Kansas (Or Some Approximation of It)
Byung Joon Lee
“I’ll be shattered by then but now I’m not and can also picture white clouds ... faded sunlight falling across the picture ... I’ll go out for a drink with one of my demons tonight they are dry in Colorado 1980 spring snow.” - Ted Barrigan, A Certain Slant of Sunlight
I didn’t really want to come down here, and I can tell that you didn’t either, judging from the semi-combative way you’re resting your drink on your knee, tapping the glass with your thumb over and over again, perhaps to signal boredom, perhaps to subconsciously establish and continually re-establish ownership over said drink like some version of territorial urination. I mean, I don’t blame you for that. New York is an exhausting place, because 1. the entire population is on foot and 2. the neat right angles and interlocking grids—a marvel of modern planning, I am frequently reminded—means you are almost always looking at someone dead in the face. Or at the very least trying very hard not to. After a few days of unwanted voyeurism, it’s only natural that you crave some personal space you can rightfully call your own.
I could give a litany of minor reasons why I thought this trip wasn’t worth it—the weather, the four subway transfers, the overpriced food, the fact that our hour of return necessitates hailing an Uber back to the apartment, an Uber which will be at least $27 and will inevitably be driven by some guy who enjoys regaling us with stories about his nephews. Or maybe Theoretical Uber Driver will be a political type (not an entirely unlikely scenario, this being Day 10 or so in Trump’s America after all) which will mean the conversation will be rife with sentences that begin with “in my day” and “if you really get to the root of it.”
But the real reason I didn’t want to come is because I kind of hate Koreatown. The name itself denotes a false sense of grandeur; at least with Chinatown they had the decency to section off a few blocks, enough square feet to somewhat qualify it as a locality. Koreatown is basically an attempt to attach geographic signicance to a loose cluster of barbecue restaurants and karaoke bars.
If the intention behind Koreatown was to transplant Seoul to New York City, it can be classified as somewhat of a success, successful in the sense that if you position yourself just right on West 32nd Street and proceed to mentally block out all the yellow cabs and food trucks and construction barricades it is possible to attain—for a eeting split second—the odd sensation of being back in the motherland. But there is a nagging theatricality to the place, the feeling of being an unwitting walk-on in a collective attempt to condense an entire culture into two blocks. The way, for instance, that all the waiters and waitresses here wear name-tags with their name in Korean lettering, something that never happens back home. Or the fact that every store is attempting to blare K-Pop at ear-piercing volumes, to the point that one begins to realize that the version of Korea that Koreatown is attempting to evoke is a place that doesn’t exist.
Of course, once you get to the edges of the block, the illusion starts to fray—a Citi-bank here, a souvenir shop there. New York inserting itself back into the situation. I’ll bet that you, like most people I know, nd something pathetic in how self-consciously eager to please the entire place is, i.e. maybe if we bombard people with enough nostalgic stimuli we can trigger some sort of Proust-madeleine moment. Or maybe it’s just me.
My friends joke about how it is that New York is so massive, the self-proclaimed the center of the world after all, and that all the Korean yuhaksaengs (Koreans who are living abroad for school) still hang out in something like a four-minute radius from one another, flocking down 32nd Street in groups of five as if we’ve all formed some kind of bizarre mutual suicide pact, locked in the cell that is Koreatown. I mean, I guess there is kind of an old-fashioned nationalism to Koreatown, as is the case with any cultural neighborhood, that peculiar brand of patriotism that is halfway between comforting and conning. I suddenly recall how one of my grade-school teachers once lamented that patriotism was becoming passé in my generation. Like it was becoming deeply, irrevers- ibly uncool to be proud of one’s national identity. As I sat in the cab earlier, cruising past Koreatown as the in-ride television blared some report about a Trump cabinet pick, I realized I wasn’t so sure about that anymore.
I guess I will stay a little longer, after all the conversation at our table is still relatively lively and I’ve denitely missed any window I had to make a quick undetected exit from the group anyway. Amidst the usual obsessive comparing of social networks and mutual friends, someone is talking about how the Oxford English Dictionary concluded last week that we are now in a “post-truth society. ” I always imagined the Oxford English Dictionary offices to be in the dungeons of some secluded castle, where people still write with quill and ink under the flickering lights of a torch. Or I imagine some massive conspiracy of linguists huddled around that massive roundtable from Dr. Strangelove. Which is funny, of course, because I know that in reality the “Word of the Year” was probably selected by a group of English B.A.s in a small conference room in a nondescript office park somewhere—no torches or missile launch systems in sight, just linty carpet and the smell of stale coffee and the interminable flickering of cheap fluorescent bulbs.
