What I Learned After I Left My Home: Part 1

 

I returned home to Colorado Springs a little over four months ago from my year-long trip to South Korea. Everyone warned me about reverse cultural shock. I’m void of anecdotes about readjusting to the ease of English everywhere I turn or feeling stressed because America went on without me. Nevertheless, my time in Korea somehow seeps into my every day, and I want to whine “bali-wa” to make people hustle or give objects to people with both my hands, or I miss the plethora of green tea options in every coffee shop. I’m not shocked, but I ache for what and who I left behind. I’m stuck between two different senses of home, and that weighs heavy some days.

I’ll never, ever regret living in Daegu, or spending Christmas in Palawan, or spending my birthday in Osaka, or exploring Hanoi alone. In fact, I don’t have any regrets from that year, despite the challenges. I learned about myself. I learned about the world. I learned about God’s grace. In some ways, I feel possessive of my experiences because I don’t want to lose it to my current decrease in independence, to feeling aimless in this new chapter of my life. Upon reflection, I’ve discovered what I can summarize in about ten statements. Here’s the first five:

God is faithful.
From the moment I applied for a job in South Korea to the lingering sense of obligation I feel toward my loved ones after returning, I’ve been pressured to stay in my hometown. In leaving, my parents feared for my well-being, and I feared all that could happen in a year and loneliness and regretting my decision.

But God never once failed me. He answered every prayer for safe travel, for safety when I was on my own. He gave me every basic need, and he answered my pleas more greatly than I could have imagined. I asked for even just one Christian friend, and he gave me two strong believers and a whole congregation to encourage me in my faith. I had asked to see some place new, and I saw South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam. I had asked for a dip in the ocean, and he showed me islands with coconut-bursting trees and fish in sparkling water. He let me scuba dive and showed me its depths and His magnificence.

And even though he didn’t give me everything I wanted, he helped me through all of it. He helped me face what I feared and walk through it as a whole person in His image.

I have endurance beyond the limits I’d imagined.
I hate to be that person who talks too much about their “fitness routine”, but just stick with me for these two short paragraphs. When I trained in jiu jitsu for the first time for eight months while living in Korea, I grew to be in the best shape of my life. My muscles became stronger, and the aggression necessary for jiu jitsu strengthened my confidence, my mental perseverance, and my physical strength to keep going even when I thought I would pass out from exhaustion.

I don’t quit easily now. Dangle a belt stripe in front of me, and I’ll keep fighting even though I’m nauseous and got kicked in the face. I became determined through hard work and trying something I never thought I’d like in the first place. Which brings me to believe that. . .

I can try almost anything.
After living in Korea for a year, I am no longer the picky eater that I was. Even though I still have preferences, I will try it if it won’t kill me, even if it’s a tentacle that’s still wiggling and gets stuck between my teeth, or if it’s fermented beans of a vomit-like consistency on a sushi roll.

I tried jiu jitsu, even though I hated fighting and touching people. I met up with a stranger for a language exchange, even though it gave me social anxiety. I planned trips, even though it seemed overwhelming and complicated. I traveled through a chaotic city on my own for a week. I can try almost anything.

I am resourceful. I can survive. I can improvise. I can make choices for myself.
When I first arrived in Korea, a lot of things seemed very difficult and confusing, like figuring out the subway system or how to communicate through a language barrier or how to find what I needed in a huge, maze-like city. I was lucky to have so many other foreigners to patiently help me with everything. This empowered me to realize that you can figure out almost anything if you take a step back and look for directions or just, simply, ask someone for help.*

I learned to be aware and alert while traveling and to know what to anticipate. I also learned to relax and not worry about the unknown. Because I can be proactive, and I can blend in.

*Or use your smartphone. That definitely helps, too.

Every country is simultaneously beautiful and horrific.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in seeing the garbage in your own country and start to idealize other countries, as though their systems work better or their landscape is more beautiful or their people are less obese.

But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that no country is perfect. Sometimes people would have certain expectations when they arrived in Korea, and then when those expectations weren’t met, they were let down and disappointed, or even grew really angry and resentful. I came to Korea with an open-mind (though it helped that I was really, really excited to experience a different culture). This gave me a lot of patience with the challenges that Korea offers. I found much beauty in the surroundings, whether they were green tea fields rising up a hill or ramshackle buildings that looked like they smelled bad (and probably did). I found wonderful things about Korea’s group-oriented culture, and really dark, scary things. I was fascinated by some of their traditional attitudes but was also road-blocked by them.

The Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, the U.S. are all the same in this vein. There are things to admire and things to question and things to disapprove of. Realizing that no place was perfect helped me better understand and appreciate the world and my home in Colorado.

. . .Stay tuned for the next five lessons learned.

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Social Media Slave: Broadcasting My Adventures in Japan

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One of the million photos I took while traveling Kyoto and Osaka.

“Social media: It’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here. Perform everything to each other. All the time. For no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. […] If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” – Bo Burnham, Make Happy

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When it comes to social media, I am always late to the party. I joined Facebook my last year of high school, years after it gained world-wide popularity (and I lived in Colorado Springs, where people were already usually behind the times). I then joined Twitter and Snapchat more or less than a year ago, although I use each infrequently. And I joined WordPress last September to begin this travel blog. Although I joined Instagram about a year ago, I didn’t start using it until recently. In fact, I had a little over 70 followers and had only posted two pictures (my friends are so supportive…or unaware).

Compared to your average middle-aged person, I’m quite social media-savvy. I was a marketing intern; I’m open-minded and understand the spoken and unspoken rules of each medium. However, I’m always hesitant to add another social media platform to my life because it can become a burden. I dread being at the beck and call of smartphone notifications and find it easy to get sucked into scrolling through post after post after post, reliving moments I was a part of just moments ago, as well as moments in people’s lives who I haven’t talked to in ten years. But as soon as I’m sucked in, I admit I enjoy it, for better or worse.

During my trip to Japan in May, I decided to experiment with my use of social media. Usually when traveling, I will take a few poorly-lit pictures (when I can be bothered to) and then upload them later (when I can be bothered to) on Facebook, after my mom has requested I do so through multiple messenger apps (because she, however, isn’t as social-media savvy). That about sums up my travel cataloging. I had joked about live tweeting my trip to my friend Shelby, and she said, “DO IT!” I’m happy to entertain, so I decided to live tweet my trip with two girls I work with at the English Village. I guess I also have Shelby to thank for my decision to Instagram my trip, too. When we took a tour around a few spots in Korea together, she would snap a picture of the destination and then go sit in a coffee shop the rest of the time, because she was just “Doin’ it for the ‘Gram.” I wanted to do it for the ‘Gram, too (but also explore each destination beyond the nearest coffee shop).

The following sections address what I learned by becoming a slave to social media during my week-long trip to Japan:

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THE PROS

Online Scrapbooking

One benefit of using social media whenever you go on adventures, big or small, is that it allows you space to reflect on significant moments, to consider the best parts and comment on them. You share them with people and are able to recall them later. It’s like a scrapbook, but, well, broadcasted for anyone in the world to see. Our obsession with cataloguing our lives is fascinating, but maybe a topic for another time.

Updating My Loved Ones, Who Are Invested in Me

My parents are terrified that I’m going to be Taken, so they like to know my whereabouts. Also, they just want to see what I’m seeing and know about my adventures. The obligation to social media benefits my family and friends who actually care about what I’m up to. Coincidentally, that’s what I’ve accepted about my WordPress blog: it’s really just for my own personal reflection, my mom, and the few people who stumble upon it and care enough to give it a “like” (thanks, guys *tiny finger hearts*).

I really don’t have a significant number of followers on any platform, so I’m not “Doin’ it for the ‘Gram” because my followers don’t really care if my posts are few (see above 70 (friend) followers for my two, whole pictures). Even on Twitter, my audience is mainly the people I interact with in real life. I live-tweeted not because I’m a comedian or well-known travel blogger; I live tweeted because four of my friends thought my commentary was funny. It’s the same reason for why I’m currently writing a series of Walking Dead fan-fiction episodes centered around my co-workers. They enjoy it, but who else cares? My audiences are very specific, and they’re the only ones I really care to impress.

I think you could argue, then, that social media allows us more intimacy with people; I get to share so many moments and experiences in my life that I wouldn’t be able to if I wasn’t connected with friends and family on the Internet. However, social media isn’t very honest. It’s not truly intimate because we’re just taking the best parts of everything and throwing it in each other’s faces with no warning. Even though I feel like I use social media for myself and for my loved ones to keep up with my life outside of our Skype chats, I admit I also really do just love the attention. The notifications to my phone may be annoying, but they’re also gratifying, pathetic as it is to say so. And sharing our lives just for attention isn’t real intimacy or honesty.

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THE CONS

Wifi Is Key

It took me all of a day of exploring Kyoto to accept that the wifi there is undependable. Unlike in Korea, the many wifi spots in Kyoto were impossible to connect to or tried to lure me in and get my money. Korea seems to be a lot more upfront and simplistic with wifi spots. And since I wasn’t willing to pay for pricey data for the week, everything qualified as a #LaterGram or #NotActuallyLiveTweet.

Eating Up Time

Social media is such a great distraction from the world, but when you actually want to be in the world, experiencing what’s around you, a one-time experience, it’s all just such a burden. Using social media to catalogue and broadcast your adventure is like having to check up on something all the time, like caring for a child. I had to pause everywhere to take pictures, and then sort through the photos later for the best one to put on the ‘Gram. I had to hold back the impulse to eat my food like a normal person when it arrived at the table, because I had to get the perfect shot of it. Every adventure is a photo shoot. It’s a bummer if the lighting is bad or my pictures were more blurry than I realized. And after I posted it, the notifications of ‘likes’ are like someone tapping on your shoulder every ten minutes or so. “Hey! Hey….Nice post. *thumbs up*” I don’t mean to sound like I don’t appreciate people’s appreciation of my posts, but the notifications got me like, “Thanks, but I’m trying to answer these Japanese school children’s English questions so they can finish their assignment, and also I need to concentrate on finding green tea ice cream, because that stuff rocks.”

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So, basically: I like to reflect on moments of adventure and I like to connect with friends and family, but social media is a time-waster and demands a lot of energy. Why do we need to broadcast everything? Why not make an actual scrapbook and share it with my family when I return home? Do I actually use these mediums because I want to prove to the world that I’m not boring? That I’m worth paying attention to? That I’m not the shy, quiet girl I was in high school?

I’m actually a little bit terrified that I’m attention-starved. That we’re all attention-starved, despite the constant attention that is drawn to the life we project on the Internet. On social media, we have a voice; people listen to and validate us. You feel like your life matters, that you have value that should be appreciated. And that’s a scary way to feed our insecurities, constantly begging to be loved superficially. I can dig all the way down to the root of social media culture and admit that my dedication to social media is keeping me from seeking validation and fulfillment from God; instead of one big dose of perfect, lasting love, I keep shooting myself up with tiny doses of likes and comments whenever I feel alone. Or left out. Or insecure. Or bored.

I like one of my favorite comedians, Bo Burnham’s, challenge: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” How would our lives change if we became social media hermits, instead of slaves? Maybe that will be my next experiment. But, first, let me take a selfie.

The First Layover

Today’s guest post is by C.J. Sweetwood. Follow him on Twitter at @fearsteveswrath and/or contact him at cjsweetwood@yahoo.com.

In December of 2014, I found myself staring into the abject and disparaging face of culture shock. I had taken two weeks off of my job teaching in Korea to go on a journey through Vietnam, but my tendency to be a complete and utter miser while traveling had landed me a bad flight with a worse airline out of Shanghai. I had decided to take my seven-hour layover there as a blessing in disguise, not a major pain in my ass, since I had never been to China and could try something unusual. My problem was focus: Shanghai is the largest city proper in the world, with a population of more than twenty-four million. What do you see in such an unimaginably large place with only a few hours to spare? I needed a goal, an objective for a bite-sized adventure, and when it hit me, it seemed perfectly and moronically stupid.

This is the story of how I ate Chinese food in China.

First, an aside about Shanghai: Tokyo stretches to the horizon when you fly into Narita, but Shanghai is another beast entirely. The city is constantly shrouded in a stunning grey cloud of wreathing and writhing smoke and haze, a man with eyes agleam in a puff of cigar ash. When you pass through the veil of choking smog and brackish clouds, the city emerges as a dim and dingy metropolis that seems to claw its way to the edges of the earth. The air is tinged with the taste of tar and the scent of cigarettes, and that sense of choking, cloying atmospheric claustrophobia is entirely normal.

I tracked down a map as soon as I passed through customs, and got a better sense of what the city was by staring at the sprawling, chaotic, ad-infested map of Shanghai. Korean city maps are concisely written, with clean lines and spotless images. The map of Shanghai is the total polar opposite. After puzzling over it, I made out that I had to take the maglev to get downtown the quickest. So I stored my bags at an airport kiosk, paid my yuan for a broken train ticket from a lady who looked borderline suicidal, and climbed onto the fastest train on Earth.

Interesting note about the fastest trains in the world: They’re surprisingly barebones. I’m not sure if it’s because they need to store more people or cut down on weight, but the seats on the maglev (and even the Korean KTX) make airport benches look cozy. I took a window seat, expecting to see some grandiose view of the countryside, but instead I was treated to views of a brackish harbor and acid rain-soaked buildings, replete with dripping stains and tattered clotheslines. It was a surprisingly bleak and dreary trip, but it took all of seven minutes. I spent most of that trying to focus on singular buildings and failing, eventually just giving up because my eyes hurt right as the train slowed to my stop.

I wandered out into Shanghai, and an apt comparison came to mind: It was the Star Wars universe. It was dirty, grimy, and lived in, but that feels far more alive and wondrous than our own reality. The city was run-down, jumbled and worn; yet it emitted this pulse of life, of breathing and burning humanity that the wide roads and subdivisions of my home could never hope to emulate. I marveled at it all, even the battered subway entrance as I slithered through the impossibly large crowds into the metro.

I walked into a subway car and immediately hit my head. The handrail was right at forehead level for me, and I drew a combination of sharp glances and comical chuckles from the locals as I rubbed my head and muttered obscenities under my breath. I rode out to Nanjing road, one of the central downtown shopping districts in Shanghai, and started out of the metro to locate an old colonial district called The Bund.

I didn’t get very far. Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world for a reason, and the amount of people relentlessly flowing through the thoroughfares stopped me cold. As an American from the west, used to wide places and personal spaces, this was insane. I stood there slack-jawed, staring at the teeming masses of Chinese shoppers stepping over dead rats to visit the Gucci store, at the foreigners in man buns and elephant pants taking pictures of historically significant pavement, and the touts and louts peddling prostitutes and pink roller skates. In all the travel I have done since, in all the trials and tribulation I have ever faced on the road around the world, be it waking up stranded in rural Huailen in the dead of night, getting lost in Sumida in a typhoon, or even nearly being robbed in Vientaine, nothing ever stopped me in my tracks but this one moment in Shanghai. It’s a challenge every traveler must face, the initial assault on your senses when you travel alone, the sheer realization that you are a single human in a mass of billions, a true stranger in a strange land.

Of course life never lets you rest on your laurels, and it doesn’t always allow for contemplation of the magnanimity of human existence either. I was shook out of my stupor by a man offering me prostitutes (“Long time love only twenty dollar”). I politely declined, and quickly learned that politely declining usually doesn’t work that well in Asia. The best way to be left alone? Keep walking, no talking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t absorbed this yet, and couldn’t get the touts to leave me be. To get away from a man trying to sell me drugs, I dipped into a nearby yellow building and walked smack into one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.

Without realizing it, I had walked into an M&M’s world, during a live dance performance of M&M’s in terracotta warrior costumes, set to “Disco Inferno”. I marveled at the surreal nature of human existence and bought a magnet before I realized the drug dealer had followed me inside and I had to lose him. I lost him in the street, and remembered what I came for. I decided to turn down a nearby alley and find something to eat.

A ways down the street I noticed a small house with fish tanks out front. As I walked past it, staring at the pictures of food on the windows, a man a picnic table out front called out in broken English: “Hey! You food?”

