Friday, April 5, 2013

Hitting A Wall: An Atheist In Israel

I don't really blog anymore. I guess I have less funny things to say here than I did about Asia, so I have mostly dispensed of my online commentary. I found this piece that I wrote for no-one two years ago. I'm not sure what I think, but it made me think. 

So, for your consideration...

Hitting A Wall: An Atheist In Israel

I press my hands against the blocks and look up, but I can’t see the sun. I am in the shadow of something enormous. I turn my attention back to the mass of grey in front of me, running my fingers lightly down the minute cracks in this intimidating fa├žade. On either side of me, my friends are murmuring prayers and questions into the wall. But we’re only the most recent; this place knows the suffering of thousands. It’s hard to leave, and I retreat slowly, letting the full scope of the place flood my field of vision as I back away. Finally, our group is rejoined, and we depart. I can’t help but look back one last time, just long enough to glimpse, in angry drips of black spray paint:

“Fuck this apartheid bullshit <3”

Said turns to us with an expression I cannot interpret. “Welcome to Ramallah.”

            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

I am not a Christian, Muslim or a Jew. I’m not really anything. I didn’t understand when I took my first religious studies class in the fall of 2006 that it would come to shape the course of my undergraduate career. But this story isn’t about the flipping of a switch or some singular, crystallized moment of clarity. It’s about a turning point.

This wasn’t a beginning or an ending.

It was just something in the middle.

            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

[Author’s Note: While, in my mind, nothing we did on this trip was particularly dangerous (for us or either of the governments we visited), I’ve been advised to keep the details of our journey vague. Which is fine, because in truth, it wasn’t really about any specific event anyway. It is more about the nature of a place that forces you to align yourself. To an outsider, Israel screams one question more loudly than anything: “What do you believe?”]

Tonight, I feel the anger like a physical blockage in my throat. At this moment, spirituality is not a serene abstraction. It is a question bellowed in rage, ricocheting off the rooftops of Ibileen. The conflict I witness here confronts and magnifies every conflict I know internally. All of the hurt and rejection of my youth comes tumbling recklessly out of my mouth, spilling across the faces of my friends. Memories start flying through my head like missiles, exploding light onto places in my mind kept locked for years, revisiting the protracted, clumsy pilgrimage that has led me to this moment, Godless in the desert.

I recall with absolute clarity, at a conference for middle-class God-fearing teenagers of the Midwest, placing my forehead on a gigantic wooden cross, making my mind more vulnerable than ever before. I remember the lock of soft brown hair falling across my youth leader’s eyes on that bus in Utah as she tried, nicely, to explain why my best friend was hell-bound for being a boy that loved boys. The girl with the yellow sweater who raised her hand in the middle of our Introduction to Buddhism class to inquire “where Jesus fit in”. And now, Matthew’s arm draped over my shoulders as my venomous words fly simmering into this cool May evening, my fury rendering me inarticulate. The shame and disappointment of exposing my heart and mind to a God that never showed me any similar courtesy- it all pours over me like a flash flood. I have studied faith for years. I have met with archbishops, priests, chaplains, rabbis, imams and monks, and debated countless hours in middle-of-the-night, over-caffeinated conversations about the nature of God. I couldn’t explain why I had to physically come to the Holy Land to finally accept that I couldn’t believe. 

In a way, this realization was beautiful in its irony. Life as an atheist Religious Studies scholar is filled with these conflicting sensibilities. My love and respect for my faithful friends casts an even harsher glare on my own spiritual shortcomings. But I know exactly what devotion looks like, and I know that I’ve never felt that way. Still, it took a long time to discover that a life as a half-hearted Christian was the only thing more painful than admitting you’re not one at all. The turning point is about a change in how you define yourself, choosing to categorize your spirituality by the things that you do stand for, rather than conceding to the implicit accusation of something flawed in the core of your soul.

Back in Israel, my mind is muddy. Hot tears flow indiscriminately onto my chest, mingling with the sweat and dust of the Mediterranean. For all the things I can’t understand and the people I’ll never know. For the heat and the hostility and the hope. For the grainy, horrible pictures at Yad Vashem and the libraries of Bethlehem, stocked with textbooks smuggled in foreigners’ suitcases. For my own paltry problems. Out the window, they’re cutting down olive trees. Israel isn’t a place that requires metaphors.

Later in my trip, I would find myself in front of the Western Wall. For all of the faults I find with religion in general, I say with equal honesty that the ten minutes I spent in that place was the closest I ever felt to the idea of God. Two weeks in this land was overwhelming; I have little concept of the lifetimes that have played out on this ground. But I do know that this is the place that changed me. I have felt a shift in my humanity, the kind of calling I never understood until now.

In the future, I will do what I can. I will read and study and make this problem my life’s work. I’ve put you on my soul, and I will come back. But for now, I will join you, scratching my knuckles raw, beating my fists against these walls and stuffing our dreams into the cracks of history. My request is simple, five words scratched onto three inches of parchment:

“Let us both know peace.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Letters From Terminal 3

I have had four bottles of Summit Natural Drinking Water (that I suspect is not natural at all).

I have played so many games of solitaire that I've forgotten what year I'm in.

I'm sitting next to a booth of either Cambodian Christian Evangelicals or drug runners that switch tables every time one of them wants to "talk numbers".

I have exactly one pen, one deck of Bicycle playing cards, one novel on a fake Alaskan Zion and 8,000 pages of homework to occupy the remaining three hours of my fourteen-hour detention in the Ninoy Aquino airport. The Fashion Rack is alternately blasting inappropriate club music and mind-numbing Nickelback singles at old Filipina women shuffling flowered luggage through the 4th floor departures mall.

Cambodian guy has run off to the bathroom for the third time in an hour, intensifying drug mule suspicions. Then again, his mustache and hairline may be sufficient evidence of a vengeful God.

Jury is still out.

Strongly contemplating alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Two hours, fifty-two minutes.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Nuclear Nihon Vacation

There are a lot of things to be said about my jaunt to Japan, but I suppose that first of all, I'll say this:

this trip very nearly didn't happen.

And you want to know who to blame?

Children. And Buddha.


I guess I shouldn't be bitching. It's only due to the unique confluence of strange Asian holidays that I got to take this pricy little mini-break in the first place. The plan is to go up to Seoul Wednesday after school, hop the high-speed KTX down to Busan, crash for the night with a Canadian Couchsurfing host and then catch the 9:00 ferry to Fukuoka. This beautiful, pain-stakingly crafted plan is blown to smithereens about 30 mintues into the Icheon-Seoul commute.

We are not moving. This is not "heavy" traffic. This is not "rush hour" traffic. (As if an any more inaccurate moniker existed.)

This is I-hate-everyone-and-everything-around-me traffic.

This is praying-for-the-world-to-end-so-I-don't-have-to-listen-to-this-crazy-ajumma-yapping-on-her-phone-for-one-more-second traffic.

This is traffic so bad I would rather watch the movie Traffic. This is saying something.

The cause of this traffic? CHILDREN. I have a profound disdain for children most of the time anyway, but this is too much. The reason for all of this traffic is CHILDREN'S DAY. Which I'm pretty sure is a fake holiday anyway. I hate children.

So, we're late. We're really freaking late. This bus trip normally takes an hour and we are now clocking in at three and a half. Even yet, there is still a shred of optimism left in me. I'm thinking "Oh, so great that I decided to come up right after school! My KTX isn't until 11:30, and it's only 10!" No, friends. No.

After shoveling something from Paris Baguette in my mouth, I decide to catch a cab. SURELY this will be faster than the packed subway. I will be at Seoul Station in no time. No.

I am running, sprinting, breaking land speed records up to the ticket gate at Seoul Station. It is 11:23. I have made it! No.

