On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”

 

Girls’ Generation – Known Nazi Fanatics – Invade America
 

In the mid-1990s, a massive seismic shift took place under the cultural landscape of South Korea, almost immediately causing a phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave”, or Hallyu (한류).

The Wave – believed by some (Korean) experts to be the most powerful force on earth – has swept outwards from the peninsula, engulfing whole nations, and sparing nobody… Nobody but you, America.

That is, until now.

full_nowtrends-B-hi-res
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) is worth reading simply for the exotic locations and unique settings, but there is much more going on in this collection. A layered sadness permeates these stories, often soliciting sympathy for the main characters. At other times, a sense of entitlement causes the reader to become frustrated and even angry at these spoiled people. And still other stories allow us to understand the uncertainty that life offers up, even amidst important events and epic moments, unsure of how to take these revelations, unable to change—even when willing.

Hi, Eric. We are here to discuss your epic poem, Takaaki. 66 sonnets, 924 lines. Can you tell us a little bit about Takaaki, the person, and how you came to write about him?

Sure. Takaaki is my boyfriend. Takaaki is a Japanese citizen. He is descended from samurai on his mother’s side. His father was (is) a kamikaze. Takaaki is a championship Scrabble player. He is a cook and an interior designer. He translated the Joy of Gay Sex into Japanese. He tells me to go to Hell whenever he feels that is necessary. It sometimes is. Takaaki makes me indescribably happy. A few years ago, he was forced to move back to Tokyo because his visa ran out and he couldn’t get a green card and we couldn’t get married. His departure nearly destroyed me. I suppose the poem sprang from that terrible moment of devastation—when I came home from work one night to an empty apartment. An empty life.


You knew he was leaving, didn’t you? You knew what was coming? He didn’t surprise you, did he?

No, no. Nothing like that occurred. We knew what was happening. Imagine watching a war slowly unfolding in the daily papers and looking up at your husband over coffee. How does one prepare to lose a loved one? We did our best to find some way for him to stay. The love we felt for each other was not sufficient legal justification for Uncle Sam. So, we resigned ourselves to being separated for an indefinite period: long commutes between Tokyo and New York once or twice a year, phone calls, birthday packages, cards, e-mail, letters.


Why didn’t you look for a job in Japan?

I did look for a job in Japan. I started studying Japanese. I ceased reading books in English. I stopped writing poetry altogether. I had to focus on what was truly important to me. Him. There was not one sacrifice I was unwilling to make for him. Even so, I couldn’t find a job in Japan.


How long did this go on? Didn’t you ever feel like giving up?

It is still going on. For a while, I tried to give up. I tried to be practical. First, I tried sex. It plugged a certain hole, but only temporarily. Soon, a great silence fell across the Pacific. I didn’t call Takaaki for months. I started dating again. But nothing ever worked out. I always wound up opening my wallet and rereading the note Takaaki placed under the plastic daikon grater he gave me (he is always giving me strange gifts) a few days before he left for Japan.


Do you mind if I ask you what that note said?

[With some hesitation.] Well, I can’t imagine it will mean very much to your readers, but if you think they might be curious, okay. His handwriting is much better than mine. [Reading aloud.] “Dear Maru-chan, Thank you for your hospitality. I shut the window because it looked like raining. I see you this weekend. Love, Takaaki.” How do you parse that, if you don’t know Takaaki?


I can’t. I don’t know Takaaki. Explain what that note means to you.

The strange mix of intimacy and formality makes me laugh. That phrase “it looked like raining” always goes right through my heart. Maru-chan is Takaaki’s nickname for me. Maru-chan is the smiling bald boy with a big red bowl and a big hungry smile who advertises a Japanese brand of miso. Takaaki thinks I look like this creature. [Rubbing the top of his head.] I think he might be right.


Love and war. Intimacy and formality. Joy and sadness. Japan and America. It sounds like you are describing a pair of slippers. How would you say these elements figure into Takaaki?

Would that be Takaaki the person or Takaaki the poem?


Good question. How do you distinguish the two in your mind?

Easy. [He hands him a book, a copy of Takaaki.] Imagine you are me. Imagine you had a choice. Which would you rather grab at a really scary movie? A book or a hand?


A hand. I would probably start the tearing pages out of a book. Any book. Even yours. Even The Bible. None would survive. Fingers are harder to pull off, I have noticed. But what does this say about art and life?

