After more than five years in Washington D.C. and its greater metro area, my wife, daughter and I uprooted at the beginning of March to plant ourselves in the Bay Area. I grew up on the West Coast — albeit a bit north of here — so there’s a part of this move that feels like coming home. The way people talk and dress is familiar: a subtle informality, always at ease in the changing weather. Yet California is an altogether different planet; as they say, a State of Mind. The landscape here, like none I’ve seen anywhere else in the world, is enough to testify to that.
The changes in my professional life are similarly invigorating. I learned much — and got to see a fair bit of the world — while reporting about U.S. trade policy for Inside U.S. Trade. Now, I’m covering the Bay Area’s tech companies and the law firms that go to battle for and against them at The Recorder. It’s an interesting time to write about these industries, with “gig economy” companies like Uber under constant courtroom assault and shifts in the way big money is funneled into lawsuits.
The move West was a big one, although perhaps not as dramatic our move from Wisconsin to South Korea, now eight years ago. Among all the changes, perhaps the most impressive one for my wife J., a midwesterner, has been the water. It’s amazing to her (and to our daughter, and hey, to this born-and-bred Puget Sounder as well) that we can drive less than an hour and find ourselves at the edge of the open ocean.
The other weekend, we did just that: rode out over the Richmond Bridge, through the grassy, oak-covered hills of Marin, and arrived at Point Reyes National Seashore. We pitched a little half tent against the wind and made the beach our home for a morning. It still bewilders us that we can do that.
In those moments out in the sun, the shift in cadence makes it feel like we’re on vacation, like maybe this isn’t real. Whenever time allows, we explore the bounds of this new existence. In the past couple months, we’ve ridden the boat to Angel Island, gone south to check out Pacifica, and rambled among cows closer to home in the East Bay.
With all these new experiences, I hope to begin writing here more frequently, about our time out of doors, our travels, and subjects further afield that take my interest like Korean politics. With the rise of Twitter, a lot of people say that blogging is dead. But I hope that I’ll find more to say than I can put in 140 characters.
Weverton Cliffs on the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail
I looked at the jacket, with its special pocket in the back designed for carrying a map, almost in awe. The desire was instant. Imagine that: a map pocket! If only I had this jacket, I mused, just think of the maps I would put in there. Sections of the Appalachian Trail, rural patches of Iceland, the endlessly rising and falling pathways over the mountains of South Korea. The oiled fabric of the coat would shed the rain that fell on these places, shelter my bones from the chilling gusts. It all seemed so possible, so in front of me, as I literally held the image of this jacket on the phone in the palm of my hand.
It’s not the only article of clothing, or bag, or other piece of gear I have felt this way about. A good number of these items I subsequently purchased. If I have one vice, it is outerwear. (Spicy food and craft beer may also fall into this category.) That, as I see it, is not so much the problem. It is the unfulfilled uses of these articles that makes me uneasy, that causes me to question whether their accumulation makes me simply – to borrow the words of an old professor I know – a “rank materialist.” Even contemplating this is uncomfortable. I’d like to think that those adventures still await, and that there really is a reason for me to buy those new hiking boots.
The reality is that in today’s Internet, researching, finding and purchasing these things – funds permitting – is the easy part. Having the imagination, the time, and the commitment to pursue an adventure is less so.
I suspect I am not the only thirty-something, goosedown-and-Capilene bedecked Subaru driver wrestling with this problem. Patagonia (the brand) inspires in its customers a calling to remote places. Its sustainability drive prods us to envision life in a hillside cabin where we end the day drying and darning our socks by the fire. When I flip through a catalog from the easy comfort of our concrete-laden Northern Virginia suburb, a part of me feels like a fraud.
And indeed, I am not alone: the Outdoor Industry Association, in a 2014 report, identified a whole segment of “outdoor consumers” that I probably fall into – “The Aspirational Core.” Making up roughly 14 percent of spending on outdoor goods, these folks “stick close to home for most of their day-to-day activities but aspire to get further from home.” The bulk of outdoor spending (OIA says “outdoor consumers” spend $465 on average annually on apparel, footwear, equipment, and electronics for their activities) is not shelled out by people who spend every other day hanging off a rock face, but rather by “Urban Athletes,” “Athleisurists,” and would-be boyscouts like myself.
