textures of Seoul; six weeks in retrospect

I’ve been thinking a lot about the modest ways in which our impression of a place can be immediately recast. Something so uninteresting as finding the all natural, health conscious grocery store that I did last week dented an impatient and ceaseless bustle that I had chosen to be a hallmark of Seoul.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of authenticity, and the touted tourist mantra of “experiencing authentic local culture”; what we mean when we deem a dish authentic or inauthentic, and who makes the rules.  It seems to me, to be a very self contained universe – one in which more travelled tourists earn their marks to establish unanimous understanding of a place and impress upon the less travelled. What happens then to the locals who don’t take part in what we hail authentic?

I mentioned that I wanted to try dasik to my coworkers, a tea cookie I had read about online, only to be met with confusion as they had no clue what that was.

Wrapped in our own experiences, it’s easy to forget that all walks of people live in a place- both those we travel and those we know enough to call home.

Those who travel for authenticity travel without aim.

I’ve been reading Italo Cavino’s Invisible Cities, I had picked it up rather serendipitously before leaving for Asia. As I was reading it on the bus to Baekyangsa Temple this past weekend, a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo echoed my thoughts.

Kublai Khan asks Polo, “you return from lands equally distant and you can tell me only the thoughts that come to a man who sits on his doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool air. What is the use, then, of all your traveling?” and Polo answers, “… My gaze is that of a man meditating, lost in thought- I admit it. But yours? You cross archipelagoes, tundras, mountain ranges. You would do as well never moving from here.”

“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the cities he had crossed to arrive there…”

Our thoughts are at the mercy of our surroundings; chance imaginings don’t conspire in a vacuum. Checking off ‘must see’ attractions is often unfulfilling. Seeing Gyeonbokgung Palace in person wasn’t a more moving experience for me than looking through its photographs. (But the people dressed in hanbok, posing at every square inch, are diverting. Seeing them made me wonder about costume versus uniform and how tight a line, if any, the two walk.)

Seeing the things you expect to see is frequently disappointing. That isn’t to say you should never venture to have those expectations exceeded, it’s just to point to the merits of taking things as they come.

Walking down the same street everyday to grab dinner, sitting in cafes or public transport, sitting atop the hill-steps to your apartment at night time- all to watch people pass through spaces. One can’t envisage what it may summon in the ways one can anticipate and process curated environments.


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