Same But Different

February marked the two-year anniversary of my move to Seoul. Korea: Round Two is decidedly different this time out. Returning was a welcome relief, especially considering the conditions under which I left the US. Seoul greeted me with warm weather, good friends, and a delicious, long-awaited meal. More than any other place I’ve lived, it truly felt like coming home.

But home is a fickle lover. It soothes one’s soul for a moment, while rolling the eyes into the back of one’s head the next. It brings the comfort of the familiar with the discomfort of the everyday. It’s front and center for every school play while simultaneously standing at the top of the stairs in its nightgown yelling at you to turn the music down in front of your friends. Ah…home.

And just like home, I returned to the impossibly generous, open arms of some of the dearest friends I’ve known. I returned to a grown-up job and a grown-up apartment, both of which landed in my lap and have the strange aftertaste of what one imagines life as a grown-up to be like. Professional opportunities, buildings with elevators, morning subway rides in heels, health insurance. Frankly, it’s about time. Just like that, everything clicked into place. A city that was once so foreign and strange is now refreshingly natural and normal to me, insisting constantly that I put down my bags and call it home.

But there are but’s. Korea: Round Two involves a demanding job, a lot of work, some stress, thinking, using my brain, work and working. To sum up. It involves a large dose of awesome, true. But it also involves fending for oneself, not a lot of free time, and everything taking ten times longer and ten times the effort. Think about the average stress of moving to a place where you speak the language and understand everything. OK. Add international money transfers, visa complications, and living out of a suitcase for 7 months. Multiply all that by ten and you will have a modest understanding of November, December, January and most of February.

Korea: Round Two is also replete with Korea: The Seedy Underbelly. Yes, it’s true. Beneath the colorful hanbok, the beautiful temples, the adorable language barriers, the cherry blossoms and unbearably cute pigtails of its small children lies another Korea. You know, the one in its nightgown at the top of the stairs. And that Korea includes more spitting than I care to witness, unnecessary pushing on the subway and everywhere else, corrupt politics, maddening hierarchical business structures, Lady Boys prostituting themselves in parks and a bunch of other crap that’s annoying. One evening, within a half kilometer of Bill’s apartment I walked past a couple screaming insults at each other, followed by a drunk guy kicking another drunk guy, followed immediately by a Lady Boy on his way to work. Followed by an old woman spitting in the street. Oh Korea, how you sparkle!

What happened to all those pigtails, huh?

Hey, I know that nowhere is perfect. I know that for all my “Korea, Korea, Korea” there was always a flawed and just-like-everywhere-else version behind my rosey lens. It’s as real and imperfect as any other place. In many ways, it is superior, but in many ways it is not. I suppose what’s really happened is that Korea has become home and with that, has lost some of it’s shiny, sparkly newness. Things once charming, are now not so charming. Hey lady pushing me off the subway, I have to get to work, too. Hey dude in your silver suit, newsflash. YOU ARE WALKING RIGHT INTO ME WHILE YOU WATCH TV ON YOUR PHONE. That sort of thing.

This is not to say that Korea: Round Two is unpleasant, nor that I’ve for one moment considered leaving. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be right now. Except maybe Japan. Or Indonesia. Or New York. Or Thailand. Or South America. But that’s just splitting hairs, really. And that’s the younger, more restless Stephanie that would consider only the lure of discovery and not the effort of the next learning curve. What is certain is that I am not at all done with this place. To leave now would leave me with the distinct feeling of Things Cut Short. There is too much here still left to discover, inside and out, warts and all, and I know that all the peddling up that steep hill eventually leads to the most glorious, legs extended, wind in hair, gliding down the other side.

A few nights ago, I met two of my dearest friends after work for sushi, an éclair and a movie. Everything perfectly lovely, perfectly normal and perfectly ordinary. I took a long walk after the movie before catching a taxi home. We whizzed down the same streets and same neighborhoods I see nearly everyday. Normal, ordinary. At a stop light, the driver began to flip through the channels of the radio, deciding quickly to pop in a cassette tape instead. This caught my attention. I mean, c’mon, who still has tapes? But as the first refrain of Van Halen’s “Jump” echoed through the taxi, that familiar smile appeared at the corners of my lips for the first time in ages. That smile that only Korea and a 60-year-old taxi driver with an 80’s mix tape can induce.

And as Prince’s “Purple Rain” wailed into the night, me and my Korea Smile glided home, legs extended, wind in hair.

9 Responses to “Same But Different”

  1. Megan says:

    Keep writing. All the time.

  2. Leah says:

    if you ever stop writing and taking photos, I will turn into the lady in the nightgown at the top of the stairs. don’t ever let this stop.

    you don’t know how much I love this. for a million reasons. don’t tell anyone, but I think you made me cry. xoxo

  3. Charlotte says:

    Steph,thank you, thank you!!

  4. thedoo says:

    i’m glad you are in seoul.

  5. eimy says:

    i love your writing. it is like a book that you never want to stop reading.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Really, people. You are wonderful.

    Thank you times a thousand.

  7. the new site is so pretty!! i’m totally going to go through and read all the old posts… ;)

  8. jodi says:

    i am so happy that you are sharing your world with us again. it’s so wonderful to see!

  9. Nigel says:

    Oh my! Steph, reading through your blogs makes me want to pack my bags and move to Korea.

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