Some businesses have latched onto the interrelationship between outdoor daydreams and commerce in novel ways. When REI started its #OptOutside campaign, on some level it must have calculated that inspiring its customers to venture into the wilderness in late November would offset the negatives of shuttering its stores on Black Friday. Pulled out of their Thanksgiving torpor by the brisk air, some surely decided on the trail that day that they really needed a new Jetboil for making hot drinks away from home.
I have made forays into fulfilling the usefulness of my stuff. Last fall, a friend of mine (who actually was an Eagle Scout) hiked a short portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Maryland and camped overnight at a site not far from the trailhead. During the trip, my sleek new pocketknife got a break from its usual task – breaking down Amazon Prime boxes – and actually got to carve some wood shavings for our fire.
But I could be doing a lot more. Either that, or I should be having a garage sale. In the end, I bought the coat with the map pocket. I even have a few maps of the A.T. that I could put in there. All I need to do now is figure out how to use my compass.
To many Americans in my generation, “regular employment” seems an alien concept. More would likely bristle at the notion of “permanent employment,” a term — in the U.S. — evoking golden handcuffs at best and endless drudgery at worst. We like to fancy ourselves free to rocket after opportunities as we see fit. Stability, if it factors into our equation at all, often registers after fulfillment.
And so it might be tempting look at the lost generation in Japan or the employment struggles of youth in France and consider them foreign phenomena. The idea that you get one chance, and only one, to lock in a life-long career is understandably frightening. In a couple Financial Times articles, the reporters document the perpetual economic limbo of Japanese males who could not become salarymen, and the tribulations of smart (and perhaps overqualified) French who bounce between temporary contracts.
In South Korea, the divide between a “regular” worker and a “non-regular” one is stark, as explained well by Nathan Park in this WSJ blog. The result is a decidedly stratified labor market. People who might otherwise be fired aren’t, and older folks hold the lion’s share of the secure jobs. Young graduates, meanwhile, are marginalized. They can’t get steady jobs, have little to no benefits, and end up delaying marriage and living with their parents well past 30.
There are peculiarities about Korea’s work environment. The social hierarchies and a seniority-based system for advancement are the norm (although at least the latter is changing). There are surely other differences in France and Japan. But for well-educated young people post-2008 crisis, I would argue the work situations are converging. It seems just as true in the U.S. that, if you cannot secure that first foothold right after college and begin demonstrating a clear career trajectory, you may “boomerang” and have your own personal lost decade.
The Korean government’s solution to this is labor reform through what’s called a “salary peak system.” Its Ministry of Employment & Labor explains there are several ways this can work: maintain retirement age while reducing salary; retire and then rehire at a reduced salary; or reduced work hours (for, of course, reduced pay). The idea seems to be to free up capital for companies to hire new workers rather than pay for those on their way out. The system is being implemented across state-run institutions already. Hyundai Motor has said it will introduce such a system next year.
It’s easy to see why some see this as just shoving the old folks aside, punishing those who have worked all their lives, or as assigning blame to unions who have built up “regular” worker protections. No Kwang-pyo, director of the Korea Labor & Society Institute, takes a critical view of the move and assigns blame to Korea’s chaebol conglomerates for exploiting and locking in the stratified labor market. Any labor reform, he writes in an editorial, must be accompanied by a broader “economic democratization” that condemns the “greed” of the country’s industrial giants.
So what is the real source of the problem, and what’s the fix? The IMF last year recommended a much more mixed approach, by first dismantling the “relatively high degree” of protections for regular workers (thereby cutting the incentive to use non-regular ones); it posited that policies aimed at reducing exceedingly long working hours could sweeten this bitter medicine. After that, raising mandatory retirement age limits while “remodulating” the seniority-based wage system should be the next steps, it said. The IMF thinks improving protections for non-regular workers and broadening access to training wouldn’t be bad ideas either.
Conceptually at least, I think I might agree with these remedies. But I question the feasibility of all of this, and how it might really turn out. It’s hard not to ponder the drifting millenial Americans. The ability to compare between Korea and the States may be limited, but if thinning worker protections and benefits were really the way toward a more egalitarian economy, you might not have so much continued soul-searching in the U.S. right now.
It was hot outside, like it was every day. The sky was a stew of thick clouds and syrupy sunshine that trickled down through the leaves to the park bench where I sat. I was a stone’s throw away from where the Vietnam war ended, or so I’d read. I tried to envisage the tanks rolling up to the palatial government building down the street, crashing momentously through the gates and onto the front lawn. The last gasp of a haunted era. But the contrast with the present was too stark for me to begin to imagine it. Teenagers sat around playing with cell phones and drinking sweet iced drinks. A young woman and her friend walked up to me and handed me a paper fan: it was in the shape of a carton of french fries. The day marked the opening of the first McDonald’s in Ho Chi Minh City. I tweeted a picture — because of course, there was at least 3G there — with the hashtag #GlobalizationComplete.
