Yesterday three men came to my apartment and removed my bed, my sofa, my desk chair, two-thirds of my clothing, and all kitchen belongings except for a coffee maker and a cereal box. It’s all being shipped to Seoul.
Last Friday I had what could be the scariest moment of my life.
The scariest moment happened at a Chinese restaurant — or rather, in a back alley behind a Chinese restaurant, past the two metal swinging doors that I pushed through when I started choking on a piece of beef brisket.
Choking is one of those things in life that is way, way, way scarier than it sounds. Choking is like drowning without the water. They are similar, I think, because in both scenarios you have time to contemplate. There is a struggle, and at first, yes, it’s just a mad thrash for air. But the struggle is long; it almost has its own halftime show, and somewhere during this struggle you realize what is happening, and that you are running out of time — the clock is winding down and already the announcers are thanking the production crew and pretty soon “60 Minutes” will begin.
(Except on the West Coast.)
I had never choked before. In fact, before Friday, I had never found eating even the slightest bit distressing. OK, so a few times a bit of food went down the “wrong pipe,” as it is known in health journals. But I like eating so much, I’d probably do it even if the wrong pipe was the only pipe I had.
I already mentioned that the choking incident happened at a Chinese restaurant. This particular Chinese restaurant happened to be located in China, which is where I am traveling at the moment. I went there for lunch with the Washington Post’s two Beijing researchers, Zhang Jie and Liu Liu. We ordered three dishes to share. And in retrospect, perhaps I was a bit out of my element.
Now I have fairly good chopsticks skills. I can pick up individual rice granules with chopsticks and probably play Jenga with them as well. But these chopsticks — well, they were really big, made for a world where men are 9 feet tall. They felt unwieldy. Also, chopsticks are great for bite-size pieces, but when it comes to cutting they are no substitute for a fork and knife. Perhaps if I’d been eating lunch solo, I’d have taken that fist-sized piece of brisket, clamped it down on the plate, and tried to pry it apart with chopsticks, as if using them like cleavers. This, however, is sort of uncouth even by Chinese standards. Plus, there’s always a chance the meat goes sliding off the plate, dragging with it a brownish tail of soy glaze, until it lands in the lap of somebody who probably uses chopsticks at a professional-grade level.
Anyway, what I’m saying is: I just put the whole damn piece of brisket in my mouth.
And that is how the telecast began. Oh god. Within about two seconds, I left the table. Things were about to get ugly, and I didn’t want anybody to see. I pushed through those two doors, past the line cooks and wash boys and their greasy tins of leftover plates. I rushed outside into the alley — ahh, the cold air! — and keeled over a sewer grate. Tears were streaming from my eyes. I started making horrible noises, heaving and hissing; even my internal organs were screaming. At some point, a few employees came outside to watch. (They kept their distance. One actually walked past me and headed to a Porta-John.) I waved them away. It was a wrestling match, truly man versus food, and I figured I needed one cough — one life-sustaining cough — to end the agony and clear my throat. For at least a minute, I tried and failed.
And then it happened. A heave. A life-sustaining gag. A piece of brisket rose from deep within. I’ll hold back on further details, but suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to take a photo of what splattered on the sewer grate, not even with the Instagram app.
I wiped my tears, brushed my shirt and returned to the table. Liu Liu and Zhang Jie were both a little curious about what had happened. I’d been gone about two minutes.
“No, it was 10 minutes,” Zhang Jie said.
“I think it was five,” Liu Liu said.
“I went to look for you, but I couldn’t find you,” Zhang Jie said. “I was ready to call an ambulance.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” I told her.
But of course there’s no pride or manhood left to protect when you just nearly killed yourself because of a piece of stewed meat. The only smart thing to do is look for lessons. And I think I’ve settled on these.
- Take small bites.
- Chew slowly.
- Whenever possible, order non-threatening rice-based dishes that don’t have any chunks. This is one more reason to like bibimbap.
