Tuesday, November 13, 2007


It’s difficult to be a tourist when you are not a tourist anymore. With some friends visiting from the US I found myself on tour duty on-top of an already hectic schedule. I understand now how I put out several friends during my recent vacation having been a bit put out myself by playing semi-host to visiting people.

I forget that as a non-tourist I function rather easily in Korea. I do not need an interpreter. I can ask for things and get them easily. I know where to find what I’m looking for. I miss things. I miss a great deal of things. I crave what I cannot have, and long for, pine endlessly for the people that I miss and wish where near.
I have no ability to relate to the tourist in Korea because it is so foreign.

“What do you mean you are only staying ten days? Do you need to know where to buy good tortillas? I can show you how to get a bagel. Oh, you don’t need a bagel, you are enjoying the novelty of experimenting with Korean back goods. Right.”

I can understand a bit. A very long time past I was a tourist myself, but the novelty wore off after about a month or two and I was living in a very different way in Korea. I meet with the travelers and ask them what they would like to see.

“Something Korean.”

I’m stumped. I have no idea. I’ve lived in Korea to long to be able to adequately show anyone anything Korean. It assumes that I still make a difference in my mind between what is Korean and what is not Korean, and I don’t. It’s just what it is. It’s Korea. I’m stumped. I’m sure there is something Korean in Korea.

“I can show you ex-pat Korea. How we live.” And that is exactly what I ended up doing for the few evenings that the travelers had in town. Aside from a Korean dinner it was how I live as an ex-pat. The food was from two of my favorite Korean places. I think of it as foreign food because I know who to get to all of the places where I think of the food as something other then foreign. There is the American Chinese place down on Dong-son-ro, the Indian place off of phone street road, there is the new Mexican place run by the Canadians, which now also has Greek food, and when you really want western there is always the faceless mega-giant Bennigan’s for the overpriced but often homey food. But, Korean, yeah, I can kind of do that.

“Have you had Korean Chinese?”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s fusion.”
“How is it different from what I can get in the US.”
“It’s different.”
“Like from China different?”
“Ah, like from not America different?”

I don’t know what to say.

I take them on a tour of the downtown area walking by things I walk by a thousand times and which I only occasionally find fascinating. I point out a silly mislabeled t-shirt in amusement.

“We see these a lot.”

I keep walking and take them to the bar. We go to one of the two places I frequent, a bar where I can play pool. I realize as I take them in that this is going to be very dull for travelers who want to experience Korea. It’s a lifer bar. We all live here, we all long for home together, we all pool knowledge about where to get cheddar cheese, decent vodka, and burrito. This is what lifers do. We drink. We play pool. We work.

“Korea. This is a lot like college, huh?” Asks one of the travelers.

“Well, yes and no.” I try to think about the no’s but I’m hard pressed. How is it that this is not college and it is? How am I still living in a foreign country if I don’t feel foreign. I suck at being a tourist.

On Saturday I invited the travelers with me to come shopping. I needed to by some fabric to make up a winter wardrobe and thought they might be interested. I took them to the large outdoor market, Seo-moon Shi-jung.

“Our guide book said to check out Yak-young-shi, the traditional medicine market.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“It’s the major attraction for Daegu.”

“Um, sure, okay.”

I took them to my market first. The place I go for shopping. I ended up picking up several dozen things I don’t need but that I do want. I forget that the travelers are not stocking up on exotics like sheets without quilting, and fabric for making clothes. They don’t need these things. It means nothing to them. It’s interesting to see.

I take them around and point out various things I think might be interesting. I show them where to buy traditional fabrics for making han-bok, Korean traditional clothing. I show them some fabric artisans, the fish market, and where to get the best Su-ja-bi in Daegu, outside, crowded around the stalls with the Koreans protecting food from flying pigeons. I pop and jump through the market with experience. I come to the market to be amused, but forget that this is a trip for showing and telling and try to find the touristy things that market might contain.

Afterwards I cobble my bags together and we head over to the medicine market. We see piles of dried stacked antlers, mushrooms, ginseng. The smell is beautiful, fragrant, like a strange herbal tea. But the market itself is quieter than a tomb. I take them in and out of some of the shops and encourage looking and touching, but we all of us feel out of place. I manage to find the medicine museum and take the travelers up to see things in jars with explanations that are all too Korean.

“Koreans wrote their own pharmacy books not referring to the Chinese.” I laugh and think about how all the books are written in Chinese characters to represent Korean, but it seems really only funny to me. Is it that nationalism only makes sense if you have been in the nation long enough to appreciate it. No, the travelers read the same and laugh as well, a small moment of sharing; appreciation for the level to which Korea will go to be culturally unique. I don’t blame Korea, I sympathize. It deserves it’s uniqueness.

I take the travelers to another of my lifer bars, the Lonely Hearts Club.

A friend asks “Why did you visit hear, surely there are more interesting places to go.

I jump to Korea’s defense before the traveler even have time. I’m an ex-pat in Korea but this is my home. It may be silly but Korea deserves it’s attention. This is a fascinating place to be, to live, to go through day by day. For all my finding of the simple joys and making of this place a home, it is a home; a strange familiar home that I would miss were I to give it up.

I’m not very good at being a tourist here, and I’ll never be Korean, but I’ve made it home. I’m not a tourist anymore.

1 comment:

linda said...

I love this entry.