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 mean 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.