in sight, out of place

by suiyi tang

the first smoking lounge i ever visited was a stuffy room off the corridor of incheon’s busiest terminal. it was january, and i had begun smoking cigarettes not a week before. a poor way to start the new year, to be sure, but i was ecstatic. the erotic allure of the slim dunhill and the rush of light-headed pleasure that followed were enough to elevate me into a moment of the suspended present, keeping both cost/benefit analysis and depressive ideation at bay. my 21st year had just begun, bringing with it a creeping sense of disorientation. it was with a sense of urgency that i sought to pause the spiraling trajectory of my life. the hit of nicotine numbed the surrounding world to a buzz so light that the endless terrains of life’s various misfortunes could fade to a misguided sense of ennui, a confirmation of meaningless that left solace in its wake. the room reeked of butts and ashes, scattered across seats and floor. we looked around the room with empty glances, hands moving in mechanistic motion to-and-fro—lips, ashtray, knee. a synchronized beat measuring the time of eventual disintegration.

at the center of the room, two small trees sat in over-sized pots, a half-hearted gesture of freshness amidst the ruse of the smoker’s lung and a guilty reminder that our pilfering violated every principle of that which was natural and good. but such things were of little consequence to us. smokers streamed in and out, most staying no longer than the requisite five minutes it took to suck down a cigarette while they scrolled through tiny devices indifferent to the haze. a momentary pause before they slip off through glass doors, to the next locality from which they might disappear.

the airport is filled with transient times looping between the now and not-now. the advent of flight has reduced travel to a postmodern affair. a series of entering and exiting that exists without content; the singularity between moving for moving’s sake, or moving to move, until we find ourselves suddenly there, moving no longer. but the time of air travel, insofar as it is transient, is circular as well. it is unclear when the journey begins, or when it ends. the only marker of passing time is the patterns of temporary greeting and farewell that connect us to the world moving beside us. within the multi-stop flight, airports become signifiers with no real significance—slightly unreal versions of the "locality" in which they are not only supposed to reside but embody. the transient effect of the airport, whose location exists in name only, is an ephemeral feeling of displacement that disrupts any notion of a "smooth journey." such movement, between stations that only hazily represent distance and place, is necessarily punctured by moments of brief touching that feel like flirtations with a fever dream; a reality whose passing doesn't register until long after it is gone. the circuitry of airport temporality operates individual movement asynchronously, so that everyone is present at once, and no one is.

it is a now/not-now logic that commands the fabric of relations as passengers shuttle between a nexus of postmodern monuments (the check-in counter; the makeshift terminal; the disposable sandwich bag, lodged between seats). it is a logic aptly summed by that well-worn adage, now you see me, now you don’t. and, if one may modify for accuracy, you saw me, now you won’t, and you will likely never again. we have all felt the dizzying effects of this doubling back motion, outlined by simultaneity, dis/reappearances, and the time in/between departure and arrival. the spatial-temporal dynamics of sociality are put on awkward pause. strangers who become seatmates share the ghost of a touch, fundamentally alienated from one another even as one may find foreign body parts rubbing up against her own. for this reason, i find the airport love story (the airport friendship) to be among the queerest phenomena which can exist between two individuals: it is a sociality that has escaped the confines of the circuit, thus it exists always out of time and out-of-place.

the transient time of the airport echoes the time in/between the border, itself a postmodern monument true in name only. were it not for the joint compulsions of empire and capital, the border—and its constituent crew of voyeurs and victims, pilgrims, and passers-by—might slide out of view entirely. as it were, the dmz remains firmly within the real, though none can pin the loci of invasion, occupation, and diplomatic opportunism precisely along its stretch of ungrievable losses. i visited the south korean demilitarized zone not 24 hours before my scheduled flight back to the united states. in truth, the locations of the smoking lounge and the 38th parallel are not very far at all, incheon being a mere half hour’s drive from the northernmost point of south korea.

like many borders, the 38th parallel performs a halving motion, which splits north and south into two approximately equal land masses. what makes it different from the basic premise of a border, however, are those slivers of land, approximately four meters at the widest, which couch the north and the south of the border. this is the demilitarized zone, a name whose only truth is its irony—it is in fact one of the most heavily militarized spaces in the world. but the division of land along such a manner is innocuous in and of itself. absent of violent re-coordination, the dmz would be but two very long provinces, and the 38th a boundary whose significance is purely symbolic, not a tightly clenched lightning barrel that separates the peninsula.

