On Dislocation

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

SEOUL — I WAKE UP AND EVERYTHING is gone. The familiar props have vanished like a set on Broadway, and in their place is a just a big window and the day ahead. There are bare walls; an apartment without memories. Slowly, the inertia of routine animates my limbs into showering, putting on socks. I’m out the door and I press the elevator call button. Night is draining from the sky.

Hours pass.

My legs gyrate awkwardly on an elliptical machine and I wonder who I’ve become. I am not someone who joins health clubs. I see flashes of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. The road is covered in patches of snow and I can see my breath. There’s tall grass on the edge of the the lake. My tires hum.

Pounding techno pulls me from my reverie. My reflection bounces up and down on the window; people on the street below scurry off to somewhere.

Everything about moving here has been harder than I expected. Stripped of the elements that made up what I called life — the time to write, my bicycle, locally grown food, coffee shops and friends — I’ve found myself in an identity funk. I slip back and forth between welcoming this, in hopes that the experience is somehow making me richer, and feeling like I’ve just lost track.

Korea, ironically, has in some ways felt more distant and elusive than I when I was Stateside. I mainly see three places: the apartment, the subway car and the office. What keeps me grounded in the fact that I am actually here is an often acute sense of alienation from my surroundings and occasional bouts of homesickness. What has also escaped me is progress towards finishing a set of personal projects: language fluency, regular posting and an in-depth piece of journalism among them.

I once read that a person can only successfully do 2.5 things during a given period of time. A job counts as one thing, a new marriage another, the saying went. I’ve been testing this theory since I got here, railing against it with inflated ambitions and strict time schedules. Still, the rule has held true. Which is why I find myself squeezing in 40 minutes at the gym on the odd day to keep from becoming totally sedentary, instead of taking the long, daily bike rides I would prefer. And why this blog has fallen into disarray.

All of this, however, is being viewed from a perspective that is too muddled in the daily without respect to the full equation. When I am afforded the presence of mind to observe where I am — both geographically and in life — I feel more satisfied. I notice the how the leaves are changing off in the mountains, the way Seoul’s air seems purer with the crackle of autumn.

What its even more enlivening is when I think about travel. My wife and I recently found a block of time in which to escape, and as soon as we had set the dates we stirred into action. Laptops flew open, clicking over maps and researching phrasebooks. Malaysia has taken our imagination. The idea of waking up in Sarawak and peering out towards the South China Sea sends a cool ripple through me; the unfamiliar once again inspires.

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3 Responses to “On Dislocation”


  1. 1 Nomadic Matt November 3, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Great imagery in your writing….

  2. 2 Lauren November 3, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    i feel you, dear, with this post especially. my desire to take off exploring gets stronger with each month i stay in the same place. and i am anxious to get “married” to someone who i chose to move away from (which was, as far as i can tell, partly selfish and partly selfless, depending on which part of the reasoning i emphasize). what’s up with being in our mid-twenties? soren convinced me that if i leave to teach english in korea i’ll be in this same place when i come back to the states in a year (but it’s still in the back of my mind as an option). miss you, and yours. and have fun on your vacay.

  3. 3 pam November 4, 2008 at 4:32 am

    I was a terrible expat, lonely and depressed, and typcially, the only thing that could shake me out of it was a trip to Somewhere Else. As much as I sometimes want to be back in Seattle when I’m out wandering, when I was an expat, going back “home” – or having guests leave – would often dissolve me in to a sobbing mess. I never gave a lot of thought to what home means until I was stricken with homesickness. As a traveler, the only way to shake it when I lived abroad was to go traveling, but then, home seemed all the less home-like when we returned. That acute sense of observation is a gift, truly, and also a burden. If you’re me.

    As always, I love to read your writing.


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