It annoys me that there has always been a cultural push to portray the previous generation as being a bastion of honesty, a symbol of simpler times that exposes how corrupt current society has become. To say post-truth is a 2016 word is to imply that every year before was somehow more reverent of the truth, which is complete bullshit.
Case in point: in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower worked with a New York marketing team and produced a bunch of advertisements called Eisenhower Answers America, in which he pretended to address the concerns of “real everyday Americans.” Except what actually happened was that Eisenhower recorded a bunch of short talking points on his own, which were edited together with footage of actors asking questions to ultimately produce the illusion that Eisenhower was talking to regular Americans one-on-one.
They shot a bunch of these ads about eight minutes from here, actually, in a downtown film studio that is now a chiropractor’s ofce. The whole strategy was the work of none other than Rosser Reeves, then golden child of the New York City advertising world.
In my imaginatory rendering of the scene, Eisenhower is in the backseat of a 1950 Cadillac, sitting upright, his limbs effortlessly arranged in a series of right angles thanks to years of military training. To his left is Rosser, slightly slouched, showing the bare minimum of required respect as he fiddles with his notebook and puffs a cigar—Cuban—out the window. Every time Rosser refers to Eisenhower he calls him “General,” although Dwight has told him it is okay to call him “Dwight” or “Ike” or even just “Mr. Eisenhower.” But Rosser calls him “General,” over-enunciating the vowels as if to mock how self-serious it is to be referred to by a title and how small-minded The Rest of AmericaTM is to attach such mythic qualities to military accomplishment.
“You’re from Kansas,”—pause as he puffs on the cigar—“right, General?” Rosser asks. “You can just call me Ike, Rosser.”
“Oh, no, please. General, we are such great fans of yours! Isn’t that right, Tom.” (this is the name I give Reeves’ hypothetical lackey, who is sitting in the passenger’s seat, eager for any and all opportunities to interject into the conversation and be noticed.)
“Such huge fans, General, couldn’t have scripted a better story if we tried.”
“See, General, even Tom agrees. Least we can do is call you that.”
“Okay, then, ne.” Eisenhower states, arms up, a defeated man. Victorious in many respects, but in the icy, soot and piss-strewn streets of New York City perhaps not so much.
(At this point, the car hits one of the run-down areas of New York, and I imagine Rosser pulling down the blinds and the driver self-consciously speeding down the block to prevent any disturbing vistas of urban decay from unsettling the general.)
“See, General, we really want to play the whole Kansas thing up. Like what was it like there? What was the name of the town you were from again?”
“Abilene! Fantastic! Perfect name. Quaint, rustic.”
“Tri-syllabic,” adds Tom, who is promptly ignored.
“We really want to make Abilene a focal point of your campaign. The fact that you were from the Midwest and all. I’m thinking we make it a whole branding—”
“Excuse me, branding?” the General asks.
“Oh sorry, I don’t mean branding you! I mean, uh, branding your message. To make it stick to the average voter,” Reeves says “average voter” with a kind of disgust, the way one refers to an unpleasant coworker or a neighbor’s dog that always barks over the nine o’clock news. “Average voters will really, shall we say, connect with the narrative about a man rising up from the depths of Middle America. About people like us.”
Eisenhower probably cringed at the “us.” I’m sure Eisenhower hated Rosser. Or at least was put off by him. The very name Eisenhower—it meant iron miner in German—screamed blue collar. Papa Eisenhower had worked in a creamery to put his kids in a decent house. Reeves had made his first load of money after refusing to study for a chemistry final (this is true, by the way) and instead producing an essay called “Better Living Through Chemistry” which captured the attention of the DuPont marketing team. In fact, Rosser eventually got kicked out of UVA for driving under the influence. And now this asshole was trying to manufacture some sense of camaraderie our of thin air? And the way he talked about Abilene, every syllable dripping with something more than condescension, something approaching unfiltered contempt for the town and everything it stood for.
Yes! I am from fuckin’ Abilene, Eisenhower thinks, staring with contempt at Tom, who is desperately preparing another cigar for Rosser. Eisenhower probably imagined his face being projected, warped and grainy on a dozen shitty Kansas televisions, all across Abilene. A candidate for the highest office in the free world appearing in the same broadcasting block as cereal and Tide and Dove bars. An election of celluloid! The great future of democracy, as Rosser would say. But what would the people of Abilene think? Would they call him—perhaps rightfully—a sellout? When he was saying things like “getting back to an honest dollar” on air, wasn’t he cynically using his small-town roots to pawn off a false vision of Midwestern wholesomeness, creating nostalgia for an America—an America where people rise with the sun to do Honest Work and believe in Big Things—that never really existed outside of some collective imagination? But this had to be done, this was the new reality, after all. That was the what the military taught him: you don’t make the rules but you make sure you kick everyone’s ass playing by them.
