On Traveling

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”


-Thanks to Cindy! 😀


Selling Out

I was walking in the London metro to my transfer point when I heard the sweet melody of a saxophone permeate the dirty porcelain walls all around me. The sound of the saxophone sounded very inviting, especially in the likes of a city such as London. I walked toward the music, and I could hear that the sonorous sound of the saxophone was accompanied in the background by a high-tempo prerecording of the song, complete with a catchy bassline. I continued to follow the sound along the narrow bends and curves of the metro and finally found myself at the entrance of a long corridor, with people busily scuffling by.

Plastered against the wall, there was a man in his late 60’s who was busy playing his beloved instrument. His hair was grey, and neatly wrapped in a ponytail behind his head. I took a closer look at his instrument. The saxophone that he was playing looked as if it had endured many years of use, as the original luster of the golden metal was fading away, kind of like when a brand new copper penny turns rusted and discolored when subjected to moisture and time. Beside him, he had a little pull-cart which had a respectable looking amplifier with an old Sony Walkman spinning wildly.

I stood to the side and eyed the man from a distance, while absorbing the tunes that he was sharing with me, and the rest of the people in the metro. The first song that he played was “Tell me more” from Grease, a song that I am quite fond of.  When playing the song, he played with such great passion and vigor that it made me want to dance along. In fact, the man would often throw out a kick or two here and there according to the music.

I reached into my pocket and shuffled around for some spare change to give to the man. After all, he already made my day by enjoying his music and he probably has a hard  time getting by, being a street musician and all. I finally found a 50 pence coin and after contemplating if it were too much (the pound is nearly twice as much as the American dollar, thus making this 50 pence piece almost a dollar) I walked in front of the man and generously tossed in the coin into his saxophone case (which was glittering with all of these other coins that other people had contributed). I thought to myself how he must be pretty good, considering that he had a respectable amount of donations from others.

The man smiled at me and continued blowing into his saxophone, pushing out rich and substantial notes into the air. Quit enjoying his music, I stuck around for a while and made an “audio snapshot” of his music by recording with my mp3 player. I closed my eyes and could feel the music flowing through me, almost transporting me to another place. The walls around me seemed to disappear, and all that I could hear and see were the colorful waves of music flow around me. Guitar-playing street musicians are a dime a dozen, but those who play the saxophone are quite rare.

Every now and then someone would toss in a coin or two and give the man a cordial smile, as if thanking him from bringing some joy and happiness into the gloomy “dungeon” of the London metro. I stuck around for maybe five minutes, and then suddenly felt a great urge to talk to this man and find out about his music-playing history.

At the end of one of his songs, he put down his sax and took a drink of water in the bottle next to him. I slowly approached him and told him that his music sounded beautiful. He looked up and thanked me for my kind comment. I then asked him how long he had been playing the sax. He replied that he had been playing the sax as long as he could remember, and that it is something that he is incredibly passionate about.

I then sheepishly asked him what his favorite song was, and if he could play it for me. He then paused for a moment, and looked at me, as if formulating his thoughts and what he wanted to say. After a moment he told me that he had a lot of favorite songs, but he wasn’t able to play them at that moment. I asked why, and he told me that he couldn’t because his favorite songs couldn’t earn him any money. He leaned in and almost whispered in my ear that his favorite music wasn’t the pop-songs that he was playing in the subway, but jazz.

Drawing his saxophone to his lips, he then spit out a series of rapid and soulful notes that felt like it was straight from his heart. He told me of how much passionate he was of jazz, and how immensely popular it was in the 70’s and 80’s. He then let me know how in the early 90’s it started to slowly fade away, and that people were soon drawn to pop-music. As a street-musician, nobody would give him any money for playing jazz, so he had to resort to playing these pop songs to make an earnest living.

I then felt terrible for this dilemma that he was in. Here this man was, playing music that he didn’t really like to earn a living. He was unable to play the music he truly loved because he couldn’t earn an honest buck off of it. Play the music you have a burning desire for and starve, or play trendy music that you don’t really like, but at least be able to put some food on the table?

There are many “starving artists” out there who are faced with this same situation everyday. Stick to the art that you love, or “sell-out” to the man so you can make a living? Believe it or not, 50-cent used to be a very respected underground rapper who would rap imaginative and well-crafted rhymes before he sold out and starting spitting out songs like “Candyshop” and started making movies. Many renaissance painters were often commissioned by rulers to paint certain images that the painters weren’t quite fond of, but had to in order to survive.

Staying true to your art or selling out? It is indeed a very sticky subject and I don’t think that there is a clear-cut answer to the problem. One side vehemently opposes the idea of “selling out” and stresses that people should stay true to his or her own art, no matter how little money they make. However the other camp fights back, saying how artists have no other choice but “sell out” in order to pay the bills and keep the electricity on at night.

I feel that both sides have legitimate claims and that the issue is not black/white, but rather it is composed of different shades of gray. It is of upmost importance to stay true to oneself and practice what one truly finds passion in, but one must also be realistic and make sure that he or she doesn’t find him or herself on the streets.

As a photographer, I find myself in the same little dilemma as well. I love my specific niche in photography (street photography) and it is one of my greatest passions, but I seriously doubt that these images that I take of strangers in the street can help me earn enough money to keep a roof over my head. Should I start selling mousepads and coffee mugs of my images in order for me to dedicate more time to shoot photos in the streets? Or do I work in a field that I find less personally-satisfying and use my little free-time to take a couple of snapshots here and there? Only God knows what will happen to me in my future, but until then I guess I will continue promoting my photography as only a “hobby” and nothing more or less. Who knows, maybe one day I will take the art-world by storm, and sell hundreds of books of my work and have a countless amount of exhibits around the world.

Well until the end of the year, hold off in buying a new calendar for the 2010 year. Who knows, you might find a special-edition “Eric Kim Photography” calendar hanging on your wall.

Home is where the heart is

After spending two months in Korea while teaching English and backpacking around Europe, I can say that I have had one of the most life-changing summers of my life. During my time in Korea, I have made many new friends and rekindled old ones, improved my Korean, found more time for writing and photography, all while making a few bucks on the side. My backpacking trip through Europe was equally as great during my time in Korea, where I had much time for self-reflection and contemplation, and being able to truly go out and see the world.

What I have learned through my time abroad is that home is where the heart is. I have always valued and revered the idea of family and home, but I don’t think I truly grasped how truly precious it was until my personal self-revelation while trekking through half-way across the globe.

Backpacking through Europe has been my dream for several years, and I was finally able to accomplish it. Europe has always appealed to me in several ways, from the romance of Paris, the history of Rome, the artwork of Florence, the scenery of Cinque Terre, the surreal canals in Venice, the culture of Prague, and to the urban scene of London. I always saw Europe as much more appealing than Los Angeles in many ways and that it was my ambition to go out and see the world. Although I knew practically nothing about traveling, I took out a $5000 loan from school and booked all of my flights and rooms and headed out of SFO with no regrets and no fears.

Despite what you may believe, life overseas is not much different from back home than one may think. When it comes down to it, People from every nation love to be social, sleep, eat, and drink. Although different countries have different landmarks, cultures, and foods, they share much more similarities than differences. Although there is that initial “wow-factor” of experiencing new cultures and places, there is nothing you can’t do overseas that you can’t do back home.

Sure it seems romantic to sip wine in Paris, but what makes that experience any different from drinking wine back home with a loved one in a romantic setting? We all want to ride the gondolas in Venice and have a guy in a striped shirt row you along narrow canals, but aside from being overpriced and not too thrilling in actuality, you can always go to your local lake and rent your own boat (don’t forget to pack a picnic too). Seeing churches and museums are nice in Rome, but how many of us have seen all of the historic churches and museums from back home?

Sometimes we got to quit living with a telescope to our eye to see all of the great things in life that we have right before us. By always dreaming about traveling overseas, I lost sight of all the blessings that I have back home.

I do not, however, regret traveling overseas. In fact, it took to me traveling overseas to figure out how precious home truly was. There is a saying in the Bible: “Where your heart is there your treasure will be also”. I always believed my treasure to be somewhere in Europe, but when going there, it always seemed to lead me back home. Finding that my treasure was truly at home, rather than overseas, I think that is where I found my heart.

Trip to Pohang

We left Suji at 12pm. After work, I rushed back home and tossed all my stuff into my backpack and met my hyung (성태) at 낙생고등학교. I was pleasantly surprised that he had a 2-door SUV, which would be incredibly comfortable for the trip. It was just me and him, and we tossed all our stuff in the trunk and went on our epic trip to Pohang(포항). He had a GPS that was huge and had tv/mp3 and all the bells and whistles. It was instrumental in guiding us safely to our destination.

