An nyong ha sae yo! (That’s “wassup” in Korean…)
Thanks to the gracious hospitality of my Uncle Pat and Aunt Yong, recent transplants to Seoul, i had a precious opportunity to stop over in Korea for nearly a week on my way back to India (after a whirlwind maintenance visit to the US with some short but sweet family time). I knew very little about Korea before i arrived but, not being one to miss a good chance to discover a new corner of planet earth, i jumped.
For those of you who don’t know Korea but do know a Koreatown in a city near you, picture that Koreatown and then visualize it going on and on until it’s big enough for over ten million people. Then add an excellent subway and bus system, some impressive old temples, and enthusiastically helpful people, and you have an approximation of Seoul. Almost nobody speaks English, but they love charades, so getting around is fun with the right attitude. It’s apparently very safe, as well.
But, as pleasant as Seoul was by city standards, the greatest treasures of Korea lay in the old Buddhist temples of the south, in the region around Gyeongju. Built in the 7th and 8th centuries, these architectural wonders (many now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites) are elegant reminders of an age when relaxing the mind was a top national priority. Don’t make ’em like they used to (neither temples nor nations, it would seem, and one could make a case about minds as well…).
A highlight: sweating my way up the sacred and picturesque postcardy mountain of Palgongsan to reach the ancient temple of Donghwasa, only to discover at the top that, well, Donghwasa isn’t there. Everyone had pointed me that way, no doubt because that’s the way i was already headed (i should’ve figured). But a very kind young local couple (an LG engineer and a college student) who were hiking on the mountain for a date (Koreans are SERIOUS about hiking) were kind enough to walk me all the way back down and over to the entrance of the temple, just ’cause they’re nice like that. The temple compound of Bulguksa was also a must-see, must-sit, and/or must-have-picture-taken-petting-golden-pig.
Our Own Private Truman Show
Back in Seoul, i had the privilege to visit a perhaps unlikely tourist destination. The US Army base is 4000+ acres of carefully reconstructed American suburbia, complete with a Starbucks, three schools, a golf course (virtually the only facility on base that doesn’t run a budget deficit), and its own fire station and health inspection department (to keep the Pizza Hut and Subway in line, of course), all sitting on prime real estate in the middle of Seoul with a very expensively secured perimeter. The US base in Seoul is a military Truman Show with the biggest Burger King indoor playground you’ve ever seen. If you pay taxes in the US, you might be pleased to know that, thanks to your $60+ million per year in infrastructural support funding, everyone on base is living comfortably despite the Army’s inefficient management. Possibly more comfortably than you, but who’s counting?
As a pragmatist who concedes the reality that, like it or not, the US will continue to have a massive worldwide military presence for the foreseeable future, and who believes it would be in everyone’s best interest for the US military budget (and global presence) to be scaled back considerably without giving active duty troops or veterans the short end, i have long wondered how best to pull that off responsibly. Always looking for the win-win, i was very pleased to learn (in some detail, thanks to my uncle’s expertise) that there are hundreds of millions of dollars that could be saved every year by taking the US military out of the business of building and managing entire universes. The military isn’t especially good at building and maintaining cities (and it shouldn’t have to be), and just imagine the unwieldy task of managing a global constellation of them. It’s a phenomenally expensive exercise in incompetence, waste, and diffused focus (to say nothing of the complex issues related to international perception of the proliferation of US military bases, which is another conversation).
Win-win solution: Keep the training facilities under the military domain, OK, but, as for all the support infrastructure, let others who are good at that stuff handle it. This is a case in which various private sector players (hopefully with an appropriately competitive bidding process) can do a much better job with those things on a much smaller budget, and the hundreds of millions in savings can be divided between, oh, let’s say, for starters, taking better care of veterans, advancing sustainable energy independence, and improving schools back at home. Is that not a win-win? There are task forces inside the military who know clearly that it is, there are good folks like my uncle advocating for it strongly, and there would be politicians on both sides of the aisle who would see the good sense of it. Unfortunately, so far it has been in nobody’s political interest to push it through the US Congress because (a) the general public is utterly without information on the issue, and (b) consequently, the only lobbying is from the special interests defending the status quo. Such downsizing of support infrastructure is clearly the smartest thing to do, and one of the best ways to save a LOT of money (in some cases half of peacetime expenditures if not more), but it isn’t popular, mostly because some folks would need to find new jobs and/or new golf courses… and, well, it’s “change.”
Speaking of “change,” back home in Bir (that’s our new digs in the Indian Himalayas, in case you didn’t catch that last time), the kitchen sink stopped up for a spell while we were cooking for a dear friend visiting from Colorado. I fiddled with it for a minute to no avail but, a moment later, Dara emerged from pipeland victorious, with slimy fingers and her characteristic grin, announcing, “Dara the Plumber endorses Barack Obama!”
Just in case any of you in the US considered staying home for this one, i should mention that the whole world over here is counting on you to vote. For better or worse, US elections are bigger than the US. I’m meeting countless people from all over who have never tracked a US presidential election in detail before this one, but they sure are now, and i have yet to meet a single non-US citizen who’d prefer to see McCain in the Big Oval. And it’s fascinating to witness the myriad contortions of faces from different cultures when the name of his running mate is mentioned… To put it kindly, the USA has made herself a curiosity among nations.
Indeed, at this point, the damage to the US’s international image is so severe that even a hypothetical president of superhuman wisdom and power would not be able to restore her honor and integrity in a single four-year term. And, to be honest, i’m not convinced Obama can or will deliver much of the kind of change that i personally would like to see, and i’m particularly concerned that his foreign policy may prove still too aggressive to be in anyone’s best interest. But i do believe that in this election Obama is the best chance the US has to take at least a few important steps away from provincial gunslinger bravado abroad and wholesale swindling at home and toward bringing a modicum of humanity, decency, and integrity to a White House that has lacked those qualities for too long.
Of course, all things that change will change again, and things that change one way can turn again to the other, so the best we can do is get started and take it as far as we can, as wisely as we can, before the next inevitable reversal of the pendulum.