Delusions of Travel

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I might be unqualified to speak about the subject of travel, but since I’ve been on two exchanges and a lot of plane flights and train rides and car rides to different places as a result, I have had some experience and some thoughts which will be reflected in this post.

In this post I want to talk about the unrealistic expectations I think people have about travelling. Now the ‘people’ I speak of are probably individuals in their 20s living in North America, as a lot of my friends and Facebook friends belong to this category, and they are the people I get these impressions of falsehood from.

What I see a lot of the times is travel being presented as some sort of fantastical adventure in which only a few are able to embark on and where an individual will experience magical and romantic things while undertaking a plethora of fun adventures. I see a lot of posts coming on my Facebook Newsfeed about very similar stories reflecting these ideas. Sometimes it will be about some guy who had been travelling for a whole year and made a cool videos during the process, and at other times it will be a quote charged with idealistic notions about ‘how travelling is food for the soul’ or something else cheesy, accompanied with by beautiful instragramed photo of an exotic looking location. Maybe such a quote could be true in a vague way, and personally, I think that the guy who travels for a whole year is quite admirable in his tenacity. The only problem I see is that these things add fuel to the delusions of travel.

In my experience, (and of course, my experiences will not wholly reflect other people’s experiences; I might be a particularly boring guy) when travelling is stripped of all its romanticism, it is quite unremarkable. You have the highs and lows; sometimes you meet nice people, sometimes you feel lonely; sometimes you have a great day of adventure, sometimes you are completely at a loss and don’t know what to do. However, most of the time, you will just be walking a lot to get to from one place to another.

However, the best way to actually get to know what travelling is like is by travelling. It is really not that hard of a process to do so, although the mental preparation could be difficult. However, for the logistical process, it is as simple as buying a plane ticket, booking accommodation and finding activities to do. It would be better if you had some sort of interest in the location’s history or culture to facilitate this process. Language could be a tricky thing, but it is usually not exceedingly difficult to manage. In Italy, not many people speak English, but there were many fellow exchange students who manage without being able to speak at all. Also, I’m sure that the personalities in the stories about the guy who travels for a year don’t speak all the world’s languages either. If you are reading this post, you probably have a certain degree of fluency in English, and often English is enough to get by. Finally, buy travel insurance for emergencies.

In the end, I might have been a little too harsh when describing travel as being unremarkable. If it was so unremarkable, I would not have been doing so much of it. But what I want to do is provide a counterweight to the common perception of travel. You might not have a perfect experience or be doing interesting things every moment or be guaranteed to like your experience. Instead, you might be tired, homesick or bored. Realistically, it will be some combination of the two. But for sure, there will be a lot of walking.

 

Above is one of the five towns in Cinque Terre in Italy

Korean in Paris

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It was mid-November in 2012, and the days were growing colder in Milan. The cold breeze signalled the impending arrival of winter and the encroachment of the day in which I would have to go back to Toronto. Long past seemed the days under the hot Tuscan sun in the month of August in Siena, in which cold weather seemed like a foreign concept in the dry and cloudless weather. At that particular moment, the cold was not foremost in my mind, as I was soon due to leave to majestic Paris.

Paris may seem like an eventual destination for an exchange student in Europe. One of Europe’s great capitals with a worldwide recognition and reputation for culture and beauty, it experiences innumerable tourists annually, who wish to have a taste of a fantasised Parisian life. Cities like Budapest and Shanghai have been given titles like the “Paris of the East” or the “Paris of the Orient” respectively, as if Paris holds the absolute measure of a beautiful city. To contrast, no one would dare call Paris the “Shanghai of West” or compare Paris at all in such a manner. There is a unique romantic mystique associated with the name Paris that prevents the demeaning suggestion of such titles. Perhaps all this is just speaking from a North American point of view, but Paris can only be described as Paris.

Despite Paris being Paris, it was not a location that was originally on my list of places to go to. I was very happy in Italy and enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle. Most of the travelling I did was to Italian cities. It felt like every new Italian city I visited was a puzzle piece which helped me piece together a greater understanding of the country. Ironically, with more pieces came a realization that the picture was exponentially larger than I thought.