Anyways in the car ride, we talked about the most random stuff. It was also great stopping by these little pit stops in Korea to get stuff to eat and also getting coffees. Talking about politics, society, and philosophy were a few of our topics. During the ride we got pretty tired and I wanted to sleep really badly but forced myself up so I wouldn’t let my friend fall asleep at the wheel. He then started to sing all these random Korean songs… most of them traditional or old-school. I was amazed by his sonorous voice which seemed to permeate the entire car. It was deep, rich, and full of emotion. Finally at around 3am I couldn’t take it anymore and fell asleep for an hour or so.

When I awoke, we were extremely to one of our stops; Bulkuksa temple. It was around 4am and it was extremely foggy and there was this huge windy road leading to the top. I remember at the bottom of the hill we saw some elderly people trying to hike up the treacherous mountain, and commended them for their tenacity. On the ride up, my hyung turned on his foglights which illuminated the narrow and twisty road quite well, but I remember seeing him swerve into the left lane several times on our way up which made me extremely anxious. I remember looking at the extreme bends that I saw on his gps and thinking that it was just like a video game… Initial D to be exact… driving on the mountainous hills.

Anyways, we finally got to the top and I remember how extremely foggy it was but yet mysteriously romantic. It was around 5am now, and it was lightly sprinkling. It was also cold as hell… I remember shivering in my shorts (the only pants I brought) and regretted not bringing some jeans and a sweater. But anyways, we wandered around a bit, taking in the majesty of it all, with me snapping a ton of photos. We were both extremely tired (my hyung got no sleep while I only got an hour or so) but we headed toward the entrance. The man in the front told us that they were closed until 7am, so we headed back to the car and slept until it opened.

Now with us being recharged with about two hours or sleep, we went through the entrance of Bulkuksa and headed to the main temple. The morning air was incredibly crisp and fresh, with every breath in feeling like I was having pure oxygen. I cant quite describe the experience in detail, but it was probably one of the most beautiful mornings I have experienced in my life. It was also still sprinkling, and I remember patting myself on the back for bringing an umbrella “just in case.”

We finally got to the top and after getting a sip of water from a spring (which was damn refreshing), we headed up a flight of stairs to see the main temple. Inside the temple, encased in glass, was this amazing Buddha statue that stood up to be around 20 feet tall. There was a sign on the left saying “no photos”. I took a picture of the Buddha statue and the sign as well.

After basking in the beauty of the place, we both headed back to our car to go to go check out this padoga (like a tiny statue of a tower) that is on the 10 won Korean coin. The place was equally as refreshing in terms of nature, and it was great to see all the traditional Korean architecture around the place. My 35mm wasn’t cutting it anymore in terms of trying to get everything in, so I threw on my 24mm which gave me all the wide-angle goodness that I wanted. I remember just getting a few snapshots here and there…. Nothing too artsy or anything. I was trying to enjoy the experience more than trying to get tons of photos.

After checking out that place, we headed further inward toward Pohang and stopped by another place which was supposedly a pond created by some Korean king thousands of years ago. The man-made lake was quite beautiful, and littered with tiger lilys all around the middle. We took a stride around the perimeter of the lake, while taking our time and just enjoying the nature of the place. It was quite beautiful….although it felt a little played out after seeing all the other gorgeous places that day.

Somewhere along the way we had Ddak Jjim which was damn delicious (see the picture) and then we headed to Pohang. We drove for another 3 or 4 hours and we finally got near our destination.

Pohang was very cloudy and overcast, and was slightly sprinkling intermittently. However just driving around the place, I got a much different vibe than Seoul. Here was a tightly-knit community where it seemed that everyone knew each other and where people were generally much kinder to one another. There were a lot of authentic-looking Korean structures… which were made without a bunch of planning. Thus it caused the place to seem more genuine… rather than the planned structures that dominate Seoul.

Our first destination was to first get some bomb ass-food. Along the way my hyung kept on telling me about this famous dish in Pohang which is raw fish mixed with water and all these other stuff. It sounded pretty weird, but I was open to new experiences so I told my hyung that I was totally down.

Before we ate lunch, we checked out a traditional market in the middle of Pohang. I will try to describe the place as best as I can. Imagine a classic scene that you see from pictures in Asia; women sitting down trying to sell their food or goods to people walking by with the entire place overflowing with people. It is a very genuine experience, especially when it comes to Korean culture. It seems much more personal than the often impersonal shopping experiences that we have at supermarkets. Kinda like farmers markets back in the states, but on steroids.

