? she asked, stressing what she thought would be a new word.

Ja, ich habe, I sighed, the words a relief to let out, but also an admission of an illness incurable. For although I was mere days away from being transported back home, in my time away I felt that I had changed, my form altered such that I would never fit back into my home in quite the same way.

Homesickness is a feeling that binds us to the past, even as we fastidiously engage our lives in the business of the future. I wonder if homesickness is a healthy anchor, an unshirkable burden that we grant safe passage in exchange for a sense of trajectory. After all, if your only reference point is where you are (Fan's parting words), than how do you orient the trajectory of your future? Given two points, you can draw only one straight line.

Urinal Matter

With ketchup and wimpy little outstretched arms,
latent charisma wakens upon a picnic bench or
wood betrayed across two stones or
urinal matter.

Song

I am working on a song where the notes are just
promises of sonority that

amount to nothing more than black beads.

I am tired of being infected by melodies and
commanded to dance by possessive backbeats.

Batons are for musicians and feet are for walking.


In 6/4.

Puzzles


you can just dump all of the pieces on the floor at first if you don’t want to put them together one at a time

문화와 문화 차이

문화 차이가 없었으면 “문화”라는 말은 없었을 것이다. 옛날에 배와 비행기가 없이 사람들은 외국 사람을 별로 만날 수가 없어서 문화 차이는 큰일이 아니었다. 다른 나라와 거래하고 싶었을 때나 싸웠을 때만 와국어를 배우는 것과 문화 차이를 이해하는 것이 더 필요하게 되었다. 그랬을 때 “우리가 낫다” 하기 위해서 한 나라가 직접 다른 문화를 정의했고 국경을 그었다. 예를 들면 유럽 사람이 현재 “미국”이라고 불리는 나라에 왔을 때 원주민을 싫어했다. 영국 사람은 원주민을 죽이기 위한 이유가 필요해서 원주민의 말, 옷, 음식 등을 다같이 다른 나쁜 문화라고 불렀다. 사실은 문화는 사람들을 분열하려고 만든 것이다. 그러니까 내 생각에 문화를 정의할 수 없는 것이다. 아직도 문화 차이가 있는데 내가 문화 차이를 거부하지 말고 문화 차이로 자기를 배우면 된다고 생각한다.

내 가족에서 문화 차이가 자주 생기는 편이다. 우리 할아버지는 인도 분이고 할머니는 미국 분인데 둘은 결혼 하셨을 때 이웃들이 틀리다고 해서 고생 많이 하셨다. 내 아버지가 어렸을 때 할아버지와 할머니가 어떻게 아이를 돌보는지 모르셨고 가끔 서로 반대하셨다. 할아버지가 치과의사이시고 인도에서 오셨으니까 수학, 화학, 그리고 그런 과학 수업은 제일 중요하다고 하셨고, 반면에 할머니가 선생님이셨으니까 학교 수업 중에서 특별한 수업이 없는데 아버지한테 다 비슷하게 공부시키자 했다. 그 경우에 문화 차이가 아주 힘든 것 같은데도 할아버지와 할머니는 착하고 이해해 주셨다. 그 다양한 관점을 들은 덕분에 내 아버지가 아주 성실하고 밝은 어른이 됐다. 다른 문화를 이해하는 것은 아주 좋은 것이다.

그런데 문화 차이를 이해하는 것은 범세계적인 도전이다. 왜 한국어로는 한국, 일본, 중국, 등을 영어로는 다 “아시아”라고 부르는가? 그 나라는 다른 말과 문화가 있는데도 외국 사람이 (“중국”에서 “중”을 보면서) 아시아 문화는 다 원래 중국에서 왔다고 생각해서 그렇다. 내 경험으로 중국 문화와 다른 아시아 나라가 비슷한 점과 다른 점도 있다. 한국이 중국과 긴 역사 있다. “Korea” 는 옛날 고구려가 신라와 싸웠을 때 중국 군대가 신라를 도워 줘서 신라가 이겼는데 그 때문에 불교와 관련된 이론이 한국에 소개됐다. 그리고 조선 시대 때 공자의 가르침이 바람처럼 한국 집에 다 전파되었다. 불교학과 유학은 다른 나라에서 오기는 왔는데 요즘 외국인에게 한국 문화가 어떻냐 하면 거의 항상 불교와 유학으로 이야기할 것이다. 반면에 어떤 외국인이 “한국”이라고 들으면 K-pop을 생각할 수도 있고 어떤 사람은 남북한 정치가 궁금할 수도 있다. 그러니까 요즘 다른 나라의 문화를 알고 있음이 점점 늘고 있다.