However, there was a French friend I wished to visit in Paris. We had met two years prior in the summer of 2010 in Seoul. We were studying in the same Korean language program. He developed an interest in Korean culture due to his Korean girlfriend. Being a relatively cheap and short flight, I took the opportunity to go see him.

There is always an emotion that is part anxiety and part anticipation when seeing a friend that you have not seen for a long time. Change is always happening to people, and you are not certain whether the previous connection you and the friend once shared still holds. Change is particularly prevalent for people in their 20s, who still are going through a period of many decisions. Add the fact that you have also changed as well, and we get a further compounded problem. Maybe it is just the physical features that are the remnants of an old friendship, and the feeling of comfort you get along with the familiar face, which is a solid, physical affirmation of a previous shared connection. Maybe this feeling of ease is the most fundamental glue in a friendship, with the rest being details that are whisked off with the passing of time.

When we met at Crimée Station, it was a relief to find out that the friendship was still there. There was one big difference that I immediately noticed, and it was in the language we used to communicate. Two years prior, we used English due to his insufficient Korean. At this meeting, we used Korean. While acquainting ourselves with each other anew, I started to find out how excellent his Korean grew to be, far surpassing my own abilities in my first language. It was an interesting turn of events. In the month of our friendship in Korea, I had always thought that he was reticent and reserved. I was finding that he was not. I was seeing aspects to his personality that were put behind an opaque wall when we used English to communicate. With Korean, his self was able to shine through. Meanwhile, it was the opposite for me, as my Korean put me behind the opaque wall this time.

For lunch at his place, we were joined by another Frenchman, an acquaintance of my friend who also spoke very good Korean. Together, we ate a nice simple lunch of some bread, potatoes and blood sausages with a cocktail. Afterwards came the drinking of an alcohol made of oranges that was as strong as vodka and reminded me an orange version of the Italian limoncello. Of course, the primary language of our increasingly drunken communications was Korean. Two Frenchmen and a Canadian in Paris, who would have thought.

Continuing through the afternoon fuelled by drinking games involving the Nintendo Wii, we started to think of options for dinner. Naturally, we decided on a Korean Barbeque restaurant, not even discussing any French style bistros. Away in the Parisian subway we went, speeding off in tunnels below the surface to some location in Paris I still do not know to this day, while the orange liquor slowly withdrew to the bottom with each passing of hands.

It was the first Korean restaurant I went to while in Europe, as Italy did not have enough of a substantial Korean population to justify such a luxury. While in the restaurant I remember flashes of merriment; drinking a soju cocktail which involved a loud banging on the table for its creation, which brought the owner up to our table to quiet us down, although afterwards he was appeased with a taste of the cocktail; meeting French-Koreans, some who were ironically not able to speak Korean at all, while the Frenchmen at our table spoke fluently; eating wonderful tasting meat with each bite bringing me a supreme happiness, while the drinks contributed with a bright and dreamy glow. Afterwards, the two Frenchmen and the Canadian walked downstairs to the basement of the Korean barbeque restaurant in Paris to sing karaoke on a Korean karaoke machine, bringing an appropriate end to all festivities.

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After sobering up and reflecting on this experience while walking on Parisian streets, I began to think about language. The use of language is an aspect of communication we do not think too deeply on, for the reasons that it is a part of daily life so basic that it is unnoticeable. We can often be oblivious to the role it plays in our communications with other people.

As a student in the University of Toronto in the Rotman Commerce Bachelor’s program, which holds a 50% international student population, I had the chance to interact and work with many international students. I always believed that they were shy and afraid to express their opinions. I did not like working with them in group projects for this reason. Now in Taiwan as an exchange student, there are times when I am put in the same situation. One of my classes requires group work every lecture, and the class is comprised of all Taiwanese students except me. My group members have been very accommodating and have spoken English so that I can also contribute my opinions. There was one class when they communicated in Mandarin instead, and I was unable to contribute although I had done the work beforehand. I think they probably thought I did not do the work for that class. Just like my French friend when I first met him, just like the international students in the University of Toronto and just like me here, we may find ourselves in situations in which one of the parties involved in a communication is stuck behind the opaque wall of an unfamiliar language. In an increasingly global environment, perhaps patience and understanding is required for better communications, and not unfair judgements.