Ahh…Fuck it.

I nodded, and he invited me inside. The restaurant was a converted house run by him and his family. His son was the cook, chain-smoking as he slaved over a wok in the back, black soot and grease stains lining the walls. The first floor was just the kitchen and some picnic tables, and I wondered if they lived upstairs as I sat down. The man produced a menu, all in Chinese, and smiled a gap-filled grin. I perused the menu, disregarding the words and looking only at the pictures until I saw an image of something any self-respecting American has had delivered a hundred times: Bell peppers and beef. I pointed to it, and the man exclaimed “Ahh…Beef Peppah.”

He gave me a thumbs up, dragging on a cigarette all the while. “Tsingtao?”

I nodded, and he produced a massive bottle of beer from a nearby cooler while his wife produced a plastic wrapped batch of dinnerware. He plopped down with a couple friends at a nearby table, and chatted in Chinese as his wife peeled open the containers and filled one with rice from a cooker on a grimy table.

I sipped my beer and watched the family: the husband gesturing at the paper and talking with his friends, pausing often to shout random things about my size-sixteen feet. The mother, smiling slightly as she showed the oblivious foreigner how to take cling wrap off serving dishes. The son, who put back four cigarettes as he whipped red chunks of beef and crisp bell pepper in a wok with sauce from a stained bottle. Finally, he produced my meal and handed it to the mother, who set it in front of me and stepped back to watch. The husband took a long drag on his cigarette as I took a bite.

I can describe that meal, definitively, as the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing has ever come close. I have eaten at five-star restaurants in luxury hotels that paled compared to this meal cooked up by a chain-smoking teenager in a rundown basement family restaurant in Shanghai.

It was life changing, and I tried to convey that as best I could. The husband smiled knowingly and gave me a thumbs up while his wife relayed it to their son, who calmly popped another cigarette in his mouth and nodded with grim satisfaction. I paid my grand total of six American dollars and thanked them profusely as I wandered back into the street, still dazed and overwhelmed by the food.

I looked at my watch. It was time to head back to the airport, to my impending red-eye flight to Saigon and to the next stage of another life-shaping adventure.

Seoul: Part One

Traveling to Seoul was like leaving the U.S. for Korea, minus the dramatic goodbyes, 100 pounds of luggage, and about 20 less hours of travel time. So, basically, it was nothing like leaving the U.S. However, that feeling of sweet independence and anxiety returned as I navigated my way from Taejon Station, where the English Village shuttle dropped me off, to Dongdaegu Station, where I took the train for the first time to Seoul.

I like traveling on my own, but I don’t relax easily because it doesn’t happen very often. I set my backpack on the floor by my feet, plugged in my headphones, and tried to sleep while the train raced down the tracks, passing the city I was getting to know and rushing towards snow-sprinkled landscapes of cities I have yet to encounter.

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I met my friend and Seoul tour guide/translator/photographer, Yongseok, at my graduation party a few months after I accepted the position to teach in Korea. He was a foreign exchange student at my best friend Kate’s university. They made me a chocolate cake, and Yongseok decorated it with words in Hangul. He also gave me a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and wrote on the back: “See you in Korea.”

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I think God puts people in our lives for a reason. I was both terrified and beyond excited to go on my own to South Korea for a year, but I felt more at ease when I knew I’d have a friend to visit when I got there. Someone who, you know, understood Korea. So meeting Yongseok before I left for Korea was one of those things God planned to reassure me that everything was going to be a-okay.

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You know how sometimes when you go to an art museum, you’re like, “This stuff is pretty cool. What does it mean? Oh, crap, I’m going to have to use critical thinking to interpret the mind of the artist”? Well, try experiencing this in a museum of a foreign culture. I’m saying a lot, I’m sure, went over my head.

The first place we went after Yongseok helped me get a phone plan*** was an art exhibit in the old Seoul Station, which hasn’t been used for transportation since 2004. As we walked around the building, we typed words that were printed on the floor (like “crossing”, “technology”, and “shopping”) into an app on my phone, and it asked us survey questions that would, at the end of the exhibit, tell us about how we identify with the city we live in. It was an interesting concept, although we only answered about 20% of the questions while we explored, so the results, that I really, really love shopping, were not super accurate.

The exhibit displayed pieces from the physical structure of the original station, but mainly there were a variety of projects created by artists. It focused on typography, which was interesting given the knowledge I gained from a print design class I took in college. The exhibit had sections that explained the font styles that have been used on street signs and on businesses, displaying the unique personalities of different parts of Seoul. There were also books hanging from the ceiling on string and little sculptures one artist had created to represent each Hangul character. 

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IMG_3208***If you don’t speak Korean, you’re going to have a bad time attempting to get a phone plan. Tip: Find a Korean buddy and have them do the talking. Then you can just sit there with your dumb, foreign face and nod as if you totally understand what’s going on. You can nervously peel the rubber from your “LifeProof” case. You can hope when the guy behind the desk laughs, he’s not laughing at your dumbness. You can get excited because you’re finally going to be able to connect to wifi reliably and have data. Oh, technological-dependence, you fickle mistress.

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“I think you like Korean food?” Yongseok told me as we ate mandoo, which was spicy dumplings, noodles, and mushrooms in a red broth. Based on our friend Kate’s previous reaction to Korean foods, I think he was expecting me to dislike the degree of spiciness in the food. However, the soups we had in Seoul were so good that I’m hoping to be able to find restaurants in Daegu with similar dishes.

So I tried a lot of traditional Korean soup, which was fitting for how cold the weather was.

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Seolleongtang (stock soup of bone and stew meat)

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Mandoo

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Soup with a whole chicken in the broth!

So, yeah, Yongseok. Korean food is delicious.

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The palaces are sites I’d like to see again the next time I’m in Seoul. They were really beautiful, but we didn’t get to see as much of them as we would have liked due to the timing of my visit. We walked a short distance from the old Seoul Station to Gyeongbokgung Palace, on the way grabbing some traditional Korean candy called yeot from a man who was chopping it into little bits on his cart. The candy is rock-hard at first, but it softens into a taffy-like consistency as you chew it.

Gyeongbukgung Palace is especially beautiful because the mountains loom in the background. It’s majestic, an iconic part of Korea standing its ground while a modern city grows up around it. Such a stark contrast between architectural styles and hundreds of years of progress.

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This palace was closed for tours, unfortunately, but we were able to see inside the National Palace Museum of Korea. There was a lot to take in at the museum. Even though most of the explanatory text on each exhibit label was in Korean, most had English titles and Yongseok was able to interpret the rest for me. Some of my favorite parts of the museum were…

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The Screen of the Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks

This screen was always positioned behind the throne of the Joseon king (see final picture). Fun fact: “Joseon” was actually what Korea was called during this dynasty, instead of the current name, Hanguk. The nature imagery symbolizes the universe and the cycle of life.

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A Self-Striking Water Clock

This is a restored version of the original water clock created by King Sejong. Based on the flow of water through a basin and pipe system, the clock will chime at certain intervals to note the time of day or night. We were lucky to be looking at this part of the exhibit just a few minutes before it was supposed to chime, so were able to see one of the figures at the top beat a drum, sort of like a cuckoo clock.

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I saw Deoksu Palace at night. It was built during the 16th century, and it’s the place where King Seonjo lived after returning to the capital in 1593. The Japanese forces had just withdrawn, leaving all the main palace compounds burnt to the ground.

Imagine entering through the front gate, heavy with the end of a war. You spent a year and a half in hiding in Uiju (long before it belonged to North Korea, of course), all the while knowing that your enemies are destroying your city. Peace finally comes, and so you arrive at your relatives’ home to live there temporarily.

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Deoksu means “virtue and long life.”

We walked the palace grounds in the dark with layers of leaves beneath our feet, the trees creating a canopy above us. We peered inside a silent, shadowed throne room, and a dining room exposed to the outdoors. Many of the tourists were already gone, so the palace grounds were still and peaceful, despite the loudness of life that bursts through the city which has rebuilt itself over hundreds of years, taking on modernity like a warrior.