On Optimism and Regret

It's week six and I'm struggling to measure the relative weights of my desire to go home and to remain here forever. In two months, it's impossible to see every site and visit every city, and I've certainly fallen far short of doing and seeing everything I first set out to.

Last weekend I went with a friend and his host family to Busan, the second-largest city in Korea. It's a port city in the southwest corner of the peninsula, famous for seafood, Hanjin freight, and a city plan that stretches 330 degrees around the bay to maximize port access (think Vancouver). We checked out Taejongdae, a sort of cliffside park area where you can get some sea air and take pictures sitting on the ledge, and poked around the shops and restaurants in the downtown area.

Usually expat blogs describe Busan as the laid-back, quirky alternative to Seoul (think Portland). But since we're based in the extremely laid-back, quirky city of Gwangju, I had somewhat the opposite experience. Busan was fast-paced and I felt almost nervous to see so many other Americans walking around. We celebrated my friend's birthday at a Baskin-Robbins after eating samgyeopsal in a restaurant where all the staff spoke perfect English. The awkward familiarity I felt with navigating that city cast my memory of Korea prior to that point in a strange haze, like Kwangju was the dream and Busan the reality. Cultural disorientation is real, and mysterious indeed.

Choosing to go on the trip to Busan meant turning down an invitation to go to Seoul with a different group. Similarly, next weekend my host family offered to take me to Sokcho, a city near the border that's trending nowadays as "The Pokemon City" because Pokemon Go players are flocking to it. Pokemon nerd though I am, I had to say no to that trip too because of other obligations. This got me wondering: How ought an optimist approach these sorts of missed opportunities?

Human nature inclines us toward regret, which in turn spurs us to plan even harder for the next weekend, packing as many things in as possible. Our intention is to stave off the feeling of regret, but the result is usually anxiety and further disappointment. (Hence the joke about how the vacation really begins when you land safely at home without anything having gone wrong.)

Here's my draft of an optimistic answer to the unpleasant anticipation of regret that accompanies a missed opportunity: What if saying, "Sorry, I can't" is really a tacit promise—to make the most of the time anyway, by doing whatever it was that you had planned originally; to make the new experience happen some other way, some other time; to live life rather than screenwrite it?

As my time in Korea slips away, the many things I hoped to see and experience but failed to follow up on on this trip are coming into unsettling relief. Regret opines: Why did I go to the same cafe twice in a row when I could have gone to a new one? Why did I hang out with so-and-so even though I already know her life story—shouldn't I get to know someone new?

But the optimist's heart speaks with assurance even in its times of regret: The things I have left undone are not my failures but my reason to return. They are my promise to be back soon.