Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Off the Beaten Subway Path: Life in a Small Korean City

While it’s possible to be located in real the countryside in Korea, not well connected to any major city or downtown center, the majority of Gyeonggi-do province surrounding Seoul is well developed and densely populated. Though neighboring townships like the one I work in might be considered rural, civilization is never too far off! I'm always amazed by how a 15 minute bus ride can take me from farms and rice paddies to a crowded city center with many of the comforts of Seoul (overpriced coffee shops, massive apartments complexes, rows of cosmetics stores, countless PCbangs, Italian restaurants, etc). While not without its drawbacks, living in a smaller city has had a lot benefits as well. 

The Pros

The space. Aside from those living near the Han River, people often complain about the lack of places to enjoy a good run, or open space, Seoul. I myself really enjoy running and biking, and don’t know how I would have made it through my experience in Korea without having large parks nearby. This park surrounds part of the bike path that extends from Seoul to Busan. 

Enjoying some BBQ on the river.
It has a real oven! 
You might also have some extra living space. Now this isn’t a guarantee, I have plenty of friends in town who live in typical shoe box size apartments, but living in a less populated area with cheaper real estate might mean getting a bigger place! My situation is highly unusual, but I lucked out with my school and landed a 3-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen. This certainly would never happen in Seoul!

Korea like you’ve never seen it. I’d say I’ve found more cultural depth in my town than I’ve seen even in parts of Seoul, and anyone who has lived in smaller Korean towns and cities can tell you that such treasures are everywhere. Living outside Seoul can be a great way to experience more authentic Korean culture and life. Here a few of my favorite gems from my city: 

I was in Korea for almost a year before my friends stumbled upon this incredible sculpture park, filled with contemporary statues and models of Korean monuments.

Interestingly, it's a model of a palace that is (was?) in North Korea.
This old amusement park just five minutes from my apartment complex is like a trip to another time.

Yeoju is known for its ceramics and home to many nationally recognized, and even internationally renowned ceramics artists. These are photos from the Biennial International Ceramics Festival in Yeoju.

Photo from the Yeoju city homepage
Yeoju has many other cultural destinations, most notably King Sejong's Tomb. Yes, that King Sejong, the one who invented Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. I think it's one of the nicest landmarks I've been to in Korea, and a great place for an afternoon stroll.

Going back to the pros:

Tight knit expat community. Thanks to Facebook you don’t have to worry too much about wandering around to find friends. If you’re not into Facebook, or need to get out of town, there is also Meetup where you can find interest groups, or Couchsurfing for meeting other travelers. You can also take weekend trips with groups like WINK, Seoul Hiking Group, and Adventure Korea, which are great for meeting people. No matter where you live, in Seoul or a larger city, you will have to exert some effort to meet people. For every expat I hear complaining that they wished more foreigners lived in their city, I hear expats in Seoul complain about how they don’t meet many people outside of their hagwon.

Gaining an incredible sense of independence. Many teachers come to Korea seeking new experiences and that deeper perspective of the world that comes with living abroad. However like many newcomers, I also thought there was no way I could last in Korea without eventually moving to Seoul or a bigger city. After a few months though, I found that having to make my own way and make my own fun were more life affirming challenges. I feel I’ve had to adapt and become more independent in ways some of my Seoul counterparts haven’t. Now of course, a lot of this is personality, a proactive person will be active anywhere he or she lives. I know for myself, being fresh out of college when I got here, that if I had had a lot of night life and other distractions around, I probably wouldn’t have been as motivated to push myself outside of my comfort zone and try new things. 

Saving money. Most people agree that the cost of living is manageable in Korea no matter where you live, but when there are less places to spend your money and less temptation you tend to save more. This is personal of course, but I know if I lived near downtown Seoul I would certainly be broke from shopping in Myeongdong and schmoozing at nice bars and restaurants.

Still having access to good travel. Korean public transportation is incredibly efficient and cheap. If you live in a Gyeonggi-do city you shouldn’t have to worry too much about getting around. I don’t live on a subway line, but buses between my city and Seoul run every half hour on the dot! If you're travelling far, The Arrival Store has a great post on reserving bus tickets for long trips! 

More public school jobs- while getting harder and harder to come by in and around Seoul, public school jobs are much more common farther out in Gyeonggi-do. In my city the vast majority of English teachers work at public schools.

So what are the cons? 
The drawbacks are probably what you’d expect from living in a smaller city in a foreign country: less going on socially, less international cuisine, fewer English speakers, and fewer facilities. In general it’s easier to feel isolated physically and socially. However, Korea is continuing to change rapidly. Every month I see new restaurants (including more international cuisine), updated shops, and new constructions. Just this past summer they put up a large luxury hotel with a water park next to my apartment complex, which is a big deal for Yeoju! By 2015, Yeoju will be accessible by the Seoul Metro. Witnessing this transformation has been an interesting experience in and of itself. 

While you may have to look harder for them, there is no shortage of activities to do and things to try. I know teachers in Yeoju who have done everything from getting black belts in Taekwondo to taking pottery classes with renowned artists. Living in a less connected city requires a higher degree of independence, willingness to be proactive, and the ability to deal with some more frustrations and discomforts, as you may have less access to certain resources. But if you want a challenge, and to see a different side of life in Korea, living in smaller city can be very rewarding. 

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