There are multiple ways to measure time. Besides the minutes and seconds, hours, days, weeks, there are mornings, evenings and late nights, and seasons, and school terms, and the four years between elections, the Summer Olympic games and the World Cup. How many family meals, how many coffees we had with friends, how many times we took the same bus going the same way, leaving at the same time. How many times we opened and closed the same front door. There’s also something to be said about the direction of how we choose to measure — if the cycles are always starting over (like every month, which never goes any further than 31), if we add it up indefinitely, or if it’s a countdown, and what we expect to find when have counted it down to zero.
A playlist of songs I’ve been listening to since late November. I could write a whole new text just about what each of them has meant during this time.
I had many different ideas about how to make sense of the time I’d spend here. I anticipated the end of August, which had started somewhere else. Then, I counted every week until my first full month, and the second, third, and then, with two more weeks (fourteen weeks and two days), I reached the 100th day milestone of every meaningful date — 100 days in Korea, in Daejeon, or as a KAIST student. Between the Equinox that announced the end of Summer, and the Winter Solstice just a few days ago, my first full season passed me by as well. A beautiful Autumn, freezing cold and full of that special type of mixed feeling that exudes from the red, orange and yellow trees. I saw myself in the bareness of their trunks, in the gardens that had been so densely full of leaves, and which seemed to be keeping so many secrets, before the cold stripped them naked, all while I layered jumpers and coats and jackets, trying to keep myself from the cold and from the helplessness of being outside my comfort zone.
It might sound silly, but I thought a lot about how to measure and make sense of my time in Korea, because I was anxiously looking forward to writing about everything. I have written a lot since I got here, but none of it seemed worthy of being made public, everything read like broken pieces of my desire to find a single thread of gold that could tie all of my experiences together. I entertain the thought that 18-year-old me would have found a narrative faster than the 27-year-old; it’s not that my imagination has shrinked that badly, but it’s just that I can no longer sustain that hurry which drives those who do not care about the consequences of what kind of ideas they’re letting grow. 27-year-old Luisa still makes up stories about everything all the time, but she’s just as passionate about them as she is scared, because she knows she’s addicted to believing she has finally cracked the code of her own reality, that she really knows what’s going on right now, and then, once again, she finds out she didn’t know shit. And she really, really hates the feeling of going back to zero, reorganising all the facts and playing the numbers game to find a way to say that, actually, the situation has always been under (my) control.
The changing of the seasons at KAIST, from August to December.
This is probably one of the dangers of insisting on making sense of time — the piling up leads us to expect way too much of what all this time could possibly amount to, the anxiety of waiting until the facts confirm that it has, indeed, served the higher purpose of making us grow, and it wasn’t all just a waste. Like a certificate that we’re still moving, but it’s not always clear what the starting point is, the reference of where we left to where we have gotten so far. To all Believers (like me), the assurance that all things “work together for our good” only works to the extent of how much we’re willing to embrace the abstraction of what “our good” means. In that sense, I think therapy helps me with bridging what’s concrete, and what’s an abstraction. On the other hand, my nearly empty Instagram feed tells me that I am really struggling to find images that can tell people about the deeper layers of what my new life, which I longed so deeply for, means to me. I no longer have that same urgency to share myself on the internet — not like I used to. Even so, I admit that I’ve kept so many photos, of people and things and places, because I was eagerly awaiting the 100th day mark, when I would make a huge, single post of “all” that this new season had given me so far. In the back of my head — right where we leave the thoughts we are not willing to acknowledge yet — , that was where I let myself wonder what this huge, single Instagram post would look like, what pictures could represent the dear people I had met, the ones who made my days beautiful and meaningful.
Thinking about what I would post to represent my first months was only an expression of my desire to solemnise the time spent here, but it also showed me that, maybe, I wasn’t that wrong in being too scared of my own thoughts and narratives. Even though it’s been such a short time, the twists and turns have been enough to drastically change the mental image I had in mind at a given time, almost weekly. Could this be proof that I’m still moving? Perhaps not the kind of proof I wanted, because it was also proof that things change a lot faster than I can foresee. Moments like this make me realise, time and time again, that my life here still looks so small, almost pathetic, when compared to how big one would expect life to be at their late twenty-somethings. It still means something, though — especially to me, the one who’s living it every single day — but it’s still quite a challenge to fill an empty jar with memories, continuities and consistencies that satisfy the need to remember that this is my home, my timezone, and not a summer retreat, or a long daydream I had over a cup of coffee.
