For the past year and a half, my wife and I have been living in South Korea, where we teach English to elementary school students. We live in a small city called Mokpo, a port town tucked into an estuary on the southwestern corner of the country. I forgive you for never having heard of it. Most people are well aware that Seoul is the capital and largest city, and international travelers know Incheon, where the airport is. But beyond that you’re forgiven for blanking out. Asian studies people might know Busan, sports fans know Pyongchang, site of the 2018 Winter Olympics. But for the cascade of names that follow–Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Yeosu–you really need to live here for a while. Mokpo is down on that list, an addendum to the roll call, little known even to native Koreans who increasingly live in and around the Seoul/Incheon metroplex.
We like it here, though. We long ago became disenchanted with the idea of living in the white hot center of anything. Minnesota, where we come from, is little sister to the real midwest of Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Our neighborhood in Minneapolis, Northeast, is a hanger-on in hipdom to Uptown. So when moving to Korea, we spurned Seoul and Busan, instead settling into a lazy port city with an adored mountain, Yudalsan, just off the downtown shopping district.
Here, fishermen still mend their nets on the street, and skatefish are strung to dry from the gingko trees in apartment courtyards. Old ladies–ajummas–shell mussels for sale on sidewalk markets, and dry squid on nets in front of tall apartment buildings. Old men push handcarts heaped with cardboard across busy intersections, and cut grass with small scythes in the beating hot sun. Sometimes when people who teach in more glamorous cities come to visit, I say “Welcome to Korea,” and after a few minutes they figure out I’m not joking.
We live near a terminal that’s a departure point for ferries that take supplies out to the 1,004 tiny islands of the Shinan district, provincial outposts where the locals farm rice or harvest salt from tidepools. On weekends we take buses–fast and cheap–out to the even smaller villages that dot the bucolic inner landscape of South Jeolla province. Out there in the wilderness, each small city has adopted an aspect of Korean culture and built a festival in its homage: bamboo, or butterflies, or the mix-em-up lunch known as bibimbap, and summers are a round robin of bus rides to local cities and local interests. We stroll around in the shadow of that city’s own adored mountain, looking at the butterfly sculptures of Hampyeon, for instance, or through the rich, swamp-scented lotus fields of Muan, and in grassy courtyards we listen to traditional drums, watching as the world turns for a few minutes into a simpler place. Then we come home, where in the evening, the sky turns to a dusky butter yellow, and the mountain outside our ninth-story apartment fades to a buzzy orange blur. It’s pretty quiet here, and we like it that way.
Or maybe I romanticize it all just a bit. Because it’s far from a bucolic medieval hamlet, or a forgotten backwater, down here. Mokpo has what the rest of Korea has. For instance, there are acres and acres of high-rise apartment buildings stacked like the lithic pilings of stonehenge. Korea has world-class Internet access, and is blanketed with cellphone and wi-fi coverage, and the streets are thick during rush hour with horrendous, soul-sucking traffic. People live elbows to asshole here, even with the empty fields extending east across the valley floor. We have in Mokpo all the major Korean chain stores, all of which have English names: Paris Baguette, Angel in Us Coffee, MiniMart, Baskin Robbins, 7-11, and Dunkin Donuts. The three behemoth shopping dynasties have outlets here: E-Mart, Home Plus, and Lotte Mart. The kids all have cell phones and are bred with a sense of first-world entitlement, even as their grandmothers work onion fields on the side of the mountain.
It’s all a bit bewildering, to be honest, even after a year, to be stuck here, a full outsider. Who comes here to teach? What’s it like? I’m still trying to find out. I’m what’s known as a waygook, which is the Korean word for foreigner.* It’s kind of a thorn field to ask what the experience here is like, because you get so many responses. It’s a topic for a whole other essay, one I hope to get to, and soon. There are post college-age party kids, misfits, rebels, world-hoppers, artists, romantics, lost souls, drifters, and recluses. Most of us are here to teach English, a position that comes with some glamor and some hardships, and an occasional sense of bitter entitlement. We come, we stay or don’t, we go home. I can only tell you what my life here is like.
So. What’s Korea like? A short answer might be that Korea is just like America: a rustic, peasant, tragic past struggling for continued existence against the onslaught, digital and otherwise, of jaded hipster post-post modernism. People come here from every English-speaking native country to teach, so it’s also a melting pot and a crucible of modern high technology. It’s peasants on the hillside and titans in the international boardroom. It’s chicken houses and karaoke rooms, drunken nights and hard-working days and chubby-cheeked innocent babies. It’s good Korean food and bad imitation western food. It’s too hot, or too cold, or just right, depending on the season. It’s Korea. It’s exactly what you’d expect, though it’s probably more than you’d imagine at the same time.
*I know the second syllable sounds like a racial slur, but it’s not. Wayook means, literally, foreigner. If you’re wondering, the work gook means nation. It also means soup. Google it and you’ll see. In fact, googling waygook is a good way to get a sense of what the varied experiences waygooks have here in Korea.