Summer in Boston, the American Dream, and how everything can change in a year

Facebook’s “On this day” app reminded me a couple days ago that it has been a year since I left Korea. In that year, so much has happened and everything has changed. I started school, my family moved back to Toronto, and over the course of two semesters I have shed skin, and over, and over, and over again. I will be returning to Korea for a week this month before I head to Manila for HPAIR’s Asia Conference; I don’t even know what to expect because I have been gone for an entire year and feel like a different person.

For the majority of my summer – excluding crazy travels to Europe and upcoming adventures to Asia – I have been in Boston, doing research at the Graduate School of Design on public transportation policies through the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s Summer Research Fund. I’m working for a professor, writing political background notes on each of the cities that she is studying. It’s been an amazing combination of everything that fascinates me – (comparative) political science, cities and urban studies, environment and geography…what I’ve enjoyed most is seeing how previous political decisions, culture, and geography shape the way public transport decisions are made. Here’s an example: I read a fascinating book about sprawl in Los Angeles and how America was built on the idea of endless space and limitless growth.

The houses and automobiles are equal figments of a great dream, the dream of the urban homestead, the dream of a good life outside the squalors of the European type of city…Los Angeles cradles and embodies the most potent current version of the great bourgeois vision of the good life in a tamed countryside.

-Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971

I’ve been learning a lot more about America not only while reading for research but also as I’ve been spending much of my free time seeing Boston. It is such a historical city, as one of the oldest in America and the starting place of the Revolutionary War. Doing the self-guided Freedom Trail Tour with my friend gave me a glimpse into the foundations of American society: the fight for freedom from a “tyrannical” colonial government that imposed unfair taxes, and how that has led to a political culture against government intervention in any situation. In so many ways American government and society functions so fundamentally differently from those of other countries, and I’ve learned a lot about why and how. In fact, my entire year here has been a learning experience in that sense. From the “outside” there is almost always an impulse to mock these concepts of aggressive freedom. Regardless, for better or for worse, America is indeed special.

Yesterday, I went out for Saturday brunch and realized I made the stupid mistake of leaving my wallet at home after ordering. I usually don’t uber, but given time constraints and the fact that I was a thirty-minute walk away from my apartment, I called one on my phone. I ended up having a fantastic conversation with my uber driver, who was from Rwanda, did his undergrad at an Ivy League institution, and worked at a biotech company during the week and as an uber driver on weekends to save up for traveling. As an “outsider” there are so many things you can’t help but notice about this country: in his words, it is at the same time the best and the worst place to be. Many things don’t make sense, like how there is no welfare system or how the education system is so broken. But the concept of a liberal arts education, the freedom to study and pursue what one wants, blending in and fitting in thanks to the amazing diversity, these are things that can’t be taken for granted. These things are so often talked about that it seems redundant and meaningless to point them out, but sometimes it hits me how different things could have been if I had decided to live elsewhere.

Another dose of insight: On top of my research, I have been leading workshops for people visiting Harvard on topics like “How to get into a top US school” or “What makes an Ivy League education special?”. This has also endowed me with perspective and made me much more appreciative of the education that I am receiving. Taking a humanities class taught by two Pulitzer Prize winners, going on a field trip to an energy facility and walking inside a wind turbine, working for the former Minister of Education of Colombia (post coming on this later…), putting together a conference and a half, visiting the World Bank for a conference on climate change, interviewing two former heads of state, and seeing a dozen more visit campus…these are opportunities that don’t just fall on every nineteen-year-old’s head. But I don’t want these realizations to ever become an obligation to feel grateful 24/7. And I know a lot of people around me do feel that obligation. So it’s about walking that middle ground. As I am trying to find my feet in a new land, seizing good opportunities that come along (while trying not to drive myself crazy from lack of sleep), and in a funny way of my own, chasing the American Dream, these are some things I always want to keep in mind.

