Archive for the 'Expat Life' Category

The Holidays, Far from Home

SEOUL — I DUG MY SPOON into a bubbling pot of chicken stew nearly glowing red with spice as an old recording of Silent Night warbled incongruously in the background. I was battling another cold, an unusual and annoying relapse this early in the winter. But I suppose it was due. My only exercise lately been in the realms of frustration and finger aerobics, with occasional breaks for walking around in the cold and shutter-clicking.

It didn’t feel like the holidays, and in a way that made it easier. Two days before, as I was about to descend a final flight of stairs toward the subway platform and my commute home, the sound of a live band playing Jingle Bells gave me pause. The sound was coming from the other end of the station, down a long, tiled hallway.

For a moment I considered going and taking in the sight. But just as the thought crossed my mind the sound stopped, the notes hushed up while the players took a breather. I turned and went on my way, just as an echoey Hark the Herald Angels Sing! struck up in the background.

***

The upcoming Christmas will be the first that either my wife or I have ever spent not under our parents roofs. While strings of lights and elaborate department store displays strive to emulate that winter feeling we remember so fondly, a yawning distance between us and all our family and friends has made the hues of the season seem paler, cooler.

Somewhere, there are candles and food and cheer. But in our apartment, there is an empty Papa Johns pizza box (yes, they’re here, too ) and not a spring of pine, a string of garland or a colored bulb to be found.

For all of South Korea’s devout Christians, the holiday has hardly attained the sacred status it carries Stateside. I’ve heard that we can expect many businesses to be open. Which is great — it means I can run out for a bite should I get munchy in the middle of my shift. (Yes, I will be among those poor saps slaving through the holiday.)

In all the superficial ways, Seoul is buzzing with the spirit of Christmas — although thankfully no one has been trampled to death at E-Mart, Lotte Mart or any other discount retailer here. But, for us at least, the warm center is missing.

We’ve heard from folks back home that snow is piling up in Seattle and in Madison, icing over the streets and bringing our cities to a halt. A calm white sweeping over the landscape, keeping people indoors and in front of their fires before the holiday. Here, the air is cold and tinder dry but there’s been barely a dusting of flakes. Everything keeps moving, sighing, hustling.

Borders

It’s not yet 10 AM. The first snow of this winter is falling outside, tracing the city’s edges in white. Janice is humming along to Yozoh & Sokyumo Acacia Band as their instruments whisper out of her laptop’s speakers. The coffee is brewing. I fill up with the sense that everything is right here.

SEOUL — ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I passed the half-year mark of living in this city, without the slightest bit of ceremony or significant reflection. But now a comparison between the last six months against those I spent here as a student four years ago seems unavoidable. The unfortunate if perhaps inevitable truth is that while I felt I had “arrived” at some deeper level of understanding of Korea when I departed here in December 2004 — and grown a great deal in the process — it appears now that I’m still (as they say here) “licking the skin of a watermelon.”

Surely, however, the experience has affected and informed me. The thing about being immersed in another culture is that one loses their point of reference. By that I meanĀ  it is difficult to determine how circumstances have changed an individual until he returns to a familiar environment with a new pair of eyes.

The biggest thing I have missed is free time, and all the opportunities for growth it affords. Whereas I spent August 2004 hopping between different neighborhoods of inner and suburban Seoul, meeting families, visiting the ancient capital of Kyeongju, becoming horrendously ill and burning myself to a crisp on the beaches of Busan, I spent August 2008 mostly in an office. Drag.

Janice and I certainly spent a decent amount of time rediscovering Seoul during late summer this year (not to mention that we got married), but I’d say the amount of self-discovery we did fell on the lower end of the spectrum. And while in the ensuing months we’ve done a good amount of soul-searching (no pun intended) as to the direction of our lives, answers have remained elusive.

If anything, the experience has been a testament to the importance of taking time out to travel. A week spent on the road — or in one’s city but outside of routine — can turn out to be more meaningful and memorable than years spent plugging away towards a vague notion of progress. The irony is that it is these routines (our careers, jobs, etc.) that we allow to define us.

During my lunch hour today, I sat at Gwanghwamun park and stared off towards the misty silhouette of Mount Bukak while noshing on a PB&J. I couldn’t help but indulge the thought that, were it not for human politics, I could trudge right over it, then scale Mount Bukhan beyond that and march onwards until China. The notion was inspiring. These borders are fabrications, permeable to our imagination and will.

Dislocated

SEOUL – IT IS THE RAINY SEASON. Great boulders of dewy grey roll over this city’s ceiling of haze, occasionally tumbling into each other with a thunderous crack, spilling their insides. The rain is like foamy tap water wrung from a kitchen sponge. It lathers the oily streets, douses the hurried citizens.

In the heart of this steamy metropolis, I can’t escape the feeling that I am floating. This city barrages the senses; even claiming the space behind your eyes is a battle. Seoul is marching, protesting, yelling, hustling — it is a crush of humanness. The blurry pace of it all is enough to make the traveler feel fractured and distracted; these symptoms of disorientation are only heightened with something as heavy and wonderful as marriage tipping the horizon.

Yes, by the time that carton of milk in your fridge goes sour, I will be a married man. The closer I come to the wedding date, the more I find it impossible for my mind to settle; I’m constantly buzzing, aware of the fact that my fiance is 10,000 miles away and that the clock is ticking down. I check my watch as if my flight might take off any minute. My body zips along the Seoul underground, my head bobs somewhere along the shores of Lake Monona.

I sweat. Or is it just that I’ve been walking through clouds?

This is the main reason — or at least, the best reason — that the frequency of my posts here has slowed to a trickle. Every time a sit down to write, I feel some force pulling me from my chair. I’ve been loath to stay in the apartment in the evenings; the aloof solitude of this tiny dwelling gives me more opportunities to mull over these feelings of dislocation: Here it is, this home I have made. Where is my other half?

—————

Posts may continue to be a bit thin for a little while longer here at TDT. I leave for Madison for my wedding next weekend, and my fiance and I have just over a week to tear down our old apartment, visit with friends and family, get married, pack up and jet back to Seoul together. Thanks for bearing with me. Safe travels.


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