White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)

Let’s face it: I have a problem with being a white American traveling in India. Chalk it up to white guilt or simply a recognition of (historical and present) privilege, but my whiteness preceded me everywhere I went and reminded me of echoes of the past—the white, British colonizers who oppressed and dehumanized Indians for years, who demolished their culture and devalued their lives.

Admission: I am not an expert on either Indian history or British colonialism. But I couldn’t help but be aware of the damage wrought by people who looked like me, worshipped in the kinds of churches I attend, and spoke my language.

I guess it was a good thing to be aware of. But beyond awareness of privilege, I’ve wondered what I could do. Colonization is over, but the real inequalities are still there—because of nationality, class, place of birth, first language—all of those things.

Boyeon and I had some interesting conversations about this. How she, as someone from a country that had been colonized (by the Japanese, for those of you who missed out on East Asian history), felt a certain kind of empathy for (and to her, perhaps from) the Indian people. How walking down the street, she felt a kinship—both as someone from Asia and from a formerly colonized country.

For us, this sometimes played out in how we interacted with people on the street. For example, Boyeon frequently was ready to ask questions, get directions, and get answers for other basic travel information. I, however, was not. Granted, this is partly because she’s more extroverted than I am, and I’m self-reliant to a fault. But one of my major hangups, as I told her, was really my lack of knowing the local language and how imperialistic (and particularly American) it felt to expect everyone to know English. (And our cramming of Hindi did not help us at all in the Bengali-dominated Northeast or Malayalam-speaking South.)

And while I didn’t feel the Indian people holding me accountable for British failings, I did realize that I wanted to find a way to acknowledge those failings, to recognize my positionality within that space, to work to counteract any ways in which power and privilege became barriers between me, the place, and the people. Continue reading “White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)”

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An Inauspicious Arrival in South India

I knew I would like would like South India even before I landed there. I heard the Indian South described in a similar way to the American South—slower, friendlier, and with better weather. Sure, maybe the roads were worse. Maybe they were further from the seats of power that other states (though I was told that the southern state of Kerala is the richest in the country). But there was just something about it that was different—and different in a good way.

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Relaxing by the water in Kerala

Our beginning there was not auspicious, though. When we landed in Bangalore, where Boyeon’s friend Roshan was meeting us, we got a text from him telling us things were “a little tense” but he was on his way. Earlier, a friend of my sister’s in Bangalore had warned us that there was an impending conflict over water supply between two states (Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) that was about to get heated. Turns out, the conflict boiled over right in Bangalore. Continue reading “An Inauspicious Arrival in South India”

Home (in My Own Skin)

I feel like I’m on a constant search for home—for “homeness,” that feeling of belonging, of alignment. That resonance that says, “Yes, I’m here.”

I feel that “homeness” more with people than with places. After a long dinner and longer conversation with a friend. After a long walk with someone when we’ve both allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Or sometimes it’s just a look or a hug that makes me think, “You’ve come this way before.”

I’ve felt it in a few places—Korea, Ireland, New Orleans. I’ve often tried to figure out where it comes from. The loving community I have? A kinship in spirit with others around me? Similar personality types? Freedom? Love?

I can’t pinpoint it, and thus, I am always on the search.

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Continue reading “Home (in My Own Skin)”

Wandering (Heart and) Seoul

Two months ago, I set off on a journey that would take me across the U.S. by plane, train, and automobile and eventually land me here in the bustling city of Seoul, South Korea. After years in social justice advocacy, education, and activism, I called a timeout, left my job, sold my things, stuffed a few boxes in friends’ garages and attics, took my cat to my parents’ house, and said goodbye (for now) to friends, loved ones, colleagues, and a city I’d called “home” for over ten years. I told myself I was “leaving the movement,” like this fellow activist now living in Panama. I would wander the world, and I would breathe, and I would write, and I would get back in touch with the parts of me I’d pushed away for the sake of the greater good.

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The decision to leave came from a sense of desperation. The world’s weight was too much, the work we were trying to do was too much, and I felt trapped under it. It felt like doing something drastic was my only hope. Continue reading “Wandering (Heart and) Seoul”

Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid

Saturday a week ago, I went to my first Korean Pride festival in Seoul. It began before noon, and despite my propensity to run on “queer time,” my friend Suzanne (who was visiting from San Francisco) and I managed to jump on the subway in time to make it to the festival’s opening. We came prepared with rainbow gear–suspenders for me and a tie for Suzanne, which we kept tucked in pockets and bags, ready to don when we got there.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

As we rode the escalator out of the City Hall subway stop to the plaza where the festival was being held, our ears were met by loud, joyous music and our eyes by the sight of hordes of police officers wearing neon yellow vests. As celebratory as the music sounded, we soon realized that it was coming from a vocal group of anti-LGBTQ protesters gathered just outside of the subway station exit, singing songs about 예수님 (Jesus) and 하나님 (God) and holding signs about our salvation, urging us to turn away from our sin.

