It’s My Birthday (Groan)

Due to my crappy memory for anything besides Simpsons quotes and sports statistics, lots of my childhood memories come from parental second-hand stories. My dad tells embarrassing scatological stories of my first few years with an uncontrolled bladder and my mom mostly fills in details from questions about my elementary wanderings. One story that can be corroborated was around my 5th or 6th b-day. During the common “Happy Birthday” song, I burst into tears. On a grainy home video, I’m sitting at the head of the table in a darkened room with a little conical hat, fires burning atop my sweet cake, family illuminated in shadows performing that droning incantation and you can see it coming. My face drops and I lose it. Even as a tiny kid I didn’t like that song.

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On Applying to Be The New York Times’ Travel Writer

When I was in elementary school, I had a globe with raised mountains and sunken seas on the surface. The tactile senses elicited by slowly roaming my dirty little fingers over the nubs conveyed a palpable sense of something beyond me, beyond my little town, in the mysterious lands across the Atlantic ocean in which I’d swim every summer. That was my instant and distinct connection to the larger world. What was out there? Continue reading

I Remember This. Do You Remember That?

I remember in university, taking a Toni Morrison literature class. My African-American  teacher graded my final paper and told me I didn’t understand what the writer was trying to say about identity, helping me realize how it must feel to be black and read William Faulkner. It’s not easy to identify with something outside your identity. Despite that class being my only C of my last two years of school, that teacher did teach me something that stuck with me; the idea of re-memory. That is, remembering a memory. We all tell stories from memory. Homer, the ancient blind storyteller, conveyed great epics orally from memory. But, why do we only remember some things. Why are some memories, some smells, and some moments more memorable than others? Continue reading

The Recycling Program

The old lady ambles across the street in baggy floral pants, shuffling her tattered sandals along patchwork sidewalks pulling a large, flat wheelbarrow loaded with possibly hundreds of pounds of cardboard. People steer slowly out of her way, barely glancing up from their smartphones. Cars pause before her path; buses wait for her to cross the street, yet she is somehow disregarded as an inconspicuous piece of city life, discreetly moving among the masses.

She is the can rattling along the sewer grate in a breeze. She is the stray cat mewing in a filthy corner. She is the invisible working poverty. I wondered about her. Does she have a family? Are they proud of her for continuing to work at her age or embarrassed of her lowly standing? Does she make good money recycling? Where does she go after work? I tend to think Koreans can ignore her along with the legless beggars of Itaewon and subway stations, but do they see her and feel pride or shame? Is she a part of their former provincial history that hasn’t been eradicated by modernization? Or is she just a helpful part of the trash removal system that rewards salvaging?

All the same, she is one of many familiar faces in my neighborhood. I know the cardboard ladies’ faces, just like the sock sellers, cell phone hawkers and tteokbokki dealers who I pass along the daily travels of my main street. I look at them, but never too long. They have penetrating eyes like black holes of vague awareness. I don’t know if those are the sage eyes of a lifetime of labor or the darting eyes of cardboard pursuit. Their wrinkles tell stories I can’t translate. Their tanned skins tell of extensive work hours my soft moisturized hands can’t possibly understand. Their rotten clothes speak of a humility most educated people wouldn’t recognize.

They serve a purpose; they do their job. How long have they done this job? One lady is so hunched from pulling those massively heavy, overloaded carts that she is literally shaped like a number 7. I see them chatting together at twilight, on quiet, dusty stoops, holding their faces in their hands as they speak, caricatures of themselves, like living black and white photos of a poorer time. What do they talk about? What do people unlike myself talk about? What can permanent disfigurement caused by toil teach a person? I can learn, again, to cease any entitlement to complain and strive to be thankful, positive and respectful.

What’s My Age Again?

For years, I’ve always looked younger than my age. I suppose at 12 I may have looked twelve, but after that, I was always mistaken for a younger version of myself. Once, around 27, a local campaigning politician came to the door of my parents’ house and asked for my mother or father. I replied they were out, and she asked me if I was old enough to vote. Continue reading

Do You Have Mail?

There are only a few things more heartbreaking to me than seeing a person of elderly status in their robe and house shoes shuffling out their driveway to look in the mailbox. In no order: abused animals or children; animals covered in oil; young children with terminal illnesses; and finally, severe addicts. All but the latter are innocent and helpless to control the problem, but it also hurts to watch an alcoholic order another drink when he doesn’t need one, or a gambler stumbling to the ATM again. Continue reading