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.