It was like South Carolina all over again. That final stretch of the SC Pride Parade in Columbia with lines of glum-faced protesters holding signs condemning us to hell. The first hill of the Upstate Pride Parade where preachers held out Bibles and yelled verses into the rainbow-filled crowd. Story after story from my friends–of the church’s condemnation, of religious parents kicking out their LGBTQ kids, of Christians claiming they could “pray the gay away.”

The protesters were loud, and more across the street were less joyous–yelling in Korean on loudspeakers with words I didn’t know but a message I could understand. Continue reading “Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid”

A Channel of Peace

Written a few days ago, in a small notebook, on a quiet bench underneath the trees. (Post dated to match when it was written.)

I’m sitting inside a Buddhist temple in Japan, listening to the rain fall through the leaves. We thought about skipping the temple today because of the weather but decided it might be quieter if we went in the rain anyway–so we bought umbrellas at a Family Mart (one of the many convenience stores that dot both Japan and Korea) and finagled some train tickets and headed out from the station to a small town about 20 or 30 minutes outside of Fukuoka.

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I’ve been really grateful for Keyes’ skills during this part of the trip–they doubt their Japanese skills sometimes, but so far, they’ve been great. I also hope that this quiet time at the temple can help my inner introvert recharge. I’ve never traveled this long with someone, and while Keyes has humored my changes in temperament, I fear I’ve gotten a shorter and shorter fuse with them–and I realize it’s probably because I haven’t taken much alone time (even though they’ve offered it). (Note to self for future travels: If traveling with friends and loved ones, build in some solo time every few days.) Keyes has been patient with me, though, which I appreciate. Just trying to return the kindness by working my way back to being kind.

So here we are. Just outside of Fukuoka, the sound of the train rumbling by and disappearing. Rain on leaves, slipping into streams that flow down the mountain. Perhaps the first actual quiet we’ve since we stood on Vargas Plateau in California. Quiet. And present. And here.

2016-06-04 19.15.33.jpgAnd yet, part of the reason I need this here-ness is because my thoughts have been both in the past and on the future. Continue reading “A Channel of Peace”

I Was Once in Love

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I’m sitting in a beautifully decorated kitchen in a hostel in Yeosu, South Korea, sipping on tea and listening to the newest K-Pop in the background. It feels like I could be in a K-drama myself. Plot lines spin outward as I journey toward a better understanding of myself and others–and I find myself in love again.

I have returned to the place that I used to be. A place I once explored in my early 20s, a place of seas and mountains and noisy markets and giggling schoolgirls and a house by the sea. It is much changed. The Yeosu I knew from 2006 has turned into a Yeosu that hosted the World Expo in 2012. Where once I felt like we were the edge of Korea–far from the bustle of a city like Seoul–now there is a KTX bullet train that takes us from Seoul right into the heart of the city in under three hours. Where once there were only love motels or expensive resort hotels for travelers, now there are multiple hostels for backpackers like me. Where once I had to decipher each sign with my newly learned Korean and was grateful for the occasional sign in two languages, I see English everywhere. Google Maps now actually tells me which buses I can take to which parts of the city, while Yeosu maybe wasn’t even mapped before. My home by the sea has been converted into a successful seafood restaurant, thanks to the efforts of my homestay mom. And my homestay sister, my closest ally-turned-friend during my time in Yeosu, who I met when she was in her first year of high school, is now in her mid-20s and working (too hard) in Seoul. She’s now older than I was when I taught here in 2006-2007, which she was shocked to realize when we met up last Christmas.

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Watching the Korean countryside fly by on the KTX from Seoul to Yeosu.

When we arrived in Korea late last week and took the train into Seoul, Keyes told me they felt my air change–the feeling and emotion around me turning into a peace they said they’d not felt before. I felt it, too. Standing on the train, crossing from Incheon to Seoul, watching the mountains and seas come into view, I felt a shard in my heart give way, some blockage shift, this homecoming. This isn’t my place, and yet it is. In any crowd, it’s obvious I’m a foreigner. I don’t belong–and yet I do. Continue reading “I Was Once in Love”