SEOUL, Sept. 3 (5:25 AM at our apartment) — I WOKE UP THIS MORNING thinking about the fact that it was almost exactly one year ago today that I was loading up the car and heading down to Portland. I’d just graduated from college and had spent the previous month both in LA visiting friends and up in Seattle riding my bicycle on familiar streets, absorbing all the places I had missed while living in Wisconsin. I was confused as to the direction of my life, but not so concerned as to yet feel anxious. Things, however messy and uncertain, felt free.
It seems funny now to think that on the other side of the world (indeed, as I pen these very words) my parents are driving down in the same direction I myself was headed all those months ago. They’ll stop for breakfast at the Country Cousin, as I did, and watch the fog sweep its misty fingertips over the coastal hills as they drive out along Sunset Highway. Their final stop is Cannon Beach — also the last leg of my own West Coast journey, as Nick and I came full circle before returning home.
Strangely, I can’t help feeling a bit envious of my parents. Seoul is in its last throes of summer, still hot and cacophonous. I want to take my wife somewhere calm and beautiful, where the air is all seawater and pine.
What I remember most about the trip last September was that it was lended a sense of momentousness, though not by any artificial attempts to make it so. Big things were shifting all around us, and driving south gave Nick and I the escape — the distance — we needed to sort it all out and become ourselves. Those four weeks lasted months and years. I will never forget the sunset at Capitola.
I must admit that I wish I could recapture something from that time, hold it now as I struggle with a new kind of confusion and this adjustment to the working life. It seems painfully ironic that despite being halfway around the globe, my current experience in some ways feel less adventuresome than my time in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective. Either way, I could use a good road trip.
Sept. 3 (Later that afternoon at The Coffee Mill) — JUST OFF OF WORK, nursing the lingering effects of too much computer with a cup of delicious Mexican hand-drip coffee, though it does little to ease the effects of too much sitting down. For that, I need a bicycle and some clean air. Right now, I have neither. This thick black liquid will have to do.
I find myself these days seeking out connections with friends back home, writing long emails and letters. I suppose it’s no surprise, especially with my close friend Ben leaving so soon, that I feel the need to share in those deep kinds of conversations men have with each other — the ones that can seamlessly flow between topics so disparate as panties and politics. (Well, perhaps they’re not so far apart.)
There is something to be said for the random kindness (and its unfortunate opposite) one experiences while abroad. Just now the woman who works here handed me a plate with several slices of miniature pie — pumkin and custard, I think — no charge. A close friend she may not be, but at least a friendly face in a a city grown callous in its hurry to find success; that elusive ideal, which no one is really sure how to describe.
When I take off my work clothes at the end of the day, I become myself again. When my wife and I are out in the city, I see the things about it that I love. And I wonder, how can I carry this comfort with me, take it from the fibers of my worn in t-shirts and rub it into my skin? Dropped out of our normal context, tumbling and delirious, how do we know we are ourselves?
Sept. 4 (1:15 PM at Jogye Temple) — RESTING ON A BENCH, laying my straw hat over my eyes, letting the beads of office air roll off me as I ponder my recent purchase of a pair of komusin, or traditional Korean rubber shoes. The decision was perhaps not about making a fashion statement, but about a subconscious longing to reflect in my appearance my attempts at understanding and becoming a part of this society — however over-analytical that conclusion may seem.
The choice of komusin is not arbitrary. It is a shoe worn by simple people, Buddhist monks and farmers, for whom shoes are simply a bit of protection for walking feet. It is a shoe worn by older generations, nationalists and working class folk. These are collections of people to whom I hardly belong.
Certainly I cannot buy understanding — an entrance to the club, so to speak — through a cheap pair of rubber shoes. But floating around somewhere in my head was the idea that perhaps I might be eyed more warmly (maybe comically) if I tried, on some level, to play the part.
But the universe is not without a symbolic sense of humor. I had bought the largest size komusin from an older man, who’s grin was filled with gold, peddling them on the street. I tried them on briefly, but it was hard to tell if they fit as he wasn’t keen on me walking around on the dirty pavement. When I got home and put them on again, I found my big, hairy Western feet jammed awkwardly into the toe.