Monthly Archives: July 2005

Travel Reading: Ha Jin’s War Trash

Okay, I can’t resist a little teaser from the first of my travel-reading books: Ha Jin’s War Trash (Vintage, 2004). (Another is Herbert Bix’s Hirohito, which may initiate a conversation or two on Japanese trains if I display the cover too openly.) Here’s a sample of Ha Jin’s prose.

We drilled with our new weapons and learned about the other units’ experiences in fighting the American and the South Korean armies. We all knew the enemy was better equipped and highly mechanized with air support, which we didn’t have. But our superiors told us not to be afraid of the American troops, who had been spoiled and softened by comforts. GIs couldn’t walk and were road-bound, depending completely on automobiles; if no vehicles were available, they’d hire Korean porters to carry their bedrolls and food. Even their enlisted men didn’t do KP and had their shoes shined by civilians. Worst of all, having no moral justification for the war, they lacked the determination to fight. They were all anxious to have a vacation, which they would be given monthly. Even if we were inferior in equipment, we could make full use of our tactics of night fighting and close combat. At the mere sight of us, the Americans would go to their knees and surrender–they were just pussycats. To arouse the soldiers’ hatred for the enemy, a group of men, led by a political instructor, pulled around a hand truck loaded with a huge bomb casing which was said to be evidence that the U.S. was carrying on bacteriological warfare. They displayed the thing at every battalion, together with photographs of infected creatures, such as giant flies, rats, mosquitoes, clams, cockroaches, earthworms. The germ bomb, which was said to have landed near the train station, was almost five feet long and two feet across, with four sections inside. This kind of bomb, we were told, would not explode; it would just open up when it hit the ground to release the germ carriers. To be honest, some of us had rubbed shoulders with Americans when we were in the Nationalist army, and we were unnerved, because we knew the enemy was not only superior in equipment but also better trained.

Throughout this period we attended regular meetings at which both civilians and soldiers would condemn American imperialism. An old peasant said his only farm cattle, a team of two, had been shot dead by a U.S. plane while he was harvesting sweet potatoes in his field near the border. A woman soldier walked around among the audience, holding up large photographs of Korean women and children killed by the South Korean army. A reporter spoke about many atrocities committed by the American invaders. Sometimes the speakers seized the occasion to vent their own grievances. They often identified the United States as the source of their personal troubles. A college graduate of dark complexion even claimed to an audience of eight hundred that his health had been ruined by the American film industry, because he had watched too many pornographic movies from which he had learned how to masturbate. Now he couldn’t control himself anymore, he confessed publicly. These kinds of condemnations, high and low, boosted the morale of the soldiers, who grew restless, eager to wipe out the enemy of the common people.

On the night of March 17 we crossed the Yalu [‘Duck Green’]. Every infantryman carried a submachine gun, two hundred rounds of ammunition, four grenades, a canteen of water, a pair of rubber sneakers and a short shovel on the back of his bedroll, and a tubed sack of parched wheat flour weighing thirteen pounds. We walked gingerly on the eastern bridge, because the western one was partly damaged. Each man kept ten feet from the one in front of him. The water below was dark, hissing and plunging. Now and then someone would cry out, his foot having fallen through a hole. A tall mule, drawing a cart, got its hind leg stuck in a rift and couldn’t dislodge it no matter how madly the driver thrashed its hindquarters. The moment I passed the tilted cart, it shook, then keeled over and fell into the river together with the helpless animal. There was a great splash, followed by an elongated whirlpool in the shimmering current, and then the entire load of medical supplies vanished.

SOURCE: War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 10-11

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Korea, U.S., war

August Hiatus

The Far Outliers will be traveling in the far abroad over the next month, in their first trip back to Japan since the latter 1980s. I won’t likely be posting much while we’re on the road, but will probably resume posting in late August or early September. In the meantime, please sample some of the diverse range of blogs linked on the right. Here are three of my recent favorites.

Australia-based Macam-macam has been doing yeoman work digging up underreported stories from Southeast Asia–something I made a few stabs at before falling into a pattern of excerpting regularly from the books I’ve been reading. Some recent highlights include: new movement toward peace plans in Aceh (one of the few positive outcomes of the tsunami), Australia’s new willingness to split oil and gas revenues with Timor Leste, and possible Burmese military plans for defense in depth.

