Stranger in a Familiar Land

by Eric Stinton

Even the air felt different. It whipped through the building crevasses and alleyways like they were the sails of Magellan, imbued with the bite of adventure. Tile patterns, architecture, bumpy cobblestones and municipal missteps wore a certain charm, a rush of new and different and exhilarating. He stretched his arms deeper into his coat pockets, an invitation for an embrace with the refreshingly chilly urban breeze.

         Autumn was a poetic time. Christian never truly experienced it before he moved to Seoul. A San Diego Fall required little more than a long sleeve tee, maybe jeans and a hoodie at night or if you were close to the shore. Leaves stayed put, and the most colorful part of the city was still the pastel adobe-style Mexican restaurants. But Seoul was enchanting with the swing of the seasonal pendulum. And that’s exactly what Fall was, he was warned – a brief alignment of nature’s clock, the evening before winter’s midnight.

         Christian had been in Seoul for three months. It was a reactive move to combat the doldrums of his everyday routine back home. Money was good here, and life was new every day. Each block he strolled along, every park he glided through, it all glimmered with a wide-eyed newness.

         He walked slowly, eyes on a swivel, losing himself in the wonder of his surroundings. He noticed the trees, first. Of course, he had seen trees before, but none like this. They rested with a sense of ease, a zen-like calm, as if they were content with the rings of their life that lay patiently hidden beneath their barked skin. He took a right, moving forward into the unknown.

         Street lights illuminated the steps ahead. What mysterious trinket is this? A rock, but not just a rock. A Korean rock! Who would have guessed? It’s like a normal rock, except with a completely different personality. More stoic, maybe. Christian quivered with delight at the thought of it. A Korean rock. He continued on, the bricks on the sidewalk raising and sloping, up and down, as if they were inflated and depressed by some mysterious current. Maybe a tree root, but it’s Korea so who knows. It could be an ancient tomb, or an underground lair. The possibilities abounded.

         A brisk, untapped mysticism permeated the night, flowing from the distant mountains and valleys into the trees and bushes and windows of the Kentucky Fried Chicken he passed. Home was nothing like this, completely devoid of enchantment. San Diego was nice and all, but everything was just so normal. So ordinary. So familiar. A KFC back home just served chicken. Here, it was so much more. It served chicken and it was in Korea. It existed on a fundamentally different plane. Friends would ask him how Korea was, and moments like this popped up to paralyze his tongue; how can you truly explain the feeling of living alone in a foreign country? Nobody could understand unless they already knew, and those who knew never asked.

         Christian kept walking, each step an epiphany. People stared, but he didn’t mind. He enjoyed it, really. The blurred murmurings of the elderly couples walking contrasted nicely with the belligerent muttering of the drunken businessmen stumbling about. All of it was foreign to him, an exotic linguistic safari. He felt like Hanno must have when he encountered gorillas, only in reverse; the actual human words from the nearby Koreans may have just as easily been animals vocalizing among the herd. He turned right.

         The path was dark ahead. No street lights, just the moon’s reflection of a far-away sun to cast patches of visibility, enough to lead him onward. A staleness loomed in the air, but it made sense; it was a city, after all. A cigarette sparked in the distance. It was oddly recognizable, moving up and down in a crescent from the stranger’s mouth to a suspended position by the hip. An uneasy tension welled up inside Christian. Korea was safe, but that wasn’t it. He neared the man, the cigarette smoking abyss, trembling internally.

 

         “Hey, how’s it going.”

         The man’s voice pierced the night. He didn’t ask the words, he spoke them at Christian. It was an exchange of pleasantry, a social occurrence reserved for people of a certain comfortable ilk. The act struck him for how normal it was. Christian said nothing and turned the corner quickly, leaving the burning end of the cigarette afloat in the darkness behind him.

The final stretch led directly back to his apartment building. The moonlight didn’t quite glimmer like it did earlier. It now offered a dimly lit suggestion on how to return. Christian sighed. He knew where he was heading now, he knew how to get back home. This street was familiar, and that’s what he feared most.

 

Editor’s Note on Stranger in a Familiar Land:

Stranger in a Familiar Land is not Eric Stinton’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:

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