It says nothing new. Art takes us only so far. I was lonely. I wanted to recreate Takaaki in verse—to keep me company. We live, we love, we play games, we win, we lose—we scrub each other’s backs in the bath. I call the poem an epic, but it is really a Harlequin Romance. We make the best of life that we can. Art attempts to fill in the gaps. If art is anything, it is a beautiful failure. This is what I try to describe in the poem.


Do you think you succeeded?

[Smiling.] No. I set myself an impossible task. Takaaki is not here. The void is here. I come home to it every night. But I am learning to live with it. These days my apartment feels a little less empty, at least on the weekends.


Why? What happens then?

I call Takaaki in Tokyo every Sunday morning. We have made some decisions. Last Sunday, he proposed to me over the phone. We plan to get married the next time he is in New York City. [Cocking his head.] You know, if you are free, you should come to the wedding, too. [Cocking it further.] Bring your significant other. Bring your brother. Bring your father. Bring your mother. If you bring your own booze, you can bring every friend and relative you can think of. All will be welcome. Consider this interview your invitation.


I will be there. I can’t vouch for the rest.

Good. I will tell Takaaki that you are coming. I think you will really like Takaaki. When we are together, as we are in the book, you should hear us laugh.

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.



The Crash

By David S. Wills

Travel

On Wednesday, 28th July 2010, at around 4pm Japan Standard Time, I was sitting in Narita airport, waiting for a journey that would carry me a significant way around the world. I was, however, not as excited as I could have been. I couldn’t shake the fact that I was leaving a comfortable life, leaving my girlfriend, leaving my cats, leaving my motorcycle… I couldn’t look forward because I was so focused on all that would cease to be a part of my present.

Boarding was uneventful, as had been my flight from South Korea’s Incheon to Japan’s Narita. I waited and waited and finally moved my bags onto the hideously crowded peak-season airplane, and took my seat in the middle of a five person aisle, right at the centre of the plane. My heart sank a little as I realised I’d been given the worst seat on the plane.

I didn’t look around at my fellow passengers. I don’t like people, for the most part, and I find my life is a little easier if I simply pretend they don’t exist. I had no idea then that these faces would become so familiar to me; that these people would become my friends, allies and enemies in the coming days.

 

K-pop is inexplicably popular. I’d never heard of it before coming to Korea, but according to the frighteningly nationalistic Korean press, it’s a world sensation. All across the global, people are dancing to the startlingly derivative nonsense that is contemporary Korean “music.”

But maybe I’m being too cynical.

Maybe K-pop will conquer the globe.

In the unlikely event that these derivative “musicians” take the West by storm – and given some of the bands that have achieved stardom in the English-speaking world, that’s not hard to imagine – here’s a guide for the uninitiated. Something you can use to seem hip when the time comes, or to bag yourself a young Korean lover…

Rain

Who?

Probably the one Korean singer that you may already know, thanks to an appearance on the Colbert Report. He is known as a great dancer, and an actor.

I’ve decided to post this list after having kept it scrawled in notebooks over the years. The inspiration for it comes from one of my favorite people on this planet, Tom Rhodes. He has a list of over 1000 things he simply calls “Happiness”. I started keeping my own list a few years ago – which has been edited and updated and deleted from sporadically over time – but still serves as my own reminder that there are far more good things than bad on these little paths we all stumble down.

Have Happy Day

By Slade Ham

Memoir

It was early April that year and I was excited. I was going back to Asia for the third time, to see the cherry blossoms in bloom and hop from base to base telling jokes through most of South Korea and Japan. My itinerary was complicated, and the first leg in particular left very little space for a mistake. In a perfect world I was supposed to fly from Houston to Detroit, Detroit to Tokyo, and finally from Tokyo to Busan, South Korea.

But that’s in a perfect world.

In Real Land where I live, the problems started as soon as I boarded in Texas. They waited until the cabin door was closed to inform us that there was a minor computer issue. “It should only take a few minutes to correct,” the pilot’s voice crackled out over the intercom.