OK, time for something different. I’m telling a road trip story with photos. The photos are arranged more or less in chronological order, and lest you think this is some transparent abdication of writerly responsibilities, please take note that the captions are really really long. Somewhere in there you get a full blog entry, with a photo of fish guts soup thrown in for free.
So I just spent 12 days in China, my first visit, and I can say now that China is fairly hilarious — ill-mannered, loud, just a tad detached from morality, like a customer at Denny’s at 3 a.m. And I think I can pinpoint the reason for this — though I should note here that my reasoning has been peer-reviewed by absolutely nobody, making it well-qualified for a blog entry. Anyway, to the point, 1.4 billion people live in China. It merits repeating: One-point-four billion! This makes China the most populous country on the planet. It also makes China the only country where there's at least one person willing to try any bad idea imaginable.
In China, there are so many bad ideas going on at once, even the very worst ones don't merit more than a four-paragraph brief on page A-6 of the China Daily. Among the headlines from Monday, Jan. 10, just to give you a taste: "Man sold 1-year-old to pay off gambling debts." "Son seeks to rent girlfriend to appease anxious parents." "Rapist sought to alter the course of destiny."
For the sake of accuracy, an optional standard on this blog, I should also mention that China produces many, many good ideas. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a lot of visitors commented on the architecture, as athletic events took place in venues that looked like birds nests, Rubik’s cubes, underwater tanks and Pringles jars. In fact only one of the 27 stadiums actually resembled a stadium. If the Olympics craze has faded after two years, the architecture craze has not. Beijing's downtown now showcases buildings that look like Ts, Js, inverted Ls; anything but Is. The I is out. It's my sense that about half the buildings in Beijing are wider at the top than they are at the bottom. A lot of Beijing's newest buildings are so daring, they look like they're about to fall down and kill somebody. This would probably be a front-page story, but who can be sure.
I went to China as a fill-in for Keith Richburg, the Wash Post's China correspondent, who took a quick vacation to Thailand. But Keith and I spent two days together before he took off, and during that time he tried his best to show me his inexplicable country. First night we went for Mexican food, then found a smoky bar with a Filipino cover band playing Janis Joplin and Stone Temple Pilots songs. Next night we hung out with a wider group of Keith's pals, and we ended up at one of those Chinese restaurants that looked so Chinese, you figured it was in the basement of a shopping mall in Rockville, Md. The tables were huge, and the entranceway had one of those Buddha statues that somehow incorporated rippling water. But this restaurant’s menu was not from Rockville. I noticed there was stinky tofu on the menu. And abalone. And lots of fermented little delights that were consumed and enjoyed without even being identified. We also drank hot wine flavored with fermented prunes, and it was almost undrinkable, so I have a clear recollection of the taxi ride home. Keith was still talking about China, giving me the low-down, and at some point he noted that our apartments were probably bugged and monitored, this being China and all.
"Maybe they're bugged," I said, "but who on earth would actually be listening in?"
"One-point-four billion," Keith simply said, laughing, and that was his full explanation.
The Washington Post Beijing bureau office is actually located in a compound. The compound is a base for diplomats and foreigners, an anachronism of the 1970s, when let's just say the architects took their inspiration from rectangles and nothing else. The compound consists of 20 buildings, barricaded by gates. The buildings are noteworthy primarily because even at the most beautiful times of late afternoon they succeed in looking pale gray. The compound has a playground and a basketball court. You can buy coffee and snacks and past-the-date milk inside the compound. On cold days, one has very few reasons to wander beyond the gates. Most especially because the Post also has two apartments inside the complex — and one of them was mine to borrow. Thus, during my time in Beijing, I’d wake up in building 4-1, buy coffee in building 4-2 and head to work in building 7-2. The whole thing required a 20-second walk, past a red and yellow sign that read, “No Fireworks Or Firecrackers In The Compound.”
