“Come Sit Down Beside Me, I Said to Myself” or, solo traveling in Seoul

Come sit down beside me, I said to myself.

And although it doesn’t make sense,

I held my own hand as a small sign of trust

And together I sat on the fence.

-Michael Leuning

I spent a few days wandering around alone in Seoul, and I’ve been thinking about the condition of being alone versus that of being lonely. I choose the former, and I used to believe that “being lonely is a choice.” But I think my days in this city have changed my mind on this belief. I no longer think being lonely is just an attitude or even a choice. I think, sometimes, we can’t help but feel lonely because everyone else around us tells us that we are wrong for being alone.

Being and traveling alone have taught me a great deal about myself, about what I can and can’t handle, how much confidence I have versus how much I want to have, and – most importantly – being alone is how I’ve learned to trust myself. To trust my judgments, feelings, and even my beliefs. I think, especially for women, learning to trust ourselves takes a long time of living and hopefully learning. We live in a society that teaches us to seek approval from authority figures, those who have done and seen before us who now tell us “no, don’t think that. Think this instead.” With age, I assume, comes an ability to say “fuck off” to all that and start feeling and thinking what comes naturally, ideally remaining open to learning more.

This, I believe, is something I have learned from being alone. I had to work at being comfortable with my own company. I grew up learning that doing something by yourself is a sort of luxury that only selfish people could afford. Why would you go see a movie alone when someone else might have wanted to see it too? Why would you eat that meal alone when someone else might have wanted to eat it as well? And so on the list goes. I started feeling ashamed for expressing my own desires, and making plans always felt like a rebellious act born out of selfishness. Add to this dynamic the near-constant reinforcements that told me that my own thoughts, feelings, and even instinct were wrong, and it’s easy to see why being alone took some getting used to. My choice to be alone was a very deliberate decision that stemmed from a time when I finally gave myself permission to stop feeling guilty for wanting the things I wanted.

Fast forward to just a few days ago, when I found myself wandering around Seoul and realizing very quickly that in that culture, being alone was a sort of public display of your failure to nurture relationships. I had a hard time eating alone, with nearly every head in the restaurant turning to stare at me with awe and thinly veiled horror as I sat alone and scanned the menu. I could feel their eyes burning into me, and it took all of my restraint not to lash out at the people around me and remind them to just mind their own fucking business. But at least for a few meals, I held my ground and refused to be relegated to eating instant noodles on a plastic chair in the back corner of a convenience store.

It wasn’t only meal times that seemed to highlight my isolation. A trip to the museum, which is something I prefer to do alone even when I’m at home and near friends or family, led me to think not only was I alone there in that moment, but I am alone in life as well, for the most part. This is not something that has before concerned me to any degree – I am a firm believer in making your life your own, and living it as fully as you can while you have it. What’s the point in waiting for someone else to enjoy a day which will never again be repeated? When I see a piece of art I particularly like, for example, I may say out loud to myself “enjoy this moment” as a sort of gentle reminder to myself to really notice where I am and how I got here. I write notes on my experiences, and I read them back to myself at a later time, sometimes even incorporating them into creative projects. So, for me, experiencing life alone never feels like I’m truly alone. I’m there with my past and future selves, and we have a grand old time with each other, albeit quietly.

I guess my point is that Seoul, with all its near-obsessive celebration of coupledom, was a difficult place for me to navigate alone. My solitary existence seemed almost offensive to people I encountered, and it left me wondering what it would be like if I actually lived there. Would I survive such a society, knowing that I have chosen to live a solitary life?

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