In my day job, I report about international trade policy: the rules governments are supposed to follow in handling the goods and investment that wash over their shores. I had come to HCMC to cover a round of trade negotiations between 12 countries — Vietnam being one of them. But when I’m at my desk or on the phone, mucking around in the weeds of policy and legislation, it’s rare that the reality of globalization confronts me so vividly. In truth, sitting in the cool air conditioning of the Park Hyatt and Sheraton hotels, where the talks were taking place, that reality also seemed conspicuously absent. I may still have much yet to learn about trade, but the one thing I have learned is that globalization and its side-effects can barely be constrained by the rules we lay down.
The Sunday after I had arrived in Vietnam, I woke up in the milky mid-morning light and looked down 10 floors from my hotel room to see something I did not expect in a Communist country: a street protest. I heard the shouting first, then as the crowd materialized — Maybe a couple hundred people? More? — a small but tough-looking police force streamed out of a building just ahead of them, sliding out the barricades to declare a do-not-cross line. I readied myself for what I could only imagine would be an ugly confrontation; I had never once heard of a protest in Vietnam. But the marchers stopped there, holding red banners and shouting, and after five minutes, marched down the street the other direction. Ubiquitous motorbikes hummed around them.
Later in the trip I would find out that my hotel window faced the consulate of China, and what I had witnessed was an anti-Chinese rally that had come amid a dispute over territorial waters in the South China Sea. Miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, where factories hum and retailers like Nike and other U.S. importers of footwear and apparel contract out their production, the same rallies were turning violent. Why? Another quirk of globalization: by and large, it’s not the Vietnamese who own the factories, but Chinese investors. The violence, however, was mostly indiscriminate. A number of factory owners who saw damaged property were in fact South Korean. Over dinner one night, I spoke with a young Korean guy who worked for a contractor to major clothing retailers around the world. His firm’s factories had been saved by the fact that they had a South Korean flag hanging out front.
This investment from across Asia, and sourcing by U.S. firms in Vietnam, is an example of what critics call “wage arbitrage” and proponents call spreading economic development. With wages rising in China, over the past several years money has poured into Vietnam seeking cheaper labor, creating factory jobs mainly making apparel destined for Western shores. This creates a small amount of prosperity for some. And with that investment comes investors, who want to live — or at least take up temporary post — in a major metropolis like Ho Chi Minh City, and demand the restaurants and other conveniences that come with it.
All of this gives rise to a small, urbanized middle class. When it emerges enough, globalization takes another turn. The producers of consumables become the consumers, West looks East and North looks South. This was the reason that I sat on that bench fanning myself with an advertisement for McDonald’s, on the very ground where tanks rolled not a half-century ago to end a U.S.-backed regime. A couple of blocks the other direction, trade negotiators were in talks for an agreement that could further liberalize the trade and investment environment, giving those Vietnamese manufacturers a better chance at putting shoes on American feet, while also theoretically making it easier for U.S. businesses to set up shop here.
But not everyone gets to eat the hamburger. My hashtag was wrong. If the promise of globalization is a rising tide that lifts all boats, then it is unequal and — for better or worse — incomplete. Amid the smartphone-toting students, a gaggle of shoe-shine boys, their supplies slung over their shoulders by ropes attached to wooden boxes, wandered in hopes of making a little cash. One that approached me looked like he should have been in class at middle school (it was still May). I shook my head apologetically, and walked off back to the air-conditioned world.
— * This post is part of what I call “The Archives Project,” where I dig back into posts I have authored over the past decade over various blog platforms. Like thumbing through an old journal and finding an entry that strikes you years on, this project allows me to go back over all I’ve written and highlight again those posts that I think are still relevant or give some insight into a particular time or place.
This post was originally titled “A Trip Untaken: Part II — Hamburgers For Everybody” and published in August 2014 on a previous version of Across the River.
Packing for a weeklong reporting trip (Not pictured: the boots and fleece I was wearing)
We were somewhere over Canada, the frozen dark of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia tens of thousands of feet beneath us. The hour was late and the cabin was dim, passengers settled in for the remaining six hours or so. I hacked away at my laptop, listening to a recording of a press briefing.