Pictures of the Stray Kids concert I attended back in September, which I never posted, because I was waiting for my big photo dump.
In the midst of the twists and turns of the clock, fruits were the most appropriate scale I found to measure my time so far. After moving to Korea, my relationship with them had to change a bit; for example, the multiple apples I ate a day became an expensive, much harder to acquire item in my groceries. In Korean markets, they are often sold in units, looking perfect in wrappings that make them look like gifts. Even though I have yet to receive fruits wrapped with a ribbon, every single one that I got so far came decorated with ordinary affections, the type that comes from those who are happy to share whatever little they got.
We can tell exactly what hits the hardest when our illusion of stability is shaken. My biggest fear was never feeling at home here, whatsoever, and this was the root of all the anxiety and despair that took over my mind and body, in between the lines of this academic term. My relationship with belonging (or lack thereof) has been one of struggle since childhood; even with all the changing and learning over the years, whenever I walk into a new place, the same old trauma comes back to haunt me again — and it wasn’t different this time. The first draft for this text focused solely on the suffocating panic I felt whenever I walked outside, and couldn’t find anything familiar, anything that could bring me any measure of safety or comfort; I spent several days, long days, sewing perceptions together until my body and mind could reach an agreement on where our feet were standing. These were the two sides of the same coin of everything that scared the hell out of me — how long it would take for me to be at peace with myself, on my own, and how long it would take for me to be at peace with the world around me. I could imagine that it was going to be hard, but, still, my imagination was convinced that it would be much easier than it was (or has been).
I missed weightlessness, almost paradoxically, because I realised that having no bonds or roots tying me to the ground weighed me down. Acknowledging the existence of this burden was surprising and tough, and it sent me spiralling. Because of that, I remember well the ordinary, but very meaningful, joy I felt when I got tangerines as a gift for the first time, from a friend who had just returned from Jeju. Three small ones, a thin, glossy skin, and they told me we had a bond that could last longer than the team project we had done together. A few days later, I got another one, from one of my labmates, and then a full bag, from one of the lovely ladies that work at the convenience store in my dormitory, who likes me very much and lets me call her “aunt”. Whenever I go to church, I leave with one, or two — it might be even three, if you refuse even once. This is how, after a few weeks of walking on eggshells, not quite sure if I meant anything to the people who treated me well, I seemed to be collecting more and more little testimonies of the nature of the connections I was making here, and I could feel some little weightlessness, at last.
I had to generate images on DALL-E 2 for an assignment and I chose to do something discussing weightlessness (or lack thereof). The prompt was “weightlessness, low-exposure photograph, bw”, generated on 8 October, 2022. I used #2. It was one of 3 that got 2nd place in a voting to pick favourites.
My fruit bowl has received and given quite a lot over these four months — several tangerines, the juiciest grapes I’ve ever had, persimmons, kiwis, strawberries — , always sharing everything with someone else, because even a pair might be too much for a single, simple student to manage, in between the endless meetings and lab hours and takeout meals we have, always at inappropriate times, doing our best to manage being a twenty-something whose life is thriving and moving forward. Besides the fruits, there have been a handful of snack packs, chocolate, lunches and dinners at the school cafeterias, cups of coffee and iced americano, car rides, and multiple walks to the nearest convenience stores, and the way I can tell when one of my labmates is about to suggest that by the way they move their chairs or change the rhythm of their breath. And every single thing says something about the willingness to share and care that the people around me have shown, and what I could offer in return.
Through these small actions, I felt as if I was slowly transitioning from a decal floating on the landscape, to having my own body and presence in this new reality. This is why the fruit basket became my favourite metaphor, and narrative device, to make sense of the beginning of my life in Korea. For the price, for the cultural significance, for the feeling of anticipating the changing of the seasons, and the specific flavours that each one brings. And the part that forces me to talk about differences. Jesus Christ, how cliche it is to talk about what’s different between one half of the world and the other, but how impossible it is not to do so, when not even the fruits that we call by the same name are really the same. One of these days, we went to this delicious restaurant, and got a persimmon as a treat from the owner; it was my second time there, and he still remembered what I had ordered on my first visit, almost two months before. It was my first time trying an oriental persimmon; the skin was thin, like the ones I had in Brazil, but it wasn’t as juicy, and it didn’t fall apart in my hands. The flavour was astringent; different, and more to my taste.
Some of the fruits of this semester, that one day when a friend was feeling sick at Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal and I managed to get her a lemon, and the first time I went to my favourite restaurant (invited by my lovely labmate).
