“Shinpal!” the man shouted while pointing at my feet. He was not angry – in fact, he was quite amused – but he was also reasonably concerned about the cleanliness of his restaurant. As is common in Korean custom, he expected me to take off my shoes before entering. Being the first patron of the morning, I did not have a lead to follow and completely overlooked the empty shelves in the entryway. Like a child having just been scolded for tracking mud into the house, I lightly padded my way out of the dining area to slip off my shoes and stow them like a civilized human being.
When I returned, the man was smiling congenially, and asked what I wanted. I ordered the dish featured on the sign outside of the tiny restaurant, and he passed the order along to his wife who had begun preparing the kitchen. He turned to me and said a few things, one of which I think was asking if I liked this particular dish. I shrugged my shoulders in ignorance. He asked if I spoke Korean, and tried to politely tell him that I did not. He smiled and, recognizing that our communication had reached its zenith, remained more or less quiet for the remainder of my visit.
As I sat at the table sipping water, I started to recognize that this was not only the couple’s restaurant, it was their home. The man was sitting at a computer in a corner of the dining area that looked like any home office. Behind him was the entrance to what appeared to be a guest room and a narrow stairway that led presumably to their living space. The couple had brought that homey feel into the dining room with clean floors (barring the intrusion of uneducated foreigners), an open kitchen, and bright lights. When the man brought out the stew and rice, I politely thanked him and proceeded slowly to enjoy the spicy yet savory bowl.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about occupying that space between tourist and resident. Since my move to the outskirts of Seoul, I have had fewer opportunities to wander and explore as I once had. The settling into my new life has pushed me much further into the category or resident than I think I should be. This area of self-identification becomes far too comfortable to allow the continued personal growth that I came here in search of. In fact, I have begun to settle into my ways that directly conflict with those of the local population. While I stand by the idea that there are certain cultural factors that the West just does better, my complacency has begun to form within me an intolerance that helps no one. In my stagnation, I have started to see the world through a lens of closed-minded biases. Instead of invoking curiosity, new experiences have elicited a frustration that has only added to the stresses of my already overwhelming life.
During the very last class of this term, I only had one student (I usually only have two – it’s basically a private tutoring class). We were talking about travel. She longs for a life abroad. In fact, she is studying English in order to become a flight attendant with an international airline like Etihad or Qantas. I mentioned that one of the greatest things I have learned from living abroad is the ability to throw myself into uncertain situations. Unless I accept complete dependence on a friend, I inevitably will enter situations in which I have no idea what I am supposed to do at a rate much greater than I would if I were still living in the United States. Over the first couple months here, I had gotten to the point at which I would walk into an establishment because I didn’t know what it was. As I was telling my student this, I began to realize that I had lost that adventurousness. Even on the other side of the world, I was starting to behave like someone who has never left their hometown. I would either have to accept the fact that I had lost something I had worked so hard to gain or go out to prove that I had not lost it.
Of course, I chose the latter, and the next day I made it a point to explore a new area of the city. When I passed by this quaint establishment advertising an unknown dish for a very reasonable price, I halted defiantly, put my camera away, and walked up the steps. The ensuing shenanigans were exactly the kind of misstep that I needed in order to remind myself that a little embarrassment won’t kill me. I got a tasty meal, some practice of my limited Korean language skills, and a much-needed reminder that I shan’t forget why I came to the opposite side of the world in the first place.