Tag Archives: Travel

Jebudo Sunset

1 Nov

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Being Local

20 Mar

Many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, must face a paradox in our lives. In general, this paradox does not apply to a man contented with his job, family (or lack thereof), his TV or video games, and what comes easily to him.  The paradox applies to those of us who are educated and have the financial means to appreciate and pursue greater accumulation of knowledge. It is more intellectually honest if we call knowledge today information because in our communications-revolutionized world we focus very heavily on knowing facts without really attempting (or feeling that we can) have a basis or system for applying them wisely and justly.

The paradox is that as we accumulate that knowledge and affluence, we sudden begin to wish we are something that we are not. One could discuss the spiritual and moral plight of modern man, who fails to create anything, from his food to his clothes to his culture, on his own. We’ve all been spoon-fed the lie that traditional life, beliefs, and culture are backward and that modernity is not only a worthy development, but an inevitable one. We all feel like we can’t go back, so instead we start looking to other places in the here and now. “Ah, those people over there have figured it out. They’ve got the key to existence; that’s where I’m going.” We gussy it up in the name of enlightenment or adventure, and say we we are attempting to “just, like, you know, become a broader person, man, like, be more aware about the world.” But really we’re just trying to escape where we’re from, who we are.

I see this most prominently in contemporary attitudes towards foreign places and travel. There is an obsession with the “local.” Everyone wants to find the special local dive, hang out with “real” people from that country, listen to “local” music, get the “inside scoop” on the “pulse” of a given place. People spend untold amounts of time and money researching the best “local” stuff and attempting to feel “local.” Now if that is in pursuit of some specific purpose, then that is understandable. An actor researching a part should certainly do so, as well as a historian looking for fragments of the past or a painter searching for the timeless elements of art. But most of this “local” hunting is not for such people. It’s for the modern consumers who have commodified everything else in their lives, are unsatisfied with it, and are nonetheless plowing ahead with commodifying yet something else out there, totally oblivious.

What is truly nauseating is that the “local” sales pitch denies that there is anything bad about being a local. It’s all just a wild time, drinking funny liquors with the locals, eating odd bits and parts of animals, biking dirty backalleys, and having your newfound native friends show you a cool/old/new place, which surely no other traveler has ever been to. It’s great, for sure. And it certainly is local. But that really our standard? If it is, I suppose me chewing on a half-grilled hot dog made of unidentifiable parts, drinking a lukewarm cup of Pabst in the overgrown yard of a house whose floor was falling in, watching an crystal meth-slinging ice cream truck slowly roll through a dilapidated neighborhood would count as an experience worthy of the Travel Channel. But, no, it didn’t seem particularly special or awesome or even fun at the time, just slightly absurd.

But that’s because I had something invested in that place. I knew that the presence of the meth-cream truck was probably the reason why my friends had to chain the grill to the fence lest the neighbors would run off with it. Or that the city rarely responded to gunshots a few blocks away, but certainly found time to pettily hassle my buddy Nick with citations for letting the grass grow too long. I appreciated the place for its good qualities, for the people I knew there, did the best I could to live there, and felt melancholy and frustration at things that stayed screwed up.

In contrast, our current attitude wants to deny that there can be anything disappointing or off-putting in travel or in feeling local. Why do you think there so many Lonely Planet books out there? Those books are immensely useful and you’d be stupid not to use one. But they take all the guesswork out of travel through brute force, through attrition of information. “Don’t worry, our staff has already undergone all the difficulties and have found the best routes for you to experience this country in a genuine way.” It is, like everything else that we resent in our modern lives but cannot escape, aimed at moving more and more bodies through the gate in an optimal amount of time.

You couldn’t sell the experience of really being a local. I’ve noticed that upon my recent return to Korea. I no longer felt like Korea was special. I readjusted very quickly to the culture, patterns of life, pollution, food, language, etc. I feel very natural being here. Perhaps because that is because it is the first place I’ve ever actually consciously decided to return to, even when given other, easier options. But there’s no longer any “ooooh” factor . The previous wide-eyed enthusiasm I felt, and that is reflected in my old writings, is gone.

I enjoy where I am, let there be no doubt. But that enjoyment takes work, a lot of work. You have to break patterns or really focus on what is in front of you. You end up trying to find some lens, some approach that will give you a new way to learn and grow, for you’ve ceased to learn from what is immediately tangible.

Struggling against apathy towards your surroundings is one half of feeling local. The other, and possibly more important half, is the sense of feeling trapped and wanting to get out. Everyone settles in a place for a reason. Most of the time it’s a job or family; we value certain things more than wandering around penniless. Even if we made the choice to get ourselves into such a situation, the fact that we can’t easily abandon it frustrates us to no end. It grates against our yearning for freedom, not just freedom in a political sense, but in the sense of just doing any damn thing we want. I love Korea and enjoy being here, but occasionally I find my thoughts wandering somewhere else, thinking, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to be doing that? Or doing this other thing? Anything, anywhere, but here.”  I have to mentally slap myself and remind myself to focus on what I do have, to deny my mind’s eye any chance to get distracted.

Nobody fully appreciates what they have. People are frustrated and pissed off everywhere and lead tragic lives. That’s the essence, the nitty-gritty of feeling local. There are other things, nicer things, more constructive things. If you can face down the nasty stuff first, then you might stand a chance at attaining the good stuff. Andrew Zimmern and Rick Steves can’t sell that, though. They can’t convince people to spend money on being faceless, miserable, stuck in a rut. The money machine only works when you promise attainment of that which is elusive, not commonplace: earthly transcendence, not earthly misery.

Who knows, though? We already flagellate ourselves voluntarily over the environment, race, gender, wealth, and dozens of other issues; why not commodify it? Postmodern insecurities could be the next big market. I can see it now: a one-month hunger fast in a Bangladeshi slum where the participants can only speak in quotes from Sartre, running $15k per head.

If this buying of 21st century indulgences to assuage our guilty yet hope-denying souls is our future, then I must ask this: whence comes our Martin Luther?