something i’d love to do more in my near future is travel internationally.
my list is always changing; i want to go back to japan, backpack through vietnam, road trip around korea in the autumn. i want to go to london, edinburgh, brighton, make a pilgrimage to where plath is buried and experience the moors that inspired the brontë sisters. i want to go to barcelona — oh! barcelona! — and copenhagen and berlin, and i want to go to johannesburg, cairo, marrakech.
and that’s only the tip of my list.
for now, i try to narrow my list, focus on priorities — where do i want to go first? i’d like to go back to japan within the next twelve months, and i’d also like to go to london in the next twelve months, too. i’d like to go to spain in the next twenty-four — and vietnam (and maybe singapore and malaysia while i’m down in that part of the world) — and all of this still feels impossible and unattainable because (01) money and (02) time and (03) money.
i can’t complain too much, though. i’m going to mexico city in august.
in 2012, i went to japan for the first time and spent three weeks backpacking on my own. it was my first solo international trip, and it was the first trip i paid for all on my own, saving up months of shitty below-minimum-wage law office wages and sitting on those funds for the following academic year, refusing to touch that money because it was going to be for japan and the two weeks i was planning on spending in korea after.
i planned and arranged the trip myself, at least as much as i plan or arrange anything. i called a korean travel agency to book the cheapest flights i could, and i blocked out my days, planned out my cities. (a year later, i'd get these cities tattooed on my wrist.) i made reservations for hostels for my first few nights in tokyo, purchased my JR pass, bought a ticket to the studio ghibli museum. i learned how to get cash at the 7-11 ATMs using my usual bank of america debit card. i got books on japan, read them, marked up what i wanted to see.
all the planning in the world can’t exactly prep you for the realities of traveling, though, and especially of traveling alone in a country whose language you do not speak.
all that said, i am not a planner. i like flexibility, and i tend to make a plan so i’ll have something to fall back on, not so i’ll have a plan to follow. i booked hostels a few days in advance, so i could have the flexibility to, say, stay in sapporo a few more days instead of heading down to kyoto because i loved hokkaido so much and wanted to do more exploring. i often had no set plans for anywhere except to take stupidly long walks, eat all the food i could, and just soak everything in. i spent a fair amount of time in cafes, drinking matcha frappes and writing in my travel journal and working on a story.
that’s not to say that i didn’t go to museums or shrines or whatnot — i did my fair share of sightseeing — but maybe the thing i’ve realized about myself is that i love the meandering part of traveling. i’m not a frenetic see-everything-i-can-because-i’ll-never-be-back sort of traveler. and i know that’s because of two things: (01) i recognize that i can’t see everything, anyway, so i don’t see the point in burning through energy that way, and (02) i have enough privilege to have some measure of faith that i will be able to come back someday.
it took me a good week to get used to traveling alone, and i still don’t think fondly of tokyo because of how overwhelming those first few days were. i cried quite a few times, in a cafe in shinjuku station, on the train, in a bathroom in a hostel, cried because i was lonely and wanted someone to talk to. there’s nothing like traveling to make me wish i had a partner, someone to travel and see and eat the world with, and i think that sentiment really started when i was in japan alone, feeling my aloneness pressing in around me.
and yet — i’d do it all over again. i’d travel alone again, no question about it. i learned a lot about myself when i was in japan, and i learned a lot about my ambitions, my dreams, my goals. i learned a lot about my curiosities. i learned a lot about my fears, too, and my failings.
when you’re stuck with just yourself for three weeks, you have to look yourself in the eye.
the truth is that you can’t talk about travel without talking about money, about privilege. i don’t mean to imply that you need to be swimming in money (or privilege) to travel because you don’t, but that doesn’t mean that travel and money/privilege don’t go hand-in-hand.
practically, travel requires dispensable income. it requires being able to take time to take vacations. it requires having enough access to extra money and leisure time that a passport is worth its $110 fee.
