IT WAS A QUIET DAY. Not just mentally and physically, but spiritually.
My little taste of escape.
This weekend is the Lunar New year. A time when many Koreans spend time with their families at home, or visit grandparents in the countryside. It is also a time when many foreigners take advantage of their extended weekends in various ways.
I could have gone somewhere this weekend, but I never got the urge to. I had the option of going to Busan, the major coastal city of the ROK, to see a fellow photographer’s exhibition. Another friend of mine was heading down that way as well, so it was the perfect opportunity to get away. But here I am, at home.
I’m uncertain whether it is in fact peculiar, but at the age of 24 my idea of a leisurely day consists of sitting at home burying my head in books which currently are the The Essentials of Chomsky and my light reading Wild, working on various pieces of writing, finding time to cook and do yoga, and completing a few various computer activities such as reorganizing and updating my system of news sources, cleaning out my email, editing photos, or blogging.
It’s amusing how my days since graduating from university mainly consist of self-motivated study and willful research. In matters so spread out as well — philosophy, economics, political science, religion, environmentalism, ecology, linguistics, photography, videography, creative writing, journalism, web design, search engine optimization — as if the only thing hindering my habits of intellectual productivity was the organized manufacturing system of higher education.
However, in reality this is far from the truth.
Proper reflection on my recent life in South Korea juxtaposed with my years at UT would clearly show the most dramatic changes of lifestyle in my time spent around other people and in social outings. Perfectly aware that I was leaving everything in Austin behind for a land without a single friend, I was prepared for a more hermetic life. In fact, I desired one.
Don’t be mistaken, I miss my friends. I miss my family even more. Arguably I miss my dog the most (I can’t Skype her.) But I realize now that at that stage in my life, I had so much difficulty telling people I cared about no. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, I didn’t even want to disappoint anybody. So leaving was the perfect solution, they couldn’t well blame me for wanting to travel, and simultaneously it would justify my time away from them. But it still hurt.
And I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.
I was disappointed to find this urban mecca so heavily westernized and first world, so much like home. As embarrassing as it is I didn’t know a single thing about South Korea before I got here, nor did I take the proper time I should have to learn more than the essential basics. I arrived in a foreign country only knowing how to tentatively say hello and thank you.
I vividly remember boarding my plane in San Francisco. As that familiar feeling of butterflies in my stomach set in, finally grasping fully the fact that I was leaving with no intentions of coming back anytime soon. In 14 hours, I would step foot in a land I knew nothing about. I didn’t know where I was staying, only the name of the area where I would work and that the housing would be somewhere nearby. And then it dawned on me.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to do when I landed. They had never mentioned it. I never considered it. I didn’t have any numbers. I wasn’t my phone would even work there. I didn’t even know how to get in touch with the school I was working with because my recruiter had set up the whole situation for me.
Surely they’d have someone waiting for me. Like in the movies, someone in a black suit holding a sign with my name misspelled in thick, black permanent marker. But what if they don’t.
I ran through the options in my head. As per usual in problematic situations, I always have a plan for the worst. I would land, get through customs, make sure I had all my belongings and then find some mode of communication. If I could access my email, then I could get in touch with my recruiter and simply wait for his response. It will be daytime there, so ideally it wouldn’t take longer than an hour. If that doesn’t work, I can try to find someone who speaks English. Being an international airport of a major capital city, I know they will have someone who speaks my language. Yes, that should be okay.
Luckily, there was a man. Suit-less, but nevertheless carrying a brown cardboard sign with the name Zachary Cluely scribbled on it. Even Koreans couldn’t spell it right, but I was impressed with his handwriting.
Korea was so beyond my wildest dreams. I knew they had McDonald’s here, even Starbucks, but then there was Dunkin Donuts, Outback Steakhouse, Taco Bell, Costco. Of all the places, I never expected an On the Border, something that existed even in Wichita Falls. Remarkably, Seoul held a piece of my hometown, my childhood.
So not only had I moved to a foreign country, but I had moved to a city larger and more sprawling than any I had ever laid eyes on. I’d backpacked across LA and San Diego, I’d wandered the streets of Chicago, I’d laid on the beaches of Miami, but Seoul was a completely different beast. Endless views of paved city and towering apartments tightly squeezed between every inch of the overpowering mountain ranges like the crowded subways of downtown Seoul’s rush hour.
Just a square room with only the necessities, that’s all I wanted. I would eat the same things everyday if I had to, only do what I needed to survive. I would spend my time studying, journaling, writing, and exploring. A simple life, but one I thought would be fulfilling.
But what I got wasn’t far from what I had and in some ways worse. Koreans have worked so hard to build their first-world country in only the last 50 years since the Korean War. They’re proud of what they’ve accomplished, they feel they deserve the western culture they’ve envied, and they bask in it. Koreans are obsessed with their technologic toys, they love their large corporations, and I’ve never witnessed a culture more obsessed with pop culture.
A failed escape.
I haven’t had my chance to get lost. And even worse, I’m stuck at the moment, working a job trying to save every last penny to finally get out. Hopefully 2014 will be the year.
That’s the plan at least. A year of open-ended traveling, spending the days however I please, going wherever I want to go, doing whatever I want to do.
I am ready for the new year, already.