But anyways, I tried to capture the mood and experience of the place as well as I could in my photos, but I don’t think that I was truly able to. Photography definitely has its limits. One photograph can only show you so much, and a series of photographs can help more but doesn’t really grasp the atmosphere of a place. The only way that you can really get the sense of the place is to be there in person. To smell all the exotic scents, to hear the clamoring of people in the streets, and to twist your head around in every single direction is the only way that you can get a true “feel” of the place. However as I know how the human imagination is aided by photographs, here are some.

Anyways while we were walking around, we soon entered the center of the market where they sell what Pohang is famous for; its fish and seafood. You could seriously find any crustacean, fish, or marine life if you were there. There were even some places that sold huge chunks of shark and whale. The smell of fish permeated the air, and it was pretty entertaining to see all the fish squirm around in tanks that kept them alive until they would be brutally chopped alive to pieces for human consumption. While walking around though, we got barraged constantly by people trying to convince us to eat at their restaurant. But these people seriously went the extra mile. They didn’t just call at us to go eat at their place from in front of their restaurants; rather, they followed us around for around 2 minutes trying to convince us why their restaurant was better than all the others.

We finally ended up settling at a place and ordered that fish in water-dish I was talking about. Before the food came out, they gave us a plethora of side-dishes that ranged from pupas (Korean people love them, but i cant stand their smell) to seafood. When the dish finally came out, it reminded me a lot of the Korean dish, Nengmyun. There was ice inside there and thinly sliced raw fish with radishes, spices, and seaweed. After pouring in water and mixing it all together, I dove in and damn was it delicious. It was quite possibly the freshest fish I had in my entire life that was refreshing and satisfied my taste buds to the max. They also made a spicy soup with the left-overs from the fish bones which was delicious as well.

Afterward, our next destination was the beach. Before we went to the beach, we found a motel nearby and checked in there to sleep in later. After unloading our things and marveling at how great the deal the motel was (only 25 bucks a night for a private room that has air conditioning, cable, etc) we headed to the beach. When we got there it was a little chilly but we decided to take off our shoes and check out the place regardless. There was a handful of people there that made the place seem more lively. It was also the perfect amount of human life; not too much people, but not too few people.

Anyways I kicked off my shoes and proceeded to walk down the beach with my hyung in my barefeet. Feeling the refreshing water flow in-between my toes was an experience that I haven’t felt in a while that made me really open my eyes to the small beauties of life. Something as simple as walking down the beach with a close friend with the sound of the water roaring in the background was more satisfying than all the riches in the world. I walked around with my stalker lens and snapped a few pictures of the beach, but tried hard not to be caught in the act. Fortunately all my training as a stealthy street photographer kept me largely unnoticed.

We were soon pooped and decided to head back to our motel. There were no stations to wash our sandy feet and we failed to bring a towel, so we decided to walk back in our bare feet. It was probably another of the most epic parts of the trip. In the beginning it was fine just walking in the streets on the asphalt. A few pebbles here and there, but nothing too serious. I saw a few shards of broken glass bottles, but some quick maneuvering kept me from any serious injury. I remember thinking to myself how strange it felt walking on the ground with my bare feet… a memory that I haven’t had since probably when I was a child. This further led me to realize how disconnected humans have become to our environment, and something as simple as walking around in one’s bare feet can really make us have a small epiphany about this fact.

Walking barefoot on the street was chumps change… nothing too difficult although it felt very strange and foreign. However, the worst was yet to come. Before we could get to the motel, we had to cross this huge parking lot which was littered with these tiny stones. And damn it was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life. My bare and naked feet that had been protected with shoes its entire life had no idea the hell it was about to endure from the relentless attack of random pebbles and stones on the ground. Every step was like a thousand little devils poking at me at the bottom of my feet with their tridents, cackling with laughter at my pain.

However this experience was very strange.. as painful and arduous as the experience was, it was incredibly liberating at the same time. To be faced with this pain, but at the same time knowing that it would come to an end once I passed this red-sea of rocks was something I quite looked forward to, and had my heart-set on accomplishing. So I bit my tongue and cursed along the way in a mixture of English and Korean, with my poor little feet begging me to stop. But I ignored the signals that my body were sending me, and let my mind take over. When I finally crossed over, a sense of euphoria overtook me and I gave myself a little pat on the back from enduring and succeeding in this small endeavor.

Finally at the motel, we both KO’d on the bed for about two hours, until we had to get up and meet a friend of the hyung that I came with. When my hyung was living in po-hang for around 6 months, he befriended a guy at the church they were both attending at the time. He told me all of these great stories that they had together, imitating his Korean accent (Gyung-sangdo Satoori… a pretty well known dialect in the south). We then headed toward his church and parked out car closeby, and waited at the beach until he came. Listening to the sound of the water crash on the beach, while holding up my umbrella to shield myself from the light rain seemed incredibly romantic for some reason.  I totally forgot about all of the worries and concerns in my life during those 30 or so minutes on the beach… just reflecting about life.

His friend finally came and we headed to church together. The church looked very homely and inviting from the outside, and during mass it was beautiful to see the small yet intimate community they had there. It seemed like everyone knew each other and what the church lacked in quantity in terms of membership, they made up in quality and from tightly-knit intrapersonal relationships. The church looked quite lovely inside as well, and it was not too big nor too small. It was just right. What I also found funny was that the priest also used the Satoori dialect that many of my family members in the countryside use. During his homily, he didn’t simply read from a paper; he started his sermon with some chit-chat about the weather and such and how things were going in his life. It really helped clear the air and made the environment seem much more friendly and personal, which helped open up the channels of communication between him and the audience.

After mass, I became more acquainted with the friend of my hyung. He looked quite young for his age (I suspect he was around 40 or so) and I could tell of his superior character when I first met him. He was extremely friendly and talked to me like we knew one another for a while, and he gave me a lot of respect in saying that I spoke Korean incredibly well considering I was born and grew up in the states. He gave me a little spiel about how too many Koreans from the states don’t care about their culture or language anymore, and that anybody who is ambitious enough to try to preserve it should be commended. I was starving at the point, and we decided to go eat some Korean Sashimi. Living in po-hang, the friend of my hyung knew all the bomb places to eat that had the freshest fish, while giving the best service.

We soon came to a place and got seated, and started to talk about random stuff regarding how my hyung and his friend knew another and met, and also stuff regarding politics in Korea. I had no idea, but it seems like a ton of people in Korea are really upset with the current president, Lee Myung-Bak and they say he is too conservative and isn’t implementing any of the changes that he promised during his presidential campaign. We shared all this pleasant conversation while having some ridiculously delicious food. There were like a million side-dishes and they gave an extrorbinant amount of sashimi as well. All of this was not complete without soju of course, so we shared a few shots of soju as well… which I am getting pretty accustomed to.

After saying our goodbyes we soon parted ways with my hyungs friend, and went back to our motel room. After showing we turned on the air conditioning and my hyung knocked out first on the far right side of the bed toward the wall. I stayed up a bit typing my note about the people that I met in Korea and also typing up this document as well. I also saw the men’s Korean national basketball team playing the Philippines and I think Korea ended up winning by like 10-20 points.

But I didn’t know the hell that I was going to experience that night. My hyung seriously snored worse than doh and brian combined. It was like being next to the belly of a beast. Every snore seemed to shake the room and make it vibrate like it was cowering to his powerful presence. At first I wanted to wake him up, but I knew that he needed some sleep driving back up to Seoul so I ended up not shaking him or anything of the sort.

However the snoring was pretty unbearable. I tried to ignore it at first, but his snoring shook my core and penetrated my eardrums. I cursed myself for forgetting my earplugs back at home (I have become pretty reliant on them) and remembered the mp3 player in my bag. I then put it on and tried to blast it loud enough to cancel out the sound of his snoring. In between beats I could still hear his snoring. However I tried to bear through it, and ended up falling asleep sometime later that night.

The way up seemed much quicker than the way down. We ended up chatting a bunch about politics, philosophy, and a ton about 이명박. Along the way we also made a few pit stops. One pit stop towards the end in 인천 was pretty memorable as there was a pretty talented musician there singing and playing the electric guitar, and buying “Co-Pop” from BBQ chicken which was a cup of coke with a little suspended container that had fried chicken.

Anyways, we finally ended up getting back to Seoul where we said our goodbyes and parted. 할머니 felt pretty 감동 from him helping me out, so she asked me for his phone number, in case she wanted to hook him up with somebody else (he is 35 and unmarried). Hopefully she can hook up my hyung soon.