Thursday, September 9, 2010

Things That Occupy Us

While I was attending college, there was a pretty big shift among which people walked around with headphones on. For a long time in my experience, the people who spent their days filled with music were typically music nerds of some type. There was the metal heads, hop-hop kids and audiophiles. Other than that most everyone else went without. With the advent of the MP3 player it became less cumbersome to bring one's favorite music along. I remember the days when I would take out my Discman to keep my occupied, not only was it's shape, size and media awkward but being the only one on the street with headphones on is a little socially uncomfortable.

As time passed heads of strangers were suddenly adorned with little white earbuds. The iPod had really started to take over and made a life filled with music much less awkward. This had a terrible implications for random social interactions. No longer was it important to be able to chat with the person next to you on the bus, instead you could burry yourself if your new favorite album. And with the advent of podcasting, mixtape production and the decreased price of MP3 players they have become so prevalent that rarely do strangers speak anymore.

Recently I have been frequenting interstate bus systems and there are few places that illustrate this point as much as a crowded charter bus. 3 to 5 hours sitting in close proximity to that large number of people should provide one with the wonderful and/or horrible experience of talking to a stranger. In my travels I have oft chosen to be the silent recluse with my headphones in but on my last few rides I have attempted to engage more in my surroundings. Sometimes this is great, I had an extremely candid conversation with two strangers about the medical industry as I was sitting across from a nurse in training and a physician's assistant. They told me wonderfully horrible stories about the stated of Chicago's emergency rooms and what it looks like when someone has tremendous amounts of bone structural damage. Other times I met people with mutual friends, heard stories about foreclosure, politics, weddings and living in different states across this country.

As true with most shared travel experiences, riding a bus from state to state is a pretty horrible experience, the seats are small and uncomfortable, stops are infrequent and there are no refreshments. A good conversation with a neighbor can make this experience a little less unbearable. One of my favorite modes of travel is taking the Amtrak train. The greatest part of this experience is the existence of the dining car. The Dining car is a social hot spot among train riders, a place to gather and enjoy an overpriced beverage, hot dog and/or vacuum-packed sandwich. If there were more places like this, I think we would be a more engage culture. A great example of German Beer Halls, who have long picnic-style tables that house all of their patrons, preventing anyone from refreshing in private. Here in the US we spend out time out and about immersed in our own lives, rarely moving into someone else's life.

So here is the challenge, I love the idea of talking with strangers but I also appreciate the anonymity that my headphones give me. Now that I have experienced the delightful lack of crazy people asking me for cigarettes, telling me far too much about their own lives and generally unpleasant background noise of travel I find it harder and harder to just leave my headphones at home. I would imagine there has to be a balance between private and public but where to find it.

Image Courtesy of E-Magic

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cloudy Windows

The view from inside a plane, train or automobile can be remarkable. It seems to change depending on which you choose. The view from a bus is something else entirely.

When you see the world from an airplane things look magical. During the day you get to see the patterns that make up our living space, at night you get the perfect understand of what impact electricity has on our lives. This experience can be magical and frightening all at the same time. Last month I had the opportunity to fly into Minneapolis/St. Paul airport at around midnight. Luckily I was in the window seat and I was just amazed at the view of these two cities from 20,000 feet. First Minneapolis with its countless grid patterns linking together in the most awkward ways followed directly by St. Paul in its state capitol-esque majesty with arcing thoroughfares making slowly increasing broken circles around the capitol building. The view from this plane was quite impressive.

When riding in a car, in a new place, can give the impression of wonderment, seeing cityscapes as fresh as they are, in the country the cloud patterns, hills and prairies are strikingly beautiful. There was a summer a few years back in which I had the opportunity to travel from Detroit to Atlanta by car alone. This drive gave the the opportunity to drive straight through the Appalachian mountains in the middle of the summer. In the heart of the mountain range, at its peak, I was so close to the clouds that moisture was condensing on my windshield. On a similar trip this past summer I drove through the most rural parts of Wisconsin. The views were like travel photos from the plains of Scotland, rolling green pastures marked by the occasional free standing tree. These two drives comprise me some of the most beautiful images stored in my head.

Train travel is something completely different. The view from an Amtrak train is typically fleeting yet natural. Because of the remote location of most of the tracks the landscape is comprised of the most remote locations out side of major cities. When a train enters a city it is almost exclusively surrounded by industrial desolation. There is something poetic about this stark juxtaposition. This poetry is usually brief due to the speed at which a train travel, leaving the rider with very little opportunity to observe his/her surroundings.

The city bus is the only mode of transportation that can take all of the wonderment from traveling. It is as if the fact that someone else has sat in the same exact seat, seeing the same exact views makes everything that you see recycled. Each and every route of travels over the same streets day in and day out, countless people get on and off in different places. Every trip that you take on the bus has been traveled before. The windows are covered with the film of frequent use and the people looking through have the air of obligation. In my final visit to Minneapolis before I moved here I spent the day walking across the city, taking in all of the wonderment that urban life can provide an outsider. After spending at least 5 hours walking I was too tired to walk all the way back to where I was staying. I decided to get on the bus to provide my feet with a little rest. As soon as I picked my seat all of the wonderment that I had experienced in the hours before had completely dissipated. Surrounded by strangers I traveled back through downtown and the views that had captivated me moments before were now some how muted, as if the film on the windows removed the and intangible quality of the images I was seeing. Maybe it's the culture of the bus or maybe it's the shear lack of novelty in riding the bus but there is something unique about using it to get from here to there.

Image courtesy of edenpictures

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We give ourselves away.

First it is the discomfort; the edgy, flexing, hyperawareness of our alienhood. We feel sure that we are objects of scrutiny on all sides, and in some ways, it is true. If an American (Australian, German, etc) is being obnoxious or profane in close public quarters, we stand out. Even if we are no louder, more obviously crude or persistently annoying in terms of observable data, we feel louder. We sense ourselves as totemic representations of every possibly Western stereotype, and as long as we feel it we are mummified into the terribly ridiculous contortions of this awareness. Because of our conviction that we are perceived as:

Inappropriately dressed
Drunk and slutty
Incredibly stupid

We become paranoid the instant we step outside. These are things, perhaps, that we see in ourselves, or fear in ourselves, sometimes suddenly and immediately upon entry into a foreign country. But our real earmarks are, I think, more subtle and pervasive than any of the blatant cultural profiling. In Korea, even when we speak the language (which many of us don’t), we excuse ourselves on reflex over and over again. We apologize in posture and speech.
So here is a first bus ride. My first bus ride in Seoul. My hand palms my T-card convulsively; the idea of stepping onto the bus unprepared is nightmarish. As though the immediate assumption will be that Americans cannot ride a bus without help? As though Koreans don’t occasionally hold up the line as their card inexplicably fails to beep in, or they can’t find their wallet, or they drop a grocery bag? But it is somehow exponentially worse to be a foreigner and an idiot on the bus, and there is nothing I can do but rehearse mentally each step and gesture that I will be taking.

When we step onto the bus, we are acutely aware of ourselves. We bump into a stranger and say “I’m sorry.” At first we say this in English, which is absurd, but actually less absurd than saying “miyan hamnida,” the phrase typically rendered as the translation of “I’m sorry” into Korean. Confusingly enough, this phrase is never used to apologize for accidental contact with your neighbors. “Chesong hamnida” is the correct phrase choice, technically, and is in fact used only when you may have fractured the other person’s toe or given them a concussion. The concept of personal space is different here; your actual physical space is nonexistent. It is easy to take offense at this sudden invisibility. Americans more than citizens of any other country are acutely cognizant of their physical presence and its sanctity. Kiss a lover? Kiss a friend? Unheard of.
This is also unheard of in Korea, where I am still attempting to suss out acceptable affectionate displays. But anything short of a handbag to the kidney is ignored by the strange neighbors of public transportation. So we give ourselves away by wanting to know how to excuse ourselves or apologize in the first place. Eventually we stop flinching away from the slightest brush of bodily contact, and regain our comfort.

And then one day the zen of the Korean bus ride becomes a part of us. The city is all lights, a mad neon and concrete maze. We step on the bus and are physically impugned, but mentally, we stand on a vast and silent prairie. The respect for one another’s mental space is a marvelous and baffling gift. In a city of 13 million people, the city bus slows and stops for a man in an ill-fitting suit. The bus smells like engine oil and dust and sour human warmth. A rich woman tucks her bag in her lap and talks softly. Her cell phone bangles clicking louder than her voice. A young couple watches a baseball game silently in one of the double seats. Her head rests on his shoulder, as they share earphones. The dominant sound is the hiss and honk of the bus itself as it drags moaning up the hills of Bugak-san before dropping into Gyeongbokgung.

Subways here are much the same, but the bus for some reason has a greater attitude of shared space and inner quiet. There is a sort of tranquility that is not alien-ness or the dreadful knowledge of not-belonging. Rather it is a communal decision to respect the need for moments of calm before plunging back into the mad electrical frenzy of one of the world’s largest cities.
And there is something valuable it gives us to be part of this city, its vibrant shimmer and its incandescent unstoppable roar. But more than that there is a wonder, the revelatory experience of a daily commute on the rainbow spectrum of buses. The metropolitan engines squeal and blat and shake through a mad warren of streets. Inside, mouthing the Hangul of an advertisement to ourselves, we discover an immense internet place of our own, a vacant Eastern place where our thoughts become thin as strands of hair, and we are peaceful, empty, and alone.

Even when we’re thigh-to-buttock with an adjuma.

Sandra T. is currently teaching English in South Korea.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mousyboywithglasses

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I believe in Poor Life Decisions

I believe in poor life decisions.

I believe that sometimes the worst result today can provide you with the best outcome in the future.

In the summer of 2005 I decided to move across the state of Michigan for a girl. I rationalized this decision to my friends with statements like “I want to closer to my family” “it is all about the school.” When really it was all about the girl.

This was a poor life decision and I knew it. But sometimes we need to make these decisions. My decision to move across the state was one of the best I have ever made.

The first year living in this strange place I had two major social outlets; The World of Warcraft and a rapidly deteriorating relationship. This, as you can imagine, was not a healthy environment. Unbeknownst to me this year filled with nights staying up too late in front of my computer with a headset on and nights staying up too late getting in shouting matches with my girlfriend, would lead to self discovery that I feel lucky to have experienced.

During this turbulent year I signed up to participate in an alternative spring break through my University. I did this because I thought it would provide me with an easy way to meet friends and I had never gone anywhere for spring break though I always wanted to. Little did I know that it would be a catalyst that would change the course of my life. Having never volunteered for anything in my life I was a little unsure what I was getting myself into but when I got into that 10-passenger van and started my journey to rural West Virginia there was no doubt that I had made the right decision. I spent my first spring break trip installing cabinets in a brand new house. This house was built by GED students who were looking to acquire job skills in construction and sold to a blind man in the community, who was homeless, for $4,000.

Halfway though the trip I realized that there was a part of my life that had been missing until that week. Community service was something that would make me a healthier person. When I got back from my trip I submitted an application to help and coordinate the program that had just greatly impacted my life. After being accepted for the position I was sent to Chicago to participate in a conference for alternative breaks programs and had the opportunity to meet people who were just as passionate as I was, from all around the country. This empowered me to take back control of my life.

I got out of my extremely unhealthy relationship, I quit playing WoW and put all of my extra energy into providing opportunities for other to do service during their school breaks in hopes of providing the same experience that I had had. And without realizing it committed myself to life-long service.

All of this because of one poor life decision.

Audio recording of the above.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A story I like to tell

Here is the story of why I chose Minneapolis as my new home.

It all started in 2003, I was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan attending a community college there. I was just starting to discover that rap music was more than what they played on WJLB in Detroit. There was a whole host of musical artists of this style that were hustling in the underground music scene. Slowly but surely I started listening to Aesop Rock, Sage Francis and some other better known indie rappers when one day a friend played for me a song that would start it all. The track was "Woman with the Tattooed Hands" by Atmosphere. You have probably heard of Atmosphere with his recent rise in popularity but for me in 2003 it was a revelation. I became a bigger and bigger Atmosphere fan and started to explore other artist on his label, Rhymesayers.

Three years later, after seeing shows and buy CDs by Minnesota rappers I took my next step toward the state I would later call home. While attending a Minus the Bear concert I noticed a few Rhymesayers stickers and some merchandise. I thought that maybe Rhymesayers had started to diversify it's artists, to my benefit it had not. The first two opening bands were exactly what I expected in a band that would open up for Minus the Bear, rock music. The third artist to play that night goes by the name of P.O.S.. If you are unaware of him, he is a rapper who has a large punk rock influence. On both points, not what I expected from this show but he sure did deliver. I was hooked on his music from that point forward. After about 6 months of my obsession I realized that he was a founding member of another Minneapolis based indie rap label, Doomtree. Just like with the Rhymesayers label I started to explore the label in it's entirety and was very impressed with my findings. At this point I should have started to become interested in the state of Minnesota but I was still caught up with the places I was more familiar with.

In the summer of 2008 I was desperately searching for a music festival that I could both afford and would take me out of the state of Michigan. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Minneapolis hosted a Hip-hop festival every summer and the tickets would only set me back $25. I picked up a ticket, grabbed my partner and headed west to the Twin Cities ready for a great weekend. My experience in Minneapolis over this long weekend was more impressive than I could have imagined, there was culture, style and tons of green space. I started to believe that Minnesota was a pretty cool state.

When it came time to start thinking about what I was going to do after school ended, Minneapolis quickly became one of the places that I looked for work. After applying to countless Americorps programs in Colorado, Washington and Minnesota I was offered a position working for an organization in Minneapolis. I tentatively accepted the position wondering would life would be like outside of my boyhood home. As a final test of my decision to move, I decided to take a trip to Minneapolis, this time with exploring being the only objective. I used the website to find a place to stay for free and once again headed west.

This trip would turn out to be impressive. The people I stayed with were extremely friendly, pointing me it the right directions to make my exploration as positive as can be. My first afternoon alone in the city I headed out on foot to try and find a neighborhood that I felt comfortable in. My direction of choice was north-east. After walking a considerable distance I came across a craft store called I Like You, they had astroturf covering the floor so I decided to go in. After browsing the wears that they were selling, and being bummed out that I was too broke to buy anything, I started talking to the woman behind the counter. This conversation lasted at least an hour and provided me with one major place in the city to find, Fifth Element Records, the store owned by Atmosphere. I started walking west on Hennepin only to discover that it intersects quite oddly with Lyndale and I took the wrong fork in the road. After walking about 3 miles I realized that I was lost and I really need a place to sit down. Thankfully I passed a coffee shop, called Muddy Waters, and decided to duck in. I grabbed a cup of coffee and pulled out my computer to find out where I was. The next few surreal moments would cement my decision to move to this city.

Sitting at a table facing the door, hot, tired and lost I was a little out of it already. When I looked up from my computer toward the door I was blown away when Dessa, a rapper on the Doomtree label walked through the door and grabbed a table not to far from myself. After finishing my coffee, while stealing glances of this celebrity in my world, I got up to reach my destination. And the next bomb dropped, sitting there smoking a cigarette were two of Dessa's cohorts, Mike Mictlan and Sims. I said to myself at that moment, "there is no way I can't move here."

Here I am almost a year later, sitting in the same coffee shop (watching more Doomtree rappers walk through the same door), confused as to why it took me so long to find this gem in the Mid-West.

Image courtisy of Flickr user Bob B. Brown