Monthly Archives: July 2009

One Man’s Trash

The trash piles on the ground floors of apartment buildings in Korea are veritable gold mines for the visiting foreigner looking to furnish a studio-size room. Everything from kitchen supplies to living room furniture, can be easily found lying on the ground left by the latest resident to move out, into fresh digs. The Urban Crowd Effect is the force that compels people to ditch some of their larger belongings and buy (or find) new furniture to replace that which could not survive the trip. It pays dividends for foreign Hogwon teachers still awaiting their first paycheck but hoping to decorate the apartment a bit to make it feel, you know, a little like a home instead of a few blank walls, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom. While the couch we found this week may be a couch from the trash, it is still a couch. The cushions covers are washable, and the rest of it can be vacuumed; it’s also not too shabby for found furniture.

Goyang is far from the central city in the Seoul urban area—which near as I can tell encompasses most of the north-western corner of South Korea—and it shares many of the properties expected from a sub- or exurban area: disproportionately upper-middle to upper-class, largely commercial, and a highly planned infrastructure. In Goyang’s case this final property is not only true, but amplified to a great extent. A 2006 Newsweek article put Goyang in league with Las Vegas (one of Goyang’s many sister cities), Munich, and London as one of “The Ten Most Dynamic Cities” in the world. The article calls Goyang an “affluent enclave,” that is (or was in 2006 before President Lee Myung-bak took power, it’s hard to discern thus far what has changed since his 2008 ascension, except that the banks of the Hangang River are still completely undeveloped, with what looks like a small buffer of farmland separating the river from the city, save for the ancient fortification built near one of its tributaries) struggling to overcome its status as a commercial-based economy filled with commuters leaving for their jobs in Seoul or other Seoul-area cities. From the little bit of reading available about this place I get the impression that while there are many bars, clubs, restaurants, and cozy coffee shops, it is the type of place Koreans would say is not a place to work, but a good place to raise a family and little else. In a word it’s a suburb.

Perhaps it’s the novelty of living here still not quite having worn off, but Goyang does not feel like a suburb in the way I thought of Burnsville, MN as a suburb. Much like when I was in China and told that Zhuhai was a small city comparable with Mankato, MN by Chinese standards, the sheer volume and density of people living in Goyang makes the city feel more urban by American standards than by Korean standards. For example, an urban area in South Korea is a county with more than 150,000 people, and a town has 20,000 or more. In the United States, an urban area is an area formed around a core urban city of at least 50,000. In other words, a city like Goyang in the states with just over a million people would be in the top ten largest cities, just beating out San Jose, CA, and landing just south of Philadelphia, PA by population density. The Seoul area—housing nearly half the country’s population in just 12% of its area—with 24.5 million people would be far and away the largest metropolitan area in the United States. The sheer size of this place makes it nearly impossible to compare with anyplace back home.

There is something to smaller places that is attractive. Places with a history of industrialism and natural emergence opposed to state forced growth and expansion are just more attractive. While the incredible population growth in places like Goyang and Zhuhai, China is impressive (the former growing from a small town [20,000] to the nearly 1.1 million who live here today in something like 20 years, and the latter growing by similar margins in 30 years), it is hard to really find it as interesting or compelling a history. A place like Minneapolis/St. Paul, after learning its history, really feels like it has earned every one of the 3.5 million or so people who live there, whereas here, in Goyang, the people are here because this place was set aside, planned, or engineered, as it were, to have each of these people here.

Like any city, Goyang has local shops, small bars, cafés and locally owned dining establishments—many of which turn over weeks to months after opening, due mostly to the aggressively competitive nature of such a densely packed population’s economy—it has parks, clean streets, and all the elements of a very comfortable and livable community, but for some reason all of it ends up feeling fake. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if there were some kind of tax holiday for opening a café in Ilsan, or some kind of small business quota Goyang’s municipal government must achieve to preserve the city’s economic well-being. Even the entrepreneurship here feels fake, planned or somehow engineered. It’s this lack of purpose apart from human storage that makes it difficult to really call Goyang a home in addition to a nice and comfortable place to live.