The Post’s bureau in China is far more substantial than its bureau in Tokyo, which more or less consists of my futon and laptop. There are two full-time researchers in Beijing; another in Shanghai. There’s also a full-time driver, an affable middle-aged man named Xie Shifu, who drives every day the way most men drive when their wives are going into labor. During the time I was in Beijing Xie Shifu came down with a brutal cold, and as a result he was coughing and wheezing, making noises of pure agony; in fact it sounded like he’d swallowed a cat — and then she’d had kittens. But China is full of surprises, and it turns out that Xie Shifu is also quite the talented tennis player, and he often takes matches with the Ambassador to China from Maldives. Evidently Xie Shifu and the Ambassador are well-matched opponents. These are the strange relationships that develop at the Diplomatic Compound.
For two days, I was far away from the compound. I went with one of our translator/researchers, Liu Liu (very sweet), to Dandong, a frigid northeastern city that is probably like Flint, Mich., but without as much charm. But Dandong does have something going for it. Only the tiny Yalu River stands between Dandong and North Korea. Our hotel in Dandong boasted of “attentive service and extraordinary views of North Korea.” One morning, I used the hotel’s second-floor fitness center and cranked out a few miles on the treadmill while listening to the latest Bill Simmons’ podcast on my iPhone; I felt fortunate to be on the right side of the river.
But indeed, you can get really close to North Korea. Its shoreline offers a depressing vista — nothing but brown low-slung buildings; everything denuded and sad, and it’s hard to imagine any working farm machinery there, let alone Life Fitness treadmills. At night, Dandong is a riot of lights. A few bridges connect Dandong with North Korea, and these, too, are lit with ridiculous rainbow patterns. But the shoreline of North Korea is pitch black, and at nighttime it appears as if Dandong’s bridges lead only into an abyss.
I’ve sort of developed a North Korea fascination in these last months, so of course I wanted to get as close as possible. Just minutes after arriving in Dandong Liu Liu and I met a Chinese woman who offered to take us on a boat tour. She pulled from her jacket a crinkled pamphlet showing the tour highlights, so off we went — what the heck — and soon Liu Liu and I were following this woman to her house, which was more like a hut… and then we were climbing into her boat… and then, a few minutes later, we were about 30 yards from North Korea, and we could see cattle and workers and female military officers giving us wary stares. The tour ended after 30 minutes, which was way shorter than promised, and the tour guide picked this moment to clarify that her quoted 1-1/2-hour tour included the taxi ride to get here. Oh, naturally. That’s China for ya.
It’s probably foolish to conclude with any broad thoughts. Last night, my final one in China, I had dinner with a few other Compoundites — mostly NGO sorts and fellow correspondents. (Including the great Barbara Demick; yes, I’m name-dropping. Apologies. If a Class AA ballplayer had dinner with Joe DiMaggio, he’d name-drop, too.) Anyway, Demick mentioned that the longer she’s lived in China, the less she actually knows. And that sounded pretty insightful, because when a place has 1.4 billion people, it tends to defy generalization. For me, it’s hard to be sentimental about China. But it’s easy to be in awe. The country is filled with traffic and pollution and new money and naked ambition. The country is full of surprises. Suffice to say it was a fun trip, ending as it did with some tame adventures and absolutely zero headlines for page A-6. There’s a reason you don’t criticize the Party when the phones are bugged, and there’s a reason you don’t carry firecrackers when the Maldivian ambassador is around.
Somewhere around age 8 or 9, I developed a keen affection for impersonations, an avocation that kept me in front of the television during commercial breaks awaiting a particular 15-second Skin Bracer spot featuring Jack Palance. “I don’t need some fancy cologne to tell me I’m a man,” I’d say, same as Jack Palance said, and I’d say it again and again, practicing the septuagenarian growl, that perfect mix of refinement and menace. And once I’d gotten it just right, I recited this monologue to pretty much anyone who’d listen, and indeed many who didn’t. I mimicked the commercial to my elementary school teachers and my friends. I trotted it out once or twice at my parents’ house parties. I remember once reciting the commercial on a Little League diamond, after a pitching change; it was issued as advice to a relief pitcher, fresh into the game: “Confidence is very sexy. Don’t you think?”
