The ways of the master

•November 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Warrior tradition is something that’s considered an integral part of the mystic, exotic orient (or Asia). Although the West has its knight tradition, the image of an Eastern warrior seems to be something of a fantasy, even supernatural.

Which is perhaps why Americans like Chinese martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Flying Daggers  so much. America has its cowboys, but the martial arts masters seem somehow different. They are powerful, yet are not divine beings; they seem to be separated from the human world or society, yet they are essential in maintaining the balance; they somehow occupy a special plane, a part of the universe. A part of what makes them so exotic is that they blend in to nature – whereas the nature is generally depicted as a powerful, sometimes unyielding force/being – and know the ways of the natural world. In fact, nature is quite often idealized as something perfect, untainted; for example, the bamboo forests that are so frequently featured in matial arts movies show how nature is larger than life, and flexible (like the bamboo) yet strong.

Meanwhile, some of the important elements of the “warrior tradition” are: honor, decorum, perseverance and composure. The ones who lack these qualities are often depicted as the rogues – and are thus often the main characters or the focus of the martial arts films (as in Crouching Tiger). What makes Crouching Tiger interesting is that its protagonist, the rogue, is a woman -but a powerful woman at that. She is like a diamond in the rough; untrained, but with an explosive potential. In a stark contrast to the typical image of a modest, passive Asian female, she is independent and even stronger than (most) men. In a way, she and the older female martial arts master serve as a foil for each other; the younger one being the defiant, independent woman, and the older one being more traditional (although she is also a very capable warrior). 

Some battle/martial arts scenes from "House of Flying Daggers."

Some battle/martial arts scenes from "House of Flying Daggers," where the heroine is also strong warrior.

This reversal of gender role, of the woman being more powerful than men, is also an important theme in chapter 2 of Woman Warrior. Kingston “transforms” herself into Fa Mulan, the legendary Chinese heroine (hero, since she disguised herself as a man). The heroine is much more capable and “manly” than the men around her, who give in to the corrupted power of the government, and subserviently follow whatever order is given, even by Mulan. Within the novel, this “girl power” is more significant because, although Chinese families thought sons were gifts and daughters punishments, it is the unimportant girl who sets out to save her family and village.

On a sidenote, here’s something that makes me laugh whenever I think about the warrior tradition.

From the episode, "Good Time with Weapons."

From the episode, "Good Time with Weapons."

Ah, the magic of parody.

Ah, the magic of parody.

Really, South Park wouldn’t have parodied the warrior tradition if it wasn’t something of interest (or fashionable) in America.

Write like a warrior, sound like a woman

•October 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

To be honest, Woman Warrior isn’t the type of book I would voluntarily buy and read. It simply isn’t what I find attractive in a book. However, I have to admit that it is certainly thought-provoking, not only because of the inevitable sense of connection I develop by being an Asian-American girl, but also in evaluating my relationship to my family and lineage.

Apparently, Woman Warrior is often a topic of literary discussion because it isn’t a memoir in the strictest sense; it plays on the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. At one point in her article The Woman Warrior at 30″, Jess Row states,

There’s a sense in which Kingston’s vengeful narcissism becomes, in the end, simply narcissistic, as if every element of her experience can be transformed into a perfect metaphor, or as if her personal experience can be understood on the level of large-scale myth.

 But I have to disagree. Kingston’s memoir is certainly non-conventional. She openly invents and embellishes her family’s life and her own. She transforms (equates) herself into a legendary heroine. She indeed does, frequently, make herself a part of things “larger than life,” things bigger than her own mortal self would allow.

However, is this at all wrong? As much as it is a memoir, Woman Warrior is a retelling of the instrospective and extroversive journeys Kingston had to take in order to find her place in the world. Critics, like Row, would point out that Kingston overestimates the value of her own experiences, that she is being “narcissistic.” On the other hand, the events and aspects of human life is actually not entirely “unique” for each person. Why else would the so-called self-help books be so popular and recognized? It is because such books are able to detail and analyze certain life experiences in a way that an enormous audience can relate. Although we would like to believe that the pains and joys in our lives are special, something each one of us alone has experienced, such is in fact narcissism. People share similar experiences, similar sentiments, similar beliefs. That’s the truth.

Seen from this perspective, I find it only natural that Woman Warrior was written the way it was. Humans find their places in life and in the world by connecting themselves to something beyond their own, be it their family, their country, their ethnicity, or the universe. Kingston has done the same – related every part of herself to various part of this world and its culture. By seeing herself fit in to some of the themes (which are perhaps universal) in life, she found her voice and meaning in life. That’s not narcissism. That’s humility.

Dropping out

•October 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

It was strange. On my way to school yesterday, while I was desperately trying to get some sleep, my mom thought otherwise and kept telling me some interesting things she had heard/read over the past few days. One of the things she mentioned in detail – facilitated by the traffic jam – was that a large number of Korean students drop out of college. Despite my closed eyes and inoperative brain, we had an interesting conversation. Then…we got this blog post assignment. It’s as if she read Mr. Jones’ mind. Scary.

But that’s just on a side note.

In his article, “44% of Korean Ivy League Students Quit,” Samuel S. Kim states as the most likely explanation to the phenomenon, that Korean students tend to concentrate only on their studies, and as a result struggle to fit in to the American society. Compared to the dropout rate of other groups – Americans at 34%, Chinese at 25%, and Indians at 21% – the Korean dropout rate is in fact relatively high, if not alarmingly so.

However, there’s an ambiguity here – whether the dropouts are high among Korean students (who graduated from Korean schools) or also among the Korean-American pool (graduated from international schools like ours or schools in the States).  If the dropouts are mostly Korean students, the former, then the reason is probably that they are not accustomed to the American ethos or culture. The so-called “extracurricular activities” are so engrained in the American student’s life that, as Korean students who are foreign to such aspect would obviously struggle. Students learn to work and deal with others while taking part in extracurricular activities; the experience usually cannot be replaced by studying all night or going to hagwons.

In that sense, I’m glad that I’m (relatively) more prepared to jumps the hoops in college. I take part in various extracurricular/social/volunteer activities in addition to academia. I’ve experienced, if only very briefly, the world outside of the safe walls of high school, and thus over the past years shed part of the naivete arguably natural to those our age.

But the biggest reason I will survive college is because I’m excited about the newness, the uncertainty, but also the vast possibility.

Table Talk #2: What goes in comes out

•October 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment
People (although horribly generalized) often overlook the importance of fresh, high quality ingredients.

“What’s the difference? Frozen fish bought three weeks ago and fresh fish caught today – same thing. Fish is fish.”

“So what if the lettuce has been sitting at the back of the fridge and oblivion for a couple of months? It looks green enough to me.”

“What? The dried noodles are starting to turn brown? Nah, don’t mind. It’ll look more home-made.”

…You get what I’m saying (and pardon me for the minor exaggerations; I was making a point). But really, the quality of ingredients make or break a dish (and a meal, and a chef’s reputation, and a restaurant).

Despite being a sad miserable senior caught up in the evil cycle consisting of lack of time, all-nighter, lack of sleep, low productivity, and hence lack of time, I  spend way too much time at the grocery. Imagine the hours of sleep I would have gotten (or piles of homework cleared out or pages of applications written) had I not let myself contemplate the possibility of replacing fresh cream with plain yogurt or whipping cream or topping cream or sour cream, or the option of stir-frying bok choi instead of cabbages or asparagus or celery or green onions. But cooking/baking being the joy of my life, I let myself bask in the ambiance of fresh produce.

Thus, it comes naturally that the first place I look up when I visit another country is a local market. Even though I unfailingly cry rivers every time I am forced to walk away without having had the pleasure of purchasing bags (more like carriages) of exotic foodstuffs, by now I have learned to find joy in merely being in their presence.

So today’s moral is, Use fresh ingredients. What good things that go in comes out beautifully on the dinner table.  

Fresh fruits at an open market
Fresh fruits at an open market

 

See how shiny and beautifully ripe they are

See how shiny and beautifully ripe they are

I just noticed how weak and unpersuasive my argument thus far has been, and am once again amazed at my own obsessiveness – but not enough to compel me to change. I happen to believe my discursiveness defines me.

Losing touch with home: Diaspora

•October 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment
When asked in class, “What is diaspora?” I had immediately thought of the Jewish diaspora – actually, the Jewish diaspora was the only thing that crossed my mind in any significant relevance to the term diaspora. The fact that I myself is a part of a different (but infinitely similar) diaspora needed to be pointed out.

So what exactly is diaspora? The general definition is: “A dispersion of people from their original homeland” or “A dispersion of an originally homogeneous entity, such as a language or culture.”

As unfamiliar and even uncomfortable this may sound, it is in fact near banal to say that the modern globalization, by definition, implies diaspora. People, ideas and culture disperse and clash, recombine and diffuse again; such are the inevitable.

In Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” the Ibo people experience a type of diaspora. Upon the introduction of Christianity by the missionaries and the strong force of change that followed, the different groups withing the people divide and clash, virtually putting an end to the homogeneity that was until then perhaps taken for granted. The members of the younger generations and of the lower classes of society find the new religion and its way of life more appealing – the former being more open to change and reform, if not merely impressionable, an the latter being discontent with the current state of life forced upon them. Whereas the stability of the traditional Ibo society had been maintained largely by the unquestioning and unfaltering uniformity of its constituents, the newfound chaos naturally threatens the previously established order. In short, things fall apart; the traditional way of life falls apart.

Meanwhile, that is not to say that the Western culture had no positive influence. (Although I/we would be examining these from the point of view of a western-educated person(s)) The educational, trade/economic and health care systems all improve in one way or the other, and it would probably be fair to say that the Ibo people “modernize” by coming into contact with the outside world.

However, do the pros outweigh the cons? For that matter, I’m afraid, being an outsider I don’t believe I have the authority to judge.

Now, let me momentarily indulge in egotism and examine myself as a part of a separate diaspora. The major contact points and change agents that impact the Korean-American diaspora are, roughly, school (education), language, and generation differences. At school, especially at an international school like SIS, Korean students are educated under a Western educational system and prepared to attend Western colleges. They are taught and encouraged to speak English, often creating a language barrier between them and non-English speakers. And, the differences in perspective and lifestyle between generations caused by the introduction and diffusion of various outside cultures only further aggravates the societal schism.  

Today's American high schools typically consist of students of various ethnicities and/or nationalities.
Today’s American high schools typically consist of students of various ethnicities and/or nationalities.

At this point, I would be lying if I said that I deny being the agent of diaspora.

“The Second Coming”

•October 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about food, let’s take a look at some poetry (and be more civilized human beings).

William Butler Yeats: “The Second Coming” (1921)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre (1)
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
hings fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming (2) is at hand;
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi (3)
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries (4)
of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 At the beginning of “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe includes an excerpt from the above poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. The poem and the implications in it are symbolically significant to the novel, as the poem conveys the apocalyptic sentiments prevalent in “Things Fall Apart,” especially toward the end.

In general, the Second Coming refers to the advent of Jesus Christ to the world, whereupon he will establish the promised Messianic Age – a time of peace and brotherhood – and fulfill the prophesy. According to the orthodox (Catholic) view, Christ’s return will be marked by a sudden happening, like a lightning, and that it will be preceded by a brief coming of the Antichrist. 

An illustration of the Second Coming of the Christ 

An illustration of the Second Coming of the Christ

 

Antichrist by Albercht Durer

Antichrist by Albercht Durer

In his poem, however, Yeats focuses more on the Antichrist (which he describes as being a beast with a “lion[‘s] body and head of a man”) and the implied doomsday. In fact, the entire of the poem illustrates a certain doomsday, as imagined by those who feared the incipient apocalypse brought on by deepening conflicts around the world and the consequent world war(s).

As Yeats had composed his poem based on his interpretation of the Biblical passages, Achebe has in turn presented his take on the doomsday within the context of his novel. Like Yeats had done, Achebe makes the connection of the Second Coming to the advent of the Antichrist/beast – which in this case is symbolizing the (white) missionaries, or, emperialism in general. The “beast” arrives, causing the disintegration of the traditional society in the villages, and instead instills a foreign culture that seems to “poison” those belonging to the younger generations or the to the lower tiers of society. From the Ibo people’s (and perhaps Achebe’s) point of view, what they had allowed (despite resistance) into the manger in Bethlehem had turned out to be, not the Christ, but the Antichrist that would bring upon a certain end.

What is interesting to note is that the theme of apocalypse or an “end” is more or less universal, that even a poem written for and about the white man’s civilization could be applicable/relevant to that of the black man; in “Things Fall Apart,” the perpetrator(s) are the white Christian missionaries, yet the poem that best represents the novel for all practical purposes seems to be the one written by a white man.

Weird food

•September 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Well…honestly, I’d have to say that pretty much any food I’ve tasted so far is weird in some way or the other. Some of the foods I love, other people would find strange, disgusting, or barbaric (I guess sea urchins aren’t the prettiest things to put on the dinner table). On the other hand, even though I can confidently say that I’ve developed a quite versatile and adventurous palette, there are still things that I find absolutely repulsive – namely insects. However, this is in no way an assault on different cultures and their culinary traditions; my discomforts are merely the product of my personal fears that even I cannot fully figure out.

Still, there are dishes that aren’t necessarily ugly/scary but I nonetheless detest. For example, samgyupsal. Really, why would you want to eat roasted fat…? I’ve tasted it only once in my entire life, and I hated it. Since I’m not anorexic/bullimic and hence lack the supposed mortal fear of fatty food, I don’t believe the ridiculously high calorie count (which, unfortunately, is not alleviated even if the pig really was fed green tea leaves) or the (literally) heart-stopping threat of cholesterol is the problem here. Sadly, I’m without an elaborate defense. I just think samgyupsal is weird. And yes, I realize that I’m declaring my (perhaps obstinate but every bit health-conscious) hate for the menu that has become the centerpiece of Korean social functions and dining culture. In any case, for someone who hardly touches any red meat, paying money to eat kilos of saturated animal fat with bits of flesh is simply out of the question.

In the end, however, to me eating is sacred; it shouldn’t be messed with. Like fashion or taste in books or movies, I believe food habits should be left alone (well, at least until they become life-threatening).

…Fine. Let them eat samgyupsal.

Seriously. As if those green flecks would get rid of the boundless unhealthiness of samgyupsal. Psh.

Seriously. As if those green flecks would get rid of the boundless unhealthiness of samgyupsal. Psh.