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8 Aug 2022

My ideal place to live? – In my previous post, I compared a couple of aspects of my experience in two very disparate places: the vaguely defined “Texas” and the much more clearly delineated “Seoul.” Although we did travel around a bit while we were in the States, including the road trip I mentioned previously, most of our time in Texas was spent in and around my parents' neighborhood in a small town northeast of Dallas. I say “small town,” but my parents don't actually live in a town. They live, as I remind them at every possible opportunity, out in the middle of nowhere.

“Have I simply become acclimated to urban living, or do I genuinely prefer city life over suburban or country life?”

I will freely admit that this is an exaggeration, and that the statement was generally said in a teasing tone; there were quite a few places that we visited or passed through on our road trip that could make a much stronger case for being “out in the middle of nowhere.” But to someone who lives in the fourth largest city on the planet (by metropolitan area; by population in the city proper, Seoul only ranks twenty-first), the distinction is honestly not all that significant. A number of their neighbors either grow crops or raise livestock, and there is nothing of note in the vicinity; the nearest grocery store is a ten-minute drive away. That was actually one of my mother's stipulations, that they live within fifteen minutes of a grocery store. Had it not been for that, I'm pretty sure they genuinely would be living out in the middle of nowhere.

Now, don't get me wrong. I understand the appeal of nature, of open spaces, of being away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. I grew up in upstate New York, and when I was a kid I could walk out the front door on a summer morning, traipse through the woods next to our house for the entire day, and not see another soul until sunset. I would pretend I was a mountain man or a coureur de bois (the latter possibly being more appropriate to my heritage), and I would have all sorts of adventures in my imagination. But there was nothing imagined about being out in the woods with the birds, the occasional creek, and all around the trees and the dappled sunlight filtering through their leaves. There were other arenas for my adventures, no doubt—I had my books and my video games—but there was just something about being surrounded by nature that awakened my spirit.

As I got older, though, I began to live in more and more densely populated areas. Although I did spend a number of years here in Korea living in a relatively rural setting, for over a decade now I have lived in urban environments; our current place, where we have been for less than a year now, is probably the most densely populated neighborhood I have lived in yet. It would be no exaggeration to say that I have grown accustomed to city life. While I still have my love of nature, visiting my parents now out in the middle of nowhere comes as a bit of a shock. During our recent visit I did enjoy sitting out on the back porch with my tea in the morning, watching the hummingbirds and the hawks, enjoying what greenery managed to flourish in spite of the drought, and just soaking in as much nature as I could before the heat of the day set in. At the same time, I could feel the isolation in my bones. This wasn't just a function of my parents living out “in the middle of nowhere,” though. They also don't have reliable internet, and they have to stand in a particular spot in the living room if they want to make or receive phone calls. Both spatially and technologically, they are to some extent cut off from the rest of the world. (The latter issue will hopefully be addressed soon, so fingers crossed on that.)

I didn't think about this too concretely during our first visit, back in 2019, and I think there are a number of reasons for that. For one, HJ and I were also living in a somewhat quieter, more out-of-the-way neighborhood (relatively speaking), so the contrast wasn't quite as stark. But there was also the fact that, this time around, the oppressive summer heat meant that we were cooped up in the house more. Finally, on more than one occasion I heard someone express happiness about living in a rural or small-town environment. On our road trip, for example, I remember the clerk at a local store where we got our breakfast on consecutive days talking about how he used to live in the Dallas area but was so much happier out in the much smaller town of Fort Davis (although he did say that he missed fishing on the lakes). When we got our RATs the day before leaving Texas, we talked for a while with the woman who administered the tests, and when we told her that we lived in Seoul, she said, “Oh, I could never live in a big city like that! New York, London, bah! All those tall buildings!” I'm not sure what she had against tall buildings, but I suppose I can see how someone who lives in a place where the tallest building is maybe two or three stories high might feel a little overwhelmed in a skyscraper canyon.