London-based A Step At a Time has been translating a lot of stories from Russia: about a Finland-Swedish businessman on Chechnya; about a trip to Grozny:

I soon got the jitters. The driver was talking in Chechen, and rather rudely, too, shouting something, waving his hands. Then I understood what the matter was: he was asking who hadn’t paid. It was me, of course. The whole minibus turned round and looked at me as though I were an enemy of the people – by now they had realized that I knew no Chechen.

and about campaigning around Russia with Garry Kasparov:

At the end of the last day of our trip they finally let our airplane land in Rostov – so that Kasparov and Co. could hurry off back to Moscow. “Can you believe that only five days and four nights have passed since we left Moscow?” Kasparov asked. “It feels like a month and a half.” Most importantly, it was hard to believe that five days ago we were an excited group from Moscow, content, smug, traveling in a chartered plane (by the way, the VIP room in Stavropol we reserved in advance was suddenly closed on the day of our arrival for “failure to conform to regulation”). Now we presented a pathetic picture: exhausted, dressed in clothes ruined by eggs and ketchup.

New York City-based Pearsall’s Books has been doing an enlightening series of demographic studies, two recent examples being an analysis of census statistics on the ethnic make-up of Young America and a fascinating comparison of two U.S. drug epidemics, crack cocaine and crystal meth. Here’s a sample of the latter.

What started out as a local problem on the West Coast has slowly begun to make its way east, with major meth epidemics springing up all throughout the Midwest and the Southeast, particularly in Appalachia, but not yet in the Northeast, at least outside of the gay community, where meth use is now a truly national crisis….

For the most part, the typical meth addict is a member of the white working-class, usually living in rural areas or small towns (hence the occassional nickname of “trailer park crack”). The spread of methamphetamine addiction has led to steep increases in crime rates in many formerly peaceful and safe communities. Meth-related crime has also, in parts of the country, been the main factor behind steep increases in the number of whites going to prison. This can be seen in, among other places, Minnesota and Arkansas, where meth-related crimes have been responsible for a surge in the white prison population, such that for the first time in decades both of these states have white majorities within their corrections systems….

What I find interesting is that, despite the explosion of meth addiction in recent years it seems to have taken far longer than crack in the 1980’s to really make an impression on the national consciousness, and it seems to have made little impact on popular culture. I have a couple of ideas as to why this is so. For one thing, it has not really touched the East Coast yet, where most of the news media is based. All of the tv networks are based in New York, as are most of the big news magazines and the most famous paper in the nation, The New York Times. The major media, for the most part, only really focuses on the rest of the country as it needs to, and meth, happening as it does in fairly out-of-the-way places, is not really the sort of story that is easy to tackle from a New York mindset.

Leave a comment

Filed under blogging

Mongolian, Bulgarian Tied for Lead in Japanese Sumo

The Japan Times reports after Day 14 of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

NAGOYA (Kyodo) Bulgarian komusubi Kotooshu dismantled crowd pleaser Takamisakari to up the stakes against joint leader yokozuna Asashoryu on Saturday, winning his 12th bout at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

With just one day remaining, the pair is heading for their second clash of the 15-day meet in a possible playoff for winner takes all on Sunday.

Kotooshu, who stands over 2 meters and is being dubbed sumo’s David Beckham, absorbed a fierce attack from Takamisakari before adroitly spinning on his heels and wrenching down his opponent with his trademark overarm throw at Aichi Prefectural Gym. Takamisakari dropped to 10-4 and fell out of the running for the title.

Kotooshu stunned the yokozuna earlier in the week and will have a second chance at glory, if both wrestlers beat their opponents, Wakanosato and Tochiazuma, respectively, in their final bouts of regulation on the final day.

A victory over the yokozuna would make the Bulgarian the first European wrestler to claim the Emperor’s Cup hardware, but Asashoryu is still the favorite to win his fifth straight title.

UPDATE: Nuts! Asashoryu won his final bout, but Kotooshu didn’t, so there was no playoff. Be sure to check out Kotooshu’s ceremonial apron (kesho-mawashi). During the ring-entering ceremony he’s a walking ad for Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt.

