Losing My Way and Finding Myself in Seoul

“Is this it?”

I stood in front of a rustic, quaint cafe on the corner of a street I did not recognise. Online reviews raved about the cafe as a must-visit place in the “Brooklyn of Seoul”. Now staring back at me – a web photo brought to life – I had my doubts.

Bingsu served in a mason jar, I had read. It was unabashedly hipster, but I required no further coaxing to travel an hour across the city for an authentic experience of my favourite Korean dessert. An aesthetically pleasing food pic for Instagram couldn’t hurt either. Returning to South Korea after five years, I knew having a bowl of ice shavings topped with milk and copious scoops of red bean would instantly jolt every good memory I had of this fine city.

It was a return to a place that felt like home. No longer a 20-something who quit her first job to go abroad to learn the Korean language, the city still held memories of a carefree (albeit romanticised) time in my youth. Now older and disoriented in a huge world that seemed to be demanding too much, I returned on a solo trip to remind myself of the courageous person I once was.

I scanned the wooden menu board, wondering if I was at the wrong location. I glanced at the two waiters, one behind the counter and the other arranging chairs on the patio. There were no customers.

Now older and disoriented in a huge world that seemed to be demanding too much, I returned to Korea on a solo trip to remind myself of the courageous person I once was.

My inner wallflower plucked up the courage to ask if they were open for business and had bingsu on the menu. Apologetically, the waiter said they only served it in the summer. Embarrassed that I didn’t check up on this beforehand, I walked away masking my disappointment and feeling silly for not figuring out that surely a frozen dessert would best compliment scorching hot weather, not the end of a frigid winter.

I stepped outside. The chilly air wrapped around me and I became strangely aware of how alone I was. The soft breeze reminded me of a loneliness I tasted when I first arrived in Seoul as a short-term student on a new adventure, carrying an unmistakable solitude magnified by unfamiliar streets and faces.

I hesitated in my steps, having made no other plans for the day. In my mind, I scoured for any destination that could steer me in the right direction. Not knowing where to go or what to do next, it was a painfully recognisable uncertainty. I was a bright-eyed youth no more but not a fully grown adult in my mind, life was a maze with many dead-ends; a complex configuration of paths maneuvering career, love and passions, leaving me lost and overwhelmed.

As the sun lowered itself through the stems and leaves of the bushes in front of me, my loneliness was replaced by an immense gratitude and a calm serenity.

It wouldn’t be long before spring arrived. My gaze landed on a dry leaf falling from a branch. I remembered there would be a spring festival starting in a week’s time in central Seoul, when the trees might be showing early signs of flowering. As I headed back to the city centre, I reached an empty street leading to Hangang Park. In a few days the neighbouring road would be cordoned off and flooded with a heavy flow of human traffic, each person wanting a glimpse of spring’s delicate cherry blossoms. I soon realised I was too early for this phenomenon. I walked away watching the barren trees await their time to impress the world; mediocre and overlooked, not yet reaching their full potential.

The crisp air tugged at me, gently pushing me step by step until I reach the park’s entrance. Tiny yellow flowers greeted me as I reached out for my camera and snapped away. In that moment, behind the lens, I noticed the sun setting. I lifted my head and saw the sun in the distance, its red rim glowing without force or insistence, inching downwards, disappearing bit by bit behind the stretch of buildings.

As the sun lowered itself through the stems and leaves of the bushes in front of me, my loneliness was replaced by an immense gratitude and a calm serenity. In the five years it took me to revisit this city I loved, every right and wrong turn conspired towards this serendipitous moment; a union of a setting sun so unwavering in its duty and I, of fluid shape and destiny.

“The only thing that is constant is change,” Heraclitus claimed. I allowed myself to let go of any anxieties about the future and give myself up to the moment.

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