“I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths
When my parents visited Taipei last spring, we decided to take a week outside Taiwan — it was a national holiday and I wanted to show my parents more of Asia that they might enjoy. After my dad decided that a trip to Kyoto and Osaka would be too expensive, we settled on Seoul. This was actually my third time in Seoul, but I don’t count the second trip as it was just a long layover to satisfy my 72-hour visa for Shanghai.
I left my parents to themselves for a good part of the trip; I was tired from trying to plan things that I thought they’d enjoy. Instead I gave them suggestions of the major sights I had already seen — the palaces and museums that I found interesting on my first trip through Korea. The times I was with my parents, we went to eat and took a tour of the DMZ, for which we chose the wrong tour (we missed out on the shared border with all the guards).
In my free time, I wandered from our hotel through the streets in search of things I hadn’t seen before. I also met up with my former coworker for dinner and a social media connection for drinks. Meeting up with friends reminded me how much I enjoyed my time in Seoul.
After my time of living in Taipei, I realized how different other major Asian cities can be — the history, culture, and architecture. It made Taipei seem smaller and less impressive. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed the fact that things are a little more difficult for English speakers in Seoul than in Taipei — in some cases it meant that I had to ask for help.
I love the architecture of Seoul — the modern structures throughout the center of the city and the redeveloped classical-style buildings in neighborhoods like Bukchon Hanok Village. In the case of the latter, my father chose a hotel nearby, so I got to wander those streets a bit more this time around. Of course, I still enjoy gazing at the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which looks like an alien UFO landed in the center of the city and was designed by Zaha Hadid and Samoo.
In between my own wanderings without my parents, I took them to a few areas I had been before, such as Dongdaemun and Bukchon Hanok Village. I introduced them to food I hadn’t eaten since my first time in South Korea — they admitted that the fried chicken at the market in Sindang was good, but they didn’t like sitting on stools and eating in the middle of a market. I still believe this fried chicken is the best in the world, especially as it only costs $6 for a whole chicken.
While the first days in Seoul back in 2014 felt overwhelming and were a little frustrating, I felt more comfortable this time around. Maybe it was because I wasn’t living in a closet that was more claustrophobic than my current bedroom. Perhaps it was that I was on vacation and didn’t have to worry about work for a week. Whatever it was, the comfort made me feel more welcome in this enormous city.
Memories of evenings out talking with people I had just met returned as a couple struck up a conversation with me at an outdoor bar — the woman wrote foreign names in Hangul calligraphy and offered to write my name on a postcard as a souvenir of the kindness I encountered.
I thought about the days I spent walking for miles through Seoul because I wanted to see what was along the way instead of traveling underground in the subway — my feet ached and my shoes wore out to the point I had to purchase new ones so I could hike in Bukhansan.
After my time away, I found that I had missed out on so much of Seoul because I half-assed my weekend tours — I know I could have combined more of the tourist attractions had I planned a bit more, but I was unprepared on the first journey. Now, I wanted to stay and see it all again.
It’s been a year since that trip and I’ve thought about returning to Korea yet again, though I would hope to see Jeju and Busan instead of Seoul. The atmosphere and the aromas that waft from restaurants and street vendors call to me to see and taste everything again.
There are few cities I desire to return to, but Seoul is near the top of the list.