Leave a comment

Filed under sumo

Paul Farmer’s Word Gymnastics

“An H of G” was short for “a hermeneutic of generosity,” which [Paul Farmer] had defined once for me in an e-mail: “I have a hermeneutic of generosity for you because I know you’re a good guy: Therefore I will interpret what you say and do in a favorable light. Seems like I’m the one who should hope for as much from you.” I have counted scores of terms like that one in his lexicon, which was also the lexicon of PIH [Partners in Health]….

One time his brother Jeff, the wrestler, sent him a card in which he misspelled the word “Haitians.” He spelled it “Hatians.” So in PIH lingo, Haitians were “Hat-eans” or simply “Hats,” and their country was “Hatland.” The French were “Fran-chayze,” their tongue “Fran-chayze language,” and Russians were “Rooskies.” A “chatterjee” was a person of East Indian descent–there were a few in PIH–who talked a lot. Farmer referred to himself as “white trash”–he had an old photo to prove it, his extended family at a picnic around a couch outdoors. The man who railed about the plight of impoverished women everywhere would in private, poking fun, employ terms like “chicks.” “I don’t care about any of that stuff” he told me once. “Just the one thing.” Impolite terms, used intramurally, were meant as philosophical rebukes to the misplaced preoccupations of those who believed in “identity politics,” in the idea that all members of an oppressed minority were equally oppressed, which all too conveniently obscured the fact that there were real differences in the “shaftedness,” also sometimes called the “degrees of hose-edness,” that people of the same race or gender suffered. “All suffering isn’t equal” was an article of the PIH faith, generated in reaction to the many times when they had tried to raise money and instead had been offered lectures about the universality of suffering, or simply lines like “The rich have problems, too.” (Farmer once taught a course at Harvard called Varieties of Human Suffering.)

“When people get around Paul, they start talking like Paul,” his old friend from medical school the writer Ethan Canin said. “He’s such a word gymnast.” There was an obvious utility in the brevity of terms like “H of G,” for a mind moving fast, and for people trying to keep up. When, for instance, “TBMI” (transnational bureaucrats managing inequality) produced clever arguments (also known as “well-formed stool”) against treating MDR [Multiple Drug Resistant TB] or AIDS, one could simply say, “Love, ID,” and be completely understood. Everyone in PIH knew that “DQ” stood for “Drama Queen,” and a DQ proposal meant an emotional appeal. (“We could use a DQ quote here, and a generic inequality-of-outcomes over here,” I once heard Farmer say to a young assistant working with him on a speech.) “Geek flowers” was the completed research that PIH-ers presented to Farmer or Kim, and “scholbutt” was short for “scholarly buttressing,” which meant that every statement of fact Farmer made in a paper had to be verified as coming from some authoritative source. (“He’s neurotic about having it all perfect,” said a medical student who did a lot of scholbutt for Farmer. “Not because he’s anal but because when you’re doing these things for the poor, amidst arguments that it’s not cost-effective to treat them, you have to be perfect or you’ll be picked apart.”)

“Lugar” was luggage. “Koutoums” meant “customs.” To commit “a seven-three” was to use seven words where three would do, and a “ninety-nine one hundred” was quitting on a nearly completed job. (“Nothing pisses me off like a ninety-nine one hundred,” Farmer would say.) PIH-ers often said “Thank you” to people who had done something for a third party, for anyone who belonged to the multitudinous group known variously as “the indigent sick,” “the shafted,” and “the poor,” the last being the term of choice in PIH because, as Farmer would say, it was the term that most Haitians used to describe themselves.

SOURCE: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2004), pp. 215-217

Leave a comment

Filed under language

Dr. Paul Farmer’s Marxism

“For me to admire Cuban medicine is a given,” Farmer said. It was a poor country, and made that way at least in part by the United States’ long embargo, yet when the Soviet Union had dissolved and Cuba had lost both its patron and most of its foreign trade, the regime had listened to the warnings of its epidemiologists and had actually increased expenditures on public health….

One time he got in an argument about Cuba with some friends of his, fellow Harvard professors, who said that the Scandinavian countries offered the best examples of how to provide both excellent public health and political freedom. Farmer said they were talking about managing wealth. He was talking about managing poverty. Haiti was a bad example of how to do that. Cuba was a good one.

