The last time I was in Seoul was in January of 2013. It was cold, like home. I remember my blue down jacket purchased from Uniqlo in Hong Kong a few months before, my 5-foot-long scarf from a street vendor in Shanghai, and as many hot packs as I could get my hands on. I explored as much as I could bear the cold. You’d think that a girl from Minnesota would venture off into the cold in January without batting an eyelash…yea, me, too.
This time, in the warm days of October, I found myself wandering the streets of Busan for the first time and walking the streets of Seoul again. I didn’t pack appropriately for the weather. I was hoping for low 50s so I could wear light jackets and jeans. I got high 60s and low 70s and was sweating midday through my long sleeves. But I was comfortable.
I enjoy getting lost in a sea of people that look like me. I wanted to indulge myself in endless street food and authentic Korean meals. I was excited to use the little Korean I know, and graciously, I got to humor myself.
For many years, I’ve been thinking about and I wanted to know for myself what it feels like for non-English speakers to navigate the systems and everyday life in the United States: what my mother must have gone through, what my aunties and uncles must have experienced, how the families and students I worked with must have struggled, and the challenges the communities that I serve through my work must have faced. I got a glimpse of that language barrier challenge and frustration when elderly folks stopped me on the street to ask for directions and I couldn’t help, when I made a purchase at any store or restaurant and I couldn’t communicate, or when I was on the last train and the announcement in Korean informed passengers to transfer and I couldn’t understand.
Yes, I understand that it definitely cannot be compared, because what’s a tourist’s experience compared to those who struggle everyday to make a living without not being able to communicate? But it still was humbling. I’m grateful for the experience, grateful that it gave me a surface-level understanding of the pain and frustration of language barrier. I hope to carry this with me as a reminder to be more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic.
On this trip, too, I was completely preoccupied and stressed about the political affair between the United States and North Korea. I checked the news every chance I got as an effort to alleviate my anxiety. I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was so caught up in the unknown and was stuck in the what-ifs? It wasn’t until halfway through when I realized that the trip will draw to an end soon that I was finally able to pull myself out of that slump to enjoy the wonder that was around me. And as I crawled out of my slump, I saw other tourists enjoying their trips and saw locals going about their days. They’ve lived with this for so many years, it was nothing new to them. I felt foolish. It was lost time that I couldn’t make up for, but I tended to my mental health needs the only way I knew.
It’s so easy to dissociate oneself from something that seems far away. But with this trip, I realized that to have been there and to have seen daily lives, it makes me feel so far less removed from these global issues.
What a trip it was.
On a different note, this was my second time in Asia this year, and both times, I noticed that my skin cleared up and my face slimmed down quiet a bit. Something magical about Asia…
So as my South Korea series come to a close, I want to thank you for reading and following along. It’s been so much fun sharing the beauty of South Korea here on Map the Joy.