I didn’t feel the plane turn around, but I felt when the altitude dropped. The motion was quick and deliberate, though not precipitous. Then the PA crackled on. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have to return to Dulles,” said the flight attendant. In a voice too shrill to be reassuring, he added: “This is not an emergency and there’s no need to panic. We just have to go back.”
It was hard to know just what to do then. Instinctively, I closed my laptop. If these were my final moments, I would not be writing about trade policy.
And so the cabin stirred back to life: groans, guesses, wondering what the hell we would all do next. A seatmate across the aisle faced a much larger logistical challenge than my own (I was heading back to Brussels to cover yet another round of US-EU trade talks). He was leading a team of specialists to Sierra Leone to help combat the ebola crisis, and a load of scientific equipment was on another plane, soon to be sitting on the tarmac in Belgium. He had to figure out how to prevent the stuff from being unusable.
We arrived back in Washington a good two hours later and waited as it approached midnight to be loaded onto another plane. It turned out that our abrupt return was spurred by the outer windshield of the cockpit becoming cracked — the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to get worse as you passed over Greenland, I imagine. The only solace I took in the whole affair was that I had made the decision before the trip to pack only one bag, which was on my shoulders. In its 27 liters I had packed my laptop, (sparingly few) dress clothes and everything else I needed for the week. If I decided to take another flight, I could walk away from the gate right there and not worry about my shirts, pants and toothbrush going onward to Belgium without me.
“They say the first rule of traveling is packing only what you can carry for a half mile at a dead run.” This is the opening line of Stephanie Elizondo Greist’s Around the Bloc, a travelogue of time spent in Moscow, Beijing and Havana. I remember reading it in 2004 shortly before I moved to South Korea for the first time, smiling at the idea. I thought it reflected a kind of joyful minimalism: everything you need, nothing you don’t. Like Greist, however, I too failed miserably to adhere to that rule. I walked out of arrivals at Incheon International that summer with a load I could barely carry, let alone run with.
I pared down my trip load in the intervening years to two carry-on only bags, even for longer work trips. I took a kind of pride in it, delusionally equating myself with the rucksacking traveler of yesteryear. But I am not a good minimalist, it turns out. My bags were always too heavy, and yet I still often managed to feel like I had left something behind. I sweated in the airport carrying the various notebooks and novels I had shoved in my bag — knowing full well I would ultimately spend my flight zoning out to some B movie — and shivered in poor weather when I realized I had no raincoat.
A couple weeks before my trip to Belgium, I read a post over at The Art of Manliness by David Danzeiser about how he packed for a round-the-world trip. Into a 26 liter pack, he got everything he needed for a six-month trip across a range of climates. I was kind of awed by it. My wife J and I backpacked around China and Southeast Asia together. It was warm weather only, and each of our packs was over 65 liters.
When we finally had taken off — the second time — I struck up a conversation with the guy across the aisle. Mike was former EMT who had trained to become a counterterrorism expert in the wake of 9-11, and now was being sent by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to help control the Ebola outbreak — for a second time. He approached it the same way he would have an anthrax attack, a tornado, or an earthquake: control the crisis. I could see how he thought on the fly as he talked through the various options of how to make sure his team and their equipment all got onward to Freetown via Brussels. He could fly to a neighboring country and drive, he said. The condition of the roads, however, was a question.
When I asked him whether it was scary going into the heart of a deadly outbreak, he explained to me his philosophy toward dealing with dangers, known and unknown. “It’s all about being prepared,” he said. Then he turned the questions to me: Did I carry a flashlight when I traveled? How about a whistle? (No and no, and the latter had never occurred to me.) With a whistle, he said, “I can command attention — I can get the attention of this whole airplane.”
I tried to reconcile his idea of preparedness with my ideal of traveling light: everything you need, nothing you don’t. I realized I had been focusing too much on the latter part of that notion, and not enough on the former.
When I was young, my parents worked to dispel any notion I might hold that bad things only happen to other people. They kept an earthquake emergency kit in a vintage icebox in our house, and blankets and provisions in our car. Their mindset stuck with me, but I have always been remiss in preparedness. I never graduated from Weblos to Boy Scouts, and despite my fondness of being outdoors, J and my first camping adventure almost went campfire-less — if it hadn’t been for a friendly guy across the way who brought a hatchet and was willing to chop our wood into kindling-sized pieces.
