Where I Live: Seoul, South Korea

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Lotus Lantern Festival celebrants circle an over-sized, pagoda-shaped lantern while carrying their own lotus lanterns in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul on April 16, 2014.

Republic of Korea / Flickr

Lotus Lantern Festival celebrants circle an over-sized, pagoda-shaped lantern while carrying their own lotus lanterns in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul on April 16, 2014.

Conventional wisdom dictates that living abroad teaches you about foreign cultures. In fact, my extended peripatetic phase has taught me just as much about myself and my hometown of San Antonio.

My life as a “Texpat” began in 2001, when I graduated from university. A terrific junior year in Madrid had made me eager to live abroad, so I jumped at the chance to teach English in Seoul, South Korea. My odyssey took me through Prague; Cartagena, Colombia; New York City; and back to Seoul, while my career evolved from teaching to writing textbooks. I’d only dreamed of such adventures as a young lad in suburban San Antonio.

I grew up amid the anonymous houses of San Antonio’s Northwest side. I watched as the sprawl engulfed us and the cow pasture behind our house became a subdivision. The sky was big, the cul-de-sacs were safe, the houses were the same, and I was different. In time, wanderlust stirred. I longed for people, things, and places far beyond my cul-de-sac – but I knew not where. I wanted to search the world and find out where I fit in.

Lotte World Tower

Courtesy / Alex Ellsworth

Lotte World Tower

I currently reside light years away, in the parallel universe of Seoul. This bustling capital city of 20 million people is sliced through by impossibly wide eight-lane avenues that exist in an almost perpetual state of gridlock. But a mere block from the skyscraper-lined mega-streets, you’ll find crowded alleys straight out of “Blade Runner.” Cars, bikes, and pedestrians vie for space in a nonstop game of chicken, but locals are so inured that they barely look up from their smartphones. Above it all, the 123-story Lotte World Tower looms over my neighborhood’s hodgepodge of pollution-streaked four-story buildings, its apex ablaze in an LED Olympic torch to herald the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang.

This is Seoul as 2018 dawns. It may come as a surprise to those at home that we’re far from tearing our hair out over the prospect of war with the North: Few here see it as a realistic concern. Most regard North Korea as Crazy Uncle Eddie who lives in the attic. He’s always been like that, and anyway, he’s family.

Meanwhile, we’re all just going about our daily lives, and the quality of that life is excellent. I have supermarkets, coffee shops, and all manner of stores at my doorstep. I can walk five minutes to a shiny, granite-clad metro station and be whisked downtown in less than half an hour aboard a Wi-Fi-equipped train. I don’t need a car at all.

Seoul at night.

Philippe Teuwen / Flickr

Seoul at night.

When I return to San Antonio, however, the cars – or trucks, rather – are the first thing I notice. I’m fascinated to observe the web of freeways as my flight approaches: zip, zip, zip go the tiny vehicles below. They whoosh along like red blood cells in some educational film about the circulatory system.

Friends and family complain of rush hour backups on Loop 410, but they have no idea of the 24/7 traffic I endure in Seoul. Others complain about gas prices, not knowing that a Seoul fill-up costs $7.50 per gallon. We live in fundamentally different realities. When I’m immersed in the concrete-and-LED jungle of Seoul, San Antonio seems like a distant dream of childhood nostalgia.

But it’s refreshing to revisit my cul-de-sac of yore. And today’s San Antonio has so much more to offer: the Pearl, Southtown, the Tobin Center, the South Flores Arts District, Dignowity Hill, the San Pedro Creek Project. We’re not just Tamale Town anymore (though the tamales are amazing!). San Antonio is on the rise. My hometown has changed, and so has my outlook.

Sometimes the easiest way to find out who you are is to realize who you’re not. I can seamlessly navigate foreign cultures, but learning to do so has highlighted the fact that I’m neither Spanish, Czech, Colombian, nor Korean. Meanwhile, my return “home” to New York City a few years back was an even bigger revelation: I was back in my native country, yet something felt off. But when I arrived in San Antonio, everything fell into place. That’s the amazing thing about returning home, even across a divide that spans oceans, cultures, and years: The moment you set foot there, you’re flooded with familiar sensations as old mental pathways reactivate.

It was such a pleasure to be back in the place that had shaped me. I realized how much I’d missed our friendly, exuberant culture, the way perfect strangers can start gabbing away without a care in the world. I’d missed our politeness. I’d missed the realness. I’d missed the cul-de-sac. I’d missed the food and fun and fiesta.

After 15 years abroad, I find that I’m more myself than ever – a native son of San Antonio with a deeper appreciation for his roots. Now I know where I fit: San Antonio, Texas.

I’m coming home.

4 thoughts on “Where I Live: Seoul, South Korea

  1. what prompted the relocation back? I was abroad for over 5 years and came back because I missed family. I’ve found Seoul and east Asia (Taiwan, Japan) supremely interesting and loved being there.

    Coming back was great at first, though you may find it a bit of a bore after being back 2 months. Be prepared for repatriation hehe. The U.S. can be a bit boring and is quite strict compared to Asia in regards many social things. I’ve found a lot of people I meet in the u.s. don’t really care about being abroad and will be interested for about 15 seconds, unless of course they’ve lived abroad. Unless its vacation talk, not many ppl care to hear extend conversations about living abroad, most likely because they don’t care to do so.

    Though with your 15 years abroad you may be completely burned out and are ready to be back. Plus you’ve for surely gotten it out of your system. I honestly feel I have more to see and do, so maybe that’s why it still lingers.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, TT. I know exactly what you’re talking about. When I returned to the U.S. and tried living in NYC, my coworkers jokingly referred to me as “J. Peterman” (inspired by the catalog and fictional Seinfeld character) because of all my exotic stories.

      I am trying to prepare myself for repatriation, and I do worry about boredom or difficulties adjusting. To counteract those things, I plan to immerse myself deeply in the local arts & culture scene, go to First Fridays and Second Saturdays, join meetup groups, and take regular road trips to Austin, Houston, and the Hill Country. Wish me luck!

  2. Great article, thanks for sharing. I too left San Antonio for “foreign” lands. Lived in San Francisco for 8 years but then a few extended trips to Taiwan. My longest stay in Taiwan was 4 months and I miss it all the time.

    You are right though, San Antonio has changed for the better and I love it. That is not to say that I won’t return to Taiwan but San Antonio will always be “home” I am certain though, you won’t get Korea out of your system that quick haha

    • Sounds like you’ve had very interesting experiences too, Mike. And, yes, I’m certain Korea will always be a part of me. Thanks for your comment!

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