Don’t Throw out the Bathwater with the Baby Jesus

<ding> “breath deep through your nose … in … and slowly out …”

Since I moved to SF last month, my therapist suggested I check out meditation sessions at a place called the Shamballah Center. I haven’t actually made it there yet, but I found a similar center in the Panhandle a few blocks from my place, plus a meditation group at work that meets weekly during lunch just above one of our cafeterias.


<ding> “feel your stomach expanding with every breath…”

I was a bit ambivalent about getting into meditation. The word “spiritual” in particular bothers me, like its vagueness is deliberately designed to provide the comfort of believing in a higher power and afterlife without explicitly declaring a metaphysic (be it Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever) that would then be vulnerable to questioning.

Still, there’s enough hard data on the benefits of so-called “spiritual” practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude in terms of improved mental health outcomes that I was willing to hold my nose and give it a shot. A peer-reviewed thumbs up from the scientific community carries a lot more weight than anecdotal evidence in my book.


<ding> “you are on a beach, facing the rising sun…”

I did meditation throughout my childhood as part of karate, but never for more than a minute at a time so not sure that counts as “real” meditation. I’m really not even sure what it’s supposed to feel like, so I’m not sure afterwards whether I did it correctly or not, or how. Actually, often I’m not even sure whether I was awake the whole time. But I figure I’ll roll with it and eventually get the hang of it.


<ding> “the sun is now risen overhead, feel it warming your limbs…”

I’m kinda blase about all the trappings – the chimes, the etherial music, the guy in robes quietly providing us practical instructions on how to breath or things to visualize – but it seems harmless enough. I mostly tune it out, not sure if that’s incorrect or if that’s the point.


<ding> “repeat these words: I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”

wait, WTF?

Did he just tell us to say “I am a spiritual being in a world of form and matter”?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Like I said before, I’ve never liked the word “spiritual.” It’s so vaguely defined, just a hot-swap of “religion” minus the cultural baggage. I’ve been an atheist since I realized at 16 that Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman had more to teach about the human condition than all the pastors I’d met up til then.

And this second part of the mantra, contrast our “spiritual beings” against “a world of form and matter” just felt like doubling down on the metaphysical gibberish. It’s one thing to have to hold my nose at this spiritual stuff in isolation, it’s another thing to rub my face in it. It bothered me, and derailed the remainder of that day’s meditation session.

Which was worrisome, because I didn’t wan’t to abandon meditation just because I couldn’t get past its metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Both because I wanted to continue practicing meditation, and because I didn’t like the idea of being someone who’s so intellectually rigid that I had to make that tradeoff.

Well, what if I could be intellectually flexible enough to not have to make that tradeoff?

What if I could define “spiritual” on my own, purely secular terms? A definition that avoids any trace of religion-by-another-name from slipping in. Such a definition would need to:

  1. address what is out of scope of conventional science and technology
  2. directly impact our mental and emotional well being
  3. exist strictly in the physical real world
  4. offer a narrative at least as robust as metaphysics (souls/god/afterlife)

Next post: the definition I arrived at


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Toilet Fail

Toilet Fail

On the SW face of Namsan Mountain is Yongsan Public Library.
Set aside people in the hallway not caring to see straight into the bathroom.
Or the urinals not having dividers.
Or pink generally not being the ideal color scheme for the men’s room.
No, what really makes it great?
The TP roll hanging *OUTSIDE* the stalls.


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Awww … My First Hater

I just got lambasted by some reader who followed my link through ExpatHELL.  Apparently he was displeased by the lower level of quality, humor, insight, and/or anti-Korean angst compared to ExpatHELL.

Banger: thank you for the kick in the pants.  Now please go fuck yourself.

That said, I really should get back into the groove of writing …

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It’s YOUR Problem. Now DEAL With It.

My mom recently went to DC to give a lecture on ADHD in the Asian American community.

One of her colleagues in the audience sent her the following article:

The piece started with an intriguing question:

What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

which was predicated on a very thought-provoking observation:

“But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it.”

At this point, I was ready for the article to start talking about during or after college these guys find that their lives simply stall, or at best plateau.  The cause?  The abrupt removal of parental pressure keeping accelerator pressed to the floor and of academic structure keeping the steering wheel straight.  Without these, these men find themselves coasting along directionless at best, stalled and/or lost at worst.

Instead, the article swerved towards listing the typical complaints of the “traditional Asian” household:

“When you grow up in a[n Asian] home,” he says, “you don’t talk. You shut up and listen to what your parents tell you to do.”

and ultimately devolves into just another victimization narrative:

Huang had a rough twenties, bumping repeatedly against the Bamboo Ceiling. In college, editors at the Orlando Sentinel invited him to write about sports for the paper. But when he visited the offices, “the editor came in and goes, ‘Oh, no.’ And his exact words: ‘You can’t write with that face.’ ” Later, in film class at Columbia, he wrote a script about an Asian-American hot-dog vendor obsessed with his small penis. “The screenwriting teacher was like, ‘I love this. You have a lot of Woody Allen in you. But do you think you could change it to Jewish characters?’ ” Still later, after graduating from Cardozo School of Law, he took a corporate job, where other associates would frequently say, “You have a lot of opinions for an Asian guy.”

How disappointing.

What could have been a searing, soul-searching introspection turned instead a litany of cliche grievances:

  • blame your parents
  • blame university racial quotas
  • blame the white-alpha-male paradigm
  • blame anybody but yourself

Bitch, bitch, bitch.  Whine, whine, whine.  Bitch-moan, bitch-moan, bitch-moan.

Of all the characters in the article – the author included – the only one who demonstrated any agency over his environment was the pick-up artist.

Where Are They Now?

A more interesting angle – or at least, the one I was expecting – would have been to play it like an E! True Hollywood Story profile.  You know, where they take former child stars who faded from the limelight as adults, showing how they dissipated into alcohol and memories of faded glory. Think Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone or Haley Joel Osment from The 6th Sense but with SAT scores instead of Oscar nominations.

“These bright starlets showed so much promise as children – where are they now?”

For instance, the version from my life might have charted my descent from high school 2nd degree black belt karate instructor with some stupid number of AP classes to college where, absent parental pressure, I failed class after class until I found myself on academic probation.

Then jumping forward 8 years, finding myself adrift in London: overweight, overworked, stressed and depressed from a job where I was promoted to Vice President at a company whose business I didn’t understand and in an industry that was slowly imploding.

Both phenomena can be traced to the sudden loss of drive (parental pressure) and direction (academic linearity).  And I agree with the article that this trajectory is probably common among Asian American males.

But where I disagree with the article is in deflecting the blame on these external factors: parents, colleagues, female norms of attractiveness, etc.  I’m not saying these aren’t real factors, but that they’re irrelevant.  The article is denying ownership of these problems, which in turn denies agency to fix it.

In my case, I was sick of my job, sick of my city, and sick of my life in London.  But when I acknowledged that this job/city/life were mine and mine alone, I recognized the option of walking away from it all.  Which is what I did: quit my job, went backpacking for a year, and blogged the shit out of it.

Solutions are possible only insofar as one takes ownership of the problem.

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Red Lights, Big City Feedback

A reader who came across my site via Andrew Sullivan pushes back against my initial post:

These are dubious generalizations to say the least. The rate of participation in prostitution is actually about the same in every society in the world, give or take – the differences are minor. Women are not engaging in the sex business because they cannot get unionized jobs ( obviously men can’t get them either ) and the economic imbalances between genders are in any case universal and explain nothing at all; and no, Korea actually is nothing like a Middle Eastern “emir” ( whatever that means ) when it comes to the position of women. Korean women are among the wealthiest, best educated and longest-living humans on earth. Men, meanwhile, go to prostitutes everywhere on earth, and at about the same rates and they probably always will. Disallowing photos on job applications is not going to change that one iota. They go to prostitutes in massive numbers in Sweden too but I wouldn’t want to spin a sociology out of that. In all, I have to wonder how well you actually know Korea, or any other Asian country. Your assumptions seem massively orientated towards British and American ones, but I may be wrong. By the way, there is a huge hook-up culture in Korea, actually, as there is in every Asian country – way more than in the West, in my humble experience. Again, that doesn’t mean anything. But I can’t quite see why anyone would think American sexual culture is “normal” and Korea’s is “pathological.”

Hi Lawrence,
Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response.  This is a valuable opportunity to explore both the issues and my underlying thinking process.

Let’s start with the easy part: there’s no question that everything on my original post that comes under the Conclusion header is pure speculation on my part.  I apply no technical rigor, statistical measurements of correlation, no regression analysis to prove causality.  It certainly wouldn’t pass muster in academia or journalism.

Perhaps conclusion itself is a misleading word choice.  It’s really just a narrative woven to make sense of the data points listed above the conclusion section: plastic surgery, child sex trafficking, girls working abroad, economic gender gap, and marital laws.

I will say in my defense that most of those individual data points are backed by links to other sources.  If your questioning extends as far as that, then this might become a bigger discussion than I suspect.

But I’m guessing that’s not the core issue.  Given that my so-called conclusion is really just a narrative of my own device, stitched together out of individual data points that might be valid but have no particular reason to be interpreted in such a way, what gives me the right to make such brazen, unsubstantiated claims in the first place?

I’ll admit that in a vacuum I would have none.

But I live in Korea right now.

And there does exist here a different, widely accepted narrative with regards to sex and prostitution.  That narrative is that they are a big problem and growing in severity, and that the roots trace back to some combination of the following:

  1. the American military presence
  2. English teachers from abroad corrupting young girls
  3. middle aged men who will never change their ways
  4. the young not knowing the hardship of war

In turn, the only courses of action being pursued in Korea are:

  • a lot of hand-wringing in the newspapers
  • scapegoating of foreigners via arbitrary hiring regulations (e.g. HIV testing)
  • symbolic but ineffectual cracking down of red light districts by the police
  • waiting it out in hopes that factors 1-3 decline faster than 4 rises

What is missing is any recognition that there is any economic or legal component to the problem, and consequently that any concrete actions can be taken right now to ameliorate the situation.

Will banning photos from resumes really do much to shift the ground?  Substantively, not really – even before you take into account the workarounds that LinkedIn and Facebook give.

But the intent is to change the current narrative in Korea that self-righteous indignation, ineffectual gestures, and passivity are the only options available.

Now of course, it’s not fair to expect you, or anyone else who came across my blog via Andrew Sullivan to have known all this background.

So I guess this is a case of my having succumbed to the Illusion of Transparency (I recently started reading and it’s changed my life).  I knew that my conclusion narrative didn’t meet any absolute standards of rigor but were nonetheless better than the existing ones floating about in Korea.  I just should have made that clear up front instead of expecting a reader coming in cold to understand all that subtext.

One last comment on your comments on Asian hook-up culture.  Perhaps it is more rampant than in the west, as you argue – though I’d like to see some data backing this up.  If you’re asking me to simply accept your anecdotes as a Swede who’s perhaps done some backpacking in Asia, I’m not sure why that allows you to discount my anecdotes as a Korea-American who’s done some backpacking and now lives here.

But anyway, in my email to Andrew Sullivan, I never said that there is no hook-up culture, just that it has not been normalized.  In the west, people get laid with their eyes open.  In Korea, girls are expected to live with their parents, who maintain an unrealistic expectation of their daughter’s pristine status.  So if they’re even going to the club just to dance and drink with their friends, they’re already deep across the line of acceptable behavior.  Therefore the taboos against, say unprotected sex in the alley with a random stranger is not as great of a leap.

