Korea, to me, has always been a ‘limbo land’ of sorts. On one hand, it’s home — if you define ‘home’ to be the place where you can walk the streets, ride the metro, all the while feeling a strange affinity towards those you’ve never seen before. But on the other, it’s always been the place that has confirmed, often jarringly so, the fear that I may be a wanderer: a nomad of the soul, who belongs everywhere but nowhere at once.
My displacement is my inability to make the simplest requests out loud, in cafés, in hotels, in taxis, for my fear of sounding foreign is insidious and powerful and all too overwhelming. My displacement is my reluctance to talk to my closest relatives because I don’t know which honourifics to use and which to not. My displacement is my eagerness to taste the dishes and condiments I know so well, only because they are the only things I can understand and appreciate as they are.
But as all humans are wont to do, we try to find a way to belong. To matter. So this time around, when I went back to Korea for the first time in four years, I tried to comprehend Korea in a way I hadn’t before: through photos and through words.
Over the course of several days we traversed up and down the entire peninsula, starting off in Seoul, attending a wedding in Daegu, visiting my aunt near Gyeongju, staying with my grandparents in Busan, then going all the way back to Seoul to catch a flight to our other home, two thousand kilometres away.
But that’s the general roadmap. In terms of the experience — where do I begin?
It’s clichéd to say Korea is a beautiful place. But I will use the hackneyed term anyways: yes, Korea is beautiful. Even more so in the blooming month of March, when the cherry blossoms begin to exit their tiny white cocoons. On long car rides through the city centres you find the blossoms waiting outside apartment complexes, and although the whole panorama is mundane and entirely ordinary, something seems different at this time of year.
This was particularly true in Busan, where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom outside my grandparents’ house. From my grandfather’s shed across the road, you could see the tiny white buds pushing against the side of the painted concrete masses and you would think: why here, of all places? Take a ride on the Gwangan bridge at 80 kilometres an hour, with the windows down and the bag of chips you bought spilt all over the car floor, you laughing, the wind so loud and fresh and you realise that yes, Busan may forever be associated with slow days and crowded mealtimes but sometimes it can be wonderful. Spend an afternoon meandering about a shopping mall with your cousins, discussing English names and video games over sugary lemonade, and realise that this is something you will continue to miss even when you sit on the 26th floor in a hot room, in a hot city, far away.
Family. There was always family. The entire trip was a long chain of family meals and exclamations on how much we’ve grown.Take a road trip to your aunt’s house where you are treated to a spicy mess of noodles and fish, as well as the tastiest, sweetest strawberries you’ve ever had. The following day, in Daegu, a crazy post-wedding lunch buffet is followed by an even crazier snacking session back at your paternal aunt’s house, where the deliveries keep coming and the sweetmeats are endless. The adults laugh and you sit back and soak up their happiness.
Then there’s Gyeongju, a place you fell in love with four years ago and went back to see again. This time the fields are empty of flowers, the trees void of leaves. Yet you observe people enjoying the quietude of the day, having picnics, picking small weeds to cook soup back home, and to see it all you run, run around, past the lake, the empty trees, through the crunchy piles of discarded foliage, taking photographs as you pass.
And Seoul is ever the exhilarating place. By the time you get to see it properly you are tired from all those hours traveling by car, tolerating the high-pitched whine of the GPS as you attempt to read or sleep. But Seoul is a place you cannot miss, so you spend an afternoon walking through Dongdaemun market, looking at funny socks and ornate boxes whilst your mother spends ages at the antiques store, conversing with the shopkeeper about where all these things came from. Later you go to Myeongdong, meander around, pass the pojangmachas and carts laden with all kinds of fried things: fried squid, fried vegetables, fried pancakes (sometimes filled with syrup and nuts, other times with kimchi) and fried ice cream. And when it is dark and the streets are beginning to get crowded, you head to Hongdae and observe the wildness that permeates late-night Seoul, observe the sheer quantity of young people — of which, you realise, you are one — but in the end the festivities are left behind for a quiet night back at the hostel that serves simple toast for breakfast.
The next day, you pack your bags, head to the airport on a taxi driven by a conversational polyglot, and board the flight back home.
Although the feeling of displacement still persists, I’ve realised it ceases to matter much — for now. As long as there are beautiful things I can make my own through words, warm moments spent with family, endless hours of bad TV and bowls of good food all characterised by their nature of being Korean, I will always belong… somehow.