The mental recreation kind of fizzles out after this moment. There are, of course, obvious flaws in my story. Maybe the two actually liked each other. Maybe they laughed and joked about football on the car-ride and smoked cigars together after they were done filming the advertisement. Maybe they talked about how ingenious it was that they made every viewer—yes you!—feel selected in the fulllment of a divine American destiny: moving past the war, buying a suburban home, starting a family. Returning America to the halcyon days, to the time before the wars, before the Depression.
Or maybe Eisenhower faced the camera alone that day, nobody around him save the imaginary presence of an imaginary citizen, a voice in the back of his head crying it’s all fake! like a street preacher on a subway, the ash atop the lens bright and unforgiving like an imitation of the sun shining over an imitation of Kansas.
The sun sets kind of differently depending on where you are. And I don’t mean dramatic differences in location; the way the sun sets on 86th Street feels nothing like the way it sets in Brooklyn, and the way it sets in Pittsburgh is nothing like the way it sets in Philadelphia. I’ve always wondered if that has to do more with the way light refracts on different building materials or with changes in the weather and atmospheric conditions. Or perhaps the entire phenomenon is psychosomatic. Either way, the sun setting seems like one of those universal experiences that should be the same everywhere but never actually is.
In New Hampshire—where I attended boarding school for four years—the winter sun sets in a particularly striking way, as in it doesn’t disappear into the horizon as much as it is abruptly interrupted, consumed alive by a swarm of barren tree branches. By 4:30 it is almost completely dark, but the last dregs of sunlight reect onto the ice, creating an otherworldly afterglow that never seems to disappear until the rst pair of lonely I-93 headlights switch on in the distance.
Actually, because the sun set so quickly in New Hampshire there would always be ten or twenty cases of really bad seasonal depression every year at my school. I later learned that the antidote was something called a Verilux HappyLightTM, a small plastic obelisk that projects imitation sunlight and is advertised online alongside stock images of well-groomed people in their mid-thirties taking walks on an exceptionally photogenic beachin Florida. The cure for seasonal depression—according to the infirmary at my high school at least—involved staring idly at said Verilux HappyLightTM until you were no longer seasonally depressed.
A good portion of life at my boarding school was structured around these HappyLight-esque moments, moments that were supposed to give a passing resemblance to human warmth. This was possibly because it was in the best interest of the school to keep kids relatively sane, a tall order when you pack 535 teenagers into unkempt New Hampshire woodlands with shoddy WiFi connectivity.
For instance, at the beginning of every morning we had an assembly at the chapel, where we would often be forced to hear some incredibly mediocre piece of music performed by a freshman who was half-asleep at the piano bench. Except everyone would then proceed to give a standing ovation, because it felt good to believe that we all agreed about something, if only for a few seconds. Or take the fact that every year began with something called “Dropping Your Waterline.” Dropping one’s waterline involved a facilitator sitting a group of bored juniors and seniors around a conference table and asking them to uncover their “genuine selves.” This really meant that the room was forced to uncover increasingly uncomfortable pieces of personal information until one person nally stepped up and mentioned a fact that was deemed “sufficiently vulnerable and genuine.” This moment was then milked for maximum dramatic value, and the facilitator walked away, basking in a warm sense of fulfillment, blithely unaware of the fact that some asshole would probably spend the rest of the semester publicly humiliating the poor kid who was brave enough to speak up.
When I first tried the HappyLightTM for myself—one particularly dreary evening in January of my sophomore year—I think I laughed at what I then believed to be a tting and extremely clever metaphor for my boarding school experience. Except then I found myself disgusted at my own disgust, because this was exactly the kind of first-world, Holden Caulfieldian, conspiracy-of-phonies whining that I had tried my best to expunge from my system by age 14. So ultimately I just stared at the otherworldly Verilux glow in silence, wondering when the positive effects that punkybrewer from Amazon.com mentioned would kick in.
Your friends have been dropping increasingly unsubtle suggestions that you leave with them for the past hour or so, and I have to agree that from a purely cost-benefit standpoint there is no point for you to stay here. We have reached that awkward impasse where half the table is drunk and the other half doesn’t drink or lacks the funds to order more drinks, which means we will simply continue the act of staring at one another and slowly coming to terms with the staggering lack of things to talk about (potential start-up idea: an app for your phone that suggests conversation starters based on personal data harvested from Facebook?).
Over the past hour or so, the bar’s youthful twenty-something optimism has settled into the rhythmic sounds of people settling for another disappointing night on the town. Even the conversation has worked itself into a corner:
Person 1: So I remember there was this one time back in Seoul, I think it was like July or something. It was super humid. Anyway, [Person 2] called me up at one in the morning and convinced me to come down to some crap bar in Hongdae and we got really trashed—
Person 2: I wasn’t that drunk, it was mostly you.
