The Boomerang Tourist: Walking Old Roads With Eyes Wide Open

Palace patterns

Wait, there’s cool stuff over here?

“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.

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Seoul Photoglut: The Kimchi Relapse

Temple doors

Faced with a looming weeklong vacation, I was left a little bereft of creativity. Asia, once again, lied before me: wide and open and verdant and filled with noodles of various kinds. Of course, flight costs had begun to skyrocket, friends who I could reasonably pressure into travelling with me were thin on the ground, and most of my belongings were still held somewhere in a port in Shanghai. Stunted for choice, I decided to turn to my old stand-by.

Korea, the site of my growing up, my metamorphosis from boy to manboy. Korea, the current location of a large fraction of my social circle. Korea, land of a lot of food I wanted desperately to ingest. I think sometimes of how regularly I desired to visit Canada, how frequently I had requests to return to the homeland and shower them with my presence. I realized, of course, that Korea had formed another significant portion of my life, and that revisiting it was not out of the question. No, it was actually logical, and something that I hungered for deep in the wanty parts of my spirit.

I booked a ticket, I packed a bag. I went home. To one of my various homes.

Let’s look at it.

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The Shoebox and the Palace

All clean on the western front.

It’s very cozy.

I remember the day when my main co-teacher showed me my Korean apartment. I was carrying two suitcases and was swaddled in a sopping-wet sweater vest, slick with Korean humidity and my own terror-sweat. I looked around my one room, my first apartment to myself, and was stunned by a sense of grandeur. There were walls and a ceiling, a bed and a couch, pots and pans and an entire bathroom, and they were just for me. They were mine. All twenty cubic metres of them.

My meagre collection of belongings easily slid under beds and into cupboards, my suitcases wedged below the couch and beside the wardrobe. I had no decorations to speak of, other than pictures I sellotaped to walls and whatever sea-creature decals I allowed to remain spread across the apartment in monument to its previous occupant.

I was a grown-up, and this was minimalist living, I thought. The lack of space necessitated the style, but it suited me fine. Extra room just meant more things to clean, more things to polish, more things to worry about damaging or coating in ice cream when I grew careless and sloppy. A one-room was the apartment for me, as it necessarily created a simplistic lifestyle, near monasticism in its quiet, lazy effortlessness. I felt moved in within an evening, and as much as the place could become recognizably mine, as much as a single room with a kitchenette and a single bed can become personalized, it was shaped in my image.

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The Conversion Rate Epiphany

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

A wad of damp, sickly looking coloured notes clung to the inside of my pocket like so much lint and gum wrappers. I pulled out said wad before a store clerk and considered the rainbow of wet paper, the cornucopia of meaningless money before me. I tried to peel a few sickly, soggy slips from the clump, as some simple offering, a meagre supplication before this strange new altar. There were numbers on each, and I could read, and I could add, and yet none of those things particularly helped me. Yuan meant nothing to me, much as won had once meant so little, as rupees and baht and euros.

I had no viable concept for local money. The relative values and exchange rates gyrated across my synapses in a disturbing conga beyond my comprehension, visions from only the darkest obelisks sent from the spookiest, least sensible parts of space. I know that six yuan is one Canadian dollar is one thousand won is fifty rupees is something like 98 American cents. I know this fact and can repeat it by heart, can confirm via apps and research, can mentally convert great sums of multiple currencies given enough time, encouragement, and chocolate milk. But when confronted with a shopkeep who would really like for me to stop staring dumbly at him, drooling all over his counter with my bottle of off-brand local cola, I am a little adrift.

Exchange rates are theory, rather than practice. They are factoids kept and shared, interesting anecdotes to tell people back home, numbers to spit out when you want to sound knowledgeable about your environment. But in an actual place that requires your attention, your involvement, and your money, numbers mean nothing without a sense of value. Six yuan to a dollar is all well and good, but what does it mean if a packet of strawberries is forty two yuan?

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Language (How Do I Even Talk Now?)

Oh, hi there.

Still my go-to stock photo for language.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

I was on the subway, deep below the earth, talking freely to a friend. My tongue sluiced freely around my mouth. My teeth chattered, unbound. Phonemes flew unabashedly off of my stupid lips. Maybe I was talking about bowel movements, or my visceral hatred for a certain coworker, or fairly deep spoilers to books three, four, and five of A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe I was expressing untoward personal opinions on Margaret Thatcher, or my thoughts in unicorns in North Korea. Perhaps, at different times, all of these subjects of discussion. In polite company I would usually try to refrain from blabbing on about touchy subjects, about the crude or the vulgar or the spoilerific.

And while I was still largely in polite company, I was in polite company that was speaking in Korean and had no interest in my dumb English conversation. Under the sea of a completely different language, my own sentences were slipping completely under the radar, too fast and too idiosyncratic and too boring for anyone to bother listening in. I had diplomatic immunity of the mouth, and I could say whatever I wanted, almost whenever I wanted.

I had grown used to this luxury. It seemed, for a time, that I was walking around in a glorious English bubble, a great movable sphere of incomprehensibility. No one around would understand me, and unless I tried with particular effort, I couldn’t understand anyone else. It was a gentleman’s agreement on eavesdropping, and the difficulty of translation meant that nobody would bother trying too hard to overhear my tedious communiqués. Every conversation was intimate and private, even if we were sardined into a bus with hundreds of strangers at rush hour, or swarmed by waiters and other diners at a restaurant. No one was going to bother trying to understand me, and thus my words were all free.

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Politeness (A Return to Finishing School)

The sea

Bowin’ time.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

I still bow a lot.

It’s not over the top: I’m not grovelling or stooping from the waist. I don’t throw myself to the floor and press my forehead deep into the ground to show my deference. But when I meet someone, when someone I know walks into a room, in occasions where I am expected to show respect, I naturally incline. My head dips. I close my eyes obsequiously, I smile, and I bow, because how else are you supposed to greet people? It’s unconscious—my body simply produces the reflex towards a certain stimulus, a flower orienting towards sunlight, a base-level amoebic response generated by hundreds and thousand of previous interactions.

Oh, I also hand money and objects to others using both hands, or sometimes while holding my elbow. I try not to make too much eye contact with others. I shake another’s hand with both of mine. I try not to start eating until the eldest person around has begun, and then I try to pace myself carefully. I act like someone who just got back from Korea and really liked the whole place a little too much.

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Weather (The Requiem for an 8-Month Summer)

Endless summer.

Endless summer.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

This is not a yearning for the weather in Korea. The weather in Korea sucks, essentially. There is one nice season, and it is fall, where the leaves change and everyone wears stylish sweaters and you don’t need a heater or an air conditioner, and people spend time outside and look at the trees and it all looks like an arty film that takes place in upstate New York. The leaves change and leave mountains as seas of red and gold, there are festivals and holidays, and the countryside reflects the people in calm, beautiful harmony.

Winter, though, is desolate and cold, and the buildings are poorly insulated. There is only a little snow, but when it falls, no one has any idea what to do with it, and the rules of society are abandoned, and people kill and eat one another in the streets. Summer is the temperature and humidity of Satan’s butthole, and also there are cicadas everywhere, so you are in a buzzing, sweaty vortex, and then a monsoon hits for a full month. Spring has some cherry blossoms, but they are often coated in yellow dust blowing in from the East with a side-dish of heavy metals from China’s industrial zone.

No, this is not about the weather in Korea.

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