It’s been a beautiful past week. Still hot but cooling down. Can feel summer winding down and opening up to fall. There’s also been scattered rain showers, passing storms and periods of heavy rain. I took the above photo on the bus the other night on my way back from Bucheon, a smaller city neighboring seoul and also where my girlfriend lives. I was one stop away from mine in sinchon looking out the bus window. Right as I left the bus it really began to pour.
I’ve been enjoying the rainy weather this past week, broken up by days of clear sun. It’s been my break from school so I’ve had time to just unwind and relax. Most of the time I’m around Sinchon. Most of the time I’m in Korea, period, I’m in Sinchon. I consider Korea my home, but more accurately Sinchon’s my home. When I first exited the subway station last spring, my first time in Korea, I was in Sinchon late on a Saturday night.
Prior to my arrival in Korea I was traveling in Japan for a month. So on my flight over to seoul I brought with me a lot of assumptions. I figured because the countries are geographically so close they would be very similar . It only took me about 20 minutes out of the station to realize how wrong I was. My girlfriend still reminds me to this day that the first thing I said when I got on the street was “wow. It’s smelly here” I remember also murmuring about how dirty it was. I’d arrived on a particularly crazy night. Out of all the time I’ve spent in sinchon since I haven’t experienced a night so intense. So, my stay in Korea started out…loudly.
I was asked recently by a korean friend what my first impression of Korea was. My first night I saw multiple people unconscious on the streets from drinking, a girl in a popular drinking area being carted into an ambulance, a few people throwing up, a fight and just a lot of noise and activity. I wass overwhelmed. I’d visited Tokyo and Kyoto before and it was clear Japanese people drink well…. But even when drinking in popular areas, it felt like people kept it together. I was struck immediately by how disorganized and hectic the scene was in Sinchon. I remember upsetting my girlfriend because I really didn’t know what to make of Korea and I’d be pointing out things that bothered me.
After being in Japan for so long, I’d gotten used to the politeness and quietness of life on the surface in Japan. I was familiar with the sweet tastes of the food and the highly organized and clean streets. I was becoming used to the consideration people would give to strangers and I expected this to be shared with Korea. While there are similarities, the differences hit me hard. I felt people were much colder and at a distance and I couldn’t quite understand the food, as the presentation left something to desire and everything seemed to be blood red, surrounded by side dishes of strange vegetables.
I remember meeting with You Jeong that first week in a cafe and saying “I’m not sure what to do here. It seems to only be shopping” I laugh thinking back at this now, because I now feel oppositely.. The problem is having too many things to do and see. It took me a while to come to love Korea. I’m adventurous so I didn’t let my confusion with the food prevent me from trying things out.. Nor did I clam up and resolve that Korea’s no good. I kept exploring. Sometimes life here wears on me, but most of the time I love it. This process of learning about and growing a fondness for Korea started in Sinchon and has largely taken place here.
Sinchon’s a college area, near Yonsei, Ewha and Sogang Universities. It’s in Mapo area, famous for its gogi (meat) restaurants. Walking through sinchon you notice restaurant after restaurant serving barbecue style meat. It’s known for cheap food and lots of drinking outlets, from pubs to maekju bars (essentially a large refrigerator of beers you choose from). Sinchon’s loud, busy and packed with young college students. It’s dynamic and colorful but without the artsy side you can find in neighboring Hongdae.
I’ve now lived in 3 different places in Sinchon and the surrounding area. Once as a tourist. Once as a teacher and now as a student. My life here has had very distinct stages so far, with life/work changes marking the transitions. I first stayed at a hostel for 2 months. I made friends with the local guys who worked there. We were the same age (which in Korea means we can be true friends) and I spent many subsequent nights hitting balls in the batting cage, playing poker and getting drinks together. We were all enjoying the summer, in similar periods of our lives. Every week we’d walk through streets lined with chicken restaurants to Yonsei campus to play basketball. Often 4 on 4 or 3 on 3. They played hard. I’ve played basketball my whole life and they kept up well.
That summer was intensely hot and humid and the air was particularly bad. It was rough, but we enjoyed it. I had some great memories in Sinchon last summer, including the beginning of my relationship.
Now a year later, I live about a 15 minute walk from that hostel. Sinchon hasn’t changed. I still hear fights outside my window pretty often. I’ve seen men batting around their girlfriends, drunk people strewn about the area, unconscious on the ground. Sinchon’s still as wild as ever, yet… I can navigate it. It makes some sense to me now. I’ve come to love the food, hot spicy dishes and strange vegetable side dishes included. I sometimes will hear a woman singing pansori, traditional korean folk opera, from outside my window. Street vendors line my streets selling greasy but delicious treats. Every day the fruit man comes around with his truck announcing the sale of grapes with his megaphone. The same things that distressed me or confused me when I first arrived have now become reminders I’m home, in my second home across the sea. I’ll always have a heart for sinchon.