This got me thinking: What kind of person am I? Have I simply become acclimated to urban living, or do I genuinely prefer city life over suburban or country life? There are aspects of city life that I have come to appreciate, but there are aspects of suburban or country life that I can also appreciate. I guess a more concrete and meaningful question would be: What would my ideal place to live look like?

A good place to start in answering this question is to ask the ancillary question of whether our current neighborhood is ideal. I briefly addressed some of the pros and cons of our neighborhood in an earlier entry, but it's worth revisiting them here in a little more detail. If I had to choose one word to describe the pros of our neighborhood, it would be “convenience.” We have a lot of shops and restaurants very close by, and although we now do most of our grocery shopping online, we have a supermarket and a traditional market within walking distance should we desire to procure our victuals like primitive human beings. The fact that we can do most of our grocery shopping online is due in large part to how developed the delivery industry is in Seoul, but our central location is another contributing factor. Other facilities, such as the local police station (for when I need to get my international driver's license), the district and neighborhood government offices (for other documents and paperwork), and the local clinic (for getting our COVID PCR tests) are all within walking distance, and hospitals and specialists are close by as well. Of course, if we need to get to anything that is not close by, Seoul's extensive public transportation system is right outside our door.

Is our neighborhood ideal, though? I like where we live now, but I wouldn't say it is ideal. Although we are not completely divorced from nature—we can be surrounded by woods after a fifteen-minute walk and on a trail up Mt. Gwanak in under thirty minutes—there is no getting around the fact that peace and quiet are two things our neighborhood does not have in abundance. It is also not the most aesthetically pleasing neighborhood I've ever lived in (although I should note that I don’t find most residential architecture in Seoul to be all that aesthetically pleasing). So it ticks a lot of boxes, but it doesn't tick all of them.

Of all the places I've ever lived, I think my favorite (and HJ agrees with me on this) would have to be Cambridge, MA. Cambridge is a much smaller city than Seoul, but we still had ready access to everything we needed. There were plenty of restaurants, shops, grocery stores, etc. within easy walking distance, but there was also a lot more nature around. We could even walk down to the Charles River to go kayaking if we wanted to. Just beyond the river was Boston, and we could—and often did on weekends—walk into the city, spend the day there, and then take the T back to Harvard Square in the evening, when we were tuckered out from a day on the town. The church we attended was only five minutes or so away by foot, which meant that it was not only easy to get to Sunday services, it was also easy to go during the week for various events; HJ volunteered at a soup kitchen there and I took part in a weekly small-group meeting, and we would often drop by if they had special musical services in the evenings. Finally, we were close to Harvard and had access to all the museums, libraries, and other facilities, which was of course very nice. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, but it was close.

One thing that we did not have when we were in Cambridge was a car. I had heard that some professors buy a new car when they go on sabbatical, use it for the year, and then have it shipped back to Korea when they’re ready to leave. We did not do that, and we did not miss the car the entire time we were there. If I think back to all the places that I’ve enjoyed living, not needing a car to get around seems to be the one thing they all have in common. They are neighborhoods where everything is either in walking distance or easily accessible by public transportation. This is, of course, the exact opposite of a typical American suburb, where your house is an island in a vast residential sea, and if you want to go anywhere of consequence you need to get in your boat car.

This was how I grew up, of course. I wrote above about how much I enjoyed nature when I was younger, but what I didn’t mention was that, woods aside, it was very difficult to get much of anywhere on foot. There was a pizza place on Secor Road that we used to ride our bicycles up to, and there we would get slices of pizza to eat while playing the one tabletop arcade game they had (it was Shinobi, if you’re curious). That was pretty much it as far as restaurants or entertainment that we could get to on our own, not only because it was close (about a mile and a half), but because we did not have to travel any major roads, like 6N. If you ask Google Maps for directions to this place from where I used to live, it will tell you that going down to 6N and taking that to Secor Rd is a little shorter, but in reality this would be suicide on a bicycle and not much better on foot. The speed limit on 6N at that point is ostensibly 40 mph, but cars would whip down that road a lot faster than that, especially when coming around the blind curve at the bottom. There is also no shoulder to speak of, let alone sidewalks. The nearest market/grocery store was only a little over a mile from our house, but almost all of the trip was along 6N, so you pretty much had to drive to get there. I did walk there on a few occasions, but I knew that I was taking my life in my hands every time I did so. As you can imagine, I didn’t do it very often. The fact is that our neighborhood wasn’t designed for pedestrians, it was designed for cars to ply the vast expanses of the suburban sea.

