I wrote this piece for a foreigners’ writing contest in December, but forgot
to submit it. However, I like it enough to put it up here. While it’s ostensibly about what happened
when my girlfriend went overseas, it’s really also about what Seoul is like for me, as a foreigner who is
far more used to living in what in Korea is generally considered “the country.”
The Incheon Airport Limousine bus glides through the heavy mist. I’m
almost there, and I need to shake off the lethargy. My girlfriend is already
high in the air, soaring toward Adelaide in a Cathay Air jet, and I feel somehow
deflated, exhausted. I can’t go back to Iksan tonight. I thought I might
have secreted myself away with a bottle of Scotch by now, but I can’t
do that either… I don’t have the strength or the stomach for it.
After the scene in the big, clean, hypermodern airport, her sister standing
off to the side near the neatly uniformed airport girls, all of them politely
trying not to look at the spectacle of us saying goodbye, her tears, and that
last kiss for the next month and a half, maybe six months if our Christmas
plans don’t work out. After the last boarding call, her sister and I
politely fumbling our way through fragments of Korean and English as she guided
me to where I already knew I could catch a bus, before wandering off into
the night herself. Then only the quiet of the bus, the darkness outside of
it. After all of that, I don’t know what to do with myself.
And now, here I am, almost in Seoul.
Normally when I come to Seoul it’s for some kind of overt, easily-stated
purpose. I sometimes make on a food run, to buy some foodstuffs from the halal
food shop in Itaewon, and cheese, and get some good foreign alcohol while
I am at it, because the good-natured folk at my local Lotte Mart
are convinced that I am being too picky in refusing to substitute gin for
vodka. And of course, the possibility of buying antiperspirants and Westerner-sized
clothes in Seoul is breathtaking for anyone who’s spent more than a
month in a country town like Iksan.
Other times, I end up coming to Seoul with my saxophones and an overnight
bag in tow, my bandmates huddled together between train cars smoking their
cheap cigarettes while I finish off my can of Hite and try to remember
the backing lyrics I’m supposed to sing at our gig. One of my happiest
memories in Seoul was the rainy day that my band, Dabang, played
at the Ssamzie Sound Festival. Sharing a stage with so many big-name and up-and-coming
Korean bands was exhilarating, and a great honor; being in the only band that
included foreigners made it doubly honoring. Wandering the city afterwards
with one of my friends, just being this normal guy with a sax on his back
bantering about music and life in Korea, only a few hours after playing to
an audience of thousands of screaming festivalgoers: this is another one of
my favorite memories in Seoul. I learned not to jump fences unless you know
what’s on the other side, that night.
I’ll admit it now, sometimes Seoul is for me what my Australian-Korean
bandmate Myoung Jae once described: “I get off the train in the morning
and I feel like, yeah, I could live here, really, why did I ever say I couldn’t?
And then by about 4 or 5 pm I just want to go running home to Jeonju.”
I have lived for a little over eleven months in Iksan, and only experienced
real culture shock a couple of times since I moved there; but my first trip
to Seoul after a couple of months in North Jeolla province, that
was a shocking experience. Small-town boy syndrome, maybe… but the ceaseless
sound of cars, the constant movement of people everywhere, the pace of everyone’s
stride along the sidewalks – sidewalks! we don’t have those
where I live! – and even the occasional sight of dozens of foreigners
at once, these things are often a little much for me. I feel out of breath,
a little dizzy, usually. The sun dubu chigae doesn’t taste
like home to me.
But I think there is something beautiful and powerful in that bustle and
strangeness that I need, tonight. I want to walk down the street and look
through people, not worry if it’s an ex-student of mine walking past,
or whether I know that foreigner on the other side of the street and ought
to say hi. There are places that have an eerie familiarity to me: the area
around Jongno 3-ga, Hong Ik Taehakno, the Nagwon Sanga, Insadong, and though
I avoid going there, yes, Itaewon. But even these places I don’t really
know, I don’t fit into perfectly; they are beautiful and powerful for
me because they are strange and unknown, and not mine, in a way that
Iksan is not and never will be for me.
