In the November travel issue of T Magazine, Deborah Needleman wrote in her letter from the editor, “Traveling is artificial almost by definition: It is a way in which we step out of our daily existence and seek an experience that is distinct from our lives.” It felt very fortuitous to read this at the start of a 14-hour journey to Seoul, South Korea last week. Everything about the trip fascinated me even while our wheels were still planted on American soil; the pumpkin porridge special on the flight’s menu, the fact that Jerry Maguire was listed as “New and Noteworthy” among the plethora of even more outdated titles in inflight entertainment. Would I have cared at all had I not been in pursuit of the experience that is distinct from our lives?
I’ve been thinking a lot about travel lately — particularly because of something else Needleman pointed out in her letter. Because of the Internet, we can go anywhere and see anything without ever actually moving. So what makes travel worth it?
I went to a Thai restaurant for dinner when I got to Seoul, where I ate spicy green papaya salad not unlike a dish I typically order at a Nolita restaurant called Lovely Day, and drank a glass of Sancerre that was imported from the South of France. I could have been anywhere (only I had to point to the dish that I wanted when summoning help from the lovely server). Something about the experience felt eerily inauthentic but I’m not sure I’d have even noticed had I not felt an urgency to see everything. I’d be in Korea for only 36 hours, and I wanted the most genuine experience I could get my Snapchat on.
The following day, in the five hours that I had to spare between work (modeling in a look book, executing an appearance at a shop called Rare Market), I went to a “traditional” market to look around. Women planted themselves on the floor, cooking cocoons which are incidentally a choice protein option for Korean body builders and the like. There were seafood stands not unlike those you might find in the thick of Manhattan’s Chinatown only the marine life looked entirely alien. There were dried fish for sale on rods everywhere. Mattresses and hanboks* sold alongside one another. And there were cookies literally called “Poop cookies” being barbecued next door. I saw pig noses and horse guts and fish eyeballs — delicacies that passersby were enjoying in depth but that made me feel shallow and closed-minded because I was grossed out. Then we walked outside and there sat on the ground more women, some wearing shoes, some not, to which my brother, who had tagged along, noted, “I feel like you would wear that outfit, Leandra.”
I looked over and noticed a middle aged woman carving root vegetables on a blanket just next to another woman, selling whatever she could fit into a suitcase that was neatly laid out on the ground. The first woman was wearing a light pink hanboks* and yellow flare pants. Her slippers were neatly positioned to her left. My brother was right. I would wear that. I’d wear a lot of what I’d seen, chiefly the clothes on most of the men, who maintained a proclivity for pleated denim.
By the time night fell and my appearance was to start, I was exposed to a different genre of Koreans. These were women who lived fashion. Who appeared as though their lives were a lavish game of dress up. They took so much pride in their appearance — the hats and intricate iPhone cases and dangling jewelry and bright handbags, I was floored by the enthusiasm that accompanied their outfits. It was almost like they were playing fashion week, only all the pretension was absent. It was invigorating and reminded me what attracted me to clothes in the first place: how good they can make you feel if you just let them do their job.
Following the event, I had dinner with the owner of the store and her husband. They took me to their favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the district near an American army base. I couldn’t eat much — most of the food was lathered in meat sauce or doused in seafood juice, and I’m kosher. But they shared the story of how they met (through friends), why she wouldn’t take his last name (no one does that, what’s the point?) and what they do on weekends (work). It had been 25 hours since I’d landed in South Korea and though my peek into their culture was short and lacking nuance, what I found was this: the people are incredibly kind, I felt safe on the streets, there is a lot of respect between the people in their interactions and man, those Koreans love to party. The quality of life seems genuine, an adjective that I don’t use enough to describe mine — figuring that out made the trip so worth it.
Feature collage by Elizabeth Tamkin, lookbook images via Rare Market.
*Word changed from inappropriate use of “kimono” to “hanbok” to properly address the style of robe.