What Exactly Are You Doing in Korea, Coleen?

The monsoon broke in a big way. The new energy seems to have opened the floodgates of my writer’s block. Storm away!

The bus says, “수원 역” on the front of it. That means it goes to the station, which is where I need to go. The little reader that flashes numbers indicating how long it is until the next bus tells me it’s ten minutes until the one I always ride, mumbling a constant stream of Korean numbers that makes no sense to me even after almost five months. This one must go there, probably on the exact same route. But the number, 9-1…I’ve never taken that bus.

A little voice inside me yells, “Where’s your sense of adventure?! World traveler my foot!”

I hesitate. Screw it, might as well. I have an hour to kill anyway. I move toward the bus, but just then the door closes and it roars away. Opportunity lost, I spend the next nine minutes contemplating travel. More accurately, contemplating whether I am actually still traveling or not.

Most days I am grasping at travel’s tail, trying somewhat vainly to hold onto the vast beast that’s dragged me across four continents and as many languages. I imagine it these days as a tiger, with the big square head and calm eyes that long winters in Asia gave them when they roamed free and not nearly extinct. Occasionally it looks back at me and seems to roll its eyes, asking a silent (and somewhat annoyed) question.

What exactly are you doing in Korea, Coleen?

I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. Seeing enough. In part because of the fact that I now work on Saturdays, I haven’t been able to get out and see Korea very much at all in the last month. I went to Daejon with friends and watched some live jazz in a Mexican bar, then beat the system to fit three people into a “love motel” to sleep for the night. We went to a baseball game and we’re going to Muuido on Saturday, but it still feels as though I’m not actually traveling. It feels happy but…settled.

My powers of obeservation, so keen when I go to a new place, have dulled. I still carry the blue notebook I bought to write them all in in my purse, but it’s morphed from an external hard drive of sorts for my brain into a never-ending To Do list. I have fallen into routines, found my favorite places and stuck to them, found comfort in the predictability of it all (one of those travel mantras I have captures it perfectly. “Faccio sempre le mie stesse strade,” from the coast of Liguria in 2010. I’ll explain some other time). Something in me longs and aches for that new feeling of a place, that exploration and expectation and realization brought on by far-flung places.

Korea feels too easy, and the black hole of mediocrity that pulled me so strongly a few months ago seems to have insidiously shrunk to imperceptible but still effective size. So far it’s eaten up my motivation to learn the language, and the huge amount of TOEFL English I’m now teaching threatens to feed my motivation to teach directly into the depths. The ubiquitous chicken and hof places certainly don’t help. since all I seem to want to do some days is burn my mouth on fried chicken while sipping a soapy pint. Sometimes for lunch and dinner on weekends.

Last year was such a struggle, with living in Patagonia, learning a language, adapting to living in a host family/pension, and the desperation to find a way to make English relevant to my students breathing down my neck for six months. Personally, 2011 was insanity, even before and after South American chaos got involved. I grew. I stretched. I struggled.

Recently, someone I care a lot about reminded me that one doesn’t have to always be struggling to grow. Living vibrantly doesn’t have to mean living in chaos or difficulty, and even if my Korean experience feels easy and mediocre and changeless…that’s not true. It’s just settled. If I stay in the same apartment the whole year, it will be the longest I’ve lived in the same place since I moved out of my parents’ house and into my dormitory for college almost six years ago.

The travel itch is awake, that’s all. I’m rapidly approaching five months in Korea, and the unsettled side of me is seeking to break away and wander again. Instead, I have seven more months of my contract staring me in the face and far less money saved than I had hoped. Luckily, everything about who I hang out with and where has changed since I went to Seoraksan at the end of May. I’ve been very happy, so happy that it’s easier not to travel and not to worry about saving money.

I’m not traveling in Korea. I’m living here. And maybe that’s the lesson this time. The slowing of my travel self and melting into my settled self may feel a little chafing at first, I will adapt and change, and I will thrive.

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Korea, Transitional Nature

2 Comments

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  1. You are a brave soul. I wish you luck in your new surroundings.

  2. Wow! You’ve been there five months already! If the first five have spun by this fast, the next seven ought to be over by tomorrow. You won’t feel as settled after it’s over as long as it seemed when you lived it, in other words.

    Thanks for keeping us posted on what a traveler experiences as she ages. Question is, will you have enough money to go on to the next adventure independently? We inquiring readers wait anxiously to find out…

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