Partly prompted by my conversation with Mike, when I came back to the States I started scrolling through the website Everyday Carry. It’s a site that has long had a strong following but that I only began dipping into recently. Originally a blog, it now allows users to dump out what they carry and show the world. It may seem odd that the contents of a stranger’s pockets can be so fascinating, but I somehow got hooked, curious to see what it is people feel is necessary for their day.
In an October 2011 interview with Post Desk, site founder Bernard Capulong explained the philosophy behind EDC. “The theme of the blog and the ideas that it tries to promote include preparedness, self-reliance, and efficiency,” Capulong said then. “To be prepared is to have whatever tools you might need every day at your disposal in order to be self-reliant and to be efficient. It can save a lot of time and hassle each day if you’re equipped for what comes your way.”
By the time I made it to Brussels, I was exhausted. I made a beeline past the luggage carousels and all the men holding signs with names printed on them, out into the cold and rainy afternoon. The bus into town was sitting there about to leave — the next one wouldn’t come for another half hour. I tightened my backpack’s shoulder straps and ran across the parking lot to catch it. It was nearly full, and I was thankful to be able to squeeze on easily.
For most of the week, I was happy I had pared down. My things felt ready at hand; picking my wardrobe was easy (whichever outfit I didn’t wear the day before). My only regret was when I got sauce on the only tie I had packed. I wiped it off but an obvious smudge remained, glaring back at me in the mirror. I thought about how little space in my bag an extra tie would have taken. Something to carry next time.
The glow of the convenience store fell out onto the brick sidewalk and cut shadows in the night. The sky was bluish. It never turned completely black in Seoul — not in the summer at least. Ben and I sat in plastic chairs, drinking beers and chewing on dried squid. It was early June but already the days were muggy. Ben wore a dirty t-shirt and was used to the heat. He looked much skinnier than when I had seen him last. I wore a cheap dress shirt and was sweating, still acclimating. To the weather, yes, but mostly to working life. I had arrived from Wisconsin, where I had bicycled between classes in cooler air and made ends meet after graduating by writing articles for a couple of local papers and slinging coffee. It was a free kind of life. Now I was working fixed weekday hours, shuttling on a packed subway. I often worked weekends and was missing my soon-to-be wife, who would join me in a few weeks after I flew back for a rushed wedding. In the office, I sat under soft light, editing other reporters’ copy, not writing. Not having the energy to write. I was exhausted but loathed going to sleep at night.
Ben talked about paths. He was living in a studio that was not meant to be lived in, using the toilet in the building across the street, the one with the karaoke parlor. One night the man from the karaoke parlor told him not to come back, so he had started walking farther, to the new Homeplus superstore. The bathroom there was cleaner, at least. He was making art and proofreading magazine copy for money. As a Korean adoptee, his visa gave him the right to live almost like a normal citizen; he didn’t have to worry about his work status as long as he could eat. He had had ideas about how he should be living, where he should be at the point life where he now found himself. But he had thrown them out. Now he was encouraging me — a friend who shared his name, but very little else in terms of lifestyle — to do the same.
As I drank, I told him my doubts. Yes, I was back in Korea, like I had wanted to be. But had I given up up too much of myself in making the journey? The things and people I had associated myself with were all gone. The cycling, the coffee, the bar chat with friends obsessed with nice bike parts and expensive denim. Yes, they were external, perhaps trivial. But they were my reference points. Before leaving Wisconsin, an editor at a paper I freelanced for had told me about several staff openings becoming available and encouraged me to apply. There was a one-bedroom apartment vacant in a building with a view of the lake, a place that my new wife and I could probably afford if I got a job. How nice that would be, I thought, driving past the “For Rent” sign. I imagined drinking coffee in the mornings and looking out over the water, bicycling around town to cover the day’s news, just like I had been. Continuity. It was spring and the Midwest felt fresh after the long winter.
Outside the convenience store, I wondered, had I taken the wrong step? I asked Ben and then sat back, taking a long pull of local beer and thinking about getting another can.
He shook his head; I had it all wrong. The direction that felt comfortable, the step that felt natural — that was the Path. The term, the way Ben used it, was not an alternate take on Eastern philosophy. The Path was not the Tao, it was not the Way, it was not the Dharma. It was the Path you were supposed to get off of, eject from. It was the gravity of circumstance, the constellation of the obvious. Back country was where I should be headed, Ben said, however foolish or awkward it may feel. And then I would adjust, any way I knew how.