As with many of my posts, I want to end with a (long) list of things I have been doing this summer (and a list of suggestions for anyone who plans on spending a summer in Boston, in no particular order):

  • The Museum of Fine Arts – the Hokusai prints are detailed, witty and alive. Glad that I saw the exhibition before it ended!
  • Harvard Museum of Natural History & Peabody Museum of Archaeology – the section on Harvard history and Native Americans at Harvard adds a new perspective to this place. This institution is old, flawed, but constantly renewing itself (much like myself, except maybe not old).
  • South End Open Market
  • Harvard Art Museums – Works by Picasso, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, etc. just casually in a building I took a class in last semester. I can’t believe I never took the time to visit…
  • Shakespeare on the Common – King Lear (and magic: it started raining as the Fool recited this line: “That sir which serves and seeks for gain/ and follows but for form/ will pack when it begins to rain/ and leave thee in the storm./ But I will tarry; the fool will stay…”)
  • Carpenter Center “Summer Summits” – the view from the terrace of the Carpenter Center at sunset reminds me that there is still so much worth seeing at Harvard that I have not yet discovered. Planes fly overhead more often than expected. Maybe this place is more transient, with people always coming and going, than I realize.
  • Museum of Bad Art – in Somerville Theater. The movie theater itself is 50s-esque, quintessentially American in the way that a diner with red vinyl chairs is. The “museum” which is closer to a room with a dozen “works of art” is hilarious and ridiculous. The movie that I watched – “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” – and this “Museum” had the same friendly, offbeat vibe.
  • Freedom Trail Tour
  • 4th of July
  • MIT Museum – I could write an entire post about this…probably one of my favourite museums of all time.

So far, my summer in Boston has been magical. It has been a time of rediscovery and reorientation in what I thought was a familiar space. It’s weird being on campus and getting eight hours of sleep a night. I feel unprepared for the school year to start, but September is approaching quickly! At the same time, I can’t wait to leave for my end-of-summer adventures in Korea and the Philippines, and especially to spend a week in Seoul, my Seoul.

Until then,

K

Paris Syndrome, or on being a tourist

I once met a French person who was visiting Boston, and he said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry that you have to go to school with a bunch of tourists. Trust me, I hate them too, I grew up in Paris.” To be fair, I don’t mind the tourists on campus – that is, when I’m not late for class and can’t cross the yard because there are people everywhere poking around with their selfie sticks. (Side note: during the summer the tourists at least quadruple. Last week, I counted ten visiting groups within a 5 or 6-meter radius in the yard.) And, from time to time, I don’t mind being one, either; I can safely say that I was not much more than a shameless tourist in Paris. Which some people might have an aversion to admitting. I thoroughly enjoyed drinking wine in front of the Eiffel Tower, walking along the Seine, macarons and éclairs and crêpes, museum marathons, and dodging aggressive beggars in front of Sacre-Coeur. (Maybe I did not enjoy the last part so much.) I wish I could have stayed longer because four days was definitely not enough. Some impressions:

1. I am often adventurous to a fault. I am also trusting to a fault. When I saw a cheap Airbnb listing for a “cozy apartment with a view of the Paris skyline”, with a grainy picture of a bed and a balcony, I did not think twice about booking. Upon arriving, I discovered that the room was on the eighth floor and could only be reached by climbing a steep, winding staircase. The room itself (a small studio, or what I have since discovered may also be called a “bedsit” – not attached to any other rooms) was barely big enough to fit me and my suitcase, the ceiling slanted to one side so that I could not sit up in bed. And to say that I am not a big person would be an understatement. The number “1911” was inscribed above the entrance to the building, which I can only assume was the year it was built. Closing the window incited an unfamiliar claustrophobia, but opening it made it impossible to sleep because of all of the noise – it seemed as if the entire city of Paris was on the street below.

I went on a walking tour and found out that I was staying in what was once a maid’s quarters. A man named Baron Haussmann undertook a renovation of the city in the 19th century, widening the roads, building a sewer system and creating parks and open spaces throughout the city. Part of his new design for the city was the uniform Haussmann-style apartments, which have since become characteristic of Parisian streets. Despite having seen these buildings in pictures, I guess I had never thought about the small windows on the top floor (until I ended up staying in one of the apartments there).

The interesting takeaway is that people were, at the time, opposed to Haussmann’s radical rebuilding of the city. At the time of construction, citizens were opposed to pretty much everything else now notable about the city: the Eiffel Tower, the Centre Pompidou, the Pyramid at the Louvre…which just shows how “modern” is often taken to mean “ugly”, and to some degree that’s true. (I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after returning, and there was a large installation on the wall that said “all art has been contemporary”. Profound.) Even many of the newer buildings at Harvard are still seen as ugly – Mather towers, Canaday Hall, etc, and in my opinion they really are. I don’t know if that’s because they were actually poorly designed or if we just think that way because they are not three hundred years old.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, username Malingering. The Eiffel Tower and Haussmann-style buildings, two legacies of once-unpopular
Photo courtesy of Flickr, username Malingering. The Eiffel Tower and Haussmann-style buildings, two legacies of once-unpopular “modern” design

And sometimes, preservation comes at the cost of accessibility, or safety, or other issues that Baron Haussmann might have been thinking of. In June, I visited a historical house in Toronto, where retired volunteers gave tours and baked buttery biscuits on a stove from Victorian-era recipes. At the end of it, our tour guide said that “a building barely two hundred years old might not feel very old, but at the rate new condos are rising, soon enough we won’t have much to call history.” I agree and disagree. Preservation is indeed important, but the condos – much as some people might not like them – do serve a social function. They make housing more accessible for people like my family, and can be more energy-efficient and resource-efficient. How do we break down and rebuild when necessary? (The Dongdaemun Design Plaza comes to mind as a good example. Gentle urban renewal in Vienna, too. )

2. The other (related) issue is that Paris is not an accessible city. Lugging around a suitcase up and down endless stairs, not just in buildings but also on the subway, was quite a workout. I ended up moving out of the first apartment because the room was uncomfortably tight and the hike upstairs draining. Moving in and out was almost even more of a hassle, but it was what I had to do. I knew beforehand that the subway doors were not automatic, but I hadn’t anticipated how hard I would have to pull the handle to open them! For all of these reasons, or perhaps because of my post-Bonn fatigue, even spending a few days in Paris felt exerting. Constantly being bombarded by things – street vendors, traffic and people, even beautiful things to see – did not help.

Travel can be tiring. This realization, perhaps, was my version of Paris Syndrome. Like many people who claim to enjoy adventures and exploration, I am automatically disinclined to seek the familiar, or to profess to seeking the familiar. Maybe it’s just a part of the millennial snobbery to which all of us have fallen prey.

3. Still, Paris is Paris for a reason. By now it should no longer be a big deal that, when travelling, I will see works of art that I associate with textbooks or movies. Yet it strikes me every time every time I visit a “big” museum – such as the MOMA in New York or the Belvedere and MuseumsQuartier in Vienna – that some works of art are so inspiring in real life, and that many of them do live up to the hype. Sometimes I think that “famous” works of art are “famous” for a reason. Van Gogh’s paintings, too familiar to the modern eye from cheap printed frames and plastic souvenirs, almost brought tears to my eyes in real life.

The Musée D’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou were the highlight of my time in Paris, even though museums can sometimes lose meaning and become something one does for the sake of pretentious conversations. Once I let go of the thought that I had to cram as many sights I could into my itinerary, the things that I chose to see meant more.

It is hard to be an honest tourist because the stakes are so high. When you have left home and invested much of your time, money and energy into seeing new things, it is difficult to admit that some things do not live up to expectations, and that checking off every box in the must do-see-eat list is a fast track to burnout. But who agreed on the list of things we deem important and historical? Who sets the trends ands standards, and is it that bad to conform?

Bonn: On compromises and inconveniences

Warning: one of my much, much, geekier posts.

After two weeks in Toronto, I went to Bonn, Germany for a UN climate change conference. The primary purpose of this conference was to edit a draft for the Paris agreement which will (hopefully) be agreed upon later this year. I was an observer, and I was writing for an amazing environmental newswire called The Verb. Visiting Germany and France and going to a UN conference are things I have wanted to do for quite some time, and the 3 weeks I spent in Europe did not disappoint.

The conference took place from the 1st to the 11th of June in Bonn, a small city that was once the capital of West Germany. Today, it hosts 19 United Nations institutions including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is also known as the birthplace of Beethoven – although the composer himself wished only to leave his hometown – and the home of the gummy bear producer Haribo. Bonn is actually closer to Paris than it is to Berlin, so I flew to Paris, then took a train from there, enjoying the scenery as I passed through France, Belgium, then Germany.

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For the first two days or so of the conference, I was jet lagged and lost. There are a million things going on at the same time, from the main negotiations to “side events” – which are events hosted by other organizations, such as the World Bank, Green Climate Fund, universities and NGOs about a specific topic – to press conferences and more. Many people advised me to focus on a specific topic or area, but that, too, was hard because there are so many: financing, loss & damage, mitigation, adaptation, technology, forestry, agriculture, health and every other possible topic that could somehow be related to climate change.

