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This is true. There was a man. Barely a man, actually. There was a very childish man who spent a summer with a woman, fell in love, and said goodbye when she left to teach English in South Korea. He remembered their many nights at the Hook & Ladder, a divey sports bar that smelled like cigarettes despite California’s indoor smoking ban going into effect two decades before. He remembered the way they spoke about getting out of Fresno, out of the United States, out to anywhere the man wouldn’t daily find himself wiping the foam of cheap beer from his mustache.
Anyway, it was a terrific summer. So terrific that the man and woman cry and hold each other the night before she leaves. So terrific that the man makes good on his promise to visit, buying a plane ticket to spend the week of Thanksgiving in Seoul, South Korea. But that is months away, and the woman meets another man, and the man is heartbroken. He tells himself that he is going to go anyway, and he does. He tells himself that he is not going to see her, but he does.
They meet outside a subway stop in Seoul and walk until they see a small bar with people smoking inside. They sit down, order beers and chicken wings, and talk like they used to. The man asks about her new life and she asks about his trip. He tells her that it feels like he’s been on an adventure, sleeping on the couches of strangers, touring the city with a gracious Korean man that he met online. They go on chatting, but the empties start to pile up, and the woman says she wants to talk about what happened. She says she didn’t mean to hurt him, but it wasn’t like they were in a committed relationship. They had a great summer, but it wasn’t like they exchanged promise rings the night before she left.
Years later, the man will realize that she was right. The man will realize that he was being childish and possessive and entitled. But on this night, the childish man wipes foam from his mustache and says, “Next time someone buys a plane ticket to travel halfway around the world to see you, you should probably fucking realize that they’re in love with you.”
A true travel story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor provide inspiration, nor serve as a model for finding oneself, nor impart an understanding of the native population. If a story seems inspiring or uplifting or if it even seems to suggest that a simple change in scenery allows for a broader understanding of the self or anything else, do not believe it. If at the end of a travel story you feel as if you understand the people and destination, you have been made the victim of a terrible lie as old as Columbus. As a rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true travel story by its recognition that the events in the story could have happened anywhere else in our globalized world. Our world where the travelling American can find himself a burger and a Budweiser almost anywhere he goes. Look at the man and the woman in Seoul. They ate chicken wings in a bar. They could have had that conversation anywhere else, but the childish man wanted to find significance in that he flew across the Pacific Ocean.
The childish man, at age 25, had never been in a relationship. He always felt strange and alone and wrongly prescribed travel as the antidote. He grew up reading stories of explorers and their adventures in exotic lands. In school, they taught him about Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, Marco Polo, and all the others. He read about Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi, following the whooping of an owl and the whispering of the wind. Acquaintances flew to India for meditation retreats, practically reenacting Eat, Pray, Love. Even today, travel bloggers like Valerie Wilson, known better by her online moniker Trusted Travel Girl, promises that “travel has the ability to expand your mind in a way you never realized was possible.”
It would be several years before the man learned to tell a true travel story from a false one. His trip to South Korea should have taught him enough. In his time there, he toured museums, ordered food by pointing at a menu in a language he did not understand, met up with fellow travelers in more smoky bars, and even visited the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. If all of this was meant to lead him on some journey of self-discovery, surely he would not have ended up in a bar in Seoul with a woman who owed him nothing, berating her until she cried.
I was the childish man, and I’m still not sure I know how to tell a true travel story. I do know which stories you shouldn’t believe. During my very short week in South Korea, I told myself many unbelievable stories.
A Korean man who introduced himself as James agreed to take me to the demilitarized zone. James told me he liked to meet foreigners so he could practice his English. He told me other things, too. When we were in his car, he asked me if I noticed anything about the windows on his car and others’. I did. They were blacked out—tinted so heavily that a police officer in my own country may assume the driver had illicit intent. James told me that Korean people preferred lighter skin, so they tinted their windows. I parroted this fact with authority every time I told my false travel stories to friends at home.
The demilitarized zone (DMZ) divides North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. When James and I arrived, he led me to the top of an observation tower with a telescope. From there, we could see over the forested DMZ all the way into North Korea. Because humans no longer inhabited the area, the flora and fauna flourished like it never had before. As I stared at the divide between the two countries, I couldn’t help but think of the divide between the woman and me. I couldn’t help but think that, in our time apart, a forest had sprouted up between us.
The problem with false travel stories is that the teller treats themselves as the object and the destination as the subject. In other words, a false travel story is a story wherein a destination acts on a traveler. The destination acts as the catalyst for epiphany, justifying the idea of travel as a means of self-discovery.
True travel stories recognize that the teller acts on the destination. When Christopher Columbus crash landed on an island he named Hispaniola, the native population greeted him and offered to trade their bits of gold for bells often carried by sailors. The discovery of gold led Columbus to believe that God had guided his ship to the shore. His ship did not crash land on the island. The island crashed into him. But we all know that Columbus was looking for gold and that’s why he found it. We all know what Columbus would go on to do in pursuit of something that was not there.
I do not mean to imply equality between the enslavement and eventual genocide of the native population of the Americas and my use of the DMZ as a metaphor for my failed relationships. I do mean to say that they are similar. I do mean to say that there is some kind of danger in ascribing my perspective onto an unwilling space and people. At the very least, I am focused on my individual problems rather than the catastrophic war that created the scene in front of me. I am not thinking of the casualties. I am not thinking of the families still separated. I am not thinking of the constant threat of nuclear war that the citizens of both countries perpetually live under.
I don’t know that there is a right thing to think while you are touring the DMZ, nor do I believe I am at all qualified to make any suggestions. I’m mostly wondering whether I, or anyone, should be there at all.
I boarded a bus that would take me into the DMZ. We came to a bridge dotted with barbed-wire-covered road barriers placed in such a way that forced the bus to zigzag its way toward the other end. When we came to a guard house, a young man in full uniform boarded the bus to count us with one hand, gripping his rifle’s barrel with the other. After he was satisfied, we lurched forward toward a building where we would be taken down into a tunnel. This was one of three tunnels dug by North Korean forces with the intention of using them to launch a surprise invasion into the south. Now it’s a tourist site.
We walked into the building, passed a lobby and gift shop, and boarded a train that took us down into the tunnel. The tour operator handed us helmets, and we ventured down the tunnel single file. I was immediately reminded of the terror I felt when a much younger me ventured down a drainage pipe covered with graffitied, ghostly faces.
As I squeezed through crawl spaces, scraping my hands and arms, I’m sure I thought about the men, some even younger than me, who had to dig the tunnel. I’m sure I tried to imagine myself in their place, surer than ever that Mark Twain was right when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Upon reaching the barrier that would not let me enter North Korea, I’m sure that I felt like I understood something I did not understand before. Maybe I did, but I’m not convinced. There’s something very suspicious about the idea that a man raised in California’s middle-class suburbia, forbidden from leaving his cul-de-sac on his own well into his teens, could even marginally understand what it was like to dig those tunnels.
Here’s what I do know: After touring Seoul for a week, after making new friends from different places, after walking through temples and palaces, after eating Bibimbap and drinking copious amounts of Soju, after superimposing my problems on the place all the while pretending the place was acting on me, I met the woman in a bar, and I could not be kind to her.
Shane Velez earned his MFA at California State University, Fresno. He lived in China for four years, settled in the UK, and is now working on a collection of essays tentatively (and hypocritically) titled Against Travel. His work has appeared in SpliceToday and The Cossack Review.