In retrospect, Pittsburgh, my hometown, proved the perfect incubator for my hobby, this joy for talking the way others talk. Pittsburghers have their own set of mannerisms and their own provincial vocabulary, which includes some words that are entirely made up. “Yinz,” for instance, is a Pittsburgh word. It’s the plural version of “you.” My grandmother once heard two Pittsburghers discussing “yinz” — the etymology n’at — and one companion told her friend that “yinz” was in fact incorrect, by the dictionary definition. Proper English required one to say “yous.”
At 13 and 14, I spent so much time honing the Pittsburgh dialect — the wholesalers and auto mechanics are its true curators — that “yinz” actually (briefly) slipped full-time into my vocabulary, its use no longer ironic. I went out of state to summer camp one year and people thought I was crazy. On the flip side, I was perfect for wicked smart-assery during the 11 p.m. news, where just about every house fire prompted a three-news truck race to the scene, invariably ending with an interview on the neighbor’s front porch, where the neighbor would dutifully testify to the home owner’s character, and oh yeah he’s a huge Stillers fan n’ at. Just as a general rule, Pittsburghers standing on their front porches don’t see much utility in the plural use of “you.”
Pittsburgh’s most famous voice belonged, of course, to a football broadcaster, Myron Cope, who sounded a little like an audio recorder on fast-forward. It was almost a civic responsibility to imitate him, not than many could. (I could never do it quite right.) It’s strange, I know, to retrace one’s life by following the thread of mimicked mannerisms, but this is what happens to a middle schooler who imitated Larry Beil (obscure SportsCenter anchor) during intramural basketball games. In college I watched HBO’s “Real Sports” not so much for the journalism but for the hyper-taut hilarity of its host. (I can still do a spot-on Bryant Gumbel.) A few years later I moved to Australia, and though I didn’t quite go there because of the great accents, I left eight months later with profound regret about not having one to borrow for myself. And not for lacking of trying.
I should mention, before going too far, that a lot has happened since the previous blog entry. (In related news, a lot of time has passed.) I spent about a week in Indonesia in early November. I spent a few days in Okinawa after that. Then I went home for an awesome two-week holiday, originally timed for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately it was also timed perfectly for Kim Jong Il’s carpet bombing of a South Korean island, meaning I was 14 time zones away from a huge story I should have been — and wanted to be — covering. For a brief time I thought my editors would send me straight from Pittsburgh to Seoul, and indeed I talked about it with my main supervisor, Holly. But in the end Holly instructed me to just enjoy the vacation and forget about the news, which cleared about half of my guilt and gave me the chance to take a five-day trip-within-a-trip to Montana, which might be as far away from Tokyo as you can get, especially judged by the density of yous.
But now I’m back. And I sort of started thinking about speech patterns and mannerisms more intently a few days days ago, when walking back to my apartment in Tokyo. And OK, full disclosure: I wasn’t just walking. I was talking to myself. I was repeating a sentence fragment, the Japanese equivalent of “Um… recently I.” On and on I went — あの... 最近 は (Ano… saikin wa) — practicing without shame, trying to copy a particularly terrific habit shared among expressive Japanese men, who often begin sentences with all the eye-twinkling glory of a magician whisking away the cover from a rabbit cage. These Japanese men start their sentences with a long, pensive Annoooouuu, letting the vowel warble just so, and then — clash! No warning, there’s this spectacular crescendo; the voice jumps a full octave, and maybe their folded hands separate and rise like the sun itself, and clearly one of the top 20 ideas in human history has just been hatched.
Right now I’m lucky. If you’re somebody who enjoys mannerisms, Japan is your Louvre. Not sayin’ my cologne doesn’t stink, but at this point I’ve traveled a fair part of the world, and I’ve never been to a country with such a hilarious, preposterous set of idiosyncrasies. The body language here matches none other on the planet. It’s almost like there’s a certain element of Japanese-ness that reaches into the musculature: There’s a straightness in the back; there’s a rigidity around the neck and the shoulders; there’s a perpetual stiff bend in the knees, as if every citizen has been positioned on the hot corner, awaiting a ground ball.
