Chuseok, 2004

Ilsan Lake Park – Photo by Seok Hwan Jeong under Creative Commons

The platform was quiet after Will and I stepped off the train to transfer. We were far out in the suburbs of Seoul, where the metro lines run above ground, and the moon shone brightly in the sky like a pale lantern. I stood there in my t-shirt with my hoodie hanging over my shoulder, enjoying the cool air after a long, wet summer. Those were the first breaths of autumn air I had taken in Korea.

It was the day before Chuseok, a holiday celebrating the harvest, and Will had generously invited me to spend it with his family. He was my roommate at the international dormitory where I was staying. A Southern Californian who had come to Korea to reconnect with his own language and culture, it would be a rare occasion for him as well.

Will’s uncle picked us up near the end of the line in Incheon. He was eminently friendly but had a tired look about him — above his buoyant smile, his eyes and cheeks looked heavy. Will called him halaboji, “grandfather,” because he was more that kind of figure. Together, we ate a simple meal of rice, soup and saengson-jeon (egg-battered fish) in anticipation of the feast we would have the next day. Then we went for a few turns in a nearby park. Night had fully fallen, but as was so often the case after dark in Korea, the place was alive with people.

Early the next morning we carved a wide route around Seoul on the sunny highway. The road was empty; everyone else who was traveling for the holiday had likely already arrived where they intended to be. Will’s family were gathering at one their relative’s homes in Ilsan, just northwest of the capital. There were about a dozen people across several generations, and all of them welcomed us warmly.

Inside the apartment there was a large folding screen and low tables upon which carefully sliced fruit and other offerings were stacked. Pictures of family members who had passed were set up on the table as well. I would come to learn that on almost all holidays, Koreans take time to honor their elders, both living and dead.

Will’s family was Catholic and so this ceremony, I was told, was somewhat non-traditional: we sang hymns before bowing deeply, foreheads touching the floor, and wordlessly paying tribute. Then the family did something I did not expect. In silence, all of us shuffled out of the room, and shut the door. “This is when their spirits eat,” one of Will’s aunts said to me in a near whisper out in the hallway.

About a minute or so passed before we re-entered the apartment and began to feast for ourselves. I suspended my disbelief and wondered whether the food had been in any part altered by the presence of spirits. Perhaps an apple slice would have a nibble taken out of it, a shot glass of soju would be half-full?

It was barely 10 o’clock but the spread was huge — fish, kalbi, bulgogi, side dishes of every variety. One of Will’s younger cousins twisted open a 2 liter bottle of beer and began to pass glasses around. By noon, Will and I began to insist we could eat no more. “But that’s only the first round!” one of his aunts said, laughing cheerfully.

Before attempting more over-nourishment, we all piled into a couple cars and drove to Lake Park, a large, man-made recreational space in the middle of Ilsan. Will, his cousins and I rented bikes and pedaled through the crisp air. I felt my heart beat faster, shaking off the laziness of the morning. We cruised and laughed, racing against each other only half seriously.

It’s been eight years since that first Chuseok, and I have never seen any of Will’s relatives since. Will and I, once on opposite sides of a 200 square foot room, now live on opposite coasts. But on that slow and simple autumn day, we all shared a few moments that I will carry for years still.

Chuseok (추석) was Sunday. Read more about the holiday at Wikipedia.

The Elsewhere Illness

It was a little more than a year ago that we peeled away from the tarmac of South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, bound for Hong Kong. Early that morning J and I had hoisted our bags onto our backs, snapped a parting photo of the door to our Seoul apartment — Unit 703 — and then lumbered down to the metro. We were both sad and excited; after a final exhausting week of preparing to leave our adopted home, we allowed the plans we had set in motion to carry us forward.

We landed in a foreign world. While J had visited the tropics in other regions, neither she nor I had experienced this part of Asia, and its features were fantastic. The machinery of the city was stitched together over spits of land. It was cut into steep peaks and nestled into jungle, with Hong Kongers traversing it unblinkingly via boat, tram, underwater train, careening double-decker or soaring cable car. The humidity was so impermeable that we woke each morning in our air-conditioned hotel to fine drops of dew on the comforter.