나에게 다른 나라의 문화를 왜 배우냐 하면 내 세계관을 크게 하기 위할 뿐 아니라 나 자신을 배우려고 해서 그렇다. 한국에서 온 가족을 처음으로 만났을 때 아주 다른 문화 같아서 어색했었다. 근데 이야기할 수록 어색함 대신 궁금해졌다. 그 가족의 사랑과 후함 때문에 나는 약간 이기적인 편이란 것을 깨달았다. 그 문화 차이를 극복하니까 나는 내 성격을 바꾸었고 어색했던 시간들이 내 이기적인 점을 바꿀 수 있게 해 주었다. 마찬가지로 우리는 다른 문화와 외국어를 배워야 한다. 불편하기는 하지만 문화 차이를 포용하면 재미있는 친구들과 친해질 수도, 나 자신을 찾을 수도 있을 것이다.

문화 차이로 많이 배울 수 있으면서, 사실 문화 차이라는 것은 사람이 만든 것인지를 아는 것도 중요하다. 특히 다른 나라 사람을 만날 때 문화 차이는 아주 분명한 것인데 아직도 모든 사람은 인간이니까 어느 문화가 낫냐고 하는 것은 중요하지 않다. 대체로 사람들은 다르다기보다 비슷한 편이다. 모든 문화가 가족, 사랑, 음식 등을 위하는데 그냥 작은 것들로 반대하고 싸운다. 깐깐하지 않게 문화 차이를 공부하고 안녕을 위하자고 생각한다.

"Culture and Cultural Difference" was written for my Korean IV class at USC. Thanks to Professor Hyunjung Ahn for her help with grammar and for encouraging me to post this piece.

Supermarket

she could also be stacking
fruit at a supermarket now,

pyramiding peaches and turning their bruises inward

Daily Rhythm

I still have to ask if
the digressions from the daily rhythm
are actually just a part of it, like how

the nodes that punctuate white noise are
what give it its special earfeel or

the unsandy stretches of beach are where
rocks massage black divots into summer-worn feet.


Do in 7/8 for maximum earfeel.

Sospiration

"Sospiration" is an experiment in notation. It considers the "scientific" (using this word liberally) understanding that the same music notation ought to produce the same music. I say "ought to" because sometimes the causal relationship is imposed: If I play a wrong note while sight-reading, the failure is my own, not the notation's and certainly not the composer's. If a publisher decides to break the line in a different place than the autograph score, it is understood that the music is the same. I shouldn't play the line break.

Similar initial conditions sometimes produce widely divergent songs. A composer may feel angry on two separate days, and play two "angry" songs, but one song may be a raging, anarchic representation of the anger while the the other is melodic and restrained, a regulatory device the composer uses to check his or her anger. He or she can explain the difference by explaining the song: "This is my song about when I get angry." Or, "This is my song for when I get angry." To define the song by the emotion that precipitated it is to define the emotion by the song that ought to sound like it. The emotion and the song can be both antagonists and partners.

How to perform "Sospiration":

  1. The piano is a Steinway L with the lid at half-mast.
  2. The bench is padded and adjusted to the maximum height.
  3. A FedEx Print & Copy receipt for an $11.64 transaction is placed on the left music shelf.
  4. The score, above, is presented to the pianist after he or she is seated and ready to play.
  5. The pianist begins to play "Sospiration."

When musicians make music, the notation is an attempt to regulate the initial conditions of the experiment that music is. In other words, the score is the independent variable. The composer writes what he or she "hears," notating with as much specificity as possible. The composer thereby prescribes the initial conditions of the music, so that any deviation from expectations is the fault of the performer. The written music is the controlled reference point by which the performance is judged. What happens when the notation is not tightly enough controlled?

In "Sospiration," there is an independent variable, too. It's just not the music. It's the piano, the setup, the receipt reminding the player of the composer's morning. The object of the experiment is to see how consistent the results are.

Here's my take on "Sospiration."

Recipe

My addiction to words is
basically culinary;

it’s just that
they pass through my mouth
the wrong way.

Some Ground Rules

Putting the pieces together correctly requires using the correct pieces. Most things come into contact with other things, and for that reason it is important to study the nature of their contact and determine a few basic rules to prevent unwelcome friction: Correct pieces are those which were made correctly. Incorrect pieces cannot be corrected in order to make correct pieces. Incorrect pieces are defective pieces. They were either made with defects, or they were once correct pieces but were made incorrect somehow; they "defected."

As passport application form DS-11 helpfully reminds us:

Alteration or mutilation of a passport issued pursuant to this application is punishable by fine and/or imprisonment under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. 1543.

When we undertake transnational artwork, we mutilate our limits: limits of geography and travel, to be sure, but also limits of our subjectivity. We ask ourselves where we end and the world begins.