The attendant checks my ticket and frowns. My heart sinks. I READ THE TICKET WRONG. I was on the 11:00 KTX, which is probably halfway to Gwangju by now. Meanwhile, there is a very nice Canadian in Busan waiting up until two in the morning for me to stay on his couch for free. I am having a meltdown.

I call Matt the Canadian in a complete panic. I am now choking over raggedy breath and frustration tears trying to explain to this guy I've never spoken to in person that I have missed my train. And bless his moose-eating heart, he was the greatest sport in the world. He assured me that the 5:30 AM train ticket I bought would probably maybe get there in time to catch the 9:00 ferry and then texted me the name of the port in Korean for the taxi driver. God save the Queen, and Matt the Canadian.

I am exhausted from frustration and my five hours of travel but still need some place to rest my head for the night. After wandering around Seoul Station for twenty-five minutes, I come upon the skeeviest love hotel in the creepiest alley I've ever wandered down at two in the morning. I pay $30 for the privilege and sink into the bed in my blue-lit, sparkle wallpaper room. I watch an episode of Jersey Shore at 2:30 AM and fall asleep for three hours.

I wake up at 4:30 in the morning. I have lost my will to live. I wrench myself out of bed to take a zombie shower and watch animals killing each on the Discovery Channel while I dry my hair. I nearly forgot to put socks on. One more salute to the prostitute at the ice machine and I'm off.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Miss Yun-erisms, Part I

So... Koreans say funny things sometimes. Even though these are not all Miss Yun-specific, she was pretty much the inspiration for this post, so I am naming it in her honor.

The funny stuff of late:

Deuces Wild
Context: I had my hand on the right side of my stomach and was grimmacing, following another dose of Korean lunchtime intestinal-hate when Miss Yun spotted me.

Miss Yun: "Jennifer, are you okay?"

Me: "Yeah, I'm okay. It's just that my stomach hurts. I'm not sure how you say in Korea... (pausing while trying to conjure word for indigestion)..."

Miss Yun: "OH! Jennifer! You can't... make a deuce? I'm sorry!"

... sigh.

I Hate My Job
Context: Sleepily trying to make conversation with my third-grade before-school students one morning.

Me: "So, Ju Hyun, what did you do this weekend?"

Ju Hyun: "Working."

Me: "Oh, really? What do you do?"

Ju Hyun: (puzzled expression then rapid-fire Korean discussion with my co-teacher, Mr. Hyun)

Mr. Hyun: (completely non-plussed, reading a newspaper) "Picks up cow shit."

Jesus What?
Context: Regular class lesson, probably doing a Jeopardy game.

Me: "Okay, class, what is another word for 'religion'? Do you know?"

One of my students, Sang-Cheol: "Superstition."

... my kids impress me sometimes. Polysyllabic English humor? I had to laugh.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Don't Believe In Air Conditioning, He Says

I cannot understand you, Steve. I nod encouragingly, as I am clearly supposed to, but this is all a little overwhelming. I am trying, and failing, to inconspicuously tug my short-shorts and tank top into a less revealing position. It's 2 AM, and this Austrian is wide awake. I really couldn't tell you what he was pontificating on at this exact moment, but he is pacing around the far end of our room, occassionally checking to make sure I am still his captive (audience). I become fascinated with his impressive beard and fantasize about placing things in it while he sleeps. Just as I loll over to prop myself up on an elbow, settling in for the rest of this lecture, the pants drop.

Hello, Steve.

* * * *

Let's backtrack. It's day four of winter vacation, and my flight has just landed in the Phnom Penh International Airport. The air is dusty and dry. I have not planned this. I hop into a cab and literally decide on a hostel on the way downtown. Stab at a point on the map, and my driver grunts assent.

The amount of motorbikes here is wild. They roar loudly all around me, bobbing and weaving through every manner of vehicular transport on this crowded road. Max number of people witnessed on a single motorbike: 5. Wear a helmet.