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When it Rains, it Pours

When it rains it pours. While this old saw usually refers to a series or chain of bad events each subsequent event getting worse and worse as the event or moment in time proceeds—like when an organization suddenly sees four of its six VPs resign in quick succession, when it rains it pours—during the South Korean monsoon season it is quite literally true. Work is only about a twenty minute walk from home for me, and though many of my co-workers take a roughly $3 cab to work each day, lately Danielle and I have taken to walking. The only real problem with our it’s-only-a-twenty-minute-walk-why-would-we-take-a-cab approach was exposed on our second day of work at the Jeongbal campus of Korea POLY School when a little bit of what looked like manageable rain turned nearly instantly into a downpour so heavy it was as if the air had suddenly turned to water. Thus began my first full day as an English teacher.

To say that I live in Seoul is a bit disingenuous—that way that saying someone who lives in North Branch, MN lives in Minneapolis or St. Paul, or someone in Crystal Lake, IL saying they live in Chicago—but the urban sprawl that follows the Han River as it winds its way between the mountains on the northern half of the southern half of the peninsula makes everything just sort of blend in as Seoul. I live in Goyang. A suburb about an hour east-northeast from Seoul proper, situated in a district called Ilsan, on the southwestern side of the city; the side closest to the river. Nearby attractions to my apartment include Ilsan’s famous (at least within Korea) Lake Park, Lafesta Shopping and Entertainment Center, and Western Dom, an open-air shopping mall, and, of course, the school. I was told early on that while the streets have names, few of them are marked, and the best way of giving directions is in relation to these attractions, and the subway stations, which Goyang has the outermost four of on the impressively convoluted Seoul subway map’s orange line: Madu, Jeongbalsan, Juyeop, and Daehwa. To Seoul Station it is roughly a dollar and an hour through the tubes, or a little shorter, but more expensive, by bus or cab.

While exerting a facade of economic and urban spontaneity to the uninitiated, Ilsan emerges as a highly planned community upon closer inspection. Particularly when it comes to the massive Lake Park. The park, which at first glance looks like any ordinary park built around a lake, is actually part park, amphitheater, recreation center, and botanical garden. Features include a singing fountain with nightly light and music shows reminiscent of the massive fountain shows seen in Disney World, a cactus conservatory with the widest variety of cacti I’ve ever seen in one central location (and yes, I have been to Arizona), a crane cage which is, as it sounds, a large cage housing a live crane and another housing several peacocks, some of the most massive catfish I have ever seen, a plentiful garden of water lilies, an artificial waterfall, and two “folk swings,” which are swings large enough to stand on suspended from about 40 feet, and nearly 5km of biking, walking, and running trails (each a separate trail to at least attempt cutting down interference among the three sports, though the attempt is somewhat futile considering small children and other less-perceptive types are somewhat oblivious or indifferent toward the distinction; as a consequence it is not at all uncommon to see cycling teams nearly miss plowing into inattentively casual bikers, children, and others who have little sense of the de facto slower-traffic-keep-right type of traffic laws) that circumnavigate the man-made lake—the largest in the peninsula. Oh, and how could I forget the outdoor exercise equipment? So, but it isn’t just that these things are in Lake Park that makes it such a stand-out example of the planned city—any city could have a park with all these things in it, especially if there is a lake nearby—but rather it is that they are all so carefully and intentionally placed and organized, that after the first time around it becomes blatantly obvious that it is planned: e.g. the lake is always calm, even in the windiest of monsoon conditions, indicating that it can’t be deep enough to generate wavy conditions, nor can anyone boat on the lake. Additionally, the crystal clear lake-bottom can be attributed to the lack of any natural habitat, the only fauna and flora exit in a completely engineered environment.

The key difference between this artificial or planned environment and other planned communities is that this park doesn’t have any tennis or basketball courts rendered dysfunctional due to the city’s need to cut the budget and willingness to sacrifice a park to save money, and it isn’t new. This gargantuan outdoor recreation facility—to call it a park is really not giving it its fair shake—has been around for at least twelve years, and is easily the most awesomely and thoughtfully put together, cleanest, and well maintained piece of public land I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The Washington Mall, Boston Commons and any of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s public parks pale in comparison to Lake Park.

To wrap up what for you is, I am sure, a nauseatingly long post about a park, I’ll just say that Ilsan is an unlikely place to end up on the other end of the madness that is applying to and becoming an employee of a Korean Hogwon Academy or a school in the Korean pubic education world, but so far, two weeks in, is one I am excited about, and a place I look forward to exploring as my home for the next 50 weeks of my life.

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