Springtime here in Seoul was a dream. I’d wake up to cherry blossoms in full bloom, and full plans to visit festivals by the Han River. I’d show up to class with an iced coffee in hand, which is almost an unspoken rule for university students. Midterms season was a bit stressful, but being surrounded by Koreans studying until late on campus motivated me. It was here that my friends and I couldn’t help but catch ourselves claiming our K-drama moments, that we were in a fantasy we once saw through our laptop screens.
And yet, only a month into my exchange semester, I’ve started feeling conflicted about going home.
On a train to Busan last March (yes, just like the movie), I felt like everything about this life was perfect. Maybe too perfect.
I started diving into Hallyu culture back in 2016 thanks to K-Pop group BTS, and this led me to view Seoul as a mecca. Tons of K-pop songs and dramas later, I found myself crying when I got the opportunity to study here for four months, and those tears of gratitude didn’t stop even after my first few days.
But on that Busan-bound train, I had to take a step back because the guilt started to creep in. Did this overwhelming happiness mean I didn’t want to live in Manila anymore?
I know I have a good life back at home, but being away made it much easier to slip into a cycle of comparing. There was a time I got into a discussion on safety with students from other countries. We discussed how stealing doesn’t (usually) happen here — leave something behind at a cafe or in a shop, and your belongings will either be left untouched or personally returned to you. During late night walks in university areas like Sinchon or Hongdae, I can’t help but feel much safer than when I’m walking along Katipunan or Quiapo.
As K-pop fans, we see Seoul as the completion of our pilgrimage, but locals know of the abuse and harassment that goes down in the industry.
It was only when a Korean schoolmate blurted out that Seoul isn’t perfect either that my bubble burst. I realized that many others hold true the old saying that the grass is greener on the other side. His words reminded me that even though I’ve explored a lot of Seoul, I still do not know it as well as the locals do. And that goes the same for any country. Locals will always have a deeper understanding of their political and social situations over foreigners.
My Korean and International classmates may see the Philippines for its beaches and fresh fruits, but I will think of EDSA traffic and corruption. As K-pop fans, we see Seoul as the completion of our pilgrimage, but locals know of the abuse and harassment that goes down in the industry.
It’s inevitable to become jaded when everything becomes routine in our own homes, when we’ve seen the grittier parts hidden away from the shinier tourist spots. That jadedness urges us to search for something new, something fresh, which I admit I projected here unto Seoul. It’s not exactly wrong, because that’s what tourism is all about, but going overboard manifests into idealizing the city. After all, Seoul has a population of more than 10 million unique individuals who go beyond the tropes we see onscreen. For now, I guess what matters is that we stay aware and catch ourselves when we start to fall too hard into fantasy.
With only a few weeks left in the city, I feel like I’m slowly waking up from the dream, since I’ve travelled through my Korea bucket list and settled down into a normal daily routine. This is telling of how the rose-colored glasses, or in my case, the K-drama filter, fades when we start to get used to a certain place.
When I return home, I aim to get into a tourist mindset every now and then. I’ll explore more of my own home with that same sense of wonder, and dig deeper to find something new in the spaces I’ve grown so accustomed to.