We arrive at Royal Guesthouse, whose sign is slightly obscured by an unsettling amount of ferns. To my suprise and delight, the front desk girl was a peppy little Australian-Korean girl who informed me that they had one room left.

A Cambodian housekeeper took me up a treacherous flight of poorly lit stairs to check out the room. After wrenching the five-pound padlock off the gate (better safe than sorry...?) I had arrived. My room, interestingly enough, had three beds. I quickly decided that I was going to sleep in a different one every day. Left my stuff on Bed #1 and precariously picked my way back down the stairs.

When I sidled back up to the reception desk, the host was engaged in an intense discussion with a burly, auburn-haired lumberjack of a man, speaking with an accent I did not recognize. As I'm standing waiting to get my room key, I realize that the lumberjack is distressed because he always stays here when he comes to Cambodia. The girl explains that I got the last room. Lumberjack turns to me with mournful eyes.

There is no way out of this.

So now I have an Austrian roommate. Steve.

Steve is a barrel-chested pro backpacker that apparently hails from the mountain country of eastern Europe.

Things I Learned About Steve (in the first 20 minutes of our relationship):
- Steve does not believe in air conditioning.
"If it's hot, it's hot."- Stevely wisdom
- Steve is positive 9/11 was an inside job.
- Steve does not appreciate socialism.
- Steve does not appear to appreciate any other system of government.
- Steve does not appreciate Obama. Or really another other American president.
- Steve does not have qualms about silly things like personal space.
- Steve's backpack weighs more than I do.

After our initial meeting, Steve and I both leave for our separate adventuring. What I do not realize is that there is but one room key.

So. After a day of rambling around Phnom Penh, I am quite content to crash into my bed at 9:30 PM. Makeup's off, clothes are off, fan is going full speed. Coma.

All of the sudden, someone is pounding on the door. I wake up, not sure what country I'm in, and scrabble around trying to find a tank top and shorts. I'm rubbing my eyes as I lurch toward the door. And there's Steve.

Steve is awake and feelin' chatty. I don't appear to have a choice in this matter.

The TV is flipped on, and Steve starts giving a running commentary on the BBC. I have to pay pretty close attention to his lips to suss out what he is saying. The European stocks are down. And then, in what I'm sure he considers a hilarious play on words,

"Oy! The Euro stocks arr gone down same time-as mah pants!"

Two words: Banana. Hammock.


I do not know the protocol for this situation. Steve is still chattering at me as though he is not standing in front of me next to naked. Am I supposed to look at him? The ceiling? My fan? Run out of the room screaming? I am troubled.

I suppose part of the problem is that I sort of can't stop staring. Is this normal in Austria? I'm pretty sure that a package this size probably has its own intelligence and can start wars.

Steve and I ended up spending three memorable half-clothed nights together. I'll never forget our hours of awkward one-sided conversation and partial nudity. I was sad to see you go Steve, but hey- we'll always have Phnom Penh.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Every Little Earthquake

It's the purple rice again. This is never positive.

The Daewol cafeteria has this sick predictability: if, on any given day, I am presented with a meal I do like, the next day will be met with a meal I inevitably hate.

Today was that second day.

By some unfair twist of fate, however, today's potentially-mushrooms-and-onion soup was not my greatest food catastrophe of the week. No, no friends. That dubious honor is held by the seriously misguided menu of Gangnam's Tree Pub.

We came in, unsuspecting. Beers and soju are ordered. All is pleasant.

And then the ovens of blasphemy opened, and the chef deemed it necessary to slather our nachos with sweet chili sauce. And whipped cream.

We all sat, staring at this thing for a minute, mistakenly believing that we could transform this offensive dollop into sour cream by sheer force of will. Unsuccessful.

We tread lightly, crunching slowly. Some last longer than others. I quickly resign. This concoction has no business being called nachos, and is an affront to processed-cheese lovers everywhere. I am deeply saddened.

