The year is 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. This is the era of choppy bobs, imported Walkmans, and an insatiable obsession with denim, a time when adolescents commiserating over college entrance exams fawned over American actors like Lindsay Wagner and Pierce Brosnan. The world trained its eyes on South Korea as it prepared for the 1988 Summer Olympics. A grinning cartoon tiger danced below the five Olympic rings on t-shirts, magazines, and banners across the country. This was it: the time for the nation to demonstrate its transformation from a war-torn geopolitical proxy into a paragon of modernity. Citizens everywhere held their breath, vaguely aware that they were on the precipice of something monumental.
I’m sprawled on the basement couch of my home in the suburbs of Chicago, eating tangerines with my family as we watch the Korean drama “Reply 1988.” Transported to a time when cell phones were revolutionary and people still used charcoal to start their stoves, I feel deeply nostalgic for an era I never experienced.
The existential anxiety of the past months have challenged our personal and collective sense of sight. Forests burning, communities suffering, the mundane distorting into the incomprehensible all raise the questions: What does it mean to truly see one another? How can we leverage our radically different experiences to promote understanding rather than estrangement? Perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to see — to truly understand — not only others but ourselves?
In her poetry book “Eye Level,” American poet Jenny Xie uses sparse, lucid verse to interrogate the intricacies of seeing. Though the poems that make up her collection are wide-ranging in content and form, they are threaded by a shared conviction to question the gifts, limitations, and fallacies of sight.
Whether it be COVID-19 or an ancient monster crawling to shore from the irradiated depths of the sea, humans have never interacted well with what they do not know. We have an uncanny ability to provoke, disrespect, and vilify the unknown: What is unmanageable is automatically perceived as a liability, a tumor to be excised from our neat cultural fallacy of total knowing.
This visceral aversion for what is not in our likeness manifests in a multitude of all too familiar ways: racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and systemic brutality. But what happens when humanity itself bands together to face off against a non-human foe? How do our embodied conceptions of alterity, safety, and righteousness interface with the ways in which we attempt to control — through political, narrative, and visual currencies — that which is too strange or too sinister to comprehend?