I eventually found some things that interested me more than others. The topic of cities, and how cities are a big driver for both climate change adaptation and mitigation, was one of them. It was a widely discussed topic throughout the conference (along with the contributions of other non-state actors such as businesses. IKEA recently set an example by pledging $100 billion to climate adaptation). ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability held its Resilient Cities congress in Bonn, concurrent with the UN climate change talks, so I was also able to attend a few sessions. Finally, this tied in with the research I am doing for the summer, which is about public transportation policies. What are the motives behind building more sustainable cities? It is typically not sustainability or the environment itself per se, but the great cobenefits – health, quality of life, air quality, economic development, etc… – that come along with it. Which is a really fascinating topic and one that I will be talking about for some time to come.

An aspect of the negotiations that shocked me was just how slowly the negotiations went. It was to be expected, but when one is actually sitting in a room for thirty minutes and parties are still arguing about a single word or punctuation mark, it can get a little ridiculous. The harshest criticisms were masked in obtuse words of diplomatic formality. The process itself is a maze of technicalities, abbreviations, and vocabulary thrown around with the assumption that everybody “gets it”. This is part of what made my first few days difficult, and is a barrier to entry for everybody interested in policy. Bridging the gaps between research, policy, and the public is an important task.

And lastly, despite how sluggishly everything moved along, there was a great sense of urgency about needing to stop climate change. Even when buried in work, the occasional fact about climate science sometimes reminds me how scary and pressing this is – we still have a long way to go to reach the UN’s target of keeping warming below 2 degrees. To stay below 2 degrees, the world has to become carbon negative. More importantly, even 2 degrees rise in global temperatures is dangerous and could lead to several meters in sea level rise. When countries presented their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs -basically emissions reduction goals), the less ambitious ones (such as Canada!) were heavily criticized for their low targets and sneaky mechanisms to “hide” emissions.

On the bright side, Bonn was a beautiful city that made all of this dismal news less discouraging. I stayed in two different towns during my time there, residential areas not too far from the city center. Places feel farther than they are, because the roads are winding and circular. They do not even remotely resemble the orderly grids of Toronto. The growth seems to have been much more organic and polycentric: I noticed many small town centers with shops and restaurants. Houses seem to have been built around these centers, so that supermarkets and stores are within walking distance. The streets are less car-friendly (a lot of them cobblestone, too) and many people bike around. I’ve been reading a lot about sprawl lately for my summer research, and having to take a car to get groceries from a big-box store is decidedly a very different way of life.

On the other hand, I felt that convenience is not much of a priority in Bonn (or Germany? It was the same in Austria, where I went last year). Everything closes early, and on Sundays nothing is open. It is a far cry from the hyper-convenient, get-everything-now culture that I’ve grown accustomed to, where food is delivered to your door faster than you can cook it. But then again, maybe this is what everybody is in dire need of – agreeing to put up with a few inconveniences for everybody’s benefit. (Whether shorter working hours actually is in everybody’s benefit is a debated issue, but I personally believe that it is.) As for climate change, taking action and transitioning from an emissions-intensive society isn’t painless, but it’s an urgent compromise.

And, if this geektivist talk is your thing, I also picked up the skill of livetweeting while in Germany. So @sohyunkateyoon.

A quick highlight of other things that happened:

  • I went to a press conference, thinking I was late, then realized I was the only one that showed up at all (I was eventually forced to ask a question)
  • I got lost in the neighborhood I was staying in and randomly stumbled upon a Korean restaurant, where the staff helped me out. And I ate there several times during my stay! Apparently there is a large Korean population in Bonn.
  • The Rhine is one of the most beautiful rivers I have seen. I will never forget that beer garden!
  • We had a workshop (“Verb Shop Europe”) post-conference at a really nice house we rented through Airbnb. This gave me the false impression that all Airbnbs were this great. Until Paris…

But more on Paris later.

Summer Part 1: Toronto

One of the reasons that my life has felt constantly in flux is that my family recently moved to Toronto. At first, going “home” during breaks didn’t feel like going home. But Toronto has grown on me: I remember one time my flight landed in Pearson, and it was as if I was exhaling for the first time after holding my breath for too long. Regardless of what changes in the years to come, for now it’s home more than anywhere else.

As I’ve come to discover, I really enjoy the vibe of the city. As in Seoul or any of the other places I’ve lived, I’ve found some “pockets” of the city that I enjoy being in, including the Harbourfront and Trinity-Bellwoods. Toronto also feels more spaced out and, as a result, less cramped than any other city I’ve been in, although that might be psychological. (Actually, it probably isn’t.)