Some Japanese habits I find absolutely delightful, and like particular bird species, they can only be found here. Almost all Japanese women, for instance, have this particular restrained set of hand gestures, as if they’ve been told to keep their hands within a space no larger than a shoebox. When I sit in coffee shops and do my writing, I get a small sense of giddiness, watching these amiable women and their conversations. Oh, those refined, obedient hand motions! They can be seen everywhere — at this very moment in three conversations to my right, in two to my left, with women sorting things into imaginary piles; tracing the unseen perimeters of round and warm objects; inscribing little curlicues on the underside of their palms. And of course there’s lots and lots and lots of vigorous head-nodding.
Here’s another one: When I go on morning runs, I tend to pass a surprising number of police officers, all helmeted and uniformed in blue, decked out in yellow vests, frozen in perfect posture like Lego characters writ large. Anyway, it’s a great thrill to pass by these officers. That’s because almost every one of them responds to the sight of a runner in identical fashion: He raises his left arm, extending it to the road ahead, as if to say, “Good morning sir. I strongly approve of your aerobic workout. And I will approve even more so if you continue along this advisable route.”
For the most part, what I describe here is my idle, ugly brainvoice — a projection of my biases, proof of my inability to see a new society in all of its shades. I offer only one defense, then, for why I fixate on these societal quirks. For a foreigner, imitation is a survival skill. It is a means to adapt. It is the only reasonable option, here in this strange place where you’re suddenly self-aware of all the minute things you do that make you strange. And clearly I still have some work to do.
Late last week, I attended a business meeting. It took place at, let’s say, a Big Japanese Office Building (BJOB). I guess you could call it an interview appointment, excusing the facts that 1.) I had not requested an interview, and 2.) The company had invited me, and 3.) It was altogether unclear, even once I was seated at a massive conference table with many BJOB employees, that I was supposed to ask questions of some sort. And here I thought we’d just grab lunch.
Oh goodness. I was lost. There were seven men in the room, all experts in the same code of quirks, and they were handing business cards, rising and bowing, rising and bowing, arranging business cards on the table space in front of them, dispensing a flurry of documents and pamphlets and spreadsheets, requesting tea, pointing out the significance of the chart on Page 14, expressing their great pleasure about the outcome of the recent study — and here I’d already lost track of the men and their names because my business card lineup had just been blown into disarray, dealt a fatal strike by a wind gust from Pages 1-13. For a moment — with all the charts and cards and graphics in front of me — my personal space resembled the cockpit of a 767. I started sweating. I didn’t quite know what to say. I stammered and eeked out a few feeble questions. I wanted to kick myself, because shotgun meetings like this are sort of Japan 101 — and I should have been better equipped. But sometimes, even now, Japan moves about two times faster than I can handle, and I am left saying あの (Um…) with no idea of what to say next.
So let's start with the facts, blameless and final. Let’s start with a road, almost entirely dark, but for the lights of five vehicles: In order, a bulletproof Humvee, a Hyundai SUV, a white minivan, another Hyundai SUV and a KM 450 cargo truck. It was a Thursday. It was 6:25 p.m. I was sitting in the middle row of the white minivan, alongside a youngish Philippine army colonel named Benedict Arevalo. We’d been together all day, and I liked him. I was no longer interviewing him, and my notebook was closed, and he was talking about something I still cannot recall. It is only the things hereafter that I remember with frame-by-frame detail.
Along the straight road, cast in the peripheral halflight of the military convoy, one could observe something far less than a town. More a muddy marketplace/village, with rows of leaning houses, tinny, almost perishable, and women stood sentry in front of almost every one. They tended to rows of assorted salty snacks and candy bars clipped to chickenwire. Shirtless kids played in the streets. A few fires burned. Every so often, I spotted a place that looked like an open-air restaurant, where men sat on plastic chairs, smoking, legs crossed. Garbage collected in divots along the street. It’s here, precisely, where the global supply of RC Cola bottles come for their afterlife.