As an aside, you’re correct that I have a US (born) and UK (naturalized) bias, and I wouldn’t be surprised if sex is healthier in Sweden by comparison.  I’m just saying that the Korean polarization between the sheltered doll waiting at home til marriage and the hard-drinking party girl is one of the most toxic environments I’ve ever seen.

And before you ask, no I’m saying this out of single male cynicism or bitterness: I’m in a healthy relationship with a Korean-American girl who has lived here for 3 years and who has numerous Korean friends who attest to the unhealthy attitudes here about sex.

Be thankful you’re living in the country that you are.

I’m thankful I’ve found the person that I’m with.


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My Intellectual Hero


OK, Ok, ok, it’s been AGES since I posted anything besides Toastmasters speeches.  I promise, I’ll explain what I’ve been up to these past 3 months and get back into the swing of writing.  I kinda have to, since Twinkies and Eggs just scored a huge coup of free publicity – which is today’s big news.

For the last 10 years now I’ve been a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan, one the most fascinating intellectuals alive.  He’s an Irish-descent, British-born, American-naturalized, gay, Catholic, pot-smoking, small-c-conservative writer.  I suppose it’s technically possible for one human to internalize more contradictions – say if he were also black, female, and in the military – but damn.  My personal conceit is to draw parallels with my being a Korean-descent, American-born, British-naturalized, engineering-trained blogger/public speaker.

I don’t read him because I agree with all of his stances – at times I find him quite difficult to read – but because I agree with the way he thinks.  He openly struggles with difficult questions without rushing to judgment, cleanly separates his axiomatic beliefs (which are open to disagreement but not to attack) from his logical reasoning of inferences, accepts and publishes emails from his audience with contrary points of view (although he doesn’t allow comments on the site), and has publicly changed his mind on issues where subsequent data contradicted his initial forecasts.

As for me, back in 2009 during the Obamacare debate, he posted one of my emails and it just about made my month.  Or it would have if I hadn’t been spending that entire month on vacation in India.

But today tops that.  Last week he posted about an debate within academia comparing the culture of casual sex among the Millenial generation currently in college vs. GenX prior.

To which I emailed back:

Both sides of the dialogue on “hookup culture” start from the assumption that hooking up is inherently wrong. As a US-born, UK-naturalized ethnic Korean who moved to the motherland five months ago to get in touch with my “roots,” I challenge that assumption. Korea lacks a normalized hookup culture, and its societal views on sex can only be described as pathological.

Between Confucianism and Christianity, there is no education in school or open discussion on sex, so the population is astonishingly ignorant of safe sex and contraception.  Even with the 15th largest economy and a fertility rate of 1.24, the overseas adoption rate is the highest in the world. Upon marriage, most women quit work and reduce sex, stopping entirely after childbirth. Husbands sleep in a separate room from their wives, who sleep with the baby.

Not surprisingly, the sex industry is rampant: an estimated 20% of men in their 20s visit a prostitute weekly.

There’s more to my email, which Sullivan’s blog reprinted in full.

Best of all, his post included a link back to my own blog – so time to get back into the swing of writing.  SCORE!

NOTE: Andrew just left for his 2 week holiday, which means

  1. my email wasn’t actually read or approved by Andrew himself
  2. the editor Chris who posted it is probably taking in a greater proportion of user-provided content than normal

I’m still well chuffed about the posting, just wanted to provide full disclosure.

Besides, maybe this means they’ll also publish my email about the Burka Avenger.

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TM CC5 – From Taekwondo to Toastmasters: How I Learned How to Learn

Project #5: Your Body Speaks

From Taekwondo to Toastmasters: How I Learned How to Learn

The following was delivered on Sun June 9, 2013 at Sinchon TM on the day of its club officers elections.  The subject matter was deliberately chosen to coincide with my run for VP Education.

How do you guys like the kung fu suit?  Pretty snazzy, yeah?

