A girl sitting two rows back softly gasped as our bus passed through the rural western Korea town.
“That house looks like it came from somewhere in America,” she said of the single-family dwelling, an odd sight if an expat spends the entirety of their time here somewhere where such things rarely exist, like Seoul, Busan or pretty much any of this country’s metropolises.
Her astonishment made me smile. She’s likely not been in Korea long, at least not long enough to have seen that single-family houses in Korea exist, even if their apartmentalized counterparts outnumber them by perhaps 5,000,000 to one–kind of how waygookin sometimes feel outnumbered by their Korean overlords.
But, they exist. It was about a year ago that I, too, stared dumbfounded on Gadeok Island, during my first visit to Soyang Orphanage.
Gadeok-do is far more rural than the rest of Busan it is surprisingly apart of. This came as a surprise to myself (and to volunteer organizer Katherine Herrmann, whom I interviewed for an article last year. Oh God, cheap-ass plug), feeling I had entered a completely different world that first time we stepped off bus no. 520 and saw … a house! A yard! Granted, it’s still Korea (the windows slide side-to-side, rather than up and down), but it wasn’t an apartment, or even some kind of flat-roofed single-family city home behind a concrete fence, smashed in at all sides by apartment buildings.
The girl’s surprise as our bus passed made me a little envious of some of that otherworldly emotion that comes from being in such a bewilderingly new place. My brain could not process so many differences in my earliest times. Am I on Earth?
After about one-and-a-half years over three different times in Korea over nearly a decade–2005, 2010, 2013 until now–so much about here somehow feels ordinary. I had to shake my head the other night when several new friends and I explored the foreigner hub of my latest Korean home, Gimhae.
“After so long, I am finally somewhere different!” It seems funny from someone from central New Jersey, in South Korea. But, ask anyone: Ask someone here a few months, a few years. Ask me. Like the street you grew up on, or the town you moved to after college, when something becomes familiar, even the outlandish can seem mundane. Even weird little South Korea can become just another place.
That’s why it was nice to get a fresh injection of different this weekend when myself, several friends and many others went to explore the Boseong Green Tea Plantation and the Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival.
Under a cloud of rain, mist and fog (also, clouds), the tea fields were far, far removed from both the high rises and copycat blocks of both Busan and Gimhae, or even the spartan surroundings of Gadeok-do. Our legs got unexpected workouts from climbing step-after-step to row upon row of fresh green tea.
This should definitely be on any expat’s “Korea Bucket List.” It wasn’t on mine before coming back early last year because I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know a lot about Korea then, which is why so much still felt so alien. And while the tea fields didn’t feel alien, either, they did not feel like the Korea I had created in my mind as the only Korea that could possibly exist.
What did feel alien? Party bus lights at 3 a.m.
After Boseong, our tour group with Enjoy Korea drove another two hours to Jindo, home of the annual “Miracle Sea Road” festival. Once a year, the sea parts, and those in attendance can walk across the water to a nearby island.
In theory. Nature often does not cooperate completely with scheduled events. For us, the sea road opened for only a short time. Though it sometimes opens enough that people walk over mud, ours left us briefly walking ankle-deep water before being ushered out sooner than even the organizers expected.
Still, even though we didn’t get across to the island, hundreds of us walked through water at 5 a.m., torches ablaze, as fireworks exploded in the sky while adjossi’s and adjumma’s took advantage of the severely low tide by collecting some of the finest, freshest sea creatures and monster seaweed South Korean waters have to offer.
It was different. It was just what I needed.
Even here in Asia–experiencing something very few get to experience, a world very different from the one once thought to be the world everyone experiences–it’s good to be gently reminded that, yes, what’s going on here is pretty special.
And now, a few more photos from my gentle reminder: