After spending a certain amount of time in a place (it must be different for everyone how long that amount of time is), we develop “mental maps” of our surroundings.
The mental map I have for my hometown, Middletown, NJ, is vast and detailed. Before Google Earth, my brain was chronicling every twist in every back road, every pothole on the highway. When I moved to Morristown, NJ, in 2010 for my most recent journalism job before coming back to South Korea this year, I worried at first about how I could remember everything about this place I was tasked to cover in extensive detail.
I shouldn’t have worried. We always have our mental maps. But, even Morristown, which I wrote about almost constantly for two-and-a-half-years, and Middletown, where I spent most of my first 27 years, have holes in their maps. There is certainly a road, an alleyway, an alcove that’s missing.
And so, there is certainly a lot missing from Jangnim.
A little while ago, I took my new bicycle out for a Sunday afternoon ride through my “dong” (the designation Korea uses for neighborhoods. Jangnim-dong is my neighborhood in Saha, my “gu,” or district, which is in Busan, my city). The area I cycled, across the main highway from where my apartment building is, is mostly industrial. Gritty. Not pretty but, hey, not everything is going to be pretty. I appreciated exploring it, opening up the world a little and expanding my mental map.
But, instead of taking my usual path, past the CU convenience store, Ja-Jang-Myun (noodles in a thick, black bean sauce) restaurant, Lotte Super and Paris Baguette on my way to the highway, I turned left at the tiny, family-run store selling potatoes and leeks and kept walking. Past that cute, almost-French-inspired building I think may be a day care center, toward another intersection with other stores I never saw before.
And I kept walking, uphill. Past apartment towers. Up quiet, windy roads, the sun scorching my neck, but at the time I did not notice or care. I had just bought an iPod off another teacher and was rocking to some Soulfly. Dark Ages, great album. And this was the day I didn’t have my first class until 4:10 p.m. I had time to explore.
What I found was another world.
But, it was still Jangnim. A Jangnim of the past? Another place I can discover but not exactly see as a native Korean would? Who cares? My discoveries will be different from theirs, as theirs will be from mine. As each of theirs will be from each other, and me. We’re all seeing something different and uniquely our own.
Bus depots. Work sites. Small shops, frequented only by locals.
Once to the top, it was a whole other village. No apartment building was higher than five or six stories. How much were the rents up there? Apparently, land on the mountains is much cheaper. Because, who wants to build on the side of a mountain?
What are these “Highlanders” like?
How different are they from the lowlanders I dwell among? This is why it’s high time I start learning some more Korean.
I saw a few people up there, but traffic was sparse. Do they head down during the day? Are some of them the old women I see peddling soup greens by street corners? Do they haul whatever is left of their produce back to the top on their backs? Do they throw them to the stray dogs and cats?
I left those questions for another day. Max Cavalera’s chunky guitars and thickly-accented Brazilian shout gave way to Journey’s “Raised on Radio” as I made a 180 and headed back down. The number of people increased, the number of stories in the buildings grew, the amount of activity expanded. And then, without even realizing it until I was there, I was back at the bottom. I had just taken another way to get there.
But, I am sure there is more to explore. There is more out there I can help further expand my mental map. There has to be. If Middletown still has holes to be filled, this foreign land I’ve only lived in just over four months remains a thoroughly undiscovered country.