I think I subconsciously knew that this situation was not ideal, but it never occurred to me to question the validity of this way of life. It was just the way things were, and I took it for granted. I was so deeply immersed in a car-centric culture that when I went away to university and met someone who grew up in the city and didn’t even have a driver’s license, I thought he was the weird one. I mean, learning how to drive was as much a part of adolescence as hormones and rebellion, and getting your driver’s license was an important rite of passage. Getting a parking spot at high school and finally being able to drive instead of riding the bus was a sort of graduation in and of itself, from child to (young) adult. When I asked my friend why he hadn’t gotten his driver’s license, he just shrugged and said that he had never felt the need to. Of course, now that he was at a university in upstate New York, not having a driver’s license meant being at the mercy of the campus shuttles or having to mooch rides off of friends. Watching him suffer from a lack of mobility until he finally gave in and learned how to drive only served to confirm my car-centric worldview.

It wasn’t until I had many more years of life experience under my belt that I realized an important truth: “The way things are” is merely a single possibility out a multitude of possible worlds. Put another way, it is a mistake to confuse the way things are with the way things must be; the latter is merely an illusion. As a folklorist, I study the traditions of people from around the world. It is not the folklorist’s task to judge the validity of traditions, but we do study how traditions are formed, maintained, and transmitted. Perhaps as a by-product of this way of looking at the world, I have come to question my own assumptions about “the way things are” and to take nothing for granted. Why do I believe what I believe? Is there a concrete foundation for these beliefs, or am I just operating on unfounded assumptions? I don’t want to give you the impression that I have rooted out all of my flawed beliefs—I am just as susceptible to forming and holding such beliefs as anyone else—but I at least try to ensure that my beliefs make sense.

I could pursue this line of thinking into some very metaphysical territory, but my point here is much more mundane than that. It is simply that I have come to realize that the car-centric environments found in the States (and elsewhere) are not a necessary and inevitable result of natural circumstances, but the result of deliberate actions. I don’t have the time to go into the exact process by which this happened, but the gist of it is that the current car-centric infrastructure in the United States was created around the mid-20th century at the expense of existing, non-car-centric infrastructure. I am not an expert in city planning, though, so if you want more nuanced explanations I would recommend YouTube channels like City Beautiful (who is an actual city planner; his “Why is LA traffic so bad?” is a good case study of the downsides of car-centric infrastructure) or Not Just Bikes (his “How Highways Almost Destroyed Amsterdam” shows what might have been had the Dutch decided to follow America’s lead; I would also recommend his series on the Strong Towns movement or, for a humorous but accurate take, “There’s Something Wrong With Suburbia”). I discovered these channels in pretty much the same way I discover anything on YouTube—I clicked on a random video from NJB one day and watched it all the way through, and the YouTube algorithm did the rest (as such, you may want to wait to watch those videos until after you’ve read today’s entry, lest you get sucked down the rabbit hole and never come back). After living in Seoul for so long, I think I had come to unconsciously realize the benefit of not having to rely on a car all the time, but these videos allowed me to crystallize and articulate these feelings. They also made me realize that yet another of my assumptions was flawed—namely, that quiet suburban life and convenient city life were mutually exclusive, and that one had to choose between one or the other.

