The sun was slanting bright against mountainous countryside as the bus drove on. I had adventured far from my home island Geoje to visit a friend in Daejeon and was drinking in this new side of Korea. In some ways, it was just like any road trip back home in the USA. Get snacks, stick in headphones, probably sleep for a little… look at the trees go by. But it was totally different in other ways and it left me pondering why I love Korea. What about Korea in particular pulls on my heart so much?
I sat staring sleepily out the window at the ubiquitous sand colored buildings that rose up in city clusters (chaotic and condensed cities) and then melted back into rustic fall colored mountains. I contemplated peoples’ accusations of Korea being the same everywhere you went. People said if you visited one city in Korea, you have visited them all. There are the same Paris Baghettes, Angel-in-us-Coffee, 7 Elevens, and Starbucks. This doesn’t bother me. Perhaps I haven’t been to enough Korean cities but I feel like many cities have their own unique thing to offer on top of all the many coffee shop chains and convenience stores. But that aside, there is something about the cafes and convenience stores themselves that fascinate me…
The novelty of these places is exciting. Since it is my first time in Asia it is obviously going to take more than a couple months to get over all the new things I am seeing. I am still excited to buy things from the little convenience stores–it makes me feel like I’m in a Korean drama. I still have yet to try all the new coffee drinks, learn how to order them, and have a completely Korean conversation while doing so. It is still a new exciting adventure to eat out, yes, even at Starbucks. Some of the drinks are the same but some are new and always exciting to try to pronounce. There is a feeling of novelty but also something more…
Speeding through the country side in a bus (or train or car for that matter) is a bit like looking through looking through a photo album. You catch a picture for a few seconds and then you turn the page. You are not able to see what’s on the other side of that building, what’s over that ridge of trees, or what’s just beyond that river bend (yes, there will almost always be Disney references in my posts). In the bus you have to be content just to look, enjoy the beauty, and be curious from a distance. A tiny old house at the edge of a river with smoke rising caught my attention. I wish I could have dinner there. I wish I could ask the woman who lives there to teach me how to make Kimchi and ask the man what he thinks of his job, what he likes about this part of the countryside. I would appreciate a dinner/conversation like that. I would appreciate them, perhaps, partly for the same reason I appreciate the Starbucks and Seven Eleven. It would be something new and interesting but again…it’s more than that.
A fisherman has a life that is distinctly different than mine. The Starbucks here is distinctly Korean with its collection of Korean style drinks (Koreans don’t mind stuff floating in their drinks that surprises many new-comers (me included at first) and you might find rice or fruit bits in any given drink here). The convenience stores have their own unique cultures with quick foods and tiny outdoor tables. These places are distinct. This sometimes makes me feel very foreign and sometimes makes me feel very triumphant when I fit in. They are not just new to me but also very themselves. There is a strong and definite culture here not my own that I am able to share in. Culture. That’s what it is, a distinct culture. That is a reason I love Korea so much.
So there I was speeding South as the shadows starting to color in the mountains, thinking about why I love all the boring un-unique restaurants and little fishing villages. I watched the sky grow a darker blue and thought about how much I like new places and people. Yes… we travel to get a new perspective, see a new type of beauty, become a new type of person. It’s something I knew I wanted before I came, but I didn’t know it would look like this. I didn’t know that it would sometimes look like a Grape Smoothie from Starbucks, like the fall foliage-d mountains, or the broken conversation with the lady at the convenience store. Of course, Korea is giving me more life lessons than how to make small talk and order drinks, but little things like this saturate my life and make it rich and colorful. It is gently challenging and completely exciting. And it’s the back drop for all the deeper conversations and new perspectives that I find here.
It was black by the time we crossed the bridge over into Tongyeong and the mountains were just shadows, the sea was a patch of darker black in the night, the villages were a cluster of star-like light gathered around the edge of the water. I found myself getting incredibly excited. I was almost back in Geoje! The roads were busy. Many people travel on the weekends and Sunday night always means heavy traffic, but I kept staring out my window and got a thrill of happiness when we were back on my island. I love Geoje best out of anywhere in Korea. I think all of Korea is beautiful, and I know everyone finds those little details they love about their home here. Actually, many Koreans are shocked I like Geoje. It’s a ghost town of what it used to be, apparently, and is a rather small unexciting island really. Why didn’t you go to Seoul? Or why not Busan? And Busan was my first choice. Many people tell me that their hometown is prettier the this island and that mainland Koreans can be nicer. Why Geoje? I get the question all the time. (And to clarify, every person I have met from Geoje is very kind!)
I stepped off the bus, and I couldn’t wait to throw down my heavy backpack and get honey lemon tea from the Seolbing (Korean dessert) café right by my apartment. I needed to upload some pictures to my computer and study Korean (aka watch more of Descendents of the Sun).
So why Geoje? I kept playing with the question as I walked home. Well, I didn’t actually know what Geoje was before I came to Korea so I have to thank the EPIK program for placing me where they did. And I love Geoje for the same reason I love all of Korea–here my life is sometimes challenging and always exiting. It is rich and colorful. It is surreally beautiful, and it is very itself. My neighborhood is dotted with convenience stores and at night filled with those classic neon signs which I think of whenever I think of downtowns in Asia. The novelty, the distinct island laid-back-ness, the distinct Geoje accent, the distinct ship-worker bustle, the distinct Korean culture…. Geoje is its own place too.
Perhaps… it is a rather tiny island with not as much to do as other places, but it doesn’t have to be busy. It doesn’t even have to be more distinct than other places. It is very much itself. And I love Geoje because it is here that I am becoming very much myself. As I am challenged and delighted daily with new perspectives and beauty, I learn much and grow quickly, I hope for the better. And what better backdrop for a girl trying to become a better person than mountains reaching for the sky and the deep sky-blue seas reaching for the horizons?