Languages are also interesting due to the special characteristics each language holds. Korean is a language which has many graduations of formality and respect. There are two main methods of speaking, one which is an informal way a person would use with friends, and an informal method, which one would use with strangers, elders and peoples of higher position. This method carries with it implicit assumptions of respect and formality. Age is an important determinant in creating the context the relationship operates in. If an individual is even one year older than another, the former has an authority over the latter. The younger individual must address the older person with special titles which come with implications of respect and deference, while it is the other way around for older individuals to younger individuals. Furthermore, the informal method of speaking is often used by the younger individual when communicating with an older individual.

As my French friend is 3 years older than me, I did not know how to address him in the correct way when using Korean to speak. I remember avoiding using his name or any title to address him, due to the ambiguous nature of the current relationship. There was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our interactions, until without thinking I called him “hyung,” the proper address for an older male. After addressing him in this fashion the first time, the once cloudy and ambiguous relationship became as clear as day with this single admission. At the same time, there was a feeling that it signalled the start of a relationship with a slight submission from me to him.

I saw him twice afterwards in Paris, once in a Starbucks completely incidentally while on a guided tour, and finally in another Korean restaurant for lunch, where the waitress commented on his proficiency in the language, and told him that he was so lucky to have a good friend to learn from. She was referring to me, so I kept my mouth shut and smiled so she would not find out the truth about our actual abilities. And thus went my first experience in Paris, city of lights, city of romance, city of beauty. It was an unexpected surprise, finding a culture so close to my heart in a location that was so foreign to me. The five days in Paris ended quickly and I soon found myself boarding the plane back to Milan, my temporary home which held the promise of more adventures to come.

Stoic Acceptance

IMG943  This past week and a half has been difficult; a fever for two days, a stubborn cold, all with bad sleep throughout. A sudden change in the temperature had me accidentally giving improper care to my body, and I slept under one blanket, not two. The next morning I woke up with hints of fever which later developed into its mature form. Taking two hour long naps in the afternoon, not being able to sleep at night has me in disarray both physically and mentally. Weather quickly changes in Taipei, as humid and cool has quickly turned to humid and hot. Last night had me tossing and turning for hours as heat and incessant coughing kept me up to hear the birds chirping for the start of their day, which was soon followed by sounds of morning from my neighbours’ rooms. I am hoping that tonight won’t be as bad of an experience, but the signs do not look positive so I am writing for good use of time.

This has me dreaming of Toronto, where it is the time for the wonderful springtime weather. By this time, Toronto would be past its long winter cold, and spring would be in full blossom, with sunshine and growing greenery warmly welcoming Torontonians towards the outdoors under a lengthening sun. Instead of the 4 by 3 metre prison I am in, with a miserable foot by foot window in the bathroom for ventilation and cockroaches and spiders for company, I could be at home, going from spacious room to spacious room at my fancy, sleeping on the sofa or in the basement room if my own bed shows signs of hostility, sitting and enjoying a natural sunlight smiling in from wide windows on the black leather sofa, while reading a book or admiring the scenery before me gradually opening up with life.

As I sit in front of the computer with a less than fully functioning mind, a sticky body due to the warmth and humidity and with the formation of a slight plea towards an otherworldly force for a quick recovery, I start thinking of Stoicism. Cultivated by the Greeks, adopted and nurtured by the Romans, its existence has been a source of reassurance and acceptance when the chaos of the world confounds me. Due to limited scholarship on the subject, there is not much that I can expertly write about, but from my understanding it is about ‘living in accordance with nature,’ through acceptance of nature’s will, fate. I particularly find it useful for its practicality in dealing with worldly matters. To give you a direct experience of Stoicism, here is an excerpt that I found particularly moving and profound. This is from Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXV.

“I am too great, was born to too great a destiny to be my body’s slave. So far as I am concerned that body is nothing more or less than a fetter on my freedom. I place it squarely in the path of fortune, letting her expend her onslaught on it, not allowing any blow to get through it to my actual self. For that body is all that is vulnerable about me: within this dwelling so liable to injury there lives a spirit that is free.”