for all its supposed militarization, the dmz is not solely the terrain of men in uniform. as if to reassert the paradoxical symbolism of the division, two villages sit face to face on either side of the 66th parallel. separated by a mere 2.1 kilometers, the towns of kaesong (DPRK) and daesong-dong (ROK) are not simply strategic lookouts, nor are they a wishful representation of brothers torn asunder. rather, they are pawns in an international game of chess staked on the board of colonial modernity, at whose heart lies global economic integration under american dominance. on its face, there is little resemblance between the two towns: to the north, orderly blue buildings cohere around a looming flagpole, above which the north korean flag flaps; to the south, korean pop blares over mega-speakers, overlooked by beige-colored houses and frozen fields. a logic of (in)visibility organizes the parallel settlements so that their apparent opposition is not merely an exercise in visual identification, but evidence of the psychological warfare that lurks beneath an ideological one.

it is clear, by their exaggerated performances, that the villages are more than civilian settlements, but it would be reductive to flatten their asynchronous existence into that of military rule. theirs is an intra-governmental space (see footnote) that exists on the periphery of the polis at large, representing at once the wiles of sovereignty, and, for the south koreans, the american neocolonialist oversight upon which that sovereignty is based. too, the existence of the villages speak to the broader significance of the dmz itself: as a space of potential touching, which is to say, as a space of not-quite-touching and not-quite-seeing—a privileged zone of exception and exemption, subject at once to hyper-surveillance and extra-legality.

i visited the dmz on an extraordinarily windy day—so i am told, for it is windy every day in peninsula during the winter. this day felt no different, but different it was: on the first day of the february 2018 pyeongchang negotiations between north and south korea, we crossed the nebulous intra-national boundary after the footsteps of unification minister cho myung-gyung and representatives of the south korean delegation. some passengers joked about nuclear war; others stayed mum; still others glowered outside the window, catching glimpses of colorful korean tv vans, equipped with sleekly dressed personnel and a slew of mounted cameras. despite the nominal historicism of the day (the first negotiation between the two countries in almost five years), it was business as usual at the visitor center. a number of observatories dot the border: we went to three, one after the other, in quick succession and increasing proximity to a lookout of the north korean cities.

if such casual sighting of the illusory democratic people’s republic is enough to arouse exoticism in the mind of the nay-saying westerner, imagine the surprise incurred by the imposing presence of a mini-mall complex at one; the invitation to climb down a north korean-built infiltration tunnel at another; and lastly, the sight of a north korean train station. an absurdity in question: at the imjingak resort, tony moly and fried chicken frame the mall complex overlooking the north korean border. as if in jest, “the lazy song” plays, a flippant recourse to the acts of witness and honor demanded by a site of trauma. the irony of such thing as “resort” in the time of armistice is a testament to the multidimensional suspended reality at work here. what is the cultural product to be enjoyed? what is the effect of enjoyment in the telescope of historical trauma? twenty feet from the fried chicken store, white tourists feigned flabbergast in front of a brass train shot through with a thousand bullet holes. ahjummas hummed as they looked over souvenir stands, while passersby guffawed and fingered bomber jackets too literally inscribed with the glow of the juche sun.

in lieu of arrival, we have approached the DPRK as a novel concept, a kitschy reenactment etched with our fantasies of proximity and possession. but if authenticity is the name of the game, the tourism industry at work here is a national project navigating strategic indoctrination through a barely audible fetishization of the grief commodity. at its far reaches lays the exoticized war machine, in whose trail of bullets and corpses we tourists walk, glamorizing and glamorized in the wake of such national drama; a tragic love story that rehearses the motions of break ad infinitum.

it’s hard not to feel the collective effect of such cacophonous contradiction: merchandise, or a moment of silence? airing grievances against constant intervention, or maintaining a tactful silence so imperializing guests can enjoy the violence in peace? the ambiance of my visit was preceded by the tired routes of the unsaid. we were not koreans, but our curiosity had led us to the border of that korean wound, now rotting with age and sentient with knowledge of the exploitation and performance to which it is subject. how is it possible to be in one place, and then another in the next moment? to look and to survive the distance of looking, or how it remains possible to exist only in ghostly ontology—never quite here, nor there. in the distance, the north korean flag waved, wobbling to the beat of the south korean pop music blaring over the speakers. white faces stopped to take photos and buy soft drinks while their korean caretakers looked on in careful syllables and maternal concern. i smoked a cigarette on the balcony overlooking the barbed wire separating korea from korea. smoke and spikes: there would be no bandage here, yet.



for, as our tour guide explained, villagers in the nominally-south korean village are allowed exemption from the mandatory military service required of the population at large; in exchange, they submit to nearly complete military oversight, with a curfew from one to five a.m. and limited mobility in and out of the dmz.

suiyi tang