The tangerines I’ve had here are also different — more delicate, smaller than the ones my mum would put on the table after we were done having lunch, but their thin skin requires a lot more ability to make sure you won’t hurt the slices, or spray yourself with juice. One of my church friends always asks me to peel them for him, because he thinks he can’t do it well. And I think a lot about all of these things — for the jokes I cracked, but no one laughed, for the hand waves that went unanswered, for the times when my usual sarcasm sounded rude by accident, for how weird it seemed to some that I could talk about myself so easily, while I struggled to understand that they could not. I think a lot about all of these things, for all the times I did something wrong, or thought I did, and blamed myself for issues that weren’t necessarily misdeeds. Wouldn’t it be too much to expect one to get it all right from the get-go, especially when trying to peel such a thin, delicate skin for the first time?
And I think a lot about how we should be careful when holding and handling today the skin of the fruit we want to eat tomorrow, to keep its bright texture and sweet smell, a reminder that we’re holding something that’s fresh from the orchard. But this fresh fruit scent, which fills my room and stamps my hands, has an expiration date, and it must be enjoyed fast, before it stops being a gift, and it becomes a liability. And then we can raise and sustain the expectation of getting more once we’re done with this bunch, and I close this analogy with the promise that everything that happens to me here is good to the extent that it’s meaningfully unexceptional, filled with the most trivial measure of love, the right amount to make the time between sunrises and sunsets more bearable, and the moments alone feel less like loneliness, and more like solitude. It doesn’t have to last forever, but it’s sweet, a sight for sore eyes (and good for your health, if we want to take it that far).
Even so, I’d be lying if I said I am not upset because of the things that came and left so quickly, with no replacement, in my life as a wegugin (외국인), a foreigner in this land. Time and time again, the unfulfilled expectation of reciprocity makes me think too much about what I am to others. In this graduate programme, I will stay longer than the tangerines, persimmons and grapes can resist in my fruit bowl, so I understand that I must keep receiving and giving new demonstrations of what people mean to me, and what I mean to them, so that we can keep building bridges. I’d love to never again realise I was wrong about what I meant to someone, even though I know this will always be a possibility, because risk and uncertainty are integral parts of the equation of opening up to others. But the most important point of everything I’ve written so far is that, even before I decided that this was the country I was going to try to move to, I already knew my next journey would only amount to something if I wasn’t scared of getting my heart broken. Like my friend Dora Sanches said, “those who are scared of getting sad are also scared of love”. Without love — or the hope, and expectation of love — there are no exchanges; the hearts never open, the ties cannot be sustained, the weight of unfamiliarity lingers on, and body and mind can never reach an agreement about where the feet seem to stand.
Another bunch of memories I made with my special friends.
As I write, I talk to my friend Ashley — Korean-American, known as Jinkyung to her family, a Master’s student at Yonsei, who’s currently back in the US for the Holidays. She’s a singer-songwriter, one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever met, and all of our conversations eventually get to the same point — what would it be like to live with a heart that doesn’t overthink every single detail of every single thing? I don’t know if there is, or if there will ever be, an answer. But that’s the reason why I like metaphors — they force us to think less about the things they cannot explain well. If I wanted to, I could still squeeze a bunch of other meanings out of the fruits I got, but I could have also told this story from the perspective of this habit that I have of carrying gum with me, and asking everyone around me if they want some. In both cases, we see two outstretched hands — one for giving, one for receiving. My sweet fruit basket and I will be fine as long as we keep giving and receiving, and as long as I can make myself capable of suffering less for what’s lost, or never came back. This is the structure of relationships that makes room for us to put down roots — the process is uneven and uncertain, but every exchange reminds me that I’m not the only one trying to find myself out there.
The bright side is that I can feel my heart being renewed, inside my chest. Even under the lingering threat of everything that has terrified me for years, I keep myself sensitive to the small ordinary blessings, and I let them heal a bit more of my fear of moving on. Talks that pain is also a comfort zone are proof that our instincts are able to fail us; our perceptions, between mind, and the surfaces and windows of our body, are able to send mixed signals, too hard for us to get them all right. But, to this day, I don’t remember ever being unsure about the taste of fruit when I took a bite, and felt it on my tongue, and was assured that my mind and body were standing on the same ground. Maybe this is the taste of freedom people talk so much about.
All of these pictures mean a lot to me but it would take too long to contextualise all of them so I’ll leave it up to the readers’ imagination.
Featured Image by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash