I found Seoul to be a liberating experience in many ways. The written language is far more accessible: in a short flight I was able to learn the alphabet well enough to sound out menu items and places, to learn new vocabulary when it was next to its English counterpart. People generally spoke enough English that it wasn't scary to ask for help with directions, with menu items, with the cost for things. Everyone seems to have an inner audacity to act as they please to some extent, and I've been left with a new consideration for the value of acting from within rather than conforming to the world. Certainly there is a balance to this and most likely it is personal preference. But with the people around me showing more concern for whatever was on their own mind, or whatever need or motivation they had, I felt less looked-upon and I was surprised by the liberation gained from disregard.
With a delayed flight, I had the time to finally eat a dish I'd been after for the past few days and study some Japanese. The reading practice I did today was about the New Year's resolutions that the members of a Japanese teenage girl's family had. It began with the father. His resolution was to quit smoking. This had been his resolution last year, too, but because he would be turning fifty this year, and the company he worked for was going to stop allowing it in April, and because everyone in his family didn't like it, he was really going to quit this year. The mother said that because she had more free time now, she was going to learn to drive on her own and take trips by herself. Perhaps some of them would be longer and in her absence she asked that her family help take care of the house. The daughter was seventeen and planned to start taking Indonesian so that she could one day study dance in Bali. The son, aged eleven, was looking forward to joining the baseball club. Last year he sometimes forgot to do his homework but this year he was planning not to forget.
Snapshots of people. Of fictional people. Archetypes of Japanese society. The men struggling with overwork at their companies, with business trips, with transfers. The women finding hobbies, dieting, preparing domestic life for their family. The children learning to study, the boys doing sports, the girls dancing. Snapshots. Are they real? Are they true? In what ways do we create boxes for others and in what ways do we put ourselves into them? To see someone as an 'other,' to define them for our own sake, for the ease of contextualization. Perhaps it is impossible to live in a world without definition; how would we find relation to it and all the things it contains? But how much do we lose when we define things prematurely, when we close off the possibilities of what they actually are, of what they can be?
We must live together. To some extent, society influences the individual and the individual bends to it. But so too do the accrued acts of individuals create that society. Where is the balance between these things? Which one rules the other? In what kind of world would you wish to live?
The sheer act of travel is to open the box, to practice a reorganization of self and the world, to question the definitions that individuals create for themselves and that society places upon them. People are people everywhere in the world, but in different places people move differently, people observe the space around them differently; time and space and sound are treated differently. Foods are different, transportation patterns are different, the level of regard for self and others is different.
As I return to Japan, to Nishinomiya, to Takarazuka, to Akuradanchi, I can feel myself crawling back into the box of this society, of familiarity, of definition. But perhaps with reflection it is possible to come to a better understanding of my role as an individual here, to honor my own voice in the midst of the prevelence of courtesy and deference to community that create such a unique texture in Japan, to create an individual voice that carries these qualities and expresses them from within.
Perhaps it is unreasonable, and perhaps even undesirable, to expect a life without definition, without limitations. Perhaps the restrictions from others that we must live under have some power to liberate us in certain ways. I'm concerned about the depth of respect that exists in this balance. Respect for the entirety of a person, beyond gender, beyond ethnicity and religion, beyond all the boxes that can be constructed knowingly and unknowlingly. For each person to act and become, to be as they are. What kinds of thoughts and actions create oppression, as benign as they may seem? Perhaps it takes constant vigilance and reflection. Perhaps it takes opening the box every once in a awhile. And I'm happy to have had the time in Seoul to do a bit of it.