At the beginning of my summer break, I spent two weeks in Toronto relaxing after a crazy semester. Highlights include:

  • Sleep
  • Catching up with friends & old family friends
  • Going to the Stratford Festival to watch Taming of the Shrew
  • Shopping, including used book hunts – and reading said books
  • Victoria Day, tea time at Montgomery’s Inn
  • Taking a lot of walks near home, on Yonge Street and surrounding areas
  • More city-exploring

One of the books that I picked up in a used book store is The Edible Woman, an early Margaret Atwood novel published in 1969. It is a delicious book that touches on femininity, consumerism, and being a college-educated woman in the world of the 60s (Ainsley, the protagonist’s roommate and friend, works as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes after graduating from university).

“They had been pathetically eager to have the wedding in the family church. Their reaction though, as far as she could estimate the reactions of people who were now so remote from her, was less elated glee than a quiet, rather smug satisfaction, as though their fears about the effects of her university education, never stated but aways apparent, had been calmed at last. They had probably been worried she would turn into a high-school teacher or a maiden aunt or a dope addict or a female executive, or that she would undergo some shocking physical transformation, like developing muscles and a deep voice or growing moss.” – Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

The writing is definitely the highlight, wonderful food metaphors and piercing wit above all. But another reason I loved the book: I could distinctly identify the city described in the book as Toronto. As a critic mentioned in the foreword to the book, the city has only two seasons – extremely hot and extremely cold – which serves as a major identifier. In the ~40 years since the book has been published, the city has changed (the weather patterns, not so much). Notable among those changes is differing attitudes towards minorities. Blatant discrimination is taken for granted throughout the book, whether ironically or otherwise. Now, Toronto is said to be “one of the most diverse cities in the world”, especially in terms of ethnic groups. An observation that I’ve made (and that I’ve heard echoed by many people) is that people of diverse backgrounds coexist in Toronto, but don’t necessarily interact with each other.

In the neighbourhood my family lives in now, I can get by for a week without speaking any English. It is heavily populated by Koreans, and also has a large Chinese population; there are strong support networks of ethnic groups throughout the city. My mother works at a Korean immigration consulting firm during the week, and goes to a Korean church on Sunday then buys groceries at a Korean supermarket (there is an HMart on every block in North York). There’s also an interesting generational element. My sister, who attends high school in the neighbourhood, has a different experience – she goes to school with kids that don’t look like her and communicates exclusively in English. Many other kids her age don’t speak the language of their parents.

As this place becomes more and more of a “home” for me, these things just become a fact of life. Maybe it’s not specific to Toronto, but nonetheless it’s something that I think about a lot when at home. And despite my thoughts on diversity in Toronto, my relative unfamiliarity with the city and few bonds I have to the people there, and living on the 23rd floor (the view is beautiful but it’s a pain), I miss Toronto – or should I say home – so much on a daily basis.

Cambridge is not bad either, but I can’t tell what I miss – the city itself, or the idea of a semi-permanent home, or family.

(finally) back in Boston

I have finally come to the end of a crazy travel marathon involving stops in every major city in the Western Hemisphere – or at least Paris, London, Toronto, New York, and finally arriving in Boston – and ~12 hours at home in Toronto. Great to be back in Cambridge again. Now that I’ve moved in, fought jet lag, and spent the weekend getting settled, I’m ready to start again.

Posts coming soon on my adventures in Germany and France! I will be spending the next eight or nine weeks doing research at the Graduate School of Design, on public transportation policies and sustainable cities. And speaking of cities, I’m also hoping to see more of the campus & the city outside of the campus: there’s so much to do and see but during the semester life is too crazy.

Hoping to feature some of my amazing sister’s photography as well.

K

Interview with Chung Un-Chan for the Harvard International Review

I also had the wonderful opportunity to interview Chung Un-Chan, former prime minister of South Korea, and before that, president of Seoul National University. Prime ministerial candidates have been an issue/problem in Korea for the past few years, so this may be all the more relevant. After his term, Mr. Chung has been working on a really important issue – inequality in Korea, especially between large corporations (chaebols as they are called – the big names, like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc) and small & medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Read here: http://hir.harvard.edu/archives/11124

Interview with Mary Robinson for the Harvard International Review

This January, I had the chance to talk to my hero and role model, Mary Robinson. She was the first female president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights; now, she leads the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and does work related to climate change and climate justice.

Mary-Robinson

I think that there’s a moral dimension to this issue. It’s a political issue, it’s a development issue, it’s an environmental issue, but it’s also a moral issue. That’s where I think moral leadership can be important.

Read the article here: http://hir.harvard.edu/archives/11236