The end of the line at Shek O, Hong Kong Island

It was overwhelming — and wonderful. We slurped strong milk tea and drank fresh mango slushies; we ate delectable crab congee; we cooled ourselves in the waters of a tiny bay after a sweltering hike along “The Dragons Back”; and we versed ourselves on the history of the qipao, the stunning, form-fitting dress that is iconic of Hong Kong. The heady mishmash of experiences had us buzzed for the road ahead through China, India and Southeast Asia. It seems strange now that barely three weeks later, in a hostel in the middle of Xian, the momentum was broken.

We were considering a change of plans after reading reports that dengue fever was rampant in Delhi, and one surprisingly cheap plane ticket would have taken us back through Incheon. Suddenly, I found myself aching at the thought of returning to Seoul.

“I can’t,” I said to J. “If we go back, I don’t think I’ll be able to leave again.”

***

It’s been called lots of things, but the nuance is different with each turn of phrase. “Wanderlust” is a common encapsulation of it; “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is another, although that’s more negative. What I was suffering from — and continue to be afflicted by — is what I call “the elsewhere illness.” It’s that involuntary habit of losing yourself in where you were, or where you would like to be. It comes suddenly but its effects linger, like a chill or a heart palpitation. You might spend an afternoon coping with the residuals, finding that spot on a map and then just wishing to relive the feelings that place brought. Or you might just scroll through flight times on the Internet for a while, hovering over the “purchase” button when you find the one you like.

It’s not always that self-indulgent. One of the most wrenching fits of it I ever saw was after a friend of mine back in high school named S, who had come to the Seattle area from Korea to live with her father, opened a care package from her mom. It had clothes and some books, and a short note. After reading it, she just knelt down on the carpet for a while and cried — wishing, I’m sure, to be back with her mother for even just a moment, to reclaim her old life.

A few days later, S and I drove down to shore of Puget Sound, and with the waters of the Pacific at our feet, I pointed northeast and said, child-like, “Korea is just over there.” She cracked a smile. That’s the bright point of the elsewhere illness; it can inspire a feeling of connectedness, or drive an ambition to move onward and upward.

But the great irony of the elsewhere illness is that while it may push you out the door and onto the road for adventure, you continue to carry it. The problem then is obvious: even when you arrive, you’re never fully there — the present is obscured by restlessness. There were times while living back in Unit 703, usually in the morning, that I would look out our window onto the quiet Seoul neighborhood below. Occasionally I would see people watering their roof gardens, or jumping rope in a morning exercise routine. I would try to just be still and take it all in, reminding myself of how I had dreamed of making the city my home for years. But I could never quite focus, and there were many other times I spent sitting in that apartment feeling just plain homesick.

The View from Unit 703, Seoul

Negotiating a balance between a passion for “elsewhere” and desire to be happy — I might even say “settled” — in my daily life has been my work since moving to Washington. Admittedly, what I have often felt since arriving here has been akin to the ache that struck me in Xian. It isn’t helped by the way I’ve chosen to keep up my Korean listening skills: listening to a downloaded radio talk show about — of course — travel. For a change of pace, I decided to try listening to a different show one week, this one called “Blue Night with Jeong Yeop.”

The first show I listened to as I rode the train home from work. It opened with bit of moody piano and an easy beat; then a narrator, presumably Mr. Jeong, piped in with an even moodier, ponderous tone. “Sometimes people ask us, ‘When was the happiest moment in your life?”” he said. “Most people who are asked this question hesitate — not because they can’t think of a happy moment, but because they can’t figure out how to separate them, how to pick the right one.”

Here he added: “You don’t have to agonize over it, though. Because the right answer is, ‘That moment hasn’t arrived yet.'”

It was cheesy, but it made me chuckle. The train came up out of the tunnel and onto the bridge across the Potomac, and briefly the evening sunlight filtered into the car where I sat. A few moments passed before the train sank down into the earth again, and pulled ahead.