Living In Provincial South Korea As a Clueless 22-Year-Old

Shelby Herbert looks back on a daunting remote experience turned magical and unforgettable.

Shelby and her head teacher, Avery, on their hike up to Yeonhwasa mountain temple: home of hundreds of feral cats.

Exile after a Bad Test Score

Many know South Korea to be the absolute height of modernity: innovative chaebol tech corporations like LG and Samsung; sleek coastal cities linked by enviable public transportation; BTS and Bong Joon-Ho and scores of other artistic and cultural products that have taken the world by storm; as well as top-of-the-line internet connection and skincare products.

In my year living and working there, I got to know Korea for its rolling hills and lush forests; for its museums and quiet cafés. And, most importantly — to abuse that old cliché — for the friends I made along the way.

At the end of a brutal week of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training in Seoul, my colleagues were mortified when I told them of my placement in Cheongju-si, a provincial city in the middle of the peninsula.

They had all gotten placed in or just on the fringes of Seoul — which felt like the cultural, recreational, and (most importantly) financial core of it all.

One teacher derided where I was going as the “Detroit of Korea.” Another counseled me to threaten to quit. But I was young and nimble-minded — and hardly of the mind to speak up for myself so soon after I’d bombed my final teaching module (the most likely reason for my exile into the middle of nowhere).

Life was slow in Cheongju — at least in comparison to almost everywhere else in the country. In the winter, I’d buy roasted chestnuts from the neighborhood grandmas on my 15-minute walk to school. In the warmer months, I was entertained by the antics of Mr. Yang, the groundskeeper, who would gleefully incinerate wasps nesting in my classroom with a racquet-shaped bug zapper — and proceed to chase students around with it.

Cheers

American expats have an unfortunate reputation for only socializing with each other in their host country — but we only had three teachers between us in our district. The three of us got very close to each other, but were also lucky enough to “inherit” some local friends from teachers who cycled out before our arrival.

The best and most memorable of these friends were the owners of our neighborhood bar — a young couple. They spoke little English, and our Korean was also terrible, but we all made do with what we had (with some creative pantomime and generous help from Google Translate).

The owners gave us free food and lovingly put up Polaroids of us on the wall. They made me play John Denver songs on their old six-string guitar and chastised us when we passed them over some weekends to go to the larger cities.

Their bar is also where I made friends with one of the country’s preeminent professional wrestlers: a kind, bright young translator who went by his stage name “Shiho” (meaning: “red fox”). He’s now the head trainer and producer of the Korean Professional Wrestling Society.

The three of us have matching tattoos of the geographic coordinates of that pub. Mine is on the instep of my foot. Unfortunately, my present understanding of the situation is that our beloved bar closed down after the owners had their first child, which leads me to believe that it will become just another 7/11 or Starbucks that now colonize that district. I look forward to the confusion the coordinates under my skin might cause my grandchildren someday — what connection did she have to this random 7/11 in the dead center of South Korea?

Korea for Introverts

When I got burned out from the 10-hour workdays and weekend debauchery at the neighborhood bar or in Itaewon (the foreigner district in Seoul, known for its vibrant nightlife), I’d wallow in my sense of homesickness and listen to a lot of Bruce Springsteen. “Born to Run” felt like my theme song for that period of time, and I certainly did a lot of running. This was encouraged by the more rigid beauty standards of my new home, as well as the simple fact that I’ve never felt safer or more unbothered as a solo female jogger as I did there — even at night.

But when the parties died down, I found a kind of stillness I enjoyed. I went through a phase where I read nearly everything ever written by Haruki Murakami because his were the only novels translated into English at the train station bookstore. I spent many mornings curled up in café gardens with a sweet potato latte (which is tastier than one might expect) and a copy of Kafka on the Shore.

On the topic of cats — which are a major motif in Murakami’s body of work — my favorite part of the city was a traditional Buddhist temple on Bumosan mountain, which also housed and fed a veritable army of stray cats. I was never able to find out much about the temple, other than that its foundation was built in the Unified Silla era in the 7th century. That my favorite picnic spot was almost ten times older than my own country was a sobering thought.

It was a quick hike from our neighborhood, and I delighted in visiting with my friends to admire the temple’s beautiful and expansive carvings in stone and wood and play with its furry congregants. Sometimes, on our way up the mountain, we’d spot the remnants of a concrete turret or a rusty anti-tank spike through the dense foliage — other chilling reminders of the distant past.

Every spring, the Korean Peninsula experiences severe ultrafine dust storms from the expansion of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. These storms, while radiant at sunset, are also a major public health concern.

Dust to Ultrafine Dust

Cheongju-si is one of the most historically significant places in the country, as well as the world at large. It is home to the world’s first printing press, “Jikji,” beating the Gutenberg press by 78 years — a fact in which Cheongju locals took enormous pride. I asked one of my Korean colleagues where Jikji was located — and if I might be able to see it at one of the city’s many museums.

“They took it. It’s in France,” he seethed.

Cheongju feels very timeless — in the sense that it actually felt like a place outside of time. It had a smattering of the 80s and 90s with its blocky concrete architecture and Blade Runner-esque neon lights and tolerance for smoking indoors. There was also something of the future-present (or present-future?) with its ultra-trendy popup businesses and minimalist cafes and elite public transportation system, as well as the airborne dust and haze that tinted the sky a dystopian shade of yellow. But beyond all that, there were traces of the ancient past everywhere you looked — if you cared to look.

1st person essay by Shelby Herbert shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

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