Monday, May 22, 2017

Lost in Seoul

Eight years after I left... I finally went back to Seoul.

I'm not sure why I didn't go between then and now, perhaps I was overly excited with Japan and busy moving from one end to another, then career, marriage and baby all happened and I just never made time for it. I also think that subconsciously, I knew going back to Seoul was going to be difficult in some ways, so many memories and people and things left behind. I remember saying when I left Seoul back in 2009, that I had left my heart in Seoul.

Seoul is the place where it all started. The blog, that started from just a few musings written in my afternoon work break and pretty much led me to where I am today. The wonderful people I met there, including those that encouraged me to go to Japan and grow up. The friendships I still have to this day, the friends that now live all over the world, and those that won't ever be forgotten.

Being back in Seoul felt like home, it felt like I had never left even though the city itself changed completely. I was shocked at how different it looks, how modern, how trendy. It moves so fast, perhaps too fast, but that was always Korea and something I love about it. It also felt huge- Seoul is a large city, but even coming from Tokyo, I found Seoul even bigger. Maybe it is actually bigger, or more spread out perhaps.

I had such a limited time (and work to do) in Seoul, but I made the most of it. One of my favourite things was walking around my old neighbourhood of Hoegi-dong with my friend Il-Pyo, whom I had met at the local gym back in 2008. He was the friend who invited us to his family home for Chuseok (a type of Korean Thanksgiving), to share a lavish meal with his entire family- and one of my most cherished memories of my time in Seoul. He's doing so well now and it's amazing to see.

Hoegi was a pretty local, low-key neighbourhood when I lived there, but it's now filled with cool little cafes and shops, and tons of beauty shops. My good old Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has been replaced with a Starbucks (the irony) but everything else, like the big corner Burger King, was still there. My old, horrible, cockroach-infested apartment has been torn down, which is probably a good thing but it felt strange not to see my home there.

I also saw my lovely friend Claire, who was my favourite coworker back at that elementary school I taught at, we laughed and reminisced of those times and our students over samgyeopsal, the grilled meat wrapped in lettuce leaves that I love and miss so much. We tried to FaceTime Jaclyn (the original reader of this blog!) but failed to do so due to the time difference.

I revisited Apkujeong, Gangnam and Sinsa, my favourite places to shop and have coffee (and birthplace of my friendship with Rita, who lived in the posh part). Back when I lived in Seoul, the tree-lined Garuso-gil street of Sinsa was very little-known, especially among foreigners. I remember my friend Gina introduced me to it as she always knew where to find the best cafes, so I used to go there a lot but it was not popular. Fast forward to now, it's so trendy and touristy, but it's still my favourite place in Seoul. It has all the best cafes and shops, and it made me wish Tokyo had something like that. Tokyo has no shortage of great cafes, of course, but it somehow does not feel as relaxed.

Which brings me to my next point.... Seoul is so relaxed in general. Or perhaps I'm just more relaxed there. I always say I'm a block of ice in Japan, and as soon as I exit the country I feel myself melting. Korea does that to me and it feels so good. I think Japan is just a place where you have to be extremely self-aware at all times in order to properly follow all the rules and ensure a smooth cultural experience. And I also adore Japan for that, as when you play by the rules you can really enjoy living here and all the conveniences offered by the country, but I also realize it's a lot of stress in the long run.

Back to Seoul... I just ate kimchi at every meal, drank so much coffee and never had a bad-tasting one (Seoul now has such a strong coffee scene), took taxis from one end to another (for a fraction of the Tokyo prices), stocked up on beauty and skin care products (because Korea), got my nails done, and just enjoyed every moment of it. It was odd to be back there by myself- I still felt like my old self, pre-baby pre-everything, but I also felt grown up, like in an "I told you so" kind of way. Oh, the things I would have told my 20-something self.

When I left Korea in 2009, it was one of the most difficult times of my life. Going back home to Montreal was so hard after the excitement of living abroad, I missed Seoul so much it physically hurt. But what came next (Japan!) was the best thing ever, and brought me everything I've ever wanted.

I won't lie, I was extremely sad to leave this time as well, and I still feel some sadness about the whole thing. But it was good I went, it made me feel refreshed, and going back to my roots gave me some new ideas about what I want next.

And just like that... once again I left a little part of my heart in Seoul...