A baby cried somewhere in front of me. Sweet Jesus. Already? The mother fed it a bottle and rocked it to sleep. A few minutes slowly became sixty. I had a window seat, and that window was already beginning to fog up from the lack of air circulation. It’s been an hour, I thought. It can’t take that much longer. I’m a borderline claustrophobic person by nature and being stuck in the back of a long metal tube on the inside of a row wasn’t helping. The massive woman in the aisle seat was the size of an adolescent rhinoceros so getting out and walking around was going to be a challenge. At least I’m not in the middle though, I told myself.

That seat belonged to a man in his forties who, while having said nothing to support my theory, appeared to carry himself with a holier-than-thou attitude. I immediately didn’t like him. Some people have a cocky look on their face by nature. Maybe it was the way his facial bones were structured or how his eye brows arched, but he looked like someone who thought they should have a butler. “Simmer down,” I wanted to say. “You’re back here in coach with the rest of us.”

An hour and a half.

The speaker rattled again, this time with worse news. “This is your Captain again. Umm… we’re going to try to get this computer restarted one more time… umm… and if that doesn’t work we’re going to have to bring a crew on board to replace it. Just sit tight though. It shouldn’t be much longer,” the Captain lied.

Two hours.

Time was crawling. Shit. I remembered I only had a three hour layover in Detroit before my flight to Japan. This was going to cut things way too close. I pulled my notebook out of my backpack and tried to write to distract myself. The man in the middle was starting to get nosy. He pushed his glasses up with his finger and then tried to covertly read what I was writing with his peripheral vision. A blindfolded, stillborn chimpanzee would have known what he was doing. I adjusted my writing to compensate. Flipping over to a fresh page, I started a new paragraph:

“If you don’t stop reading this I will stab you in the ear with my pen and hide your body under the large woman to your left. They will never find you, do you understand me? Yes, I am talking to you. Don’t look away now, motherfucker. And when I’m through with you, and I get off this godforsaken plane, I will hunt your children down and eat them. You read that right. I will eat your children. On bread. Like a PoBoy.”

Three hours.

My layover time had officially been chiseled away. Unless we made into in the air in five minutes I was going to miss my next flight. I took a deep breath when I heard the intercom buzz. “Captain Adams here one more time. Just wanted to update you folks on our status. It looks like they have the problem under control. We apologize for keeping you on the plane this long, but it should only be a few more minutes. Sit tight.”

“Lying cocksucker!” someone yelled from the back. We all laughed, but there was no heart in it.

The beluga whale at the end of our row wasn’t doing so well. People that size don’t like to move a lot but they don’t like to be trapped either. The armrests were not being kind to her hips in an irresistible force/immovable object sort of way. The manner in which she seemed to have gotten stuck in her seat reminded me of a video I once saw where a double-decker bus failed to make it underneath an overpass.

Three and a half hours.

All I could focus on was the fact that I had to get to Detroit. I had to. The baby was crying again, now awake from its nap. Middle Man was fidgeting uncontrollably next to me but he avoided making eye contact. The sack of mattresses next to him was snoring, though she was wide awake. Her breaths came in erratic gusts, each one sounding more laborious than the last. More crying sounds cut through the thick air. It was miserable. I hope this plane blows up, I thought to myself.

Four and a half hours.

We were all beaten. Even the flight attendants had given up any semblance of professionalism. Ties loosened and sweat dripping, they dragged a beat up water cart down the center aisle. “Just say something if you want some more water,” one of them muttered. “I can’t help you otherwise.”

Five hours.

My flight to Tokyo had now been in the air for almost two hours. “Good news,” the Captain interrupted. “We’ve resolved the problem and are cleared for takeoff.”

One hundred and seventy-nine people sighed in relief; the fat lady just kept trying to breathe, period.

*  *  *

Eventually I made it through Detroit and into Tokyo, trudging into Narita Airport around 11:30 at night. The airline informed me that while the last flight into Busan had already taken off, they would happily fly me to Seoul for the night. “We get for you hotel, and drive person will arrive to transport you,” the lady behind the counter said in broken English. “Here ticket. Go enjoy. Have happy day.”

I didn’t know that the entire country of Korea goes to bed well before midnight. I learned that fact upon arriving at Incheon Airport in Seoul. Apparently they’re like Monchichis in that regard; at ten o’clock, someone takes the jewels out of their bellies and they fall asleep. The airport was huge, and totally empty. I was Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky if, too tired to run through Times Square, he had skipped directly to the screaming-at-the-sky-and-spinning-in-a-circle part. How could the airport be empty? Where was my driver? I still had to get a hold of someone in Busan and let them know that I wasn’t going to make it, but the only contact information I had was for a man mysteriously named “Mr. O”. I had that, and a phone number with a thousand digits.

