Monday, October 4, 2010

A comparison of East Asian metropolises with incongruously styled baseball uniforms

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.


  1. Great, to hear from you again on a more "private" level,
    Much love from Oma ( who is sitting next to me) and myself!


  2. Hey Aaron, just want to tell you how we look forward to every new blog entry.
    You help to open our eyes back here in the Burg.

    Veronica and Jon

  3. As a journalist in Baltimore who totally envies what you get to do, please keep blogging. Great to read your stuff.