Person 1: Nah man, you were out of your mind. And then we met [Person 3] at Octagon.
Person 4: I do remember that. Actually, funny you should say that because, there was this time that [Person 3] and I decided to get really wasted.
And so on and so forth, a self-sustaining feedback loop of people talking about nights that were supposedly much better than the one we currently nd ourselves in, but which likely also consisted of people talking about other nights much better than the one they found themselves in. The small talk equivalent to the Droste effect. I momentarily consider joining in on the fun, reaching into my own dwindling reservoir of semi-listenable drinking stories. But then I stop.
You see, even though we’ve supposedly only met today, you’ve probably seen me before. Maybe at the immigration line at Incheon International Airport, or at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, or walking down the streets of Gangnam, or at the small ramen restaurant above the Kennedy Departures Terminal, or at the U.S. Consulate’s I-20 visa line. Chances are our paths have crossed. Chances are that we’ve spoken to each other before. Probably a short conversation. After all, I was just one of a million interchangeable Korean-American college students that you met, and you were one of a million interchangeable Korean-American college students that I met. And we had our standard-issue seventeen minute conversation—entirely superfluous but peppered with enough interesting personal factoids and anecdotes that it seemed more thoughtful than small talk. We probably spent these seventeen minutes pretending that our relationship was special, that our connection was unique, when in the back of our minds we knew there was something deeply disposable and expendable about one other. Which is just what’s happening at this table, isn’t it? Because, let’s face it, although right now we’re laughing and collecting Snapchat handles and Facebook friend requests the truth is that tonight is an unbearably unremarkable night. Best case scenario, we will go our separate ways, and perhaps in a few months - when we are sitting around a different table with different people drinking different beers - we will make cameo appearances in each others’ accounts of That One Time I Went to New York City and Got Drunk.
So no, I decide not to share an anecdote, because at the end of the day, what’s the point? Isn’t taking part in the conversation making me complicit in our table’s collective self-delusion that we are actually getting to know one another? Not to mention the fact that I am already contributing to the broader collective self-delusion that is Koreatown. The world—especially this 2016 post-truth-according-to-some-person-at-the-Oxford-English-Dictionary version of the world—does not need more dishonesty coming from my end.
Or perhaps this is an exceedingly cruel assessment of the situation.
The more I think about it, it’s funny how I’ve spent almost three hours now imagining this massive one-sided conversation I want to have with you even though I have yet to speak a single word your way. It’s not even a conversation, really, considering that I haven’t even added in any spaces for you to pause or react or respond with anything more complex than a nod. And it’s also funny that I created an entire character for you (you are a shy, quiet 19 year old kid who enjoys Scrabble and Bob Dylan and hot tea) based wholly on a small subset of verbal habits and behaviors and conversation snippets that I observed today, observations that I amassed in an extremely unscientic manner and are probably nowhere near representative of who you actually are as a person. And funnier still is the fact that I formed an attachment to this projection to the point that I—maybe around 11:47 and drink five—actually began to think of ourselves as kindred spirits or something.
And even while I am thinking about talking to you what I am really doing is talking to some diluted-down, Ron Howard biopic version of you, a sort of faceless composite character I have cobbled together. Which is to say I am really talking to myself.
And maybe, just maybe, even though the conversation that everyone else is engaged in is shallow and deluded and more than likely pointless, at least it can be categorized as an attempt at some form of connection. Some approximation of friendship (could we really hope for more?). Maybe the people at our table aren’t going through some pre-congured set of socially-obligated niceties. Maybe they are holding onto some belief that—through the right sequence of hangover stories and ill-conceived jokes about their genitalia—this table can form a lasting bond that will stand the test of time. Because, if you get to the bottom of it, aren’t drinking games and lame personal anecdotes and corny political advertisements and dollar-store Korean patriotism and Lowering Your Waterline—as flawed and messy and disingenuous as they may be—still rooted in some basic optimism that one can get to know and connect with a fellow human being? After all, if we have really managed to render the truth irrelevant, isn’t the obsessive search for the “genuine” ultimately a self-defeating endeavor, nothing more than another source of paralyzing self-consciousness? And maybe my entire career of sitting quietly in the back of the room in smug self-satisfaction as I laugh at HappyLightTMs and lament the ultimate disintegration of truth and engage in made-up dialogues with cardboard cutout versions of Dwight Eisenhower—perhaps that’s an even deeper form of dishonesty, one that borders on cowardice—
oh, wait, Jim from Uber’s about two minutes away. I guess this means that we’ll have to start making arrangements for the check. I am hoping that keeping silent will solve the problem on its own. “It was nice meeting you, by the way,” I find myself saying. I see that someone from the neighboring table’s asking you to join them for a toast. He seems nice. You should go over; I’m sure you two will hit it off fine.