The place where I live seems secluded and narrow, smells like fish and bakeries and fried food and spice and exhaust fumes and sometimes lovelier things—fresh air, dirt—the moment after exiting the underground and breaking street-level. There are a lot of buildings, a lot of apartments, and the looming dark faces of the mountains visible from most windows. There are the udon shops, the soju jibs, the kimbab snack bars, the toast take-out places, the Paris Baguettes and Pizza Huts and Lotterias and T-worlds and second-story bars and underground Norebangs and, the ever-on-the-move landmark visible at most hours from my fifth-floor apartment, the fifty-strong packs of elderly hikers in full hiking gear—shirts, jackets, trousers, trainers, backpacks, hats, and hiking sticks—roving the streets, their own urban trails.
I haven’t seen much of Seoul, yet. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’m not here at all. Living isn’t hard here, or extremely foreign—except the language barrier and the little cultural differences that add up and leave me overwhelmed and sometimes shaken at the end of each day. I find myself wondering all the time—why did I come here? When I don’t even speak the language, when I don’t know anything about it here, when there’s nobody here I know or who knows me… why did I come here? And what I’m seeing, is this the country I came so far to see? I teach “animation” one period to a different kindergarten class each day, usually the animation Franklin about the animal kids, and this past week we watched “Franklin’s Bad Day,” in which Franklin is upset because one of his best friends moved away. In two different classes it made me tear up—one student noticed me, so I smiled and shook it off. But I’m feeling a bit homesick for the first time, these days. Homesick…but I’m glad I’m not home.
When the line 7 train I’m taking to the Express Bus Terminal in Seocho-gu from Hagye, there’s a jarring moment at which the train exits the darkness and the carriage is washed with white light—I see the blood red sun disappearing into the cotton wool clouds and colorless sky above a mildly shining river, the bridges stacked up with evening traffic headed north after work, the mountains in the distance, the towering buildings, apartments, the vague and frenetic motion of a city quite alive and unaware of my gaze—and I think, this is why I am here—for the privilege of observation and a small partaking in a culture much larger, much more mysterious, much older and much more persisting than any I have ever observed or encountered before—this is the country that rebuilt itself after being nearly eradicated a hundred years ago, and after being rent in two by the bigness of its own aspiration, is at the forefront of world thought—the country and culture that somehow worked its way into my interest and stayed there until I got curious enough to meet it… the culture that met me graciously when I wanted away from my own.
For all the strangeness, the feeling uncomfortable, the tiredness of my days here—at this time I feel the privilege of being here, of being allowed, even sometimes welcomed, to a place like this with a story that is available to me if I chose to find it.
The people facing me in the carriage watch my face as I watch the river. My eyes burn and it is a relief to look back at my feet when we reenter the darkness.
I meet Gina and Tiffany at the Express Bus Terminal station after getting lost in the underground mall. I had heard so many times before coming here that the best shopping you can do (and the most affordable) is in the subway stations. I usually use stations off line 7 in Nowon-gu—Nowon station, Hagye station, and Suraksan station most often—and while they have cosmetics shops and food places, drug stores and convenience stores, I have not experienced underground shopping until I reach the Gangnam Terminal Underground Shopping Center on a Thursday evening.
Most places sell clothes and shoes or accessories for low prices—you can find knock-offs and cheap, bargain-priced things, as well as stores with their own lines and brands. Gina and Tiffany have been out all day by the time I reach them, so Tiffany rests while Gina accompanies me down a row of the mall. We spend about thirty to forty minutes shopping—I buy four teeshirts (one 15,000, and three for 5,000 each) and five pairs of socks (each 1,000)—and we don’t even make it halfway down one length of the mall from where we started. Two of my shirts say Maritime Surveillance in a small print. I am charmed by this every time I think about it.
We walk to Banpo Han-gang Park to watch the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain show at 20.00. A friend back home who studied a semester at Yonsei a few years ago has told me that this is something I should see, so I am especially glad that Gina and her friend want to see it, too. I have been told that it is something like World of Color at Disneyland, and I have a hard time picturing this of a bridge, so I don’t know what to expect.
We walk all the way to the water and I sit with my legs dangling over the river. A park sprawls behind us with trees, tiny grassy hillocks, a bike path, and a small amphitheater facing the river. A few flashily-lit cruise boats move slowly at the other shore. Couples sit on either side of us and pervade the waterfront. I get a feeling for the theme of the thing.
When the show starts, a song, muffled and foreign, plays from somewhere behind us—I can’t understand it or really catch the tune. Water shoots straight out from the bridge in hundreds of streams that move up and down in choreography with the music, and lights from the bridge shine out into that spray and color it with a modest spectrum. It lasts about twenty minutes, for four or five songs. People take photos and videos the whole time—glancing back into the amphitheater over my shoulder is perhaps more entertaining than facing forward. I look out over the dark water and the dark sky and the dark mountains and the city now properly lit by traffic and building lights, feeling peaceful, and slightly wondering. Is this what people here enjoy? I am far from being touched by the water show itself… but glancing around at the crowd, looking out at the city… that’s all something for me. Afterwards, I’m left with a single overriding impression: quaint.
We walk back to the station in search of food. I am the only one of us that can read Korean so I scan the buildings for promising signs. On a big building outside of exit 8 I catch sight of a kimbab sign directing us to level B-1, so we walk down into the building and stumble upon a hidden food court, interspersed with flower shops. We end up walking into a place that’s almost full because they have bibimbap on their menu. The owner speaks no English but we manage to communicate a little through my limited vocabulary. He gives us menus and after briefly explaining, leaves us on our own. We discuss the things we understand on the menu—kimchi fried rice, radish bibimbap, soft tofu stew, kimchi stew, a bunch of other meat soups, seafood—and then the middle-aged ladies sitting at the table next to us come over to the table and start pointing to things and providing usually one-word translations like pork or drink.
I manage to charm them, in Gina’s words, by speaking with them in fledgeling statements—we know what these ones are, we don’t know what these ones are, what is good, we don’t want to drink. They ask us where we’re from and I speak for us—California. They nod. Ah, America. They tell Gina and Tiffany that they have “Korean faces”—I wonder if it’s their first experience with the non-ill-intentioned but mildly racist statements people—especially older people—sometimes make here—they bristle slightly and say, Chinese. The ladies ahhh. Gina tells me I should tell them I’m an English teacher. I tell them I’m an English teacher and I live in Nowon-gu. The ladies ahhh.
When the owner returns, Tiffany orders three soft tofu stews in Korean—the owner looks slightly pitying, as if we chose it because we couldn’t figure out what anything else was…which wasn’t halfway wrong. At home, I have had good soon-dubu, but Gina, who is wary of spicy food, is wary of what will come our way.
I can tell as soon as I try the banchan that this food will probably be the best I’ve had here so far and I am proved correct when the soup comes out, still boiling loudly.
I can tell it’s made with chicken stock and Gina pulls out a clam from hers—they look at me, worried, but I just pull out my clams and pile them into Gina’s bowl. You will be the clam queen. I tell them that when I came here I had a good understanding that sometimes I would probably have to eat this way. I order a pa-jeon (chive pancake) and jamong-soju (grapefruit soju) for us, convinced by Gina to try it. I end up having two shots and I get a bit dizzy even sitting down, bumping into the table as I reach for things and forgetting what I’m saying in the middle of a thought. I can see your lightweight, Gina tells me. There’s octopus in the pa-jeon. I tell them not to worry about it, I’ll just pick it out or eat the edge pieces.
What would I rather do—eat exactly as I do at home and so pack my own cooking with me and bring it everywhere I go, or experience a new culture to the best extent that I can? Eating meat-based stock and occasionally accidentally eating a piece of seafood is a price I’m willing to pay to experience a part of Korean culture that is inaccessible to me anywhere else. I came here to do something new, knowing it was possible that this sometimes meant changing my habits.
It’s not as though I can suddenly eat barbecue—I don’t know enough about the meat industry here to feel comfortable suddenly completely changing just because it’s what most people do—that’s not my style—and I don’t want to. But even if I did want to, eating meat like that after almost a decade of abstaining from it would make anyone ill. As it is, occasionally having soup with meat-based stock has already had quite an effect on my body…though I imagine it’ll get easier as I continue to do this.
Before I came, people were quite vocal about telling me I’d have a hard time being a vegetarian here, but usually they weren’t vegetarians themselves. Don’t you imagine that perhaps I have a hard time being a vegetarian all the time, anywhere? I’m from the land of hot dogs and hamburgers and sandwiches and ribs and steaks… not as vital as meat is to a Korean diet, but still. The American mindset isn’t one of vegetarianism and meat is taken for granted as a daily need. Basically—I’ve been at this a long time. It’s an effort every day. Not that people who are intent on telling me something I “didn’t know” are actually concerned about whether I’ve already thought about it or not…
We stay at the restaurant for an hour and a half at least—I finish my soup, something I am not known for doing—and we almost finish the pancake between us. I am tempted to take another shot but, knowing I have to get home on my own after this, refrain, and Gina finishes the bottle, apparently not lightweight like I have thought.
All of the food is cheaply priced—our stew is only 6,000 and the jeon is only 10,000, the soju 4,000. It is Gina’s first time eating somewhere that doesn’t deliberately cater to tourists, and the whole time she talks (and more and more as she drinks) about how much she loves this place—the ahjummas drinking next to us, the nice owner who sees us struggling with the jeon’s big pieces and brings us scissors, the quality of the food, the price of the food…she loves it so much that she pays for our meals, smiling and saying, so cheap, so good… Next time I eat out with her I know to get her full of soju…
I can now honestly say I like Korean food, next time someone asks. Every Korean dish I’ve tried at home in CA has either been quite spicy or a bit bland (except when I made it myself), but it’s probably true that everything is better at the source.
