I’ve been here in Seoul for about a month now. I have an apartment and a job, and my family is here also. I know the language, and speak Korean like a local. I know my way around, can take the subway without referring to a map, and transition seamlessly from one transportation infrastructure to another. It’s my home.
My wife put into words a nagging sensation that I’ve had in the back of my mind. We are tourists. Everyone has that feeling when they move to a new place for work or some other reason. It takes you a while to know where the grocery store is, where to rent a video, how to get to work. It takes you a while to call it home. In my case, this used to be my home. I used to work in this exact neighborhood before I left for the States, 13 years ago. However, it has changed so much that it’s really disorienting. It’s like returning to your childhood home and the new owners have painted the whole house another color and added a 2 port garage and built a whole new floor.
All the landmarks are gone. Well, not quite. They are now dwarfed and shadowed by bigger, shinier ones. As an information architect I know that people navigate using landmarks – that’s why you don’t change navigation buttons, or prominent layout element on a page, since that what people remember and related to during their wayfinding. Just the other day, I came out a subway station to a place I visited countless times, the same exitI used to take, and I couldn’t tell which way was North, let alone get to where I was going. The mind goes crazy trying to reconcile the old map of places to the new. There are little remnants of the past I recognize scattered here and there, but they have been disembodied, now floating without context, no longer in a relationship to a whole that used to exist in my mind.
What makes it worse is, I walk around with my iPod listening to NPR’s Marketplace or This American Life, which I used to do in the States. It’s like walking around in a bubble.
I always say, when you can’t fight it, embrace it: I am a tourist.
Now that I have signed my rights away and accepted my status, the next question is, what kind of touristy things can I do? I can stop in the middle of the road and take photos and not feel embarrassed. I can ask stupid questions. I can marvel at the progress this country has made since the last time I was here. I can get lost and feel ok about it. I can poke fun at the local culture.
This last point, I intend to do a lot of 🙂