photo by michael-kay.
Somewhere in the archives of the crudest instinct is recorded the truth that it is better to be endangered and free than captive and comfortable.
— Tom Robbins, Another Road Side Attraction
AFTER MORE THAN FOUR years of living back in the U.S. — the majority of which I spent carving out a new life in Madison — I don’t know why I expected leaving to be easy. I suppose some part of me bought into the myth that “real travelers don’t get homesick.” And while I had carefully tried to mentally prepare myself for the fact that the experience in Seoul this time around would be much different from my previous adventure, nothing but a direct dose of this new world could make me fully appreciate the changes not only in the cityscape, but in myself as well.
Readers have no doubt noticed my prolonged absence from the keyboard here, as well as my divergence from the semi-normal format of analyzing world news and issues to dwell upon some common themes about life here in Seoul. I’ve realized that before I can begin to move forward with business as usual — here, or in any part of my life — I must take some time to let the dust settle.
I came here in a whirlwind: the day I left (a Saturday), my fiancee and I drove out of Madison by 3:30 AM. I departed Chicago at 8 that morning, stopped over to see my folks in Seattle around 11 and by 2 that afternoon had taken off over the Pacific. Many blurry hours later, I was eating kalbi for dinner in a Seoul suburb…on a Sunday. The physical and mental effects of that journey have convinced me that human beings were never meant to travel at such speeds.
At first when I arrived — indeed, as evidenced in a previous post — I was under the illusion that I had stepped back into my old shoes, so to speak. I remembered the streets, the food sat well and I met with good friends. It was only after moving into a dingy one-room back near the university I attended in 2004 that the changes became more palpable. Surrounding me were restaurants and alleyways full of memories but vacant of familiar faces. I noticed a good amount of non-Koreans walking around, no doubt here to attend the very program in which I had once been enrolled, and seeing them reminded me of how distant that time was. I walked around campus and caught a whiff of the reminiscence I had anticipated, but mostly just felt out of place. It wasn’t where I belonged any more.
One night, over a meal of sundubu at a restaurant that was decidedly not as delicious as I remembered, a feeling of profound loneliness began to set in. I looked around the room and observed that everyone was in pairs, if not groups of four or six. I stared out of the second-story window into the heart of Sinchon, a neighborhood defined by astronomical bar density, and realized that it’s a pretty ugly place when the daylight shines. The streets where I had spent so many nights in revelry now offered me no nostalgia.
Of course, these blue emotions were no doubt amplified by the fact that my fiancee is still Stateside (she’ll join me next month).
Later on, returning my room — a tiny, humid space with vinyl flooring and walls stained by smashed mosquitoes — I began to unravel. I missed my home. I felt the smack of irony as I began looking at pictures of Madison on flickr, as I thought about all the times I had drifted longingly through snapshots of Seoul on particularly cold Wisconsin days. I could not help but wonder: why had I chosen to come back?
The answer, of course, was that I wanted to try something new — to choose a road far from the path of least resistance, and to reinvest myself in a place for which I have long had unexplainable affinity. Experiences like this are valuable in and of themselves, but can sometime entail a difficult period of self-examination and adjustment. Amid this metamorphosis, missing home is natural; part and parcel of the journey.
In the following days, with generous help from my friend Hanju, I was able to pull out of the one-room and land a spectacularly clean aparment on the 16th floor in another neighborhood — where I sit and write this now. The atmosphere here is closer what I might call the old Seoul; dated red brick residential buildings and small metal workshops dot the streets. The famous Dongdaemun market is not far away. Yesterday I braved insane Saturday crowds at the local grocery store to fill my cupboards and fridge with ramen, cereal, rice, kimchi and the like. I feel more settled, like I finally have a base of operations in this city.
The larger part of our society doesn’t see this aspect of travel — the hard, confusing part. But therein lies the difference between vacationing and traveling for the long-term. The former has a clear set of goals (sights, beaches, pleasure) while the latter is more nebulous: it is essentially life, flipped on it’s head. It is no wonder that this process is hard, and each one of us must find our own reason for staying on. But ultimately we know that the rewards of our experiences abroad will be deeper than we could have hoped, and leave a permanent impact upon ourselves.