This was also my discovery of grapefruit soju. It could be a very dangerous thing to know.
Gina, Tiffany, and I part at the station, taking different lines back. Line 7 is packed and for a few stops I stand, still a bit tipsy, swaying above a tiny old lady on the seat below. Thankfully she detrains after not too long and I take her seat. Throughout the duration of the journey two good-looking guys sit on either side of me and I am careful to hold myself very still. I trip a little walking out of Suraksan to my apartment and wake early the next morning to cut my hair before work.
It’s now just after 21:00 on 12 September. I found out through Facebook that Beirut came out with a new album/record within the last few days and I still don’t have internet so I can’t access it yet. I’ve done a few loads of laundry. Later tonight I’ll have to descend to B-1 of my building to throw out my trash. I watched episode 1 of BBC’s Sherlock, series 1, after discovering that I had it in my iTunes library today.
Being here, I’ve thought a lot about what it is that I want to do. I have vague plans for my future: I want to go back to school, I want to be a professor. Where I’ll be or who I’ll be with are things I don’t know anymore.
Today I decided I’ll try to go home for Christmas on a budget airline. I wondered again and again why I’m here and the reality of it keeps hitting me with the same hard blow: I don’t acclimate to it and it is sudden every time, each time as if I haven’t felt it before. I don’t enjoy work much—I had a nice day on Friday and gave two of my problem students detention, which was suitably satisfying, but weeks seem so, so long, and then I’m almost too tired to enjoy the weekends. Of course—I’m still adjusting to it, here. I haven’t had time to get out much because I’m busy stocking my fridge and replacing things in the apartment. I’m still trying to figure out where stores are and where I can buy what and what’s a good price for certain things.
It’s hard not to have friends, here. I can chat with my penpal, but he’s busy lately and I don’t want to bother him and I’m still sometimes paralyzed by the thought that it’s always me getting in touch and that it might be annoying. One of the professors I learned under for a class called “Women and the City in Korea,” a class that kind of cemented in me a love for contemporary Korean short fiction by women authors, was teaching this last year at Yonsei and may still be there… I may reach out to her soon.
But I kept thinking about it, today—there’s nobody here. At home I have only a few close friends who really understand me and who I feel quite close to—and I left all of them for some crazy thought. I keep feeling sad and scared—and then chiding myself because I chose to be here, and it’s not as though it’s my first time abroad, so of course I knew it could feel this way. But last time most of my good friends were in England at the same time as me. This time…really, there’s nobody here who knows me, who I feel safe with, there’s no unburdened or comfortable friendship waiting for me after I almost cry at work again, after my tampon gets full for the first time in ten years and I get blood all over my hands trying to change it during a five-minute break between classes, nobody who I can just exchange a glance with and not have to exchange words with, nobody I can just be near to and feel better, nobody around whom I am not aware any longer of my own self, my own body… I don’t like hugging people, but there are certain people whose hugs I miss, now. When Franklin’s dad hugs him at the end of his bad day episode—that’s the part where I nearly cry. Can I feel this way? I chose to be here. Why am I here? Why did I do it? Can I last a year? These are things I think of on a Saturday, with nothing else to occupy me.
I think it’s true that the brain and the heart aren’t quite connected, but it’s not true that the heart doesn’t think. It’s just a brain of its own, not subject to any knowable logic.
Of course I know—in the pursuit of any dream, we make sacrifices for it. The word sacrifice isn’t sacrifice for nothing. Some people dream of a perfect family while in the midst of something less than that and sacrifice real relationships for pursuit of the impossible, the learned ideal. Some of the perfect job, sacrificing interest or passion, some of interest or passion and foregoing a steady income, some of normal things and some of extraordinary things… in any case, we leave things behind when we choose.
I knew in my head how hard I hold to things. But I’m feeling the effects of it, now, in a way I have never felt before. I wanted to do this. I am here. But I am also somewhere else. Who could live in more than one place without their heart hurting sometimes, without feeling ripped in pieces sometimes? Of course when you take apart something that was not apart before, it hurts. It makes sense and I know it, but the pain is still surreal.
I haven’t been living in one place since I came home from England. So this emotional onslaught is not new in substance—but in magnitude. The texture is different, too—it yields less, becomes headstrong. I stop stifling the pain that rises up in my chest like I have done all these nights, all these years, to survive. It sits in me like a piece of wool. It’s hard to breathe. Eventually I fall asleep.
I’m aware that I miss home only because it’s familiar, and not because I liked being there, not because I was happy there, not because there’s a future for me there. What a human thing… and what a human thing to leave behind everything known for the pursuit of the sought after.