When I ask you where you are from, you may answer with a city or a state. Or, as my little brother does in his "I am from …" poem taped to our refrigerator, you may answer that you are from "Zelda Majora’s Mask." Your associations for Quintana Roo may be of Cancun or of Joan Didion or of "No, that’s not what a QR code is." My assessment of this may or may not accurately describe where you think of yourself as being from.

It’s no matter either way: I am not asking you to describe yourself for my sake. Rather, I wonder what words you would use to say where you are from if you were deprived of the words you have inherited. Herodotus records an experiment to this effect in his Histories:

This king [Psammetichus of Egypt], finding it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most ancient, contrived the following method of discovery: He took two children of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring up at his folds, strictly charging him to let no one utter a word in their presence, but to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them. His object herein was to know, after the indistinct babblings of infancy were over, what word they would first articulate.

I am not interested in the results of the experiment. I am interested in its motive, to discern the natural state of people (ethno-linguistic or otherwise). I am interested in its underlying premise: We are not who we are until we have the words to say who we are; or, "who we are" is a secondary layer of truth, an outward appearance that conceals some self-like substrate. I am interested in the boundary between these layers.

To be a transnational artist is to transgress the boundary between the self and the meta-self, by which I mean surrendering all insistence on a real me that has not been shaped, punctured, mutilated, and constructed by its enclosing structure. I anticipate that some may accuse me of not being "transnational enough" because I am an American, because my mixed-racedness and immigrant background is too far up in my chain of ancestry. I would like to point out that to make this charge is to willfully police the national borders that transnational artwork purports to disturb.

CLS Korea

I am blessed and honored to have received a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to study Korean language this summer at Chonnam University. This will be my first visit to Korea, and I am incredibly excited as well as anxious about becoming a study abroad student for the first time.

I feel very grateful for the professors who wrote my references for this program and all of those who provided me with guidance during the application. I am fortunate to live in a country that values the study of foreign languages enough to sponsor students like me using public funds. Thank you for paying your taxes.

As many of you know, visiting Korea is a dream I have been cultivating for years. That dream has now come true. Although this is mainly my poetry blog (and I will continue to post poetry), when I am in Gwangju this summer I will also share about my experiences and thoughts in a traditional blog format. Thanks for reading.

When He Loves

When he lobs
spike balls of silence
at my feet

I tiptoe around them,
feigning to approach him

only to turn back and

wend myself around
cautious circles

of repentance.

Why You Are Sweet

You (upon me) descend
as a constellation
of raindrops,

each (liquid point) meeting a bud
to self-blossom of your sweetness.

You (a thousand sparks that catch
and swirl in smoke’s unrefined dignity
to play among sky’s unnameable stars)

I count among my blessings,
and among those (unlistable)
blessings are yours uncountable.

I need (to describe you)
a special grammar of love,
a language that can accommodate (only)
what untellable reverence I hold for you
(nothing else).

Scene I from Vermont Avenue

"Scene I from Vermont Avenue" appears in the current issue of UCLA's Westwind literary magazine.

Moment

You are the quiet joy
that culminates my most spacious
hours; your time stretches

on as the last sliver of sun that
never manages to fully hide
behind its eclipser.

Pidgin and Macro

A group of friends and I started Macro, a literary magazine designed to showcase the work of international students (broadly defined) at USC.

Each of our editors is presenting one piece to kick-start the journal and invite submissions. Check out my poem, "Pidgin", and Elisa Shimada's "D.I.D." on the Macro website.

USC students, staff, faculty, and friends: Please submit!

Tense

I am having a rice-and-bean
burrito kind of night. I mean
this by way of thanks:

sun as quick-footed child bringing
buckets to fill holes
to fill holes,

to heal wounds old
and beckon through windows made
where sun streams through inlets in
hands when they hold.

My sunflower not even
or odd, just
pulled of a field
where buckets were
poured where
crickets were born
where rice was sown:

I await these rice-and-bean
burrito kind of nights,
kind of dark, kind of like
unraveling the secret geometry
of your own life.

In Chest

The summer of 1762. Crown Prince Sado of Chosŏn has been deemed unfit for rule on account of his worsening insanity. On the orders of his father, King Yŏngjo, Sado is confined in a small rice chest to die. This is in accordance with a Confucian prohibition against the breaking of skin.

I’m trying to space out
my heartbeats

to make each one
as loud as possible,

trying to make one
as loud as the thunder

whose reverberations
cornered me here.

San Francisco Holiday

Downtown San Francisco cook
reading from Mao’s Little Red Book,

do you ever wish you can
walk from here to Treasure Island?


Do to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for maximum snark. This week I discovered that you cannot walk the western span of the Bay Bridge. There’s no footpath. You need a car. My family seems surprised that I am surprised by this.