“Have you ever been to the famous Korean palace Gyeongbokgung?” asked our tour guide. She was in her work-mandated pink and white hanbok, delicate and gloved, her voice amplified by a microphone pack hooked to her hip. A gesture, a reference to the architecture, describing the similarities and differences between the current palace in which we wandered and its more famous cousin. Autumnal leaves trembling on the branches, attempting to shed their verdant green, preparing to make these palaces look their best, gearing up to turn this tour into something amazing. People oohed and aahed at gazebos, at purple and green cornices, at gardens and trees.
I scoffed—of course I had been to Gyeongbokgung. I had lived here before, or at least off in a neighbouring metropolis. In some primal, needy way, the way I often need other people to be aware of how smart and capable I am, I wanted the tour guide and most of the strangers around me to know this factoid. I wanted them all aware of my fascinating and worldly life. We may all have been equal in our unfamiliarity with Changdeokgung, but I was practically from here. Did they want to hear me speak my meagre and rapidly deteriorating Korean? Watch me order and devour some bibimbap? Handily navigate the mostly-easy subway?
Of course, much as I felt vastly pleased with myself, self-satisfied and redolent in my previous experience in this nation, there wasn’t a whole lot of justification. I had certainly been to the main palace, years earlier, in those fresh, wide-eyed early days of semi-tourism. In the days when I had felt a guest, before residency quashed my acquisitive, travel-hungry desires; before familiarity had silenced the wanderlust, when working rendered me more local than traveller. I had explored the palaces and the museums and the monuments in the long long ago, before a journey to Seoul necessarily included finding somewhere that made a good taco and a venue hosting an English-language rock band.
But in the intervening months and years, my engagement with the fancier, grand aspects of Korean culture dampened. I ate Korean, I spoke Korean, and I worked Korean–this, I reasoned, excused me from the burden of any other cultural exploration. Every Korean person would wave me on, balancing out my otherwise pristine investment in the country, deeming my flightiness as excusable, even lovable. I was so engaged on a regular basis, why, who cared about the things I didn’t do! Practically a Korean gentleman, I was. Hadn’t I done enough, loving-Korea-wise?
I remember hosting visitors in Toronto, my homecity, taking them to the Island or to the CN Tower or to Casa Loma. Restaurants and streets, clubs and sites. Far flung reaches of the cityscape, sparkling and pristine gems of architecture, fascination, culture that I readily forewent and often actively avoided. They were all pleasant, certainly, famous with good reason, but also they would be crawling with daytrippers and people, and any respectable local couldn’t be seen hob-knobbing with filthy tourists. Also, there were shawarmas to eat and amazing micro-brews to ferret out and refuse to tell anyone about, except when you were telling everyone. Touring around your home is unthinkable—you know it all, even when you don’t know it at all, so why bother?
These were places that I knew were great on some level, worthy of my attention and time, but that ultimately lost their lustre for their eternality. Two decades of Toronto sapped my ability to express genuine excitement about tall buildings and interesting museums in the city, just as being a moderately hip twenty-something drained my ability to express genuine excitement about much anything at all.
Of course, the sites of Korea were just as forever, just as permanent in the world, though my own presence was far more temporary. But it is easy to trick yourself in finality, to train your heart into expectation and comfort. Nothing is easier than to argue for laziness, for the path far more travelled, for the road that leads to a nice beer, a good movie, and a warm couch. Palaces and forests and temples and noodles would always be there, so why not visit them eventually?
That eventually did not come for many of the most famous sites in Korea. I left the country with great, sucking black holes of absence in my Korea bucket-list, widening gaps of missed history, of lost tombs and fortresses, of food not eaten, of roads unwalked. I so actively sought out new streets in far-away places, shade under banyan trees and bowls of clear noodles, golden Buddhas and piping hot curries, that I forgot, so often, to take a look around at the beauty in which I lived.
Nearly a year after I left Korea, a year after I stopped living there, I returned as a traveller, as a couch surfer, as someone set to walk the streets, to ride the subway as far as it would take me. I had no job to do, no task to complete. I only had a map and a compass and a metro card. Tour guides and restaurant owners and friends would ask me if I had been to this or that palace, to the newly reopened Namdaemun, to the special exhibits in the National Museum, to the fireworks festival or the book festival or the food festival, if I had eaten this food, had I been to Korea? Yes, yes, yes.
One morning I took the subway up past Chungmuro and Anguk, past the major temples and points of interest, lured by the internet to the sites of ancient shrines. I walked upward into Inwangsan, along long roads that intersected strange apartment complexes, around real estate agencies and flower shops, attempting to decode signs in a language that, with a start, I began to remember. I tromped up the side of a mountain, occasionally diverting across the stone roofs of houses, buffeted by gardens of mountain flowers and cossetted by flocks of roving butterflies. I used my hands, found footholds in rock, and climbed as high as I could climb, looked out over the great horizon of Seoul, the skyline in jagged metal and concrete. I felt, in many ways, like I had arrived her for the first time.
And I knew that I would be back again.