7 Things I Didn't Expect Moving to Seoul

1. Google Maps doesn't work for shit. Sure, there's a language/alphabet issue here but even if you type things in in Hangul it sometimes just cannot figure out what you mean. For walking directions, it just assumes you can walk in a straight line from wherever you are to the location, so it is forever giving me directions to public transit that require me to fly over buildings, walk through walls or teleport. Guess what Google, IF I COULD DO ANY OF THOSE THINGS I WOULDN'T BE ASKING FOR DIRECTIONS. Koreans use Naver but I don't really speak enough Korean to do that so directions have to be cobbled together using Google, the Seoul Metro app and the Seoul Bus app because the Metro app and Bus app are two separate things and neither really does trip planning.

2. Large dogs are terrifying. Before I had moved here I'd read that pet ownership in Korea is a really recent thing and previously people mostly kept Jindos as farm dogs/guard dogs. What I did not realize is that most Koreans seem to find any dog larger than a toy poodle terrifying. Our husky is about 55 lbs (which I would think of as solidly "medium" in America) and people are forever freezing in place when we walk by or lifting their tiny dogs away in fear like Ada is going to eat them when it's their tiny dogs that actually act aggressive. The exception to this rule mostly seems to be older Korean men who give her thumbs up and younger Korean parents who want their kids to pet her so they won't be afraid of dogs. Luckily, she really likes kids.

3. Korea is very KOREAN. I realize this isn't a revelation but when we were packing to move, I decided to ship all our spices but not to ship any ingredients used in different Asian cuisines figuring they'd be readily available. Nope. Nope nope nope. There's plenty of rice vinegar but no mirin. There's jugs of sesame oil but it took me a week to find spicy sesame oil. There's no Szechuan pepper oil or pepper corns, no sambal oelek, no chili garlic paste and no dried Thai chilies (though I found sweet chili sauce at Costco). The ramen and sushi we've had has been pretty terrible (though the instant ramen is much better than in America) and we haven't even had any Chinese food since getting here since there seem to be only two VERY EXPENSIVE Szechuan places in the whole city. I'm sure we'll have some non-Szechuan Chinese food but I wish I could at least cook it at home.

4. There's plenty of America here if you want it (and are willing to pay). I live in Itaewon which is basically "Americatown". It's the neighborhood where the American military base is located and there's a good mix of Koreanized American food (mostly just awful) and legitimate American bistros and bars. Anything American style is going to cost you more money, regardless of the quality, but if you want a really good cocktail bar with a solid bourbon selection, I've got one for you. Want a dive bar lined with records? Got that too. Want just the bro-iest place ever? Droves of those for you. Want a Rogue IPA? Want some regular ass Cheetos covered in cheese instead of black bean paste ones? GOT THAT TOO. (It'll cost you $6/bag, but I know where to find them) AND, thank G-d, there is regular Heinz ketchup here. You'll never know how much you love Heinz until you try other country's versions of ketchup.

5. Koreans love matching workout clothes. So before we moved I was reading the Lonely Planet guide for Seoul and it told me I might be surprised by the number of people walking up Namsan (the park/mountain we live near/on) in brightly colored new work out clothes. I was like "Bitch, PLEASE, I live in Park Slope, nothing could surprise me less than large numbers of people in overpriced work out clothes". What I did not realize is that this is not a young, yoga mom phenomenon. Older Koreans dress for a walk through carefully landscaped and paved Namsan park like they're hiking the Appalachian Trail. I wear $15 leggings from Target and trail running shoes to walk Ada and feel like it's overkill. I don't really know what the deal is.

6. Soju is my nemesis. I'll start by admitting I don't really like soju. I also really don't like Cass, the Budweiser of Korea (but worse). However, when you mix these two things together, they become surprisingly palatable. I can also drink about a million without ever being more than buzzed. The downside? It took me about a week and a half to realize that no matter how little of this combo I drink, I wake up with a hangover that should at least be the result of a bottle of bourbon or two bottles of red wine consumed ALL BY MYSELF. It's like drinking cheap champagne, there is nothing you can do to prevent feeling horrible except not drink it.

7. It's only 35 miles to the border and 121 miles to Pyongyang. These are facts I knew before I moved but it didn't truly sink in until I realized every subway station is marked as a shelter and has cases of gas masks to break open in an emergency. Every hotel room has an escape ladder, emergency flashlight and evacuation map. Heck, before a movie a diagram of the emergency exits is shown on the screen. Maybe Koreans are just safety conscious but I think really it's that this country is still technically at war.

I'm only a month and a half in, so I'm sure there's plenty of surprises still to come but so far, the thing I expected least is that, so far, I like it here.

No Longer Valid

I have a new passport. It has a new name and a new picture. So far it's my only legal document with my new name other than the marriage license that granted it. It's strange and thick and empty. I'm not sure who the woman is that it belongs to yet. I got my old passport back a few days after my new one came. Hole punched, no longer valid. It was my second passport, so I've already know the joy and pain of seeing a passport retired, but it's been a while.

My second passport had visas for Turkey and India, stamps for Mexico and France. The picture is of a smiling eighteen year old not so secretly full of pain and hurt and anger and a deep, deep, desire to be anywhere grief cannot follow.

Grief always follows.

That young woman set out to change the world. She sat with Tibetan monks in the Himalayan foothills, she taught at orphanages and dug compost pits, she washed linens in one of Mother Theresa's hospitals, she did yoga every morning and she wrote every night, and she RAGED. She was not stranger to shouting or the kind of tears that come with wailing, uncontrollable.

Sometimes I forget we are the same person.

Sometimes I think I have not come far, that hardly anything has changed in these first ten years of legal adulthood.

I still want to do my part to change the world. I still teach. I still carry sadness and anger and grief inside me, we don't do battle every day though. We don't do battle much at all any more, except in the depths of winter. The rest of the year, we mostly manage to sit with each other.I want to say I no longer rage, but I think that is not true. I think we live in a world in which it is impossible not to rage from time to time but I choose my battles. I've learned how to live with my overwhelming empathy and thin skin, how to protect myself without shutting out everyone else.

This new passport belongs to a married woman. A woman who feels settled in her skin, in her city, in her career. This new passport belongs to somebody who is going to use it as much as that eighteen year old thought she was going to use that last one but never quite managed. Soon this passport will go to Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Lviv, Turkey and on to South Korea, it's home base for the next two years. Hopefully from there, it will explore Asia.

I still haven't quite managed the art of being comfortable with being comfortable. I am sad to leave the place that has always felt more like home than anywhere else in the world but I'm ready for the next big shake up, maybe the last big shake up before the real business of adulthood sets in. I'm excited for the time and energy and freedom to create. I'm terrified of not working, of not defining myself as my job, but so thankful for the opportunity to let my numb hands and stiff and painful joints really heal.

Who is the woman this passport will belong to? Who am I not mentally and physically exhausted every day? Who am I not in constant physical pain? Who am I in Korea?

I think in essentials, I am always the same, but maybe when this passport comes back in ten years, hole punched, no longer valid, I'll know something different.

Year Three

We've been together three years now, New York. I've lived in Queens and Brooklyn, made my bed in Bedford Stuyvesant and Park Slope, I've commuted to Manhattan and bussed to Greenpoint and now work ten blocks from where I used to live. This past year I've often been awake before the sun, briskly walking to public transit when it's eerily quiet and still, when anything seems possible, when you wonder if the world is still there, New York. You're always still there, New York.

New York, you are my constant. You're the only place I've ever wanted to call home. You're the only place that has truly felt like home. You're the only place that has made me feel like I could be somebody else's constant. The grass couldn't be greener. Both feet couldn't be planted more firmly inside the door. New York you are my everything and when I travel across one of your beautiful bridges and look over and see your skyline, MY skyline, MY city, my heart breaks.

New York, there's something I haven't told you. I have to leave for a while. You were my place for growing up and you will be my place for settling down. But I'm not quite settled yet. I have one more adventure to go. In a few months, I'm going to travel the world with the love you helped me find. See, it turns out, you can't marry a city. But you can marry a man who loves a city just as much as you do. And it turns out, sometimes offers are too good to refuse.

I'll be gone for two years, and just like you, some parts of me will undoubtedly change and other parts will remain constant. The world changes so fast now, neither of us could possibly see the shape of things to come.

New York, I wanted to write about how hard you've made year three and also how lovely. I wanted to write about how year three changed everything, I wanted to tell you that I love that you're in every single one of my wedding pictures.

But New York, mostly I wanted to tell you, that for me, you will never be the city I used to live in, you will always be the city I'm coming back home to.

Read last year's love letter here