Let’s go back to Cambridge for a moment. While technically a city, Cambridge was also a relatively quiet place with a lot of nature. It combined the best of the suburbs and the city. As a result (among other factors, such as the presence of Harvard), Cambridge is a very desirable place to live—people don’t want to settle for one aspect of their ideal life at the expense of another. The desirability of Cambridge as a place to live is reflected in how expensive it is to live there. I didn’t talk about this too much while we were there, but we paid roughly $3,000 a month in rent for the two places we stayed in. They were both around 700 square feet, which is big enough for the two of us, but not quite as big as we might have liked. I did not have a separate study at home, for example, and when we had guests it became rather cramped. But we were on a budget, and $3,000 was the absolute cheapest we could find that still had the minimum amount of room for us. Our current neighborhood is not nearly as nice as Cambridge, but it’s also not nearly as expensive a place to live.

One way to look at this would be to say that you get what you pay for, and that does tend to be true. Another way to see things, though, is to realize that the demand for such places far outweighs the supply. Why are there so few places like this in the US? The answer is simple: zoning laws. Many cities in the US have zoned vast swaths of land for single-family housing, essentially making it illegal to build neighborhoods like Cambridge. Such neighborhoods can only exist if they were there before the zoning laws were passed and were fortunate enough not to be bulldozed to make way for car-centric infrastructure. If you want a more expert take on this, I would recommend City Beautiful’s “The Case Against Single-Family Zoning.”

Again, though, just because that is the way things are now, that doesn’t mean that is the way things must be. And indeed there are movements toward more desirable urban environments. The New Urbanism movement, for example, advocates for such principles as: “neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice” (emphasis mine). And, of course, there is the Strong Towns movement that is the focus of the Not Just Bikes series I linked to above.

I discussed these issues with my parents (much in the same way that a missionary “discusses” his or her religion with the local population) during our recent visit to Texas. My mother pushed back, saying that it was very unlikely that the current car-centric infrastructure in Texas would undergo any significant change any time soon. And I honestly can’t say I disagree with that. I don’t think that, at this point in time, there is the political will in Texas to move away from car dependency. But I don’t think that means people should give up hope for a better future. The seeming immutability of the present reality doesn’t change the fact that it is not an ideal reality. That being said, it is also important to be realistic, and often it is easier to get what you want in a lived environment by just moving to one that meets your criteria. This is why I will never move to Texas. (Sorry, Mom!)

I think that’s enough ranting for now, though. I want to wrap this entry up by pulling back a bit and clarifying my position on cars in general. You might think from what I’ve written above that I would like to do away with cars entirely. This is not true. Cars are an important invention that changed our lives and made previously impractical (or even impossible) travel practical—especially in sprawling places like the United States. What I am against is car dependency, the idea that you have to have a car just to live and function like a normal human being.

I probably don’t need to elaborate on this point, but I want to bring in the concepts of positive and negative liberty to dive a little bit deeper. One argument that has long been made in favor of cars is that they allow a greater range of mobility. This is an argument of positive liberty: Cars allow us to do things that we weren’t able to do before; they are a tool of self-determination. I do not disagree with this argument. The road trip that we took with my parents last month is one compelling piece of evidence for it. While it is true that the US could probably do more to improve transit options between cities, some of the places we visited are so small and spread so far apart that it would be impossible to fund a transit network that would connect them. And you pretty much have to have a car if you want to visit Big Bend National Park due to how spread out everything is. The car (or, more specifically, my dad’s truck) made all of that possible.

The problem is that positive liberty by itself is not sufficient for a free society; you also need negative liberty. If positive liberty is the freedom to do things, then negative liberty is the freedom from constraints or interference. And I think where the US went wrong with cars was that it became so enamored with the positive liberty the car afforded us that it burned (almost) everything on the altar of the automobile. Once everything was redesigned for the car, the car became a necessity, and once it became a necessity it was no longer an instrument of freedom—it was, in fact, an instrument of bondage. If you happen to live in a car-centric neighborhood and are fortunate enough to own a car, you might think I am being overly dramatic. But if you live in such a neighborhood and don’t have a car, then your negative liberty is most certainly being impinged upon; you are constrained in where you can go and what you can do—including perhaps even where you can work.

So what I am arguing here is not that we should do away with cars. I’m arguing that cars need to be an instrument of positive liberty while also not impinging upon anyone’s negative liberty. You should be able to live without a car if you so choose, or if you do not have the means to purchase and maintain a car.

