Wandering (Heart and) Seoul

Two months ago, I set off on a journey that would take me across the U.S. by plane, train, and automobile and eventually land me here in the bustling city of Seoul, South Korea. After years in social justice advocacy, education, and activism, I called a timeout, left my job, sold my things, stuffed a few boxes in friends’ garages and attics, took my cat to my parents’ house, and said goodbye (for now) to friends, loved ones, colleagues, and a city I’d called “home” for over ten years. I told myself I was “leaving the movement,” like this fellow activist now living in Panama. I would wander the world, and I would breathe, and I would write, and I would get back in touch with the parts of me I’d pushed away for the sake of the greater good.

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The decision to leave came from a sense of desperation. The world’s weight was too much, the work we were trying to do was too much, and I felt trapped under it. It felt like doing something drastic was my only hope.

I traveled for weeks with my cinematographer friend/soul bro O.K. Keyes, through the U.S., through South Korea, through Japan. We visited Seoul and then Yeosu, the town I taught for a year in after I graduated college in 2006, and when I was reunited with my homestay family there, the joy of that reunion filled my heart (“Your homestay mom really loves you,” Keyes said. “I mean, my homestay mom will be excited to see me in Japan, but this is something different.”).

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Keyes then guided me through Japan like an expert, treading the lands that had long called to them–Nagasaki, Osaka, Kyoto, and eventually, after a daylong train trip, Tokyo. We saw shrines and temples. We ate sushi and tempura and udon and soba and yakitori and so many other delicacies.

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And then, when we parted ways, I welcomed my friend Suzanne to South Korea, where I showed her my favorite places (from Seoul to Yeosu to Jeju Island) and my favorite foods (bibimbap has been and always will be my absolute #1). And we even got the chance to check out the Korea Queer Culture Festival and some lesbian bars/clubs in the Hongik University area.

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And then, after about a month of traveling with friends, I went solo and set about to wandering. To living. I went to the coastal town of Sokcho, hiked in Seoraksan National Park, ate fresh seafood, and found a café to write in when it started to rain. I visited Gyeongju and Chuncheon with my friend Seo Yeon. And I have been slowly meandering through Seoul, finding hidden coffee shops, exploring museums, lingering at the Han River Park, and taking a Korean class that’s just a little too advanced for me.

But even though I’ve gone solo, I’m far from alone. First, I’m staying with my homestay sister and her roommate in Seoul (in a tiny rooftop apartment with a great view). When my homestay sister Boyeon and I first lived together in Yeosu, she was 16 or 17 and I was 22. Ten years later, she’s welcomed me into her own apartment as a real grownup, and while she’s still my little sister, it’s been wonderful to see our friendship continue to grow. I’ve also been glad to get to know her roommate Soon-Jong, a fellow NGO worker from Korea who lived for many years in South Africa. Together, the three of us have had long conversations about cultural differences, racism, ethnocentrism, language, anthropology, and faith, among many other things. Boyeon has brought me to her church (which is in English!) in the Gangnam neighborhood (yes, it’s a real place, not just a song) and invited me to hang out with her friends and colleagues. I’ve experienced real hospitality and love here, yet again, and I’m so grateful for it.

Hanging out with my homestay sister Boyeon and her friends at Han River Park in Seoul.

Second, when you do something like this, you meet friends all along the way, from the kind Korean traveler who I met at the hostel in Osaka and toured the city with to soul-siblings like Seo Yeon, a dear friend of mine from graduate school who lives in South Carolina now but just happened to be in South Korea in July. Like I said before, the world is a big, small place.

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Already, I feel lighter. Already, I feel like I can see more clearly. Already, I’ve been writing more than I have in years. And already, I’ve had to work to resist and rewire my basic instincts of workaholism and overachievement. For example, I signed up for a Korean class for fun, got put into a level that was slightly too high for me, decided to go for it anyway, and then proceeded to go into obsessive study mode for about a week and half before Seo Yeon reminded me, “You’re just doing this for fun, right? You’re working too hard.” With the gentle proddings of friends, I’ve since scaled back and reset myself into “adventure mode” and “creative mode.” But it’s a hard way of living to get away from.

And although this is an escape of sorts, the world wasn’t far behind me. At my heels, in headlines, each day. My LGBTQ friends in the U.S., brokenhearted over the shooting in Orlando, and me feeling so far away. New LGBTQ friends here talking about the struggles within Korean culture, also bridging gaps between communities of faith and sexual/gender minorities. My friends crying out for justice back in the U.S., for equality, for an end to racism, for peace. My friends and colleagues of color expressing their fear and anger and thirst for change. Fearing for their safety, and that of their loved ones and families. Wishing I could be a part of the marches and rallies and vigils. Wishing I could help make change happen. Remembering my friends of color who told me stories years ago about the racial profiling they experienced that opened my eyes to the systemic racism they faced at the hands of individuals and institutions–and the white privilege that kept me from such experiences. Worrying about my law enforcement friends and colleagues after the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Remembering when I was in a relationship with a police officer and so often was afraid–those nights when it took a while for her to respond to a text or those days when she told me about a close call that could’ve ended differently. Still fearing for her and others in the field who I know and love.

And I can’t help but be saddened by the world in general, to mourn the violence we continue to perpetuate against each other, to hurt when I see the vast measure of ways in which people hurt each other. And yet, this is contrasted with the joy and love I’ve been offered here, the connections I continue to have with my friends and family back home as well as with loved ones from all over the world. Perhaps the latter gives me hope. Perhaps it will also help give me a vision about how to help make the world a more just, loving, peaceful place.

So needless to say, it’s a strange time to be away. And I know I will never really “leave the movement.” My drive for social justice and my love for others won’t let me wash my hands of social responsibility and my desire for real change and collaboration. I won’t be able to–and don’t want to–close my ears to the cries of those most hurting, most vulnerable, most oppressed. But I do hope that this journey will continue to allow me to explore the ways in which I can serve most effectively–and in ways that are sustainable.

So, only time will tell. For now, two more weeks of Korean class await (three hours a day, four days a week). I have more friends here to meet up with after years of being away. And I have more places to plan for (Boyeon and I have already booked flights for a trip to India in September, which will likely be followed by a visit to Thailand–so any recommendations from fellow/former travelers are welcome). And I have plenty more writing ahead of me, which is just the way I like it.

So stay tuned for more, but in the meantime, hold your loved ones tight, be gentle with yourselves and with each other, and keep fighting the good fight.

And in case you were wondering, Korea’s cup game is on point.

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