If I were being honest I’d be wearing a Taekwondo/Karate dobok right now; I started learning when I was 6.  I actually did end up learning some kung fu, along with some Capoeira, a bit of circus skills, and now finally, Toastmasters.

laos kick

You’re probably thinking “Hey! Toastmasters doesn’t belong on that list – it’s not a martial art, it’s not even a physical activity”

Which is true.

But it is a system geared towards learning a discipline, one that can feel complex and terrifying

And how you overcome those feelings comes down to how you structure 3 fundamental elements:

  • how the student explores new material
  • how the material is mapped out
  • how the instructor guides the student

Let’s start with the student side.  I’ll need a volunteer – someone who has never taken any martial arts.

<30 sec: bring volunteer forward, walk through down block, 3 practices in air>

OK, so you’ll notice that right now _______ is just blocking the air, right?

Which means there’s nothing at risk if she doesn’t do the motion quite right yet.

Worst case, she messes up and … incorrectly blocks the air.  No big deal.

And just to double check: you’ve never done this before, right?

Which means that _______ has gotten the hang of going through the motions even though she really doesn’t have a concrete sense of what the move is for.

But that’s cool.  Cause now that she can snap off the block downwards once …

… twice … <gesture pause>

if the third time I come in with a kick … <slow kick, blocked>

Notice how she nailed it on her first time?

By first performing those 2 practice runs, when the context changed dramatically – blocking air vs. blocking a real kick – she had already ingrained the actions into her brain.

In short: action first <gesture block>, understanding later <gesture to head>.  There’s no time for fear.

<send participant back to seat>

That holds equally true for Toastmasters.  Remember the first time you came as a guest and you stood up and introduced yourself?  Then afterwards you sit down for 이차 round and tell the person next to you about yourself in more detail?  Those were the 2 practice runs for your Icebreaker.

See?  Action first: even when you didn’t know what you were doing.

Of course, that begs question: what is the next action to take?

Which brings us to the next element, the material itself should be organized in such a way that it’s always clear what step to take next.


You know how most Taekwondo schools have a progression of belts: white, yellow, blue, …etc…, red, and finally black?

Many people think the point of these belts is to serve as a badge to show what you’ve already accomplished.


But the real value of a belt is to signal the instructor what the student needs to learn next

  • Oh you’re a white belt?  Then here are the basics blocks and punches
  • Red belt?  Then let’s focus on new advanced kicks and sharpening old ones
  • Black?  It’s not that you’re perfect, but by now you know your own strengths and weaknesses and can self-study

And again, the same holds for Toastmasters.

First time guests?  Try table Timer or Ah Counter.

Returning guests?  Volunteer for a table topic or even Icebreaker.

Speaking of Icebreaker, remember 2 weeks ago when MJ crossed The Invisible Line?  Now her options have opened up and she can proceed in a variety of directions: CC2, Evaluator, Table Topics Master, Officer.  It’s up to her.

The material should always be organized in such a way that it’s clear to the learner what step to take next.

Which begs the final question, organized by whom?

Now in Taekwondo, what’s the first thing the white belt learner and black belt instructor do when they see each other?
And that brings us to the most important role, that of the instructor.


They bow.

And why does the white belt bows to the black belt?

It’s respect.  Respect for the work they put in, and for the skills they’ve attained.

Now a harder one: why does the black belt bow back?

… … …

It’s also respect.

Because if white signifies 1, and black signifies 100, then the black belt recognizes that the 99 steps between them is nothing compared to that first step of putting on the white belt and going from 0 to 1.

Just as in Toastmasters, the club officers greet new members with a handshake to show respect for them taking the first step in showing up.

As Socrates said, education is a kindling of a flame.

The learner’s role is to approach the flame, overcoming fear through action.

The material, properly organized, will facilitate a seamless passing of the flame.

And the instructor, coming full circle, must recognize the potential of the learner to one day take their place, before the inevitable day that their own personal flame <wisp> fades away.

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