He had studied the world’s ideologies. The Marxist analysis, which liberation theology borrowed, seemed to him undeniably accurate. How could anyone say that no war among socioeconomic classes existed, or that suffering wasn’t a “social creation,” especially now, when humanity had developed a grand array of tools to alleviate suffering. And he was more interested in denouncing the faults of the capitalist world than in cataloging the failures of socialism. “We should all be criticizing the excesses of the powerful, if we can demonstrate so readily that these excesses hurt the poor and vulnerable.” But years ago he’d concluded that Marxism wouldn’t answer the questions posed by the suffering he encountered in Haiti. And he had quarrels with the Marxists he’d read: “What I don’t like about Marxist literature is what I don’t like about academic pursuits–and isn’t that what Marxism is, now? In general, the arrogance, the petty infighting, the dishonesty, the desire for self-promotion, the orthodoxy: I can’t stand the orthodoxy, and I’ll bet that’s one reason that science did not flourish in the former Soviet Union.”

SOURCE: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2004), pp. 194-195

My biggest problem with Marxism–apart, of course, from “the arrogance, the petty infighting, the dishonesty, the desire for self-promotion, [and especially] the orthodoxy”–is that it takes wealth for granted (as Farmer does), and therefore assumes that poverty can only be eliminated by transferring existing wealth from rich people to poor people. The best way to destroy poverty is to enable poor people both to create new wealth and to accumulate it–and not just to rely on larger and larger transfers from those who have previously managed (legally) to create and accumulate it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Caribbean, economics

The Last Prince of Chosôn

The son of the last crown prince of the Chosôn Dynasty has died. The Korea Times reports:

Yi Ku [李玖, 이구, I Gu], the only surviving son of Choson Kingdom’s last crown prince Yongchin, died of a heart attack at a hotel in Tokyo on Saturday. He was 73….

Yi led a single life in Japan after having divorced his American wife, Julia Mullock, in 1982. Having left no offspring, Lee’s passing signifies the end of the main lineage of the Choson’s royal descent.

Yi was born in Japan in 1931 to Prince Yongchin and Masako Nashimoto, a member of Japan’s imperial family. Yongchin was the younger brother of Choson’s last monarch Sunjong and the seventh son of King Kojong. The marriage was part of Japan’s imperial ambition to merge Korea.

Yi was the second son in the marriage, but he became the sole surviving member of the royal family’s main lineage after his elder brother Chin died at the eighth month….

Yi could not come back to Korea for a while after then as President Syngman Rhee was weary of the influence of royal family members. It was 1963 when he returned to Seoul with his wife and parents and began to reside in Naksonjae residence, a small housing quarter located within Changdokkung Palace.

Wikipedia has already turned his biography into an obituary.

Gu attended the Gakushin Peers’ School (学習院 gakushuin), Tokyo, Japan. He later attended Centre College, Danville, Kentucky and studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology both in the US. He was employed as an architect with I.M. Pei & Assocs, Manhattan, New York on 1960 to 1964. Made stateless by Japan in 1947, Gu acquired U.S. citizenship in 1959, and Korean citizenship in 1964. He married Julia Mullock (b. 1928) on 25 October 1959 in New York, and and they adopted a daughter, Eugenia.

After the fall of Syngman Rhee, he returned to Korea in 1963 with the help of the new president Park Chung-hee, moving into the new building in Nakseon Hall, Changdeok Palace with his mother and wife. He lectured on architecture at Seoul National University and Yonsei University and also ran a business. When that went bankrupt in 1979, he went to Japan to earn money. In 1982 his wife divorced him; his mother died in 1989. He started living with a Japanese astrologer, Mrs Arita.

In November 1996, he made what he hoped would be his permanent return to Korea but, showing signs of a nervous breakdown, he was unable to adjust to life in the motherland. Restlessly going back and forth between Japan and Korea, he eventually died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-four, at the Akasaka Prince Hotel, the former residence of his parents in Tokyo, Japan.

The Korea Times has a follow-up story on the fate of the last Korean royal family.

via The Marmot’s Hole

Leave a comment

Filed under Korea

Jim Kim’s Search for Identity

This one’s for Jodi.

Jim was born in South Korea and grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, in the 1970s. For as long as he could remember, the place had seemed too small for his ambitions. He hardly noticed the Mississippi flowing by the lovely old downtown or the fragrances of grains on summer nights or even the famous local produce, the Muscatine melon….

