I’m not intending to make this blog a “hiking in korea” blog, yet lately, I’ve felt really drawn to the mountains here. It’s a combination of interest and need. Lately, I’ve been looking for quiet outside of my single apartment. I’ve felt a yearning for nature and real contact with the earth. Sometimes life in Seoul can get to me, and I either clam up in my apartment for a day or two or take to the mountains or parks. As a naturally introverted person I simply need that time away from all the crowds to decompress. In Vermont, I often found hiking to be an escape, to simply find some time to myself. Of course, I’d bump into people along the way and strike up a conversation, but I’ve found hiking alone in Korea to be an entirely different experience.
I hadn’t thought a lot about it when I started to get more serious about making hiking trips apart of my weekly life here, but from my brief experiences so far, I’m learning that there are unique obstacles to hiking alone as a foreigner that present a new set of challenges to navigate. Mostly, it’s that I stand out. Back home I blend in on a hike. I’m tall, relatively thin and white. I don’t stand out on a Vermont mountain as looking particularly unusual. I’m a Vermonter like many others on the trail. My styles never radically different and it’s common to see other people hiking alone. I’m typically greeted with a slight nod or a passing comment.
Korea’s been a different beast. I stand out, a lot. It’s rare I see many other foreigners on a hike, and especially rare to see a foreigner hiking alone. I get a lot of curious looks from other hikers, words of encouragement, invitations to talk…I do anything but blend in. During my last hike up Ungilsan near Yongsu-ri I rounded a corner to hear a man exclaim loudly to his group “Wow! A foreigner!” There was nothing mean spirited in his words, nor racist, just to him, a surprising sight. We talked and he was perfectly friendly and helpful and wished me on my way. Yet, afterwards, I got a bit lost and couldn’t find my way to the temple. An old man came on the path and said “수장사에 가요? 같이 가요!”, “Are you going to Sujangsa (temple)? Let’s go together” and went charging onwards, ushering for me to follow, waving his hand in motion to continue behind him. As I didn’t know where I was, I chose to follow his lead. I tried talking with him in Korean, but either he didn’t understand my speaking or wasn’t wanting to talk…my guess the latter, as he had a pretty serious demeanor.
When we arrived at the temple, I stopped to take photos and he yelled at me “No, come this way! Come now!” I said, “Wait, I want to take pictures” but he persisted in his yelling. I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew I needed to leave him behind because I was getting irritated by being told what to do. I came to realize that he automatically expected me to follow his lead and go at his pace. He didn’t at all seem to appreciate my speaking up and telling him to wait. I guess he had a strong sense of his pace and wanted me to adjust to him. I started feeling annoyed and realized I needed to say goodbye. He was barking at me to hurry up, and I kept thinking “he doesn’t even know me” Yet, he really wanted to hike with me. His behavior felt very rude, yet, behind it, for some reason he really wanted to hike along with me. I’m new here, so there’s a lot I don’t understand and probably never will understand, but this confused me. My only guess is that as the older man he expected me to follow along at his pace and respond deferentially to what he said. Anyway, I found a way out when I noticed two guys I met earlier on the hike in front of me. I waved and said hi and they came over and said hi. The older man kept yelling “빨리 와!” “hurry up” but I ignored him and he got the idea.
They were both in the 40s, middle aged Korean men. Earlier on the hike, they expressed interest in me, saying “Tired? Do you have enough water? Keep fighting!” and both gave me high fives upon reaching the summit. We spoke for a while on the summit in Korean and they suggested I meet them at the temple. So, having reached the temple, we met and I was able to leave the older man, much to his dismay. The three of us walked together and continued speaking in Korean. We walked together through the temple (Sujangsa), but it was a quick pass. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed longer, but I was enjoying their company so I continued on. They suggested we eat lunch together and offered to share the lunch and makgeolli. I was hungry, so I took the offer and a short ways down the trail we set up a place to eat. We talked over a bottle of rice wine and duenjang jjiggae (soy bean stew) with rice balls. It was a tasty and healthy meal and I enjoyed talking with them. They were funny and kind, showing me photos of their wives and children. Yet, the more we talked, they began slapping me on the back and saying “We’re good friends now! Great friends” in Korean…And I agreed, I was having a fun time, but it felt a bit odd. I felt there was something else going on, and not so surprisingly the next thing he said was “Let’s hike again next week, and please come to my home and teach my daughter english” I said “wait, wait a second. I’m not ready to agree to that” He told me repeatedly to think hard. It occurred to me that having established our friendship by word, he felt comfortable then expressing what he’d like from me. I’m a native english speaker and I can be of help for his daughter learning english. This is how a lot of tutoring jobs happen for foreigners. Sure, it could be a source of money, yet I was hesistant to make any deeper commitment, and instead simply changed the course of the conversation.
The peace and quiet of hiking in Vermont, with an occasional adventure mixed in, has not been my experience here. I mean, it is calming and relaxing and always rewarding, yet I’m more on the spotlight, and the likelihood of side-adventures happening is much higher. I can’t really complain, as I’m having interesting experiences, yet some quiet time alone, it seems, can quickly become an invitation to drink and eat. It’s really just the difference between being a local and being a foreigner. I’m learning that when I hike alone I need to be prepared to have people try and talk with me, invite me along for their hike, ask to take pictures with me, etc. Some days I’ll go with friends, other days I’ll wear my headphones, but mostly I’ll learn how to navigate this new role and find ways to enjoy my hikes in whatever way I choose.