Now that my girlfriend’s gone, and my long wait for her return has
begun, I need this night alone, really truly alone, before I can go back to
work, to my apartment and roommate, to my friends and my co-workers. I need
this night where I am truly a foreigner, nobody’s teacher, nobody’s
student, neither hyeong nor oppah nor dongseng,
just an unremarkable face in a crowd. It’s aloneness, ghostliness in
the way that Chinese poets used to talk about poetry as a ghostly activity.
I don’t know what foreigners who complain of loneliness are talking
about: after being here only a few months, my world was already full of students,
other foreigners, parents of my students, people in the local shops who know
and recognize me. All those faces, smiling in recognition, inviting me out
to dinner, to soju, to tea or coffee. It’s wonderful, of course, all
this friendliness and kindness. It’s good jeong, harmonious
and all that.
But sometimes, I long for this kind of honest loneliness. Sometimes a person
needs the sort of anonymity I have as I walk through Insadong now. The rain
is coming down softly, but like everyone else my pocket umbrella is out and
unfurled, held aloft against the whispering torrent. I look at the faces of
all those people, these Korean faces that still strike me as so beautiful,
so endlessly variant and fascinating; and the faces of foreigners, always
a little surprising to me. And yet those faces are at home here, calmly moving
all around me in the rain. In the depth of that bustle, there is always this
calm. I wonder if they were always that way, or if something changed inside
them after they lived in this city for a while, something that made them stop
noticing the clamour and traffic noise, stop dizzily longing the way I do
for the wide green sight of a rice field in summer.
I saw a movie once about a couple who split up in Seoul and tragically managed
not to cross paths for three years. As I sit in a taxicab, on its way to the
CoEx Mall on the other side of the city, I begin to realize why those three
years in the movie are so plausible. The city is immense, I realize, looking
out the rain-spattered window at the skyline, endlessly rising and falling
and extending to the horizon under a heavy ceiling of clouds. So many people
are seeing the same thing as me at this very moment. So many people are looking
up into this very sky. I wonder if it is also raining where Woo Jin’s
plane is. As my fare climbs and my alarm increases, we finally arrive at CoEx,
and I am overjoyed to find that the bookshop is still open at this time of
The delicious scent of books, armies of new books surrounding me by the thousands.
This is also Seoul, for me.
Nothing happens that night, except beer and sleep after a long email to my
girlfriend trying to say what I am trying to say here. The night hasn’t
even coalesced into a blur yet in my memories and the morning has already
come to the rest of Jongno, the early mist gone and sunlight showering down
onto everything. The darkness has evaporated, and as I walk out from the yeogwan
into the street, a little old woman hobbles past me. She doesn’t look
me funny the way an old Iksan woman might… but I bow slightly to her
the way I would if we were in Iksan. Is this preparation, a sign to myself
that I am going home to Iksan? Or just habit? Maybe that’s the man I
am now, the polite foreigner who bows a little too often, changed by Iksan
the same way the people around me have been changed by Seoul.
The waiting will be alright, I think to myself; I will be waiting in a place
not like this, a place where I can’t walk on the street without seeing
someone I know. Seoul will wait for me the same way the forests did when I
was a child up in the north of Saskatchewan, and both places will promise
me the same thing, a kind of endless loneliness that I can go into to find
myself, and carry inside me when I go back into the world. Of course, the
forest is a place to go for a few days at most; it’s time to go home.
My long wait is beginning, and I should go back to Iksan, the place where
I will not be alone, unless I need to be.
So I breathe deeply, inhale the scent of scorched squid and the reek of beondegi
vats from the food stands over on Jongno a few blocks away, and smile
to myself. And I know it’s not realistic, that maybe it’s just
a trick of the sun or memory or maybe just the way I tell the story to myself
in my head, but I remember all of the faces I strode past smiling back at
me on that wonderful sunny morning. And that, too, for me, is Seoul.