Bread melting in my mouth – the highest quality seemed available at any cafe. Toilets having dual flush options – conservation of water practiced seriously by the public sector. Fashion following designer/luxury brands heavily – indie or gender-fluid fashion felt nearly nonexistent. But the biggest culture shock that I faced here was not with Paris or France, but with South Korea.

See, I spent over a month traveling Europe with my older cousin. We hadn’t seen each other in over 4 years, given that all of my extended family live in Korea, but I had remembered us being butt-buddies back then. We’d march around Jeju Island together, giggling at all the same things and competing in all these games we’d make up and play.

And he’d done so much of the planning this time around – flights, hotels, transportation, food places – he had so many ideas for them all. We video-called often in the months leading up to our trip and our connection seemed as pure as ever.

Yet when we met up in person in Paris, things soon felt quite different. COVID anxiety was the big catalyst. Living in the US, I’d gotten used to going around with a mask on and trying to get back into the swing of normalcy for a while. Meanwhile, my cousin shared that Koreans are still under very strict quarantine rules, and catching COVID is stigmatized and shamed heavily for being at fault, for being reckless. As a result, my cousin became incredibly anxious when we went indoors into the Museum d’Orsay. It probably didn’t help that I love spending lots of time at museums hovering around the exhibits and reading all the signs while my cousin is not generally a fan of museums at all.

Anyway, we began to grow irritable and irritating towards one another. Tensions continued to rise over the course of the next few days as we found our ideas on so many different issues to be in stark contrast with each other. We had such differing ideas on:

  • what constitutes racism and to what extent
  • views on gender identity and sexuality
  • beliefs on the acceptability of sex as pleasure / care / saved for marriage
  • opinions on the gender war in korea (How feminism became a hot topic in South Korea’s presidential election)
  • limits on substance usage
  • vocabulary + understanding + sensitivity to stigmatized mental health conditions
  • perspectives on how subservient / hierarchical we should be to age-elders
  • desires for authenticity vs idealism on social media.

This soon built to a climax when I requested some solo travel time for each of us, which he hotly contested, viewing such a break as a sign of disrespect and lack of closeness instead of an attempt to reconcile our differing needs and recuperate. In the solo time that I did manage to carve out, I ended up making new friends, through finding myself randomly in conversation with two people on a bench outside of the Louvre and even through meeting someone on a dating app (agreed from the start to be platonic). We explored parts of Paris together and had a wonderful time, but my cousin was incredibly upset to hear that I had mingled with strangers. It seemed to be due to a mixture of COVID and social anxiety.

I learned how difficult it was not to clash with a single travel buddy if the two of you are not the closest of companions already (and even then…). We simply had too many differences in world-views and travel styles, and we were spending too much time together without anyone else. We argued and bickered on these topics for far too long.

As the trip went on, we learned to respect each other’s differences and get along. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip as a whole, touring some of the biggest cities in Western Europe. However, I came to realize how much more difficult it is to bridge differences as we get older, as we solidify our values and priorities in life from our respective lived experiences. For a long time, I’d prided myself in being able to get along well with all kinds of different people, and I’d still say that is an ability I take pride in. However, as I’ve grown older over the course of this COVID pandemic, I’ve come to realize that certain differences in core values/world-views can become wedges that, when driven deeper, can crack the foundations of relationships. I saw it with the friendships that fell away and formed over the course of the pandemic. I saw it with romantic connections that bloomed and faded. I saw it with my cousin on this trip. And perhaps that goes to say that I’ve come a long way since the last time I’d seen my cousin, 4 years ago, in choosing into my own identity. I still have lots of love for my old friends, exes, and my cousin, but I feel that there is some distance that we cannot breach unless either of our sets of values shift drastically in the future.

It is not to say that we should all immediately separate into our own echo-chambers of the few people with the same exact beliefs on things. Not only is that near impossible to find, but that itself is one of the roots of the problems of distrust and polarization that we see in the world today. Yet, I do wish to proclaim that I am letting go of the ideal I once bore – that I should truly try my best to get close to as many people as possible, since everyone can be a cool, interesting person in their own right. I am learning that it is still best to build multi-layered social circles, for the sake of exposure to new lifestyles that may open my eyes to new possibilities, but I must make sure to build an innermost layer of people with largely similar sets of values and world-views. That model of close friendship seems to be the best guarantee of comfort, safety, and support during rough times. Being open-minded and nonjudgemental helps of course too, but these are qualities that are quite difficult to actualize, especially when our emotional vulnerabilities are sensitized.

To finish off this thought, I’ve realized that we can open ourselves to give love freely to all, but the more love we choose to invest, the more carefully we must filter for those people who can reciprocate consistently. This usually involves sharing abundant common ground on core values that involve our most vulnerable and sensitive areas. After all, I would want to be able to share anything and everything during dark times to find my light again, and that is often too difficult with those who disagree fundamentally on what that light encompasses. It seems fitting to come to this realization on love from my time in Paris, the City of Love and the City of Light.