In Korea, the sad drink. Well, really everyone drinks. But I think it's safe to say that these inferior nachos were primarily to blame for our questionable decision-making that evening.

Throughout this appalling bastardization of Mexican culture, we are being gawked at. Three Korean fellows at a table behind us. What we later learn is that there is actually a friend number four, who happens to be passed out under their table.

In a classic display of "committing too early", we agree to join these gents at a larger table on the other side of the bar. They all speak varying degrees of shitty English, and appear to be in a generous mood. Someone orders a fruit platter.

Chung Su, the drunk compatriot, appears to be quite literally passed out. He curls up in the fetal position next to Natalia, and isn't heard from for the next four hours.

We bore quickly. We want to dance. Someone pays for all this booze we have ordered, and we're off.

Harlem. Usual. String of below-average military fellows, all wearing affliction T-shirts and various horrifying jewelry pieces. Skinny, excitable young Korean guys that hand us silver, shimmery business cards. Too much filtered-in artificial smoke. Vaguely recall at one point purchasing $10 worth of bottled water. Chat with Omaha bartender. Yawn. Been here, done this.

It's 4:30 AM. We're done with this place. Eating in some tiny late-night Korean joint. Spicy ramyeon that kills my lower intestine for the next 48 hours. Mono-syllabic answers muttered to some way-too-awake Korean fellow that has accompanied our group. Laughing ourselves hysterical at this pathetic, Amero-trash scenario. We have an hour until the subway starts moving. No jimchilbang in sight.

Coffeeshop across the street. We are clearly not the only people with this idea. Crash into a booth to count out the minutes until we can fall asleep standing up on the 2 Line back to Gangnam Terminal. None of us order anything. Nobody seems to care.

I've never been so happy to be on a bus in my life. I remember the first 120 seconds of that ride, the rest is lost to the most powerfully deep sleep of my life. That bus could have dropped down a rabbit hole straight into hell without me noticing.

It's probably around 8 o'clock in the morning. The streets are dead, as is the air. It's freezing, I'm in leggings, and my apartment is ten minutes away. The Paris Baguette is thoughtlessly not yet open, and I mentally resign myself to a day of hot dogs and leftover Christmas cookies.

I fall into my ugly pink bed and am dead to the world for 12 hours.

Blame the nachos.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Go Ahead, You're Only Half Mad

"Dark clouds are hanging all around.
I try to pick myself back up, but I keep falling down.
Sometimes I can't even get out of my bed,
Thinking about the night before and stupid shit that I said.
It's at the point that I'm focused on hibernation:
Less interactions with people, less complications.
Alcohol and altercations, Tylenol and conversations-
I'll be falling off the face of the Earth if I don't change.

Can I rediscover my mind? Are we wasting each other's time?
I don't cry, I don't look up at the sky and ask why.
But sometimes I feel like I'm patiently waiting to die.
Go through the motions, try to put the pen to paper with love.
But I'm still holding back, afraid of what I'm capable of."

Today is a weird day.

This weekend was fun. Seoul always has this way. Predictably chaotic.

I know I haven't really been blogging for awhile. I think that I've been pretty in my head lately, and suffering some writer's block.

Last night, that block exploded. I was up until two in the morning, scribbling and typing and pacing around my miniscule apartment. For whatever reason, I've been thinking about Israel a lot lately, and that was what came out. I miss the Middle East.

I think that Korea is finally getting normal, and that has something to do with why all this noise in my head is suddenly getting louder. Maybe it's just that I'm so used to being freaked out in Decemeber that some residual internal finals clock is being triggered out of habit.

This week the kids have exams, and I'm free to be mentally adrift all day. I've started to think about the big picture. I spend hours over cheap beer trying to locate a next move. I'm becoming aware that sometimes traveling is just another word for running.

I live in South Korea now. I have a job and friends and a life.

But I can't shake the feeling that I'm needed elsewhere.