A Non-Stranger in a Strange Land

Late fishing

Korean hobby time.

It was like seeing a real-world person stepping suddenly into a prolonged and barely lucid dream. A  black and white character bursting through into a Technicolor television landscape, a visitor from a distant planet where all of the fashion is distinctly alien, where the language is barely even language. Greeting a member of my family at the airport in Korea, seeing an electric spectre of home life suddenly alive and befleshed in my long, bizarre sojourn was bewildering. Two worlds meeting, despite them seeming untenable, and just too far to bring together.

As someone young, unattached, and happy to eat most anything (barring cheese), my cousin Zack was probably the best familial candidate to come visit Korea. That we had already travelled together made us confident that the confines of my shoebox apartment would drive neither of us into any murder/suicide scenarios.  Unruffled by spicy things or a general, diffuse discomfort, he could theoretically survive and enjoy his time in neon-soaked Asia. When he broached the subject of coming to stay with me, I was fairly confident he would have a great time.

In truth, I worried more about myself. While I talk a big game about my mature (pronounced ma-tour) Korean life, would someone from real life see through the pretense? Would this real-life person be unimpressed, bored, or horrified by my life and my temporary home? Would he hate the food, and the noise, and the life, and me? The people here know me and my Korean life because they live essentially analogous versions of it. People who I know in Korea have no metric by which to assess my life or my personality or my functionality as a human beyond that which I have presented to them in this country–it’s a different story when someone has known you since your diaper days.

From the airport, I immediately took Zack on the arduous subway ride back to my home. I had plans to introduce him to my kindest friends, who I hoped would charm and impress him, and who would in turn be charmed and impressed. I told him I would call Ty and Faith to arrange our evening, and immediately reached for my cell.

“What are you doing?” he inquired.

“Calling them…?” My eyebrow went duh.

Seaside meditator

Relax. He likes this place already.

“In the subway?!” He seemed shocked. I suddenly recalled that in our hometown, even walking within a 50 metre radius of an above ground subway station will cut your reception. Trying to use your cellphone underground, like I was doing, would actually cause most Toronto cellphones to explode, killing or maiming numerous bystanders in a hail of telecommunicative shrapnel. “That’s amazing!”

Korea had him.

Having fresh eyes on the country suddenly reminded me again of what a different place I live in, of all the things I’ve grown accustomed to in two years. All the aspects of difference, all the petty annoyances, all the enormous gulfs in culture, all the wonderful and weird and amazing things have begun to naturally fade into just regular old life. People back home sometimes ask me about my Korean adventure, but “adventure” seems like such an unfitting word. I work and I sleep and I eat, and all of those things are occurring in Asia, but I just don’t feel terribly Indiana Jones.

To have someone look upon Korea with adventurous eyes once more enlivened it again. To renotice the awesomeness of the subway system, to bask again in the glorious taste and hilariously low prices of the food, to be wowed by the ocean of lights screaming and blinking and glittering out my window. Having someone starry eyed beside you all the time reminds you to look for the stars.

Of course, being a person with a job meant that I would have to leave my cousin largely unattended. I had exactly one weekend to make him functional enough in Korean life to get himself around, put food in his face if he so desired, and preferably not perish by the roadside, screaming for help and water. I had maps and guidebooks and dozens of phrases written out in Korean, as though a worried parent sending their child out into the scary unknown for the first time. That this was an adult, and someone older than me, did not seem to faze my worries.

Despite my earlier reluctance, my worlds seemed to collide very smoothly, speaking, I guess, to the quality of my taste in people and relatives. Zack managed to eat and explore and continuously not die. My cousin got along swimmingly with my friends, and very few of the parties involved shared any of the myriad of embarrassing stories about me that they all have in their arsenals. Even still, the presence of a real world person changes a few things.

The arrival of an outsider is, of course, somewhat of a rarity. The length and expense of the trip precludes most family members and friends from visits, so those few brave, moneyed nomads that make the journey are celebrated and held high. What news bring they from the outside world? What has befallen our homelands during our lengthy absence? That these people are fresh-eyed and ready to consume Korean life, but are completely free of the entanglements that typically come along with it, is refreshing and heady. (It also helped that Zack, ludicrously overprepared, had enough money to treat most of my friends to dinner at least once.) The people of my Korean life wanted to meet him, to talk with him, to meet a kind of person not living the exact same kind of lives we are, and who is in turn not instantly bored by discussing the lives we are living.

Of course, people from both sides used the opportunity to exchange more personal information. The family suddenly had a sleeper agent embedded on the ground in foreign territory, where he could funnel the launch codes and information about if I’m getting enough vegetables back to the homeland. My friends can ferret out information about my real life, as though fact-checking if the current make and model of the product is genuine or falsified.


Quick! To Busan! I hear it is pretty there!

These exchanges of crucial data were kept thankfully out of my earshot, and I could simply spend time with a cousin, showing him the strange, amazing life I’ve built in this country, and introducing all the weirdos I’ve come to care about. We ate all the food, saw all the sights, drank all the drinks, and met all the people. He was showered with attention at my school, climbed the highest hill that Incheon had to offer, and saw both ends of the country, as well as Japan.

And I got a nice reminder that somewhere, beyond oceans and continents, I’ve still got people waiting for me.

12 thoughts on “A Non-Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. Dedicated to Zack, obviously.

    The turnaround on requests is apparently pretty fast these days, you guys. If anyone has something burning and important they want me to write about, strike while the iron is hot.

  2. I just want you to know that I’m an aspiring travel writer, and at my internship today they asked me what my favorite blog was. I thought about it for a second, bypassed the ‘big names’ in the travel blog zone, and then I realized that you were, by far, my favourite travel blogger out there. I love your mix of humour and facts and photos and insight! Thanks so much for writing!

    • Wow! I’m pretty flattered. It’s weird writing in such a tiny corner of a reaaaaaaal big blog market, and it’s cool to know that people are out there appreciating what I do.

      Really. Thank you very much.

  3. Very refreshing! I like how you described and put into words anything! I am sure more benefits will come out of the family having a “sleeper agent” in Korea! 🙂

  4. Cousin Zack: Continuously undying since 1984.

    Thanks for the lovely write-up Mikey, I’m honoured to have been StupidUglyForeignerized.

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