While on the Luce, I found the most valuable lessons about human behavior in the built environment occurred through the act of noticing. As an aspiring urban planner and researcher, my professor at the University of Seoul (UOS)’s Community and Urban Design Lab advised me that the only way to gather a rigorous understanding of the relationship between public life and the material development of a city was to experience it for myself. His advice not only re-framed my understanding of my work but also as a city dweller and traveler.

Given the nature of living abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, my Luce year became neatly cut into three ninety-day increments. During these times of transition, I retreated to Thailand and Singapore, where I reflected on not only my progress in South Korea but also the social, cultural, and political differences between my placement country and others in the region. In my travels within and outside of Seoul, I remembered my professor’s advice, ruminating over what it meant to “experience” a city and observe its unique intricacies of public life.

During my first subway ride in Seoul, I quickly came to realize how important social norms were to gaining acceptance in my new home. En route from Anguk to Seongsu-dong to meet other scholars for a celebratory post-quarantine KBBQ meal, a more seasoned scholar began sharing the do’s and don’ts of subway etiquette. We should be quiet and avoid unnecessary eye contact (but bow when we do). But we should not sit in the designated pink seats for pregnant women or at the yellow ends of the aisles secured for older riders. Although these norms were not rules, they soon became second nature.

So accustomed to the formalities of public life in Seoul, I had forgotten that those norms were not applicable to public life everywhere—as I would soon realize in a cab ride from Phuket International Airport to Phuket Town in Thailand. Once in the cab, I offered my gratitude for the service, made a few remarks about the weather and delicious food, and sat back in my seat for what I expected to be a silent ride. So, when Sun pulled to the curb, bartered with the pineapple vendor for two bags of pineapple spears, and began teaching me how to dip my pineapple into the fun-dip-like salt, sugar, and spice packet included in the bag, I froze. After living in Seoul for three months, I had grown accustomed to keeping to myself around the city, leaving my conversations at “안녕하세요” (hello), “감사합니다”(thank you), and “안녕히계세요” (goodbye).

The codes of behavior deemed acceptable in Seoul versus Phuket had changed before I could even begin to recognize them. I consciously resisted every social behavior I had spent months cultivating to relax and enjoy my pineapple over a light-hearted conversation. Soon, I started to wonder what particular codes of behavior I had unconsciously accepted without challenge; it seemed that to fully “experience” a place, I had to begin to recognize how social norms created distinct methods for interpersonal connection.

I started to question why I was bowing to elders on the subway in South Korea, smiling more in Thailand (notably known as the “Land of Smiles), and standing on the opposite side of the escalator on the Singaporean MRT. In becoming more conscious of how I (as a city dweller, urban planner, and traveler) am actively shaped by the people and places I encompass, I can begin to practice agency over how I choose to show up in public life (regardless of place), creating moments for genuine connection across cultural difference.

by Elena Castellanos on February 20, 2022