Surely I smirk as I write this, surely I’m rather pleased with myself to show off how much I’ve traveled around our little planet in my pathetically short life—10 countries in Europe and Asia, but please hold your applause until after this post is finished—so I was not a little offended when I first heard this song by the Beatles, from the “Past Masters” album—a song I’d never heard before, which came as a bit of a surprise since I spent several years of my juventude listening to the Beatles with my gray cd-playing walkman almost without ever taking the headphones off, even as I slept—though I am said to say that that divine walkman has long since vanished into the netherworld where all things go when we no longer have any use for them.
This particularly exquisite tune seems to tell us to stay home and stay in our rooms rather than travel abroad and explore the brave new world lain out for us like a second Cleopatra unrolled from a second Egyptian carpet—and what lunacy is that! what silliness! everyone knows that only ignorant savages never leave their homes! 촌놈 시골에! my hometown in Maine seethes with them like BB gun-toting cockroaches!
Regardless, the lyrics are taken from the Tao Te Ching (and oh if only it had been Lao Tsu and not Confucius whose philosophy was suffocating and driving to insanity the jagged green little half-peninsula of South Korea!, that Punchinello!, that demi-paradise!)—
Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven
The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows
Arrive without traveling
See all without looking
Do all without doing
Who but a hick could believe such rubbish as this! And we all know how well-versed those Tea Partiers are in ancient Chinese philosophy; practically every third sentence out of Sarah Palin’s voluptuously inviting lips is a quote from Mencius!
So I focused on the sounds more than the meanings, but the subtle, devilish ideas penetrated my soul, and I began to think about them a bit more. I can remember resting from the broiling Cambodian heat at one of the many spectacular temples outside of Angkor Wat, and watching with disdain a pack of Korean ajumma tourists fanning themselves and wearing the same stupid head visors as always and continuously babbling the same word to themselves—Hanguk! Hanguk! Hanguk! Korea! Korea! Korea!
(when I later complained about them to my mom, she told me that they could have been talking about how there is absolutely nothing in Korea that can hold even the most infinitesimal candle up to the mind-rocking ecstasy of Angkor Wat; this is indeed possible, but still)
A different group of Korean tourists was making a racket at one of the temples that Coppola may have shot for the end sequence of Apocalypse Now, photographing themselves with the nubile nymphet Apsaras and generally acting just as idiotic as they always do at home; and yet another trio of youths was riding an elephant up to the top of the only mountain in the area, uttering perhaps the most common phrase in Korea—Hana! Dool! Set! One! Two! Three!—photographing themselves on their enslaved mount. I am a hypocrite but I obviously despise people who ceaselessly photograph themselves.
(Needless to say, after they got off at the top, this same mount charged back down the path rather angrily, roaring and growling and blasting its trumpet loud enough to knock down the trees!—and, naturally, scaring the shit out of me, as I was in its way and hiking up the mountain on foot. Getting the shit scared out of you in such a primeval way is definitely a unique experience and I highly recommend it, only, make sure to bring a change of pants, socks, and underwear)
The same people were to be found in Turkey, photographing themselves jumping up and down on the top of Mount Nemrut—the camera was quite fancy and mounted on a tripod, as the sun was setting (they planned ahead so they could post the pictures on Cyworld and make their friends back home sad and envious, according to my fiance). A different group preoccupied itself at Ephesus by walking around without even looking at the ruins and telling idiotic jokes in Korean that I actually partly understood—“Mom, somethingsomething please; Mom, something different please.” And I bash the Koreans here but it should be noted that Ephesus in particular and Angkor Wat as well was crawling with hordes of idiotic tourists from all over the world; one essentially ensures that one’s mind will be degraded when one joins a tour group and does not travel alone or with very small groups of friends.
The point of all these mildly racist anecdotes is to illustrate how we take our worlds with us wherever we go. Those Koreans, surrounded by themselves, took Korea with them wherever they went, and acted just as if they were on any number of the stupid theme park excursions available to them within the borders of their great nation, their precious stone set within the silver sea. I only saw them in passing and I always find myself despising Korean tourists with a peculiarly inappropriate intensity when I travel outside of my new home, but I suspect their minds were not enlightened in the slightest by their ventures abroad. All of the young ones were still sitting around in their hagwons, cracking jokes and talking over their teachers; the ajummas were still selling baskets of tofu out on the disgusting sidewalks of Busan, sheltered from the viciousness of the sun by the hastily-erected cardboard walls of refrigerator boxes.
(as for that last detail, I do not exaggerate, that unfortunate halmoni can be found hawking her fruits and jalapenos in the afternoons outside one of the tech stores on the main stretch of Sasang between the subway station and the Nakdong river; I pass her every day on the way home from work)
The song is partly about this. What’s inside is the same as what’s outside. Obviously, very obviously, we cannot expect to learn about the world, and to be inspired to joy by the myriad wonders of the world, if we are not ready and open-minded. For an American to go abroad and seek out pizza and hamburgers is absolutely the height of stupidity and ignorance; Koreans apparently travel with ramen noodles and bags of kimchi safely tucked away in their luggage so they don’t have to sully their tongues with inferior foreign cuisines—and the barbarism of this somewhat notorious cultural practice is so outrageous I want to throw open my window and scream until my throat bleeds. Lauren Hill asks “How you gonna win if you ain’t right within? How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?”—and no one else could say it better.
I still disagree with my favorite Beatle, Mr. George Harrison, as well as the Tao Te Ching, but I see where they’re coming from. I spent a little under two months of 2010 living the nomad life, darting from place to place once every day or two, often sleeping in a different bed every night, and I have to say that such a life beats the sedentary civilized one by far, and that mankind as a whole is quite insane to have given up the freedom of movement for the stagnation of being sedentary, so I cannot surrender myself to sitting in my little apartment for the rest of my days and dwelling on the vast oceanic labyrinths surging beneath my consciousness—but the idea itself is welcome to join the senate of notions forever jockeying for attention within the little bony congress that is my skull.