Reading writings of Stoicism remind me that inside of the body which bears the changing currents of nature’s temperaments, there exists an entity that is able to freely decide how to respond. There is always this choice: I can either choose to be beaten down by my current misfortunes or accept nature’s will and be forever content. Although it is paradoxical, it is only with wholehearted acceptance of fate that we are able to control it. With my current situation I have these options as well. I can either curse the series of events that have led to this situation, and feed a growing anxiety and irritation, or just accept circumstances for what they are and nourish contentment.

In life, it is invariable that there will be times of distress and disaster. Life is a personal journey with an undeterminable end. There will be times of infinite happiness but also times with uncertain paths, bad weather and accidents. When the path is nice with sunny weather and the irrepressible desire for a song to be sung, nothing can go wrong. However, the opposite can manifest as suddenly as the coming of a tempest. Through these seemingly terrible times we can choose to preserve our indomitable spirit by unreservedly offering our physical shell to the whims of nature, and continue traversing towards our destination with a great humour.

 

 

Picture: Budapest

Death

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When we are younger, death is never on the mind. We may catch glimpses of it from time to time, but just as the coming and going of a rainbow after a sunny afternoon storm, it fades into irrelevance both in the physical world and in our minds. In our twenties, why worry about such a thing? We are young and still blessed with bountiful energy. A peek into the mirror will show a healthy looking individual at the peak of his mortal life and the ability to realize a personal ambition onto the world. Time is still on our side and visions of the future are eagerly described with the air of a tingling excitement. When we walk on the streets in the city center, the passing images of a previous generation make an imprint on the mind, but there is almost a fundamental inability to connect these appearances with a prophecy of the future. A quick glance in the mirror deters such notions.

As time passes, so does our perception of reality. Confrontations with death become increasingly frequent and just like a natural erosion of rocky surfaces by rainwater, the idea of death is gradually uncovered with each instance. The reflection which once reassured us of longevity assures us of inevitability, as wrinkles and the accumulations of the microcosms of death stare at us. What once seemed as fleeting as the rainbow now takes on a different form, as the apparition of death fills into a physical form and details of its features are gradually outlined. The past is remembered with the longing sigh of nostalgia and the world appears to us as being grandiose and immovable. Sitting in the subway we start to relate with the faces of the once previous generation. Notions form that Time is not on our side, but has instead withdrawn Its welcomed friendship. It now makes its appearance as an unwanted guest who inconspicuously detracts from the merriment of a party. We may look towards the clock for the leave of Time, but It increasingly makes its subtle presence known and spreads discontentment and anxiety. The culmination of anxiety stemming from Time eventually arrives in the form of the most unwelcome guest, Death, as all our fears towards It are heightened tenfold with the abrupt and piercing shrill of the doorbell.

When It arrives, can you feel Its ubiquitous presence? Can you feel Its existence, which is lonelier than being the last man on Earth, containing a profundity deeper than the deepest tunnels, darker than the darkest shade of black? Can you feel the mystery of Its existence, in which at the moment of its occurrence comes the evaporation of life for the deliverance of the soul past all notions of the physical plane and time?

Aldous Huxley, English writer of the 1900s, wrote two novels about two completely contrasting versions of society. He wrote the Brave New World in 1932 and the Island thirty years later. Despite the different natures of the societies, one which is totalitarian and the other, utopian, there is one point of similarity among these societies. From an early age, children are raised to accept death. There is no mysticism towards the concept of death. It is accepted to be the most organic of happenings and inescapably bound with life. There is the sense that life and death are not contrasting ideas like the poles of a magnet, but instead are the heads and tails on the coin of existence.

In our modern world, we are adept at subjecting the natural world to our command. With further advancements we are able to escape the organic unpredictability of the natural environment for an anticipatable artificial atmosphere. Death is no exception. With certain medical and scientific discoveries we are to delay nature’s last affirmation of existence but are unable to completely eliminate it. Traditional tests put out by nature to test our mettle in her world served as reminders of the connection between life and death, but such reminders have disappeared. Instead of living in a blissful opiatic state, unaware of eventual realities, it is better to wake up from our fantastical slumber to accept Death in a holistic way. With this attitude, Time may continue to serve as a welcome friend and the ringing of the doorbell signaling the long expected arrival of Death can be received with sincere acceptance.