What I did not have was any Korean won and the Currency Exchange had long since closed. Delirious, I stumbled down the massive hallway and tried to make sense of the logograms that surrounded me. My exhausted mind translated them based on what they appeared to be: picnic table, telephone pole, tree house. I was getting nowhere.

One lone, lethargic sentry waited by the exit near an eerily silent baggage claim. He led me to a phone and then left me alone to report my story to Mr. O’s voicemail, because Mr. O, like all of Korea, was sleeping. I had been traveling for nearly thirty hours. Where was my ride to the hotel? A voice echoed my thought even as it occurred.

“Hotel?” I heard someone say.

I was certain that I was imagining things because there was no one there. “Hotel?” the voice said again, and then a four foot tall Korean appeared from behind what had appeared to be an abandoned counter.

“Yes,” I said. “Please.” I didn’t even care if he was the right guy or not. I just wanted to stand under a hot shower and maybe take a nap.

“Come. We go fast,” he grinned.

“Yes,” I replied. “Fast is good.”

He led me to a van, threw my bag in the passenger side, and then clambered into the driver’s seat. I slid open the side door and crawled into my own seat in the back, fully prepared to doze off until we reached our destination. I heard the ignition fire up as my eyes closed, and then I snapped them back open again when Korean rap exploded from the speakers. The van tires squealed, kicking up dust, and we shot forward in the dark outskirts of Seoul at the speed of sound.

He could barely see over the steering wheel. I pulled myself forward against the G force to see how fast we were going, forgetting that the speedometer was showing kilometers. I heard some mechanical part fall off the van and I spun around to watch it disappear in the darkness. The man laughed at the sound and then sped up even more. Through the windshield I could barely make out the road ahead as it flew toward us. Among the other deficiencies, we apparently only had one headlight as well, like the Wallflowers. The tail lights of another car appeared ahead, but only for a moment. He bump drafted them, cut the wheel sharply, and whizzed past, throwing his hands in the air like Bastion on Falcor’s back in The Neverending Story. “Mansae!” he yelled.

Terrified, I moved to the center of the bench seat and put on all three seatbelts.

I crawled out of the van when we arrived at the hotel, shaking but relieved and ecstatic to still be counted amongst the living. Before I could tip the man or even thank him, he pushed my bag out after me, yelled something else in Korean, and then rocketed off into the night.

“Have happy day,” I chuckled.

I’ll never know exactly how fast we actually went. I know we covered what I estimated to be 1100 miles in about eighteen minutes, and I couldn’t help but wonder where this guy had been when I needed to get from Houston to Detroit thirty hours earlier.

 

Not long ago, on a frigid December morning in the heart of Korea, I was walking to work while in front of me an old woman pushed her cart. She looked indistinguishable from any other old Korean woman – wearing mismatched baggy floral garments, a visor in spite of the complete absence of any sunlight, a face mask to protect her from invisible germs that fly over from foreign countries, and a pair of dirty white gloves.

She was about ten paces ahead of me when it happened… All of a sudden she whipped down her baggy floral trousers and giant brown underpants and proceeded to squeeze out a massive shit on the frosty pavement, followed by a splattering, spraying, steaming puddle of piss.

I was utterly horrified, of course, and for the next two hours I taught my children upstairs in a classroom, the window of which overlooked the scene of the crime. That cabbagey behemoth stared up at me until someone was kind enough to step in it and carry it into obscurity on the bottom of their shoe.

I’ve been to Japan a few times and have always enjoyed my time there. The people are friendly, the streets are clean, and everything is so different to what I’ve seen in Scotland or Korea.

On my first trip to Japan I went on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese and knowing nothing about Fukuoka – the city in which I would spend the following few days. That’s the way I like to travel. I like the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.

I soared from Busan to Fukuoka on a high speed ferry, landing in the strange little city in the evening. When I stepped into the immigration hall I was met with a giant line of arriving passengers – all of them were Asian.

I thought nothing of that little racial quirk, given that I’d spent the previous seven months in Korea, surrounded by Korean people, rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t Korean. But there were hundreds of us in a room, lining up to go through immigration, and every single person except me was waved through.