When I was straight out of university I headed to Korea for the English teaching experience, now a rite of passage for many. Later I returned for a second year, and since then have continued to visit regularly. Korea is part of me. Every time the plane starts flying low over the ridges of Kumgang or Taebaek, however, apprehension sets in: the land is so beautiful, yet a haze of grime often pervades; apartment buildings, vehicles and construction projects cluster in the valleys between the lovely mountain peaks as the Asian tiger languidly stretches out. Lonely Planet concedes that Busan, the second city, is little more than a “concrete jungle”.
Every time I arrive I take a deep breath and prepare to adjust mentally and physically to the change in air and general conditions. And this is not too difficult outside of the many large cities, where there are easy escapes into nature. But within Seoul, Busan and other major settlements the white noise, light and dust can be overwhelming. Inflictions of yellow dust from Mongolia add a layer of silt to the environment, causing respiratory problems and worsening skin conditions. The subway systems are thoroughly efficient, but complex carriers of many people day and night they remain. At the underground station of Sadang I have to fight raw anxiety when many lines meet and the crossroads prove dizzyingly overloaded. Internet rooms, or pc bangs, are a dark, smoke-laden fog where school students or grown men spend hours playing video games with no natural light. Sometimes the screech of all-over traffic, the neon glare, the clanging K-pop emanating from the nearest shop and the sheer mass of people, combined with falling sugar levels, is almost enough to paralyse.
These large Asian metropolises grew rapidly from small urban centres into out-of-control manic city-crawl, with an associated significant rise in stressful daily living. In response, there has been a move towards better city planning. My two, year-long, teaching experiences showed me the difference this makes. I lived first in Gimhae, the gateway to Busan’s international airport and a satellite city sitting in a dust bowl. Then I lived in Gwacheon, a government complex to the south of Seoul: planned, affluent and sought-after. One hugely ambitious measure taken by the city of Seoul recently was the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project, completed in 2005, where an eight kilometre stream, long buried beneath the concrete of the city’s highways, was unearthed and cleaned up as part of an inner-city spiritual refuel and recreational space. Many other urban renewal projects have followed.
Korea has countless beautiful areas to revitalise the soul and the confounded mind. Koreans embrace their landscape enthusiastically, donning serious hiking gear for what I would consider a day’s wander. In the northernmost national park, Seoraksan, alive with colour in autumn, flocks of people brave the vertical red iron ladders that scale high, windblown peaks. Finely-etched mountain ranges caterpillar through the cities themselves, providing opportunities to picnic, or visit a mountain temple.
The Korean aesthetic is sparse yet complete. One of my highlights in terms of a quiet getaway was the secretive Danyang, where we sloshed across a bridge, pink petunia-lined, under the full pelt of warm monsoon rain. Another was standing seemingly alone in the vast United Nations War Cemetery by the coast – a rare moment of absolute stillness and solitude.
Even generic apartment complexes take heed of the need for escape, for when a family is cloistered on a high floor of an apartment building, as most are, there is minimal indoor-outdoor flow. Spaces for young children to gallivant are vital; likewise for elderly gentlemen or housebound grandmothers to stroll and rest. The set-up of these apartment complexes is reassuringly predictable, with wooden resting booths set amongst manicured trees and shrubs, ponds and children’s playgrounds. And the ever-open jimjilbangs, public baths and sauna complexes, are popular therapeutic getaways. I was dragged along by a Korean friend all of twice, but was unable to participate at the immersed level, remaining, no doubt as expected, a prudish foreigner.
Korea’s distinctive and oft-fiery cuisine, based around foods of the paddy field, meadow, forest and sea, is heralded for its healthiness. Coming out of times of poverty and famine during the Korean War and then a presidential-directed jolt from rural to urban living, one of the still-common forms of greeting translates as “Have you eaten?”. Koreans claim to stave off sickness by consuming vast quantities of garlic and ginger, either in raw or pickled form, generously heaped on platters at mealtime, or as mixed in to hot chilli pepper paste (gochujang) or kimchi (the national dish of pickled cabbage). This seems to work – it did for me. I can recommend the spicy acorn jelly salad, totorimuk, as supremely delicious. Obviously there is a delicate balance to eating this kind of food, and for me garlic remains, against the majority’s view, an often antisocial accompaniment, especially first thing in the morning, and there are gentler options to be found in traditional Asian health remedies.
One of the charms of weaving through Korean markets is the health food shops, their windows stocked with enormous jars of ginseng roots, or insam, often worth a good piece of someone’s fortune. Red ginseng is the top prize of them all, extolled for such things as boosting immunity, improving blood flow and reducing stress. Seaweed soup, miyeokguk, rich in iron, is a staple nourishment for pregnant women. There are teas made from every kind of grain, bean, seed, flower, leaf or piece of bark imaginable, such as bamboo dew or mugwort tea. Some of my favourites were Solomon Seal’s tea and persimmon tea. (I thought my mother would enjoy these tempting concoctions too so I eagerly sent home a selection of dried roots and weeds, having first asked –albeit in pretty poor Korean – if it was plane-worthy. Although the answer was a wholehearted yes, this proved faulty advice. My mother received a letter from NZ Customs to say this parcel had been crawling with breeding insects. They offered to fumigate it with hefty chemicals for $100 and send it on, and she quickly declined.)
There are endless more instances of how Koreans work around urban chaos to find stress-free space and peace. While for many Korean citizens there is little chance to explore the natural side of things, for me and other foreigners, oegukin, living in Korea, the variety and buoyancy of these escapes was immeasurably beneficial.
Jessie Neilson: Jessie Neilson works in the University of Otago library. She has a BA (hons) in English and a Graduate Diploma in Information Studies. She holds a CELTA certificate and has taught and tutored English in New Zealand and Korea. She reviews fiction and non-fiction for Takahē tand the Otago Daily Times. She has a wonderful eleven year old daughter who also loves travelling to Korea.