My Solo Adventure in Seoul, South Korea: Tea, Temples, and Being Other

So, I didn’t blog last week. The world ended. I’m kidding. It didn’t. I was in Seoul, South Korea on a long overdue, hard won, extremely different vacation, and I legit needed time to process.

It was a trip. I walked around a 1,200 year-old Buddhist temple, sipped tea at a traditional Korean teahouse, ate every meal with metal or wooden chopsticks, and by the time I left I’d figured out how to navigate the subway to a set destination without going in the wrong direction. I also met quite a few nice people who helped me when my nerves were on tweaked wire status.

I’d love to be able to say that I unilaterally love, love, loved it. No. Can’t do it. Honesty being one of my key sins, I experienced too much angst to indulge in any overly generous hyperbole.

Don’t get me wrong. I kicked it. I love Korean food – yum – adore Korean skincare – they give out sheet masks like candy – and I live for that modest, mixed media fashion aesthetic they’ve got going on. I even see some good points about K-pop – dancing, production value and bromance for days – so there were mad trip highlights. But I think despite knowing better, I may have been wrongly influenced by the avalanche of K-dramas and movies I’ve absorbed in the past few years.

Logically, I knew what was up going in. For starters, it’s a monolithic society. We’re talking 96 percent or higher South Korean, which means diversity is just a word to them. That means my “other” was in full force, and unfortunately for me, it was quite uncomfortable.

I was expecting some discomfort. Despite my best efforts – all those dramas managed to do was cement my love for fictionalized romance and convey a hand full of prepositions, thank you, hello, selfie, I love you, and the need for honorifics – I didn’t manage to learn much of the language before I left.

Because I speak Spanish well, I thought I’d be able to pick up at least a few useful phrases, but most of my potted, drama-land inspired vocab wasn’t helpful. Fortunately, hello and thank you – with honorifics – is enough to make it, especially since I stayed in an international hotel with an English-speaking staff and concierge. I was also in Seoul, which is an extremely foreigner friendly city with English signs, language translation, etc.

I wasn’t the stereotypical American acting like everyone should speak my language, which was good because most of them didn’t. Those who did knew enough to sell their wares and make chit chat. That was it. However, they seemed to appreciate my perennial Korean greeting and thanks, my no doubt sketchy bows to assorted elderlies, and my two-handed efforts to give and receive things over sundry retail counters. But there were no real conversations until a traveling American engaged me on the train. He was ready to go home too.

It was something.

Despite my lack of language skill, I figured with Google translate at my back, I was good to go. No. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it that can lead to misunderstandings.

I was intimidated enough by my difficulty having even the simplest conversations to curtail a planned day trip to Busan. Still, I’m a G, so I got my behind on the subway every day and went to a different neighborhood to check things out. The subway, while fast, cheap, extremely quiet and home to many helpful South Koreans who read my “where the hell am I” body language and employed a bevy of hand signals to successfully guide me on my way, might have been what killed a big part of my “I’m so cool. Look ma, I’m traveling alone for the first time in my old ass life” vibe.

I’ve heard the phrase “other.” Of course I have. I’m a double minority. One of the themes of this blog is diversity and inclusion. I could probably write a detailed, analytical paper on it. But I had never really, really, internalized what that meant until I rode the subway in Seoul.

Here in the good old US of A, to be frank, I instinctively shit on others’ efforts to make me feel less than or different because of the color of my skin. That was vulgar, but it’s also 100 percent true. The privilege of age, and having successfully weathered some not so pleasant experiences, has imbued me with a nearly bulletproof ability to laugh in the face of most assorted race and gender related nonsense. I can shake off most microaggressions like a champ, and my skill with a comeback quip rivals the most skilled comedians stage rapport. But there? I couldn’t. I couldn’t communicate.

Imagine sitting on a train and having a middle-aged man stare you up, down and sideways. I mean literally scrutinize everything from my curl pattern to my red-painted toes to the high sheen glinting off my large-framed, wonderfully protective shades. He stared so long, I finally pulled my shades down low enough to say “Annyeonghaseyo.” He did not respond in kind, and he continued to stare until his phone rang. He was not the first, nor the last to do so either.

Now granted there are some cultural differences at play here as well. Here in America we think it’s rude AF to just stare at someone hard enough to make their skin itch, and then when they catch you at it, not have the decency to look away. There, not so much. But it brought home to me in a very personal way exactly what “other” means.

I felt a bit like a bug under a microscope, though I wasn’t scared. I didn’t feel threatened. But I did feel strangely vulnerable. And for someone like me? That’s not cool. At all.

My trip to Seoul made me realize how important diversity is to me. I’m all for new experiences. I’m the person who will try something new on the menu even when I’m starving, be the first to eat the local food in a new place, and say, “Let’s do it!” when someone suggests some out of the box activity. But it is truly wonderful to live in a place where faces like mine are not quite so exotic.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not putting America on a pedestal above my few days in South Korea. The two places are simply different. There are issues here for sure – especially in this crap political climate we’re currently suffering through – but I suppose at the end of the day, there’s really no place like home.

I think I might have had a different experience if my girl had been able to come on the trip with me – she got sick and had to miss it – but I wouldn’t trade the experience of traveling alone for anything. If I had to describe it in one word, solo travel is peaceful, and I will be doing it again. I loved the feeling of freedom, the ease of movement and decision-making.

There are still quite a few places in Asia that are on my travel list. But I confess, they’ve been bumped down the list a bit in favor of some diverse locales in this big old world of ours.

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