The ensuing month did not unfold easily. I moved out of a dorm-like space I had inhabited when I realized it was not the kind of place I could take my new bride back to. It was essentially a bedroom with a common kitchen area — or hasuk-jib, in Korean — shared entirely by male students, most of whom were foreign. We spent little time in the shared area, and when we did, it was often just in passing from the bathroom in the morning, or waiting to shower with towels wrapped around our waists. It was cheap and the landlady required no deposit.
J asked me one night on the phone, “Is the bathroom clean at least?” I hesitated, thinking over the random patches of mold and how far one could stretch the term “clean.” My extended silence dismayed her, and I took the hint. But because I had just moved in two weeks ago and told the landlady we would be there for three months until J’s school put us up in new digs, I decided to slip out in the night and inform the landlady later, in case she tried to persuade me otherwise.
I took my hiking backpack and a duffel aboard a cross-town bus, flopping down 30 minutes later in a truly clean studio apartment my friend helped me find that would accommodate a short-term stay. During the packed bus ride, a couple middle-aged men asked me where I was headed. They laughed when I told them I was moving. “You don’t have much!” one of them said. I took a kind of pride when he said it.
In Wisconsin, moving from place to place had always been about cycling for me. I had a two-block commute from our apartment to the bike shop where I worked in the summer; more often than not, I rode my bike anyway. If it was below freezing but sunny — and it often was both — and J and I were thinking about brunch on the other side of town, I would ride and she would drive. My set of friends was the same; you could tell who was at the local cafe by which bikes were parked outside. The machine was a part of my identity.
It wasn’t until moving back to Seoul that J and I really started walking again. Our apartment was about a mile away from a path along a stream that ran off of the Han River. We walked to the trail and then walked another good three miles until the 7-Eleven on the banks of the Han, where we could take off our shoes in the grass and eat cup ramen.
On weekends, we picked neighborhoods in Seoul we hadn’t been to and we walked around. Many times, we found nothing particularly different from other parts of the city, or even the neighborhood we lived in. Beer halls, karaoke parlors, coffee shops designed in endless variations of the same quirky theme. But the walking was discovery nonetheless, and a salve for the inactive lifestyle of the work week that I was still grating against.
J’s father, a runner who had completed marathons in all 50 U.S. states and on all seven continents, had ripped out a page from a Reader’s Digest and posted it to us, snail mail. It was about the benefits of walking. J and I began quoting it to each other, half jokingly, on longer rambles. “Everyone can walk. Walk, walk, walk. Walk until you’re tired, rest, and then walk some more,” the author wrote. (I initially found the need to note the fact that it was not true that everyone could walk, but after taking the advice long enough, it seemed to be beside the point.)
We had met in Seoul as students, but J and I were now leaving new tracks around the city. Often, though, we retraced steps as a way to touch on a time that now felt long gone: ghost tracks, the byways of former selves. Sometimes, it helped orient us in the present. Other times, the practice was disorienting by virtue of landmarks that had disappeared — or conversely, if everything was exactly the same, but the feeling completely different.
The author Robert McFarlane observed how walking is like writing — foot “prints” like the printed word — and traveling old ways like time travel. “The land itself, filled with letters, words, texts, songs, signs and stories. And always, everywhere, the paths, spreading across counties and countries, recalled as pattern rather than as plot, bringing alignments and discrepancies, elective affinities, shifts from familiar dispositions.”
I sat on the sofa one winter evening, more than a year later, with the window cracked and J boiling kimchi stew on the gas burner. I listened to an album on my laptop that a new friend had sent to me. We struck up a conversation on the subway after I admired his bike. He looked like someone I would have been friends with back in Wisconsin.
The album was from the 1970s and by a Korean folk rock singer-songwriter named Han Dae Su. His voice was raspy but powerful, his lyrics woeful and bittersweet. I was hung up on a breathy, harmonica-laden track called “The Wind and I,” trying to memorize the words. It was perfect. The name of the album was “Long, Long Road.”
In that moment, I felt fully at home, and it made me regret all the other moments I had spent feeling uncomfortable and unhappy, or the nights when J and I had simply tuned out watching downloaded American TV shows on the computer. They felt like missed opportunities when we could have been out at concerts or plays, immersing ourselves in the culture of our city.
I couldn’t tell what was the Path and what was just the road I was traveling. The stops I had made along the way: were they necessary resting points, or spots when I had wasted time looking back? Standing where I was, maybe it didn’t even matter.