Of course, this whole discussion of walkable mixed-used neighborhoods versus car-centric neighborhoods was made in the service of a larger question, the question that inspired this entry in the first place: Would I rather live in the country or the city? People who want the best of both worlds gravitate toward the suburbs—still close to the city, but also not in the noisy, busy city center. My discussion above was really just a rant against most American suburbs not living up to their potential due to car dependency. Korean suburbs—and by this I mean the satellite cities that surround Seoul, as the suburb in the American sense doesn’t really exist here—generally feature mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, and public transit is available for quick transportation into the city center. A lot of people still drive—probably more than really need to or should, if you want my honest opinion—but the point is that you don’t absolutely have to drive on a daily basis. Would I like to live in one of these neighborhoods? I’m not sure. HJ is probably more keen on moving to such a neighborhood than I might be right now; I think I still like being in the middle of things in the city. As I get older, though, and as these “suburbs” become even more developed, I might change my mind.

To swing the pendulum the other way, though, I do understand the appeal of living out in the middle of nowhere. That statement might come as a surprise after what I wrote above, but as I said I do still love nature. One of the many channels that I am subscribed to on YouTube is called Living Big in a Tiny House. The host, Bryce, and his wife, Rasa, visit and document tiny houses around the world, but they understandably focus on their home country of New Zealand. I went through a phase a while back where I thought I might want to build a tiny house someday; I no longer have the desire to do this, but I still watch the channel because I like seeing what people do with their petite pads and the clever things they incorporate into their builds. Why am I mentioning this here? Well, another reason I like watching the channel is because these diminutive dwellings, especially the ones in New Zealand, are often parked (tiny houses are usually built on trailers and can thus be towed around) in absolutely beautiful surroundings. I don’t envy these people their Lilliputian lodgings, but I do envy the views they wake up to every morning and the environments in which they live their lives.

So there is, somewhere in the back of my mind, the idea of moving to some idyllic setting—perhaps a hillside overlooking the sea in New Zealand, or maybe a picturesque village in the Cotswolds. Doing so would mean giving up the convenience of living in the city and the access to everything that I have here, so it wouldn’t be an easy decision to make. I also have to consider that there might be a bit of “greener grass” thinking going on; living in the city, I tend to pine for nature, but if I were to live out in the middle of nowhere, no matter how beautiful the natural environs might be, I think I might eventually grow restless. I mentioned this to HJ, and she said, “That’s what holidays are for!” And maybe that’s the answer: Live in the city, but make sure to get away every now and then to recharge in nature. We can already do that in Seoul to some extent, with hikes up the various mountains around the city—and I have to keep in mind that I work every day on a very green campus nestled at the foot of Mt. Gwanak—but even then you are still aware that you are in the middle (or on the edge) of a big city and surrounded by large numbers of people.

This long, rambling entry started with the question of what sort of place I preferred to live in: the city, the country, or the suburbs. I don’t know if I have arrived at a definitive positive answer to this question, but I do know that I do not want to live in an American-style, car-dependent suburb. I remain torn between the convenience and fun of living in a bustling city and the soul-replenishing peacefulness of more rural or remote settings, although if I am honest with myself I think I would have to say that I prefer living in the city. I suppose I could rephrase the original question to clarify things a bit: Would I prefer living in the city and traveling to the country every now and then or living in the country and traveling to the city every now and then? If I think of the problem in these terms, it’s pretty clear to me that the former option is the one I would prefer.

I wasn’t expecting this entry to be this long, but I guess the question was even more involved than I thought it would be. Now that we have established my general preference for the city, though, the next order of business is to go through my photos from our Texas road trip and put together a brief travel journal of sorts. I took a total of 536 photos while we were in Texas, which I have since whittled down to 406 (by eliminating photos that didn’t turn out well or were similar to other, better photos). Of these 406 photos, 328 were taken on the road trip. I am obviously not going to post all of these—I’m thinking somewhere between 5% and 10% will suffice—so it may take me a while to get everything in order.

Send me your thoughts.

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