Jim’s father had schemed and charmed his way out of North Korea and become, proudly, Muscatine’s periodontist, with an office upstairs on Main Street. Jim’s mother had come from South Korea–a grandfather had served as a minister to the last Korean king–and she had studied at Union Theological Seminary with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and become a Confucian scholar, and ended up for many years a housewife in Muscatine. A small, elegant woman walking across the local golf course when her children were too young to play alone, diligently trying to make sense of American sports so she could understand her children’s milieu. At every opportunity she took Jim and his siblings to Des Moines and Chicago so they’d know the world was larger than it seemed from Muscatine. She taught her three children, by example, the arts of debate around the kitchen table, while her husband, who had early morning appointments, went to bed grumbling that he didn’t know what they had to talk about that was more important than a good night’s sleep. She’d tell them to live ”as if for eternity” and tutor them on current events, translating for Jim the images of famine and war that upset him on the TV news. Early on, Jim imagined himself becoming a doctor to treat such suffering, and excelling in science quickened his interest.

He was quarterback on the Muscatine High football team, a starting guard in basketball, the president of his class and its valedictorian. But the Kims were the only Asian family in town, except for the one that owned the Chinese restaurant. When they went to the malls of Iowa, adults stared and children followed them around, the bolder ones approaching, crying out, “Kiai!” and making as if to deliver karate chops. For Jim, embarrassment at his parents’ Koreanness was the loneliest feeling of all….

He went to the University of Iowa and felt liberated there until he was told that Ivy League schools were better. He transferred to Brown, where he discovered an organization called the Third World Center. He became its director. He broke up with his Irish Catholic girlfriend because he suddenly believed he shouldn’t date white women. He made his friends among black, Hispanic, and Asian students. He learned “the pimp walk.” On parents’ weekend he and his friends would dress up in black and stride around the campus, a phalanx of about thirty African American and Hispanic students, and one Korean, sometimes chanting, sometimes maintaining a threatening silence, and noting with pleasure the double takes and frightened looks on the faces of some of the parents.

Before Brown, Jim hadn’t known that the United States interned Japanese Americans during World War II. He read up on the subject, then lectured about it. He embraced the idea of Asian “racial solidarity.” He didn’t realize back then just how complex a matter this could be. He didn’t find out until much later that, for example, Koreans were supposed to hate the Japanese. From time to time, doubts cropped up. It seemed as if for other Asians at Brown, racial identity meant little more than eating with chopsticks and finding an Asian mate, and the paramount political issue seemed to be the “glass ceiling,” the fact that Asians weren’t yet rising to the very tops of institutions. But the idea of being a member of an oppressed minority was very alluring. Jim decided to learn his native language. “I wanted to learn Korean, be down with my people, be an authorized third world person, so I could say shit.” He got a fellowship to travel to Seoul and happened on an interesting story for his Ph.D. thesis in anthropology–it had to do with the Korean pharmaceutical industry. In Seoul he did his research and made a mighty effort to fit in, hanging out at bars with new Korean friends and performing karaoke–beforehand on each occasion, he’d go to the bathroom and study the words to songs like “My Way.”

He had left Iowa prepared, naturally enough, to think that ethnicity was the central problem of his life. By the time he came back from Korea to Harvard, to continue medical school and write his thesis, he had grown bored and a little disgusted with what was known in academic circles as the politics of racial identity. It seemed like an exercise in selfishness. “I discovered South Korea was doing just fine, and that what Koreans wanted was for me to write grant proposals so they could come to the States and get degrees. I had looked at student movements. They were all about Korean nationalism, just sort of troublemaking.” When he met [Paul] Farmer, he was ready to change directions. At one point during their talks in the old, one-room PIH [Partners in Health] office, Farmer told him, “If you come to Haiti, I’ll show you you’re blan, as white as any white man.” Jim thought of his black, Hispanic, and Asian friends at Brown, and how angry that remark would have made them.

He told Farmer that he felt liberated from “the self-hatred and evasion of ethnicity” he’d felt in Muscatine.

“It’s good to have to come to understandings of that, but you’ve got to put that behind you now,” said Farmer. “So what are you going to do? Be the first Asian to do some stupid thing like walk on the moon?”

They hadn’t talked long before Jim declared that he wanted to make Farmer’s preferential option for the poor his own life’s work.

SOURCE: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2004), pp. 166-169

Leave a comment

Filed under Korea