For breakfast I eat a brioche bun stuffed with red bean and cream, and then I go to the museum. I stare at a marble sculpture of a tiffin— taller than a man, glowing golden under a spotlight— while a smooth voice in my headset explains to me the art of Subodh Gupta. The subway ride home is effortless, every sign in Korean, Mandarin, and English, the lines stacked cleanly in white sans serif. At my transfer station I find a public restroom, each immaculate stall equipped with a rotating toilet seat covered in sanitary plastic, and push in the door on an unoccupied stall at the end of the row.
“Oh!” I say it out loud, to no one in particular. There’s no toilet. Instead, it’s a porcelain bowl set into the floor, surrounded by a square of white tile, with two narrow risers for your feet. I step back. I wait for one of the other stalls.
Seoul is easy. I can buy whatever I want, and go wherever I feel like. I feel safe, I have lightning-fast internet access, the baked goods are delicious, and I can use my American credit cards— but fundamentally, I have no idea what’s going on.
I’ve never been any place as opaque as Seoul, as impossible to decipher. In the month I’m here I barely speak to Koreans; I spend most of my days wandering the city and the subway systems in silence. Things feel bright and modern in a bulletproof, all-encompassing way, but there are still squat toilets in the metro bathrooms, and I’m constantly stumbling across shrines and temples from 1300 CE. I’m living in the future and then, in a flash, I’m in the past.
I get the feeling that I’m constantly making cultural missteps. A few days into my stay, my American friend Keeton explains that my modest, scoop-necked t-shirts are more risqué than I think they are— “Here,” she says sagely “there’s nothing sexier than a collarbone.”
The Invisibility Cloak of my cultural wrongdoings is more intimidating than any shouting Latin American doña telling me I’m too loud, or too smelly, or on the wrong bus— at least then there’s no subtext, nothing to guess. In Korea, everything is subtext. Riding the subway, wandering packed street festivals, and struggling to communicate with cashiers, I trail a wake of tight-jawed sympathetic embarrassment. I explore the city with the quiet, unshakeable sensation that I am nearly always doing something wrong.
In the evenings I eat dinner with Keeton and Dave, who teach at an international school in the Seoul suburbs. We go to the same restaurants; places where a staff-member speaks some English, or there’s a picture menu, or Dave has learned to order a handful of things in hopeful, tentative Korean. After dinner one night, I ask what they do when there’s no picture menu and languages fail.
“Well, sometimes I take a picture of the menu with my phone, and one of the Korean teachers at school translates it for me,” Dave says thoughtfully, sucking taro bubble tea through a straw as we walk back to the apartment. “And some places we just don’t go.”
One of my last days in Korea, I take the train from Bokjeong-dong to a fortress. The city is full of these historical landmarks, World Heritage sites and refurbished palaces, more ancient than anything we build signage for in North America. All the hikers here are elderly, kitted out in name-brand softshell pants and trekking boots, looking like they’re about to summit Everest. I am wearing jeans and a puffy jacket patched with duct tape, enthusiastic but clearly out of place. I smile and nod to folks as we pass each other on the trails; as expected, I am ignored.
The fortress itself has long since disappeared— what’s left are walls and gates, gray stone palisades tracing the mountain’s contours, and handful of refurbished grottos painted electric blue and gold. Out beyond the fortress walls, the city is invisible in smog, a gradient of haze that fades to white somewhere before the horizon.
In my backpack I've stuffed a package of take-out dumplings— pork and kimchi, with a bag of cubed pickled daikon closed with a twist-tie, and a squashy packet of seasoned soy sauce. I walk the perimeter of the fortress for a few hours, but there's no good place to sit— the benches are all worn into wells of dust, a thousand footprints settling them into divots on the edge of the trail. So I wander off into the woods, crashing through a thick bed of dry leaves.
The still-bare trees stretch their fingers into the city haze, and I stomp through the leaves to a quiet spot, out of sight from the trail. I'm hidden here, sitting cross-legged behind a boulder, and no one watches me eat the dumplings with my bare hands, salt and sweet, soy sauce trickling down the edge of my thumb. For this one moment, I am alone— it's me and the fortress walls, this spring day and this white sky and this cardboard box of dumplings. I settle back against the boulder and the leaves crackle into dust. Finally, invisible on purpose.