We were in the Philippines, reporting this story about local elections. And more specifically, we were on the main southern island called Mindanao, a dangerous place. And more specifically, we were in the bloodiest part of this dangerous place — a province called Maguindanao, a haven for Muslim rebels, warlords and private guerilla armies. And more specifically still, we were on a road without a name, and we were moving fast, as military convoys tend to move. We were heading southwest, toward the barracks of the 29th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We were one kilometer away. Arevalo had suggested we grab dinner at the barracks’ mess hall, where they serve rice, canned tuna and canned corned beef, a danger unto itself.
We were at coordinates 6.931509 N, 124.421242 E when the road pulsed and a light flashed. I heard a noise — or two noises pushed into one. Not even PowPow! More like P-Pow! The noise(s) came from the right-hand side of the road, and for a split-second I saw an orange sky, and then I saw only dust. Dust, and maybe shrapnel, and it rained down on our minivan. My Filipino translator, Carmela, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, instinctively crouched low. I sort of froze. You might say I froze in fear, but my heart never raced. I remember saying, slowly, “Oh my god.” And I remember being acutely aware that nothing yet bad had happened. And I remember waiting for something worse to happen. And I waited for about three seconds. Our driver hit the gas, and we emerged from the dust, and we saw the road. And we were all OK.
Now, a disclaimer: We were all OK — that is a damning sentence. It was true at 6:25 p.m., as our minivan blitzed toward the barracks, arriving 30 seconds later, plowing up a gravel road — safety. But that sentence became less and less true in the minutes and hours that passed, as adrenaline loosed its grip, as tunnel vision receded, as gossip spread through the barracks, as I gathered more facts about what happened on the unnamed road after we sped away. There had been a firefight. Roughly 15 enemies — presumably members of a Muslim rebel group — emerged from both sides of the road, firing at the three convoy vehicles that hadn’t rushed back to camp. One bullet had splintered the driver’s side window of the Humvee, wounding the driver, Jackson Martinez. Two civilians, driving a car that got stuck behind the convoy, were killed in the army-rebel crossfire.
Within two minutes, the gunfire went quiet, and everything was over. Soldiers returned to the camp, breathing heavy, repeating themselves. They gathered around the damaged vehicles, speculating about the angle of the gunfire, trying to impose order on chaos. In the end, the army devoted hours to this process: Trying to make one story out of many. Trying to figure out what the hell happened, there on the street with the soda bottles and the well-hidden, well-armed rebels.
It was — and I cringe at this word, but this is a story with only wrong words — … well, it was quite cool. It was cool to hang around soldiers, there in their most unguarded moments, as they wanted to tell you everything. It was cool to spend time in the army conference room with Filipino West Point graduate Mario Feliciano, as he recreated the battle with a GPS system, determining that enemy shots had come from 162 meters away. It was cool to review Arevalo’s stack of intelligence info, which detailed speculation about IEDs planted throughout the province. I filled two notebooks with info. I had a story, which is sometimes the only thing a journalist needs to feel happy. Late that night — way later than planned — I sat elbow-to-elbow in the mess hall eating godawful tuna and corned beef. The men of the 29th Battalion offered me a guest cot, and I slept well.
The next morning, I returned with Arevalo and several others to the blast site. We saw the little cell phone fragments used to detonate the roadside IEDs. Two 3-foot-wide craters, about 25 meters apart, indicated where the bombs had been planted. The first bomb, constructed from a 105 mm howitzer, had exploded just in front of our minivan. The second bomb, constructed from a 66 mm mortar round, had exploded just behind us. Each had been half-buried in yellow plastic bags, resembling garbage. Arevalo felt certain our vehicle — and he, in particular — had been targeted. Lord knows why the bombs didn’t cause greater damage.
The military’s story had now ossified into something worthy of a document — an “incident report” that the public affairs office would send to newspapers and television stations. Action reduced to jargon:
“While heading back [to barracks], convoy was roadside bombed (2 IEDs), ambushed and strafed from both directions by MOL (15) fully-armed men of Basit Usman of the 105 BC at vic Lower Salbo, GC Datu Saudia… Immediately troops returned fire at enemy position. Firefight lasted for about 15 minutes and perpetrators scattered in different directions… Said incident is believed to be in retaliation for the arrest of Hadie Abdul Maguid and Eduard Guerro, both linked to international terrorist groups… Jackson Martinez (left cheek) slightly wounded, and two civilians killed whose vehicle was following convoy. Brgy captain Salik Talipasan. Brgy counselor Ustadz Nasser.”
So there you have it.
Or rather, there you have part of it.
Since Thursday night, I’ve told almost nobody about what happened. I don’t really know what to say. It’s easier to survive an IED ambush than tell your mother about it. Already I can joke about this incident, but I don’t dare. I don’t blame anybody, but maybe I should. I don’t feel traumatized, but perhaps that’s reason itself to worry. In fact, the last few days, I’ve been really happy, giddy to be eating and writing and exercising. I’ve been really happy, and yet two people died in a firefight as my minivan sped away. We are all OK. We are NOT all OK. I think I’ve still got some work to do.
Sunday morning, I spoke to my dad via Skype and told him pretty much what I’ve written here. I’ll give him this: He does have a gift for saying the right things, sometimes even without using sailboat allegories. In this instance, he told me a story about a hiking trip he took with my younger brother, Isaac. I’d heard the story before, but not in many years. Anyway, while walking along this remote mountain trail, Isaac nearly stepped on a copperhead snake. He was 6 or 7 at the time, probably wearing a Pirates hat and synthetic Little League pants (or at least that’s how I picture him), and if he’d stepped on the snake he would have been a gonner. He didn’t, only because my dad spotted the copperhead at the last second and yanked Isaac away.
What’s interesting about the story, though, is what happened next: There was neither fight nor flight — no instinctive reaction to trauma. Rather, my dad just pulled out the camcorder. They stood there and videotaped the snake that almost killed my brother.
But this is a story, too, about the strange ways in which we react. A few nights later, my dad woke up in a cold sweat. And then it happened the next night, and the next night after that. “It was almost like a delayed reaction,” my dad said.
And of course now it’s a story that he tells from time to time. Just a story, and it could have been something much more, or much less.
Weeks before I left Washington, D.C., my then-editor, Kevin Sullivan, advised me to use the direct flights connecting Tokyo and Seoul with the frequency that others might use a “commuter bus.” On that count, perhaps only that count, I’ve met expectations. Since August 1, I have spent 32 nights in Seoul. I have spent 32 in Tokyo. I hold business cards printed in Japanese and Korean. I own cell phones for both countries. The back-and-forth has gone thusly: Sixteen nights in Seoul, 20 nights in Tokyo, 11 nights in Seoul, seven nights in Tokyo, six nights in Seoul. And now four nights in Tokyo.
I should say here that, by the standards of my Wash Post East Asia predecessors, I’ve been in Seoul with unusual frequency of late. But this was a big month for North Korea-related news, and Seoul is where journalists head to cover the nation they cannot enter. This is a little like covering the Super Bowl from the parking lot, I admit. The upside is, that I owe my 2010 Marriott rewards status to Kim Jong Il’s hereditary succession plan.
Anyway, I like the back-and-forth. And maybe I’d feel different if Seoul and Tokyo shared much in common, but they don’t. I cannot state this clearly enough. In fact, for further emphasis, I punched ‘capslock’ twice before writing that previous sentence. Maybe you’re surprised to hear this; I’m not sure. Maybe the cities share some vague spot in your imagination, because they’re both homogeneous East Asian metropolises where the subways arrive on time and the businessmen move quickly, speaking to nobody. That’s true.
