Why not live in the big city abroad?

February 25, 2014

Whether it’s a bus or an airplane, I’m always relieved when few people show up, leaving me free to stretch my legs across the aisle. This weekend was my first time returning to Seoul since my arrival after New Year’s. In addition to soaking up a little culture at the Sejong Center with Aida, I visited some of my old haunts in Itaewon:

High Street Market is still going strong with bread and wine
– The Foreign Food Mart actually had Sambazon acai and sharp cheddar at a reasonable price (7500 and 6000 won, respectively)
Tartine continues to expand its selection of real baked goods (that is, with the correct amount of butter and sugar). I picked up a slice of banana cake.
Healing Hands provides excellent massages. That guy knows exactly what muscles to work.

The area hasn’t changed that much, other than a few new restaurants and an oriental massage parlor buying out the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf’s location at the intersection. I did discover a cupcake at Adjective Coffee and a superb burger (but subpar fries) at Chili King.

By and large, a successful and fruitful trip. But it got me thinking as to why I don’t just base myself in Seoul, if I’m constantly making runs for food and fun. Usually when I’m abroad I choose smaller towns. Although this started not of my own choosing – assigned a school at AEON Japan – I have to say the country and suburban life suits me, outside the US anyway. Why?

People. Although I can handle crowds, I definitely find long lines and lack of space to be a tad stressful.

Choice. Living in less populated areas limits the choices I can make, from what food is available to social activities. I have a very addictive personality; it’s often better for someone like me to have fewer options, so I won’t gorge myself on everything in sight or be so overwhelmed that I choose inaction over a million possible actions.

Cost. Things tend to be cheaper outside of bigger cities and the lack of opportunities to spend helps.

Discomfort. If I were to have simply lived in a big city like Seoul, Bangkok, or Tokyo, I wouldn’t have been as motivated to stretch myself. From being able to use the local language to exploring hidden nooks in my rural corner of Korea, I’ve found I learned more the further I stray from the familiar. Although I doubt I would go to Itaewon every night and not indulge in one Korean for the duration of my stay, the temptation and means to do so aren’t what I want from travel.

If there was one disadvantage to visiting Seoul this weekend, it was being exposed to unhealthy levels of yellow dust: heavy metals and sand from China. My throat is a bit scratchy, and a fever may be in my future. I don’t know how people in Beijing stand it.

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