My street was lined everywhere in convenience stores. Two were physically inside of my apartment building, I could see another three from my window, and the luxury convenience store with the wide picnic tables and the jovial, buoyant staff was at the corner. They were all gleaming, well-groomed affairs: shiny shelves; shiny floors; shiny, moderately-enthused smiles. Triangles of kimbap arrayed neatly, unceasing displays of drinks in various sizes, and snacks in such plentifulness and variety that the bounty of man should surely have offended the gods.
Most of Korea reminded me of my neighbourhood, my tiny shimmering neon hamlet. Family Marts and love motels, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, the constant and effervescent hiss of fluorescent lights, wafts of dumplings and sausage and bubbling vats of oil. The truck that barrelled down my street every morning at 6 a.m., caterwauling about the quality of his oranges, seemed to be a predetermined and omnipresent facet of the Korean universe. This orange truck was the same truck that surely trawled every street in Korea, much as Santa Claus must blast across whole continents and reach every house at staggering velocity.
Wherever I went in Korea, I saw visions of my wedge of the country. Cell phone stores and cafes reconfigured in placement and number, barbecue restaurants occasionally were replaced with stew restaurants. A dumpling cart would be selling fried chicken would be selling rice cakes in piquant red tar. Family Mart would disappear and a 7-11 would take its place. Puzzle pieces were moved, shuffled around, reassembled to slip comfortably into local cartography. And underneath the same heart beat, the same comprehensible rhythm.
In a lot of ways my conception of Asia grew out of this, even as I knew, theoretically, that it was a place of billions of people, dozens of countries and languages, and many configurations of mini-marts. Much as I imagined most of North America to be colour-swapped variations of Toronto, replacing forests and rivers for mountains or steel, poutine and Vietnamese food for barbecue and clam chowder, the Asia of my mind was a reconstituted version of Incheon.
In the far reaches there might be different weather: a splash of sand or a crop of palm trees, kissed by constant sunshine; high mountains capped forever in snow and peopled only by sturdy, able goats. In far parts of Asia the colour schemes might be different–Korea’s neon nightscape replaced by dull street-light glows, by red and gold, by open fires. Kimchi and grilled meat replaced with curries and noodles; seaweed with sea salt; rice with different kinds of rice.
I imagined the same corporeal organization, the same planning of cities, the same logic and the same transport and the same pulse. The world in the mind of a child–how could anywhere be truly, truly not like home? How could people live there? How could they make lives so different and so similar to our own?
It is strange to think how quickly I was able to conceive of Korea as a secondary home, and in turn how quickly I became attached to its rhythms and structure. The sounds at night when I went to sleep – traffic, laughter in bars, a distant thud from a tinny stereo blasting a recent pop hit. The smells around me, the green-and-purple of the temples and the palaces, the colour of the little man on the traffic light. When you settle in a place you settle hard; when you understand once you don’t particularly feel like upsetting the cart and trying to understand again.
In travel, it is easy to pass through, to put a hold on understanding, to just open up and gobble the world around you. There is too much to see, too much to do, too much to eat, and the steady pulse of life can easily pass you by. I sometimes imagined a place not unlike Korea just behind a veil, hidden in a back neighbourhood, where all the locals went when the tourists weren’t looking.
How strange, then, to be in a place so like Korea and so unalike, to have all of the same parts assembled into a different whole. To have things approach the familiar, for them to glance closely off the side of familiar, an asymptote of sameness.
I still use chopsticks regularly. I still eat rice a lot of my days, still struggle over language, still ride in a lot of cabs for an embarrassingly cheap fare. People cook noodles in the streets and take long walks together, ride bicycles and motorbikes everywhere. In the distance there is the din of city, of traffic and construction, lights and clouds and inky black sky. If I close my eyes and walk a while, I can trick myself into thinking I’m in Korea, back in one of my other homes.
But it takes fifteen minutes to walk to the convenience store. At the grocery check-out the tray at the end for your purchased items is perilously small, and you must briskly cram things into your bag and throw money at the bored and tired cashier lest you hold up the whole line. Traffic rushes and speeds and zips in ways that remind me, but are not perfectly similar to, my last adopted country. People talk in a tongue I don’t understand, use familiar sounds but in new ways, with lifts and drops and strange detours where they aren’t meant to go. Sometimes I’ll look at a sign, recognize a stray glyph, grow excited, think I’ve regained my senses, but the rest of the strokes cloud and jumble, and I lose whatever globule of understanding I thought I had grasped.
Maybe I try to think of so many places like home to make the world feel smaller, to make it more manageable, to fit all of the continents and oceans and miles into my head. As a child, your world is tiny, contained. Anything beyond, the dark nebulous far away, must be just more of what you already know, because what else could there be? Only as you grow, only as you take your steps, make the far away close, do you see just how big and different the world can be.