But. In Tokyo they drive on the left; in Seoul they drive on the right. In Tokyo they serve mild food; in Seoul they serve spicy food. In Tokyo there’s no problem with traffic, but a 20-minute cab ride costs $45; in Seoul the traffic never relents, and a 90-minute cab ride costs $45. In Tokyo men wear scarves and rock star shoes; in Seoul men wear short-sleeve dress shirts. In Tokyo, every product — detergents; foods; etc. — is labeled strictly in Japanese, and sometimes I’ll walk into a drugstore, looking for dandruff shampoo, and spend 15 aimless minutes in the aisles, comparing brand names, trying to discern if this is dandruff shampoo or just regular shampoo, invariably guessing wrong. In Seoul, they sell Head & Shoulders in convenience stores.
And then we have the cultural differences, which are like the shampoo differences, only greater. To put it simply, the Japanese culture (from my perspective) seems founded on the idea of hiding things. The Korean culture (from my perspective) seems founded on the idea of saying things. You can argue all day about which mode is better — though if you’re arguing in Japan, you better apologize before the argument begins, and you probably ought to apologize at least three more times when the argument ends — but from my perspective, I’ll just say this: The differences are a blessing. The differences are amusing. The differences have made my adjustment to East Asia way easier, because Tokyo neutralizes Seoul’s minor annoyances, and vice versa. No complaints ever fester. I spend so much time comparing Japan and South Korea that I almost never compare either country with America.
(TANGENT: The takeaway lesson here, which I haven’t yet stated explicitly, is this: Tokyo is a Galapagos of weird obsessions, fetishes, opaque customs, behaviors that occur nowhere else. Seoul is a bit like Dallas, but without the obesity. For Westerners, Seoul is far more penetrable. Given this, it makes no sense — absolutely none — that Japanese professional baseball players use Roman characters for their uniforms and Korean players use Hangeul.)
Anyway, in both Tokyo and Seoul, I’ve managed recently to have some fun nights out. I think I’m starting to make some friends. On rare occasions, I also feel like I’m starting to figure out my job.
Ahh yes, my job. Since beginning this blog — and reliably ignoring it 29 days out of 30 — I haven’t written about my job, but that misrepresents its importance, the way I obsess over it, worry about it, feel unworthy of it, feel inspired to do better. I have made the mistake before of publicly complaining about my old job (link widely available, but unprovided), and that was, I suppose, an instance of incredibly stupid honesty. But this job is different. I love the subject matter, I love the variety, I love the possibility — even though I’ve tapped so little of it. On the topic of honesty, I could complain only about my own competence.
Among the challenges so far: Mastering the nuance of so many topics (the Japanese economy; the Kim family tree; the Japan-China sea dispute; etc) at once. Conducting interviews via an interpreter, where so much nuance is lost. Researching stories, when so much of the best info is available only in Korean or Japanese. Planning my time. Keeping track of expenses. Developing sources. Applying for visas. Writing authoritatively about places I’m just starting to understand.
This job’s learning curve is so high, its peak is snowcapped. But here’s the good news. I will be good at this job someday. I know this because I won’t accept any alternative, and I have the motivation. North Korea, in particular, has captured my interest like no other subject on the planet; I’ve always loved journalism, but I cannot say — until now — that I’ve ever loved a particular subject. At the risk of sounding overcaffeinated or over-enthused, I could spend the next 10 years of my life writing strictly about North Korea. I would never get bored, and I would never know enough. If North Korea collapses some time in the next few years, I’ll be covering one of the biggest stories of the 21st Century. If it doesn’t, I’ll have the chance to write about a country that imposes the 20th Century — 1984, to pick a year — on its citizens. Getting the chance to write about this mysterious country, it’s a privilege.
Realizing now, it’s time to wrap up this blog entry, because I have an interview appointment to get to. Unfortunately those prior paragraphs of heavy earnestness sort of spoiled the mood for the de rigueur final sign-off, where I say something pithy and remind everybody that nothing too important was meant by all this. So I’ll just stick with the heavy earnestness mode. For those reading far away from here, thank you. Aside from sporadic job anxiety, I’m feeling healthy and happy and well. Not sure when I’m heading next to Seoul, but in the meantime, I’m rocking the short-sleeve dress shirts in Tokyo.