i recently had to renew my passport, and the process was simple and no-nonsense, yet it reminded me so much of my privilege. it was simple to get passport photos taken, to fill out the form, to send in the $110 fee with my form and about-to-expire passport, and the only thing i worried about was that it might get lost in the mail, this old passport or the new one i’d receive.
and then there’s the fact that “the united states of america” emblazoned on my passport still affords me a certain degree of safety, and then that the possession of a passport of my home country means that i don’t have to be afraid to cross borders because i know that i’ll have no problems re-entering the US. i’m free to complain all i want about how long it takes to enter my own goddamn country.
i used to take it so much for granted, though. i got my first passport some time around middle school when my parents wanted to take me and my brother to korea for the first time, and, of course, at that age, i wasn’t thinking about anything at all, just that we were going to korea and we were going to see our grandparents and that was kind of it.
i don’t remember much about that first trip either, except that it was cold (it was december) but there was no snow (not until the day we left) and we couldn’t find clothes that fit me because my limbs were too long. i remember walking to my grandparents’ apartment in ilsan with my brother and being stopped by an elderly gentleman who kind of meanly wanted to know what language we were speaking (english).
i remember going to dinner with a bunch of relatives i didn’t know, and i remember them watching the way i used chopsticks. you’re not supposed to cross your chopsticks; we call it “애기 젖가락, ae-gee jeot-ga-rak” for “baby chopsticks” because, when you get older, you’re supposed to use them the proper way, chopsticks held parallel, the bottom chopstick held in the cradle between your thumb and index finger, the top maneuvered by your index and third fingers. it’s easier to eat that way, to pick up granules of rice. i came back to the states, shamed and determined to learn the proper way. i couldn’t demonstrate what baby chopsticks look like to you anymore.
a passport doesn’t mean you always feel safe, though, just like you don’t have to cross international borders to feel the color of your skin or the gender you present or the sexuality you do or do not demonstrate. often, the most uncomfortable spaces i find myself in are comprised mostly of korean-koreans or korean-americans because those are the spaces that often remind me that i am neither/nor, that i occupy some liminal space in-between. the city in which i’ve felt the most uncomfortable is charleston; i’ve never before been so acutely aware of my asianness; and i go to a lot of book events. i still can't shake the oddness of being in a city, a region, where plantations are being whitewashed and romanticized as beautiful wedding venues when they were run by slavers, maintained by slaves who were brought here to this country, traded like animals, and refused basic, decent humanity, all of which continues to have real-life consequences today.
and i don’t think i’ll ever forget standing in a biscuit shop, asking the white woman behind the counter what i should see while i was there and having her respond, as friendly and cheerily as could be, that there were all these nice, artist stands at the old slave market, not blinking an eye at the bizarreness of that statement.
the confederate flag flew over the south carolina state capitol building until 2015. nine african-american churchgoers had to be slaughtered for people to reckon with the disgusting racism and history that flag represents.
when i talk about travel, i don’t mean to sound snooty, and i hope i don’t come across that way. i don’t book travel easily, and my prioritizing of travel means that i don’t indulge on other nice things — i don’t buy nice clothes or expensive bags, and i’m agonizing right now over a $60 moisturizer (damn you, drunk elephant). i buy more books than maybe i should, but i buy most of them for discounts (without resorting to amazon or book depository, if i can help it), and i don’t eat out at fancy restaurants more than a few times a year. (i do occasionally splurge on a nice kitchen item, maybe once or twice a year.)
when i travel, i don’t stay in hotels, opting for airbnbs (aiming for $50 at most a night, usually coming in at $30-40) and crashing with friends whenever i possibly can. i don’t mind hostels at all, though i do definitely spend a lot of time scrolling through all the reviews because, while i don’t need luxurious spaces, i do like clean spaces. i try not to take cars, try to walk or take the subway (if available) everywhere. (buses make me so, so motion-sick, so those are a last resort.) (cars make me so, so motion-sick, too, so that's another reason i try to walk.)
because, i mean, sure i’d love to stay at hotels, and i’d love to hang out on resorts, and i’d love to have the option to take lyfts everywhere, motion-sickness be damned, but i don’t have that kind of money and don’t anticipate that i ever will.
i still want to go back to charleston because it is a beautiful city and the food scene is incredible. i wonder what that says about me, if that says anything about me at all, this willingness of mine to walk into spaces that are openly hostile to marginalized people. like, i want to go to singapore, but homophobia runs rampant there. LGBTQ people aren’t given the same legal rights as non-LGBTQ people. same-sex marriage isn’t recognized. it’s illegal for two men to have sex.
i want to go to morocco, and homosexuality is illegal there, too.
i want to go back to korea, but i do not have a body of which korea approves.
the truth is that i was supposed to be in korea for two weeks, but i fled after ten days. i got horrible food poisoning the night before i hauled my ass to incheon to put myself on standby, and i couldn’t even enjoy that airport because even drinking water made me run to the bathroom because of diarrhea.
do not eat shellfish in seoul in august.
as disturbing as this sounds, i’m used to being shamed about my body. i’m used to koreans giving me That Look, and i’m used to being called names, to having my chubbiness and fat pointed out, to being given unsolicited advice about how to lose weight. i’m used to korean waitresses giving me diet tips while they cook my sam-gyup-sahl.
korea takes things to a whole other freaking level, though, and i admit i buckled under it. i noticed all the up-and-down looks strangers would give me as i went up the escalator, stood on the subway, walked down the street. i didn’t bother going near any kinds of clothing shops because i knew what would await me there. i didn’t go into any cosmetics shops, except for once when i was literally hauled in with a friend by the fake-cheery shopgirls outside.
i hated myself for it, for my size, for the humidity and heat that made my already big body swell and retain more water. i hated myself for not having tried harder to lose weight before i came to asia. i hated myself for being so sweaty when all the skinny korean girls around me were walking around in perfect makeup, perfect hair, not a drop of sweat to be seen.
i didn’t gain any weight in japan because of all the walking i did, but i lost weight in korea because i felt so self-conscious eating — and then i got food poisoning, which lasted for a week after i came back to the states.
and, yet, i’d go back. i’d go back to korea in a heartbeat.
maybe the benefit of not speaking the language of the country you’re in is that you aren’t privy to the gossip of people. i speak and understand korean, so i know what’s being said to me, about me, but i don’t speak or understand much japanese, so, if anything was being said, it was beyond me.
i was determined to go to okinawa when i was in japan, and, while i was flying down to naha, i figured i might as well fly further down to ishigaki. in ishigaki, i took a ferry out to taketomi, a tiny little island off the small little island, and i rented a bike, went to find the beach.
it was hot, so hot, and humid, and i didn’t have enough water on me. i also didn’t have an actual map on me, figuring i’d find my way somehow, and i did eventually, parking my bike under trees and walking down the path to the most incredible white sand beach and the clearest, bluest water i have ever seen.
there were families around, but it was mostly empty, and i got a coke from the little truck (a cold soda is so good on a hot and humid day, something about the coldness and the fizz and the sugar) and walked a little ways down to where it was more secluded. i didn’t have a bathing suit or shorts because i didn’t wear bathing suits or shorts then, wanted to hide my body in long-sleeved shirts and long pants, but i rolled my pants up as high as they’d go and waded out to as far as i could go.
i still think about that day. i still want to go back.
when the sun and heat became too much, i went back to my bike, cycled back to the bike place. the owner gave me a ride in an air-conditioned shuttle to the ferry, and, as we waited to board, clouds began to roll in. in japan, in the summer, rain comes in an instant, and, by the time we were back on ishigaki, it was starting to rain, heavy drops slapping against the warm concrete.
i ducked into a random soba shop because it was there, ordered a set of soba with a maguro-don. it was the best meal i had in japan, and i went back the next day and ate the same meal a second time.
(i don’t remember what i took these photos on, but they’re from 2012, and they were not shot on an iphone or on a “proper” camera.)